They were old men wearing cowboy hats, some leaning on canes, others holding hand-lettered signs. Today they gathered across the street from the Mexican consulate near MacArthur Park to pressure the government of Felipe Calderon to cough up money owed them. Between 1942 and 1964 these men had been part of the Bracero Program, through which the United States “imported” nearly five million Mexican laborers to harvest its fields and mine its ore. The program first began during WWII, when America's domestic manpower shortage caused a tectonic shift in the roles that gender and nationality played in the workforce. It continued afterward, when the program became a boon to agricultural interests. Throughout those years 10 percent of the guest laborers' wages had been garnished and sent to Mexico, where the money supposedly was kept in banks for bracero pensions. Most never saw a peso.
Lupe Rodriguez of the
Frente Civico Zacatecano.
Although the retirement fund was essentially looted by corrupt
officials over the decades, recent governments in Mexico City have
secured new funds to pay roughly $3,800 to each bracero, or to their survivors. In the U.S., former braceros can file compensation claims at Mexican consulates. The problem for the estimated 50-70,000 eligible Southern California recipients — many of whom are naturalized citizens — is a
Mexican government decree declaring that the money can only be picked up
Around 11 a.m. the men joined a small huddle of
protesters, organized by members of Alianza Binacional Braceroproa, to demand that the pensions be disbursed
through Mexican consulates in the U.S. The group seemed to get lost
against the carnival backdrop of street vendors, petitioners and
parking lot flagmen who practically live outside the fortress-like
consulate. A fat rat waddled along the sidewalk of the Sixth
Street side of the complex, while a TV van from Spanish-language
media parked on Grand View Street caused traffic to slow. The local
English news stations were nowhere to be seen — there was that big
elephant story going on.
Rally spokesman Juan Jose Gutierrez said that
a Federal court in Northern California had helped broker a settlement
in which Mexico agreed to disburse compensations on American soil to
braceros or their survivors for those men who worked in the U.S. between
1942 and 1946. Gutierrez said that while he and other activists will continue
to demonstrate outside the L.A. consulate for U.S. disbursements, they plan to organize a
caravan to Mexicali on December 20 to obtain pension checks on the Mexican
side of the border for those living in California. Time, Gutierrez believes, is running out — applicants have until the end of January to file for compensation.