|English | Español||November 18, 2017 | Issue #40|
Former Braceros and Zapatistas Unite to End the System that Beats Them Down
In Stories of Migration to the US, a History of Slavery
By Bertha Rodríguez Santos
In his meeting with the Braceros, the Zapatista spokesman receives his daily bread.
Photo: D.R. 2006 Sarahy Flores and Roberto Chankin Ortega Pérez
Obviously tired by the weight of their years, the former Braceros, most of them between 60 and 90 years old, began to fill the chairs on the esplanade where Subcomandante Marcos would later make his presentation. The widows of the former Braceros and their children were there as well. Many came from the interior of Tlaxcala, but delegates also attended from the state of Mexico, the Mexico City Federal District, Hidalgo, Querétaro, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero, Aguascalientes, Jalisco and Morelos – the states that form the National Assembly of Braceros.
Experiences full of sacrifice, humiliation and exploitation color the lives of these men who still maintain hope of surviving by cultivating their own lands, running some small business or from the pension of one of their close relatives.
Gerardo Vásquez Herrerías, a native of San Cosme Xalostoc, Tlaxaca, tells of how at age 18 he was forced to enter the Bracero Program. The entire country, recounts the old man, was going through a strong economic crisis. The poverty was palpable everywhere after the unfortunate years following the Mexican Revolution, as Mauricio Ocampo Campos explains in his thesis, “Sociopolitical Organization of the Former Bracero Movement in Tlaxcala.” Meanwhile, the United States faced an even greater economic crisis, as the Second World War had started and the country needed cheap labor to sustain its economy.
The construction of railway lines necessary to transport U.S. products to market and other activities related to the locomotive industry were among of the main labors of the Braceros of that time. The cotton and vegetable fields were also worked by the hands of Mexican peasant farmers.
At age 63, Vásquez Herrerías remembers how hard life was in the field. “In 1965 there was a frost all over the country, there was nothing to eat, no work. There was a lot of need. Before, corn was grown but the work was done with mules or by hand. Our families lived in houses made out of roofing tiles or hay; the floor was dirt. We had no table and we ate on the floor.”
He mentions that he was the sixth of ten children, which made him feel obligated to seek another way to help his family survive.
On this farmer’s hands there are still signs of the tough work he had to do in the cotton fields of Texas and Arizona. He says that many Braceros without experience handling cotton bolls spilled blood all over their hands, cutting themselves on the fibers.
“We suffered greatly,” he says, and adds that the pay most of the workers received was 13 cents for each pound of cotton.
The former Braceros’ testimonies speak of their work in California and Arkansas – “right next to the Mississippi river,” remembers Francisco Flores Muñoz, 75, originally from San Felipe Cuauhtenco – as well as almost every part of the southern U.S.
Nearly all the Braceros knew humiliation since the moment they were pushed into the train cars that brought them to the sites where they would be hired. They all underwent physical evaluations that included a kind of “disinfection” from possible illnesses. “They suffered a very inhuman treatment,” says Felipe Monroy Sandoval, son of a Bracero and an advisor to the delegation from the state of Guerrero.
Monroy claims that the bosses ignored many of the conditions outlined in the contracts. Although these documents established that Mexican workers would receive the same status as U.S. workers, there were no decent living conditions and there was much discrimination. “Many work sites were like concentration camps where the people worked a minimum of 12 hours each day. When they had to, they even made the Braceros work at night.”
The Zapatistas know this story and see themselves reflected in it. Marcos said that the indigenous understand the pain and sacrifice of the men and women who make up the Bracero movement. In their meetings throughout the eight states that the Other Campaign has already toured they have come across “old men who tell us: ‘they treat us like broken furniture, as if we were in their way. We weren’t born old; we worked hard and now they want to push us aside, they want to kill us.’”
“We understand them. The same thing happens to the indigenous and we feel much indignation and rage.”
He said that the former Braceros had to go to work in dangerous conditions, as there was a World War going on. “What if bombs fall in the fields? Who is going to die and who is going to get maimed? The Mexican workers, of course.”
They also endured, added Marcos, the racist mistreatment of the foremen, “because of our color and our language.”
Now the government treats the Braceros “as if they were beggars… they don’t fit in to the government’s thinking. The old are like the Indians: they are only good for making little things and begging in the street.”
He added that the government does not understand because it is up above. If it were below, it would understand pain and dignity. Those that have power say: “I am going to wait until you die, until the indigenous die, until we are sorry for the color that we have, for the language that we speak.”
He called the 38,000 pesos ($3,600 dollars) per person offered by the law that legislators approved five months ago a beggar’s pittance. The law also creates the new “Trust Fund for the Former Braceros Who Lent Their Services in the United States from 1942 to 1966.”
According to the Braceros’ calculations, they have a right to some 180,000 pesos ($17,000) for each contract, including the interest accumulated for all those years. In their opinion this was a financial scam on the part of the banks entrusted to transfer the money.
According to the information provided during the meeting with the Zapatista representative, “the money that they took out of our paychecks was deposited in the Wells Fargo Bank, which made a transfer to the National Bank of Mexico (Banamex); this was then transferred to the Banco de Crédico Agricola, which held on to our money for 36 years until in 1975 they transferred it to the National Rural Bank (Banrural), which no longer exists. This is unjust.”
In a serious tone and sometimes showing great emotion, the peasant farmers expressed their feeling that “the word does not die although silence accompanies our steps. Our children and all those who show solidarity with our just demands will continue this struggle.”
After reading a document with great difficulty, Aureleano Santiago Naranjo, a Mixteco indigenous man from Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, asked Subcomandante Marcos with tears in his eyes to include the Braceros’ demands in the EZLN’s program of struggle.
Several of the former Braceros spoke of how their representatives have appealed to different government officials, from the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s lower house of Congress), to the Executive Branch and the president, to the Supreme Court. In the latter case, last January 17, the ANB presented a lawsuit demanding that various federal bodies – such as the Department of the Interior, the Department of Labor and Social Security, the Department of Foreign Relations and Banrural – produce their accounting on the Braceros’ savings fund’s disappearance. Nevertheless, until now, “they keep passing the buck”; for this reason, the farmers are requesting that the EZLN make the petition, supported by thousands of Mexicans, its own, so that “the fruits of our labor be returned.”
The Zapatistas, as “Delegate Zero” announced, did take up this struggle as their own and will continue their tour across the country to add themselves to the struggles of the Indian peoples, workers, peasant farmers, men, women, youth, children, immigrants, and “other elderly people who also say that it is not right to treat us as though we were garbage.”
“We want to make a national uprising without weapons. With a movement of everyone, so that those from the government leave.” Marcos also spoke of the need to do away with a system that looks down upon us, and of the lie of the political parties that sometimes paint themselves green, white and red; sometimes blue, and sometimes yellow and black.
At the beginning of his speech, Marcos said that for the Zapatistas, the most valuable people are those of greater age. In fact, he clarified the fact that in the EZLN, those that command are the older men and women. “We listen to them with attention because their knowledge is greater. We don’t think that people have more worth because of what they studied, or because they speak well or because they can carry on about some subject. We look simply at one’s heart, one’s word, one’s work.”
During his speech, Marcos received signs of appreciation from several of those present, such as one woman who introduced herself suddenly in order to give him some tlacoyos (corn cakes filled with vegetables) – he really was in the land of the corn tortilla, from which the word Tlaxcala derives in the Nauhatl language – and one woman who presented him with a special festival bread.
Finally, Delegate Zero proposed that the Braceros participate in the great mobilization that all the workers of the country will carry out next May 1 to commemorate international Workers’ Day in Mexico City, “to see if it doesn’t embarrass them to see us together and hear our voice for justice.”
The other proposal is that the Braceros come to see today’s migrant workers in the United States, who will participate in the meetings to be held in the border cities of Tijuana and Juárez in June. The EZLN promised to support this proposal by arranging transport for seven representatives of the former Braceros, so that the Mexicans who live on the other side of the border “know your struggle against injustice and support you.”
After forming the human fences that would allow Sup Marcos to pass through, those present began to chant warnings: “Somos braceros. No somos limosneros.” (“We are Braceros, not beggers.”) “Gobierno, ratero, regresa el dinero.” (“Theiving government, return our money!”)
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism