CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

Cosecha Amarga/Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964

The National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

September 9, 2009-January 3, 2010


Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 is the result of a multi-institution collecting initiative begun by the National Museum of American History in 2005 to document and preserve the experience of braceros, Mexican nationals brought to the United States to work in agriculture fields and railroads as part of the Emergency Farm Labor Program. The exhibit sheds light on a little-known chapter of United States and Mexican history, and offers the occasion for discourse about race, class, and national origin as it relates to labor programs of the past, present, and future. The exhibit also characterizes a refreshing approach to the preservation and stewardship of the American past through public history initiative.

The labor program popularly known as the "Bracero Program"—the word bracero being derived from the Spanish word used in Mexico to mean laborer or farmhand—symbolizes the largest guest-worker program in the history of the United States. In a little more than two decades, 4.6 million short-term labor contracts were issued, bringing 2 million individual Mexican workers into the United States to fill labor shortages. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican braceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times.

Economic depression in Mexico and the prospect of short-term work in the United States encouraged millions of Mexican men to begin the long process of being selected for the program, but the procedure for a work contract placed physical, emotional, and financial burdens on aspiring braceros and their families. Often, applicants had to travel long distances from their villages to reception centers for processing. The men then had to pass a number of bureaucratic hurdles and humiliating medical examinations, waiting weeks, uncertain if they would be selected for a contract. If selected, the braceros would then face further challenges as they journeyed across the border and were met with long work days, labor strife, and poor working conditions. In some cases, workers were so mistreated that they returned empty handed to Mexico. Others managed to find more accommodating circumstances, while still remaining part of the labor program, and send their earnings back home.

In Mexico, the families of the braceros did what they could to adjust to life without their fathers, husbands, and brothers, in a struggle not unlike the wives and families of U.S. soldiers. In this vein, the Bracero Program was portrayed as a unique moment of American unification that crossed race, class, and national borders. Bittersweet Harvest features a variety of posters that tout the value of the Bracero Program as a joint-war effort, including one that reads "Todos luchamos por la victoria/Together we fight for victory."

Upon entering the exhibit, one views 16 somber black and white prints by Leonard Nadel, a photographer who documented the harsh reality of the bracero life in 1956, in hopes of exposing employer violations and improving living conditions. The images depict the braceros at every point of their journey, from their villages in Mexico to their places of work in the United States. A further 170 images are presented through a slideshow running in the exhibit space, portraying moments of music and recreation, meal preparation, and religious services.

The body of the exhibit consists of 15 free-standing banners featuring bilingual labels and photographs that provide a detailed history of the Bracero Program. Vitrines in the center of the exhibit display a bunk bed from a labor camp, articles of clothing worn in the fields, equipment and tools used by braceros, contract and identification paperwork, and objects often purchased by braceros while in the United States, such as a radio or guitar. One powerful component of Bittersweet Harvest is the opportunity for visitors to experience history through the words of former braceros. A bilingual audio station allows visitors to listen or read oral histories associated with the Bracero History Archive. Another station is available where visitors can view period and current newspaper articles about guest-worker programs and leave personal comments, or even sign up to give their own testimonials. Bilingual gallery facilitators are available to lead tours and activities, and the museum offers a series of additional programs in concurrence with the exhibit.

The Bittersweet Harvest began as a small-budget public history project intended to call attention to the nearly-forgotten Bracero Program and provide an opportunity for the Mexican American community to look into its past and its contributions to American history. Overwhelmed with public support, the project grew into a collaboration of institutions dedicated to collecting and sharing Latino history. Although the resulting exhibit is merely one arm of a much larger program, its function is multifaceted; it serves to disseminate the history and context of the Bracero Program, offer firsthand stories and artifacts, and facilitate the collection and circulation of additional oral histories and interviews.

It is this public history methodology that lends agency to those of the bracero community and gives a much needed twist to the way history and preservation are practiced and portrayed. By enabling the bracero community to tell their story with the support of cultural heritage institutions, history is not being separated from its contexts, as it has frequently been done by a well-intended academy of professionalism. The braceros and those involved with the Emergency Farm Labor Program are not passive recipients of what happenstance has put their way, but actors in their own right, taking part in the teaching, documentation, and preservation of their experience.

Following its exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Bittersweet Harvest will travel to Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas.

Emily Burrows
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers