Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Father: Son of a Bracero

Guest blogger: Natali De La Torre, third-year law student, University of San Francisco

According to my father who immigrated legally through the Nogales border in 1962, my grandfather entered the country (through the Bracero program) as a bracero sometime in 1958.  He had previously contemplated moving to the United States with the intention to stay, but was hesitant to do so because of a high risk of unemployment or lack of steady employment. He eventually decided to move over when he felt that through the Bracero program he would be able to find steady employment. After over a year of working in the United States through the program he eventually convinced my grandmother to make the move by telling her that there were no flies in the United States. He successfully petitioned for permission to bring his family over and within a few months, he drove down to Guadalajara, Jalisco, to pick up the family. He drove a four door yellow Rambler that cost two or three hundred dollars and was about four to five years old (he was mechanically inclined so probably bought it with a problem and fixed it). My father, his mother, his older sister, and two younger sisters climbed into the car in Guadalajara and were on their way. My father remembers being sat down at a table at the Nogales border, being given a lollipop by a nurse, that he could not open, being given a shot on his left upper arm, and then having the nurse open the lollipop wrapper for him.

The mark left on his arm by the polio vaccination would later save him from being put into INS custody in a 1974 raid of a motel in the San Ysidro port area adjacent to the Tijuana border, where he had been staying before going to the airport to pick up a friend in Tijuana. During the raid, he was staying in one motel room next to another that had 20 to 30 people who had been smuggled in through the border and were waiting to be moved to another location. The officers knocked on his door and demanded to see his green card. He was not carrying his card at the time (the most he had was a permit to drive issued by Roosevelt high school’s driver’s education program), so the officers sat him down outside on the sidewalk with everyone else and questioned him. A group of officers asked him about documentation and did not believe his claim of lawful status. They called the supervising officer who my dad remembers was really tall (6’4), red headed and had freckles. He asked my dad what he remembered when he crossed the border and my dad answered that he remembered driving through the Nogales border, being given a shot and a candy. The officer then asked to see his left shoulder and believed him when he saw the mark left by the vaccination on his shoulder.   

Later my dad would enter and leave the country numerous times saying he was a citizen when in fact he only had permanent residency. He didn’t know this was considered fraud and if he had been caught, could have had his residency taken away. Luckily, he was never questioned because of his English skills.

My grandfather drove the family up to San Francisco but was jobless. Before leaving for Mexico, he had quit his job thinking that when he came back up with his family he would be able to easily get the job back or find another one. He did not realized that without a reference or favor from a friend, he would not be able to obtain a job due to his lack of authorization to work outside of the Bracero program. He found out when he looked for work in San Francisco. He tried to obtain canning jobs in Santa Clarita unsuccessfully, and the family lived in the Rambler for four days in Santa Clarita. A friend finally helped him find a job working in a restaurant in San Francisco, and later got more field work. Shortly, thereafter, he and his family moved into a trailer within the ranch compounds of one of the fields in Salinas, California.

My grandfather lived in the bracero barracks the first year of being in the country and in the program. My father who was five years old at the time (but would continue to be very familiar with these surroundings until the age of 11) remembers that the barracks housed about 30 to 60 people each, were made out of tin metal, contained about 30 to 40 bunk beds, were about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, and extremely hot. There were showers nearby for everyone to use and there was a communal kitchen you could use to cook in; if you paid a weekly fee you would be able to eat whatever paid cooks would provide in the kitchen. If you paid a separate weekly fee to the foreman, you could live in the better barracks—those that were closer to the restrooms, showers, or dining areas. The residents in two or three of the eight barracks paid the extra weekly fee to the foremen to be able to live in closer proximity to the restrooms and other conveniences.

My father and his siblings were able to work the fields along with their father because my grandfather had made friends with one of the foremen. The foremen were the people hired to manage the braceros in the field, manage the hiring process and serve as the point of contact for all of the braceros on behalf of the employers. When it came time for people to either return to their country or renew their permit to work, many would choose to stay and not go through the renewal process. They would be able to continue finding employment because most of the foremen working under each employer participating in the program would offer them work in exchange for a cut of their paycheck in the form of 2 cents per box of fruit or vegetable picked. Each box would at most earn the worker 12 cents from the employer, with cents deducted by the foremen based on the quality (if the fruit was a little damaged, too ripe, etc.) of the fruit picked. If the worker remained illegally, 2 cents went to the foreman with whom the worker had made arrangements. The tomato boxes were about 18 inches long, 12 inches high and 10 inches wide; the strawberry boxes were 4 to 5 inches high, 10 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches in height. The apples and the apricots were collected in buckets. Each worker who was working illegally might pick 25 boxes a day or about 125 to 150 boxes per week, early 5 to 12 cents per box, depending on the product. Of couse, 2 cents per box went to the foreman under the supervision of the employer (some employers had knowledge of the foremen’s extra earnings obtained through the illegal workers while others did not.) A weekly check for those workers was roughly between 60 to 100 dollars.

Braceros would get up at 4 a,m. and drive to the field that was about 3 miles away.  My dad remembers all of the workers being picked up at the same time by blue and white buses that looked like school buses; the buses hauled portable toilets behind them and big steel containers of water (similar to military style containers) to be taken to the fields. At the fields his father would present his card to the foreman and the foreman would let him have his kids tag along to help pick the fruit. My dad remembers my aunt (his younger sister) taking a transistor radio to listen to while picking fruit. He remembers my aunt listening to a song once, singing along to the phrase “levantate, ya no pidas perdon,” translated to “get up, stop asking for forgiveness,” letting her hand pass by the fruit without picking it and his father throwing a tomato at her saying “la que se necesita levantar eres tu,” translated to “the one who has to get up is you.”  

The presented card was verification that you had been given permission to work on that specific field by the foreman. Once allowed to work on the field, their dad would pick up about ten boxes, and at the end of the day around 3 to 4 p.m., he would present his card with the boxes of picked fruit to the foreman. The foreman would then count and inspect the boxes, write down the number of boxes, essentially approving the total boxes picked that day on the card, and then sign the card.  At the end of the week the foreman would collect the money earned by each bracero from the employer and then distribute each person’s pay in envelopes. Sometimes they would get paid according to the number of boxes verified on the card, sometimes not. Those who were working illegally would accordingly get the amount owed to the foreman taken out of the envelope. Each illegal worker accounted for about 150-200 boxes weekly charged at 2 cents each.  My dad does not know how many out of the 100 to 200 workers working in each field were working illegally.

At one point, my grandfather started stacking the boxes on top of each other and then leaving one of the bottom boxes or mid to top boxes (above eye level) empty after the boxes had been counted by the foremen, leaving the stack at the end of their furrow of fruit in the field. The truck would then come by and pick them up. He would rotate ranches doing this so he never got caught and had quit by the time people started catching on. He would say in Spanish “nos hacen trampa, pues yo les hago trampa,” translated to “they cheat us, we cheat them,” and “ellos nos roban, pues yo les voy a robar,” translated to “they are going to rob us, well I will rob them.”  Some of the foremen were Caucasian while others looked like they were of Mexican descent and knew “bad Spanish (bad quality)” as well as English. He explained that the Mexican foreman were the most abusive to the workers and the most hostile to Mexican migrants and immigrants.  My dad explained that the idea was that “cuando sabes el idioma, puedes abusar de ellos mejor,” translated to “when you know the language, you can abuse them better” because of the initial trust the people would have in those who knew the language and were seemingly of the same race and culture. When someone would speak to you in a language you did not know you would be more alert, defensive and skeptical. When someone would speak to you in Spanish you would naturally drop these defenses.

A substantial portion of dad’s income was eventually made through gambling with the foremen; he always found a way to cheat and not get caught. One of the games my dad remembers was a competition of who could start their car and get the tires running first. He remembers his father fixing the car so that it would silently stay on even after the key would be taken out of the ignition, and installing a switch on the bottom of the gas pedal which would turn on the engine when switched on so that the car would take off once the pedal hit the floor. They would line up about 20 yards away from the cars, have their keys in their pockets and then run to the cars and see who could get the tires running first. He would always win because all he had to do was press the gas pedal. When he would take off in the car he would put the key back into the ignition. My dad helped him put in the switch. Later during my high school years my dad would install kill switches in all of our cars so that all we had to do to prevent our car from being stolen was turn off a hidden switch he had installed in each car.

My grandfather quickly became unsatisfied with the work to be obtained through the program. He realized that there was a need, within the Bracero program population, which he could exploit and turn into a business. In 1963 or 1964 with my dad (age 5 to 11) as assistant and co-partner he turned a 1952 Ford Stepvan he had already bought (probably selling the Rambler in order to purchase the Ford) into a mobile business. From the truck, he sold a variety of products to the bracero demographic located in about 6 different locations surrounding the city in Salinas, California. The targeted population consisted of at least 600 braceros who needed a variety of products which they had no access to from where they were living. To go shopping in the city for products they would have needed to find transportation, pay for transportation and go shopping outside of working hours. He hung his business license on the inside of one of the big side walls of the truck, put a countertop at the end of the truck above where the rear tires were, and take orders from the braceros for products to buy in the city and bring back to each bracero, or sell products already available from the truck.

The most popular products sold were Levi’s 501 jeans for a profit of $1.50 to $2.00 per pair, at about 100 pairs sold per week. He also sold Levi’s jean jackets, belts, belt buckles, white crew cut t-shirts with the little pocket in the front, yellow workmen boots with a little flashlight at the side of the boot, razors, nail clippers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Irish Spring’s soap, Arbolito brand scissors to trim your mustache, Swiss brand knives, pens with a woman in a swimsuit at the end which would turn nude when turned upside down, paper, air stamps, air envelopes, pin up calendars with nude women, towels, a face cream which had three women’s faces on it, hair vaseline to make hair look shiny and under control, cowboy hats (the more Xs on the hat the higher the value), Old Spice’s Aqua Velva Brute cologne, transistor radios which were a little bigger than a cell phone, little TVs, decks of playing cards, dominoes, Timex watches, big suitcases that had light wood on the inside and were covered with sheet metal on the outside with different color ribbons, nine volt batteries for the transistor radios and D size batteries for flashlights, and other products. My dad was responsible for keeping track of all the orders in a notebook, keeping track of all deposits to reserve products, and would drive (age 9 to age 11) back and forth between the six locations and the city when his father was sleeping or drinking from an ice chest of beers in the truck (mostly drinking on good sale days). His dad would stand behind the driver seat and punish him when he would start to veer off the road onto the gravel or when he would grind gears. Every time my dad would switch gears, due to his height, he would have to dip his head down enough to be able to reach his foot down enough to completely depress the clutch. He would not be able to see the road ahead of him for a second and therefore would slightly start veering off onto the gravel. By that time my grandfather began learning some phrases in English. The first phrase he learned in English was “fill it up” which referred to putting gas into the Ford on his trips into the city and back to the braceros located all around the city.

Between1962 to 1968 the family worked the fields but most of the time my grandfather and dad ran the business from the truck all around Salinas, Watsonville, Gilroy and Soledad. My dad remembers that his father was quick to start businesses, get them running and making money but was an unstable individual with an alcoholism problem. As quick as he was to move in and set up shop, he would quickly become dissatisfied and pick up and leave to start yet another business somewhere else. The burden of constantly moving around from place to place every year was borne by my father and his siblings who were never at the same school during their elementary and middle school years for more than a year. Part of this was also due to the need to move based on wherever there was seasonal work in the fields in Salinas, Watsonville, Gilroy and Soledad. This was common among most families that were dependent on seasonal work.

My grandfather worked in San Francisco for a little bit, in 1963 (right after Santa Clarita) in a tortilleria making tortillas and then became their maintenance and repair man probably because he was good at fixing things (the restaurant job that he probably got through the reference). At the same time he also worked at a bar and at a Willworth (equivalent to a Sears) on Market Street washing dishes in the restaurant department. At this time he rented a house in San Francisco that had two big cactus plants in the front and later a house on Noe and 14th street in the Castro area. My grandmother would tell my dad that she liked the fact that a lot of gay individuals (gay couples were not yet seen or open in public) lived in the area because they kept it very clean, nice and colorful (she liked the way they used colors.) They then went back to Watsonville, running the business from the truck again. In 1965 they lived in Santa Cruz; my dad has a medical identification card with a Santa Cruz address on it and he remembers living in Santa Cruz for some time.

In 1966, my grandfather also opened a TV repair shop in Salinas, California on Market street across from a McDonalds. After school my dad would go to the shop and help him repair TVs. Sometimes he would hold a mirror in front of the TV so that his dad could see the screen of the TV as he would be fixing the TV from the back. He remembers that one time he started dozing off and began moving the mirror at a different angle and his dad threw a set of long needle pliers at his leg that cut deep and buried into his thigh; dad also suffered and screwdriver injury later that left a scar. After work at the shop his dad would give him 50 cents to get a meal at McDonalds. He remembers that my grandfather also was a talk radio host comedian at this time in Salinas for one of the Spanish language stations and would talk for an hour (probably the 7 to 8 a.m. slot). My dad would hear him on the radio everywhere he went in Salinas running errands within the Spanish speaking population. At this time his dad was able to buy his first house on Carr Street in Salinas for $8,000.  He converted one of the front rooms into a studio with its separate door, kitchen and restroom and rented the studio out for $35 a month. My dad remembers that his dad would glue the coins to the glass on his counter top in his business truck and wire them up so that people would get shocked when trying to steal the coins (about 1,000 KVs) and then did the same thing at the TV repair shop with a red Swiss army knife (using an electrical condenser which he would charge up). He also liked to attach a dollar to a transparent string and leave the dollar on the sidewalk outside of his shop and have people follow the dollar all the way into his shop.

Through this short excerpt of my dad’s life a few things can be learned about the Bracero program which we can apply to any future guest worker programs that might be implemented. Assuming a guest worker program is a good idea, based on my dad’s experiences, I believe the following should be taken into account:

1)    One of the proposals to the program is that the worker not be forced to be dependent on one employer. This is one of the ways that people believe we can make it easier for them to organize, speak out against abusive practices, and have the freedom to choose which employer to work for in light of the practices the worker encounters while working for the employer (practices that are never transparent to others who are not themselves working for the employer). This possibility coupled with other proposals that the worker be allowed to bring their family into the country eventually (assuming there is a path to permanent residency through the program) means that another issue which must be considered is the availability of schooling for the workers’ children if they do come and live in the country and more importantly a means of ensuring that they do not have to move around from school to school as the worker moves around from location to location based on where there is work available. The fact that some workers will leave the program illegally and seek work elsewhere which includes seasonal work will present the same issue.

Another fact which should be considered is that the employers most likely will form a network. If there is something one of them doesn’t like about one of the workers, this will likely affect the worker’s ability to get employment not just with that one initial employer but all other employers in the same network as well. Therefore, the above proposal of not tying the employee to one employer in order to make it easier for them to organize and stand up against abusive practices may not be enough.  

2)    Another issue will be the need for extensive oversight on the field by people other than the employer and managers. A percentage of the workers will not remain within the program legally and therefore present an opportunity for exploitation by the managers and not just the employers.

3)    A trustworthy process in which workers who leave the program can come back, explain the reasons for leaving the program including any economic abuse encountered with the employers. They must be assured that they will not be deported to ensure that when people leave the program (due to economic abuses or economic promise elsewhere) and stay here illegally they 1) have a chance to come back to the program, and 2) at least we have a chance to have the process documented and looked into.

My dad explained that he’s opposed to any guest worker program simply because he believes that there is no way to have a program that does not exploit workers (even with legal protections in place) if the workers are not citizens or legal permanent residents.

My extremely optimistic perspective is that even though they get paid the same amount of wages that citizens here would get paid, if citizens were willing to take the field jobs, people here would probably organize much better and be able to better the conditions and raise the wages higher than what the federal government and agribusinesses have set the minimum wage at for field jobs.  Even if raising the wage to the level people here would be content with is arguably not sustainable from a business perspective. This is a debate which should take place between citizens and the businesses in the industry.

Arguably, this opportunity is already provided to us in that these businesses are legally obliged to offer these jobs first to citizen workers and lawful permanent residents before offering the jobs to other non-citizens. Furthermore, there really isn’t much we can do to persuade citizens to step in and take the jobs.  I would consider this, however, to only be true in the beginning. From my perspective, at first people will need to be heavily persuaded to work in the fields but eventually someone will come up with a way to make it work which is acceptable, even attractive, to a population which considers farm work as unattractive.

My dad’s controversial opinion which I am in no way considering in this op-ed is that the federal government should make this kind of work a requirement for people who are receiving a substantial amount of federal assistance from welfare programs. His rationale seems to be that tax money should go to directing people to jobs in the industries which need it the most rather than to checks which will be entirely spent barely covering the bills each month and in the end provide no one with the skills or opportunity needed to find a job in an industry which will provide them with some kind of economic mobility. I agree with him in that people should be directed to the industries which need workers the most but I think the best means would be to find a creative way to make the work acceptable and attractive to the demographic which needs these jobs the most (young workers living in agricultural areas) rather than through any kind of welfare reform where people are forced to take a job no one wants. For example, consider mobile applications that have turned house cleaning services into work which young citizen workers and not just non-citizen or undocumented workers find acceptable as a means to make a living during a transition between more desirable jobs. Something similar to this would at least give citizen workers the opportunity to take the jobs and through their citizenship status (ability to organize and vote) be able to transform the jobs into something that works for both the business and the worker while at the same time learn about the industry and have an opportunity to start a business and transform the industry this way as well. My dad is very skeptical of this idea as he believes no one with citizenship status would ever take a farm job. My opinion is that with the right incentives in place, it would be worth a try.  


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