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Working Images

The Long Goodbye: At the Mexico City train station in 1945, women say farewell to their men as they prepare to leave for the fields of the U.S.

The 25-year odyssey of the braceros

By Geoffrey Dunn

IN THE SUMMER of 1942, Miguel N. Benítez, a Mexican farmworker toiling here in the then-thriving farmlands and orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, wrote to the president of Mexico, General Manuel Avila Camacho, about the "supposed need" of California farmers for imported agricultural labor. He also expressed concern about the impending labor agreement between Mexico and the United States, which would soon come to be known as the Bracero Program.

The California Growers Association, Benítez declared, was simply issuing propaganda aimed at increasing their wartime profits.

Benítez's impassioned plea was of no avail; by the time his letter was received in Mexico City, the agreement had already been put into effect. Although the Bracero Program was supposed to last only until the end of WWII, it would be extended for nearly a quarter-century, until December 1964. Benítez's concerns proved to be prophetic. The formal importation of farm--and railroad--workers forced down wages and created shameful working conditions for the more than five million men and women who would eventually come to the United States under its auspices.

The impact of the Bracero Program on the lives of the enganchados, the "hooked ones," as they were called, was documented across three decades by a quintet of Mexican photographers known as the Hermanos Mayo (the Brothers of May). More than 80 of their fascinating photos have now been brought together in Uprooted: Braceros in the Hermanos Mayo Lens, by John Mraz and Jaime Vélez Storey.

Spanish by birth, the five Hermanos had fought--and photographed--on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Following the defeat of the Republicans by Franco's forces, the Hermanos (a nom de guerre they had assumed to protect themselves from the Fascists) emigrated first to France, where they were forced into concentration camps, and subsequently to the more receptive Mexico, where they were embraced by the liberal government of Lázaro Cárdenas. They quickly found work as photographers for a variety of both mainstream and leftist publications. Their working-class perspective helped to revolutionize Mexican photography.

In a superb introductory essay, Mraz argues that the Hermanos' plight as political refugees made them particularly sympathetic to the tragedy of the braceros. Both, Mraz argues, had to "suffer prejudice and discrimination, as well as adjust themselves to their new country."

In many of the photographs included in the collection, one senses that apparent empathy. Since most of the photographs were taken in and around Mexico City, there is a focus on the painful moment of separation as the braceros are departing for a hostile and foreign land. We see the young men leaning out of their train windows for a final embrace with their mothers, wives and children. The photos remind of us the human texture of this grand migration, the tragic sense of familial loss accompanying this economic dislocation.

And while the braceros are clearly victims of the larger political and economic forces that necessitated their migration, they are not victimized by the Hermanos. Instead, they are treated with a dignity and respect that is often missing from the documentary genre. We are allowed to see them smile and laugh, struggle, organize and demand their rights. Their social texturing is complex.

Indeed in this respect, the Hermanos photographs contrast strikingly with those taken by their counterparts like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans for the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Although the F.S.A. photographs are clearly superior aesthetically (the Hermanos photos, I would argue, are more journalistic than artistic), they lack many of the political dimensions in the Hermanos collection.

For instance, while the Dust Bowl migrants in the F.S.A. photographs are passive, often pulling back from the camera, the braceros are engaged, even aggressive. While the Dust Bowl migrants are individualized and their single family units elevated to the status of myth, the braceros are seen in their larger historical setting, often in large groups.

THE FOCUS of the F.S.A. photographers was emotional despair, but in the case of the Hermanos, it was on institutionalized oppression and on the exploitation of bracero labor. In short, the F.S.A. photographs are infused with liberal and reformist sensibilities; those of the Hermanos Mayo are radical, even revolutionary, in their construction.

In fact, the American photographer whose work the Hermanos' most closely resembles is Lewis Hine, who was famous for his early-20th-century images of immigrant life. As Mraz notes, "Like the photos of Hine, those of the Mayo never forget that wealth and development can never be the sole product of machines. On the contrary, their images focus on the relationship of the worker to her or his context." Indeed, this ability to articulate the dialectic between the machine and the human spirit resulted in some of their more powerful and eloquent photographs.

Occasionally the Hermanos slipped into the one-dimensional and predictable compositions of Soviet agitprop. In photos of solitary workers taken from a low angle with their heads, bodies and tools cast against a cloudless sky, the Hermanos succumbed to shallow and simplistic Marxist stereotypes.

For the most part, however, their photographs provide a significant look into a moment in North American history that reverberates to this day. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Hermanos collection is that it gives faces--and real lives--to a group of men who have been a faceless adjunct to international economic policies and political rhetoric on both sides of the U.S.­Mexican border for far too long.

Uprooted: Braceros in the Hermanos Mayo Lens by John Mraz and Jaime Vélez Storey; Arte Público Press; 141 pages; $39.95 (cloth), $18.95 (paper).

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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