Friday, August 24, 2018

What happened when the Labor Department recruited high school students to replace migrant farm workers in 1965

The barracks where Randy Carter and classmates lived in 1965.
The argument that Central Americans are taking American farm jobs is a fairly modern phenomenon. In 1964, when the World War II-era Bracero Program, which brought Mexicans to harvest U.S. crops, ended because of accusations of inhumane conditions, farmers weren't happy. They said Mexicans did the jobs Americans wouldn't, and that crops would rot in the field, Gustavo Arellano reports for NPR.

Enter then-Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, who wanted to prove farmers wrong. He announced on Cinco de Mayo of 1965 that he wanted to recruit 20,000 high-school athletes to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmworkers. He called the project A-TEAM: Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower.

After weeks of heavy nationwide advertising with slogans like "Farm Work Builds Men!" about 18,100 teens signed up, though only about 3,300 of them ever actually picked crops. One was Randy Carter, now a member of the Directors Guild of America. He and 25 classmates at his San Diego high school joined up and were assigned to pick cantaloupes near Blythe, Calif., Arellano reports.

It was brutal work, Carter told Arellano: The students worked six days a week and weren't allowed to go home during their stint. They were paid minimum wage, then $1.40 an hour, and began work before dawn to minimize working in the blistering heat of daytime in the irrigated desert. They were housed in dilapidated barracks that regularly reached nighttime temperatures in the 90s.

Though some teens stuck it out all summer as a point of pride, the program fizzled quickly. "In California's Salinas Valley, 200 teenagers from New Mexico, Kansas and Wyoming quit after just two weeks on the job," Arellano reports. "Students elsewhere staged strikes. At the end, the A-TEAM was considered a giant failure and was never tried again."

Stony Brook University history professor Lori Flores, who researched the program for a book, said it demonstrates a valuable perspective on the reality of farm work: "These [high school students] had the words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply didn't have the power or space for the American public to listen to them," she told Arellano. "The students dropped out because the conditions were so atrocious, and the growers weren't able to mask that up."


akbright said...

I remember my older brother and sister, getting up in the early morning, to be bussed to the fields to de-tassle corn. Growing up in the rural midwest, this was a common summer job amongst the young teens during the 60's.

Anonymous said...

Way to dismiss the endless numbers of white youth back then, and still even now, that work in the field during the season. 3,000 white teens, from only three states out of 50, is only a drop in the bucket of how many worked in the fields. Especially back then.

Unknown said...

I cut asparagus in summer of 1965. This was in Southern California. I was 15 and now am 68 and my back still hurts. I was sunburnt all summer and am suffering to this day from skin cancer.