On a bright morning last week, a few old men hobbled beneath the floral canopy covering the walkway leading to the Casa Familiar in San Ysidro and took a seat in the social service agency’s reception room.
Elias Garcia fiddled with his wood cane as he sat, his slacks hiked up high and a feathered fedora playfully plopped on his head.
As they waited, the 74-year-old regaled the rest with accounts of his adventures and misadventures traversing the western United States as a guest farm worker from Mexico, or bracero, during the 1950s and 1960s.
It was 1954 and Garcia was one of more than 300,000 young Mexican men who that year left their small towns and cities. Beginning in 1942, the men were summoned to replace the American labor force sapped dry by World War II. The bracero program formally ended in 1964.
“I know every town from San Ysidro to Canada,” Garcia said in the lilting, sing-song Spanish characteristic of his southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. “I’ve walked most of it on foot. I picked tomatoes in Escondido, beets in Stockton, cherries in Washington.”
Garcia was there to visit Maria Elena Espinoza, the coordinator of the organization’s bracero reparations program. He’s in the final stages of filing claims with the Mexican government for a $3,500 slice of the millions of dollars it has agreed to repay hundreds of thousands of Mexican men. As guest workers in the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s, they had 10 percent of their wages withheld by the U.S. government on the condition that it would be returned when they went back home. It never was.
For decades afterward, those men went on with their lives.
Some, like Garcia, settled in the United States. Others returned home. Some worked the fields their entire lives, others went on to construction or service jobs. Many wondered about what had happened to their money, few thought they would get it back. Most have retired, many have died.
“We wondered about it among ourselves,” said Roberto Castañon, 75, who worked as a bracero for seven years. “We just thought they had screwed us. After the bracero program was finished, we assumed we were never going to get it back.”
After a drawn out litigation process in American courts, the Mexican government reluctantly acknowledged early this decade that the money the United States took from laborers had been deposited into Mexican banks for redistribution to returning workers.
In 2002, Casa Familiar established San Diego’s only program to help former braceros file claims for their share of the money.
Word got around. They started trickling into the San Ysidro office. Some of them had the workers’ permits and contracts they’d saved. Others had only memories and their word.
Since then, the agency has opened files for more than 800 former braceros living in San Diego.
“They just found us,” Espinoza said. “And they each came in here with their own story.”
Last year, the Mexican Consulate in San Diego began accepting applications too. It processed 172, a spokesman said. Neither agency knows how many former braceros are living in San Diego. More than 120,000 former braceros in both countries have come forward since 2005 to claim the $3,500 payments.
The documentation requirements are rigorous and the bureaucracy daunting. Casa Familiar has driven busloads of former braceros to Mexicali, Baja California’s state capital three hours away, to submit the documents required to claim their money.
“In some ways it is that experience that is more important,” Espinoza said. “They came on buses 50 years ago as young men, and now we’re driving them back to the city where they first entered, with the same men, but they come in wheelchairs and with oxygen tanks.”
Garcia, who opened his case in 2005, crossed into Tijuana to pick up his first payment of $400 last week. The Mexican government has not told anyone when it will turn over the balance.
For Garcia, the money is a pittance. But he said the process of claiming his share has brought back memories and reconnected him with braceros he hadn’t seen since he last saw them in the fields.
“All old,” he said.
Garcia was 18 when, driven by poverty, he stepped onto a bus in his town of San Pablo Huixtepec, Oaxaca. With just a few meager belongings, he left with thousands of others for the promise of work, money and adventure in the United States, 650 miles away.
They arrived in Mexico’s border cities en masse, where they were processed and sent across the line to contracting centers that dotted the American Southwest from California to Texas. They signed contracts for farm work, and were packed into buses and the trailers of semis and shipped across the country.
Garcia arrived in Harlingen, Texas, where he picked cotton. During the next 10 years, he picked melons, tomatoes, avocadoes, lemons and cherries on farms in California, Arizona, Washington and New Mexico.
He doesn’t know how much was withheld from his wages, though he’s saved many of the paystubs. He said it doesn’t matter. He thought the money was long gone. Thinking of it, he said, makes him mad. He spent half of his $400 paying bills.
“I can’t buy much with the money,” he said. “Four hundred dollars was a lot then. Think of all the things I could have bought. If I had bought a chicken 50 years ago, how many eggs would it have laid by now?”