SANDRA BALTAZAR MARTINEZ

The Santa Fe New Mexican via The Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- Kristine Navarro has heard many stories, but the ones that haunt her most are those that remain untold.

For years, Navarro has been working on recording oral histories of hundreds of Mexican men who once worked in the fields, and on the ranches and railroads in at least 26 states, including New Mexico. These men came to the U.S. between 1942 and 1964 through a federal guest-worker project known as the Bracero Program. The name derives from the Spanish word brazo, or arm.

Navarro, director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, has been recording their stories. Originally intended for the university files, the project has grown into a much larger effort that now involves the Smithsonian Institution and other collaborators.

So far, Navarro and her staff have interviewed about 40 former braceros, and farmers who employed them, who currently live in New Mexico. The audio recordings also include input from clerks, medical personnel and administrators who worked with the men.

The stories are about many struggles -- about discrimination, about being sprayed with insecticide before crossing the border, about family separations -- but also about the opportunities to send money home to feed their families.

"I think (people) need to look at the positive impact that (braceros) had on the economy," Navarro said.

She was referring not only to the assistance provided by braceros to farmers and other employers in getting products to market, but the fact that they helped local economies by spending some of their wages for food, entertainment and other purchases.

Most of the braceros were 16 to 34 years of age when chosen, Navarro said. Being healthy was important: Ill or medically unsuitable applicants were denied entry to the U.S. During one of the oral history interviews, a medical staff member recalled that recruiters from Colorado would come down and "hit the back of their legs to see how tough they were, to see if they were able to work in Colorado."

Cameron Saffell, curator of history at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, said that during the program's 22 years, New Mexico hired anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 braceros per year. During World War II, braceros replaced local men who were away fighting, under the Emergency Farm Labor Program. But even before the war, many people had left rural areas to live in cities. This also contributed to a chronic labor shortage.

"Those sources didn't come back after the war, and you still needed work to be done," Saffell said. "Farm organizations said, 'We need somebody to come out here and do the work.' Braceros were one way of getting the work done."

Most of these workers were hired as seasonal help, some even for nine to 12 months at a time. They then were required to return to Mexico.

Some states including California hired braceros from other countries such as Canada and Haiti, but not New Mexico, Saffell said. Growers wanted strong, healthy and hard workers in their fields, and Mexicans met those requirements.

Often the workers were required to show their hands to make sure they were calloused. "You wanted to bring in hard workers," Saffell said. And the Mexicans were especially welcome after Italian and German prisoners of war, who did field labor in the early years of America's involvement in World War II, proved less willing to work. Thus, across the state, Mexican men worked in everything from cotton fields to dairies.

Through the duration of the program, at least 2.5 million braceros came to the U.S. That translates into about 4.5 million different bracero contracts.

When braceros were hired, they agreed to have 10 percent of their wages deducted per paycheck. These funds were supposed to serve as savings accounts, and thus as an incentive to return to Mexico.

The U.S. government was in charge of withdrawing the funds, then transferring the money to the Mexican government. Mexican officials were then supposed to distribute those withheld wages upon a bracero's return. But the idea did not work as well in practice as in theory. Thousands of braceros who remain alive are still waiting for the money.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox began distributing 38,000 pesos per man, about $3,500, during his administration. But current President Felipe Calderon has made the claims process difficult, said Rosa Martha Zarate, coordinator for the Binational Organizations of Former Braceros in Los Angeles.

According to Zarate, Mexico had planned to distribute about 700 million pesos as "social help" for more than 172,000 braceros or their beneficiaries. In June, though, the government said it would only distribute 4,000 pesos annually until the 38,000-peso ceiling was reached.

Unhappy with how Calderon's government is handling the distribution of funds, Zarate said bracero organizations across the U.S. picketed Mexican consulates on Tuesday.

"We are going to go to the consulates to denounce Calderon's government because he is the one signing these new laws," Zarate said.

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Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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