These are the faces of ex-Braceros (or sometimes their widows who stand for them) who worked in U.S. fields, harvesting crops and providing food for American consumers between the years 1942-1964. They gather every Sunday in Ciudad Juarez to protest because they still have not received the retirement benefits they earned half a century ago.
I focused and clicked away, asking Hope to write down their names alongside descriptions in a notebook: “White cowboy had; red checked western shirt,” I said aloud as I snapped the shutter. “Black Marlboro cap, glasses, green striped shirt.” We’d match the descriptions with the names and the photos later.”from the book, Border Odyssey
Braceros: The Forgotten Farmworkers
Every Sunday morning over 100 elderly ex-Braceros – most of them in their 70s and 80s – gather with their families in the central plaza of Ciudad Juárez to peacefully demand payment of retirement benefits deducted from their pay decades ago. These forgotten farmworkers who once labored on U.S. soil still have not received the funds they earned. Their struggle is largely ignored by national and international media, and over-shadowed by the drug-related violence that dominates the news from Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
From 1942 until 1964 the United States recruited and gave temporary visas to some 5 million Mexican workers who harvested American crops during World War II and beyond. These Mexican workers – known as Braceros (“strong-arms”) – were transported in cattle cars, sprayed for lice, stripped, and showered in groups, and often mistreated physically. They performed backbreaking work to earn much-needed wages to feed their families. When they were done, the U.S. government took mandatory deductions from their wages, promising a retirement fund for the Mexican Braceros when they returned to Mexico.
But decades after the program’s end, both governments have failed to give back all the retirement money earned by ex-Braceros. After protests and lawsuits the U.S.and Mexican governments agreed to hand over some of the funds, up to $3500 per person, if the workers could show pay stubs and other documentation proving they earned the pay. Because of the extraordinary amount of paperwork required to prove eligibility, to date only a small portion of the retirement funds have been distributed. As shown in the photographs, some have identification cards and other documentation, but few have pay stubs – who does after fifty or more years? Meanwhile, the Braceros are aging and dying; neither they nor their widows and dependent children have anything to show for their years of sacrifice. The promises go unfulfilled.
At the invitation of Professor Luis Alfonso Herrera Robles, of the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and Colégio de Chihuahua, Professor Charles Thompson visited the ex-Braceros demonstrating in the downtown plaza in June 2010 and again in October 2011. He took his camera along to document the protest.
A moving event followed. In hopes of bringing more attention to their demands and simply to say that they were present, the men and women lined up (without being asked) to have Thompson take their portraits. The result is a collection of powerful images of workers who sacrificed their time in Mexico to work hard in U.S. fields, with each looking into the camera saying that they now await their just due. The photographs on this website represent only those who were present on the two Sunday mornings Thompson visited the park in Ciudad Juarez. They stand for thousands more ex-Braceros near Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico and the U.S., for those not pictured, those already passed on, and for workers everywhere whose pay has been shortchanged.
This website photo gallery is designed to bring attention to these dignified ex-Braceros and their call for justice. We have distributed copies of many of these photos to the ex-Braceros pictured (or their families) and a photo exhibition is planned at a university or city gallery in Ciudad Juarez.