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A Mechanical Sculpture Reframes the Legacy of Mexican Migrant Workers

An outlawed farming tool from the 1940s serves as the building block for rewriting the history of Mexican migrants in the US.

It takes little more than a glance at your news feed to notice the current climate of hostility aimed at illegal immigrants in the United States. Even before Donald Trump’s incendiary statements against Mexican migrants and his fanciful proposal to build an enormous wall, the sentiment had already been echoed—and to a certain extent applied—at the US-Mexico border.

The US spends billions on militarizing the border every year, with everything from drones to virtual surveillance technology. Such exacerbation in US-Mexico relations makes it almost impossible to fathom a time when the border was a much more fluid place, where Mexican migrants played a more active role in the American economy—at least officially. Yet such a period did exist, and it is precisely the one that The Bracero Art Project seeks to unravel.

The Bracero Art Project is an ongoing, multidisciplinary work that seeks to honor the struggles of the bracero workers, Mexican agricultural workers who labored in the US under the bracero program. The program consisted of an accord, reached between the US and Mexican governments in 1941, which allowed Mexican nationals to legally work in the States under a temporary contract.

There is a historical precedent to the scapegoating of ethnic groups, one that is largely grounded in racism and xenophobia. Yet the current diatribe against Hispanic, and particularly Mexican immigrants, and their alleged usurpation of the labor force, is also rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding and outright neglect of history.

Created by Tijuana-bred visual artist Daniel Ruanova, the project began with the construction of a mechanical sculpture, built around the “cortito,” an outmoded farming device that served as the primary tool for the bracero worker. The back-numbing work that was conducted with the cortito (short-handled hoe) led to its use being outlawed in most states. Yet, Ruanova sought to repurpose the tool as a symbol of empowerment for the bracero workers, as well as their legacy.

As the artist states on his website: “Even though [the cortito] caused a great amount of damage to the bodies of these men and women, it was also the tool that eventually helped them climb the social ladder that a land of opportunity creates in the lives of hardworking people.”

This idea of empowerment undermines Chicano narratives surrounding the migrant worker. After all, it was Cesar Chavez, the bastion of the Chicano movement and co-founder of United Farm Workers, who opposed the bracero program, claiming that it exploited the migrant workers, while annulling many of the achievements of the unionized workers' strike. Yet, for Ruanova, it is imperative to rewrite the history of the bracero in order to elucidate its greatest truth—namely, that the braceros belonged to what is, in his view, the greatest Mexican-American generation in the nation’s history.

As the artist tells The Creators Project, “We’re told that the greatest generation of Americans were those who fought in World War II. They were the ones that forged the United States. But the braceros were the Americans who fed these men. They manned the machines and they tended the farms while the soldiers fought. That fact was opaqued by the workers’ strike, turning the braceros' labor into something pejorative.”

The installation itself places a great deal of focus on labor, not as a rhetorical action, but rather, a physical one. When operational, the machine perfectly replicates the movement of the “cortito” in use, specifically the hoeing process that was conducted numerous times a day by the braceros. It is as if the piece were conjuring the bodies of the workers themselves, evoking, however spectrally, an almost palpable humanity. It’s ironic that such a humanizing effect is ultimately achieved through such an inhuman and mechanical process. Yet, this fact also speaks to an underlying theme that runs through the work, namely the fundamental lack of adequate symbols that speak to and represent the Mexican-American population.

Symbols are, after all, fundamentally inhuman things, abstractions—whether visual or otherwise—that serve as recipients for the projections of people. For Ruanova, it is this search for new symbols that lies at the core of The Bracero Art Project, ones that will forge the Mexican-American identity, and reframe it not as one of victims or the exploited, but as active players in American history. Ruanova fervently states, “It’s that very lack of historical symbols that has prevented Mexican-Americans from assuming their place as true Americans. When you’re deprived of any meaningful symbols, you’re being deprived of any sense of belonging, any sort of historical notion of the ground you are standing on.”

Ultimately, The Bracero Art Project seeks to present a fundamental truth, namely that the Mexican or Mexican-American is not some other to be feared or shunned, but rather, someone who was always here, helping to forge the nation. It’s a familiar narrative, but one that can’t be repeated enough.

The Bracero Art Project is currently an ongoing piece that will continue to grow and expand with further research. The sculptural installation is on display at Bracero Cocina in San Diego, California.

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