Rio Vista Farm in Socorro, Texas is home to the last remaining center that processed braceros – the millions of Mexican laborers who entered the United States from 1942 and 1962. With World War II causing a shortage of field workers, the US welcomed Mexicans to fill the void through the Bracero Program. As Socorro pushes for a preservation project to recover this part of its past, photo agency MPTV uncovered a series of gripping images that further prove why this history cannot be overlooked.
Back in 1957, the Saturday Evening Post assigned photographer Sid Avery to document the experience of these Mexican fieldworkers. In the 60 years since the Post first published them, they have never been reproduced, according to Time. Avery, known for his celebrity portraits, photographed the men on farms, standing shirtless as they’re dusted with DDT, and living in their temporary housing. The accompanying story, written by Fred Eldridge, further explains how 400,000 workers entered the US through the program each year. It centered on Rafael Tamayo, who decided to enter the program, despite the social stigma attached to being a bracero. He saw it as a way to improve his situation. “I came to America, because my family and I are very poor,” he told the Post. “I earn seven pesos [56 American cents] a day.”
The article, however, didn’t sufficiently point out the injustices and exploitation that occurred as a result of the Bracero Program. Employers violated their civil liberties and legal rights of the workers who endured backbreaking work. As a matter of fact, Leonard Nadel set out to document the what really went on in 1956 as proof that their working conditions needed to improve.
The program guaranteed workers a “minimum wage and sanitary housing,” according to Kelly Lytle Hernandez, an associate professor of history and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Employers, who preferred the previously unregulated practices, refused to use the program – leading to Operation Wetback in 1954. In South Texas, farmers blocked and used their weapons against the US Border Patrol trying to remove their unregulated workers. Operation Wetback intended to force these farmers to hire braceros.
When the program came to an end in 1964, farmers struggled to find workers. Meanwhile, undocumented immigration rose. With the working conditions on farms and immigration still important topics for the Latino community today, these photos remain relevant, especially as some propose bringing back a similar model today.
Check out more images on Time.