October 11, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan
By NOEL PANGILINAN
MARIA Serrano held up an enlarged picture of her late husband, Rico Serrano. She was onstage, seated on the rightmost wing of a table where a panel of speakers were taking turns explaining why they were in New York. When it was Serrano’s turn to speak, she said in her soft voice, that her late husband Rico was an ex-Bracero.
“He came here in the United States three times under the Bracero program,” Serrano said in Spanish through an interpreter. “And he told me about the humiliation and maltreatment that they had to suffer.”
Onstage with Serrano were former Braceros and advocates demanding that the Mexican government release the pension money that the Braceros earned while working in the United States.
“We want the United Nations, the American public and the world to know the injustices done to ex-Braceros,” Rosa Martha Zarate, director of Alianza de Ex-Braceros del Norte, said at the forum inside the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in Manhattan.
Braceros are Mexican workers recruited to work in farms, construction sites and railroads in the United States to replace American workers who were sent overseas to fight during World War II.
From 1942 to 1964, more than 4.6 million Mexicans came to the U.S. under this guest worker program. They were called Braceros, from the Spanish word “brazo”, which means “arm”, since they were made to provide manual labor.
The Braceros said they are supposed to receive pension as a result of their contributions under the Bracero Agreement signed by the United States and Mexico on August 4, 1942.
The agreement states:
“The United States shall be responsible for the safekeeping of the sums contributed by the Mexican workers toward the formation of their Rural Savings Fund, until such sums are transferred to the Wells Fargo Bank and Union Trust Company of San Francisco for the account of the Bank of Mexico, S.A., which will transfer such amounts to the Mexican Agricultural Credit Bank. This last shall assume responsibility for the deposit, for the safekeeping and for the application, or in the absence of these, for the return of such amounts.”
About 10 percent of the Braceros’ earnings were deducted by American farm owners and were sent to U.S. banks which in turn sent the money to Mexican banks. The money was supposed to go to a pension fund for the Braceros.
The Braceros, however, said they did not receive a single penny from the fund when the program ended in 1964.
The U.S. government claimed it transferred the money to the Mexican government. But the Mexican government refused to release the money. Zarate estimated that with interest, the money could very well amount to an estimated $500 million.
Another advocate, Estela Jimenez from Mexico, criticized the U.S. government for giving the money to the Mexican government and not directly to the workers. “The Mexican government did not work here. It was the Braceros who worked here. Why did the American government not pay the Braceros when they sent them home?”
After several class suits filed by the Braceros, the Mexican government in 2005 announced a settlement payout of 38,000 pesos or about $3,500. However, it said it will release the money only if the Braceros could provide pay stubs, work visas, labor contracts or other documents proving they worked in the U.S. under the program.
“The Mexican government seized the Braceros’ work permits and documents as soon as they returned to Mexico,” Jimenez said. “Why did the Mexican government take away the papers of the Braceros?”
Fortunately for Maria Elyda Samarrones Escarcega, she was able to keep her father’s Alien Laborer’s Permit, or Bracero permit. She showed a picture of her father, Francisco Samarrones Gonzales, picking cotton and loading sacks of cotton on trucks.
“I’ve been fighting for this for six to seven years now. Until this day, we haven’t received a single cent,” Escarcega, who is based in Chihuahua, Mexico, said.
The ex-Braceros’ delegation motored to New York to expose the Mexican government’s failure to give their pension before the United Nations. They then proceeded to Washington, D.C. to ask the Obama administration to pressure the Mexican government to pay the ex-Braceros.
But for Maria Serrano, there is more about the ex-Braceros’ plight that needs to be told.
Already 80 years old, she decided to join the caravan of about 17 ex-Braceros and supporters and travelled 2,500 miles to bring attention to the humiliation and human rights abuses suffered by her late husband and the other Braceros.
Serrano said her late husband told her what they had to go through just to get jobs in America.
“They had to undergo physical examination. They were asked to strip naked, all of them in one big room. Then doctors inserted their fingers inside their anuses,” she said through an interpreter. “After the physical exam, they were sprayed with DDT. That was my concern – that my husband will get sick of cancer because of the DDT that was sprayed on them.”
Marco Jacinzo, a college student in New York City who volunteered to translate for the ex-Braceros, said when he was growing up, he heard stories about the ordeal of the Braceros but did not believe them at that time. “But some of the ex-Braceros here told me their stories. They really went through a lot.”
“To me that’s torture. That’s human degradation. Sadly, a lot of them are no longer alive to tell their experience,” said Jacinzo, whose parents are immigrants from Mexico.
“I can’t believe this ever happened in this country, a First World country. We are supposed to be a Free World,” he said. “And my Mexican government is stealing money from these people?”
The ex-Braceros’ caravan in to the United States came at a time when the U.S. Congress is considering a new guest worker program under a pending immigration reform bill in Congress. Zarate of the Alianza de Ex-Braceros del Norte said it would be wise for the U.S. Congress to reexamine the Braceros program to avoid committing the mistakes of the past.
“Legalized slavery,” was how the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, had described the Bracero program.