Collecting bracero history

By L. Stephen Velasquez

In 2005 the museum started a multi-institution collecting initiative to document and preserve the experiences of braceros, Mexican nationals brought to the United States to work in agriculture fields and railroads.

Hat with brim

I traveled to San Jose, California, to kick off the oral history and collecting portion of the project. My colleagues that day—Mireya Loza, a graduate student from Brown University and Kristine Navarro, from University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)—were worrying about the response we would get and whether anyone would show up. I was nervous about the whole project: the people, the venue, the reaction, the attitude, the generational and language barriers. The interviewees (assuming anyone would come) would be much older and would speak Spanish. Was my Spanish good enough to have a meaningful conversation with these folks? I had read a few transcripts from UTEP’s project and read accounts and books about the Bracero Program but I had never listened to any interviews or spoken with an interviewee. I had yet to review the numerous archives in California such as at Stanford University or the National Archives. I was anxious about my knowledge of the program. Did I know enough to make any new contribution? Would anybody think this collecting project was worthwhile enough to take the time to participate?

By the time we arrived to set up, a few older folks were already milling about. My gosh! They were here to participate. We told them it would be a little while longer while we set up. A few minutes after we started a young man showed up with an old stained hat; his grandfather had participated in the bracero program for many years and eventually settled in San Jose. He told us that the hat was used by his grandfather in the fields around San Jose and was one of his last remaining mementos. The grandson understood the value of historical objects and wanted us to have this to help tell the story of the bracero program. We were off to a good start. By the first hour we had collected an object and had a few people to talk with. By the middle of the day we had to skip lunch to try to accommodate all of the folks who came.

The next day we traveled to Salinas, California. Our contact there had scheduled time for us to explain our project in a restaurant full of former braceros, who were gathered to talk about back pay owed to them during the bracero program. The ex-braceros eyed us somewhat cautiously. One gentleman in the front row asked many questions: What are you going to do with the information you gather? Why are you doing this? Will this help our cause (collecting back wages)? For me it was all a bit tense. When we began setting up the next day, the first person to show up was the gentleman who was asking all of the questions the day before.

Bracero-steveAssociate curator Steve Velasquez (right) conducting an oral history interview.

Similar procedures and concerns were repeated at almost every collection day that followed. Folks would be lined up before we started, waiting patiently to tell us about their experience. Family members brought in photos and old identification cards (Micas) from their fathers, grandfathers, or uncles. Wives recalled the hardships of raising children while their husbands worked in the U.S. By the end of that first day we knew this project was going to be successful.

The Bracero Oral History Project has presented challenges and opportunities. Current debates about a new guest worker program make it important to understand this little-known chapter of U.S. and Mexican history. As a public historian in a federal institution, I wanted to engage the Latino community in a public history project. I think this project was a success—700 stories collected, hundreds of photos documented, many museum objects acquired. Scholars and teachers are using these materials as teaching tools. Family members are using the digital archive to research family history. These successes far outweigh the challenges and apprehensions we experienced.

As a curator, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in and contribute to such a valuable public history project. Working with a relatively small budget, and sharing resources and responsibilities among the partners, we created a lasting network of institutions dedicated to collecting Latino history. The Bittersweet Harvest exhibition and the oral history project are important because they will inform the public about the nearly-forgotten Bracero Program. The project provides a foundation for the Mexican American community to look into its past and its contributions to American history, giving a voice and a space within the national museum. I’m proud that our work encourages visitors to reflect on the contributions made by Mexicans and Mexican Americans to the history of U.S. labor, economy, and culture.

Steve Velasquez is Associate Curator for the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History and Collections, Outreach, and Dissemination Coordinator for the Bracero History Archive project.