The United States, and Texas in particular, will forever have ties to Mexico (remember the Mexican-American War? Fajitas and burritos? The Alamo? ) But we also share a history regarding workers and labor. That history dates back to the 1800s, but in the 1950s, it was the Bracero Program that made history in Muleshoe.
In 1942 the United States entered World War II, and between men becoming soldiers and jobs in the U.S. being focused on the war effort, our labor force took a tremendous hit. That same year the U.S. signed the Bracero Treaty which allowed Mexican laborers to legally immigrate for a portion of the year and work on contract for farmers and ranchers. These men were mostly experienced farm workers who came to help pick fruit and vegetables, hoe and pick cotton, thrash grain, and anything else that needed to be done.
It took vegetable sheds, the introduction of irrigation, and the cultivation of more cotton to bring the braceros to Muleshoe in the mid-50s. Most of the principle players in that part of Muleshoe’s history are gone now, but I was able to piece together stories of hard work and prosperous times from some who are still around.
The braceros who immigrated to the Muleshoe area came mostly from the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. They would ride a train from the interior of Mexico to El Paso and Del Rio where crew bosses, like Benny Pena and others, would load up a bus, sometimes a truck, and bring them back to Muleshoe. The farmers would then hire as many as they needed. The men would stay for the growing season and then go back to Mexico. They signed a contract with one farmer who was responsible for them. If they got into trouble, they were sent home. The workers would overwhelmingly be young men whose families stayed behind in Mexico.
From what I can piece together housing was sometimes provided by the employer, such as cabins out by Nichols Gin, by the farmers, or by the city of Muleshoe in worker housing. Sometimes they would camp out on the farms. Jesse Leal and others would see to it that the housing was made available and that the men were not taken advantage of, which might be easy to do, what with the language barrier and the fact that the men were in a new situation and unsure of what was going on.
But they were here to work, and work they did. They were here to make money, and they did. As one man put it, they made 50 cents an hour but could live on 50 cents a day. Six dollars a day here turned into 12 dollars a day to send home with the exchange rate, and while that may not sound like much, remember this was the 1950s. I can remember buying a Frito pie and a Coke at the Dairy Queen for 15 cents back then, so the money was good.
They would be paid on Friday at the end of the work day and then shop that night and on Saturday. Jere Nell (White) Flowers relates that the farmers would bring them into town after dark, and they would shop till midnight and later at her dad’s grocery store, White’s Cashway, located in the building that is now the Heritage Thrift Shop. Kids like Mike Perez who worked in the store would help with translating as they bought pinto beans, flour, flank steak, cornmeal, and other simple staples to cook.
Charlie Isaac moved his family and business to Muleshoe from Lubbock after he sold clothes to them out of the back of his car. He said he could sell in three days what it took him six months to sell in Lubbock. His Fair Store flourished and supported his family and put his five kids through college.
Pamela (St. Clair) Miller said her parents, owners of St. Clair’s Department Store, would drive to Lubbock on Thursday and stock up on trousers, boots, and shoes, set everything out on Friday, and sell out on Saturday. Higginbotham’s, which used to be downtown, supplied them with shovels and tools.
Seeing to the needs of the men, which also involved making sure they were eating, provided the opportunity for Jesse and Irma Leal to get their start making tortillas and taking their place in the history of the popularity of Mexican food eateries. Daughter Laura Leal also remembers men coming up to her father long after the Bracero Program went away to thank him again for making their stay easier and in some cases helping them gain U.S. citizenship.
Jack Schuster said the braceros couldn’t be beat with a hoe or shovel, that they were good workers who could work circles around him. He had high praise for them and their trustworthiness. He had one man who stayed through the winter to help out and can remember being awakened in the mornings by his beautiful voice as the man trimmed trees, just singing away as he worked.
All was not sweetness and light, however, as there is always a flip side. One man felt like they weren’t worth the trouble, especially in later years when machinery starting doing some of the work and after the braceros became more comfortable in their surroundings, They would have to be bailed out of jail for drunkenness and fighting. And as time went on, theft became a problem.
The work was hard and living conditions were temporary and base, and eventually stories surfaced about abuse and inhumane treatment. I would like to think those stories came out of the areas where the braceros had been in the work force longer, like in other states’ fruit orchards. Were these men being taken advantage of? Undoubtedly in some places they were. Were some of these men taking advantage of opportunities to steal and abuse the program? Probably so. But consider that even the most Spartan living quarters here were still better than what most of them left behind in Mexico. Here they were able to make a living; in Mexico they could not. Here they had a chance to make money to make a better life for themselves when they returned to their homes and families. The men considered themselves lucky to have that chance and were tickled to be here. And don’t forget, farmers were able to harvest crops that would have otherwise wasted away in the fields. Everyone benefitted and no one was illegal.
After the war, returning servicemen took back their jobs and others left their wartime industry jobs for their old jobs, and the braceros were not as in demand. Eventually César Chavez and his farm workers’ union created an uproar addressing the alleged poor working conditions of the Braceros, which of course led to the federal government and labor unions getting involved. Then about this same time the mechanization of farm equipment like cotton pickers and strippers arrived on the farm scene, and the bracero program came to an end in 1964.
Did Muleshoe benefit from them being here? Without a doubt. It was a time of economic growth for the town. Did farmers benefit from the work of the braceros? Definitely. Were the braceros able to raise their standard of living thanks to the money they made and the opportunities they had living briefly in the US? Of course they were. In light of our immigration problems today, is this a program that should be revisited and perhaps adjusted? It couldn’t hurt to try.
Interviews with Laura Leal, Irma Leal, Ricky Barrett, Jody Barrett, Jere Flowers, Pamela Miller, Jack Schuster, Ray Precure, Charlie Isaac, Bill Liles, and Shorty Flores.