Juan R. García
The Bracero Program began in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure but was extended repeatedly until 1964. During that time, more than 4.5 million braceros received contracts to work in the United States, primarily as agricultural laborers. Before the program ended, braceros worked in thirty-eight states in the United States, with the majority contracted by eight states.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent sinking of two Mexican vessels by German submarines, Mexico and the United States entered into a bilateral agreement. In actuality, there were two bilateral agreements, the first extending from 1942 to 1949, and the second, enacted as Public Law 78, starting in 1951 and culminating in 1964. Throughout the program’s existence Mexico strove to ensure favorable conditions under which braceros were to be contracted, especially in light of the strong opposition to the program among a number of sectors in Mexico and the long history of discrimination against people of Mexican descent in the United States. Like Mexico, the United States faced opposition to the contract labor program from both employers and labor unions. Employers were wary of too much government interference in their ability to secure a plentiful and cheap labor supply, while labor unions viewed the program as a threat to organizing efforts and as an obstacle to achieving better working conditions and pay for agricultural workers in the United States. The Bracero Program also deeply affected the braceros themselves in both positive and negative ways. And it had a profound impact on the families of the braceros who left to work in the United States. The program was plagued by a number of issues and problems, primarily resulting from a lack of enforcement and widespread contract violations. Despite the problems associated with the program, both countries touted its benefits, not only to their economy, but to the braceros themselves. The braceros did not passively accept their fate and challenged their treatment in a variety of ways. Although the Bracero Program ended in 1964, its legacy continues to affect US–Mexican relations to this day. Furthermore, former braceros and their descendants have undertaken a movement to demand reimbursement for wages promised them under the requirements of the Bracero Program.
Vicente Lombardo Toledano was born into a prosperous family in 1894 in Teziutlán, Puebla, and died in Mexico City in 1968. His life is a window into the history of the 20th century: the rise and fall of the old regime; the Mexican Revolution and the transformations that the revolution made in society; the intellectual and social reconstruction of the country under new parameters that included the rise of the labor movement to political prominence as well as the intervention of the trade unions in the construction and consolidation of the state; the dispute over the course of the nation in the tumultuous 1930s; and the configuration of the political and ideological left in Mexico. Lombardo Toledano’s life and work illustrate Mexico’s connections with the world during the Second World War and the Cold War.
Lombardo Toledano belonged to the intellectual elite of men and women who considered themselves progressives, Marxists, and socialists; they believed in a bright future for humanity. He viewed himself as the conscious reflection of the unconscious movement of the masses. With unbridled energy and ideological fervor, he founded unions, parties, and newspapers. During the course of his life, he adhered to various beliefs, from Christianity to Marxism, raising dialectical materialism to the level of a theory of knowledge of absolute proportions in the same fashion that he previously did with idealism. In life, he aroused feelings of love and hate; he was the object of royal welcomes and the target of several attacks; national and international espionage agencies did not let him out of their sight. He was detained in and expelled from several countries and prevented from visiting others. Those who knew him still evoke his incendiary oratorical style, which others remember as soporific. His admirers praise him as the helmsman of Mexican and Latin American workers; others scorn the means he used to achieve his goals as opportunist.
Lombardo Toledano believed that the Soviet Union had achieved a future that Mexico could not aspire to imitate. Mexico was a semifeudal and semicolonial country, hindered by imperialism in its economic development and the creation of a national bourgeoisie, without which it could not pass on to the next stage in the evolution of mankind and without which the working class and peasantry were doomed to underdevelopment. In his interpretation of history, the autonomy of the subordinate classes did not enter into the picture; rather it was the intellectual elites allied with the state who had the task of instilling class consciousness in them. No matter how prominent a personality he was in his time, today few remember the maestro Vicente Lombardo Toledano, despite the many streets and schools named after him. However, the story of his life reveals the vivid and contradictory history of the 20th century, with traces that remain in contemporary Mexico.