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Bracero Protest 'Caravan' Comes to L.A.

Labor: WWII-era guest workers say they're owed money that was deducted from wages.

April 11, 2002|GARIOT LOUIMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Becerra stood a little way from the protest Wednesday outside the Mexican Consulate, observing the old braceros bearing banners and picket signs and singing Mexican folk songs that he remembered from his childhood.

He had heard the stories countless times from his father, who was a bracero guest worker in Somerton, Ariz., during World War II, and he knew what the protest was about.

About 80 Mexican braceros and their families had gathered to support the Braceroproa Alliance, a group that has been pressing American and Mexican governments for reimbursements of up to $1 billion, money that they say was deducted from their pay during the World War II-era bracero program.

Bracero advocates say American employers deducted 10% of each worker's pay as a savings. The Mexican government was to return the money when the braceros went home, but much of it was never refunded, they say.

Becerra's father "told me a lot about this," he said, squinting against the sun. "They made a lot of promises to him, and when he went back to Mexico, they didn't give him anything."

Becerra, 32, of East Los Angeles, said his father thinks the protests are useless, because he has given up hope that he'll ever see the money. But shortly after noon, when leaving the consulate on unrelated business, Becerra felt compelled to stop and show support. "Because they took everything from my father," he said. "This is good, this is real. The government took a lot from a lot of people."

Wednesday's gathering was one leg of a symbolic "caravan" that started with rallies earlier this month in Yakima, Wash., and will end in Mexico City, where members of the alliance plan to lobby the Mexican Congress for reparations. They also plan to deliver a symbolic message to President Vicente Fox, said the group's founder and financial coordinator, Ventura Gutierrez, 53, of Riverside.

Gutierrez has collected nine pairs of cowboy boots, a new pair at each rally point. When he gets to Mexico, he hopes to give Fox a pair that fits.

"His boots are worn out. We'll give him a new pair that fits him," said Gutierrez. "He's made too many promises already. With Mexican politics, you have to beat someone over the head with a message so they get it."

Martha Jimenez of East Los Angeles said "justice needs to be done."

Her father and uncles were braceros in Salinas from 1957 to 1964, she said. "This is not only a Mexican issue, but a U.S. labor issue as well," she said.

Crescenciano Ortiz said he has been waiting for justice since 1946. By his count, the Mexican government owes him about $3,000. "They took the 10% deduction from everybody," he said through an interpreter. "When we went back to Mexico, they didn't give us anything."

Allegations that wages were unpaid triggered international protests, a Mexican congressional investigation and legal actions in the United States. About $28 million was paid to the workers by 1946, according to records examined by The Times last year, and about $6 million is unaccounted for.

Those records also indicate the deductions were discontinued by 1949 and didn't continue until 1964 as advocates claim.

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