Jump to Content
California Cultures

Hispanic Americans: Migrant Workers and Braceros (1930s-1964)

Questions to Consider

What was life like for migrant workers in California agriculture?

What other types of work did Mexican migrants find?


During the 20th century, Hispanic Americans — the majority of whom were Mexican Americans — comprised the largest minority group in California. One-half million Mexicans migrated to the United States during the 1920s, with more than 30 percent settling in California.

Migrant Workers

The photographs in this section (many taken by Dorothea Lange) show Mexican migrant workers in California agriculture. Families (like the one whose car has broken down on the road) faced rough living conditions in the fields. The photograph of field shacks constructed of tin cans is a good example.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, racial anxieties ran high. Mexicans in California and other states were seen as competition for already scarce jobs. Various civic organizations and chambers of commerce successfully pressed local, county, and state governments to round up Mexican Americans indiscriminately (citizens and non-citizens alike) and "repatriate" them to Mexico.

The Bracero Program

This situation shifted in the early 1940s. World War II brought a labor shortage as American workers joined the armed forces. In 1942, Congress enacted the Emergency Labor Program — called the Bracero Program (brazos is the Spanish word for arms) — to allow temporary Mexican migrants into the United States to work in American industry. In one photograph, a Mexican worker gives the V for Victory sign on the train bringing him to work in the United States.

During the 22 years of the Bracero Program, more than 4 million Mexican workers left their families behind and came to work in the fields of California. This migration had an enormous and lasting impact on the state's economy and demographics.

Other Types of Work

Not all Mexican migrants worked in the fields. As these photographs show, they found work in canneries and fruit packing, among other industries. Some were entrepreneurs, like the Veyna family of Anaheim, who opened a fruit stand (shown here), a restaurant, and a grocery store. Frank Gonzales, also shown here, was a barber.

Illegal Immigration

As it is today, illegal immigration was also an issue in the mid-20th century. A photograph taken in the 1940s shows a picketer in downtown Los Angeles, protests illegal raids by the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.

A 1954 photograph shows a Bracero entering the country legally from Mexicali. Another 1954 photograph documents Mexican laborers returning home after they have completed their US work contracts. But the original caption asks: “Will they go back home, in Mexico, or turn right around and join the thousands trying to get into the United States for harvest jobs?”

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.4, 4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

11.8 Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)

11.9 Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (11.9.7)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Pickets on the highway calling workers from the fields, 1933 cotton strike Portrait of Migratory Woman Worker, ca. 1935 Migratory Mexican field worker's home, Imperial Valley, March, 1937.
Migrant farm worker in the Imperial Valley, 1935 Migrant family of Mexicans on the road with car trouble, 1936 Mexican workers await legal employment in the United States, Mexicali (Mexico)
Mexican migrant worker, portrait, 1942 Mexican American Cannery Workers, Eastside Plant ca. 1945, Cutters lined up to get cutting equipment. Santiago Orange Growers Association, Orange Packers, Orange, 1948
Drink Stand owned by the Veyna family, Anaheim ca. 1940s Frank Gonzales at His Barber Shop, Anaheim, ca. 1950s Demonstrator protests illegal raids by the Immigration Department, ca. 1940s
Mexican worker obtains legal entry into the United States, Mexicali (Mexico). February 8, 1954 Mexican laborers return home from work in the United States, February 8, 1954 Undocumented Mexican immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol May 3, 1950

Calisphere Related Materials

Themed Collections

1939–1945: World War II
The Bracero Program

Lesson Plans

Children in the Fields: The Life of the Hispanic Child Laborer During California's Agriculture Explosion

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)