A Bracero’s Story

It started with Salvador, the patriarch. In 1959, he left his wife and children near Guadalajara, Mexico, to work the fields of California. Salvador Castillo was a Bracero — one of more than 4 million who came to the United States from Mexico under an agricultural worker program that lasted from 1942 to 1964.

Salvador’s journeys would continue for the next 10 years, some under the Bracero program, some not. Although the first trip would remain the most profitable and his absences tore at his family’s fabric, Salvador left an impression of the U.S. that would forever change his family’s path.

“Salvador went back to Mexico the first time and told his children that this was the golden land of opportunity, that it was a unique place where, if they worked hard enough, they could carve out a better life,” says Tasha Galardi, a senior in sociology who interviewed Salvador and three generations of his family.

Using the Castillos as a case study, Galardi explored the long-term effects of the Bracero program on Mexican families and how their experience fit with immigration theories.

“I was studying the Bracero program as a starting point for the whole family’s migration to the U.S.,” says Galardi. She found that most of Salvador’s family members who live in the U.S. still maintain strong ties to Mexico, so much so that they lead full lives in both countries. “Everyone who has legal status here spends part of the year here and part of the year in Mexico. It’s as though they have one foot in each country.”

She also found that such close ties create a sense of obligation to family back “home.” The Castillos still send money to relatives and friends in Mexico. And often, as in the case of Salvador’s son, Raul, they bring family members to the U.S. to work and help sponsor them for citizenship.

“Raul came here, moved to Alaska, bought a fishing boat and has employed many of his family members over the years. He came with the expectation that he would work hard and be financially supportive. And his success has cascaded to the rest of his family,” says Galardi.

Galardi’s project began with a trip to the Valley Library’s University Archives. There, she met archivist Larry Landis, who maintains a collection of 102 photos of Bracero workers in fields and camps. Landis needed an oral history to accompany the images and asked Galardi to interview a Bracero in his late 80s — Salvador Castillo.

“I love doing life history interviews. Everybody has a story, and those collective experiences make up who people are and why they do what they do,” she says.

The interviews were emotional for Salvador’s family, particularly for his children. They told Galardi about what it was like to wait for his letters. The first thing they did when they opened them was to look for money. “They were incredibly poor,” says Galardi. “It was so hard for all of them.”

Galardi plans to apply for OSU’s graduate program in human development and family studies. “This project was interesting to me because it was an example of how immigration policies have fractured families. I’m interested in studying ways to strengthen families of many underrepresented groups and finding out which programs work.”

See Oregon Public Broadcasting’s documentary on the Bracero Program.

To support research in the College of Liberal Arts, contact the Oregon State University Foundation.