In Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West, historian Erasmo Gamboa shows us just how important Mexican workers were to the U.S. war effort during World War II. While most people associate braceros with farm work, Gamboa reveals a parallel story of Mexican workers being lured to grueling railroad work by major railroad companies and both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
With the majority of the U.S. labor force off fighting the war, Mexican workers were needed to quickly build railroad lines so that key supplies could be transported across the country for shipping to the frontlines. Though the bracero railroad program was sold to these workers as a noble cause—and they were promised suitable housing and fair pay—it quickly became clear that they were being exploited by all sides. If it wasn’t the railroad companies cheating them out of pay or making them live in inhumane conditions, it was the Mexican banks denying them access to the accounts that held their earnings; and of course there were always corrupt government officials on both sides who turned a blind eye to the workers’ complaints.
This particular excerpt details the squalor many braceros railroaders were forced to live in: pest-ridden boxcars in the middle of nowhere often without running water or electricity. The work was grueling and thankless but nonetheless crucial. This Cinco de Mayo, as we sip margaritas and eat endless baskets of chips and salsa, let us also not forget how Mexican workers helped us during one of our nation’s darkest hours, and how their hard work not only aided that war effort but also left us with an infrastructure that enabled our nation to develop as rapidly as it did throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
—Ranjit Arab, Senior Acquisitions Editor
Box cars represented the most degraded type of housing. Originally constructed to haul freight or passengers, but now well beyond their useful life, these wooden cars were converted by the railroads into makeshift living quarters. During the summer, when temperatures reached 90 degrees or more in many areas of the West, the old steel freight cars became unbearably hot. In the winter, when temperatures plummeted, the cars were excruciatingly cold. Being mobile, however, the box cars were practical. Companies could easily move the laborers from work site to work site or situate the cars somewhere as semipermanent quarters. Inside, a single wooden partition often divided the interior to lodge separate groups of workers or two or more nonbracero families per unit.
To enter the box cars, the men had to climb onto iron steps attached to the outside, located about two feet off the ground. When the railroad companies converted the cars to stationary housing, mechanics removed the wheel assemblies so the units rested directly on the ground. The box cars were arranged in groups from two to twelve or more. They offered meager accommodations: a single woodstove per partition, a wooden table, chairs, and bunk beds. Bunkhouses and barracks were a slight improvement over the box cars, so employers designated them for domestic seasonal or permanent track workers. The bunkhouses and barracks generally had electricity, water, and simple plumbing. The upgraded accommodations stopped there, however; these quarters offered rudimentary bunks to sleep and simple stoves to prepare meals. Older units were already severely dilapidated from use by generations of nonbracero workers. Because building materials of all kinds were in short supply, even newly constructed quarters provided braceros little more than shelter with a minimal space to sleep and eat.
Given the poor state of the bracero housing, living accommodations became an immediate operational concern and remained problematic for the duration of the railroad labor program. Despite the work agreement guaranteeing adequate lodging, officials had little interest in the condition of the braceros’ housing and were not compelled to become involved until the braceros brought attention to the issue by refusing to work or by complaining to the Mexican consuls. Prevailing local health regulations regarding housing were almost never enforced at most railroad camps, regardless of the residents’ concerns. The Railroad Retirement Board, charged with ensuring the braceros had suitable housing, had no prior housing standards or system to routinely check if living quarters were indeed adequate. In fact, the officials had not even examined the adequacy of living conditions before the arrival of the braceros. When the RRB finally moved to inspect the living accommodations, it was a reactive response to workers’ complaints when housing conditions were most likely at their worst.
At the camps RRB inspectors encountered a wide range of living conditions. Where the contracted workers joined domestic section crews and close to other railroad worker communities, the inspectors found generally well-maintained and constructed housing. Here employers provided, among other things, stoves, chairs, cots, food storage areas, electric lights, running water, bathing and lavatory facilities. Some companies also supplied tubs, so the men could wash their work clothes. Screened windows and doors kept flies and other insects out of the living spaces and allowed for ventilation. Outside toilets and open ground pits where workers could dispose of the garbage gave these camps a tidy appearance. The well-being of these quarters stemmed from the fact that these were originally constructed for families but were left empty when former railroad workers migrated to better opportunities in other burgeoning war industries. Now vacant, the railroads set aside this constructed housing for the braceros.
Upon arriving to examine the living quarters for braceros in more remote areas, however, the RRB inspectors came up against a very different set of conditions. Out of sight from public view, this housing represented some of the most unpleasant and deplorable conditions faced by the Mexican railroaders. In 1943, Armando Suárez Rodríguez, a spokesperson for several extra gang crews assigned to the Texas & Pacific Railway Company, filed a complaint of racial discrimination over housing with the War Manpower Commission. According to the braceros, the railroad deducted one dollar per week for lodging and beds but did not report the deductions. While the company furnished cotton mattresses to non-Mexican workers, the braceros slept on straw bedding.i In September, just months after the Mexicans arrived, an RRB inspector responded to worker complaints at a Southern Pacific Railroad bracero camp located in the Shasta Division. His report described the degraded state of the site in vivid terms:
Without doubt these quarters are the worse [sic] I have seen anywhere. They are a collection of small shacks, dirty, unsanitary, unsightly, verminous and utterly unfit for human habitation. The employer recently attempted to fumigate them, which was a waste of human effort because there are so many cracks in the walls that fumigation is ineffective. These hovels should be burned and decent quarters provided. It is strongly urged that the employer be required to provide immediate correction for this condition. It is understood the employer plans to abandon these quarters and erect others at another location. This should be done without delay.ii
In addition, bedbug infestations were commonplace throughout the railroad camps even before the braceros’ arrival. The parasite thrived in the crowded environment described by the RRB inspector. The general lack of sanitation and a high worker turnover rate resulted in serious outbreaks of bedbugs. Once the clothing or the bedding of the men was infested, the bugs traveled easily from one camp to another.
Until DDT came into use, simple fixes such as switching to metal beds from wooden cots with cracks and crevices were common. Sprays made by combining arsenic, mercury, and water were also used. Other toxic insecticidal concoctions deemed lethal to bedbugs (such as turpentine, gasoline, kerosene, benzene, and alcohol) did little to suppress infestations but caused human health problems and safety concerns due to the chemicals’ flammability. By the time the braceros arrived, fumigation for bedbugs consisted of burning sulfur or spraying.iii The presence of bedbugs led to the stigma associated with a perceived lack of cleanliness of the Mexican workers. Connecting a lack of hygiene with being a potential carrier of disease served to further denigrate and racially stigmatize the braceros. The discomfort of sleeping in quarters plagued with bedbugs affected braceros’ morale and productivity.
i The complaint by Armando Suárez Rodríguez is cited in this 1943 letter: Robert L. Clark to J. F. McGurk, November 3, 1943, Folder: Mexican Labor 859.4, Box 489, México General Records, RG 84, NARA.
ii Mexican Importation Committee “Region XII,” Series 269, Box 31, Records of the WMC, RG 211, NARA.
iii Michael F. Potter, “The History or Bedbug Management,” Thermal Remediation, Pest Control Technology (August 2008): 3-6.