Tag Archives: united states

The ups and downs of a bittersweet and lonely harvest

Yesterday I made my way down to the Missouri History Museum in order to take in the exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964/Cosecha Amarga Cosecha Dulce: El Programa Bracero 1942-1962 and a special screening of the film Harvest of Loneliness. I’d had the date circled for weeks on my calendar because I was ecstatic that the museum had put together a program about such an important but not-well-known part of American history.

The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that brought millions of Mexican agricultural laborers into the United States in order to do field work for US companies. Initially this meant harvesting sugar beets in California, but eventually it meant just about any backbreaking job that food producers wanted done for as little pay as possible. During World War II, there was also a parallel railroad bracero program that provided Mexican labor for train track maintenance.

Braceros were supposed to receive decent wages, healthcare, and housing. In reality, most got ripped off and were forced to live in squalor and labor under dangerous conditions. Employers essentially had their way with them. They’d pay them whatever they wanted and made them sleep on planks, work in the burning summer temperatures of the US Southwest with no breaks or water, and would dump them back across the border if they got sick or died. In 1959 alone, at the height of the program, almost 450,000 Mexicans were brought to work in United States through the program.

Bittersweet Harvest (on display in St. Louis until July 31) brings together pieces from oral histories from former bracero workers and historic images from the time. The braceros’ experiences are culled from the Bracero History Archive, which is a truly awesome collection of oral histories, artifacts, and resources related to the Bracero Program. However, (*SIGH*) the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum isn’t very good. And my experience with the show even started out on a sour note because I couldn’t find it at first. When I asked an attendant at the information desk where it was, the person didn’t even know what I was talking about until I pointed to a reference to the show on a handbill. “Oh, that. It’s through there…all the way in the back.” And in the back it was. Located in a small gallery that’s connected to a room richly filled with artifacts from the World’s Fair (related to the braceros how?), fifteen banners with short quotes and a couple images each surround the walls of the room. And that’s it. No listening station. No objects. No books. No videos. For a brief moment I even thought to myself, “My goodness, they haven’t finished putting the show up yet.” You see, the exhibit is a traveling show put together with the help of the Smithsonian, and for that reason I was expecting more…much more. Below, for example, is what part of the show looked like when it was at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

But there was one huge saving grace to my day out at the museum…and that was the screening of Harvest of Loneliness. The film was made by Vivian Price and Gilbert Gonzalez and uses a combination of archival footage and recent interviews with former braceros to deftly tell the story of what the program was like—from the worker selection process in Mexico to the effect on Mexican families to the conditions in the field and the reactions of organized labor in the US to the program. The film is not apolitical, however. It clearly makes the argument that the Bracero Program was a lose-lose situation: both Mexican and US workers suffered because of it. It also argues that the Bracero Program institutionalized the exploitation of agriculture workers in the US and the naive expectations of Mexican migrants, which was only made worse by NAFTA—a formula that has led us to our current immigration situation. This point of view was reinforced after the screening by co-director Gonzalez during a Skype-based Q & A (Gonzalez is a Chicano Latino Studies Professor at UC Irvine). The following is the trailer for the film.

There was one disappointing thing about the movie though. Including me, there were only about eight museum patrons there—along with a handful of museum workers. Ugh, St. Louis! Seriously? We can’t even get a couple of dozen people out to see a free movie at the history museum? No wonder they didn’t feel the need to jazz up the exhibit.

Los Isleños in Louisiana

I gave a presentation in Spanish class today about the Isleños community in Saint Bernard Parish, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I told my fellow classmates this morning.

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Los Isleños are the descendants of Canary Islanders (Canarians) who came to the New World in the 18th century. Many settled in parts of the Caribbean and Venezuela, as well as Mississippi and Texas. They were instrumental in founding San Antonio, for example. But between 1778-1783 about 3,000 hardy Canarians (called “Isleños” or “islanders,” as opposed to “Penisulares,” which are people from the Spanish mainland) made the trek to Louisiana in order to build four colonies for the King of Spain in attempt to secure Spanish territory against possible British incursions into the region. The population grew from there and mostly in Saint Bernard Parish. Amazingly, they were able to maintain many of their cultural traditions, as well as their form of the Spanish language, throughout the next couple hundred years.

Perhaps the most important part of Isleños culture is their music. In particular, los Isleños sing songs called “décimas,” which were originally ten-lines long—hence the name. The singers, of course, are called “decimeros.” Décimas are about Canarian and Isleños history, interesting characters in the community, and the day-to-day working life of the people. The most famous decimero of late was Irván Pérez (he passed away in 2008), a fierce protector and promoter of Isleños history and traditions. (You can hear Pérez singing the décima “El trabajo de Welfare” here, and that’s a picture of him below.)
Every March Saint Bernard Parish throws a Los Isleños Festival that attracts visitors from all over, including quite a few musicians and other attendees from the Canary Islands, as well as other Spanish dignitaries…even the King and Queen of Spain if it is a particularly good year. Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, along with other Isleños groups, has done a good job maintaining strong bonds between the community in Louisiana and all the other places in the world touched by immigration from the Canary Islands. Though a bit dated, there is interesting documentary about los Isleños called Mosquitos and High Water: El mosco y el agua alta that you can watch for free here. The following is a trailer for the film, and it starts with Irván Pérez again!
Unfortunately, los Isleños have had a rough time of it over the past half decade. First, Hurricane Katrina ruined large portions of Saint Bernard Parish, and many feared that the population was going to have to effectively flee the area. Then, just as things were beginning to look up, the BP oil disaster last year contaminated much of the traditional fishing and hunting grounds of los Isleños. Historically the community has consisted primarily of trappers and fishermen, and they are particularly well known for the skills in hunting and trapping ducks, muskrats, and mink. With all the environmental destruction of the area, however, a lot of young Isleños have left. So, will the Isleños form of the Spanish language and the cultural traditions of the community live on during this new diaspora?