Between 1942 and 1964, as many as 300,000 Mexican laborers -- called braceros (those who work with their arms) -- were employed in the U.S. as farmhands or railroad workers as part of a federal program.
Their experiences are explored on Wednesday, October 9, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. Christopher Leitch moderates a discussion with several veterans of the Bracero Program now living in the Kansas City area.
The presentation is keyed to Bittersweet Harvest, a bilingual exhibit about the Bracero Program on display through October 27, 2013, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Begun in 1942 as a temporary wartime measure to address labor needs of agriculture and the railroads, the Bracero Program eventually became the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican braceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times.
The Mexican participants provide rich insight into Mexican American history and background to today's debates on guest worker programs. For many braceros the experience was truly bittersweet - it allowed them to earn money but meant spending months away from their homes and loved ones.
Theirs was also a story of exploitation. The program required that 10 percent of the guest workers' paychecks -- about $32 million -- be withheld and sent to Mexico to fund a government-sponsored savings and pension fund.
The braceros never received the money. At one time, the Mexican government claimed it never was given the cash by the U.S.
In answer to a series of class action lawsuits, nearly 50 years after the program shut down the Mexican government agreed to pay 38,000 pesos (about $3,000) to documented braceros or their surviving children.
Christopher Leitch is former director of the Kansas City Museum and a founder of the Nuestra Herencia project to collect artifacts, papers, and stories documenting Latino and Latina life in Kansas City.
The event is co-sponsored by the Consulate of Mexico in Kansas City and the Latino Writers Collective.
Admission is free. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the event. Free parking is available in the Library District Parking Garage at 10th and Baltimore. RSVP at kclibrary.org  or call 816.701.3407.