THE HISPANIC EXPERIENCE
Perspective on the Frontier
Houston Institute for Culture
Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People
By Richard D. Vogel
American capitalism has used Mexican workers as a reserve army of labor since the conquest. The proximity of the Mexican labor pool to points of production ensures a plentiful supply of workers during boom times and facilitates repatriation during economic downturns. The international border is no barrier to this exploitation -- U.S. capitalism targets Mexican workers in both countries. As migrants working in the U.S., or as employees of American firms in Mexico, Mexican workers have been excluded from minimum wage requirements, health care benefits, workman's compensation insurance, and social security plans. Moreover, government health and safety regulations have failed to protect them, while the education and social services that they and their families have received in both Mexico and the U.S. have been minimal. Because of these inferior wages and working conditions, Mexican labor has been a source of enormous superprofits (profits obtained over and above those squeezed out of native workers) for American capitalism.
The American bourgeoisie has jealously guarded these superprofits. At the end of the nineteenth century, U.S. companies regularly enlisted the aid of hired thugs, local law enforcement officials, and state agencies like the Texas and Arizona Rangers to protect their superprofits through the overt suppression of Mexican labor. Since the early 20th century, American capitalists have relied on the federal government to regulate the reserve army of Mexican labor. The U.S Border Patrol was founded in 1924 to control immigrant labor and continues to act as a gatekeeper for U.S. capitalism, opening and closing the border to Mexican workers as the needs of the U.S. economy dictate. Immigration law and government policy have alternatively encouraged Mexican workers to immigrate or subjected them to mass repression and deportation to meet the needs of U.S. capitalism. Furthermore, in order to insure a cheap supply of Mexican labor, the U.S. government has periodically intervened in the domestic politics of Mexico.
Anglo settlers and capitalists flooded into the annexed territory, and by 1860, just six years after the Gadsden Purchase, the new economic order of the American Southwest was already established with Mexican workers and their families at the bottom. Although both the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase guaranteed pre-war property rights, most Mexican landowners lost their land and either repatriated or sank into the ranks of the Mexican working class of the Southwest. Like their landless immigrant compatriots, they had to earn their living as wage laborers -- carpenters, blacksmiths, freighters, servants, field hands, and miners -- and always and everywhere at wages less than those paid to white workers.
Mexican workers proved to be essential to the expansion of cattle ranching and agricultural production from California to Texas. Indeed, Mexican labor fueled the southwestern agricultural revolution that took place between 1900 and 1920 and contributed to America's overall development. However, it was World War I that boosted the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S.
World War I and the Demand for Mexican Labor
During this crisis of capitalism and war, legal immigration quotas for Mexico were ignored in order to meet the growing manpower needs in the U.S. From California to Texas, immigration officials did not interfere with the labor recruiters that operated freely on both sides of the border to procure Mexican workers for American business. The initial employment opportunities were low paying agricultural jobs, but as soon as immigrants could find a way, they moved into higher paying service and industrial jobs. They proved to be able workers, performing well in trades such as machinists, mechanics, carpenters, painters, and plumbers. Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, contributed not only to the war effort, but also to the overall economic development and prosperity of the United States during 1920s. They did not, however, have a future in the nation that they helped to create.
The Great Depression and Mass Deportations
Congressman Eugene Black from Texas, testifying before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1929, argued that a strict quota system should be imposed on Mexicans because, in his words, they were, "germ-carriers, inassimilable, a people who are with us but not of us, and not for us." They had, he argued, a large "percentage of moral and financial pauperism, incapable of development away from that condition, whose influence is forwarding the breaking down of our social fabric...."
Senator Box, also from Texas, wrote a bill to restrict Mexican immigration to the U.S. and forwarded an equally bigoted argument: "The ruling white classes of Mexico, numbering comparatively few, whatever their number are, do not migrate. There is another large class of people of Mexico who are sometimes called 'greasers' and other unfriendly names, the great bulk of them are what we ordinarily call 'peons', and from this class we are getting this great migration. It is a bad racial element."
The anti-immigrant hysteria generated during the Great Depression helped defuse the political time bomb of mass unemployment in the U.S. and led directly to the mass deportation of Mexicans. Between 250,000 and 350,000 Mexican workers and their families, many of which included American born children (and therefore American citizens), were deported over the next decade. The Mexican population in the U.S. dropped an estimated 40 percent during the ten-year period. The state of Indiana lost three-fourths of its Mexican population, and another twelve states -- Colorado, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming -- all lost over half.
The impact of the mass deportations on Mexican migrants was devastating. Deportees routinely lost their personal property, automobiles, homes, businesses, and other investments in America. In many cases, they were not even allowed time to pick up paychecks or close out savings accounts. The reactionary deportation campaign divided families and decimated communities. Children of migrants were torn from their schools, neighborhoods, and friends and shipped off with their parents or other relatives, and sometimes on their own. Deportees and their families were routinely transported to the nearest border town and force-marched across the international bridge by armed Border Patrol Agents or National Guard troops and warned never to return.
Mexico, which had been in deep financial depression since 1911, was unprepared to receive the flood of deportees, most of whom were destitute when they arrived. The social and economic consequences of already high unemployment in Mexico became ruinous under the crushing pressure of the mass deportations from the U.S. Neither jobs nor basic social services were available to the repatriated.
Thus Mexico, which had been a primary source for cheap labor during the war, became a dumping ground for the problems of American capitalism. And while U.S. politicians gloated about fulfilling their patriotic duty to protect America from "undesirable foreign elements" few Americans were willing to look at the human consequences of U.S. policy for Mexico. One concerned depression-era observer of the mass deportations, however, asked a key question: "Are Mexican immigrants to be sent for again when prosperous times return, to be treated as 'cheap labor,' and then returned penniless to poverty-ridden relatives?" The Bracero Program that was instituted during World War II provided the answer to that question.
World War II and the Bracero Program
Ernesto Galazar, the Mexican consulate official assigned to Washington D.C. at the time that the Bracero Treaty was signed in 1942, explained the connections between the war and the labor agreement. Anticipation of war production, he observed, had increased the demand for agricultural workers in the U.S. while military recruitment and industrial expansion were straining both local and national labor supplies. Galazar, giving a Mexican voice to American demands, announced that Mexico was a "natural reserve" of agricultural and railroad maintenance labor for the U.S. and added that Mexico desired to cooperate in America's war effort by providing manual labor.
Whether or not Mexican workers "desired" to cooperate in the U.S. war effort, they contributed much to the American economy. During World War II and the Cold War that followed it, as many as 5 million Mexican nationals were imported to work in the U.S. During the peak period, over 400,000 Mexicans signed contracts and crossed the border each year. The city of El Paso alone witnessed an annual passage of 80,000 Mexican workers.
The experiences of braceros entering the U.S. through El Paso were typical for Mexican workers employed throughout the Southwest. Workers recruited in Mexican urban centers like Chihuahua signed contracts with the U.S. government and then traveled by train to Ciudad Juárez where they waited until immigration officers stamped their permits and allowed them to cross the border. From El Paso, they were shipped to a processing and holding compound at Fabens, in the Rio Grande Valley, where they were dusted with DDT powder and fed their first meal in America, typically cheap lunch meat or peanut butter on day-old bread. At Fabens, area farmers and ranchers came to inspect the braceros and hire the ones they wanted. The men were then transported to farms and ranches in Texas and New Mexico where they lived and worked for the duration of their contracts.
The labor camps where braceros were quartered were isolated and derelict, seldom meeting the living standards guaranteed for workers by the Official Bracero Agreement. The typical dirt-floored cabins lacked indoor plumbing, often electricity, and, sometimes, even glass in the windows. Wood-burning stoves were provided for cooking and heating, but finding fuel was the responsibility of the tenants.
The health care and occupational safety protection promised to Mexican workers under the Bracero Agreement were the same as those guaranteed to native agricultural laborers, which, in effect, were none. Braceros were frequently ill because of poor sanitary conditions and injuries on the job, and those who did receive medical care in the U.S. were more often treated by a veterinarian than a physician.
Conditions of employment for braceros were harsh. The contractual workday began at 6 A.M. and ended at 5 P.M. and consisted mostly of fieldwork (picking cotton, harvesting produce, or weeding or thinning crops with a backbreaking, short-handled hoe). The men often had to do additional chores around the farm in the evenings and on Sundays but were usually not paid for the extra work. The minimum wage cited in the Bracero Treaty was 30 cents per hour, and in the mid-1950s a good cotton picker could make 30 dollars a week. Jesús Campoya Calderón, a bracero from San Diego, Chihuahua reported that during one season, "I worked for four months, seven days a week, at least 12 hours every day and I took home almost 300 dollars." He added, "Those were very good days...."
Once a week, braceros were taken to a local town to buy groceries and cigarettes or send money back home, but they were not welcomed socially. Despite the considerable amounts of money that Mexicans spent in these communities, they were refused service in many public places of business such as cafes, barbershops, and movie theaters unless the municipality had a segregated "Mexican Town" to accommodate them.
Under the terms of the treaty, braceros were permitted to bring their families with them, and, after they got established, many workers sent for their loved ones. The social conditions faced by immigrant families in the U.S. were appalling -- in the segregated communities of the Southwest, Mexicans were not welcomed by white churches and, in many districts, their children were not allowed to attend public school with white children. In the most bigoted communities, Mexican patients were not admitted to local hospitals.
Notwithstanding the poor treatment that braceros and their families received in the U.S., many of them did not return to Mexico at the end of their contracts -- life as illegal immigrants in the States offered greater economic prospects than returning home.
By the late 1940s, immigration from Mexico was slowing down, but the U.S. war against North Korea in 1950 sparked another labor shortage that was filled by a revival of the Bracero Program in 1951. However, the severe economic recession that followed the Korean War, like the Great Depression, caused a backlash and led to the most reactionary policy that the U.S. has ever instituted against Mexican people in the U.S. -- Operation Wetback.
Mobile Task Force raids began in California in 1953 and moved to Texas in mid-July of 1954. From the Rio Grande Valley, the Task Force headed north to the mid-western states that had sizable Mexican populations. Though Operation Wetback officially targeted only illegal immigrants, many legal residents were caught up in the dragnet and ended up in Mexico just like during the sweeps of the Great Depression. In contrast to the depression-era deportations that dumped the immigrants at the border, during Operation Wetback the INS transported the deportees on busses, trucks, trains, and ships deep into the heart of Mexico in order to make it more difficult for them to return to the U.S. Unauthorized immigrants apprehended in the Midwest were flown to Brownsville and deported from there. Many Mexicans were transported from Port Isabel to Veracruz in crowded and filthy ships. The boatlift, however, was terminated when seven deportees jumped overboard from the Mercurio and drowned. Their tragic deaths provoked a mutiny and lead to a public outcry in Mexico. Deportations dropped off in the fall of 1954 when INS funding ran out.
It is difficult to estimate how many Mexicans were driven from the U.S. by Operation Wetback, but the INS claimed 1,300,000, five times as many immigrants as were displaced during the Great Depression. The San Antonio district of the INS, which included all of Texas outside of El Paso and the Trans-Pecos area, officially reported that it had apprehended more than 80,000 undocumented Mexicans, and officials estimated that an additional 500,000 to 700,000 immigrants in the district fled the country in fear of the Mobile Task Force. The exact toll of Operation Wetback will never be known, but the impact on the Mexican community was destructive. Again, as in the 1930s, families were uprooted and ruined and immigrant communities were destroyed. And again, as during the Great Depression, deportations to Mexico helped defuse the political time bomb of mass unemployment in the U.S. and rescue American capitalism.
The Bracero Treaty was officially repealed 1964 after the widespread abuses of the program were exposed and sparked a political uproar on both sides of the border. However, the exploitation of Mexican labor has continued unabated. Mexican immigrants both legal and illegal continue to toil in the homes, fields, and factories of America. The termination of the bracero program also set the stage for a bold new strategy for the exploitation of Mexican labor -- U.S. capitalism moved production across the border into Mexico.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard D. Vogel.
Richard D. Vogel is a retired teacher who writes about current social and political issues. Other articles by the author are available at monthlyreview.org.
| HOUSTON INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE THE HISPANIC EXPERIENCE SEARCH email@example.com