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Cheap for Whom? Migration, Farm Labor, and Social Reproduction in the Imperial Valley-Mexicali Borderlands, 1942-1969

  • Author(s): Mendez, Alina Ramirez;
  • Advisor(s): Molina, Natalia;
  • Gutierrez, David G.
  • et al.
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This dissertation argues that the agriculture industry in California’s Imperial Valley has enjoyed ample access to cheap labor since the mid-twentieth century because Mexicali, Baja California Norte, its Mexican neighbor, has subsidized the reproduction of a transborder labor force employed in agriculture but otherwise denied social membership in the United States. This subsidy from Mexicali to the Imperial Valley began in 1942 with the start of the Bracero Program and continued well past the program’s end in 1964. The guest worker program produced contrasting socioeconomic transformations on each side of the border: the Imperial Valley obtained a cheap source of labor, while Mexicali faced mounting socioeconomic pressures from a growing and urbanizing population.

Cheap for Whom demonstrates that key individuals and institutions on both sides of the US-Mexico border learned important lessons about the profitability of creating a transborder labor force that externalized labor maintenance and reproduction to Mexico. The Bracero Program normalized the practice of employing workers—or as the Spanish term “bracero” suggests, employing brazos (arms)—without incorporating them into the communities where they labored. The social costs of maintaining a seasonal migrant labor force, in other words, remained hidden under the Bracero Program because braceros were employed in the United States during seasonal periods of labor need and expected to return to their families and communities in Mexico once they were no longer required in American fields. The Bracero Program was thus a pivotal moment in the US transition from importing workers to exporting jobs; it served as a first exercise in outsourcing the responsibilities of maintaining and reproducing workers.

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This item is under embargo until September 30, 2023.