It was during the summer of 1964, a time when jobs in the Valley were hard to come by, when then 18-year-old Matias Contreras first wandered into the bracero receiving center on the southern outskirts of El Centro.
Along with a crew of mostly bilingual Latinos, Contreras worked as a clerk and occasionally helped translate contracts from English to Spanish and vice versa.
“I learned a lot of little things while I worked there,” Contreras said of his two-month stint.
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He remembers the braceros tended to act reserved and nervous, and were always interested in their eventual destinations.
“They got excited when they got a contract for California,” said Contreras, a retired Imperial County Superior Court judge.
For the most part the employees were respectful of the braceros, although he did encounter a few administrators who were “badge heavy,” and who relished their authority.
The program itself is something Contreras said he has “mixed feelings” about, acknowledging the need to balance an industry’s operational costs with a worker’s human dignity.
While an estimated 4.5 million were reported to have come to the U.S. during the program’s 22-year history, the actual number that may have passed through the county remains difficult to ascertain.
The Bracero Program was overseen locally by the Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. Upon arrival braceros were given a medical examination as well as fumigated with DDT.
Whatever records from that era may have been kept, it is likely they had been discarded during a series of office moves over the years, Agricultural Commissioner Connie Valenzuela said.
“I can’t say for certain,” Valenzuela said, “but records that old are probably gone now.”
Although largely forgotten or no longer in existence, the Valley was home to a number of facilities that served to process or house the braceros who both passed through the area as well as worked here.
One such place was the Danenberg camp near the intersection of Danenberg Road and Farnsworth Lane in El Centro. Demolished in 2008, at the time it was cited as one of the better establishments in the nation, in stark contrast to the horrid conditions braceros often experienced in camps elsewhere across the country.
During her time working as a bookkeeper at the camp during the ’60s, it was not uncommon for Hilda Flores to process the paperwork for 100 braceros on a daily basis. Working all day from morning to evening, she and three other employees would ready the braceros for transport in order to meet a far-off grower’s order.
A lot of the braceros had come from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and often would provide a vague description of where they lived, rather than an exact street address.
“They would simply state they lived near a certain landmark, such as behind ‘Pancho’s store,’” Flores said.
The Imperial Valley Farmers Association issued contracts that stipulated the prevailing rate for the area, as well as what work a person was allowed to do.
Machine or tractor operations were prohibited as was milking cows, according to a copy of a 1958 contract viewable online at the Bracero History Archive website.
A paystub from 1964 outlines a bracero’s payment for working eight-hour days, seven days a week. The gross weekly pay was $63.60, but dropped to $50.10 once meals and insurance were deducted.
Staff Writer, Copy Editor Julio Morales can be reached at 760-335-4665 or at email@example.com