Are there topics out there that are too hot for museums to handle? Absolutely is the answer that many would give. But what if an exhibition helps people better understand a contemporary issue by examining a similar historical moment? This is certainly the edifying role that museums should play.
Opening in February 2010, Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 (Cosecha Amarga, Cosecha Dulce: El Programa Bracero, 1942-1964) is such an exhibition. It's gritty and raw and gives audiences a chance to see immigration and labor issues from another perspective--void of the political rhetoric that clouds the controversy today.
Comprised of images shot by magazine photographer Leonard Nadel in 1956, the exhibition documents a little-known chapter in American history, after World War II, when labor shortages threatened small farmers, larger growers, and farm associations in California, Texas, and 25 other states. By the time the bracero project was terminated in 1964, it had become the largest guest worker program in U.S. history, bringing some 4.6 million Mexican nationals across the border to fill short-term labor contracts. But even its own day, the bracero program didn't escape controversy. Exploitation, violations of civil liberties and legal rights were common--not to mention substandard living and working conditions.
"It was grueling, the time spent away from home was difficult, but the opportunity [for these men] to earn money was real. The program was truly bittersweet," says exhibition curator Peter Liebhold of the National Museum of American History.
" . . . come labor for your mother, your father and your brother, for your sister and your lover; Bracero come pick the fruit of yellow. Break the flower from the berry; purple grapes will fill your belly, Bracero . . . and the sun will bite your body, as the dust will draw you thirsty while your muscles beg for mercy . . ."
--"Bracero" by Phil Ocres