Excerpt: Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West

This National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), we wanted to share a selection from Erasmo Gamboa’s book Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West, for a close-up look at the contributions of Hispanic and Latina/o Americans to the United States. The bracero program is better known for its contributions to agriculture, but there was another industry that benefited from bracero labor—the railroad. Over three hundred thousand Mexican laborers did unskilled “pick and shovel” work in isolated places to maintain the railroad tracks during World War II. While the men, who came to the United States as braceros, dealt with onerous regulations, indifferent or racist supervisors, unsuitable living conditions, and an unfamiliar culture and environment, the women they left behind also had their share of struggles. These women—wives, mothers, and sisters—had to navigate bureaucracies in the railroad companies and in both the Mexican and U.S. governments to advocate for themselves and the braceros.

Most historians have overlooked the manner in which women in México acted on behalf of their loved ones working temporarily in the United States. Unlike the case of Bahamian and Newfoundlander women and children who were permitted to accompany contracted workers to the U.S., the War Manpower Commission (WMC) never considered allowing Mexican spouses or female members to accompany the braceros.[1] Brothers and sons, however, did serve as braceros, and in some instances they were assigned to work together.[2] The role of women in México in support of the braceros and the war deserves to be highlighted.

From the start of the bracero railroad program in México City, the WMC made note of the scores of women eagerly volunteering with the hope of joining the labor force soon leaving for the United States.[3] They were not attempting to take advantage of the opportunity for employment, as that opportunity rested with men, but they stepped forward wanting to do their part in the war effort. This level of gender consciousness prevailed in México stretching back before the Revolution of 1910, the Cristero Wars, and through the Great Depression of the 1930s. During the Depression, women organized the Frente Único Pro Derechos de la Mujer to represent the economic and political concerns of working-, middle-, and upper-class women in México. With the outbreak of World War II, the Frente Único Pro Derechos de la Mujer became the Coordinating Committee of Women in Defense of the Fatherland (Comité Coordinador Femenino para la Defensa de la Patria).[4] The role of women in national defense stretched far beyond this one organization. The Central Committee for the Civil Defense of México City and the Defense League of Women organized women to come to the defense of the city during the war. Nurses volunteered to act as first responders in case of Japanese or German attacks, while other women trained to enforce emergency blackouts, manning search lights in case of aerial attacks. Women, as they did in the United States during the way, prepared to respond to any wartime emergency and do their part in the overall national war effort.[5]

The national campaign to send braceros to the United States had tremendous implications for Mexican women. Theoretically, women were eligible for the bracero program but the WMC for various reasons considered their presence in the U.S. an insurmountable obstacle. Women could accompany their men north at government expense if their name appeared in the worker’s contract, but during the life of the transnational bracero labor program, no women boarded a train carrying braceros to the United States. The fascinating interplay between the women left behind in México and the braceros in the U.S. reveals much about the Mexican spirit of womanhood. In early 1944, María Asunción Juárez’s husband, intending to land a bracero contract, left her and their children behind in Valle de Salamanca, Guanajuato. He met all the qualifications and was assigned by the WMC to work as a railroader in Washington State. In the beginning all went well for him but in July and nearing the end of the contract period doctors hospitalized him in Vancouver after he suffered a serious foot fracture. Five months later, María Asunción’s husband remained in the hospital unable to work. This situation caused great hardship for the Juárez family in Valle de Salamanca. In letters from her husband, María Asunción learned that the foot would not heal until March, eight months after the accident.

As the New Year began in 1945, María Asunción took action by writing to Mexican president Manuel Ávila Camacho. Her letter described her husband’s situation, but it also stressed her own misfortune, grief, and suffering. María Asunción made a simple request to the president: she begged for his empathy and to arrange for her to travel to Ciudad Juárez. Once there, she planned to cross into Texas and contact the Mexican consul. In closing, she asserts her claim: “I believe I have the right to reach my husband wherever he is.” With the assistance of the consul, María Asunción intended to proceed north to Vancouver to reach her husband. The historical record establishes that the president received the letter, but any response to the request is unknown. The president’s response notwithstanding, María Asunción’s letter demonstrated that women, although left at home, considered themselves very much an integral part of the international labor program.[6]

María Asunción joined many other women seeking information about their husbands, sons, and brothers. Most of the letters from individuals in México to the U.S. railroad companies typically came from women and relatives inquiring about the whereabouts of a particular bracero after losing contact, doing everything possible to trace the location and learn about the well-being of their loved ones. Consuelo Méndez de Ávila had not heard from her husband Jesús Enrique Ávila for some time, but she knew the WMC had assigned him to the Northern Pacific Railway. She wrote to the company in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and located him in 1944 after months of trying. Similarly, Justina Bárcenas de Pérez wrote to Northern Pacific from San Luis Potosí on October 1944, seeking information regarding her husband, Margarito Pérez. [7] Often letters from the family described the poignant anguish felt by the women. Esperanza Fernández Bautista expressed her emotional state in a letter addressed, “To Whom It May Concern.” The last communication from her husband, Fausto Fernández Ramirez, had come from Tacoma, Washington, but she had not heard from him in some time. Esperanza’s inquiry was simple and direct: “Is he sick or been in an accident.”[8] For similar reasons, Esperanza Hernández de Alfaro, living in Zamora, Michoacán, wrote and finally located her husband Francisco Alfaro Ramírez, an SPS employee working in Portland, Oregon.[9]

The women lost track of their husbands for several reasons. As the WMC explained when a company contracted a bracero, the railroad worker could be placed and reassigned anywhere along the vast network of track lines. That meant that a bracero with the Northern Pacific, for instance, could be working at any time anywhere from Minnesota to Washington State. Also, men in rural areas and away from lines of communication—even when they knew how to write—had little access to postal or other common communication services. Sometimes a man enlisted for the initial six-month period, then opted to renew for a second or third contract without returning home.


Notes:

[1] Henderson, “Foreign Labor in the United States” 5, 13.

[2] “Historical Data in Connection with Employment of Mexican National Laborers Imported from Mexico,” 45.

[3] Robert L. Clark to J.F. Mc Gurk, January 6, 1944, Decimal File 1940-44, Box 3884, General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, NARA.

[4] After the war the women’s organization became the Bloque Nacional de Mujeres; see Alan Hynds, Women in Mexico: A Past Unveiled (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 100-3.

[5] A summary of war preparedness, including the participation of women in defense of México City, is found in: María Cristina Sánchez Fernández Mejorada, “El Distrito Federal Frente a la Segunda Guerra Mundial: Medidas e implicaciones,” Relaciones, Estudios de historia y sociedad 22, no. 86 (Spring 2001): 249-92.

[6] María Asunción Juárez to Manuel Ávila Camacho, January 28, 1946, 546.6/120, Camacho Manuel Ávila (187), AGN.

[7] Churchill Murray to Luis Fernando del Campo, October 23, 1944, Folder: Daily File Oct 1944, Records of Bureau of Placement Records of Foreign Labor Section, Box 2, Records of WMC, RG 211, NARA.

[8] Esperanza Fernández Bautista to Whom It May Concern, November 20, 1945, Folder, NPR, Entry 196, Box 6, Records of the WMC, RG 211, NARA.

[9] Churchill Murray to Luis Fernando del Campo, October 23, 1944, Folder: Daily File Oct 1944, Records of Bureau of Placement Records of Foreign Labor Section, Box 2, Records of WMC, RG 211, NARA.


Erasmo Gamboa is professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington. He is also the author of Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947.

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