National Museum of American History Explores Bracero Story in New Exhibition

September 8, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opens “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964” together with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Sept. 9. The exhibition explores the Emergency Farm Labor Program, in which 4.6 million short-term labor contracts were issued between 1942 and 1964, bringing approximately 2 million individual Mexican workers into the United States. More familiarly known as the Bracero Program—the term derived from the Spanish word used in Mexico to mean laborer or farmhand—it is the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history, and it affected the business of farming, immigration patterns and organized labor.

The exhibition explores the braceros’ challenges and opportunites in the United States and Mexico. The exhibition includes 15 free-standing banners featuring photographs by Leonard Nadel, a photographer who documented the harsh reality of bracero life in 1956 in hopes of exposing employer violations and improving living conditions. Nadel’s photos inspired “Bittersweet Harvest,” which includes 16 of his original black-and-white prints and a slide show with an additional 170 images.

“This exhibition allows us to explore complex issues of race, class, community and national origin while highlighting the irrefutable contributions by Mexican Americans to American society,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “‘Bittersweet Harvest’ is a unique opportunity to share an important but overlooked chapter in American history with visitors across the country.”

The display features objects collected from individual braceros and their families and from a former bracero labor camp. Among the dozen objects are a bunk bed from the Danenberg Labor Camp in El Centro, Calif., a well-worn hat from the family of Savas Zahvala Castro, a short-handled hoe and other tools collected in California’s Coachella Valley and a radio. Documents will be displayed and include a bracero contract, identification card and instruction book. An audio station in the exhibition will present 12 excerpts from oral-history interviews in which braceros, family members, growers and others tell their stories. The Bracero History Project has collected more than 700 such interviews.

“Bittersweet Harvest” features bilingual labels and a station where visitors can examine period and current newspaper articles about guest-worker programs and leave personal comments. Bilingual gallery facilitators will lead tours and activities, and the museum will offer a series of special programs. Visit http://americanhistory.si.edu/events for a full schedule.

The Bracero History Project Web site, developed in partnership with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the University of Texas in El Paso and Brown University, provides transcripts and audio files of all the oral histories, images, essays, bibliographies and teaching materials associated with the project. The www.braceroarchive.org site also features a section where braceros and their families, growers and others associated with the Bracero Program can contribute their own stories and images. The exhibition Web site may be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/bracero.

The museum began the Bracero History Project in 2005 with a coalition of museums, universities and cultural institutions to document the bracero experience. “Bittersweet Harvest” will remain on display at the museum through Jan. 3, 2010. Two versions of the exhibition will travel across the country for more than two years. By 2011, more than 17 communities will have shown the exhibition.

“Bittersweet Harvest” is organized by the National Museum of American History and made possible by funding through the Smithsonian’s Latino Center. The Smithsonian Latino Center celebrates Latino culture, spirit and achievement in America by facilitating the development of exhibitions, research, collections and educational programs. For more information, visit www.latino.si.edu. SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. For more information, visit www.sites.si.edu.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).