During World War II, they came north to work on America’s farms and railroads so American men could fight overseas.
A 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments provided for thousands of “braceros” to work primarily as farm laborers to free up American manpower for the war effort. The program continued after the war into the mid-1960s and ultimately involved several million workers.
Part of that agreement called for 10 percent of the workers’ wages to be withheld in savings funds that were supposed to be turned over to them when the men returned to Mexico.
But for many of them, that part of the bargain was never kept.
And on Saturday, some of those aggrieved former workers and their families came to Kansas City to raise awareness of their story and to try to receive the compensation they are owed. They also want to obtain U.S. government documents to determine the extent of the fraud they say they were victims of.
The group is on a cross-country caravan heading to Washington, D.C., and New York, and they intend to tell their stories to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.
At a news conference Saturday at the downtown Kansas City Public Library, members of the U.S. Alliance of Ex-Braceros of the North talked about their mission.
Julian Acevedo was 19 in 1962 when he came to California to harvest melons.
“It was very hot, very tiring work,” he said.
And they did it for about a dollar an hour.
Acevedo said he volunteered to make the trip this year to represent all of the other braceros from the region of Mexico where he lives.
“My father and brother were braceros, and I felt the urge to join this struggle,” he said.
California resident Maria Serrano Vdade, now 83, made the trip to represent her late husband and other former braceros who live in the United States. Her husband came to the United States in 1943 and helped build railroads in Nevada.
“We are not here begging,” she said. “We are demanding that the 10 percent be returned to us.”
It was a coincidence that their Kansas City visit came while there is an exhibit now showing at the library that chronicles the story of the braceros.
The Bittersweet Harvest exhibit served as the backdrop for Saturday’s event.
Rosa Martha Zarate, U.S. coordinator of the caravan, said many of those former workers are living today in “extreme poverty.”
While receiving the pay they were owed is an important part of their journey, she said they should also be able to claim “their place in history with the proper respect and dignity they deserve.”
Among those greeting the former workers was Theresa Torres, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“These workers deserve our gratitude and thanks for working in our fields and factories at a time of strife as our nation sent our sons to war,” Torres said.