The Other Soldiers
Little-remembered treaty sent 300,000 sons of Mexico to the United States during WWII; their weapons were their labor-hardy bodies
By Violeta Dominguez
The battlefield wasn’t the only place where Mexicans lent their services during World War II.
In spite of the fact that few remember, the North American home front counted on the help of nearly 300,000 servicemen known as “soldiers of the furrows and the railroad,” as well as, simply, laborers, or, in Spanish, braceros.
The U.S. and Mexican governments signed an agreement on July 23, 1942, that allowed the U.S. to temporarily employ Mexican workers to man the agricultural industry and help maintain the railroads.
The first workers to be hired for the “Mexico-United States Borrowed Workmanship Program,” better known as the “Labor Wroker Program,” arrived in Stockton, Calif., on Sept. 29, 1942. Hopeful in knowing they’d be paid in U.S. dollars, in addition to being able to explore a new country while helping the fight for democracy, thousands of Mexicans, mostly youth, went to the recruitment centers.
They had to overcome their fear of being drafted as soldiers: In the beginning, “people didn’t want to go,” recalled former laborer J. Pablo Miramontes, “because they were afraid of the war.”
Rumors the laborers would be sent to the battlefield were widespread. For example, J. Concepción Trejo remembered people remarking: “You’re not coming back,” resulting in many abandoning the train before crossing the border.
Regardless, many ventured to work in a country they knew little about, other than what they’d seen in movies and heard from others. For the most part, those hired to work as laborers had never traveled outside their birthplace, like Miramontes, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, who’d never even been to the capital of his state and who was sent to work as a laborer in Wisconsin.
The working conditions for the laborers varied, but generally they’d work eight to 10 hours a day and had weekends off. Their quality of life was just as uncertain; some lived comfortably in apartments or small houses near work sites, while others lived in barracks or camps said to have been poorly adapted to accommodate Mexican workers.
California, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Michigan and Arizona were some of the states that hired a large number of laborers. The Mexican government prohibited the employment of laborers in Texas during wartime because of incidences of discrimination. In spite of efforts by the government to protect against such acts, Mexican workers weren’t exempt from racist treatment. Such was the case with Mariano Chores in Minnesota, for example, who says he was thrown out of a bar and cantina because he was Mexican.
To the laborers, these discriminatory attitudes contradicted the heroic role they played in the war effort.
“Even though we were not sent to war … we were working for those who were sent off,” former laborer Genaro Cortes said.
Or, as former worker Juan Saldaña put it, “We weren’t workers, we were soldiers.”
The following is a sample of testimonies by a few of the Mexicans who took part in the Labor Worker Program between 1942 and 1946:
Mariano Chores was born in Santa Clara Coatitla, Mexico; at 24, married and with two children, he decided to work as a laborer. Chores’ impulsive spirit led him to want to know more about the U.S. In 1943, he arrived at a ranch in Oslo, Minn., where he worked picking beets. Upon completion of the job, he renewed his contract and was sent to Arizona, where he harvested asparagus, broccoli, potatoes and carrots for packaging. During that time, he subscribed to La Opinión, a newspaper that kept him abreast of the latest developments in the war. Chores recalls discrimination often impeding North Americans from realizing how important a role the laborers played during WWII.
“We were soldiers of agriculture and the railroads … but we were never recognized as such,” he said.
Discouraged by the discrimination he encountered, and by a strong desire to be reunited with his family, he says he returned to Mexico in 1946.
Mr. Chores was interviewed in Santa Clara Coatitla, in Mexico’s Federal District, on January 10, 2002, by Violeta Dominguez.
In 1943, Máximo Perez Butanda was living in Mexico City when he decided to go to the laborers recruiting center. A shoemaker by trade, Butanda received a contract that allowed him to work near Indio, Calif. There, he says he harvested beets and worked in a nut-packaging plant.
On his time off, Butanda and some of his co-workers would visit Los Angeles. Returning from one of his excursions to L.A., he recalls being involved in an automobile accident that fractured his hand, leaving him hospitalized for nearly three months.
Despite his misfortune, Butanda remembers the time he spent in the U.S. fondly.
"We were hired as laborers," he said. "But our title was ‘Soldier.’"
Butanda says he and his co-workers were always treated kindly and were never subject to discrimination.
After spending nine months in California, he returned to Mexico and sought treatment of the hand that continued to ail him.
He married María Veloz-Granadas in January of 1939; they had two children: María Louisa and Antoio.
Mr. Butanda was interviewed in Mexico City’s Iztapalapa on March 29, 2001, by Violeta Domínguez.
For J. Pablo Miramontes, his train ride to Wisconsin in 1944 was a great adventure.
"I had never left the small town," Miramontes explained.
Based on the comments he heard from others, he imagined the U.S. as "a large city without any fields."
He remembers that others in his small town weren't as excited at the notion of becoming a laborer.
"They practically begged because people didn't want to leave," he said.
Miramontes says he wasn't afraid, and as a result, was hired to work 11 months as an apprentice on the railroad for Chicago, Milwaukee and Pacific Company.
During that time, he had the opportunity to visit Chicago with some of his co-workers, and remembers his surprise when first seeing the metropolis, particularly, the trains full of soldiers he’d continuously see go by.
At the end of the war, Miramontes says he finalized his contract and returned to Momax, Mexico, where he eventually married.
Mr. Miramontes was interviewed in Mexico City, on March 13, 2001, by Violeta Domínguez.
At 21, Aurelio Torres Martinez, of Pénjamo, Guanajuato, decided the best way to financially support his family would be to secure a contract as a laborer. So, in spite of his young age, Torres Martinez departed for the U.S. to work in Sydney, Mont., on a farm/ranch that harvested beets. Subsequently, he was transferred to Minnesota, where he harvested corn and peas for packaging. After a stint in Colorado and Iowa, he returned to Mexico in 1943, where he accepted a railroad apprenticeship for Southern Pacific in Caliente, Bealville and Tahachapi, Calif. Torres Martinez’s performance on the job led to a promotion as a steward’s assistant. He fondly remembers the time he spent as a laborer, except for one unfortunate incident in Colorado, when he says a friend of his was subjected to racist treatment at a restaurant when he was denied service. He recalls being angered because, after all, “we were soldiers of the war in agriculture.”
Torres Martinez says he returned to Mexico at the end of the war, motivated by a strong desire to be with his family.
Mr. Torres Martinez was interviewed in Mexico City on March 24, 2001, by Violeta Dominguez.
Born in Tlapa, Guerrero, Nahum Mosso remembers the months he spent as a laborer as a happy time in his life.
Mosso was working for Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs when he obtained his contract for being a laborer, leading him to the U.S. work camps of a railroad company.
When he arrived on Christmas in 1943 in Portland, Maine, he recalls being greeted with festivities. The living quarters were stocked with all of the necessities, and he says he never endured any form of discrimination. In fact, he says he forged friendships with some of the North Americans who lived near the work camps.
The time he spent in the U.S. was "an adventure." And for that, he says he thoroughly enjoyed his 18 months as a laborer.
Mr. Mosso was interviewed in Mexico City’s Izatapalapa on March 22, 2001, by Violeta Domínguez.
Although originally from Queretaro, Queretaro, J. Concepción Trejo Dominguez was living in Mexico City when he decided in 1943 to go to a recruitment office, where he was given a contract to work as a railroad apprentice and stationed in Lovelock, Nev. In Lovelock, aside from working on the railroad, Trejo Dominguez labored Sundays at a nearby potato-packing plant. At the end of his contract, he returned to Mexico, which led him to another job in California, close to Eureka and Oakland. There, he recalls suffering an accident on the job, which left him hospitalized for three months; after his release, he renewed his contract and headed to Arizona. There, he participated in post-war festivities, and then returned to Mexico. He recalls his work as a laborer with pride.
“We signified a great thing for the United States, because, in some way, we helped reach victory,” Trejo Dominguez said.
Mr. Trejo Dominguez was interviewed in Coyoacan, Mexico, on March 20, 2001, by Violeta Dominguez.
In 1944, Alfonso Lara was living in Mexico City with his wife and two children, when he and his brother-in-law decided to work as laborers.
Earning a salary in dollars was merely one of the reasons they chose to go to the recruitment office, as Lara says they were also interested in visiting the U.S.
Lara became a railroad worker for Santa Fe, Topeka & Atchinson Railroad in the Hinkley and Hodge, Calif., areas.
He recalls him and other laborers being aware of the importance of their work during the war effort.
"We were the soldiers of production," Lara said. "We were there to replace those who had been sent to the war."
After having worked six months and to the end of his contract, Lara says he chose to return to Mexico to care for his ailing son.
Mr. Lara was interviewed in Mexico City, Mexico, on March 13, 2001, by Violeta Domínguez.
After hearing others talk about working in the U.S., particularly, about the profits gained, Juan Saldaña decided the best way to financially support his family would be to obtain a contract as a laborer. Intent on saving enough money to allow him to better the lives of his mother, Soledad Bravo, and his six siblings, Saldaña says he went to a recruitment office, where he landed a contract working for Pennsylvania Railroad.
On the train to the U.S., he says he and the other laborers couldn't help but think of the risk of being drafted and having to participate in the war.
"Many of them wanted to go back," he said.
For Saldaña, however, it was clear that being a laborer meant being a soldier, not on the battlefield, but rather, on the home front.
"We weren't workers; we were practically soldiers, because we were replacing the soldiers," he said.
Saldaña spent seven months in the U.S., after which point he returned to Mexico and married Benita Arredando-Gómez.
Mr. Saldaña was interviewed in Mexico City’s Iztapalapa on March 22, 2001, by Violeta Dominguez.
Juliana Torres contributed to this story.