Faces of Time: The Braceros of Ciudad Juárez

Charles D. Thompson Jr.

"The United States’s dependence on Mexican labor is not a recent phenomenon or something to belittle."

Across the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas—a city so named because it was the crossing Spaniards used to reach the country north and west of the river—sits its sister city, Ciudad Juárez. Before the Mexican–American War, the river was simply a geographical barrier within Mexico, so both sides were the same town. Today, the sister cities divided by the line are strikingly different. In Ciudad Juárez, poverty and violence have reigned; in El Paso, citizens enjoy one of the safest cities in the United States.

I crossed the Rio Grande in 2010 to show my film, Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos, at the University of Juárez. My professor friend who invited me took me to the Benito Juárez Park on the morning before I left. There, by happenstance, I met with some two hundred ex-Braceros and their kin who had been demonstrating peacefully in the park every Sunday for years. Their cause: to demand receipt of the retirement benefits they had been promised over fifty years ago.

Farmworkers like these have helped the United States feed itself since the 1800s. They fed people when Texas was Mexico. They worked on farms while the United States fought over slavery. And today, Mexican people continue to provide food for us, even while enduring continuing belittlement and clear danger, not only in crossing the border but also while working the fields, particularly in the South.

Forthcoming in our Summer 2017 issue.
Santiago Rico. All photos by Charles D. Thompson Jr.
Farmworkers like these have helped the United States feed itself since the 1800s.

The Braceros were far from the first Mexicans to come to American fields to harvest, and they certainly were not the last. But they have a unique legacy in being the first openly invited ones, coming at a time when we had the courage to acknowledge that our countries are mutually dependent. When I had the good fortune of meeting ex-Braceros on a Sunday morning in Juarez, I was moved to tears.

Gabriel Gonzales Mauricio.

“Who will harvest the crops?”: A Brief History

A century and a half ago, Texas and the adjacent territory from the Rio Grande to Oregon were part of Mexico. The border we now recognize at Texas’s southern edge is there as a result of the United States fighting its first war on foreign soil.

Mexico officially became part of the United States when the Mexican–American War ended in 1848. The fight with Mexico resulted in part from white Texans’ belief in a right to hold slaves, which was by then a crime in Mexico. When Texas became part of the United States, it did so as a slave state, and its admittance helped tip the scales toward Civil War. Texas’s fight to keep enslaved peoples in Mexico thus foreshadowed their fight to keep them in the U.S. South. The Declaration of Causes for secession in 1861 states it clearly:

She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

Despite its tie to the U.S. South, Texas never ceased being culturally part of Mexico. Over time, the state has willingly embraced its Mexican heritage, which is especially evident as its Latino population is now forty percent of the total. Even President George W. Bush, who was born in Connecticut but moved to Texas as child, proudly speaks Spanish. Tex-Mex food and the culture it represents has taken country by storm.

The urgent question for Texas agriculture since the end of slavery has been, Who will harvest the crops?

The urgent question for Texas agriculture since the end of slavery has been, Who will harvest the crops? Then, as now, Mexican citizens, especially those whose ancestors farmed in Texas when it was part of Mexico, automatically came to mind. For generations, after the war moved the line southward into Mexico, the border held no sway when it came to getting the crops in and laborers moved fluidly across the border. Because nowhere else on the planet do two countries with such profoundly disparate economies share a border, friction has resulted. But Texas and other states have long looked to its poor southern neighbor for its farmworkers.

Emilio Gutierrez Sosa.

During World War II, great numbers of black and white sharecroppers and other farm laborers in the South and all over the country were being called to the military. Who could replace them? To those near the border, the answer was obvious, and the old pattern practiced at the border soon became federal policy nationwide. In 1942, an official farm labor agreement between the United States and Mexico known as the Bracero Program provided more than five million guest worker visas that sent workers to farms in Texas, Arkansas, and dozens of other states. These farmworkers helped the Allies win the World War, as the United States provided a majority of the food when European farmland became battlefields. The program was designed to be mutually beneficial, including having the laborers pay into, and later receive payments from, an official retirement fund held in the United States.

Benjamin Castro.

“¡Si se puede!,”: The Sunday Morning Demonstration in Ciudad Juárez

I had no intention of doing portraits. As Professor Poncho Herrera and I walked up to the group of octogenarians demonstrating quietly in Benito Juárez Park in the middle of the city I had only asked in Spanish if I might make some photographs. I meant the general scene—the signs they were holding demanding their retirement benefits, their banners that told the story of the Braceros, maybe a few groupings of those who had worked in the United States some years between 1942 and 1964. I knew it would be an important part of the larger Border Odyssey book project I was in the middle of researching.

Especially since I had arrived with someone they knew and trusted, the people standing around agreed to let me photograph, but to my surprise, instead of going about their regular routine and letting me melt into the background as I intended, over a hundred and fifty people began lining up in front of me, each one wanting his or her picture made individually. I had no time to prepare. Suddenly, they were surrounding me, two or three feet away on all sides.

Francisco Mendoza.

Esperanza Valenzuela.

Vanesa Janet Cardosa Flores

Juana Oliva Gonzales.

The unexpected photo shoot that resulted was a challenge—mottled bright sun and dark shade fell on faces in a park where there were no shelters—but I went to work as best I knew how. I had bought a flash for our trip along the border. I pulled it out, and it fired up, though it had stayed in my bag for over a week untouched. Mounting the flash on my camera, I got close up to each face, often with no way to crop out all the others in the line behind. As much as possible, I asked each person to move forward or back to get all shade or sun on the same face and began. I had no idea if my batteries would last or whether the flash shots were good enough, but this was a project that had chosen me: a gift and a job at the same time.

My wife Hope began writing down the full names of the men and women (usually widows or daughters of ex-Braceros) as I made each portrait. To make sure names matched with photos, I called out and she wrote beside each name each person’s distinguishing characteristics I selected on the fly—white cowboy hat, Marlboro shirt, glasses, mustache, and so on—to help us match them later. I knew we had to work fast because of the camera batteries, and because Poncho said these elders never stayed long. Still, the line seemed to snake all around the park.

I had made dozens of many portraits when, staring carefully into the lens and focusing on the faces of these venerable men and women at a closer range than social norms would have otherwise allowed, it suddenly occurred to me that they might believe that somehow my photographs were going to help them retrieve their benefits. They had waited for decades and no money had ever arrived—and no letter of thanks either. I feared they might think I was the link to the funds they had been needing.

Amado Piñon.
Maida Ramirez Espino.

They had left their homes and families for months on end, and had given some of their best years to work in sometimes humiliating circumstances.

Some twenty years ago, these ex-Braceros of Ciudad Juárez had joined a national movement to bring this injustice to light. They and their advocates had documented how the U.S. government had issued some five million different visas during the program’s twenty-two years, and how tens of millions of unpaid dollars had accumulated in the so-called retirement fund. They had left their homes and families for months on end, and had given some of their best years to work in sometimes humiliating circumstances. They were stripped and sprayed with DDT upon entry, hauled in the back of trucks like livestock, and kept in crowded barracks. But the last of the indignities was the withholding of their just due—purloined retirement benefits deducted from their pay—and neither the United States nor the Mexican government had made this right. While I supported their cause, I knew I had to tell these people I was not taking photographs in any official capacity. Documentation was no guarantee of money.

I asked those waiting in the line closest to me to hold on a minute as I stood up on a park bench nearby. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I began in Spanish, “I am not a representative of the U.S. government.” I went on to explain that I was a professor at a university and that I was visiting as the guest of Professor Robles and so on. But as I explained my reason for being there, I began to realize that I was not an innocent bystander with no responsibilities in this matter. Indeed, I was a representative of the United States. As a citizen, I had a duty to bear witness. The faces were demanding at least that of me. My demeanor changed mid-speech.

I could feel my spine stiffen as I told the Braceros that I would make sure to share their story. I also promised to bring the photographs back if the opportunity presented itself. My voice began to rise and before I knew it, I was saying how I admired each of these elders for their bravery, and I was thanking them for working in the United States and helping us. I sensed that no one had ever said, “thank you.”. When I ended with “¡Si se puede!, the crowd erupted in a cheer. I got down off the bench and went back to making portraits, my job now defined.

The photographs here represent some of those I took that day. Since that first day in 2010, I have been back to the border town of Juárez three more times and representatives of the Ciudad Juárez contingent have been to Duke and UNC as well—accompanying the exhibit “Faces of Time/Rostros del Tiempo.1

Jose Manuel Saldaña.
Roberto Ontivero Vereda.

Eliodoro Maldonado Agosta.

Emilio Garcia Calderón.

Isabel Garcia.

The United States’s dependence on Mexican labor is not a recent phenomenon or something to belittle.

In this time when politicians openly vilify those who have crossed borders to do our hardest work, it has become necessary to stand up and say that the United States’s dependence on Mexican labor is not a recent phenomenon or something to belittle. These Braceros did not come to steal our jobs. They were not rapists and murderers. They were human beings born on one side of a line that we conveniently forget about when we need help. The Braceros harvested cotton in Texas, beets in Idaho, oranges in California, tomatoes in Arkansas, and so on, and their products made it all the way to the fronts in Europe and Asia. These Mexican men responded to Uncle Sam’s call just as millions of others had. This was a patriotic act. They did their work in good faith.

At this writing, according to Professor Robles, the demonstrations have yielded results.  The U.S. government has sent to the Mexican government approximately half of the millions of dollars owed to the Braceros. A few of the men who worked in the program, and sometimes their widows, have miraculously proven their participation (the burden is on them to provide pay stubs and other evidence) and have received some funds. But the vast majority still waits. Even the ones who received some pay continue to come every Sunday. Their goal is to return every week until each is paid—or until death. Leaders prop up a list of the deceased Braceros on the fence at the Benito Juárez statue each week. Like all veterans of World War II, they are dying fast. Even those who worked in the final years of the program are already in their seventies.

In Ciudad Juárez each man or woman who participated in the photography shoot now has a color portrait and a copy of the Faces of Time film. I understand that this is not enough in terms of social justice. But I also understand that saying “thank you” is the least we can do. A “thank you” for hired work is never enough, but it is mandatory that we start there at least.

Irineo Hernandez Zapata.
Herminio de la Cruz Lopez.

Learn More

This essay was first published in the Summer 2017 issue (vol. 23, no. 2).

Charles D. Thompson Jr. is Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and Documentary Studies at Duke University. His latest book is Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S./Mexico Divide (University of Texas, 2015). “Faces of Time” and the Bracero photographs can be found at borderodyssey.com. WUNC Radio interviewed Professor Robles and Don Modesto Zurita in 2015, and the program can be found at wunc.org.

Additional photographs are available online in the Braceros section of Border Odyssey, borderodyssey.com/braceros. “Faces of Time/Rostros del Tiempo” is also the title of a film that is available on the Border Odyssey site.