A Bracero Enters Four Contracts in the 1950s
Rigoberto Garcia Perez was born in Michoacan, Mexico in 1934. His father lost land in the worldwide depression of the 1930s and became a bracero after the outbreak of World War II created a shortage of agricultural laborers in the United States. As a bracero, his father earned enough money to rebuild a house and open a small store, but not enough to recover the family land. Perez's father never went to the United States again. Perez told the following account of his own experiences as a bracero, from 1956-59, to photographer and labor activist, David Bacon, in 2001.
When I began to think about crossing the wire, my father was against it....When you work for someone else, the profit from your work stays with them. That was his advice, and it was true. Because [in California] you work just to survive, and you don't own anything. You just survive and survive, but someone else owns your labor.
I was an alambrista [immigrant who crosses the border illegally from Mexico into the United States] the first time I went to the US. We got to Mexicali, and got on a train….At the border you'd have to get off, because the immigration was there. So you'd get off outside town, and cross the border on foot. It wasn't a big problem, like it is today, where they're keeping such a watch. The border was almost free then….
Because we were so near Mexicali, when we'd hear on the radio that some famous artist would perform there, we'd all go. We didn't need papers. We'd go to Mexicali and have a good time. And that night, we'd cross back over. It was easy. Now it costs a lot of money for everyone to cross. Poor people suffer a lot.
I went back home and got married, and I stayed home a year. Then I decided to cross again, but as a bracero. Instead of hopping freights and all that, we could go a different way. I went to the contracting station…It was very easy to get work. There were people there who would sign you up, for $300 a month at that time….
Thousands of men came every day. Once we got there, they'd send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room, about sixty feet square. Then men would come in in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they'd fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-ridden, germ-ridden. No matter, they just did it.
Then quickly, they took a pint of blood from every man. Anyone who was sick wouldn't pass. Then they'd send us into a huge bunk house, where the contractors would come from the growers associations…. [They] would line us up. When they saw someone they didn't like, they'd say, "You, no." Others, they'd say, "You, stay." Usually, they didn't want people who were old -- just young people. Strong ones, right? And I was young, so I never had problems getting chosen. We were hired in El Centro and given our contracts, usually for 45 days.
It was an agreement from one government to the other. The contract had to have the signature of the mayor of your town, guaranteeing your reputation. You also had to have experience picking in Mexico….
I think at that time our wage was 80¢ an hour. In the tomatoes it was piece work - 20¢ a box. That was pretty good if you could pick a hundred boxes. But the work was a killer, really hard….
We slept in big bunkhouses. It was like being in the army…. We woke up when they sounded a horn or turned on the lights. We'd make our beds and go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, and they'd give us our lunch -- some tacos or a couple of sandwiches, an apple and a soda….
We could leave the camp if we wanted to go into town. In Stockton there was a Spaniard who had a drugstore and a radio station. He would send busses out to the camps to give people a ride. He was making a business out of selling us shirts, clothes, and medicine.
The foremen really abused people. A lot was always expected of you, and they always demanded even more. We were obligated to really move it. There were places where braceros went out on strike, or stopped work…..
My brother was one of the leaders. He got it into his blood, and later worked with Cesar Chavez for many years. I was too. There was always exploitation then. They would say that a bucket would by paid at such and such a price, and you'd fill it up, and then they'd pay less. When the farm workers' movement came along, we already knew about organizing and strikes from people who'd participated in those movements. My father had been on strike in Mexico too. He'd tell me that when the boss doesn't understand you have to hit him where it hurt, in his pocketbook…
Those who can exploit, do it. That's what Cesar said when he died in San Luis, "Hay que educar a que pisa, y hay que educar a les deje pisar. Hay que educar a los dos." You have to educate both -- the exploiter and the exploited. If you don't educate both sides, you can't have a future.
I was a bracero from [1956 to 1959]….[My wife] didn't like my leaving, but she stuck with me. I told her, "I'll just go this once, and I'll be back in time to do the planting.' I went off to work, but always with the idea I'd come back and we'd use the money to do more our farm. We had four hectares of onions, but the price fell, and the crop just stayed in the ground. So I said, "Well, I better go to the United States."…
The last time I came as a bracero, I was in San Diego. There I worked for a Japanese grower named Suzuki, a good man. During the war they had put him into one of the camps. He talked a lot about it. He told us, "I know what your life is like, because we lived that way too, in concentration camps. They watched over us with rifles." So he got papers for all of us. He fixed us up, and told us to come work with him. That was the last contract I worked.
When I fixed my immigration status. I decided I wouldn't go back [to Mexico], because my father had died, and I decided to bring my wife here instead. I was tired of being alone. That was the hardest thing -- the loneliness. You have the security of three meals, a place to stay, your job. But you get depressed anyway. I missed my land and my wife….
But it was important to send my kids to school. That's what I was trying to do as a bracero. I wanted a real future, and we knew that we were just casual workers - I would never be able to stay. I had to look for another future.
It was the beginning of the life I'm leading now. Thanks to those experiences, we survived, and here I am. I have two countries, just me, one person. I can cross the border, and live in my own land, and I can live happily in this country too.
Interviewer | David Bacon
Interviewee | Rigoberto Garcia Perez
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Bracero Enters Four Contracts in the 1950s,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 20, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/999.