UPWA Striker with California Bracero Program workers in the background, Imperial County, CA, 1962. Photo by Harvey Richards
In 1958, the California bracero program sponsored by the U.S. government imported temporary contract laborers from Mexico under an agreement created during World War II. The California Bracero Program brought prosperity to growers and poverty to labor. The bracero program employed workers at low wages that helped agribusiness but at the same time depressed the labor market. In1958, over 400,000 braceros worked in the U.S. Resident farm workers and their unions began a campaign to end the California bracero program that was finally successful in 1964. Harvey Richards documented the bracero program as part of his efforts on behalf of the farm workers and their unions. He photographed in Mexican villages along the border and then in the reception centers on the American side. There Mexican bracero workers were stripped of their clothing, given medical exams, and loaded on buses for travel northward to the fields of the central valley of California. Then he followed their buses into the fields and labor camps where they were put to work. For millions of Mexican men and women who went through the California Bracero Program, it was a Harvest of Loneliness, as film maker Gil Gonzales as said. Many suffered separation from their families and villages while enduring the arduous work in the fields. And many simply left the camps and joined the ranks of undocumented workers who were then and still are today a regular component of the labor force for California’s factory farms.
The most active union in the fields at that time was the United Packinghouse Workers (UPWA), AFL-CIO. Harvey Richards’ first film about California agriculture, Factory Farms, was produced with the help of the UPWA and projects the idea that California bracero program supplied captive workers to what was just another type of industrial labor needing organization to improve working conditions and help improve living standards for all workers in the state. The photos in this gallery follow the braceros from the border into the fields, to their dormitories, their dining halls and their religious assemblies. Buy or license these photos.