During the 20th century, Hispanic Americans — the majority of whom were Mexican Americans — comprised the largest minority group in California. One-half million Mexicans migrated to the United States during the 1920s, with more than 30 percent settling in California.
The photographs in this section (many taken by Dorothea Lange) show Mexican migrant workers in California agriculture. Families (like the one whose car has broken down on the road) faced rough living conditions in the fields. The photograph of field shacks constructed of tin cans is a good example.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, racial anxieties ran high. Mexicans in California and other states were seen as competition for already scarce jobs. Various civic organizations and chambers of commerce successfully pressed local, county, and state governments to round up Mexican Americans indiscriminately (citizens and non-citizens alike) and "repatriate" them to Mexico.
This situation shifted in the early 1940s. World War II brought a labor shortage as American workers joined the armed forces. In 1942, Congress enacted the Emergency Labor Program — called the Bracero Program (brazos is the Spanish word for arms) — to allow temporary Mexican migrants into the United States to work in American industry. In one photograph, a Mexican worker gives the V for Victory sign on the train bringing him to work in the United States.
During the 22 years of the Bracero Program, more than 4 million Mexican workers left their families behind and came to work in the fields of California. This migration had an enormous and lasting impact on the state's economy and demographics.
Not all Mexican migrants worked in the fields. As these photographs show, they found work in canneries and fruit packing, among other industries. Some were entrepreneurs, like the Veyna family of Anaheim, who opened a fruit stand (shown here), a restaurant, and a grocery store. Frank Gonzales, also shown here, was a barber.
As it is today, illegal immigration was also an issue in the mid-20th century. A photograph taken in the 1940s shows a picketer in downtown Los Angeles, protests illegal raids by the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.
A 1954 photograph shows a Bracero entering the country legally from Mexicali. Another 1954 photograph documents Mexican laborers returning home after they have completed their US work contracts. But the original caption asks: “Will they go back home, in Mexico, or turn right around and join the thousands trying to get into the United States for harvest jobs?”
The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:
Hispanic Americans: Migrant Workers and Braceros, 1930s-1964 curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.