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At the border of sight States, the civil contract, and Bracero Program photos

Deborah Cohen

Looking at this photo, what do you notice?

First, the spray encircling the man’s head, then his bare chest and the silver canister doing the work; and possibly that the fog of the spray is reaching the otherwise invisible man next in line (Figure 5.1). Next, you pull back your gaze to take in the entire photo: the men, all unclothed save the sprayer, are lined up awaiting this disinfectant - DDT; and the sprayer is the only one protected by mask. Shifting the focus from the bracero-official interaction to the man two places behind, his face is visible, perhaps communicating stoicism; even the man being doused appears less disgusted and more resolute. These men - Mexican bakers, farmers, teachers; the poor, the unemployed; the professional, the lowly manual laborer -came to work.

This photo, by Leonard Nadel, was published in 1957 in a magazine spread on the Bracero Program, a 22-year series of US-Mexican agreements (1942-1964) under which Mexican men - braceros - were brought to labor in US fields due to an ostensible labor shortage at the start of World War II. Accompanied by the caption braceros are ‘“livestock ... herded into lines for mass examination, into booths for mass fumigation, into buses for mass transportation’” (Nadel, qtd. by Toffoli, 127), it was one of hundreds taken in 1956, nearing the end of the program, by the leftleaning Nadel, whose previous work on the hardships of residents of Los Angeles slums had as their goal to educate its audience on the abuses of the program and of farm labor in general. For Nadel, documentary photography was “a means to call attention to social contradictions and human suffering” through “‘visual impact of a sensitive and honest portrayal’” (Loza and González, 113). His photography, labeled “propagandistic” because of its “technique” and objects of “focus,” made clear his leftist political commitments (Guidotti-Hernández, 275). “[P]ower, legibility, and desire,” contends Guidotti-Hernández, “produc[e]” braceros’ “lack of leisure within [the U.S.] domestic sphere.” According to Erica Toffoli (127-28), some photo-essays “justified] the program as ... class uplift,” hiding “braceros’ political agency” and agriculture’s “perpetuation of inequality and expropriation,” while Nadel’s offered braceros a way to “subtly assert... alternate political subjectivities” by “communicating their grievances to those who consumed the products of their labor.” Braceros, she contends “protested capitalism’s enduring

Braceros being fumigated with DDT at US border. Leonard Nadel, 1956, Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.08.26

Figure 5.1 Braceros being fumigated with DDT at US border. Leonard Nadel, 1956, Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.08.26.

structural conditions and its impact on laboring subjects” - they resisted. For her, Nadel’s photos helped publicize a narrative farmworker abuse and broader conditions of class (race and gender) exploitation in the fields.

The Hermanos Mayo (May Day “Brothers”) also photographed braceros; a collective of three (of five) Republican activists who had fled Spain’s Civil War, first to France and, in 1939, for Mexico. The Hermanos shot almost 400 program photos, some of which, like Nadel’s, appeared in newspapers and magazines consumed by the middle class (Mraz 1996, np.). They made “workers’ art” focused on “uncovering the relations within the [photographic] frame” and acknowledging they had been ‘“emigrants for political reasons and [braceros] ... [for] hunger’” (qtd. by Mraz, np.). Still, the Brothers’ own experiences of alienation and deprivation brought a “particular optic” as “leftist political refugees” and “daily laborers]” to their camera. Mraz (Mraz, np.) sees the Hermanos’ photos - of men standing around, smiling, leaving, sitting; of women crying; of couples hugging -as braceros “interact[ing]” with the camera. Despite acknowledging that braceros were “making something out of what is being made of them,” Mraz reads the photos as confirming braceros’ (and the Hermanos’) resistance and the program itself as exploitation and abuse. Like Nadel who shot to publicize program horrors, the Hermanos saw the "inhumanity” of their own refugee experiences in what braceros had to go through (Mraz, np.).

I too see the program as built on a system of exploitation, yet also recognize that braceros, like most poor Mexicans, already lived within overlapping repressive structures - state, local, familial (Cohen; Becker; McCormick). And still they grew up. courted, worked, started families, lost loved ones, rejoiced, and died (Cohen, Rosas, Loza). Braceros showed their many emotions in photos, not just

At the border of sight 71 resistance. Men used the photographic “space” (Smith, 167), I argue, to communicate not just anger or resistance, but their range of inner life as they, as individuals, became part of collectivities of braceros and of the nation. Though not addressing borders in the sense that most of this volume’s essays do, my analysis of the photos allows a “recognition” (Smith, 175) of braceros as foil humans with multiple emotions expressed as emergent from, and analyzable within, the context of their struggles and historical conditions.

The structures of the Bracero Program: gender and modernization

The Bracero Program was grounded in both the transnational relationship between the United States and Mexico and in each state’s relationship with its citizens. In 1942, when the program began, the United States was involved in a war that required domestic rationing and a realignment of its labor force; by the 1950s, however, it was a global hegemon, supporting a state-enforced domestic racial hierarchy, while spreading (white) liberal, thoroughly capitalist, democracy abroad. Mexico, in contrast, was a young revolutionary state; its rhetoric proclaimed protection and advocacy for all citizens. While much has been written on its failure, inability, or unwillingness to live up to these promises, these ideas structured braceros’ initial belief that the state would advocate for them and shaped reactions when it didn’t (López; Mraz; Hershfield; Vaughan & Lewis; Craib; Joseph, Rubenstein, & Zolov; Vaughan). Moreover, because the state was young, men did not always think of themselves in national terms first; they became national in interactions with Mexican officials and border guards (Cohen).

The program began during a shift in US-Mexican relations. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt ushered in the “Good Neighbor Policy,” which changed the official US stance from one of interventionism to that of mutual respect and cooperation. Mexico, too, had changed, not just because of the Revolution but President Lázaro Cárdenas’1938, nationalization of oil fields previously owned by foreign companies, including Standard Oil. Cárdenas offered remuneration but these companies refused; they considered the compensation inadequate. The US had an impetus to resolve the issue when it entered the war and sought Mexico’s support. Given this new orientation, the US was open to a labor program based in partnership. Mexico said no, due to the discrimination and earlier deportations its citizens had faced. When former (and new) migrants headed north as the US economy improved, Mexico recognized the advantage of a regulated program. It began with some negotiating clout, which would dissipate as the promise of an expanding Mexican economy wouldn't happen rapidly enough and more and more men sought to go.

The stated goals of the program were to turn Mexican peasants into modem workers while improving US-Mexican relations - no longer would out-migrants be an embarrassment to the country, these “ambassadors” for the nation were “future model citizens” (Cohen, 35). As men were told, “You are ... representatives of Mexico in the U.S. Be an example of honesty and show what goodworkmen you [can be]” (Cohen, 93). Regardless of men’s reasons for migrating, the program’s modernizing logic conferred on those chosen a significant honor, for Mexican officials would only choose for this work those deemed to become model citizens.

Access to and availability of work undergirded the notion of model citizen, itself a gendered notion of respect and authority. Only a man able to fulfill his roles as head of household was a “good community member” and “man of respect,” where respect was "the social esteem” extended to men deemed “honorable.” Honor, therefore, formed “the basis for the legitimacy of men’s status and authority” in “the domestic domain” and “the public sphere of community life” (Cohen, 74-75). Marriage, then, was the principal vehicle through which a man secured full personhood, rights to adventure - sexual and otherwise - and participation as a full-fledged community member. Yet it also limited poor, working-class, and peasant men because they were unable to provide for families (Cohen, 74-75). As the state publicly implied, US work held out the promise of being able to support families and (re)gain manhood.

This public rhetoric, then, about the program framed how braceros understood it. They used the moment of the photo to mitigate the structures of stoop labor that stripped them of authority and independence, the non-family living arrangements that forced them into doing so-called women’s work, and the non-consensual nature of the documentary photography. Instead of resistance or anger, Photo 1 might depict men’s resolve to (re)secure the privileges of manhood and communicate their own aims for the journey. In so doing, they (re)made the border between braceros and non-migrants.

Reading the photos: picturing the civil contract, delineating the journey

Reading the Nadel and the Hermanos archives together allows the see-ability of a broader set of emotions and demands, and the growing divide between braceros and non-migrants, Mexicans and Americans. The photos are compelling, and we as viewers are compelled to look. Scholars Noam Leshem and Lauren Wright call out critics, like Michael Fried, who have minimized this desire in favor of a more aesthetic position in their analysis of a photograph’s power (117). For Fried, photographs are art and, as art, any analysis should thus be circumscribed to the aesthetic realm. While photographers, like artists, must and do consider the viewer’s perspective of their work, Fried allocates to viewers no responsibility to act because the photograph doesn’t directly address them; rather, the artist’s motivations and visions are key.

In contrast to Fried are the insights of Ariella Azoulay (2012) and Shawn Michelle Smith. Azoulay focuses on our need to look and demands that we as viewers “judge both the ethics of the photographic situation and that of our relation to the people pictured” (Azoulay, "Interview,” np.). She challenges the so-called victim photography of Susan Sontag that limits the viewer’s response to empathy for the suffering (or happiness) of the victimized subject.

Instead, Azoulay lays out a more expansive set of considerations by insisting on the relationship between photographer, photographed subjects, and photograph spectator. This relationship is a “civil contract,” a relationship that exists outside the state’s power to determine and mediate it (Azoulay, “Interview”; my emphasis). Outside state control, she stresses, the photo has the potential to erase the hierarchy between citizens and noncitizens, and open new, more horizontal lines of solidarity. Not only are new ties and forms of belonging created, but these ties must produce action to ameliorate this suffering in the social world. The civil contract demands action, not just Sontag’s anger or empathy.

Smith, building on Azoulay, uses this photographic “space” as a site in which these three subjects can "meet as citizens” across actual territorial lines in a "process of mutual recognition” (Smith, 167 and 175), in turn, challenging the very hierarchies between Nadel/the Hermanos, braceros, and viewers. Their mutual recognition as citizens demands not just alleviating braceros’ suffering but, a la Smith (167, 175), of seeing the range of emotions braceros held.

I suggest that Azoulay’s concept of the photographic relationship offers a way of reading the Nadel photos as part of braceros’ struggle to claim and fulfill this agentive subjectivity. I follow Christopher Pinney’s contention that a photo is never (just) indexed to particular material referents. As he describes it, “[n]o matter how precautionary and punctilious the photographer is in arranging everything placed before the camera, the inability of the lens to discriminate will ensure [that a] ... subversive code [is] present in every photographic image, [which] makes it open and available to other readings” and, in Azoulay’s conception, relationships. Shifting between cultural contexts, he says, “subjects [the photo] to movements that produce a rearrangement and recoding” (Pinney, 3,6). That is, spectators read what the photo says through their own specific cultural, historical, and locational context. Yet as she insists with her triadic photographic relationship, they aren't in sole control of the reading, for it is produced through the photographic relationship, of which braceros’ cultural values, mores, and aims for the journey were critical. That is, “the still photograph begins to move, and though this motion cannot erase inequality, it can trouble oppression that might otherwise seem intractable” (Sentilles, np.).

Looking at the Nadel and Hermanos photos, we can see the ways migrants were transformed into braceros and into Mexicans, and their communication of that transformation. Figure 5.2 is a Nadel shot in front of the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Mexico City. Aspiring braceros, just beginning the selection process, are lined up for the chance to compete for a space; they wait patiently in an array of poses - hands in pockets, arms crossed; some face the camera, others are positioned perpendicular to it. Dressed in loose-fitting pants and work shirts, several with narrow belts visible, these men vie for a bracero spot. Men’s interaction with the camera - they're returning the gaze - suggests expectation and hopefulness; though they might be bored standing around, missing families, the future possibility of maintaining families - braceros’ goal for the journey - at least partially negated the boredom and hassles.

Aspiring braceros await selection, Mexico City. Leonard Nadel, 1956, Permission NMAH 2004.0138.08.26

Figure 5.2 Aspiring braceros await selection, Mexico City. Leonard Nadel, 1956, Permission NMAH 2004.0138.08.26.

Wife/mother hugging husband'son as he goes off on the bracero journey. Hermanos Mayo, 1943, Mexico. Permission Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico

Figure 5.3 Wife/mother hugging husband'son as he goes off on the bracero journey. Hermanos Mayo, 1943, Mexico. Permission Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico.

Interestingly, while most men in this photo express stoicism, one man is smiling. Media scholar Christina Kotchemidova contends that smiling for the camera is a learned behavior, one which, for the United States, “Kodak played a leadership role in shaping.” It, she says, “did an enormous amount of work to [link] photography with celebrations,” happiness, and fun. ... ‘With the growth of the picture magazines [such as Life and Look], th[is] picture culture [slowly] took over’” and, by World War II, was the norm (3-4, 8, 9). That this man is smiling marks a visible connection with Nadel and a willingness to use photo moment to express his own ends. We could, then, read the man’s smiling as “a sign of selfpossession that establishes one’s capacity for self-governance” (Smith, 186), a self-possession in the other men’s expressions and stances. Most either have arms crossed or hands in pockets, with one leg bent and hip lowered; this stance implies control, authority, and claim to space, an agentive - and thus, masculine - position. Through the photo interactions, they claim what had been tenuous - their manhood and thus subjectivity as full Mexican citizens.

Figures 5.3 and 5.4, Hermanos shots from 1943, show already-selected men ready to board or on the train northward. Men are interacting with peers and their women folk; they’re saying goodbye to families before they head north. Figure 5.3 shows a woman crying, her arms around her husband, whereas in Figure 5.4 women’s appearance outside the train, tenderly shaking hands with their loved one, marked them as apart from the journey. The two men hanging out the window aren’t looking at the camera; but several other braceros smile broadly, one acknowledging the photographer. In this recognition, he could, within limits,

Husbands/sons and wives/mothers saying good-bye as men head off to the United States. Hermanos Mayo, 1943. Mexico. Permission Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico

Figure 5.4 Husbands/sons and wives/mothers saying good-bye as men head off to the United States. Hermanos Mayo, 1943. Mexico. Permission Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico.

portray himself as a masculine subject - this journey was his choice, for want of a better term. The two photos visually contrast men's “optimism” with family members’ sorrow, constituting the migrants as adventurers and expectant breadwinners, and the experience as part of a masculine domain. This leaving process, rather than making victims, acts as a kind of border between Mexicans. It is as some are transformed into braceros while others are left behind.

The 1956 Nadel photo (Figure 5.5) shows a Mexican official inspecting a man's hands. After men were initially chosen and moved on to the next selection round, their hands were scrutinized. Those designated for selection had to have weathered hands - as one former bracero said, officials wanted "men’s hands -callused and hard hands that were used” (qtd. in Cohen, 105). Since many men were not farm laborers, those without hands sufficiently callused would, in the days leading up to the screening, rub their hands vigorously with stones, sticks, and even formaldehyde, often until their hands bled or peeled, to develop calluses and sores (Life Maga:ine28). They expressed satisfaction at "foolfing]” the officials (Cohen 99). While we might understand it as a degrading intervention

Official scrutinizes aspiring bracero’s hands. Leonard Nadel, 1956. Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.11.39

Figure 5.5 Official scrutinizes aspiring bracero’s hands. Leonard Nadel, 1956. Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.11.39.

Official checks future braceros for indications of physical weakness. Leonard Nadel, 1956. Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.02.28

Figure 5.6 Official checks future braceros for indications of physical weakness. Leonard Nadel, 1956. Smithsonian Institution. Permission NMAH 2004.0138.02.28.

- and a few braceros I spoke with did - many took the appraisal of their hands as workers’ hands as confirming their manhood. It was a point of dignity and pride.

In another of Nadel's 1956 photos (Figure 5.6), a Texas official is assessing the musculature of the bracero hopefuls. To even be considered as a bracero, men needed to have recommendation confirming their good character, trustworthiness, and background as a laborer; but men were also sized up for fortitude and physical endurance at points along the way. Braceros considered the inspection upon arrival in the United States the most invasive. Not only were they screened for “epilepsy, ... craziness, ... chronic alcoholism, psychotic personality, and other problems,” said one of the men I interviewed, a doctor “would examine your eyes, your teeth. ... They didn’t want scars - [especially] new scars” (Cohen, 99). Foremen, said another, “opened [our] mouths and looked at [our] teeth - like a horse. We felt degraded” (Cohen, 107). In concluding with “We felt degraded,” this bracero does not merely assert how men felt about these inspections; more importantly, he invokes the collective “we” to rebuke this intrusive scrutiny of their bodies. The collective to which he refers - braceros - was made and remade at each point of the journey around axes of masculinity.

In this photo, Nadel has captured men bent over, carefully tending the berry crop. While not visible in this picture, men would at times talk or sing as they worked, sometimes well-known corridos, narrative-form lyrics or poetry that were recited among the popular classes. This was part of a series of shots of braceros at work, some individual migrants, others as a group. Men told me about work as a collective experience. There would be races and bets to see who picked the most, as well as support of someone unable to rapidly fill his bag. For him, others would frequently toss some of their pickings into his bag. With no visible photographic relationship to be had, Nadel could configure the men as exploited and the program as abusive; in contrast, they saw themselves against the foremen and absent growers, and stuck together; they were a collective.

Many of Nadel’s photos show men in the barriers playing cards, relaxing, cutting hair, washing clothes, cleaning, and sleeping. Apart from the fields, braceros spent much time there. Several braceros learned and practiced their craft as barber or shoe repairer. While American studies scholar Nicole Guidotti-Hernández reads these photos as a “lack of idleness” (276), they are also a window onto the collective relationships that men built as they worked and leisured. The formation of this collectivity established a border between braceros and non-migrants, Mexicans and Americans. In the taking of the photos, in claiming this idleness, these men presented themselves as dignified and fully masculine workers.

I ground my analysis of the bracero photos in Azoulay’s delineation of the photographic relationship, one she anchors in a new formulation of citizenship not mediated by the state. This new form acts as a “framework of partnership and solidarity among those who are governed” irrespective of the boundaries of or legal requirements for state-based citizenship (Azoulay, “Znienveiv”). Her theory of photography, and I quote her at length:

approaches] the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator. None ... has the capacity to seal off this effect and determine the photograph’s sole meaning. The civil contract of photography assumes that, at least in principle, the users of photography possess a certain power to suspend the gesture of the sovereign power which seeks to totally dominate the relations between them as governed - governed into citizens and noncitizens, thus making disappear the violation of citizenship.

(Azoulay, “Interview”)

Moving away from the photograph as something over and done, a moment passed, Azoulay sees it as a “space of [ongoing] political relationships”;

the point of departure for the mutual relations between the various “users” of photography, cannot be ... “empathy,” “shame,” “pity,” or “compassion.” It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of their citizenship in the political sphere within which we, spectators and photographed persons, are all ruled. When the photographed persons address the spectator, claiming their citizenship in what I call “the citizenry of photography,” they cease to appear ... how[ever] the sovereign regime strives to construct them.

(Azoulay, “Interview”)

Azoulay’s citizenship of photography is critical for my reading. First, her reliance on lateral connections over the state-based hierarchical divisions calls into

At the border of sight 79 question the presumed distinction between citizen and non-citizen as it helps highlight the state’s (and growers’) ability to conscribe braceros to miserable working and living conditions based on men’s unquestionable non-Americanness. While non-white people were then racially delimited from accessing the privileges of full Americanness, braceros’ actual Mexican citizenship made this racial boundaiy less porous. Second, her use of citizenship also bespeaks duties and responsibilities. It allocates to US citizen-spectators the grave responsibility for changing conditions of abuse and pain. For her, the camera imagines a citizenship that realigns responsibilities and reworks the power of official and unofficial, but always enforced, borders.

In her examples, Azoulay’s theoretical intervention seems to assume a preeminent, if not sole, role for the state in this hierarchization and denial of citizenship rights. Yet braceros were neither asking for nor entitled to citizenship rights; and they didn’t expect them. Rather, they came to work and to return, anticipating or hoping that their labor would earn them enough money to support families and with it, full masculinity. Moreover, the many unofficial and official agents of individual large agribusinesses - not the state - were responsible for how the program played out on the ground; these people established and carried out the daily regimens to which migrants were subject. While the bi-state agreement laid out the terms by which growers were supposed to abide, the guidelines for work and leisure were imposed by their on-site (often Mexican-descended) foremen whose national, racial, ethnic prejudices largely structured the rules they set. Onerous and illegal practices were frequently the focus of negotiation as braceros pressured for better prepared Mexican food and stricter adherence to wage and work stipulations. They also experienced inequity during their trips to town; too often limited to shopping and drinking at Mexican-American-owned stores, restaurants, and bars, they saw prejudice from those whom they felt a connection; Mexican Americans often hid their wives and daughters or prevented braceros from socializing with them. That is, the structures and practices that most ordered migrants’ lives were more visible as local decisions and attributable to foremen and owners of shops and cantinas. The lived version of the border was less of nation-state than of race and non-localness/foreignness.

This focus on local, however, did not exempt all states from braceros' accusations of responsibility; rather, the men directed anger squarely at Mexico, which they saw as responsible for their protection and well-being as citizens. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), which overthrew Porfirio Diaz (who had ruled since 1876) and established a new state form, gave birth to a revolutionary rhetoric of its responsibility for the betterment of all citizens (not just the wealthy). And citizens began to hold the state to its word. In 1957, only several months after The Pageant had published the Nadel spread, the Chihuahua daily El herald reported on a bracero-Mexican police clash at the border. Juan Silos, a returning migrant bloodied from a clash, commented that “I don’t know why they talk about discrimination against braceros outside Mexico. ... [Here] they [the police] almost kill us.” The accompanying article was even stronger in its elaboration of state betrayal:

It is shameful that, upon arrival in Mexican territory, these [men] are transported in freight trains, piled high as if they were beasts. And what is worse, so that the [men] enter in an orderly fashion, they are beaten with metal sticks.

(Cohen, 178, 181)

That is, while braceros (and many non-migrating Mexicans) might have hoped for US enforcement of the agreement and definitely held the Mexican state to its claims of citizen protection, overall, local structures of discrimination shaped laborers’ daily experiences, for which (at least many) braceros held an array of local individuals responsible. Yet they were experienced and understood within a larger and seemingly unwavering national divisions. They weren’t equals as early Mexican state rhetoric hinted at, they came to the United States to work. Photos that then urged US citizens to act and shut down the program also communicate braceros’ hopes to realize their own goals.


In November 1960, on Thanksgiving, Edward R. Murrow’s documentaiy Harvest of Shame was broadcast, putting the lives of agricultural workers into full view for the American public. While not about braceros, it showed the conditions under which the country’s domestic farmworkers - largely black and poor white - labored. And it caused an uproar.

If you watch the full video, easily accessible online, the language and visual images used to portray these conditions - of back-breaking work, of horrific living conditions, of young children left to entertain themselves without adult supervision - conjured backwardness as well as sympathy for and outrage at the situation of these domestic farm workers, residents a country that saw itself as the epitome of modernity and increasing economic opportunity. Laborers who put food on everyone’s tables had little for themselves. Without massive change, Murrow argued, these men and women would never escape impoverishment and enter our modern world. This video, of poverty and deprivation, would add to the mounting pressure to end the program, which the United States did unilaterally in 1964; in its place, the two countries set up the maquiladora system.

Compare the video to a photo shot in May 1943, in which braceros heading home look proudly out the window; one man smiling, they posed for the camera, displaying what is so important for them - the money in their pockets2; they present themselves as they wanted to be seen. While the overwhelming sentiment of Harvest of Shame is resignation, these men appear satisfied; they have money (and partially hidden suitcases) to show for their labor. Especially noticeable in this comparison, Harvest of Shame and the Nadel and Hermanos Mayo photos convey a different perspective onto the people themselves. Murrow’s lens highlights the seclusion of domestic farmworkers’ children and the workers themselves; kids were separated from parents as they worked; and parents worked in isolation from everyone else - Murrow paints a desolate and alienated life. This portrayal is reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s photos of 1930s farm families and a foreshadower of

At the border of sight 81 a January 31,1964, Life Magazine spread, immediately after the termination of the program. Life's focus was on Appalachia as a “lonely valley” of “people without hope”; in the same issue that introduced the Beatles to America, the then targets of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty’ were shown as the “long ... ignored” of “affluent America.” The poor were not only “disease-ridden and unschooled” and lived “in shacks without plumbing or sanitation,” as Life called them, they were, like Murrow’s farmworkers, divided from the rest of America. The poor, both black and white, existed within society but were not of it (“The Valley of Poverty” 54-55). Contrast this to the Hermanos Mayo depiction of braceros as engaged collective and masculine agents. While Life and Harvest of Shame showed the “downtrodden” in the United States largely “accept[ing] their way of life,” these Hermanos Mayo «nrfNadel photos showed Mexican laborers as both exploited and resilient. These foreigners worked with each other, ate alongside each other, and journeyed together ("The Valley” 56); often they were serious, in others, they were enthused. Despite Nadel’s narrative of exploitation, the men attempted to actively compose themselves as masculine subjects and as a well-integrated and supportive collective.

This expanded recognition of braceros’ emotions and attitudes enables us to look beyond those of pain and suffering. And oral histories of former braceros show their feelings were many. As one migrant put it, “the term 'bracero ... is a word of distinction, for me it is a word of great pride. I would like that word to go down in history’” (Cohen, i). José Guadalupe Rodriguez Fonseca told his grandson that the work was “very difficult but ... [we] took great pride,” the dignity of the work they did, regardless of whether it was recognized as such. This man, asserting the historical importance of this term, simultaneously commemorated the bracero experience and objected to the flat narrative of victimhood Nadel’s photos sought to convey. Despite confronting and recognizing the systemically unequal relations built into agriculture, migration, and the US-Mexican relationship, bracero migrants refused to see themselves as only victims. Their journeys were part of the struggle to reclaim themselves as legible and fully masculine men, but they also became Mexican citizens (Cohen).

What is the takeaway from analyzing these photos and, indeed, all visual material? Yes, they come with a methodological potential to see only the motivations of the photographer, which for Nadel, was the program's abuse and exploitation. For him, migrants’ understandings of their experiences, their motives and goals, remained outside the frame. For the migrants, as seen in many of the Hermanos Mayo pictures, the program needed to be set against not just prior lives in Mexico, but the many points of interaction along and within the journey, and their return home as changed people. By focusing, as I have here, on the photographic relationship undergirding and embedded in the photos themselves, we can begin to recognize braceros’ actions to portray themselves as full agentive subjects. When read together, we can see the program’s multiple layers and conflicting goals as photos suggest the ways that the photographic relationship opened up the space for men to actively reconfigure themselves. Thus, this space suggests the ways a program fraught with constraining and degrading conditions could have beenused by the braceros to reposition their futures through making a masculine and collectivist present.


  • 1 This is a reference to Shawn Michelle Smith’s book. At the Edge of Sight.
  • 2 photography &phrase=corbis%20historical,%20mexican%20migrants&sort=most-popular


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