#Lookback: The Bracero Program in Wyoming

    A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    Following the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, millions of Americans enlisted in the military or began working in defense industry jobs. Not only was the manufacturing of wartime materials considered “patriotic” and key to winning the war, but these jobs were also higher paying jobs than what the majority of Americans had. With millions of new jobs opening up, the United States had a nationwide labor shortage in many of the key jobs that were previously filled, particularly agricultural jobs.

    In 1942 the Mexican and U.S. governments created the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement which formally established the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program permitted millions of Mexican men to work in the United States in primarily vacant agricultural jobs, eventually to return to Mexico when their contract expired. The agreement between countries also established protocols that would protect Braceros from discrimination and poor wages. Employers were required to provide a minimum wage of thirty cents per hour, housing, and transportation from Mexico to their job, and back when their contract expired. 

    Over thirty states employed Mexican workers through the Bracero Program, including Wyoming. The vast majority of workers across the country were brought in on buses, but several Braceros in Wyoming were rather uniquely brought in on airplanes. Most of the labor worked in Wyoming for Braceros were on sugar beet farms where they were responsible for picking and cleaning the beets. They were typically assigned to acres and for every acre there were typically five braceros. After completion of that acre, the braceros were paid eighty dollars to be split among them, roughly sixteen dollars per person, per acre. Each acre took roughly three days, meaning each Bracero was making around five dollars per day.

    One Bracero worker said that while the work was hard, the hard work was also the most desired as it was the highest paying, and he made much more working the beet fields of Wyoming than picking cotton in other states. 

    Another Bracero worker describes how difficult the work was as a child:

    “In September, we didn’t go to school for we had to do the harvesting. The mornings were cold and wet. It was hot during the day and the nights were cold. The farmer scooped the sugar beets out of the dirt and laid them on top of the ground in straight rows. In the morning you would bundle up in a wool shirt, and wear a cap with ear flaps to keep your ears warm. Your pants and boots would get wet with the morning dew. Your hands got cold. You would straddle the mound of sugar beets with the machete on one hand. The machete had a nail-like hook at the end. With one swing of the machete you drove the hook into the sugar beet, brought the sugar beet up and laid it on your thigh. Your other hand moved over the sugar beet and held it against your thigh. You then swung the machete up, bringing it down close to the green tops, cutting the leafy part off. The next motion you flipped the cut sugar beet between the rows. You repeated this over and over, hour after hour, doing it as fast as you could. By ten o’clock it started to get hot, your back hurt and you took a break. You removed the wool shirt, tugged the ear flaps under your cap and called… for water. You sharpened the machete and got back to work. By the end of the day you are tired. Your back hurt, your arms hurt, everything hurt. All you wanted was to wash up, eat and go to bed. In the evenings you sharpened the machete for the next day.”

    In June 1944, less than two years after the creation of the Bracero Program, Wyoming had 990 workers as part of the Mexico-U.S. agreement, in addition to the thousands of Mexican and Mexican-American workers already in the state. 

    Despite the attempts of the U.S. and Mexican governments to prevent discrimination against Bracero workers, segregation in most states were common. Within years, the Mexican government stopped sending workers to Texas due to discrimination and lynchings along the border. Many employers also refused to treat their workers with the agreed upon conditions. Employers frequently refused to pay for their workers to return back to Mexico, withheld wages, and provided inadequate housing. 

    The Mexican government representatives also heard reports of racial discrimination in Wyoming and informed Governor Lester Hunt that they would also withdraw Braceros from Wyoming like they had done in Texas. Hunt leapt into action and managed to get the cities of Worland and Torrington, two popular destinations for Braceros, to desegregate their stores for Mexicans. Though the Mexican government was appeased and kept the Bracero workers in Wyoming, segregation was still common in many cities throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

    After World War II ended, millions of Americans returned from abroad and wartime industries. The previous labor shortage that had plagued the United States no longer afflicted the country. With additional technological advancements, agricultural labor was no longer an issue, and in 1964 the program concluded after 22 years.

    Author: Kevin Scannell

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    May 19, 9am at the Riverton Museum, “100th Anniversary Yellowstone Hwy Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek

    May 25, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War: A Family Story” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 28, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Lander’s Governor-Lester Hunt: Blackmail & Suicide-70 Years ago” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    June 3, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “The Arapaho Covered Wagon Redux” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    June 4, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Libby Flats: Book Launch and Signing” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

    Mexican workers topping sugar beets, 1943. Image Credits: Library of Congress.

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