Long-Lost Photos Reveal Life of Mexican Migrant Workers in 1950s America

World War II affected the U.S. labor market in countless ways, but in the farms of the South and West, the impact was perhaps most visible when harvest time arrived. With American workers off fighting and therefore hard to come by, Mexican farm workers were brought to the U.S. as legal guest workers known as braceros.

Mexican laborers working on a farm in California, 1957.

The program continued after the war ended, as workers continued to cross the border in search of work. That was the world documented in 1957, when the photographer Sid Avery was assigned by the Saturday Evening Post to do a story on the Bracero program.

Now, 60 years later, the photo agency MPTV has uncovered some of those photos, which haven’t been published since the original story.

Mexican laborers show their permission to work papers as they arrive at a recruiting center in California, 1957.

Avery was best known for his work with celebrities, but this assignment sent him in a different direction. The accompanying article, by Fred Eldridge, explained how each year more than 400,000 legal Mexican laborers filled the role of “modern agricultural mercenary” helping make the U.S. farming industry work.

Mexican laborers in line at a reception depot for processing and assignment in California, 1957.

“I came to America,” Rafael Tamayo, the main subject of the story, told The Saturday Evening Post, “because my family and I are very poor. I am a campesino [farm worker]. I earn seven pesos a day.”

At that rate — seven pesos was the equivalent of 56 American cents — Tamayo had decided it was worth the risks and the social stigma to enter the program.

Shelter and beds are provided free for the laborers.

If he wound up with an undesirable contract he would be out his expenses, but a good job could help him move up in the world. The generally rosy view presented by Avery and Eldridge was not a complete picture of the Bracero program.

After the medical examinations, the potential laborers are dusted with DDT.

For example, activists on both sides worried about exploitation of and discrimination against Mexican labor, and the broader effects on the economy of bringing workers from one market to another.

A Mexican farm laborer climbs a ladder under a date palm tree, California, 1957.

But when the program was allowed to expire at the end of 1964, farmers protested that they could not find or afford enough American workers to harvest their crops — and undocumented immigration soared.

Tamayo and his fellow workers take a break for food during their work day on a ranch in California, 1957. Hands from Mexico" - The Saturday Evening Post - August 10, 1957 - volume 230, number 6)1957© 1978 Sid Avery

More recently, as the subject of undocumented immigration from Mexico has continued to make news, some officials on both sides of the border have come together to suggest a return to something like the Bracero Program. “With proper design,” they wrote, “bilateral regulation can bring prosperity shared by both countries, secure workers’ rights in both countries, cripple unlawful activity in both countries, and serve as a model around the world.”

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