EVANSTON, ILLINOIS — When hundreds of thousands of American men went to combat during World War II, they left behind a labor shortage on farms and factories. One answer to the shortage was the 1942 Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, an agreement between the United States and Mexico more commonly known as the Bracero program. It allowed 4.5 million Mexicans to work in the U.S. over the program's 22-year existence. The benefits and pitfalls are now part of a travelling Smithsonian exhibit that comes as some U.S. lawmakers consider a new Bracero worker program as part of immigration reform.
The idea to come and work in the United States was something Saturnino Gonzales Diaz's father planted in him early.
"When I was born, my father was in Chicago. And he put in my mind, Chicago, Chicago," he said.
Diaz's father was one of the first workers to take advantage of the Bracero program. In 1943, he found work on the railroad in Chicago. The experience and the money he earned allowed Saturnino and his family to live a good life in Mexico.
"He buy a house and everything at the time. He all the time talk to me about the Braceros, and I want to go to the Braceros," he said.
When Saturnino was accepted into the Bracero program in the early 1960s, he left for California to pick fruits and vegetables.
"Before I come to the United States I was a boxer, I do a lot of exercise," he said. "Fields don't do nothing to me! I'm a champion at picking strawberries!"
While Saturnino's experience was positive, Lorenzo Cano painted a different picture of working the fields in Texas.
He said they would only pay him less than a dollar a day and because of that some of the experiences that he and others had weren't the greatest.
"I think the experience of Bracero workers really depended on the place, the type of work they were doing, and the proclivities of particular employers," said Geraldo Cadava, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, which is hosting the Smithsonian exhibit Bittersweet Harvest.
It looks at the best and the worst of the Bracero program. "Some states, like Texas, for example, even had their ability to participate in the Bracero program revoked from them because exploitation was more widespread in Texas than in other places," said Cadava.
When the program ended, many Braceros eventually immigrated to the United States to start lives in places where they worked.
Amid the current immigration reform debate in Congress, some lawmakers want to start a new Bracero program.
"I think that those who are simply saying that we need a new Bracero program today are not paying attention to the full complexity of the program and the conditions of exploitation under which Bracero workers labored," he said.
Saturnino, who now lives in Chicago where his father worked, thinks a new Bracero program could curb illegal immigration and costly deportations.
"If you are illegal, they treat you like a dog. Send you back to Mexico. Crippled or whatever. It's better, I think, to get the Braceros, again," he said.
But proposals for a new program face stiff opposition from labor unions and are one reason lawmakers have not been able to move immigration reform forward.