Saturday, March 5, 2011

Deborah Cohen's "Braceros"

Deborah Cohen is associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico, and reported the following:
I think that page 99 is representative of the general flavor of the book, which relies heavily on oral histories of former braceros. A bracero, for those unacquainted with the term, is Spanish for a manual worker. The bracero program, really a series of U.S.-Mexico agreements in effect off and on from 1942-1964 which brought Mexican men to do agricultural labor, derives its informal name from this term. I conducted some of the oral histories I use and the remaining ones were done by other researchers.

The book is about the transformations that braceros went through as they struggled to negotiate a screening process and work and living conditions that they were unfamiliar with and often did not understand. The reader should know that in addition to the braceros, there are lots of other actors in this book: large agricultural growers, U.S. and Mexican government officials, foremen, domestic labor organizers, domestic farmworkers, and Catholic priests.

Quoted from pages 98-101:
At reception centers [places were braceros were screened], buses and trains from migratory stations across Mexico converged for the final step in the [screening] process. Before the men, tired and hungry from the long journey, were allowed to eat, they received a small-pox vaccination…Their hands were examined, this time by Mexican and U.S. officials from corresponding health departments. “[The examiners] touched our hands,” said one bracero. “They were the knowledgeable ones, they chose people, they decided who would go and work, and who wouldn’t.” Men who came from the cities, suggested another, “spen[t] several days rubbing their hands with rocks.” When the recruiter saw the calluses, the man continued, he would pass the candidate through. “I fooled the doctors and all.” Another man took chalk and rubbed it on his o0wn soft hands, “until they turned hard,” to convince them he was a peasant.

Those passing muster had their information typed up by young Mexican women sitting behind long tables. After this inspection, men would disrobe, said a former bracero, and a doctor would give each one a physical exam, searching for lice, disease, and physical injuries, along with an x-ray to check for tuberculosis. A doctor, he said, “would make sure that we didn’t suffer from hemorrhoids or any disease”… “The doctor would examine your eyes, your ears,” don Álvaro informed me. “He’d look into your mouth and examine your teach…I remember that he’d especially search for scars—new scars. They didn’t want new scars.” Man after man informed me that officials scrutinized bodies for evidence not of poor work habits but of recent injuries and pain. For U.S. officials, new scars called into question a man’s ability to withstand the backbreaking labor. For the bracero candidate, in contrast, they put at risk the claim that his body was a strong, virile instrument, thus undercutting his claim to manhood.

Men were then deloused with DDT and their clothes washed and disinfected why they showered. “Thousands came every day,” said one bracero. “Once we got there, they’d send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the work, into a big room about sixty feet square. The men would come in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they’d fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-bitten and germ-ridden,” he recounted. “Clearly many had lice,” said another man, but others didn’t. “No one,” he was told, “had lice but because of how we were dressed and what we looked like after traveling so long, the assumed that we had them.” “We were hot and covered with direct when we arrived,” a man remembered. “Often we didn’t have real shoes. We looked like we would have bugs.” “The United States,” don Ávaro stated frankly, “didn’t want any lice, any bugs from Mexico coming into their country.” Migrants conveyed strong sentiment about this point in the journey. The idea of having bugs, of being covered with direct, of not being dressed properly, offers a window onto the men’s experiences at the border. They crossed at a time when parasites signified dirt, disease, and a life without running water. In this forced inspection, they were flagged as potential carriers of disease and, in the process, linked to racialized poverty…

Hopeful braceros, especially those who had come more than once, understood what growers were looking for and tried to act the part. “I had a lot of trouble getting contracted…They found out that I had six years of school. They only wanted dumb people.” “I always wear shabby clothes and sandals, instead of shoes to get contracted,” said another. “After I am selected, I take a shower and change. The growers seem to prefer the dirty, poorly-dressed men…”

These moments of selection reflected more than mere physical intrusion; they were games of strategy. For migrant aspirants, they were casting calls, scenes in which men—bakers, mechanis, waiters, carpenters, construction workers, and agricultural wage laborers—were required to perform backwardness for U.S. officials and growers down to the last detail: no belt, cowboy hat, or shoes; only huaraches (sandals), the quintessential sign of indigeneity. No city slickers, with schooling beyond their life’s station, need apply. Men were reduced to their hands, calluses, and muscles. Those chosen performed this backwardness well, acting like the docile humble Indians that growers sought. Moments of scrutiny and the performances that they demanded from braceros came to stand for the border between Mexico and the United States, a physical line which symbolically mapped the signs of nationality and national difference for which officials screened onto a specifically U.S. gendered class and racial hierarchy. As we will see, these differences screened for at the border, and the hierarchy they supported, would be reproduced…in braceros’ subsequent interactions with growers, foremen, other migrant farmworkers, and U.S. government authorities…Onto these men who came for money and whose physical appearance after the long journey branded them as probably carriers of lice or other vermin, were etched notions of disease, danger, and foreign contagion, all of which was conflated with Mexicanness. The racialized notions were then instantiated and given continued life…within the United States…
Learn more about Braceros at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue