Challenging the Labor Contract: Mexican Guest Workers, US Good Neighbors, and the Fight to Expand Health Rights during the Railroad Bracero Program of World War II
This paper focuses on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Plainsboro, New Jersey, bracero labor camp as a critical site where Mexican guest workers challenged the labor contract and demanded improved health security during the railroad bracero program of World War II. Plainsboro was the largest railroad bracero labor camp on the East Coast and was in close proximity to several other camps. I show that railroad braceros drew on their special status as members of a federally protected labor class in the US and as good neighbor Mexican citizen-workers to argue that they were entitled to health rights not guaranteed by the labor contract. In doing so, railroad braceros garnered the assistance of the Plainsboro community to spark a national movement to formally expand their health rights. While this Mexican guest worker-led movement was cut short by the end of the war and the subsequent termination of the railroad program in August 1945, these Mexican men continued to fight for health security outside of the contract in the months that followed.
“My Dear Sir Mr. President”: Repatriates, Home, and U.S. Citizenship
The economic crisis known as the Great Depression resulted in the voluntary, coerced, and forced repatriation of approximately 400,000 Mexicans throughout the United States. Historians working in both the U.S. and Mexico documents the perspectives and actions of U.S. and Mexican officials and reveal the experience of those who were repatriated. However, they tend to make arguments relevant to either U.S. or Mexican historiography and focus on Mexicans’ departure from the United States and their arrival and settlement in Mexico. In conversation with new scholarship on repatriation, this paper contributes to earlier work by examining repatriates’ efforts to return to the United States and by thinking critically about the relationship between repatriates and U.S. citizenship. Instead of assuming that citizenship held no value for U.S.-born Mexicans who were repatriated, I demonstrate that citizenship was a site of negotiation. Using archival sources from Mexico and the United States, this paper examines repatriates’ strategies to claim U.S. citizenship and to secure aid from the U.S. government. In claiming U.S. citizenship, repatriates replicated formal political strategies used by migrants, used their transnational familial networks, and echoed New Deal and Depression era discourse, particularly new conceptions of citizenship. By examining repatriates’ claims to U.S. citizenship during the Great Depression, we can gain a better understanding of migrant-state relations, the limits and possibilities of practicing U.S. citizenship in Mexico, and the role of transnational families.
Respondent: Geraldo Cadava, Northwestern University