Zampogna Krug on Cohen, 'Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico'

Deborah Cohen
Ashley M. Zampogna Krug

Deborah Cohen. Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Illustrations. 328 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3359-9.

Reviewed by Ashley M. Zampogna Krug (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) Published on H-Borderlands (March, 2012) Commissioned by Benjamin H. Johnson

Scholars now recognize the bracero program as an exploitative and violent schema against Mexican workers. Deborah Cohen illustrates its discriminatory aspects, but her overarching intent is to portray braceros as transnational actors inhabiting a transnational social and political space structured around notions of the modern. While the narrative of the program was to modernize Mexican peasants, Cohen insists that its history is much more than merely a story of progress. “The bracero program,” she asserts “spurred a broad and complicated remaking of the relationship between citizen and nation, state and world, which did not mirror the trajectory from premodern to modern that U.S. and Mexican program architects imagined for the Mexican men who would travel northward” (p. 2). Cohen maintains that unlike other modernizing plans, the success of the bracero program, and ultimately of Mexico’s modernization, depended on the transformation of Mexican citizens through migration. Thus, the border that braceros had to cross was not only one of political or geographic divisions but also one of becoming modern. In elucidating the ways in which braceros negotiated their experiences with the modern on both sides of the border, Cohen unearths a multitude of other actors--growers, union organizers, diplomats, and religious leaders--who also shaped the transnational space formulated by the bracero program.

In three parts and eight thematically and chronologically organized chapters, Cohen traces the development and transnational scope of the bracero program from its inception to its termination. Part 1 outlines how the program produced transnational subjects by examining the ambitions of the state, the growers, and the braceros. In chapter 1, the author explores the binational negotiations and expectations that led to the initiation of the program. After establishing the historical context into which braceros entered, Cohen compares and contrasts U.S. grower narratives with braceros’ reasons for participating in the program. The author convincingly illustrates how both growers and braceros manipulated the program to suit their interests. U.S. growers reinforced two competing discourses that enabled them to reap benefits from the program: one that described small farmers as modern entrepreneurs deserving of American citizenship and another that applauded the work ethic of growers’ employees but emphasized the inability of those employees to obtain full national inclusion due to the barriers of race and non-citizenship. Braceros, however, also manipulated the program. While Mexican officials viewed the program as a means to achieve modernity for Mexico, braceros saw participation in the program as a way to retain their grasp on manhood and achieve state recognition of their citizenship. Perceiving the program in this way, Cohen argues, motivated braceros to participate in a dialogue with the state in order to hold it accountable to its promises.

In part 2, Cohen delineates the biases that transpired as the program progressed and the ways in which braceros exhibited agency as transnational subjects. She begins the second part by tracing the medical screening processes that braceros underwent in Mexico and again in the United States. Of the Mexican screening process Cohen asserts, “This regional level scrutiny functioned as an act of confirmation, a way of conferring on these previously invisible residents the rights and responsibilities of revolutionary citizenship” (p. 94). Braceros’ inspection by U.S. growers, in contrast, provoked humiliation rather than pride. The difference, Cohen indicates, was one of subjectivity. While the medical inspection in Mexico marked the men as strong, capable, and modern, the U.S. growers’ evaluations immediately designated them as“backward.” The remaining chapters in part 2 illustrate how braceros challenged the very controlled environment of the U.S. farm by continuing to assert their prerogatives as men and workers, albeit in small ways. Cohen points out, however, that as exploitation increased the program became less able to produce modern Mexican subjects. Therefore, to retain a certain social and economic status, Mexican migrants increasingly came to rely on certain benefits accrued on both sides of the border. In the United States, migrants attainted material benefits, such as commodities and money, but in Mexico they could assert their claims to self-sufficiency and manhood. Their desire to accumulate both material and social benefits impelled cyclical migration.  

In the final part, Cohen takes up the termination of the bracero program. She asserts that changes in U.S. liberalism, which weakened the growers’ common support for the program, led to its eventual demise. Despite the abuses of the program, the Mexican government advocated its continuation partially due to the realization that outmigration had become a reality in Mexican life. At the end of the final chapter, Cohen returns to this question: “Should we view the program as exploitation or an opportunity?” (p. 221). She ultimately contends that such a framework disguises not only migrants’ agency but also the consequences of their agency.

Cohen’s analysis relies on a variety of sources, including manuscript collections from U.S. and Mexican archives; numerous governmental records; Mexican and American newspapers; songs; growers’ testimonies; and, most notably, over thirty interviews with former braceros--and several with Mexican state officials--that Cohen conducted herself during nearly four years of ethnographic fieldwork. She provides descriptions of her experience doing fieldwork in Durango, Mexico, which offers the reader a sense of the town and surrounding pueblos that migrants left, as well as the process that Cohen abided by when conducting the interviews. She seamlessly incorporates the interviews into her text, which brings a human element to the history of the bracero program. They exemplify the dialogue that existed between braceros’ actions and the practices of the nation-state. These stories make the book enjoyable to read and accessible to a wider audience. Nevertheless, Cohen’s ability to illustrate the complexity of the transnational space that came to comprise the bracero program renders her work a must read for scholars interested in the history of transnational im/migration.

Though rich in transnational analysis, Cohen provides the reader with little understanding of how her work relates to the historiography of the bracero program. She does contrast her work with previous studies that document the modernization of workers through the program, and she also recognizes that the bracero program was not the United States’ first attempt to use its foreign policy to modernize “backward” countries. However, it would have been useful, particularly for graduate students, if the author had devoted a few pages to bracero historiography. Additionally, since her work so beautifully exemplifies a transnational paradigm, it might have been worthwhile for the author to situate her study among other similar transnational histories. One other minor critique concerns the title of the book. It suggests a holistic representation of the bracero program while, in actuality, Cohen focuses on migrants from Durango and growers in California. While her transnational analysis of the program in California and Durango is brilliant, it would have been valuable, especially for those with little knowledge of the bracero program, if Cohen would have provided some comparative analysis.

In her epilogue, Cohen relates her transnational analysis of the bracero program to the transnational subjectivities that Mexican migrants continue to negotiate today. Her ability to demonstrate this connection makes her book a useful tool for understanding how the history of U.S.-Mexico relations and U.S. immigration policy has affected current realities for Mexican migrants. Cohen’s capacity for relating the past to the present and weaving the voices of former braceros into her text, makes this book a valuable teaching tool for courses that cover Mexican labor migration, ethnic identity, masculinity, and U.S.-Mexico relations. However, the most valuable aspect of this book is Cohen’s eloquent application of a transnational framework. Cohen provides an excellent example of transnational historiography that will be useful for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing transnational research.

Printable Version:

Citation: Ashley M. Zampogna Krug. Review of Cohen, Deborah, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. March, 2012. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.