As the Southern California harvest season came to a close in 1946, a young Mexican immigrant named Robert García paid tribute to the young women he had seen in the nearby town of Cucamonga:
Your beautiful women like flowers
are just like the women of my people
they show their love
and deserve respect on the street and at home
His verse, published by a local Spanish-language newspaper, provided readers a rare glimpse into the emotional world of the thousands of imported laborers who had worked in local fields since the first months of World War II. Mexican "braceros" were much talked about but little understood in the United States of the 1940s. They had been celebrated for saving the crops and assuring an Allied victory prior to V-J Day, extolled for their efficiency and commitment to their jobs, and sometimes praised for showing remarkable, “natural” skills as farm laborers. But in the face of such rhetoric Robert García wrote about other matters: love, emotional attachment, and longing. In so doing he opened up a window into the dreams of migrants and immigrants that policymakers then and now have often preferred to keep shuttered.
This week marks an important moment for considering such perspectives. While young Dream activists sit in detention in Arizona for challenging policies that deny them and their family members in Mexico the ability to travel to see one another, elected officials continue to debate policy proposals for overhauling the current immigration system and increasing spending on border enforcement.
Some of these issues date to Robert García’s time. Just over sixty years ago, on August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexican governments signed the international labor agreement, known as the Bracero Program, that would bring him and more than a million others to the U.S. as agricultural workers. It was the expectation of official negotiators that contracted braceros would never be given the chance to put down roots in the United States: The program was designed only for men, and it was meant to allow sons and husbands to leave their kin for a limited number of weeks with the promise that they would return home at the conclusion of the harvest. Braceros were idealized as laborers with strong arms (“brazos” means "arms" in Spanish), and little thought was given to their ambitions. But because participants like García showed more flexibility and more heart than policymakers had anticipated, developing new desires and friendships, and sometimes new permanent homes, in places like Cucamonga, braceros soon reshaped communities in both the United States and Mexico.
In ways that policymakers never anticipated, these migrants fell in and out of love from Arkansas to Zacatecas after 1942, maintaining relationships with family and friends on both sides of the border. Few policymakers recognized these dynamics, insisting instead on understanding workers as little more than game pieces on a North American board, one defined by nation-states and labor demands, and one that government officials could control with real confidence. Blind to love, they saw the Bracero Program as a handy system of ladders and chutes, guaranteeing that contracted men would move from one identifiable square to another, at the appropriate time, and that they would then transition back down the board at the end of the game, sliding home to Mexico once their work contracts ended.
García and his peers were never passive pawns playing this type of game, nor were they guided only by economic calculations or government directives. Like so many others in American history, they often followed their hearts, and some braceros anticipated establishing new families in the United States from the start. A popular Spanish-language song recorded in Los Angeles in 1948 entitled “El Bracero y La Pachuca,” for example, celebrated the dashing, romantic young migrant worker aiming to settle down despite the Bracero Program’s restrictions on their permanent residency in the U.S. In flowery verse, he recited love poems to a young Mexican American woman, his “linda princesa encantada (beautiful enchanted princess),” to no avail.
The history of braceros and other migrants in the United States reminds us that love and romance have clashed with government policies in many civil rights struggles, and that love’s challenge to the legal order has often made our democracy more expansive and responsive. Even when denied permanent residency, valued only as temporary workers and not as citizens in the making, as in the case of imported laborers at midcentury, immigrants formed and reaffirmed loving relationships that were both intensely local – based in workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools – and insistently transnational – with children, siblings, extended family living abroad, across increasingly militarized borders.
Forged over decades, these bonds have certainly changed the United States for the better, creating millions of families of mixed immigration status today, and assuring that churches and most local institutions from coast to coast now include both immigrants and the U.S.-born. These realities have challenged our policymakers, of course. But with so much at stake, the U.S. must legally recognize the ties of love that continue to bind our residents to one another. Immigrants’ courageous efforts to remain connected with their kin, to support and stay faithful to them, should remind us of the core values that we claim to uphold as a nation.
Stephen Pitti is a professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and director of the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program. He is author of the books, "The Devil in Silicon Valley: Race, Mexicans, and Northern California" (2003) and "American Latinos and the Making of the United States." (2012)