THE STORY OF A BRACERO
By Rigoberto Garcia Perez, Interviewed by David Bacon
BLYTHE, CA (3/2/01) -- President George Bush has declared
his intention to restart negotiations over immigration reform with
the Mexican government of Vicente Fox. But the main reform under
consideration, in the post 9/11 era, is no longer an amnesty for
undocumented immigrants. Both governments have proposed a temporary
worker program that looks hauntingly familiar -- like the bracero
program of 1941-1964. One participant in that program, Rigoberto
Garcia Perez, remembers that while it was humiliating and abusive,
also led to his family settling in the US. He told his story to PNS
associate editor David Bacon, as part of a documentation project on
transnational communities sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Photos of Garcia and his wife are available.
I was born in Lalgodona, Michoacan, January 26, 1934. My father
owned some land, but he had to keep selling it off, and in the end,
he lost all of it. He became a bracero when the war started with
They always made good money, the braceros. He rebuilt his house and
tried to recover his land, but he couldn't. But he was a fighter, so
he started a small store and went into business. And he never went
to the US again.
When I began to think about crossing the wire, my father was against
it. It was as if I had told my parents I was going to work down in
the mine. His idea was that when you work for someone else, you
never get free of it. For him, working on the land we were working
for ourselves, not someone else. When you work for someone else, the
profit from your work stays with them. That was his advice, and it
was true. Because here you work just to survive, and you don't own
anything. You just survive and survive, but someone else owns your
I was an alambrista the first time I went to the US. We got to
Mexicali, and got on a train. There were two trains that went from
San Diego to Phoenix, and traveled a ways on the Mexican side. 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.
I worked in Stockton, in the cherries, where the migra caught me
twice. After that, I didn't want to go back. I decided to work in
Calipatria, where if they caught me, I was closer to the border, and
it wasn't as hard to get back. 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 in Sonora, in Empalme. It was very easy to get
work. There were people there who would sign you up, for $300 a
month at that time. They'd get a thousand or two thousand people a
I went as a bracero four times, but I didn't like it. We got on the
train in Empalme, and went all the way to Mexicali, where we got on
busses to the border. From there, they took us to El Centro.
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
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 in
counties like San Joaquin County, Yolo , Sacramento, Fresno and so
on. The heads of the associations 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.
It was a kind of blackmail. My wife's father had to work in the
Yaqui River Valley to complete his period of time before he could go
to Empalme and sign up. When your contract was over, they'd put you
on a bus back to El Centro. And there they'd give you the passage
back to Empalme.
One I went to Santa Maria, where we picked strawberries. From there
they renewed our contracts and sent us to Suisun, and we picked pears
there. When we were through, the rancher said, "now we're going to
Davis." And from there they sent us back to 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. They'd give
you two rows, which could give you 50 boxes, and you could do that in
half a day.
In Tracy I was with a crew from Juajuapa de Leon, in Oaxaca, and one
of those boys died. Something he ate at dinner in the camp wasn't
any good. The kid got food poisoning, but what could we do? We were
all worried because he'd died, and what happened to him could happen
to any of us. They said they'd left soap on the plates, or something
had happened with the dinner, because lots of others got diarrhea. I
got diarrhea too. But this boy died.
We slept in big bunkhouses. It was like being in the army. Each
person had their own bed, one on top of the other, with a mattress,
blanket and so on. They'd tell us to keep the place clean, to make
our beds when we got up. 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.
When we got back to camp, we'd wash up before we went to eat.. In
the tomatoes, you really get dirty, like a dog, so you'd want to go
in there clean, with your clothes changed.
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. One of my brothers went on strike in Phoenix because they were
picking cotton and the crop was bad. They always said you could
never make money doing it. A lot of work for nothing. They
threatened to send them back to Mexico. They put them on a bus to El
Centro, and from there they sent them to Fullerton, to work in the
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. If you don't, he won't see you. I think
it's that way everywhere in the world.
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 56 to 59. I was in Watsonville six months
before I got married. That was when my wife and I were just lovers.
We'd write each other, and I'd ask her to wait for me, until I
returned. So we got married. She 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
The next year, when I came back, we had a good crop of camote. We
put our backs into it, and irrigated, and we had no competition. We
were the lords of the market. But afterwards, I thought again,
"Well, I better go to the United States." A human being is never
satisfied. We all have one thing, and want another.
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.
Even after I had papers, sometimes there was still discrimination.
Once, after working in the cherries in San Jose and Stockton, a
friend of mine asked me to go with him to Oregon. The conditions
there weren't good. They'd give us a tarp to put up as a shelter,
and expected us to sleep on the ground. But the idea of sleeping
under the trees didn't appeal to me. I thought, if we did more of
that we'd be dead. So four of us decided we'd look for a house in
We couldn't find anyone who would rent to us. There weren't any
Mexicans there, and people would just stare at us. But with luck, we
found a little place for rent. One of us was a Frenchman, and we
sent him first, because he was white. You know, white with white,
it's different. So this old woman said she'd rent her garage to us,
but then she said, "when you come home from work, I don't want you to
go outside. I don't want people to see that I'm renting to Mexicans,
because they'll call the police."
When the work was finally over and we had to leave, the lady cried.
She asked us to forgive her. "I had bad information about Mexicans,"
she told us. "I see now that you're good people. You work hard, you
don't go out looking for girls." I told her, "In Mexico I'm married.
I have two daughters. I can't go out." She gave a little package to
each of us - a little suitcase, with some clothes.
When I fixed my immigration status. I decided I wouldn't go back,
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. And since I met her, I can't go with another woman. My
parents and grandparents gave me that tradition. One wife for one
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. I came as an alambrista, and
then back came as a bracero. Eventually I got my papers and lived
like any other person. But I always remembered how I got here.
Illegal, a bracero.
I still have a house on the land my father gave me. And I haven't
let it go, because that's where all my children were born. Anytime
we want to go to Mexico, we have a place there. I tell my son, your
grandfather was a visionary. Don't sell it, he said, because we
don't know what will happen. Maybe one day we'll go back.