The Bracero programme ran from 1942 until 1964 and saw over four million contracts being issued allowing for Mexican migrant workers to work on North American farmlands, more often than not at wages and working conditions that local workers would deem unacceptable. In early 1942, in fear of a World War Two inspired labour shortfall, the State of California requested Government support by the way of temporary seasonal contracts for Mexican farm workers. Numbers were relatively small during the Wartime period, soon after the war ended however official Bracero workers were soon being outnumbered by illegal, so called “wetback”, workers.
According to Philip Martin in his book Promise Unfulfilled : Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers, 2003, into the 1950’s illegal workers continued to outnumber the Braceros. The weak response of Government suggests that such workers were a illegality they were willing to suffer.
During the period of the Bracero program, North American farmlands became amongst the most productive on earth. In the mid-Fifties, as the Government began the removal of illegal workers, regulations on working and living conditions were relaxed, a trend that would continue until the early Sixties when President Kennedy brought a beginning to an end to the Bracero program.
In 1964 when the program did come to an end to an end, Lee G. Williams, from the U.S. Department of Labor, described it as “organised slavery”.
The impression one is left with of the Bracero is of undignified desperation, workers treated more like cattle than humans. Prospective workers were forced to prove their agricultural work experience by showing calloused hands. Upon acceptance they were sprayed with DDT. It’s all rather bleak.
Pauline R. Kibbe, in her book Latin Americans in Texas, 1948, offers a flavour of how these workers were treated –
“Generally speaking, the Latin American migratory worker going into Texas is regarded as a necessary evil, nothing more or less than an unavoidable adjunct to the harvest season. Judging by the treatment that has been accorded him in that section of the state, one might assume that he is not a human being at all, but a species of farm implement that comes mysteriously and spontaneously into being coincident with the maturing of the cotton, that requires no upkeep or special consideration during the period of its usefulness, needs no protection from the elements, and when the crop has been harvested, vanishes into the limbo of forgotten things – until the next harvest season rolls around.”
The real beauty of this song is…you could write in a short sentence what it’s about (migrant workers in the United States) but it would take far longer to write of what it evokes.
This is a genuine departure – and a real step-forward – in Phil’s songwriting. This isn’t just a song about something, this is a song that becomes that something, a song that is totally immersed in that something; its every line bringing the listener deeper into the experience. This is where Phil the singing-journalist becomes Phil the singing-auteur. It’s a glorious moment and one that is worth taking the time to drink in.
It opens with minor chord dread that continues until a sarcastic shift to the major chord optimism of the refrain –
“Welcome to California, where the friendly farmer will take care of you”.
Phil takes us from the “rippling shadow waters” to “the hungry fields of plenty” – lines full of mixed metaphor and confusion. The third verse sings of brutal reality – of the biting sun and dry of the dust, “while your muscles beg for mercy”. Along the way we get my favourite Phil Ochs lyric – “when the weary night embraces, sleep in shacks that could be cages” – a line of beautiful simplicity, yet ripe with meaning.
If there is any real comment here, and of the old Phil Ochs fire, then it lies in the killer last verse. Here we are told of the economic reality at play here – that the “local men are lazy” and “we’d have to pay them double”, before the final lines, with its unarguable brutal starkness –
“If you feel you’re falling, if you find the pace is killing,
There are others who are willing”.
The repeated “Bracero” after every line of the verses feels like a taunt, a constant reminder to the worker of their place – you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, on and on and on. It brings to mind Woody Guthrie’s ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ where the dead are stripped of their identities and their humanity;
“Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’”
The comparison with Woody in unavoidable but also somewhat misleading. The Bracero program existed long enough to be relevant to both Woody and Phil (if only just in Phil’s case) and as a subject matter it is absolutely what a young rabble-rousing protest singer should be singing about (the evils of capitalism and racism as well as the glorious sweat of labour) and yet there is something about Phil’s approach that transcends such obviousness. Phil sings without anger, not quite fully detached, but he is documenting more than responding. Thematically it maybe be a typical protest song, stylistically however it has more in common with his later Ringing of Revolution or even his even later still When in Rome, with it allusions wrapped up in images of terror and confusion. What Bracero captures is the point at which the rather prosaic simplicity of his early songs morph into something far more interesting, still showcasing his social concern and passion, but before his disappointments would swamp his vision with allegorical excess. Phil’s approach (not dissimilar to In The Heat Of The Summer) allows a song inspired by a specific topic to have wider meaning. Bracero conjures up not only the treatment of Mexican workers in the United States but the plight of ill-treated migrants everywhere. And whilst it is utter nonsense to suggest that a song that has universal meaning is somehow greater than one with a specific meaning, a song that is able to both do justice to the thing that inspired it whilst also being applicable elsewhere is one that has surely succeeded. More than that though, Bracero allows its subjects a moment or two of dignity, something that the Governments of the United States and Mexico failed to do for the twenty years of the programme.