Documenting and Preserving the History of the Bracero Program
By Stephen Velasquez
This article originally appeared in The Federalist, No. 22, Summer 2009.
In March 2004, two months after President George W. Bush proposed a new amnesty and temporary work program for illegal workers in the United States, Smithsonian curators and academic scholars met to discuss a World War II guest worker program. The discussion focused on how to better understand contemporary guest worker programs and controversies about cross-border migration. To put current issues concerning migration in historical and national context, the National Museum of American History initiated a multi-institutional effort to document and preserve the history of a 1942–1964 guest worker experience called the Bracero Program. This initiative was called the Bracero Oral History Project.
The Bracero Oral History Project has presented challenges and opportunities to Smithsonian curators. Debates about a new guest worker program make it important to understand this little-known but important shared chapter of U.S. and Mexican history. As public historians in a federal institution, we face several challenges when documenting guest worker stories. These challenges include framing controversial guest worker and migration issues for a contemporary audience. Curators were also faced with limited resources. And, given the Smithsonian’s recent commitment to engage Latino communities in a public history project, to think about how best to involve this community in the undertaking. The success of a well-planned, well-executed project and the opportunity to recover, present, and preserve marginalized voices in American history far outweighs the challenges.
The Bracero Program
To understand the challenges of the Bracero Oral History Project, it is first important to understand the program itself. In 1942, the United States government, on behalf of agricultural interests and railroad companies, initiated a series of labor programs with the Mexican government to recruit Mexican men to work in U.S. fields and railroads. These series of agreements, called the Emergency Farm Labor Program or Mexican Agricultural Labor Program, became known as the Bracero Program. Between 1942 and the end of the program in 1964, an estimated two million men came to the United States on short-term labor contracts, making it the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. The Bracero Program can teach us a great deal about our legacy of immigration and labor policies as well as migration and settlement patterns in the U.S.
The Bracero Oral History Project
In addition to documenting the Bracero experience, the project has two related goals: to involve the Latino community in public history institutions and to make evident to contemporary audiences that Latino community history is an important part of U.S. history. We accomplished the first goal by involving former braceros and their families in the project. Through collaborations with like-minded institutions, our project records oral histories of surviving ex-braceros and family members, growers, merchants, nurses, and others involved in the original program. In addition, we collect artifacts, such as photographs, letters, and contracts that the interviewees are willing to donate and share. From these interviews and artifacts, we have created a centralized web site of bracero history material and an online digital archive at www.braceroarchive.org. A traveling exhibition titled “Bittersweet Harvest: the Bracero Program, 1942–1964,” will soon travel around the United States.
The National Museum of American History has not undertaken a large-scale and sustained initiative to interact with the Latino community for over 10 years. As a result, we initially had few contacts in the bracero community but were able to collaborate with institutions close to the community that could locate many ex-braceros. Collaborations included hosting and outreach for town hall community meetings and long-term work such as conducting their own oral histories. Roles, responsibilities, and resources were distributed between collaborators. University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute for Oral History organized transcription and training. Brown University’s Department of American Civilization, Ethnic Studies and History provided scholarly advice and supplied student interviewers. George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media provided technical support. Local partners found volunteers, and the local universities incorporated the Bracero Project into their curriculum.
With a small internal grant from the Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool, we held a series of town hall meetings and collection days in cities across the nation at partner institutions. We made an overview presentation on the history of the Bracero Program and invited the community to participate in our collecting project. Through these forums, we generated interest in the project that enabled us to collect important artifacts and create a more complete record of a Mexican and Mexican American experience within a museum context.
Preservation and Oral Histories
We invited former braceros to sign up for recorded interviews and contribute photos and objects to the collection. Our aim was to represent the experiences and histories of this Latino community and encourage Latino audiences to attend museums. More importantly, our objective is to preserve the experiences and stories these men and families experienced in the United States as part of a government-sponsored guest worker program. It is a dramatic collective story of sacrifice and hardship. Often braceros labored long hours in harsh conditions, were crowded in barracks, provided with poor meals, and paid little.
As public historians, our objective is to make the collection transparent and accessible to the general public. The bilingual web site www.braceroarchive.org links the participating institutions and shares the information collected. Our intent is to make the web site a useful tool for scholars, students, and teachers and have it function as a central reference point for bracero history. We hope to also make it a visible and useful for the Mexican and Mexican American community as a place to share family stories and to preserve community memory by submitting stories about the Bracero Program.
Currently we have over 1,700 images online taken by Leonard Nadel relating to the bracero experience. Our project has collected over 600 interviews. Hundreds of additional images and documents are available for research, making it one of the largest Spanish-language oral history collections in the United States.
Our portable, bi-lingual traveling exhibition, “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero History Program, 1942–1964,” will open at the National Museum of American History in September 2009 and will start a national tour in February 2010. The exhibition will build upon the Smithsonian collections and be enriched by photos from other archives and from our interviews. The portable traveling exhibition can travel to small venues in communities and nontraditional museum settings such as community centers or libraries. The traveling show uses the history of the Bracero Program to explore ongoing issues of race relations, migration, work, agriculture, family, gender, the border, politics, and identity in the United States.
As curators in the National Museum of American History, we are grateful for the opportunity to participate in and contribute to such a valuable public history project. Working with a relatively small budget, and spreading resources and responsibilities among the partners, we created a lasting network of institutions dedicated to collecting Latino history. This exhibition and oral history project is important because it will inform the public about the Bracero Program, a forgotten and little-known period in American history. Additionally, it will provide a foundation for the Mexican American community to look into their past and realize their contribution to American history. It will give them a voice and a space within in a national museum. Finally, our work will encourage visitors to reflect on the contributions made by Mexicans and Mexican Americans to the history of U.S. labor, economy, and culture.
Stephen Velasquez is an associate curator at the Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.
Excerpts from Bracero Interviews
“. . . tenían que salir para poder mantener a su familia”.
“. . . you had to leave so you could support your family.”
— Jesús Aranda Morales, ex-bracero
“In the yard outside, there were about twelve or thirteen thousand aspiring braceros.”
— Juan Sánchez Abasta, ex-bracero
“Los traían en, algunos en camiones y algunos en los trenes y no trenes de pasajero, trenes de carga . . . como borregos, hasta El Paso”.
“They brought them in trucks and some in trains, and not passenger trains but cargo trains . . . like sheep, up to El Paso.”
—Cecilio Santillano, ex-bracero
“En el centro de repartición, ahí lo ponían a uno, lo paraban a uno por la pared y llegaban los contratistas como a ir a comprar ganado”.
“In the center they put you up against the wall, and the contractors came like they were coming to buy livestock.”
—Isidoro Ramírez, ex-bracero
“Allí jue donde conocimos el, precisamente el cortito que le nombran o el azadón. Y yo por cierto que, allí, allí lloré mis lágrimas”.
“That’s where we encountered el cortito, or what’s called the short-handled hoe. And for sure, that is where I shed my tears.”
—José Natividad Alva Medina, ex-bracero
En una barraca vivíamos novecientos. . . . Yo estuve como una semana. . . . ¿Quién va a dormir con todo ese gentío?
900 of us lived in one barracks. . . . I was there a week. . . . Who is going to sleep with all those people?
—Guadalupe Mena Arezmendi, ex-bracero
“Pagaban que a veinte centavos la caja, tenía que matarse para ganar diez dólares”.
“They paid twenty cents a box. You had to kill yourself to make ten dollars.”
—Isidoro Ramírez, ex-bracero
“Era una alegría. . . . Música por ahí, música por acá. Mariachis allá ya así. Bueno era un gusto . . . . Cantinas americanas, unos se metían ahí también. Estaba bien”.
“It was a good time. . . . Music over there, music over here. Mariachis and the like. Well, it was great . . . . American bars, some went in there, too. It was good.”
—Isaías Sánchez, ex-bracero
“Yo estuve en un lugar lejos del pueblo que no tenías ni a donde ir ni nada. . . . Se compraban un radiecito y a oír, a escuchar el radio. Eso era todo, no había más qué hacer”.
“I was in a place far from town with nothing to do and no place to go. . . . You bought a radio to listen to music. That was it. There was nothing else to do.”
—Pedro del Real Pérez, ex-bracero
What do suits, strikes, dresses, unions, overcoats, and scabs have in common? They are a part of All Sewn Up: The Garment Industry Goes to Court, an exhibition at the National Archives at Kansas City. This exhibit explores the intersection of the garment industry and the federal government. Drawing on court cases and records from the holdings of the National Archives at Kansas City, All Sewn Up features 15 garment industry court cases that have made their way through the legal system. Some of these cases involve well-known names, such as Levi Strauss, seeking patent protection for their products. Others chronicle significant events in the history of the labor movement and the rise of unions in the garment industry.
Whether on behalf of a company or its workers, the federal government has played an important role in providing oversight and regulation of the garment industry, providing Federal protection for the consumer, for a company, or for factory workers. These records at the National Archives at Kansas City tell this story in a tangible way, presenting raw evidence for visitors to better understand how documents and archival materials support a national narrative with local connections.
For more information on the exhibit, visit http://www.archives.gov/kansas-city. For more information about court records held by the National Archives at Kansas City, please visit http://www.archives.gov/kansas-city/finding-aids/.
Strauss Patent: Decree, Levi Strauss et al v. Meyer Lindauer et al, October 1878, Case File 5148; Law, Equity, and Criminal Case Files U.S. District Court for the Eastern (St. Louis) Division of the Eastern District of Missouri; Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21; National Archives at Kansas City.
Patent for Improvement in Pantaloons, Levi Strauss, et. al. v. Meyer Lindauer and David Lindauer, et al, February 26, 1879 (RG 21, National Archives at Kansas City).
National Complaint: Bill of Complaint, National Cloak and Suit Company v. Joseph Sonken and Mose Silverman, ca.1923, Case File 527; Equity and Law Case Files; U.S. District Court for the Western (Kansas City) Division of the Western District of Missouri; Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21; National Archives at Kansas City.
Striking Workers at the Curlee Clothing Company in St. Louis, Missouri, Curlee Clothing Company v. Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, July 1925 (RG 21, National Archives at Kansas City).
A fuller version of this article will appear in the summer 2015 issue of The Federalist.
By Chas Downs
On January 8, 1997, SHFG’s Executive Council adopted a statement of Museum Exhibit Standards, which is now posted on the SHFG website (http://shfg.org/shfg/programs/resources/other-documents/). That an organization like the SHFG would have done this is not unusual. What is remarkable is that leadership councils of three other major historical organizations have also adopted the identical set of standards and posted them on their websites.
In January 1995, the National Air and Space Museum cancelled a proposed exhibit on the “Enola Gay,” the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the aftermath of the heated public controversy aroused by the proposed exhibit and its cancellation, SHFG President Philip Cantelon established a committee to discuss the issues that had been raised about public museum exhibits, and to formulate recommendations to address them. Dr. Victoria A. Harden, Historian at the Office of NIH History and its Stetten Museum (which she helped to develop) was named chair of what became the SHFG Museum and Exhibits Standards Committee. The other members were Cecilia Wertheimer, Bureau of Engraving & Printing; Dwight Pitcaithley, NPS; Richard Mandel, independent scholar; Bruce Bustard, Exhibits Branch, NARA; Rebecca H. Cameron, Office of Air Force History; Betty C. Monkman, Office of the Curator, White House; J. Samuel Walker, Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
As chair, Harden told the committee that SHFG members represented a unique group of historians and curators practicing public history in the federal government, and were thus more sensitive to these issues than their academic colleagues. The committee came to a consensus on several items, noting that public museums face greater scrutiny that private museums. Peer review was one method that could be used to broaden intellectual support for exhibits. The public must be educated on the process of historical research, and that there is no way to present “the facts” without some degree of interpretation. To be worthy of the public’s trust, curatorial freedom must be balanced with responsibility.
At the 1996 annual SHFG meeting at Harpers Ferry, WV, the committee presented its work, and received both support and useful feedback from the attendees. In revising the committee’s first drafts, the number of standards was reduced from seven to six, before ending at five. The draft’s language was clarified, and jargon removed. The first part of the document summarized the importance of history and historical exhibits to our democracy. The final approved version contained the following five standards for exhibits:
• Exhibits should be founded on scholarship and intellectual integrity, and subjected to peer review
• Stakeholders should be identified and possibly involved in the planning process
• Public institutions must be aware of diversities among their constituencies
• Competing points of view should be identified and acknowledged, and the public made to see that history is always in flux, subject to constant interpretation and reinterpretation
• Museum administrators should defend exhibits that meet these standards.
In a January 17, 1997, memorandum to members of the Museum Exhibit Standards Committee announcing approval of the standards by the SHFG Executive Council, Harden was exultant:
Wow—we did it! And, if I may say so, I think it will be very difficult for any group to produce a more cogent, substantive document that we have. These standards reveal how committees function at their best, producing documents that are probably better and certainly more thoroughly vetted than the sum of the documents each of us might have produced alone. Each of you has my deep gratitude as well as that of the SHFG executive council.
In an article in the Summer 1999 issue of The Public Historian, titled “Museum Exhibit Standards: Do Historians Really Want Them?” (Vol. 21, no.3, pp 91–109), Harden elaborated on her experiences on the SHFG committee and with the National Task Force on Historians and Museums, which met several times to discuss museum exhibit standards but became bogged down in divergent goals, academic politics, petty squabbling, and the inability to reach substantive agreement over what was needed. Harden participated on the Task Force as SHFG’s representative, and dutifully kept her SHFG colleagues informed on the progress of lack thereof made by the Task Force. The SHFG Museum Exhibit Standards Committee kept its focus and was able to overcome such distractions and bring forth a set of standards that were useable and that found widespread support among a diverse and demanding audience. In a 2010 email to SHFG President Pete Daniel, Harden wrote that “it was the most effective and amazing committee I have ever been a part of, and SHFG should crow a little about having been the moving force behind the standards.” Indeed so. To learn more about the SHFG Archives write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Museum Standards in Crisis
by Pete Daniel January 25, 2011
Several weeks ago Victoria Harden e-mailed her enthusiasm for the new SHFG web site and also reminded me of the role that the SHFG played in writing the statement of Museum Exhibit Standards that grew out of the Enola Gay fiasco at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum back in the early 1990s. For background, see Victoria A. Harden, “Museum Exhibit Standards: Do Historians Really Want Them?” in The Public Historian 21 (Summer 1999) 91–109. Although a National Task Force on Historians and Museums that included members from most major historical and museum organizations met several times to discuss issues relating to exhibits and other concerns, it was SHFG’s Museum Exhibit Standards Committee appointed by Phil Cantelon that ultimately drafted the statement of principles. I think that it is a fair reading of Harden’s article to suggest that the National Task Force bogged down over the authority of curators and input from stakeholders, among other tangential and not-so-tangential issues. The SHFG committee kept its focus and produced a remarkable document that was adopted by the National Council on Public History, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association. “It was the most effective and amazing committee I have ever been a part of,” Harden wrote in her e-mail, “and SHFG should crow a little about having been the moving force behind the standards.” She recommended that the Standards appear on our web-site, and they have been posted.
Harden’s e-mail was timely given the Smithsonian’s recent decision to remove a video clip by David Wojnarowicz in the National Portrait Gallery’s brave Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit. The decision stirred controversy and significant commentary, and Smithsonian leadership hastily buckled in the face of uninformed criticism and political pressure and manifested its hubris in not admitting it made a mistake. Indeed, as the controversy grew it gained an eerie déjà vu glow that revived the ghost of the Enola Gay decision to ground that script and offer no support for curators. Removing a sensitive video from Hide/Seek also struck at curatorial authority, a topic that I commented on in the Organization of American Historians Newsletter several years ago and spoke about on a panel with former Archivist Allan Weinstein at a SHFG conference. That column earned me an audience with Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, and, although he listened to my arguments, donor intrusion into exhibit planning and the decline of the National Museum of American History’s curatorial/ historian ranks were not among his top priorities. Clough blamed his quick reaction to the Portrait Gallery exhibit on the news cycle and, although he stands by the decision, wishes he had taken more time in making it. Perhaps then he could have discussed the video with Portrait Gallery curators and discovered not only their reason for including the video but also what later the Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik eloquently revealed not only about David Wojnarowicz intent but also about how museums exist to make people think, not the reverse.
Very near the Smithsonian Castle another quick decision last year bit both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House. The rush to dismiss Shirley Sherrod based on an edited video contrasts remarkably with the tens of thousands of cases of USDA bureaucrats denying African American farmers loans, jobs, acreage, information, and courtesy who were neither dismissed or reprimanded. After a bushel of apologies, the USDA offered to reinstate Mrs. Sherrod, an offer she kindly refused. In retirement I have been working on a book on African American farmers and civil rights and am focusing on the 1960s, but there is a direct link between USDA racism then and the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman decision to award $1.25 billion to black farmers and the long-delayed congressional appropriation passed only recently. USDA racism had enormous consequences that no financial compensation could make right. A once prospering community of black farmers was devastated not only by mechanization and chemicals but also by unchecked racism that spread from county agricultural committees through state agencies and on to Washington. In 1920, there were 926,000 black farms in the country. Between 1950 and 1978, the number of black farms dropped from 560,000 to 57,000. Ironically, those years encompassed the Civil Rights Movement when laws were intended to aid African Americans. Today there are roughly 18,000 black farms left in the country. Sadly, the National Museum of American History has no exhibit on rural life that might engage some of these questions.
News cycles do not fully account for poor decision-making, and it is interesting to speculate on how much homophobia, jingoism, and racism played in the Hide/Seek, Enola Gay, and Sherrod cases. In removing David Wojnarowicz’s video, the Smithsonian has not only damaged curatorial authority but also offended the generous and enthusiastic funders of Hide/Seek. Surely the nation’s premier museum complex that boasts incredible scientific and cultural resources, that produces significant research, and that has a sterling century-and-a-half reputation for mounting important exhibits can withstand carping criticism and funding threats. Those in charge of museums often underestimate the hunger of museum visitors to learn, to be challenged, and to emerge from exhibits wanting to know even more. Bowing to uninformed critics, allowing donors to intrude in exhibit conception and planning, and undermining curators raise serious questions about the future and integrity of the Smithsonian. Reading the Museum Exhibit Standards created by the SHFG would be a good first step in rearranging Smithsonian priorities.
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Converging Historical Perspectives?
In a talk at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on May 13, 2010, noted historian David Hackett Fischer argued that academic and public historians are now on “converging lines” in their historical presentations. Both groups, he contends, are presenting more complex, less deterministic narratives of the past. And curators and historians are more incisively using analysis of artworks for clues to the past. He noted a growing popularity for historical works: history is increasingly being incorporated into other disciplines, and sales of books are up, although the “younger generation” prefers digital and museum presentations.
He identified this shared view of historical presentation as a “fusion” approach that views stories of the past as a “web of choices.” That is, historical actors make choices based on contingencies, and we do our best work in presenting those multidimensional situations in that complexity. He reviewed recent historiographical trends, from the consensus approach of the post–World War II years, to the new social history of the 1960s, to an alternate approach in the late 1980s in which historians such as James McPherson searched for more complex narratives that accounted for “moments of contingency.”
He explained that in his own work he has tried to “pry open the determinism” and present “braided narratives” that traced the actions and decisions of key, contrasting characters who were bound together in pivotal historical moments. This braiding takes many experimental forms. Thus, in Paul Revere’s Ride he explores and weaves together the different motivations and actions of Revere and the British general Thomas Gage. This braiding also involved the unfolding dilemmas leaders faced as they dealt with a rapidly changing world or a new, disorienting environment. In Washington’s Crossing, Fischer explores the way George Washington had to develop a more open style of leadership that would embrace and promote new Revolutionary ideals. In his work on the explorer Samuel Champlain, Fischer explained that he researched Champlain’s actions against a fuller investigation of his humanist ideals. Champlain envisioned constructing unified society of Europeans and Native Americans. The resulting legacy for Canada was a “vernacular culture of toleration.” His Albion’s Seed is a braiding of general history and family history.
Fischer argued that museums have also undertaken this kind of interwoven narrative approach. New exhibits are more participatory, attempting to reach visitors and promote interaction and thought. Exhibit scripts now also take a more global view of the past. However, follow-up questions raised some serious concerns, including the issues of a continuing “consensus” view in current exhibits, as well as attempts to “sanitize” the story. It seems that while conceptual and technical approaches to historical presentation are changing, a problem often still remains in museums’ thematic goals, where investigations of such issues as racism and social inequality are shorted. Much of the problem derives, as always, from the different mandates of the academic and museum disciplines. While one purportedly aims to find historical accuracy and meaning, the other faces the additional burden of constructing a presentation that is also popularly inviting and acceptable to several audiences.
— Benjamin Guterman