Together with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has opened an exhibition of photography exploring the Emergency...

Together with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has opened an exhibition of photography exploring the Emergency Farm Labor Program.

The program issued 4.6 million short-term labor contracts between 1942 and 1964 to bring some 2 million individual Mexican workers into the United States.


More familiarly known as the Bracero Program ― the term derived from the Spanish word used in Mexico to mean laborer or farmhand ― the Emergency Farm Labor Program is the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. It affected the business of farming, immigration patterns and organized labor in the United States.

Entitled “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964”, the exhibition explores the braceros’ challenges and opportunities in the United States and Mexico. The exhibition includes 15 free-standing banners featuring photographs by Leonard Nadel, a photographer who documented the harsh reality of bracero life in 1956. Nadel’s photos inspired “Bittersweet Harvest,” which includes 16 of his original black-and-white prints and a slide show with an additional 170 images.

Braceros cross the Mexico-U.S. border, walking across the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico to Hidalgo, Texas. Photo by Leonard Nadel, 1956. Courtesy National Museum of American History

Braceros cross the Mexico-U.S. border, walking across the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico to Hidalgo, Texas. Photo by Leonard Nadel, 1956. Courtesy National Museum of American History

“This exhibition allows us to explore complex issues of race, class, community and national origin while highlighting the irrefutable contributions by Mexican Americans to American society,” says Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “‘Bittersweet Harvest’ is a unique opportunity to showcase an important but overlooked chapter in American history.”

The display features objects collected from individual braceros and their families and from a former bracero labor camp. Among the dozen objects are a bunk bed from the Danenberg Labor Camp in El Centro, California; a well-worn hat from the family of Savas Zahvala Castro; a short-handled hoe and other tools collected in California’s Coachella Valley; and a radio.

An audio station in the exhibition presents 12 excerpts from oral-history interviews in which braceros, family members, growers and others tell their stories. The Bracero History Project has collected more than 700 such interviews.

“Bittersweet Harvest” features bilingual labels and bilingual gallery facilitators will lead tours and activities.

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