Central Valley

Braceros meet with Mexican consul

Scores of former Mexican guest workers and their representatives met Monday in the Mexican Consulate in Fresno in continuing attempts to unravel complications ensnaring their pay since World War II.

After the meeting, Leonel Flores, a coordinator of the Union of Ex-Braceros and Immigrants in Fresno, reported in Spanish and English about progress in the talks. He said he had asked the consulate how many people met the requirements to receive their back pay.

He said that Selene Barceló, acting consul, "didn't give me exact numbers. She said more than 500."

That accounting falls short, Flores said: "She needs to say exactly how many people comply and who is on the list."

The bracero program dates back to World War II when the U.S. and Mexican governments cooperated to bring guest workers to the San Joaquin Valley to cultivate and harvest crops while much of the national work force was diverted to fighting Germany, Italy and Japan.

A portion was deducted from the braceros' pay and sent to Mexico in a savings fund. This was designed to encourage workers to return to Mexico once the United States no longer needed them after the war, but the money went missing in Mexico. Now, former guest workers can apply for that money. The Mexican government has allowed all those who worked between 1942 and 1964 to qualify rather than only those dispatched between 1942 and 1946 to help in wartime.

In January, the Mexican Consulate in Fresno decided to allow former guest workers to apply for their payment at the local consulate at 2409 Merced St. Former workers are eligible for about $3,500 each, but they must be able to document their work as a bracero.

Flores said the union is working with Mexican legislators to change the law in Mexico and broaden the number of former guest workers who can receive payment for work long past. The union also wants to expand registration for the compensation. It wants widows lacking marriage certificates to win payment as well as brothers and sisters of braceros.

Flores said the Mexican government should accept additional documents to support the claims of workers, 75% of whom lack records. Most important, he said, the Mexican government should accept as documentation the cards and letters and interview information that braceros kept.

"Most of the problem," said Barceló, the acting consul, "involves people who are unable to prove they were braceros. With the passage of time, floods and fires, they lost their papers. They are citizens of Mexico. This consulate is their house. We take care of them when they walk in. For me, this has been a sad history because there has been no straightforward process for how they could replace lost documents."

On the other hand, Barceló said, it is unreasonable to expect Mexico to accept anybody's claim to have been a bracero without adequate proof.

Flores said the former braceros are working with his union to compile a list of addresses, phone numbers, names and organizations involved with the long-ago work. The union will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Anthony Mary Claret Church, 2494 S. Chestnut Ave., to compile a more extensive list.