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Immigration’s Dark Past

Bracero Exhibit Sheds Light on Worker Abuse During WWII

In 1942, at the height of World War II, thousands of Mexican men crossed the border into the United States to maintain the fields while American men were deployed to fight overseas.

These temporary contract workers were part of the Bracero Program, and they helped to support America’s agriculture program for more than two decades. During this time, the men lived in often-overcrowded dorms and were given little respect and very low pay.

The National Museum of American History explores the experiences of these men in the new exhibit, “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964.— The exhibit, which opened last week, will be on display through January, when it will begin traveling to more than 20 communities nationwide.

Photos taken by Leonard Nadel and firsthand accounts illustrate what life was like for Mexicans who were part of the program. They show the good and the bad. One image shows a wife sitting at home in Mexico waiting for her husband to arrive, while another shows Mexican men looking confused as they examine their paychecks, which had presumably been cut back. It was not uncommon for those who ran the program to cut workers’ pay without reason.

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough said the exhibit is focused on preserving the link between U.S. and Mexican history. Curators are hoping that people will come forward to talk of their experiences in the program as the exhibit travels from town to town.

“The exhibition has a lot to do with oral history,— said Christin Chism of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

The exhibit includes several panels featuring black-and-white photos and various workers’ accounts of their time in the program. Some of the photos on display are reminiscent of the work camps in Nazi Germany. They show groups of Mexican men crammed into small dorms and playing makeshift board games to keep themselves occupied. One photo shows several men being sprayed with disinfectant before being allowed to cross the border into the United States.

“This is an important story to tell,— Clough said. “It’s relevant and sometimes troubling.—

The exhibit resonated with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who was on hand for the opening last week. Her father participated in the Bracero Program.

“Looking at what they had to endure is somewhat painful,— Solis said, choking back tears. “My father was in this program, and it was a bittersweet experience for him. [He did] not want to share it with his children because he was ashamed.—

In addition to the poignant photographs, the exhibit also features artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collection. A rusty bunk bed that was used in one dormitory is on display. Also shown is a short-handle hoe, which was widely used in the program, to the detriment of the workers’ backs. Today, this farm tool, which forces workers to work in a bent-over position, is outlawed in most states.

“When I think about people who have influenced my life, all I have to do is … look at this short hoe,— Solis said, adding that she worked to pass legislation to outlaw its use when she was in Congress.

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