At the invitation of Professor Luis Alfonso Herrera Robles, of the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and Colégio de Chihuahua, Duke Professor Charles Thompson visited the central plaza in Ciudad Juárez to document hundreds ex-Braceros demonstrating in June 2010 and again in October 2011.
Every Sunday morning over 100 elderly ex-Braceros – most of them in their 70s and 80s – gather with their families in the central plaza of Ciudad Juárez to peacefully demand payment of retirement benefits deducted from their pay decades ago. These forgotten farmworkers who once labored on U.S. soil still have not received the funds they earned. Their struggle is largely ignored by national and international media, and over-shadowed by the drug-related violence that dominates the news from Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
From 1942 until 1964 the United States recruited and gave temporary visas to some 5 million Mexican workers who harvested American crops during World War II and beyond. These Mexican workers – known as Braceros ("strong-arms") – were transported in cattle cars, sprayed for lice, stripped, and showered in groups, and often mistreated physically. They performed backbreaking work to earn much-needed wages to feed their families. When they were done, the U.S. government took mandatory deductions from their wages, promising a retirement fund for the Mexican Braceros when they returned to Mexico.
But decades after the program's end, both governments have failed to give back all the retirement money earned by ex-Braceros. After protests and lawsuits the U.S.and Mexican governments agreed to hand over some of the funds, up to $3500 per person, if the workers could show pay stubs and other documentation proving they earned the pay. Because of the extraordinary amount of paperwork required to prove eligibility, to date only a small portion of the retirement funds have been distributed. As shown in the photographs, some have identification cards and other documentation, but few have pay stubs – who does after fifty or more years? Meanwhile, the Braceros are aging and dying; neither they nor their widows and dependent children have anything to show for their years of sacrifice. The promises go unfulfilled.
A moving event followed. In hopes of bringing more attention to their demands and simply to say that they were present, the men and women lined up (without being asked) to have Thompson take their portraits. The result is a collection of powerful images of workers who sacrificed their time in Mexico to work hard in U.S. fields, with each looking into the camera saying that they now await their just due. The photographs in the exhibit represent only a few of those who were present on the two Sunday mornings Thompson visited the park in Ciudad Juarez. They stand for thousands more ex-Braceros near Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico and the U.S., for those not pictured, those already passed on, and for workers everywhere whose pay has been shortchanged.
These photographs will be on display in the John Hope Franklin Gallery from September 30-December 19, 2014. The center is located at 2204 Erwin Road, Durham, North Carolina, and open from Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
A Wednesdays @ the Center Talk on October 8, 12 p.m. in FranklinCenter room 240 will feature a panel with participants Luis Herrera Robles, Professor Universidad Autonoma of Juarez, Mexico; Don Modesto Zurita, former Bracero; and Charles D. Thompson, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University. Free and open to the public. Light lunch served.
Presented by the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South, John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies, Cultural Anthropology, and the Consortium in Latin American Studies at UNC-CH and Duke University.