Rooted in the past

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinalsAs the immigration debate roils the nation and Congress considers a guest-worker program, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has embarked on an oral history project documenting the legacy of the country’s last guest-worker program. “This project is significant at this time given that Los Angeles and the nation at large is looking back at history to inform the livelihoods of people in this country and how it will affect its future,” said Lui Sanchez, program director at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a partner in the project. The U.S. and Mexican governments administered the bracero program from 1942-64, funneling Mexican workers into low-paying agriculture jobs in California and the Southwest and, some say, laying the foundation for the current immigration debate. The Smithsonian and its partners – including the University of Southern California – say their efforts are merely a historical account. But others say the migration of farmworkers and their treatment as braceros should be studied by lawmakers now weighing guest-worker proposals. The Smithsonian’s survey of workers – many now in their 80s – also has revealed how lives changed for the people in villages in Mexico and the men they sent to the United States, in both big and small ways. Aurelio Marin still prays to the Virgen de Guadalupe – just like he did four decades earlier when he sought strength to get through backbreaking days in the fields and long nights in a dingy worker camp. The nearly two years he spent as a bracero – a Mexican guest worker – altered his life and that of his family. Now, historians hope the experiences of Marin and others like him will become a permanent part of America’s history. “Sure, we were abused, but that is always going to happen,” said Marin, 64. “We worked hard for little pay. But I knew that it was going to be difficult.” An estimated 4.5 million braceros – men who work with their arms, or brazos – came through the program. The men, mostly from rural areas, were promised a prevailing wage and a bonus for returning to Mexico. Nobody has exact records, but it’s estimated that half stayed in the U.S. – only some, like Marin, legally. Others, like Pedro Covarrubias-Lopez, returned to their native county. But the short time in the United States shaped their families for generations. Covarrubias-Lopez came from Carranza, Jalisco, to Bakersfield in 1958 to pick beans and corn but wound up working in the bracero bunkhouse as a handyman. For the first time, he saw a machine that made tortillas, and when he returned to Mexico, he opened up the town’s first tortillera. “I was so happy to be here,” said Covarrubias-Lopez, 77. “The first week I bought records, a radio, nice clothes, everything. We didn’t have things like that in my puebla.” When he returned to his native country, he spoke with adoration about the United States and its opportunities. Influenced by their father’s stories, three of his seven children came to California as teenagers, all either working with or building machines to make tortillas. Covarrubias-Lopez returned in 2002 to live with his daughters in Sylmar. His experience mirrored those of many of the braceros, young farmworkers who came from dire poverty and became entranced with America. Some abandoned the three- to 18-month contracts they had with ranchers and went off on their own. Others complained of wages never paid or getting kicked off the land after seasonal jobs ended. Some gambled away their earnings. Others – often with little education – could not make ends meet after paying for boarding and clothes. Many returned to their native countries bitter over the forced medical exams and humiliation they faced in the fields. Braceros sprayed with toxic pesticides at border entry points often fell sick. In the end, most never recovered the 10 percent of their salaries that had been promised to them by the Mexican and American governments. “It was very sad because some people lost their hope, their money,” said Marin, whose father also worked as a bracero. Marin’s father worked in the U.S. from 1957-59, earning enough money to buy a small ranch in Mexico where he and his seven children grew corn and beans and raised cows. Impressed by his father’s success, Marin saved for months so he could pay the $1,000 fee to become a bracero himself. He was 19 when he arrived in Nogales, Ariz., scared and alone. In 1961-62, he traveled back and forth from Mexico and around the American Southwest, picking lettuce, tomatoes and almonds. Nights in the work camps were noisy, with lonely men drinking, listening to the radio or crying themselves to sleep. But Marin prayed, covering his ears with pillows and asking the Virgin Mary for strength. He endured the hardships and eventually got out of the fields, working in a cannery and an automobile factory. He also worked to help each of his five children receive a college degree – something he never got. Looking back on his life, Marin has no regrets and repeats a refrain heard among many immigrant families. “I thought this would be a better place to raise a family.” [email protected] (818) 713-3741160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more