A student from Georgetown University recently contacted Christin Chism, one of our PR mavens, to glean more information about the Smithsonian traveling exhibition Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Project. Jose Madrid had seen a film about the Bracero program (1942-1964) at the National Museum of American History and decided to write a paper about the topic.
The Bracero labor program began as a means of filling agricultural positions vacated by Americans serving overseas during World War II. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican workers to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times. By the time the program was canceled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded to individual workers.
As Christin interviewed Jose, she discovered that his interest in the bracero program went beyond scholarship and into the heart of identity and family.
Q. When did you find out your grandfather was a Bracero?
A. Growing up listening to my parents stories about their journey and the difficulties in immigrating to the United States, I always wanted to learn about the beginning--who came first? Of course, my parents tried their best to trace back to the first family member they knew who had immigrated to the United States. My parents both traced the first person they knew to visit the United States as a close relative. My mom's uncles had been braceros and my father's father. U.S.-Mexican immigration was different in the early 1900s, so people went and came without the formal procedures we now have in place. I didn't truly understand the word 'bracero' and just thought they meant they were laborers or rancheros--cowboys. So, I grew up knowing my family had traveled to the United States to work, but never had a full appreciation for what their work represented.
Q. Do you know where your grandfather worked?
A. We know my grandfather worked in the United States prior to the end of WWII because he referred to his work in the U.S. as part of the 'war efforts' to assist a neighboring country. He was also directly contracted by the Mexican government, who brokered deals with American industry--only possible prior to 1948, before Public Law 78. He came for two terms and first worked in Fresno, California, and then in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he mainly worked on the railroads.
Q. How did you connect your interests with the Smithsonian?
A. It wasn't until I began my undergraduate studies at Georgetown in 2010 when I learned about the significance of the Bracero Program. As an American Studies major, I took multiple courses where I was asked to find the origins of American values and characteristics. In doing so, I became curious about my own history of 'becoming an American.' After co-producing and writing Urban Renewal, Negro Removal, a short documentary on the African-American community in Washington, DC, in the 20th century, I was intrigued by an advertisement for the film 'Harvest of Loneliness,' showing at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The image on the cover (the man with the short handle-hoe) spoke to me. I knew I wanted to write a paper on the political economy of immigration in the U.S. and thought the movie would be a good starting point.
Q. What has working on this project meant to you?
A. I found myself discovering the early fruits and genesis of my family's history in the United States. The film began to lessen my ignorance about the Bracero Program that has, in so many ways, marked the beginning of my history as an American. I felt ashamed to never have fully grasped the significance of what a bracero was and what they did for the United States. I had a feeling of remorse about never having honored my grandfather's sacrifices and efforts--he passed away before I meet him when I was young. I knew had not been able to track down my grandfather's official documentation from his time in the program. I felt I had to do something to honor his work and those of his peers. In addition to honoring my grandfather by writing about the program, I felt writing the paper was also like a process of self discovery. As a first generation U.S.-born American and college student, I felt the need to learn about my roots to appreciate my identity as a young American in the 21st century. There I was, sitting in Washington, DC, watching images of men, any of which could have been my great-uncle or grandfather, and learning about them as a scholar. If the 'American Dream' had a feeling, I experienced it then when I realized how fortunate I was to stand on the broad shoulders of men like mi abuelo Pascual Madrid. It's made me proud to be Latino, but more importantly its made me proud to know I am an American because my family's work and sacrifice were used to build this great nation.
Jose’s story is just one example of how Smithsonian exhibitions help to not only spread knowledge but to help inform all of us more about we really are. Check out a full schedule for the traveling exhibition.