Map of Mississippi
Mississippi Tejanos and Braceros, 1940s-1960s
Though Mississippi farmers were comparatively slow to take advantage of the guest worker program that would come to be known as the Bracero program, their fates were tied to it. The influx of Mexican laborers into Texas after 1942 made it easier for Mississippi farmers to recruit Tejanos for the picking season. Soon, Mississippi farmers tried to free themselves from dependence on Texan farmers’ leftover labor, and in 1947 they began recruiting braceros of their own. Though Mississippi farmers never received nearly as many braceros as their counterparts in the Arkansas Delta, in some years the mid-South employed significant shares of the bracero labor force. For example, in the fall of 1954, the states with the highest number of contracted braceros were Texas (345,500), California (277,800), Arkansas (149,400), Mississippi (119,900), and Louisiana (107,700). The leadership of the Mississippi Delta Council actively lobbied Congress for the program’s continuation and the minimization of its financial requirements, and Congress’s Agriculture Committee put Greenville on its itinerary for farm labor hearings in 1950.
Yet, bracero contracting required organized farmers’ associations, minimum standards for housing and wages, and the threat of supervision and intervention from the Mexican consulate. Thus, for most of the era, Mississippi’s cotton farmers preferred to bring Tejanos up to the Delta. In so doing, they took advantage of Texan farmers’ bracero recruitment, and of Mississippi’s slightly later picking season, to recruit Texas’s surplus labor. Mexican Americans from Texas picked cotton alongside African Americans, German POWs, and braceros during the war years. During the 1950s, hundreds of Tejano families settled in the Delta, where they performed agricultural labor until they were slowly replaced by mechanical cotton pickers.
Although braceros and Tejanos labored in the same fields, their lives were markedly different. Braceros came as single men; Tejanos were more likely to come as families. Braceros remained only seasonally, whereas many Tejanos stayed in the area for longer periods of time or even settled there. Braceros were almost entirely isolated on plantations, whereas many Tejanos had their own cars and trucks, which made it possible for them to join their families on the weekend. Bracero Luis Gutierrez Velasquez, who worked in Mississippi during 1947-1948, picked cotton alongside 60 other braceros, half of whom were from his small town in Durango, Mexico. So isolated was the work crew that during his time in Mississippi, Gutierrez saw not a single black person. Other braceros sometimes went to town on Saturdays, but Gutierrez saw only rows of cotton during his weeks of picking.
Though Tejanos led a largely private cultural and communal life, many found a limited acceptance from whites in the Delta, particularly if they had some education. The Soto family, for example, arrived to Rosedale in 1962, having heard that Mississippi would be a welcome escape from the abysmally low wages and Anglo-Mexican tensions of Texas. They were not disappointed: the father, Daniel, a trained electrician, found well-paid work in his profession something the anti-Mexican racism of Texas had never allowed him. In Texas, Soto had worked out in the field sometimes. He didn’t make any money there, recalled his wife Alice, maybe 5 dollars a day. Here [in Mississippi] it was $1.25 an hour. We felt rich!4 Their daughter, a high school student, felt shunned by whites in Texas; in Mississippi, she became friends with them.
Yet, Mexican Americans’ limited possibilities for assimilation were not without condition, and they most typically avoided association with blacks. The feeling may have been mutual; the Sotos remembered being turned away from a black lunch counter they had entered by mistake. This is the black side, you go to the white side, they were told.5 Intermarriage between Mexican Americans and whites was acceptable in the Delta by this era, whereas other Tejanos married each other or the children of Mexican migrants who had come to the area in the interwar years. As the civil rights movement began to build in the Mississippi Delta during the 1950s, the region’s Mexican Americans remained silent, at the sidelines. By the time the movement flourished in the early 1960s, most Tejanos had moved on. Displaced by the mechanical cotton picker, they went to pick fruit in Florida’s orchards.
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