Mexican Labor History In The Southwest


Commentary:     I have several liberal socialist acquaintances that will probably drop their copies of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto in astonishment as they hear me agree with most points of the following PBS piece on Mexican immigrant labor history. I have spent some time researching the article. And, while I think it is written with an overwhelming liberal self-loathing slant, it is absolutely correct in it’s facts. It is a sad truth that for at least the last 150 years we have bent over backwards to import Mexican labor when we needed it and, fought diligently to expel those same Mexicans when we didn’t need them anymore. In times of war when the U.S. labor force was basically non existent, we shipped them north as fast as we could. When our soldiers came home, we called the Mexicans criminal trespassers, and threatened them with incarceration if they didn’t leave. Our ever-shifting policies on Mexican aliens have all but ruined the economies in both countries. Going back to a previous post, I maintain my position that greed is the root of the evil that befalls both Mexican citizen workers and American citizen workers today. I just don’t buy the argument that we ever needed the imported labor in the first place, for any reason. I consider myself a capitalist however, I also believe that there is a point where the pursuit of “cheaper labor” makes for an unhealthy capitalist economy. If Marx were alive today, he would be slamming his fist against his Das Kapital and telling the American people, “I told you so!” In 1867, Marx claimed that as a class, the proletariat will gradually become disciplined, united and organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production and eventually will overthrow the system that is the cause of their suffering. (I can’t freakin’ believe I just quoted Marx.)  I believe that is where we find ourselves now. I will argue that much of the reason Mexico’s economy has not thrived since the Mexican revolution of 1910 is due to the fact that the Mexican labor force has been enticed and manipulated by the U.S. government to the point that it has become a habit for them to chase the carrot of low wages and the “American Dream”, north of the border rather than build a life, business and thriving economy south of the border. It is my belief that there are only two solutions to the problem that faces both our countries today. The first is the most difficult for government and big business, but the one we want. That is, close the borders. Let us focus on our economy and let us deal with the higher labor prices. Trust me, it will take ten years but things will level out and we’ll all be the better for it. Mexico will have no choice but to build up their own economic infrastructure. They are the world’s largest silver producers, they have one of the world’s largest workforces and they are an industrious people. Without the “enticing crutch” of the U.S., they in time will thrive. The second option is of course the easiest. It would be the path of least resistance for government and big business. It is apparently the course that our government has us aligned on now. That is, drop the borders, abandon our sovereignty, prove Karl Marx correct in his assertions and fire up the North American Union. Change our currencies to the “Amero”, and watch things fall to shit from there.

Mexican Immigrant Labor History

The Mexican migratory worker in southwest America is regarded as a necessary part of the bustling harvest season. The need of U.S. employers to import foreign manual labor was heightened first by the expansion of cattle ranches in the Southwest, and by the increase of fruit production in California in 1850 and 1880.

Before Mexican workers supported American agriculture, it was the Chinese who filled the labor hole. Nearly 200,000 Chinese were legally contracted to cultivate California fields, until the Chinese Exclusion Act. Then it was the Japanese who replaced the Chinese as field hands.

Between 1850 and 1880, 55,000 Mexican workers immigrated to the United States to become field hands in regions that had, until very recently, belonged to Mexico. The institution of Mexican workers in the United States was well established at this time in commercial agriculture, the mining industry, light industry and the railroad. The working conditions and salaries of the Mexicans were poor.

The presence of Mexican workers in the American labor scene started with the construction of the railroad between Mexico and the U.S. That presence grew between 1880 and 1890. As much as 60 percent of the railway working crews were Mexican. Rodolfo Tuiran, in his paper “Past and Present of the Mexican Immigration to the United States”, reports that the initial flood of migrant workers to the United States were mainly skilled miners, work hands from cattle ranches in Mexico, indentured servants fleeing Mexican farms, small independent producers who were forced north by natural disasters or Indian raids and workers affected by the War of Secession.

In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Mexican government was unable to improve the lives of its citizens. By the late 1930s, the crop fields in Mexico were harvesting smaller and smaller bounties, and employment became scarce. The Mexican peasant needed to look elsewhere for survival. World War I also stoked the fire of Mexican immigration, since Mexican workers performed well in the industry and service fields, working in trades such as machinists, mechanics, painters and plumbers. These years were ripe with employment opportunities for Mexicans because much of the U.S. labor force was overseas fighting the war. Agencies in Mexico recruited for the railway and agriculture industries in the United States.

Mexican workers’ complaints about the abuse of their labor rights eventually led the Mexican government to action. Led by Venustiano Carranza in 1920, the Mexican government composed a model contract that guaranteed Mexican workers certain rights named in the Mexican Political Constitution. The contract demanded that U.S. ranchers allow workers to bring their families along during the period of the contract. No worker was allowed to leave for the United States without a contract, signed by an immigration official, which stated the rate of pay, work schedule, place of employment and other similar conditions. Thus, this became the first de facto Bracero Program between the two countries.

In 1924, the U.S. Border Patrol was created, an event which would have a significant impact on the lives of Mexican workers. Though the public did not immediately view Mexicans as “illegal aliens,” the law now stated that undocumented workers were fugitives. With the advent of the Border Patrol, the definition “illegal alien” is born, and many Mexican citizens north of the border are subject to much suspicion.

The Mexican work force was critical in developing the economy and prosperity of the United States. The Mexican workers in numerous accounts were regarded as strong and efficient. As well, they were willing to work for low wages, in working conditions that were questionably humane. Another measure of control was imposed on the Mexican immigrant workers during the depression: visas were denied to all Mexicans who failed to prove they had secure employment in the United States. The Mexicans who were deported under this act were warned that if they came back to the United States, they would be considered outlaws.

It seemed whenever the United States found a reason to close the door on Mexican immigration, a historic event would force them to reopen that door. Such was the case when the United States entered World War II. In 1942, the United States was heading to war with the fascist powers of Europe. Labor was siphoned from all areas of United States industry and poured into those which supported the war efforts. Also in that year, the United States signed the Bracero Treaty which reopened the floodgates for legal immigration of Mexican laborers. Between the period of 1942 and 1964, millions of Mexicans were imported into the U.S. as “braceros” under the Bracero Program to work temporarily on contract to United States growers and ranchers.

Under the Bracero Program, more than 4 million Mexican farm workers came to work the fields of the United States. Impoverished Mexicans fled their rural communities and traveled north to work as braceros. It was mainly by the Mexican hand that America became the most lush agricultural center in the world.

The braceros were principally experienced farm workers who hailed from regions such as Coahuila, “la Comarca Lagunera,” and other crucial agricultural regions in Mexico. They left their own lands and families chasing a rumor of economic boom in the United States.

Large groups of bracero applicants came via train to the northern border. Their arrival altered the social and economic environments of many border towns. Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, became a hotbed of recruitment and a main gathering point for the agricultural labor force.

The Bracero Program contracts were controlled by independent farmer associations and the “Farm Bureau,” and were written in English, and many braceros would sign them without understanding the rights they were giving away nor the terms of the employment.

The braceros were allowed to return to their native lands only in case of emergency, and required written permission from their employer. When the contracts expired, the braceros were mandated to hand over their permits and return to Mexico. The braceros in the United States were busy thinning sugar beets, picking cucumbers and tomatoes and weeding and picking cotton.

At the end of World War II, Mexican workers were ousted from their jobs by workers coming out of wartime industries and by returning servicemen. By 1947, the Emergency Farm Labor Service was working on decreasing the amount of Mexican labor imported. By the 1960s, an overflow of “illegal” agricultural workers along with the invention of the mechanical cotton harvester, diminished the practicality and appeal of the bracero program. These events, added to the gross humanitarian violations of bracero employers, brought the program to an end in 1964.

2 responses to “Mexican Labor History In The Southwest

  1. “much of the reason Mexico’s economy has not thrived since the Mexican revolution of 1910 is due to the fact that the Mexican labor force has been enticed and manipulated by the U.S. government to the point that it has become a habit for them to chase the carrot of low wages and the “American Dream”, north of the border rather than build a life, business and thriving economy south of the border.”

    I argued the same thing for quite some time. Tighter immigration restrictions (not to mention severe penalties for those who hire illegals) could result in a economic revolution in Mexico. As long we huge numbers of Mexican citizens can simply cross the border to find wealth and happiness (whether a realistic perception or not) there is not motivation for them to change Mexico. Should that release valve be shut off it could result in huge changes, with millions of men and women who hunger for change demanding such from their government (instead of seeking it elsewhere).

    Great post.

  2. This is clearly the most definitive post on your blog. It states the real problem, that US employers have been exploiting these people for 150 years. The real solution is as totaltransformation says. Find some way to get the Mexican people to improve their lot back home.

    One thing we have never tried is enforcement of the laws regarding employers. It is a federal felony to hire an undocumented worker in the US. I have never heard of a single person being so much as charged with that crime. We don’t solve the problem by doing INS sweeps and sending the undocumented workers home. They only return and many times get “swept” in the same workplace they got deported from in the last “sweep.” Charge a bunch of management types with a felony and I bet you start seeing a reduction in the number of managers willing to hire and exploit illegals.

    The other issue is as you stated the open again closed again door. Our government hasn’t ever been clear about this, and I don’t expect them to be clear anytime soon. The other issue is how US foreign policy has supported the worst kinds of governments in Mexico and further south of our border. That must be dealt with too. We should stop intervening in the affairs of other sovereign states. In this way people in other countries will feel they can enact change and this will help cause them to stay home and work on that, instead of coming here to work for slave wages.

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