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CARLOS MARENTES: Some of the braceros who came to this country died, and their survivors, the widows, never received a single cent as compensation for the death of the bracero.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the US bracero program. And later, international writers.
JERZY JARNEJEVITZ: One of the powers that the writers have, they cannot stop wars, but they remember. Yes, they are witnesses. As the writers in Nigeria, the writers in Poland share this belief that they have the duty towards history, towards the people.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Labor shortages induced by World War II prompted the United States and Mexico to permit thousands of Mexican laborers to enter the US to work on farms and railroads. From 1942 to 1964 millions of Mexican men toiled in US agriculture as low-paid contract workers under the bracero program. Now, more than half a century later, a growing movement of former Mexican braceros is demanding that they be recognized and compensated in their old age. Common Ground‘s Kent Patterson has more.
[sound of a man speaking Spanish over a loud speaker]
KENT PATTERSON: Outside the Border Agricultural Worker’s Center in El Paso, Texas, veteran Mexican migrant workers and their family members address a crowd. Most of the people in attendance have one thing in common, they or their family members worked at one time or another during the old bracero program of contract labor for American agriculture. Now in their golden years, numerous former braceros are ailing in Mexico and the United States. Seemingly forgotten by governments on both sides of the border, they are rising to demand justice and their rightful place in history.
[sound of Mexican music]
KENT PATTERSON: For the past three years, hundreds of former braceros and their relatives have gathered at the Workers’ Center to celebrate what they’ve christened Bracero Day. First started at the height of World War II in 1942, the braceros program filled a critical manpower shortage by enlisting Mexican men as field hands on US farms. Others kept the countries railways running. Despite their contributions, little space is reserved in the textbooks for the braceros. From Mexico, Mario Sosa helps coordinate Bracero Day with the El Paso-based Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. Along with thousands of other men from Coahuila State, Sosa’s father and older brothers participated in the bracero program. He says US citizens need to be aware of the role played by temporary Mexican workers at a crucial juncture in US history.
MARIO SOSA’S FATHER: [speaking via a translator] They should know that Mexico, the braceros, are a fundamental part in the process of this country. This is an important part of history that the Americans should know about so they don’t treat us differently. They should know that in the moment of need many Mexicans give their hand to move things forward.
[A man speaks in Spanish]
KENT PATTERSON: Inside the Agricultural Worker’s Center, Enrique Compoya, a 67-year-old former bracero, gazes at old photographs from the mid-twentieth century. The grainy pictures show young workers like Compoya stooping down in fields, or standing next to farm machinery with their friends. From Michigan to Texas, and from Washington to New Mexico, more than 3 million braceros brought in the produce of much of American agriculture from 1942 to 1964. As Compoya explains, El Paso was one of the major recruiting locations.
ENRIQUE COMPOYA: [speaking via a translator] The United States needed braceros. And the American president (said) they’re gonna get them right here. They opened up the border and let people right in because they were needed. I came at that time, and here in El Paso the trucks arrived from the farm. They loaded them up with ten, twenty, or thirty workers each, whatever the number the employer wanted, and then they took us to the farm to work.
KENT PATTERSON: So for the next three decades Compoya and other Mexican men were the backbone of labor-intensive US agriculture. Quite arguably, for instance, they made possible the prosperity of the multibillion dollar cotton industry in the American Southwest.
[A woman speaks in Spanish]
KENT PATTERSON: While their men worked far from their homes Mexican wives, like Antonia Leyvas Rivera of Coahuila, underwent ordeals of their own.
ANTONIA LEYVAS RIVERA: [speaking via a translator] One time my husband came home. I had three days recovering from the birth of my second son. I was in bed when they called him to work and he left us with nothing. The only hope we had was that the relatives would help us out a little bit. My husband would leave and then he would come back.
KENT PATTERSON: Opponents of the bracero program later succeeded in convincing the US Congress to end the system in 1964. Besides comparing it to modern slavery, critics argued that the existence of a large pool of temporary foreign workers depressed the wages of domestic workers. But before it was over, the bracero program transformed the countryside of both the United States and Mexico. And it also influenced far-reaching economic changes in both nations.
DR. DENNIS VALDEZ: Starting in 1965, the Mexican and United States governments were supposed to establish a cross-border industrialization program. And it was called at the time the Border Industrialization Program. It was the predecessor to the present maquilla program. And it was based on a number of premises.
KENT PATTERSON: Dr. Dennis Valdez is Professor of History and Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of El Norte: A History of Mexican Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region. Valdez says once the bracero program ended the governments of Mexico and the United States planned to make jobless Mexican farm workers into employed industrial workers.
DR. VALDEZ: And so when the border industrialization program was proposed it was consistent with its concern that, these men, former braceros, would be unemployed. They would have nothing to do. And the border industrialization program was meant, in fact, to mitigate that unemployment by establishing twin plant setups across the border. That is, in Juarez you’d have a plant, in the United States you’d have a plant, and between the two of them they could make whatever components for industrial goods that could then be consumed by the people of Mexico and the United States. In practice, it turned out obviously a lot differently. First of all, the production took place in Mexico. The United States basically had the warehouses. So that most of the labor was done in the cheap labor setting, namely that of Mexico. A second part, a very important part of the maquilla program, was that the goods produced were almost entirely for the United States, not for Mexico. So it didn’t have much to do with the industrialization of Mexico, but rather setting up industrial plants in Mexico where (there was) a lot of pollution and other industrial waste, and also workers getting ground up took place in Mexico rather than in the United States. The third, and probably the most important feature of the maquilla program that wasn’t quite right, is that 85-90% of the workers were women. So one can still ask, “What happened to the men?”
[A man speaking in Spanish]
KENT PATTERSON: Lacking permanent jobs with retirement plans and other benefits, many braceros were at the mercy of temporary harvest work and other low-paid jobs in the United States. Nowadays Enrique Compoya says a good number of the men, including his older brother, are suffering in Mexico without adequate healthcare and food. This in spite of the fact that many paid into the United States Social Security system. Others like Compoya have to work in their old age in order to make ends meet.
KENT PATTERSON: But recently tens of thousands of ex- braceros in both Mexico and the United States have mobilized to demand recognition and compensation from the two governments. In El Paso, the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project has documented the case histories of 37,000 old braceros. Sin Fronteras Director Carlos Marentes also heads up the group’s braceros project.
CARLOS MARENTES: We have found, for example, that some of the braceros who came to this country died and their survivors, the widows, never received a single cent as compensation for the death of the bracero. We have also found that a lot of the braceros who came to this country became disabled and went back to Mexico and never received any type of compensation for their disability. So we are trying to find exactly what happened and if we find that there’s, you know, that’s a need to be paid to the braceros then we will one day demand that they be paid.
KENT PATTERSON: And that might be for disability, Social Security, what kind of debts might those be?
MARENTES: Some of the, we understand that when the bracero came to this country, he came under a contract that included life insurance. I think that the bracero was something that was coverable for $1,000 under death by that. One thousand dollars was the price of the bracero. When they came here and died, as a result of accidents, or you know, the most typical case where the braceros who died were being transported to the fields in trucks, in most of the cases we have found that the widows and the survivors, the relatives of the bracero who had died, had to make collections, had to beg in order to pay for the transportation of the bodies. So they never received nothing.
We also have a lot of cases of braceros who suffered injuries in the fields or at the barracks, and who became disabled and went back to Mexico disabled, unable to work, to earn a decent living.
[A man speaking in Spanish]
KENT PATTERSON: Mario Sosa adds that the long years of work put in by the braceros have not lifted many out of poverty, especially in his home state of Coahuila, in northern Mexico.
MARIO SOSA: [speaking via a translator] It provokes a lot of sadness when you go back to your birthplace and the community you come from. Oh there are a lot of festivities and parties going on here on the border; there is a lot of sadness and necessity where we come from. It causes a lot of sadness when the holiday season and New Year arrive, because the children want toys and something different to eat. Yet in our community, people celebrate the holidays by eating beans and tortillas. They don’t have the means to conduct a holiday celebration.
[A man speaking in Spanish]
KENT PATTERSON: Marentes says the history of the bracero program has relevance today because of proposals on Capitol Hill to resurrect a system of legal contract labor between Mexico and the United States.
MARENTES: We oppose any program that will, that does not offer guarantees to the workers. Guarantees in terms of, you know, at least wages above the minimum wage, healthy working conditions, housing, medical services, and so forth. So we oppose any program that would not bring, that will be used to deteriorate even more the working and living conditions of the foreign workers who are already here. However, we believe that if the governments want to do a new bracero program, they first need to review what happened in the old bracero program. So they don’t commit the same injustices that were committed in the past.
KENT PATTERSON: Meanwhile, Sin Fronteras and the Braceros Project plan to continue documenting the situation of former braceros on both sides of the border. And the activists say they will press for some sort of public recognition of the sacrifice rendered by Mexican workers who answered this country’s calling. For Common Ground, I’m Kent Patterson reporting.
MCHUGH: Coming up, the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: There was a joke in Taiwan: If a writer was missing, somebody else would say, “Where is he or she?” “Oh, he or she in Iowa!” [laughing]
MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: There’s an old saying that all good things must come to an end. But supporters of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program are working hard to make sure the world-renowned program continues indefinitely. Common Ground‘s correspondent Rita Sand has more.
[sound of a crowd of people chattering
RITA SAND: The first public readings of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, or IWP, appeared quite normal. A crowd overflowed the seats at a local bookstore in Iowa City, poised to welcome the foreign writers.
SANDY BARKIN: [speaking to the crowd] Hi. I’m Sandy Barkin. And I’m very delighted to welcome…..
SAND: But the writers and the audience knew that this event was anything but normal. The host, Sandra Barkin, was only a temporary administrator of the program. The video crew who came to document the readings performed their duties gratis.
[A man speaking a foreign language]
SAND: And the writers, like Khotesh Khobalishvilli from Georgia, were only permitted to visit for ten days, less than a quarter of the usual stay.
KHOTESH KHOBALISHVILLI: Now, a mother who’s always knows its you; father who never gives you cares it’s you; a son who’s getting bigger it’s you; wife who pity you. It’s you, mirror; you’re getting old. It’s you……
SAND: In fact, just four months before this night, the IWP had been abruptly shut down.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: I was very sad, very shocked.
SAND: Hualing Nia Engle, cofounder of the IWP, was visiting China when the program was suspended.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: I couldn’t understand why that had happened, that they, they, it’s called a suspension. But actually it’s just a, it’s not just a suspension. Offices were closed and everything was moved away.
SAND: University officials say that the program was dropped because a prospective director unexpectedly turned down the job. But the IWP was also experiencing financial troubles. University funding that had covered more and more of its budget over the last decade had waned in the past year, and staff members who left their jobs were never replaced. Engle, who retired from directing the program in 1987, says up until a couple of years ago the program she developed with her late husband Paul Engle was a vibrant part of the University of Iowa curriculum and known by writers worldwide.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: There was a joke in Taiwan: If a writer was missing, somebody else would say, “Where is he or she?” “Oh, he or she in Iowa!” [laughing] Writers wanted to come.
SAND: Hualing Engle calls the International Writing Program an impulsive but wonderful idea. Her notion sprang from her own feelings of alienation and loneliness while working at the University as a visiting writer and Asian Studies instructor.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: We were like orphans. We didn’t belong anywhere. Because we were foreign.
SAND: So Engle proposed creating a community of international writers to complement the American writing community already in Iowa City. Paul Engle thought the idea was so wonderful he left his post at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to establish the program. The results were just as Hualing Engle predicted.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: Because when we were together we sensed that it was a kind of a bond between us. I mean the writers, through literature, through our writing. We understood each other.
SAND: Since 1967 nearly 850 writers from over two hundred countries have made the pilgrimage to Iowa. Like groups of immigrants afloat on a stationary ship, they have kept each other company on the top floor of the Mayflower dorm throughout their residencies. Writers like Russians Victor Pelyavin and Eduard Rodzinzky, Ireland’s Sebastian Barry and Chile’s Jose Donoso. In such close quarters writers whose home countries hold no political ties have been able to exchange ideas and make lasting friendships.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: Not only the foreign writers benefited from this. Some American writers too.
SAND: Engle says over the years many prominent American writers in residence in the Iowa Writers Workshop have also taken advantage of the opportunity to get to know foreign writers. She especially remembers Robert Bligh, who insisted on rooming in the Mayflower during his stay.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: And he said, “Hualing, do you have Chinese tea?” I said, “I have a lot.” So I gave him a big can. He was very happy to live in the Mayflower. And that was after dinner, you know, and he, each time he invited a small group, three or four, and he talked and they drank tea—through the night! The next morning he said, “Hualing, do you have more tea?” They drank up all the tea! Two full days and nights he talked and talked and talked with the writers.
SAND: What started as simply a residency program blossomed into much more than Engle had ever envisioned.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: Look at that pile. This big pile.
SAND: Engle points out a stack of monographs crowding a bookcase in one corner of her living room.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: The Postwar Poetry of Iceland; Contemporary Yugoslav Poetry; Russian Poetry….
SAND: Publishing translations of literature, especially those written in minor languages, has grown into a major component of the program.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: Contemporary Korean Poetry; Contemporary Latvian Poetry.
SAND: Translation projects such as these led to the establishment of a full-fledged course, the Translation Workshop, one of several courses related to the IWP. It allows graduate students to work with foreign writers translating their work into English.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: We think publications are very important, because we are, not only you communicate by being together, you also communicate through translations.
SAND: Another major component of the program involves speaking engagements of all kinds. From guest lectures at other universities, including Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, to speaking before classes, community groups, and centers right here at the University of Iowa.
SAND: Despite her short stay last fall, Nigerian writer Titiloa Sonjajeen, popularly known as “Lola,” had time to spend an evening at the African Student Center on campus. After her reading, Lola’s audience of young Africans asks her opinion on many subjects, ranging from how to be a successful writer to finding the middle ground between African and Western marriage customs.
LOLA: You know, sometimes it takes logic to assess situations. Why should I go into an arranged marriage? I don’t’ know this man; I don’t love him. No matter what my father says. I’m not going to allow myself to be pushed into that kind of institution.
SAND: This evening Lola spoke little about politics except to express relief and hope about the new democratically elected government in Nigeria. Yet she has fearlessly written poems reflecting the abuses of the former Aibache dictatorship. And it is this role of writer as soothsayer that led the United States Information Agency to become a major funder of the International Writing Program, especially during the Cold War.
Jerzy Jarnejevitz: “Your majesty, your majesty. Why have you such big eyes.” “Oh, the better to see you with,” replies the king. And his eyes inspect Little Red Riding Hood from each wall of the room, slip under her skirt, look into her diary.”
SAND: Polish writer Jerzy Jarnejevitz wrote A Civilian’s Fairy Tale in the mid-1980s, when the Poles lived under martial law. Jarnejevitz says even today writers are perhaps more of an important voice of the people than politicians.
Jerzy Jarnejevitz: One of the powers that the writers have, they cannot stop wars, but they remember. Yes, they are witnesses. As the writers in Nigeria, the writers in Poland share this belief that they have the duty towards history, towards the people, to reflect the fate of the persecuted, of the dispossessed, of the oppressed. To be the spokesman for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Jerzy Jarnejevitz: “Your majesty, your majesty. Why have you such big teeth.” “Oh, the better to eat you with,” replies the king. And all of a sudden assaults the girl, and the fairy tale transforms itself into history.
SAND: Lev Shobukov, a young writer from Russia, shakes off what he considers outdated responsibilities. The democratic changes in Russia have freed him to pursue strictly literary goals.
LEV SHOBUKOV: I really want influences, I badly need influences.
LEV SHOBUKOV: “For three days the spring wind has been blowing in our country. The snow is going dark, taking on the color of old boards. Coming out of the chimneys the smoke turns northward and slowly
climbs the sky in this early evening…”
LEV SHOBUKOV: I’m badly influenced by Russian poetry and the traditional Russian poets. I need other influences.
LEV SHOBUKOV: “I’m so cold I can’t feel my feet and my leg is aching. The starlit sky is prickly as an old-fashioned Irish sweet.. There is no end to this majority, no breaking.” Thank you.
SAND: Balance, says, Hualing Engle, has always been an important aspect of the IWP. Like a mini-peace conference, writers with opposing political ideas were deliberately chosen with sometimes surprising results.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: “I’m here without a machine gun, but with a pen. The United Nations could not bring Israel and Palestine together. But the International Writing Program has.”
SAND: Engle quotes Palestinian Sahar Kalafe, who spoke these words at an IWP dinner in 1978. After her visit, the Engles received a note from Kalafe.
HUALING NIA ENGLE: “The International Writing Program will always remind me of the most beautiful face of America. The face where races, nationalities, sexes, and beliefs are only variations in a colorful symphony, rather than elements of conflicts and a split.”
SAND: But the sudden suspension of the program has, for the present, changed the face of the IWP. The storm of protest that followed culminated in a petition to the governor of Iowa. It was enough to give the International Writing Program a second breath of life. The IWP was shuffled to a new administrative home deemed more friendly to the program, where some of the scheduled activities for the year were patched back together. Yet office space, staffing, and university support lost in the process may never be regained. Sandra Barkin, dean and present administrator of the IWP, says they are working toward making the program as self-supporting as possible.
SANDRA BARKIN: I think that, that this is a program that serves the university, the community, the state, extremely well, and I’m hoping that in the future the program will continue without creating budgetary problems for the university.
SAND: In the meantime, the search is underway for a new program director. And a task force assembled to consider the future of the IWP has unanimously recommended to the president of the university that it continue. That’s good news for Barkin, who is also Professor of Comparative Literature. It means that writers like Lola Sonjajeen will continue to enrich her teaching and research in African literature. And continue to generate excitement for everyone connected with the IWP.
BARKIN: Because Lola’s going to be a very famous writer one day. I’m quite convinced of it.
LOLA: “She tried to be a doctor, but they said the animal pains on her talons stained the scaffold.”
BARKIN: She’s full of projects and ideas, and it’s only a matter of time when I will say, “I knew Lola and got to know her at the University of Iowa at the International Writing Program when she was 26 years old.”
SAND: For Common Ground, this is Rita Sand.
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