This Memorial Day, the American nation once again paid tribute to the fallen military men and women who have helped to maintain democracy and freedom in the Western world. These members of the armed forces who fought and died for the USA should be honored on this day and always for their bravery and willingness to die so that their fellow countrymen and countrywomen continue to enjoy the so-called, American way of life.
However, I would like to remind everyone of the well-known fact that wars are not won only on the battlefield but also at home. The Greatest Generation could never have defeated the Axis Powers during World War II without the women who produced the deathly tools of the war machine in the United States. These women are mythologized in the famous image of Rosie the Riveter. There were also others who helped in the war effort in very significant ways. I would like to bring attention to one of these groups that are hardly mentioned on occasions such as Memorial Day. I’m talking about the thousands of Mexican braceros (guest workers) who played a crucial role in winning the Second World War.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, relations between the U.S. and Mexico had been strained for years not just on account of the nationalization of the oil fields, which put a dent on the profit margins of some American oil companies; but also because of an episode that has been kept out of the national history books: the deportation of perhaps as many as one million Mexicans immigrants during the 1930s, which Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez have justly called the “Decade of Betrayal.” Many of these immigrants had made the U.S. their home since the early years of the twentieth century. They had married and formed families, raising their American-born children in this country. When the Great Depression hit, politicians and nativist groups unjustly blamed them for the lack of jobs and presumed they were taking advantage of welfare aid. American workers were led to believe that if Mexicans left the country the effects of the economic depression would diminish. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Thus began one of the largest deportation of people in the twentieth century; by train, boat, car, horse, and even on foot, Mexicans everywhere in the USA were repatriated. Those who resisted found themselves constantly harassed by government officials and nativists until they “willingly” decided to leave the U.S. and return to Mexico, along with their American children whose constitutional rights were ignored, violated or simply forgotten.
Who cared, said the nativist, the deportees were Mexican, they would be better off in Mexico with their own kind. But the deportees returned to a country not only hit by the same economic depression as its northern neighbor, it was also trying to recover from the devastation of a recent revolution. Mexico lacked the resources and infrastructure to absorb so many returning migrants, which would only increase the suffering of the deportees who found themselves in another country that really didn’t want them. Moreover, social difficulties arose because in their long absence they had lost cultural and political connection to their communities of origin. But it was their American-born children who would have to endure the most in Mexico, a country that was foreign to them and, in many ways, hostile. These American boys and girls would always yearn to return to the country of their birth to which they rightly belonged, the USA.
This was the situation when the Nazis let hell loose upon Europe. You would think that when the Americans joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mexicans would refuse to support them as payback for the heartless treatment they had received from their neighbors during the previous decade, but that was not the case. First, many of the deported children, now young men and women, volunteered to return to the land of their birth to defend the country and the American authorities who not long ago had categorized them as not “real Americans.” The deportee’s love of country was evident as they forgave the gross violations of their civil rights; the women joined the workforce alongside Rosie the Riveter, and the young men quickly enlisted to fight the enemies of the nation that had let them down.
Then, when the Americans found themselves in need of workers, especially to harvest the crops in many parts of the United States, they turned to Mexico just as they had done during the First World War. Surprisingly, the neighbors to the south looked past the recent mistreatment and humiliation of their fellow citizens and agreed to enter into a guest work program that allowed Americans to contract Mexican workers for a period of time to pick seasonal crops and for other types of jobs left vacant by the men fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
From 1942 to 1945, over a hundred thousand Mexican men, some from urban areas but mainly from the countryside, left their towns to toil in the fields of many states of la Unión Americana to make sure the soldiers and other personnel in the armed forces as well as the people in the U.S. nation were fed properly. These men made many sacrifices such leaving their families for long periods of time (some braceros even died in El Norte) to ensure that the Americans prevailed over the Nazis and the Japanese. Mexico could’ve easily sat out the war in revenge toward the U.S., but the braceros put aside their historical grudges (Mexicans had accumulated quite a few) and helped their neighbors in their time of need.
One of these men was my father, José Filemón Ramírez Aguilera, who at twenty-one years of age left his village, Copándaro, Michoacán, against his mother’s wishes, to work in the fields of Oregon and California. On many occasions, we talked about his experiences as a young bracero. During one of those talks, his face lit up as he said: “I still remember the day we were working in the fields of San Bernardino, California. Suddenly, people started honking their car horns, sirens went off, and bells were ringing in churches. We stopped working to see what was going on. Then the boss came up to us and said they had just won the war.” I said, “Dad, you also won the war.” He just shrugged his shoulders and smiled nostalgically. My father knew that those years from 1943-1945 had changed dramatically the course of his life, yet he— like most braceros of this period—was unaware that he had also helped to change the course of world history.
It is time we honor these Mexican braceros, the silent heroes from World War II, and recognize the crucial role they played in saving the U.S. and the world from totalitarianism.