Digital Resources: The Bracero History Archive
Summary and Keywords
Between 1942 and 1964 millions of Mexicans came to the United States as guest workers, authorized by a set of bilateral agreements. Beginning in late 2005, a coalition of academic scholars and public historians from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University came together to launch an effort to gather the stories of those workers. This unprecedented project resulted in the collection of oral histories, documents, and images over the course of five years. It involved not only scholars but also a host of local community groups that enabled the partners to surface previously hidden materials that were unlikely to make it into traditional archival collections. The collection and dissemination process was facilitated by the creation of the , an open-access website that allowed the project partners to simultaneously build the collections from widely dispersed locations as they worked to document the lives and experiences of those workers.
The Bracero History Archive serves as the primary repository for the stories, documents, and artifacts associated with the migrant laborers from Mexico who came to the United States under the auspices of the more than 4.6 million contracts issued during the years of the Mexican Farm Labor Program. As such, it is an important complement to the established scholarship on the program. At the same time, the site serves as a model of how to undertake and complete a distributed collecting project that builds upon important community relationships. This combination of scholarly value and methodological innovation was essential to ensuring the funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access that made the project possible. In recent years, the project has proven important for contemporary work on the Mexican Farm Labor Program, and it has contributed to enhancing our understanding of migration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
The creation of the Bracero History Archive (BHA) has been a successful experiment in building an open, collaborative, “intentional archive” to surface and provide access to previously unavailable stories, documents, and images related to the bracero guest worker experience of 1942 to 1964 in the United States. To develop the technical and relational infrastructure for the project required the team to capitalize on a significant range of expertise in Latino studies, oral history, public history, curatorial practice, and Web platform development. Beginning in 2005, the work of the project deployed a strategy of widely distributed collecting that depended on building strong relationships with local historical and community organizations. The project’s primary goal was to develop relationships with hard-to-access communities around the United States and in Mexico, and to provide those communities with a path to preserving and sharing their history and collections. The result of these collaborative efforts is the single-largest digital multimedia collection dealing with the history of the Bracero Program as a lived experience. This virtual archive serves as an essential foundation for future scholarly work by providing unprecedented access to the recollections and artifacts of individual workers who experienced the day-to-day reality of short-term contract labor during this period.
The BHA currently holds a fully searchable collection of 3,174 items collected from a dozen U.S. states and several areas of Mexico. The archive is searchable by keyword or by metadata field, and is browsable, as well. Data fields were strictly standardized so that searches are as productive and accurate as possible. Included in the archive are 636 oral histories, which contain audio files of complete interviews and, in many cases, written transcripts. Additionally, the archive holds nearly 2,000 photographs. This includes approximately 1,700 from the Leonard Nadel Collection, but also nearly 300 photographs obtained during the interview process or contributed by users. The BHA currently contains more than 500 documents of such varying types as identification cards, pay stubs, postcards, contracts, and certificates. Finally, visitors to the BHA have contributed several dozen other items—usually personal stories or recollections—to the archive.
The Bracero Program (1942–1964)
The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program. An examination of the images, stories, documents, and artifacts of the Bracero Program contributes to our understanding of the lives of migrant workers in Mexico and the United States, as well as our knowledge of immigration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942, the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms (officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program), and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. But the program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.
The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers, including the guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at the employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract.
Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, employers ignored many of these rules, and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap labor. Between the 1940s and mid-1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society.
Embedded in the Bracero Program are the social and cultural narratives of millions of migrants who have been virtually invisible in traditional accounts of American migration and immigration. For instance, the tension that arose between braceros and Mexican-American men over the courtship of women has proven to be a fruitful area for study of intra-ethnic conflict. This conflict also led to a disruption in the traditional nuclear family. Historian Matt Garcia has argued that such a disruption led to “the relative autonomy of a new generation of Mexican-American women” and allowed those women “the freedom to make their own decisions about whom they should and should not date.”1 On both sides of the border, the Bracero Program affected and transformed Mexicans’ familial relationships.
The Bracero Program also intersects with the long and complicated history of the labor movement in the United States and its relationship to issues of migration, immigration, and citizenship. Historically, most labor unions have opposed illegal immigration and advocated the deportation of undocumented workers. The legal status of braceros produced ambivalence among the unions. Even though the American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported ending the Bracero Program, some of its affiliates organized among braceros. In the 1950s, for example, representatives of the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU), a union affiliated with the AFL, used a variety of tactics, including Spanish-language materials and “Mexican committees” (local groups that would be loosely associated with each NFLU chapter) to organize braceros and to address their concerns as workers. The committees were “modeled on union auxiliaries” and “held separate meetings in Spanish, fostered pride in the raza Mexicana, and promised that ethnic Mexican issues would not be forgotten by whites.” As historian Stephen Pitti argues, the NFLU’s approach grew out of a transnational ideology. Rather than attempt to rally all farm workers around a common “Americanism based in the rights of U.S. citizenship,” these Mexican committees “became a vehicle for emphasizing to Spanish-speaking audiences that ethnic participation in the NFLU was an extension of the long-standing political struggles of the Mexican people.”2
By the early 1960s, American agribusiness became less dependent upon imported contract labor, particularly because of growing mechanization in the farming of cotton (the chief crop drawing braceros in Texas, Arizona, and parts of California) and sugar beets (a major crop in California and the upper Midwest). In addition, the growth of liberalism and civil rights led to increasing criticism of the abuse of workers under the Bracero Program. In addition, Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 television exposé “Harvest of Shame” (and related books and articles) galvanized public opinion about the plight of migrant workers. With agribusiness less in need of guest workers, and activists calling for an end to the program, Congress allowed the law to expire on December 31, 1964.
Terminating the Bracero Program was partly a solution to the immigration debates during the 1960s. In the public’s mind, Mexican laborers had increasingly been associated with illegal status, even if those workers were braceros with legal contract status. As historian Mae Ngai demonstrates, “illegal alienage” is not a natural or fixed condition but the product of “positive law;” it is contingent and at times unstable. The line between legal and illegal status was crossed in both directions. The shifts in the boundary between legal and illegal status, as Ngai explains, tell us a great deal about how the nation has imagined and constructed itself over time. Immigration policy is a constitutive element of Americans’ understanding of national membership and citizenship since it draws lines of inclusion and exclusion that articulate a desired composition—imagined if not necessarily realized—of the nation.
Discussion of the Literature
At the foundation of historical examinations of the Bracero Program is Ernesto Galarza’s Strangers in our Fields (1956), an account of the experience of braceros from their departure from Mexico to their work in the United States, which was the basis for congressional testimony that helped end the program. He followed up in 1963 with an account of a truck and train collision that resulted in the death of thirty-two braceros. Finally, in 1964 he published the influential Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story: An Account of the Managed Migration of Mexican Farm Workers in California, 1942–1960, which offered a full account of the Bracero Program and the dynamics it generated with the larger agricultural labor movement.
Of the scholarship developed after the close of the program, but before the launch of the Bracero History Archive (BHA), Manuel García y Griego’s article “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States, 1942–1964” (1983, reprinted in 1996) remains the most authoritative and focused study of the politics leading to and through the management of the bilateral agreement. Book-length studies include Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942–1947 (1990); Barbara Driscoll, The Tracks North: The Railroad Bracero Program of World War II (1998); and Gilbert González, Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States (2006). Gilbert González, Mexican Consuls and Labor Organizing: Imperial Politics in the American Southwest (1999), on the role of the consuls in bracero exploitation and labor conditions, and Kitty Calavita’s Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration and the I.N.S. (1992, 2010 with new foreword), on the federal government structures that allowed for the creation and maintenance of the program, both offer a sense of the higher-level structural elements that governed the functioning of the bracero program. Finally, Ana Rosas’ 2006 dissertation from the University of Southern California, which became Abrazando el Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (2014), provides an examination of the personal lives and the stakes within these transnational labor communities.
There are also a number of essential article or chapter-length examinations of bracero history. Three other scholars have written about the program within larger books about Mexican immigration and labor. Mae Ngai positions braceros in relation to other documented and undocumented immigrants in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004). Stephen Pitti explores braceros’ relationships with Mexican-Americans and other Mexican immigrants within the context of labor organizing in The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (2003). Matt Garcia focuses on the impact of the program on Mexican-American women in A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900–1970 (2001). Additionally, Garcia takes on questions of masculinity in the article, “Cain contra Abel: Courtship, Masculinities, and Citizenship in Southern California, 1942–1964,” in the edited collection, Race, Nation, and Empire in American History (2007).
Since the launch of the BHA project, a number of additional scholars have published work in the field that does not make use of the resources gathered in the digital collection. Essential works include Don Mitchell’s They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-era California (2012); Deborah Cohen’s Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico (2011); and Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C. S. Swords’s Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA (2011). Each of these works provides valuable context and perspective through which scholars can read and interpret the materials available from the BHA.
Mireya Loza’s 2011 dissertation from Brown University was the first major work to draw on the materials in the BHA as the central focus of scholarly analysis. As a graduate student, Loza was deeply involved in conducting the oral histories and collecting the documentary evidence that comprises the BHA. Her work obviates this deep familiarity with the stories and recollections of the braceros and their families. The culmination of Loza’s work is her 2016 book from the University of North Carolina Press, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom. As such, Loza’s book is the first major scholarly work on the Mexican Farm Labor Program to feature the BHA at its core, but it will not be the last. The BHA holds rich resources for deepening our understanding of migration, citizenship, nationalism, agriculture, labor practices, race relations, gender, sexuality, the family, visual culture, and the Cold War era.
The Bracero History Project
A nationwide effort, the Bracero History Project emerged to correct the paucity of scholarly work on the bracero experience, working to uncover, record, preserve, and provide access to this important history. Led by Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University, by 2006 the Bracero History Project had collected and digitized more than 2,700 objects related to the history of the Bracero Program, built strong ties with local institutions and communities around the country and in Mexico, and laid the technological and methodological groundwork for a new model of cooperative documentation.
The Bracero History Archive (BHA) traces its roots to 2002. In that year, the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute of Oral History launched an effort to collect oral history on the Bracero Program. UTEP student interviewers, trained in oral history techniques and supplied with digital tape recorders, laptop computers, and image scanners, traveled through the El Paso-Juarez area and into northern Mexico to gather interviews and scan photographs and related documents. By 2005, UTEP had recorded almost two hundred interviews—the largest number were done in the El Paso region, but many were conducted much further afield in such places as Durango and Chihuahua, Mexico.
Around the same time that UTEP began its oral history work, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History acquired a unique collection of sixty-four captioned photographic prints and 1,730 original 35 mm negatives (with corresponding contact sheets) by California photographer Leonard Nadel, who received support from the Fund for the Republic in 1956 to photographically document the bracero experience. Nadel’s pictures—the largest collection of photographs of braceros in existence—document the recruitment and assembly of braceros in Mexico City, the processing station in Monterey, Mexico, the bracero labor camps in the California San Joaquin Valley, and the daily activities and leisure of the men working in the camps. A core team at NMAH initiated the earliest research into the Nadel photographs and the history of the Bracero Program.
In early 2005, the team at NMAH received about $60,000 in funding from the Smithsonian’s Latino Initiatives Pool and the museum itself. These funds allowed the museum to co-organize a planning conference with Brown University to discuss future directions for a national Bracero History Project. Attendees included the NMAH core team, the director of the UTEP Institute of Oral History, and senior academic staff working in Latino Studies from Brown University, the University of Southern California, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Texas at Arlington, Yale University, and the United Farm Workers. The RRCHNM was invited to the meeting to bring to bear its expertise in online collecting of history and digital preservation, which had been built through projects on collecting the history of science and technology, collecting the born-digital materials surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, and collecting the experiences and materials associated with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At this meeting, the four lead partners—UTEP, Brown, NMAH, and RRCHNM—formally launched the Bracero History Project, of which the archive was a primary product.
Following this meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, the BHA held nine Bracero Heritage Meetings in Salinas, San Jose, Los Angeles, Coachella, Blythe, Heber, Perris, and San Bernardino, California; Chicago, Illinois; and El Paso, Texas, in 2005 and 2006. The archive has also conducted direct outreach to communities in Jalisco, Mexico, conducting oral histories with women left behind when their husbands headed north to become braceros. Although the principal project partners coordinated these events, local partners played major roles in selecting appropriate venues for the Bracero Heritage Meetings and organizing local community participation in the events. As of May 2006, these efforts yielded more than four hundred oral history interviews, at least six hundred scanned original documents and photographs, and a small number of artifacts.
Finally, in November 2005 a scholarly conference at UTEP on “Envisioning Bracero History” brought together scholars from both sides of the border to explore the rich cultural history and myriad narratives of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands thorough the lens of the Bracero Program. This meeting further demonstrated the need for a comprehensive archive of bracero history and helped refine the aims and objectives of the BHA into a coherent set of goals and deliverables for the preservation of and enhanced access to bracero history.
The Bracero History Archive
Encouraged by this show of interest and energy, the core project partners developed an application for funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Division of Preservation and Access to build an open digital repository to collect and provide access to the bracero history materials. This phase of the project had five major deliverables:
1. deploying a standards-based system for collaborative, online collecting and archiving;
2. cataloguing and making available online the oral history interviews, scanned documents, and digital images already collected by project partners;
3. adding new records to the collection through direct outreach and collaborative collecting among diverse local institutions and individuals;
4. providing a guide for teachers of middle and high school U.S. history interested in using the collections with their students; and
5. extending the Bracero History Archive (BHA) as a national model for collaborative archiving and providing public access to dispersed subject–based collections.
One primary goal of the project was to reach out to hard-to-access communities and bring their materials into the historical record using the appropriate combination of human relationships and technology to do collaborative collecting. More important than preserving and providing access to collections already held by the main partner institutions was preserving and providing access to collections held by smaller, less-visible, and potentially less-secure local institutions around the country and in Mexico. Because bracero history is so widely dispersed, the main focus of the BHA was to encourage the self-preservation of locally held collections at smaller institutions and in private hands. Though the BHA provided access to existing holdings during the grant period, the primary intention was not to build an archive owned by the grant partners. Rather, the partners aimed to build a collaborative digital archive of bracero history to which they were only the first contributors.
The grant application was successful and resulted in funding to support work on the project for two years, which was eventually stretched to three years through a no-cost extension on the grant. Thus, in the summer of 2007 the Bracero History Project’s core partners embarked on an effort to build the Bracero History Archive. The first steps took place in June of that year, with an initial meeting of the project partners at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Curators Peter Liebhold, Bonnie Lilienfeld, Steve Velasquez, and Latino programming coordinator Magdalena Mieri from the Smithsonian NMAH joined director of the Institute of Oral History at UTEP Kristine Navarro-McElhaney, interim director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity Matt Garcia, and Sharon Leon, Tom Scheinfeldt and Roy Rosenzweig from RRCHNM for a day of project planning. This meeting laid the groundwork for an infrastructure that would support the open and collaborative nature of the work and result in a new type of public history product—not a documentary edition, not a physical archive, but rather an open, extensible website.
The BHA website is designed to serve the needs of several important audiences. First, it provides members of the bracero community and their families with access to the stories, images, and documents related to their experience of life and labor through the program. Second, it offers scholars a rich repository of primary source materials related to this history. Using the Omeka open-source Web publishing platform, the Web development team at RRCHNM designed and built a site with the specific needs of these users in mind. The site design and architecture supports these audiences by offering both an English and Spanish version of the website and by providing translations to English for a significant number of the oral histories that were conducted in Spanish. Furthermore, the site offers users the ability to toggle between a basic view of the individual source metadata and a more extensive description for each item in the collection. During the initial project meeting the partners came to an agreement about the Dublin Core Metadata fields that the staff would use to describe the archive’s items and defined the controlled vocabularies and values that the staff would use in creating these description. Finally, the site offers users direct access to the digital files for their own use. While these files are presented at a resolution or compression that makes them reasonable for serving over the Web, they allow access to the full, unedited content of the oral histories, documents, and images. With this infrastructure in place, the project partners were prepared to push forward with building the collections.
Collecting Bracero Heritage
The process of developing the Bracero History Archive (BHA) collections was designed specifically to allow the project team to leverage Web-accessible technologies to facilitate reaching deeply into the communities where braceros and their families make their lives today. This work involved pursuing collecting work on two fronts. First, the core project team conducted a number of Bracero Heritage Meetings, in which they traveled to collecting sites for concentrated events. Second, the project team trained and supported local collecting partners to do their own interviews and collecting through a series of Virtual Heritage Meetings.
Beginning in June 2007, project partners and associated graduate students have conducted a number of collecting trips and Bracero Heritage Meetings. One of the outstanding features of the Bracero collaboration has been its ability to forge partnerships between large research institutions and local interviewers and workers to reach braceros who are willing to tell their stories. Collecting activities and work with local partners included: the University of Northern Colorado; Guanajuato and other destinations in Mexico; Ventura County Museum of History and Art in California; Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; California State University, Channel Islands; Oregon; and Arkansas.
The project took a number of steps to support this work. For example, in preparation for upcoming Bracero Heritage Meetings, the BHA set up local telephone numbers in Oregon and Arkansas. Callers would hear a recorded message summarizing the project and giving instructions for those interested in sharing their stories. Additionally, the BHA created a discussion forum for graduate students and curators who were out in the field meeting with braceros and their families. Both of these steps helped to ensure that the heritage meetings were likely to result in significant numbers of high-quality interviews, images, and documents.
In addition to face-to-face collecting, the partners collaborated on a series of Bracero Heritage Virtual Meetings. Designed to help local partners participating in collecting and archiving materials from braceros who reside in their own communities, these virtual meetings were central to the mission of collaborative documentation. In December 2008, the primary project partners identified a set of local partner institutions with which to pilot the virtual outreach and collecting materials.
The support materials for the collecting partners included a set of documents for them to use during their work. The BHA also provided a four-part instructional video series that was designed to introduce the local partners to the project and the process of collecting. The first video features National Museum of American History (NMAH) curator Peter Liebhold and introduces the history of the Bracero Program, placing it in historical context. The second video explains the process of collecting oral histories and provides a short tutorial on what kinds of questions to ask, how to make subjects feel comfortable, practical time limits for interviews, and getting consent and releases from interviewees. This video incorporated the instructional materials that University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) uses to train its own staff and volunteers. The third video features NMAH curator Steve Velasquez discussing the importance of collecting photographs and documents for the archive. It includes explicit instructions on scanning images and documents, as well as photographing objects. Most important, this video includes instruction on collecting all of the data necessary to provide complete metadata for each collected item. The final video consists of a step-by-step tutorial featuring screenshots on how to add items to the Bracero History Archive, and how to create online posters using the items in the site. All of these materials remain available on the BHA website in the “Resources” section.
After reviewing the materials and videos, the local partners were ready for our Virtual Heritage Meetings. Using Skype, the local partners conferenced with representatives of UTEP, Brown University, NMAH, and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). This mix of representatives from each of the main partner organizations made it possible to field historical questions, methodological questions, and technical questions about the process of collecting materials and adding them to the archive. During the spring of 2009, project staff conducted virtual meetings with groups from University of Texas at San Antonio, Oregon Historical Society, Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture, El Museo Latino, New Americans Museum, and Muskegon County Museum (now called Lakeshore Museum). The staff then scheduled a second round of meetings with additional institutions, including Chandler-Gilbert Community College Library, and other hosts of NMAH’s traveling exhibit, Bittersweet Harvest, to coincide with the exhibit’s arrival. Together these partners extended the reach of the initial collecting team and anchored the work of the BHA in individual communities and relationships.
The core of the Bracero History Archive (BHA) collections centers on the more than six hundred remarkable oral histories collected by the project partners. In the fall 2007, Kristine Navarro-McElhaney and her staff at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) began the process of populating the metadata for all of the existing oral histories, which were conducted in accordance with Oral History Association guidelines.3 The original audio for the oral histories was captured in Waveform Audio File (WAV) format at a sampling rate of 96 kHz and a bit depth of 24 bits using Sony Hi-MiniDisc and Marantz digital audio recorders. Then, UTEP passed on physical custody of the interview files to Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) (both MP3 and WAV files for each oral history). The BHA serves a compressed MP3 for direct download, and an uncompressed file has been archived on gold DVDs and has been deposited at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) for preservation. At the conclusion of the project period, the BHA included 636 oral histories, the bulk of which were in Spanish (sixty-five in English). The staff at UTEP created transcriptions for 235 of the oral histories, and description summaries in English of 386 oral histories. These plain-text transcripts and descriptions are stored alongside associated digital audio files in the site and associated metadata for quick searching. The curators, staff, and interns at NMAH provided crucial translation support for the descriptions. Additionally, to aid in the often-complex translations, RRCHNM launched an online discussion forum where translators could exchange information relevant to the translation of the language specific to braceros’ experiences.
In addition to the oral histories, the BHA holds significant collections of images and documents related to the braceros’ experience of life and labor during the program. The National Museum of American History, Division of Work and Industry, made available the Leonard Nadel Collection, which includes sixty-four photographic prints, 1,730 original 35 mm negatives, original contact sheets, and a small archive of captions, letters, speeches, etc. The images document the journeys of many braceros, from recruitment in Central Mexico, to processing in Northern Mexico and at the Texas border, to working and living on farms in California. Nadel took the photographs during the summer of 1956 while on a grant from the Fund for the Republic. Locations include: San Mateo Atenco, Mexico; Monterrey, Mexico; Hidalgo, Texas; Gonzales, California; Chualar, California; Salinas, California; Watsonville, California; Castroville, California; and Stockton, California. NMAH curator Steve Velasquez went through the process of preparing the existing database of metadata for the Nadel photographs for import into Omeka. Additionally through the course of the project, the partners collected digital images at Bracero Heritage Meetings and other collecting trips. In those cases the original photographs were scanned at 600 dpi and stored as uncompressed TIFFs. Upon upload to Omeka, the software processed the image to create a 100 pixel square thumbnail and 600 pixel JPEG version at Web resolution for use on the site. The original uncompressed files were also stored for preservation purposes. Together, the Nadel collection and the scanned images gathered through collecting events total 1,952 images. Finally, the BHA contains over five hundred digital facsimiles of significant bracero history documents, including identification cards, pay stubs, postcards, contracts, and certificates. Like the photographs, the original documents were scanned at 600 dpi and stored as uncompressed TIFFs with Omeka creating the accompanying JPEG service copies and thumbnails.
Late in the course of the project, the “Tell Your Story” feature was introduced on the site’s home page, which takes visitors to a form where they can contribute their own item to the archive. Added as a way to enable collecting beyond the places and times where project staff or partners could meet face-to-face with interested contributors, this portal offered a means to infinitely extend the mission of the BHA beyond the reach of the initial relationships and audiences. The feature allows visitors to type or paste in their own narrative, or to upload their own video or audio files, as well as images or documents. These contributions must be approved by a site administrator—to eliminate spam or abusive comments—but then are included in the archive; these items are fully searchable, and are included in the results of a keyword search. The collecting portal remains open and the BHA receives a small number of contributions each year.
Support Materials for Users
In addition to offering users the ability to browse through the collected oral histories, images, and documents, the Bracero History Archive (BHA) includes a number of support materials that are targeted at key audiences for the site. Every digital archive has multiple audiences, and the BHA is not different from others in this respect. Therefore, the project team worked to prepare elements for middle and high school teachers, for researchers interested in learning more about the Bracero Program, and for scholars and community partners wishing to help with building the collection.
For middle- and high-school history teachers, the teaching section includes a short historical overview of the Bracero Program, as well as a collection of teaching activities. The lesson plans, each available in English and Spanish, use items from the archive to teach students how to analyze historical photographs, evaluate historical documents, and use maps to follow a bracero as he worked in several U.S. states. The lessons were developed by staff at the National Museum of American History and provide a wealth of assistance for teachers. National History Standards are included for each activity, along with Historical Thinking Standards. Each activity includes an assessment rubric to assist teachers as they evaluate their students’ work. The activities are usable as Web pages with included links, or are downloadable for use without an Internet connection in the classroom. For those interested in doing additional research on the Bracero Program, the site also offers a comprehensive bibliography of current scholarship.
Additionally, the site includes a “My Archive” feature that allows users to tag or annotate items as they browse the site, and to create a poster or exhibit using items from the archive. Users simply log in, select items of interest, and add notes or tag items; when they are finished, the site publishes their exhibit, along with their notes, using a unique URL. Teachers can use this as an assignment for students, or researchers can use it as a note-taking system.
The BHA’s “Resources” page is geared to provide as many resources as possible for partners and users. A URL is provided for users to harvest metadata through Open Archives Initiative-Protocol for Metadata Harvesting. This kind of comprehensive access allows users with other systems and programmatic goals to work with the metadata from the project to analyze or visualize in new ways. The page also includes a collection of video tutorials—the same tutorials used in the Virtual Heritage Meetings, in fact—to train collectors in how to conduct oral history interviews. The videos are accompanied by collecting-trip checklists, suggested questions, extensive instructions, and standardized rights releases. A second set of video tutorials instruct users on how to add items to the database, as well as how to create or edit exhibits. Finally, a downloadable “Guide to Collaborative Documentation” is included. This is both a summary of the process used to build the BHA and a step-by-step guide to creating similar kinds of collaborative documentation projects. Overall, the resources provide assistance for nearly every aspect of the site’s objectives.
Sharing the Archive
The outreach process for the public launch of the Bracero History Archive (BHA) was multifaceted. First, word of the official launch was spread to the broad base of community partners that had participated in Bracero Heritage Meetings and the Virtual Heritage Meetings. To reach other interested parties, postcards were used to announce the launch of the site. Using professional and personal contacts, hundreds of postcard mailers were sent out announcing the site’s launch, and handed out many more at conferences and events. Additionally, a traditional press release was developed and posted to the twenty-one H-Net groups for which bracero history is a topic of interest.
The project partners also conducted a widespread campaign of face-to-face publicity through speaking engagements. The BHA is shared with a range of audiences through a series of presentations at academic conferences, including the Society of American Archivists, the Texas Association of Museums, the Oral History Association, the New England Council of Latin American Studies, and the National Humanities Conference.
Fortuitously, the launch of the BHA coincided with the October 2009 opening of the National Museum of American History (NMAH) exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964 exhibit, which consisted of fifteen freestanding panels, with scholarship, images, and excerpts from the oral histories, and artifacts from the museum’s collections. The exhibit featured a computer terminal for users to access the BHA and add their own stories. At the exhibit’s launch in Washington, D.C., an event attended by scholars, administrators, U.S. congressional representatives, and braceros, project staff handed out additional postcards tying the physical exhibit to the digital archive. BHA partner Matthew Garcia moderated a roundtable discussion at the launch event and was able to announce the BHA’s public launch. Designed in coordination with the Smithsonian Institutions Traveling Exhibition Service, the Bittersweet Harvest exhibit toured to thirty-two locations for ten-week installations after opening at NMAH, and is booked in additional sites through 2016.4 At each site, the local host organization is encouraged to augment the fifteen exhibit panels with materials from local collections, and to develop programming that features the BHA.
In the spring of 2010, the project team traveled to Portland, Oregon, to accept the 2010 Outstanding Public History Award given by the National Council on Public History. The award recognized the BHA as a project “that contributes to a broader public reflection and appreciation of the past or that serves as a model of professional public history practice.”5 For the project team, the recognition from the National Council of Public History was affirmation that the BHA had met two of its primary goals of being a collaborative public history project that opened the history of the Bracero Program to a significantly wider public audience, and of developing a system and a set of supports to enable other public historians to build similar kinds of digital collections.
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(1.) Matt García, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 235.
(2.) Stephen J. Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
(3.) Oral History Association, “Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History.”
(4.) Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service, “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964.”