Once they arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the braceros were on call for employment on a daily basis, including Sundays, and were subject to transfer at a moment's notice to fill labor shortages elsewhere. Employment was limited primarily to agriculture and to jobs demanding hard labor.
Most braceros were young, hardly more than teenagers, and were often away from their homes and families for the first time. Many experienced some level of culture shock as they adjusted to life in the Northwest.
Most of the Mexicans lived in temporary camps, which consisted of one-room wood dormitories or tents. At the center of the camps were toilet, laundry, bathing, kitchen and mess hall facilities. In addition, a health clinic was provided with a ward for workers who contracted communicable diseases. Most camps were staffed with a manager, clerk, maintenance man and nurse.
The physical design of the mobile/temporary camps allowed them to be set up each season on unoccupied land at strategic agricultural sites, then later dismantled and stored during the winter. Not only were the camps mobile, they were also flexible in size so that anywhere from 100 to 800 men could be accommodated at any one time.
Life in the labor camps was Spartan. Often situated in remote and stark locations, the camps were adequate but hardly comfortable. The tents were furnished with cots and wood-burning space heaters. Since the workers had brought very little with them, a blanket from home or pictures of loved ones might provide the only personal touches in the bare quarters.
During the summer, the men were sometimes driven from the tents by 100-degree temperatures. In the winter, the fabric structures offered little protection from the inclement northwestern weather. Stoves, if provided, were ineffective because the loose sides of the tent allowed heat to escape quite easily. Moreover, the frequent lack of adequate supplies of kerosene, coal or dry wood meant that the stoves were often useless. Sometimes the men would pile up their blankets and sleep together underneath them, often wearing every piece of clothing at their disposal. Workers commonly used cardboard to insulate their flimsy structures. The combination of kerosene, old stoves and highly flammable tents caused occasional tent fires.
Social changes accompanied the altered living conditions. When the workers first arrived, their attire was decidedly Mexican. Before long, however, broad sombreros, guaraches and hemp bags were replaced by a variety of American hat styles and shoes.
There were few, if any, organized social activities in the camps. The unavailability of transportation save for work assignments tended to isolate the men. On their days off, they did laundry, played games or gambled. Only mail provided direct news from home. Often, however, the mail was one step or more behind the constantly moving work force.
Sporting equipment was not provided to the bracero camps, although it was available to non-Mexican camps under the Lanham Act (1940). Left to their own resources, the men found ways to pass the time by fashioning rings out of scraps of pipe or building suitcases and simple furniture out of crates and plywood ends. In some camps, the workers pooled their resources and purchased radios. Since there was no Spanish-language broadcasting, the braceros understood few words.
The braceros' principal complaint was about the food. Under the terms of the worker agreement, each bracero was entitled to receive adequate food at cost in camp facilities. This was not always possible, however, due to food shortages, administrative loopholes or indifference. Procurement and preparation of food that would fit the taste and diet of the foreign workers was a basic problem. The men had a strong dislike for white bread and lunchmeats, but the cooks served such sandwiches because they were easy to prepare. Many braceros, even after spending some time in the United States, could not acquire a taste for non-Mexican dishes such as roast beef. Sometimes, the braceros left corned beef untouched because they thought it was uncooked horsemeat. In one instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Service workers reported that "in place of having a meat sandwich, a jelly sandwich, and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch," the workers "preferred to have a bean sandwich, and instead of having beef stew and other American goods, they wanted tortillas."
Food services were a serious problem, but more critical was the braceros' exposure to toxic fumigants in the camps. During the summer, the tents provided little protection from insects, rodents and snakes that infested the camps. The outdoor privies and open garbage pits and the common practice of disposing of wastewater above ground served to attract these pests even more. To combat the nuisance and disease carried by these unwanted intruders, the camps had to be flooded with highly poisonous hydrocyanic acid. The fumigant was effective but not without posing a risk to the workers when they re-entered the camp. Less toxic DDT mixed with kerosene was also sprayed at two-week intervals in the camps to combat fly infestations. Workers were doubtless exposed to these noxious fumigants.
As laborers under contract, the braceros served as emergency workers who could be deployed rapidly to crop operations in distressed areas. The Extension Service was quick to recognize the intrinsic value of the bracero work force in a low-paying job market and reserved the Mexicans for the "heavy" and worst-paid tasks. This meant that the bulk of the imported work force was employed primarily in the production and harvesting of crops requiring large amounts of hard stoop work. In the farmers' eyes, the braceros were a welcome blessing because, even during the years of labor surpluses, local workers tended to shun stoop labor. The contracted workers were ideal, declared a representative of the growers, because "the cutting of weeds is done with [short] hoes and the Mexicans are declared to be adept to that class of work." Other farmers were of the opinion that "whites" did not make good sugar beet thinners because it was "back breaking work for taller persons, and those of shorter stature work best."
The agricultural jobs completed by the braceros were the first links in the robust war food production chain. As such, the Mexican workers made a vital and measurable contribution to the total war effort. In Oregon, workers thinned 25 percent and harvested 40 percent of the sugar beets, thinned 50 percent and picked 10 percent of the apples, and thinned 60 percent and picked 30 percent of the pear crop. They also harvested 25 percent of the asparagus, 20 percent of the onion crop, 60 percent of all cucumbers and 60 percent of the peas, as well as gathered record-setting potato harvests in Klamath County.
Excerpted from Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwest, 1943-1947 by Erasmo Gamboa
© 2013 Oregon Public Broadcasting.