Mexican Farm Labor and the Agricultural Economy of the United States

In July of 1958, a Mexican man in Empalme, Mexico, died outside a recruitment center for Mexican men who wanted to participate in a guest-worker program known as the Bracero Program. The program, designed and agreed upon by both the American and Mexican governments, imported Mexican men into the United States to work, mostly in the agricultural industry. The program began in 1942 after the US entry into World War II as a means to fill labor gaps left by American men who had gone off to war. The program proved so useful to the growing agricultural industries in the Southwest and across the United States that large-scale farmers petitioned to keep the program going well after the war ended, extending the program into 1964. Following the death of the nameless, would-be bracero outside Empalme, another aspiring bracero recalled the moment he found the body: “About a week ago, some friends of mine and I found a bracero under a tree. He was dead. When they were trying to find out what he had died from, they found that all he had inside him was two banana skins. He starved to death.” [1]

Mexican workers recruited and brought to the Arkansas valley, Colorado, Nebraska and Minnesota by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) to harvest and process sugar beets under contract with the Inter-mountain Agricultural Improvement Association, May 1943 (Library of Congress)

In preparing to travel to the United States to work in the bountiful and growing agricultural industry—an industry that provided nutrition and sustenance to the American populace—the young bracero died of malnutrition. The irony was cruel. But this situation was not uncommon for bracero applicants, nor was it rare once Mexican laborers entered the United States to work. Once placed on farms, guest workers often had little time to eat. When they did, they ate poor-quality food that their employers provided to them. In one instance, a man in California confessed that he knew a bracero employer in Northern California who fed his workers beef that came from sick cattle. “[The cows are] the most revolting thing you ever saw,” he recounted. But they were cheap, and feeding the workers harvesting fruit in the fields seemed of little importance. [2] On another farm in California, a bracero who worked harvesting pears was found dead from malnutrition. The only thing he had been eating for some time were the very pears he was harvesting. Despite this inhumane treatment and the risk of malnutrition, the agricultural economy of the Southwest was built on the backs and the bodies of Mexican and Mexican American labor. [3] 

The agricultural industry in the Southwest has a long history of reliance upon Mexican migrant labor. In the early twentieth century, Mexican migration into the United States increased after the onset of the Mexican Revolution (1910−1917). Following a series of immigration laws that barred Asian immigrants from entering the United States, Mexican migrants found work in industries that had previously been filled by Chinese labor. [4] In the 1910s, World War I also played a role in drawing Mexican laborers into the United States. As noted by Philip Martin, Mexicans found themselves as exceptions to immigration statutes that required newcomers to pay head taxes or take literacy tests because they could help grow food and thus support the war effort. [5] This exceptional treatment of Mexicans under immigration law not only recognized the importance and potential of Mexican contributions to the agricultural industry, but also laid the groundwork for a much more extensive program that would come with the onset of World War II. Many scholars refer to this early program as the first bracero program.

Migration from Mexico waned a bit between the two wars, in part because of a recession, then the Great Depression, but following US entry into World War II, the United States was so desperate for laborers that ranchers and farmers began petitioning for help from the US Departments of Agriculture and Labor. Looking for men to fill the labor gaps left by those who had gone off to fight the war, US bureaucrats turned to Mexico for aid. Within months and after several contract negotiations, the two countries agreed to import Mexicans on temporary work contracts to grow and harvest food in the fields. In 1942, the first braceros arrived in Stockton, California, to work and the second bracero program was underway.

The program reflected the needs and desires of farmers in the Southwest, served to replenish the labor pools emptied by World War II, and reinforced the idea that Americans desired Mexican labor over that of other immigrant groups. The rationale underpinning the Bracero Program was reciprocity. First, by bringing in guest workers, the United States would gain from cheap labor, fill gaps created in the labor force by the men at war, and help the economies of the Southwest grow. Second, Mexico would benefit from a system that created a legal way for Mexicans to work in the United States. Mexican government officials, intent on maintaining a stable workforce, wanted unsanctioned immigration to the United States to stop. And finally, because of the close proximity of Mexico to the United States, laborers could easily return home once their contracts expired.

News articles portrayed Mexican braceros as “Good Neighbors . . . helping [the US] to harvest victory in [its] western farmland.” [6] This propaganda effort implied that Mexicans aided the United States in the war effort and should see themselves and be seen as “American” and “Neighborly.” But the systems in place for regulating their movement north demonstrated that, in practice, officials on both sides of the border saw migrants not as equal to Americans, but as a natural resource to be extracted and shipped. They were what one farmer referred to as “work mules” rather than humans. [7] Employers placed them in subpar housing and fed them low-quality food. Meanwhile, braceros were expected to work for hours on end in hot climates, with poisonous chemicals and little to no rest. These conditions wore on their bodies and many who entered the US healthy returned home injured, ill, or dead. But their labor nourished Americans soldiers as well as American citizens.

The Bracero Program essentially institutionalized migration from south to north. It also normalized poor treatment of migrant workers. Both the migration and the placement of migrants in toxic environments continues today. The Bracero Program ended in 1964. The following year, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1965 created the first cap on the number of people who could enter from the Western Hemisphere. This cap, established on the heels of a system that sponsored south to north migration en masse, ultimately created the modern “immigration problem,” and policymakers have sought to control movement across the border ever since. But people continue to cross the border in large numbers and work all across the United States, from the orchards of southern California to the cold dairy barns of Vermont. [8] Mexican labor continues to feed the people of the United States.

Despite the continued and crucial contributions of Mexican migrants, border fences along the southern border continue to grow in length and height, further threatening the lives of those who come to work. To get to jobs, Mexican migrants must cross a treacherous environment where they risk death, only to find themselves in a field where the only healthy food they can obtain is the food that they harvest. Meanwhile, the supply of food for the privileged remains constant and robust. The contributions of Mexican labor to the United States have been and remain strong, but this legacy is rarely recognized.

[1] Henry P. Anderson, The Bracero Program in California: With Particular Reference to Health Status, Attitudes, and Practices (New York: Arno Press, Inc., 1976), 11.

[2] Anderson, 103.

[3] For a nuanced explanation of the important differences between Mexican nationals who worked in the fields, Mexican Braceros, and Mexican Americans, see Lori Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] For one of many great studies that cover Chinese exclusion laws, see Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[5] Philip Martin, “Guestworker Programs for the 21st Century,” Center for Immigration Studies, April 1, 2000,, accessed February 12, 2019.

[6] Grace McGrady, “Manpower from Mexico,” Herald Tribune, November 18, 1943. Office Files of the Rep[resentative] in Mexico, Binder 4, Mexicans. Record Group 211: Records of the War Manpower Commission. National Museum of American History, Washington DC.

[7] Hearings before the Select Committee to Investigate the Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens. House of Representatives, 76th Cong., 3rd sess., H. RES. 63 and H. RES 491. Part 10: Washington Hearings, December 11, 1940, and February 26, 1941. Holt-Atherton Special Collections and University Archives, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California.

[8] For some discussion on more recent migrant experiences see Mary E. Mendoza, “Caging Out, Caging In: Building a Carceral State at the US-Mexico Divide,” Pacific Historical Review 88, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 86−109.

Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a studies at Penn State University, the David J. Weber Fellow for the Study of Southwestern America at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, and a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Her work focuses on the intersections of race and environment in the US-Mexico borderlands. She has published articles in Environmental History, the Pacific Historical Review, and a number of news outlets including BBC History Magazine and the Washington Post. Her work has been funded by the Smithsonian, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Huntington Library.