American History Museum Explores the Era of the Bracero

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In the black-and-white 1956 photograph, a Mexican man presents his himself to two U.S. inspectors who scrutinize his hands, looking for the telling marks of back-breaking labor in the fields: blisters, calluses and weathered, rough skin. This man is entering the country under a guest worker program that for 22 years offered Mexican laborers temporary work visas—but only for agricultural jobs. Beginning in World War II, to satisfy a need for more workers, a federal initiative officially named the Emergency Farm Labor Program, but more commonly known as the "bracero" program, encouraged some two million Mexican migrant workers to enter the United States until it was ended in 1964.

The social dimension and how it affected the men, their families and their communities is examined in a new show, "Bittersweet Harvest," currently on view at the National Museum of American History.

In Mexico, the term bracero was used for laborer and is derived from the Spanish word for arm, brazo. "This exhibition allows us to explore complex issues of race, class, community and national origin while highlighting the irrefutable contributions by Mexican Americans to the American society," said Brent D. Glass, the museum's director.

In 1998, the museum purchased 1,700 photographs of braceros by Leonard Nadel, who in 1956 was hired by an arm of the Ford Foundation to document the entire day-to-day experience of the workers.

Sixteen of his original prints are on display. A slide slow contains an additional 170 images.

Click through our photo gallery to view some of Nadel's poignant photographs.

See other highlights and events at the Smithsonian and other Washington D. C. venues in celebration of  National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through October 15.

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