Tucsonan, 75, adds his story to national bracero saga
Arizona Daily Star
Feb. 17, 2008

By Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/225521

 In 1952, Agustín Diaz Roldán entered the United States for the first time. He crossed legally through a New Mexico port of entry.

Roldán, then 19 years old and the youngest of 10 children, had ventured north for a job in America's agricultural fields for 50 cents an hour.

For the next 10-plus years, Roldán worked in seasonal labor north of the border, returning south during the lull between planting and harvesting.

There was a name for him and millions of other Mexican workers who did the same: bracero.

"I worked six days a week," said Roldán, a U.S. citizen since 2000. "It was hard work, but I was able to stay in this country and raise my family."

Roldán's story resembles those of more than 4 million Mexican workers who legally came to work in American agriculture for 22 years beginning in 1942, in a wartime effort to keep America fed while GIs fought abroad.

Now the story of the 75-year-old South Side resident will be included in a national collection of bracero stories sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and three American universities.

"The process of documenting bracero workers' contributions and sacrifices is a powerful experience," said Kristine Navarro, director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas in El Paso. "With our partners, we hope to preserve the legacy of these hardworking individuals, who gave so much in helping grow and shape the identity of Arizona and elsewhere."

UTEP, Brown University in Rhode Island and George Mason University in Virginia have teamed up with the Smithsonian to organize the collection of hundreds of interviews of former braceros living in the United States and Mexico, and more than 1,000 documents and photos.

Roldán was one of about 30 Tucsonans and Southern Arizonans whose oral histories were collected last month, UTEP's Navarro said.

A total of 127 Arizonans were interviewed, she said. Former bracero workers were not the only people whose recollections will be included.

Workers' wives, American ranchers, and former Border Patrol and Farm Bureau agents were interviewed to give a complete picture of this country's largest guest- worker program in the last century.

Navarro said, "The project seeks to recognize the historical significance of the bracero program and to acknowledge the importance of Mexican workers in the United States, who unfortunately continue to remain invisible."

There is some urgency. The one-time guest workers are aging and dying, taking their untold stories with them.

Roldán's story began in central Mexico. He worked in his brother's butcher shop, but the American jobs lured him north.

In the bracero program — a U.S.-Mexico collaboration — contractors hired workers in the Mexican interior and along the border.

Roldán was hired and went to work in New Mexico for eight months. He returned to Mexico, but the next year he went to work in Calexico, Calif., where irrigated fields were blossoming in the desert.

In the following years, Roldán followed the crops up and down California and into Arizona, harvesting lettuce and other produce. As agriculture became more of a full-time job, Roldán returned less and less to Mexico.

He said the workers, from across Mexico, lived and slept in military-style barracks. "They came to work," he said.

Workers, however, were not allowed to move to other jobs, risking loss of their temporary work permits.

Roldán stayed with his employer. The work was hard and paid little, but it was steady.

"I was never cheated in my wages, and I was treated well," he said.

Not all braceros were as fortunate, however. There were problems and cases of growers and contractors exploiting the workers. That, along with political concerns, led to the discontinuation of the bracero program in 1964.

But before the program ended, Roldán left the field for the kitchen. He said the company he worked for helped him apply for his legal- resident card, which he received in 1960.

Four years later, he brought in his wife-to-be, Maria, from Sonora, and they married in 1964. He remained working in the kitchens and fields along the route of crops.

By 1983, he and his wife and their five children settled in Tucson. It was close to Sonora, and it was a nice place to live, Roldán said.

He continued to pick crops from Willcox to Phoenix to Colorado. But in 1994, Roldán found a kitchen job in town and remained until last year, when his wife died.

Roldán lives with two sons and said he wishes he could continue to work.

He said he didn't realize, until he was interviewed for the national archive, the supporting role that braceros played during World War II and in the expansion of American agriculture. He does now.

"We did something good," he said.

Neto's Tucson


Portillo jr.

● Contact Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. at 573-4242 or at eportillo@azstarnet.com.