Elderly Braceros Fight for Stolen Pensions

Elderly Braceros Fight for Stolen Pensions

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SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Their days were long, their nights short, but their labor under the hot sun were also driven by dreams of returning home to Mexico -- and the embrace of their loved ones. Back home, these Mexican workers hoped the U.S. dollars the earned would enable them to add a new room to the old house, or perhaps buy a cow or parcel of land.

Before dawn, migrant workers returned to the field where their dreams met the reality of hard labor — bending their backs, filling their baskets, plowing, climbing fruit trees sweating on the dry earth. They rarely paused to rest, cold weather or hot. Work breaks were not legally scheduled. Food was scant. Days off were few. Even so, they were happy because they could dream of a future.

Access to work in the United States began during World War II, when the United States opened its borders to these workers. Some 4.5 million Mexicans came to the United States from 1942 to 1967, to work in agriculture. They were called braceros, a term rooted in the Latin and Greek words for arms. Those in America’s bracero program had nothing else to offer besides the power of their biceps, the grip of their hands.

In the eyes of the United States government, los braceros were far from illegal. They were soldiers in the fields, filling the void created when American workers were recruited to fight in Europe or the Pacific theater.

The workers, grateful there was work aplenty, got bused from farm to farm across America. What did DDT spraying matter, or the crowded conditions in work camps?

Through all the years of salting American soil with their sweat, braceros turned over 10 percent of their earnings to the Mexican government, which promised in writing that all their money would be returned on the workers’ retirement.

Many braceros, enamored of the United States, decided to remain north of the border. They overstayed their visas, but found steady work in the fields. They became fathers and then grandfathers of future generations of U.S. citizens.

Others returned to Mexico, too deeply attached to their homeland. But once back, braceros and their families were nobodies in the eyes of their government. They had nothing, so they got nothing -- no schools, no health care, no jobs, no future.

But whether they returned or stayed, the braceros assumed that their 10 percent earnings, cut from their paychecks, would eventually be returned to them. Now, nearly six decades later, the braceros have learned that the money their government took from them is nowhere to be found.

“We already had calluses on our hands and still couldn’t make a living,” recalls Leobardo Villa, 75, a native from Puebla, who resides legally in Pomona, Calif. “We did everything we could to be selected and get across [the border].’’

Villa arrived in the United States in 1954, and just like the millions of other men who came during the 25 year-period of the bracero program, he picked oranges, grapes, avocados, lemons and every other possible fruit or vegetable growing north of the border.

“I was born in a ranch and never had the chance to go to school,” said Antonio Rodriguez, 63, a native from the Mexican state of Durango. “There was plenty of poverty.”

Most of los braceros learned only lately that the money taken from their paychecks was delivered by the United States to the Mexican government. When some ex-braceros began spreading the story of the lost money, the Mexican government denied any part in it.

In January of 2001, former braceros showed up at the federal courthouses in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to file a lawsuit against both governments, demanding their funds be returned. Both governments tried to get the lawsuit thrown out.

The United States argued that the lawsuit belonged in Mexican courts. After declaring that it was immune from suits filed in foreign courts, the Mexican government argued that there was no documentation supporting the braceros’ claim. In fact, both governments had set up bank accounts for the transference of funds.

In 2002, Alfredo Corchado and Ricardo Sandoval, investigative reporters at the Dallas Morning News, found in the Library of Congress and the Mexican National Archives documents indicating that “the bracero program leaked money everywhere,” and the funds, sent to various Mexican government-run banks, was grossly mismanaged.

In 2005, after exhausting their denials, the Mexican government agreed to pay out a settlement of 38,000 pesos (about $3,000) to anyone who could prove with documentation that he or she had indeed worked in the bracero program. There was no credit given to any interest the funds had earned for six decades.

“According to our lawyers, the Mexican government owed the braceros an amount ranging between $500 million and a billion dollars, counting interest,” said Baldomero Capiz, leader of Union Binacional de Braceros.

“The Mexican government has cheated on the braceros, just like it has cheated on generation after generation of fellow Mexicans. Now they are proposing that they would pay (a total of) $3,000," over a three-year period, which amount to about $86 a month."What good is that?” asked Manuel Robles.

Robles is a retired professor, who every Sunday leads a group of braceros in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in a demonstration at the central plaza to hear the latest good and bad news about their case.

Who knows? The legal maneuverings could outlast the braceros, who are now old men, many years after dreaming and working the fields.