To ensure that U.S. farmers had sufficient labor, the U.S. State Department and the Mexican Foreign Affairs Department signed a bilateral agreement to create the Bracero Program in August 1942. Preceded by the similar Emergency Farm Labor Program, it aimed to supply landowners with laborers so they could meet increased wartime demand for their crops. Under the terms of the agreement, workers were contracted for a period of no more than ninety days, and they could reenlist in the program each year. The program was administered by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and hiring agents in cities such as Tijuana, Guadalajara, Chihuahua, Monterrey, and Mexico City. The majority of braceros worked in the West—primarily California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico—but Southern cotton and rice farmers in Arkansas and Mississippi also hired farm workers through the program.
Between 1942 and 1964, farmers in the Arkansas Delta were eager to participate in the Bracero Program, which provided a steady supply of inexpensive, temporary laborers. Population in the Arkansas Delta declined dramatically during this period—from 704,608 in 1940 to 620,578 in 1960—when young people entered the military or moved to cities to work in defense industries. As a result, remaining Delta farm workers were left in a more favorable position for negotiating the terms of their services. However, growers petitioned the government for cheap labor, and until the program’s conclusion in 1964, Mexican braceros could be contracted for between thirty and fifty cents an hour in Arkansas, one of the lowest hourly rates in the country.
In 1948, the Mexican government expressed concerns about sending workers to Arkansas and Mississippi, citing those states’ checkered records with regard to racial discrimination. Historian Nan Woodruff has argued that braceros had little recourse for low wages and poor working conditions in the state, since they could be easily deported. The influx of temporary Mexican laborers displaced African-American workers, who were advised to move farther north. The Bracero Program was opposed by H. L. Mitchell and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, but they were unable to prevent its implementation in Arkansas.
The majority of braceros who came to Arkansas were from agricultural regions of northern Mexico. Economic conditions were poor in Mexico following the Mexican Revolution and the economic depression of the 1930s. Policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas’s administration led Mexicans to migrate from farms to urban areas in search of work. Arkansans had previously employed small numbers of Mexican migrant laborers during World War I and again in the 1920s in agriculture and mining, such as in Bauxite (Saline County). The larger-scale Bracero Program was designed to guarantee more protections for Mexican workers, including ninety-day contracts, housing, food, and medical care.
Mexican men who participated in the Bracero Program traveled to border cities, where they presented their credentials, signed labor contracts, and underwent a medical examination. Following the exam, laborers were subjected to “disinfection,” when they were sprayed with the pesticide DDT in the early years of the program. In Arkansas, they lived in barracks, often times converted outbuildings. Most farms employed a crew leader as an intermediary to direct bracero laborers, but few farmers or crew leaders spoke Spanish, and communication was difficult. Esteban Saldaña remembered that the cost of meals in the dining hall, $12 a week, was deducted from his paycheck, and in 1952, he led fellow braceros in a strike to protest this practice. The Mexican workers also demanded a raise of ten cents per hour. In retaliation, his employer terminated his contract and sent him back to Mexico. In order to improve conditions for Mexican laborers, Hector and Genie Zavaleta, working through the National Council of Churches, opened a migrant center in Newport (Jackson County) in 1958. This organization also worked with braceros in Helena (Phillips County), translating and serving as intermediaries with local law enforcement officials and employers.
Socially, Mexican workers had some interaction with Arkansans. On weekends, groups of braceros traveled to nearby towns, where they purchased clothing (particularly in the fall, since many were unprepared for cool weather) and sent money home. The language barrier, coupled with tension resulting from competition for employment, kept braceros from establishing close relationships with local whites and African Americans. Oral histories indicate that Mexican laborers were surprised by the Jim Crow system they encountered in the South.
The Bracero Program grew throughout the 1950s and reached its peak in 1960 when more than 30,000 braceros labored in Arkansas. The program began to dwindle within several years in response to economic factors. As agricultural historians have demonstrated, by the 1960s, technology transformed the growing of cotton from a labor-intensive into a capital-intensive enterprise. Corporate farms had employed most of the braceros, and they were no longer needed. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor raised questions about the program, citing evidence that large growers were hiring Mexicans when the local labor supply was plentiful, artificially lowering wages for farm workers. Once the minimum hourly wage for braceros was raised to sixty cents, demand fell substantially. Following the program’s conclusion in 1964, some former braceros pursued legal means to return with their families to the United States, but most returned to Mexico permanently. By the 1990s, Mexican migrants were increasing in importance as a labor source, but by this time they worked largely in the northwestern and central parts of the state.
For additional information:
Arias, Carla. “Oral History of Hector and Genie Zavaleta.” The Bracero Program, 1942–1964: An Oral History Project. Chandler-Gilbert Community College. https://www.cgc.edu/Library/Bracero/Pages/HectorandGenieZavaleta.aspx (accessed February 7, 2022).
Bracero History Archive. Smithsonian Institution. http://braceroarchive.org/ (accessed February 7, 2022).
Castro, J. Justin. “Mexican Braceros and Arkansas Cotton: Agricultural Labor and Civil Rights in the Post–World War II South.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Spring 2016): 27–46.
Cohen, Deborah. Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Gomez, Rocio. “Braceros in the Arkansas Delta, 1943–1964.” Ozark Historical Review 39 (Spring 2010): 1–18.
Lucas, Marietta Ann. “Bracero Labor in Northeast Arkansas.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly 6 (Summer 1968): 19–25.
Pierce, Michael. “‘Boss Man Tell Us to Get North’: Mexican Labor and Black Migration in Lincoln County, Arkansas, 1948–1955.” In Race, Labor, and Violence in the Delta: Essays to Mark the Centennial of the Elaine Massacre, edited by Michael Pierce and Calvin White. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2022.
Weise, Julie M. “The Bracero Program: Mexican Workers in the Arkansas Delta, 1948–1964.” In Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas: New Perspectives, edited by John A. Kirk. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
———. Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South Since 1910. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Whittington, William. “The Bracero Program in the Arkansas Delta: The Power Held by Planter Elite.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2017. Online at https://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/2484/ (accessed July 6, 2022).
Kristin Dutcher Mann
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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