You don’t have to read farther than the headlines to know that immigration is a hot topic. In fact, it always has been, it has just been pushed to center stage by current events.
If you are among those who find rhetoric about law-breaking, gang-banging, terrorist immigrants unsettling, you might feel the need for a happy immigrant story. If so, this is your lucky day.
I had a nice visit with Candido Morales last week. He is retired and living in Windsor again after more than a decade as director of the Mexican government’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad, an assignment which took him to live and work in Mexico City but also to travel this country, paying regular visits to the many Mexican consulates, tending to the welfare of Mexican citizens in the United States on behalf of the Mexican president.
This kid from Oaxaca, transplanted to Windsor, educated at Healdsburg High, Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University, is, as you might imagine, a source of considerable pride among the Latino community.
I might well write a whole column about Candido and his Mexico City sojourn (it’s on my “futures” list), but this time we are talking about his father, Rafael.
Rafael Morales came from the tiny, impoverished Mexican village of Tequixtepec. There, he started a grocery business, mastered reading and writing, and became mayor of his small town, an unpaid job that filled him with “dreaming.” When his grocery store burned, leaving him in debt for the stock, he was determined to find a way to make a better living, telling his wife Concepcion, “the better I go to the north.”
It was 1951 when he made the six-day train trip from Oaxaca to Mexicali, joining the crowd of hopefuls looking for a way to cross the border and find work.
The Bracero program, the 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico predicated on a farm labor crisis created by World War II, was still in effect. It allowed Mexican men to come to this country at harvest time, in groups provided by American labor contractors.
The money they made and their reports of the government-supervised camps — with the luxury of tents that had wooden floors and showers — created a rush to the borders.
Braceros (the word, literally, means “people who work with their arms”) had to be issued “a contract,” as Rafael termed it, to cross the border. Labor contractors could not recruit in Mexico but had to wait until their prospective workers came across with that “contract” green card in hand.
By the time Rafael hit the border in ’51, the promise of Mexican wealth from U.S. wages was so alluring that there were many more hopefuls crowding the line than there were green cards to be found.
“Somebody told me there were bracero contracts in Mexicali,” Rafael told me in a 1989 video interview. There weren’t. And that started a kind of wild goose chase through border towns, looking for a legal way to cross. Finding none, he said, he started thinking about “another way to come.”
The “other way” wasn’t easy, crossing through openings cut into the wire border fence that were left unrepaired. Work was available by the day from growers who skirted the regulations of the Bracero program, waiting near the fence to hire, paying almost nothing and leaving the workers to find their own way back. Or not.