More than four decades ago, the United States and Mexico performed the largest experiment involving guest workers in either country’s histories. Known as the Bracero Program, a series of agreements between Mexico and the United States allowed millions of Mexican men to cross the border and work as temporary, primarily agricultural laborers.
In VCAM’s Lower Level Create Space, images and stories from the Bracero Program challenged and contributed to our knowledge of the lives of migrant workers in Mexico and the United States, as well as our understanding of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, masculinity, agriculture, labor practices, and justice. As such, the exhibit detailed the “experience of emigrating, as it was rendered by photographers who had also been uprooted.” The photographs, taken by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, were especially powerful because of the unique gaze belonging to the refugees.
The exhibit, which ran through September, was part of the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives project Bleeding Edges: Border Costs, a project which aimed to engage “with histories of entanglement between the United States and Mexico, focusing on our shared labor histories and subsequent patterns of labor migration.” While there were many ongoing projects to capture the history of the Bracero Program, this particular exhibit called for much retrospection. I had to visit the exhibit several times in order to take it all in.
The pictures, all black and white, portrayed strong men with strong hands, rough from labor, conveyed a sense of nostalgia not unlike that of cowboy movie classics of the 1940s. However, these stories were nothing like the heroics of a lone rider saving the day. Rather they portrayed Mexican nationals, desperate for work, working arduous jobs and long hours for wages at which the average American contemporary would have turned their nose. The pictures depicted promises unkept, hopes and dreams of adventure, wonder, and loss, and men leaving home in search of new possibilities.
In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards put in place to protect Mexican and domestic workers. It was supposed to guarantee payment of wages equal to those received by native workers. It was supposed to provide free housing, employment for three-fourths of the contract period, decent meals, and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. However, many of these rules were ignored, and both Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.
These pictures highlight a pain and disappointment I could only imagine. Even as I drew from my own immigrant experience, and reflected on all the pushes and pulls that resettlement brings, the uniqueness of labor migration continued to challenge my understanding of immigration. This photographic exhibit both reinforced and extended a viewer’s understanding of the immigrant experience.
Braceros was a photographic exhibit by Hermanos Mayo through the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives project Bleeding Edges: Border Costs, in the fall semester of 2018.
Written and photos by Eniola Ajao ’21, computer science major.
Edited by Andrew Nguyen ’19.