In a crowd of nearly 100 protesters gathered downtown Friday to taunt Mexican President Vicente Fox, a small group of men in their 60s and 70s stand in their crisp Western-style shirts and straw hats with a message for Fox: Your government owes us money.
Or, at least, they think it does. These men waiting for Fox today, members of La Unión Binacional de Ex-Braceros, represent the remnants of the United States’ last guest-worker program (they were called braceros, after the Spanish word for “arm”). When the program ended 40-odd years ago, 10 percent of the accumulated savings of those workers went missing.
“It was money we all had to send to the bank in Mexico,” explains ex-bracero Trinadad Diaz, who speaks to me patiently in clear and slow Spanish. The money was supposed to be returned to each worker at the end of each year’s contract. Last March, the Mexican government announced it had set aside $27 million to pay most of the former laborers, but Diaz, like many other ex-braceros living in California, discovered his name was not on the list.
“No one paid us, ever,” Diaz says. “The United States says it paid Mexico. The government of Mexico says it doesn’t know where it is.”
“But we know where it is,” Diaz’s friend, Gonzalo Rodarte, chimes in, wagging a finger. “He has it.” Rodarte points across Olive Street to the door of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, where Fox is expected to appear. “It’s time for him to pay us.”
Sixty-eight-year-old Diaz is among the youngest of the ex-braceros; he worked in different places around California in the 1950s, picking lettuce and cotton. He is short and stocky with bluntly cut black hair, and he always seems to be chuckling. When I remark that he has no gray hair, he smiles and pats me on the shoulder.
“I use color!” he confides jubilantly.
“Me, too!” I admit.
At first, the rest of the men are standoffish, but my laughing with Diaz draws them in, and they treat my clumsy Spanish with a pleasant solicitousness that harks back to another time. Rodarte, who wears a pressed yellow shirt and a baseball cap, offers to speak some English, and he begins introducing his friends in a soft, formal voice with a little wave of his hand and a bow for each one.
“These are my brothers,” he announces. “They are good men.”
In his poem “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” Woody Guthrie raged against the newspaper reporters who stripped the braceros of their names and documented them in death only as “deportees.” Does it mean something, then, that these men on Olive Street, so unlike other random people reporters buttonhole for quotes, are so eager to be identified? When I mangle the spellings of their names in my notebook, they take out their driver’s licenses to help me; they show me the weathered identification cards they carried with them while they were temporary workers. They insist that I come to their next meeting, and Rodarte hands me a sheet of paper, a photocopied second page of a newspaper article, with the location scrawled on it in handwritten Spanish. “Please,” he says in English. “We will be happy to see you there.”
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As the men talk, an entourage makes its way through the crowd. I back away to make room, but Rodarte pushes me forward. “It’s our boss,” he says. “You should talk to him.” A dark-haired man in sunglasses, whose presence commands authority despite his relatively small stature, Baldomero Capiz speaks brusquely. “Our lawyers in San Francisco tell us that each of the workers is owed 38,000 pesos,” he says — roughly $3,500. He gives me a flier written in Spanish legalese, calling for Fox to include ex-braceros who live in California and Baja California on the official list of workers the government owes money.
I step away to decipher the letter, and notice that the crowd has thinned. “Where’s Fox?” I ask a reporter for a Spanish-language news crew on the corner.
“He already went inside,” she says.
The ex-braceros don’t leave, but linger around talking. An old woman eating corn on the cob nearby laughs at them. And in the course of the afternoon, a Fox sighting seems to have become irrelevant.