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. Brothers and sons, however, did serve as braceros, and in some instances they were assigned to work together. 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. 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). 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. Continue reading