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Bracero Program Bolstered Nevada Workforce During WWII

Mexican workers in Bracero Program
Courtesy of Neal Cobb.
Workers from Mexico helped to keep Nevada's railroads and farms running during World War II.

As neighboring countries, the United States and Mexico have a long history of bilateral agreements. In this installment of “Time & Place,” historian Alicia Barber looks at one cooperative program introduced during World War II to benefit residents on both sides of the border.

By the summer of 1942, the United States was fully engaged in the Second World War, and millions of Americans were involved in some form of military service. With so many people and resources dedicated to the war effort, the home front was beginning to feel the impact, and certain industries were being hit especially hard.

During the war, Armando Martini, known as “Barney,” was a teenager living on his family’s ranch at Vista, just outside of Sparks, Nevada. Interviewed in 2005, he explained how the massive deployment of men overseas had begun to affect the region’s agricultural community.

“A lot of the farm boys that were working the ranches were in the service,” Martini said. “It was during the war, and we were raising potatoes and onions and grain, and you needed help to harvest all of that.”

The labor shortage was serious enough that the federal government decided to step in. At first, they tried to recruit workers from cities to help out the farms, but that didn’t pan out. After intensive negotiations with Mexico, the U.S. government introduced the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement as an emergency measure to bring in temporary contract workers from south of the border.

It was informally known as the Bracero Program, using a Spanish term for a manual laborer. The workers’ contracts lasted for a number of months and were renewable. Five hundred workers were sent from Mexico to the Central Valley of California in September 1942, and the following summer, several hundred arrived in western Nevada. The effort was coordinated on the state level by the University of Nevada’s agricultural extension service.

“The Farm Bureau used to bring in quite a few of the Mexican workers, and they’d assign so many to each ranch that needed help, and we’d have to cook and supply living quarters for them,” Martini said. “We always had four or five men.”

In addition to providing housing, the host ranchers were also responsible for paying their guest workers the region’s prevailing wage for the work they did. That made the contracts especially appealing to the Mexican citizens who signed up, and to Mexican government officials, who hoped that the money the workers earned could help strengthen their own country’s economy when they returned.

It was for many on both sides, their first time interacting with someone of each other’s nationality. But as Martini explained, they all made an effort to overcome the language barrier:

“We gradually learned. They learned some of ours [language], we learned theirs [Spanish], and we made out. But it was a little bit confusing at first. Sometimes we’d have to call the Farm Bureau office to send an interpreter to find out what was going on.”

In addition to farm labor, the program also brought 2,000 Mexican citizens to work on Nevada railroads. When the war ended in 1945, so did the domestic labor shortage, and the wartime contracts were not renewed. But the Bracero program continued in some form until 1964, employing approximately 4.6 million Mexican citizens and filling a critical need for some major American industries.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the smart phone app and website Reno Historical.org. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. The full transcript for Armando Martini’s interview can be found at the Unviersity of Nevada, Reno Oral History Program.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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