Friday, December 22, 2017

California History Winter 2017: Defiant Braceros

California History WINTER 2017

Mireya Loza, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political
Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 237 pages. $67.80.
Defiant Braceros advances a conversation, if not a charge, of self-definition by many scholars in Chicana/o Studies. Born of a movement of the 1960s and ’70s, academics in this area of study—many with bracero lineage, as has Mireya Loza—committed themselves to the dismantlement of myths that characterized people of Mexican origin as tractable, apolitical, and, in sum, defeated. Some researchers today contend that this epistemological struggle has been waged and completed. This is not the case; typecasts of all sorts run a cycle; so, a new generation of historians, such as Loza, and students, respectively, need to educate as well as be educated of the agency of Mexican-origin communities in the United States prior to and since el movimiento Chicana/o. Today more than ever.

In this regard, Defiant Braceros belongs to an emergent body of literature that scrutinizes the impact of the guest worker Bracero Program upon families and communities in and outside of Mexico in relation to their struggle against forces of oppression. Earlier books, initiated to a great extent by activist-scholar Ernesto Galarza at the start of the second-half of the twentieth century, concentrated on guest worker bilateral agreements between the United States and Mexico since WWII as well as how the agricultural industrial complex manipulated the Bracero Program to economically pit imaginary pond-like braceros against domestic agricultural laborers.

Mireya Loza’s important contribution, however, defines a tradition of bracero subjectivity by way of defiance and deviance. In other words, protean bracero narratives, the author convincingly argues, deviate from as well as defy notions of them as “ideal” (5) tractable, disposable workers. These well contextualized stories also analyze inconsistencies among braceros in relation to their mutable resident status, indigenous-mestizo racial identity, and sexuality as opposed to the normative dutiful father abroad, loyal to Mexico lindo as they labored honorably in the United States. In the exploration of agents secondarily linked to the bracero odyssey, Loza aptly integrates the transnational influence of women as: wives who sought estranged husbands, migrants to border sites such as Mexicali, paramours, granddaughters, and sex workers in both countries. In this regard, the author does not limit this study to the historical as Loza reviews the recent past as multigenerational family members in both nations pursued monetary redemption via the Bracero Justice Movement for ten percent of wages not paid by the Mexican government to superannuated braceros.

In the explication of defiance and deviance, Loza successfully proved the book’s thesis of multiple narratives that defined the lives of Braceros and their communities. Loza’s first example consisted of indigenous immigrants from central Mexico who deviated from the state’s mestizo project of the early twentieth century that advanced a whitening, if not an erasure, of the Indian by ways of cultural and economic assimilation. Hence, Mexican elites viewed the Bracero Program as an opportunity in which to modernize the Mexican Indian—and state—to an ideal mestizo community. In addition to the acquisition of modern technologies, attire reified this catechism. One example consisted of the bracero’s conversion from the use of huaraches (sandals) to boots, or the more complete sartorial style of the urban dandy who relinquished white cotton pantalones de manta (37).

Who was a bracero also depended on the context as the label itself defied official distinction. Before and after World War I, any Mexican national who migrated to work in the United States, largely but not limited to agriculture, were viewed as braceros by employers, detractors, as well as themselves. During World War II, policymakers of the two nations extended the bracero appellation to government sponsored guest workers. Then there were defiant braceros who skipped out of their contracts to chase higher wages, adventure, and freedom; this attained them, along with compatriots who entered the United States without such sanction from the start, the “wetback” slur.

To protect the interests of braceros and domestic agricultural workers in the United States, the Alianza de Braceros Nacionales de México en los Estados Unidos (the Alliance of Bracero Nationals of Mexico in the United States), led by José Lara Jimenez and José Hernández Serrano in Mexico, and Galarza’s National Farm Labor Union partnered for a short-lived period. This endeavor ultimately failed due to its neutralization by the Mexican government. In the process, however, the three and their constituents resented how undocumented immigrants, many apostate braceros, undermined their cause. As a result, defiant ex-braceros who skipped from their contracts, and those who never enjoyed any, found themselves labeled epaldas mojadas (wetbacks) by the Alianza leadership, Galarza, whites, as well as Mexican Americans and long-term Mexican immigrant nationals in el norte. Although Loza touched upon the deviance between Indian braceros vis-a-vis “ideal” mestizo workers, at least in the eyes of the Mexican state, the racist undertone of the “wetback” epithet could have been interrogated further. For example, did Galarza and Mexican American leaders use the wetback smear with the same animus as whites? And how similar or different was the enmity behind the use of this invective by the leadership of the Alianza toward undocumented workers?

The epilogue of Defiant Braceros details the contradictions that undergirded the National Museum of American History’s creation of “a consortium of institutions to preserve the history of bracero communities in Mexico and the United States.” (171) This Bracero History Consortium then embarked upon a Bracero History Project composed of a Bracero History Archive and an exhibition by the museum in Washington, D.C. and others that traveled the nation. The content of the archive and the exhibits did not align, however. For example, the archive evinced the defiant and deviant complexities inherent of the program. Exhibit curators, however, were politically careful to commemorate the ideal tractable bracero as a happy, dutiful father, who honored his guest worker contract then repatriated. The bracero who straddled the immigrant status of the authorized and unauthorized, and partook in actions of deviance and pleasure could not be a part of this official narrative. This would undermine any revival of a similar guest worker program in the future, especially under the administration of President George W. Bush.

Defiant Braceros is thoroughly researched with an even combination of primary source material and secondary literature. From this foundation of oral history interviews, letters, government documents, and seminal books, Loza methodically scrutinizes how braceros and their families coped with forces larger than themselves in a clear and incisive manner. To seamlessly move this trenchant narrative along from one chapter to the other, the author inserts cogent biographies titled Interludes. Loza also pacts each chapter with shrewd analysis. So much so, that many of the topics covered (such as the Bracero Justice Movement, the Alianza-Galarza connection, and others) will surely inspire graduate students and scholars alike to develop monographs based on them.

In closing, upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers will find Defiant Braceros a fount of knowledge on the lives of people previously viewed as agentless players of the past.

Frank Barajas
California History WINTER 2017