Mexican workers' efforts helped many farms during war

Retired North Plains resident Melvin Van Domelen recalls first meeting Mexican farm workers in Hillsboro during World War II.

Van Domelen, who is 80 now, was attending a 4H fair in Shute Park when it was the Washington County Fairgrounds.

“I remember they were in a building not 30 feet from us. People said, ‘Don’t go over there,’ but there was no fence between us. When it got night, they came out with their guitars and sang songs and were real kind to us. They were all older men, and I think they missed their families,” says Van Domelen.

The men had been brought to Washington County through the Bracero Program, a formal agreement with Mexico to provide agricultural workers during World War II. The Washington County Museum is mounting an exhibition on the program in as part of its inaugural expansion into the second floor of the Hillsboro Civic Center, beginning on Saturday, Nov. 17.

Called “Americans All: The Bracero Program in Washington County,” the exhibition includes photographs of workers and a replica of the kind of tent that would have slept in.

“The Bracero Program was vitally important to both the United States and Washington County,” says museum Curator Adam Mikos.

“The program came about because Mexico declared war on Germany and joined the allies. If Mexico had sided with the Axis powers, America would have had another front to fight, one on its southern border.”

And, Mikos adds, “America and Washington County needed the help to bring in the crops. So many young men enlisted and went to work in the war industries, there was a severe shortage of farm workers. Without the program, there would not have been enough workers to harvest the crops during the war.”

Thanks for contributions

The Bracero Program was initiated in 1942 after President Franklin Roosevelt met with Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho in Monterey, Mexico. Also known as the Emergency Farm Workers Supply Program, it brought more than 215,000 workers into the United States between 1942 and 1947.

The program brought 15,000 workers into Oregon during its first five years. Searching through records maintained by the Oregon extension service, Mikos has learned the program brought 248 workers into Washington County in 1944, when they performed 25,000 man-hours of labor. The program brought 237 workers into the county the next year, when they performed 21,000 hours of labor.

After the first year, then-Oregon Gov. Earl Snell wrote a letter to the Mexican government in Spanish expressing the state’s appreciate for the contributions of the workers.

According to the records, although all of the workers were originally supposed to return to Mexico after the harvest season ended, many farmers soon requested that some stay year-round. The records indicate at least some of the requests were granted and an unknown number of workers then stayed through the winters, and then helped plant the crops that were later harvested.

After some time, Mikos says, the records indicate that some of the workers were able to bring their families up from Mexico, too.

Connections to history

The Bracero Program was continued in many states after the war ended under a variety of laws and administrative agreements until it formally ended 1964. The program officially ended in Oregon in 1947, even though farm labor shortages continued. Museum researchers have talked with residents who remember farmers driving buses to Mexico to recruit workers in years after the war.

Although museum researchers have talked to Van Domelen and others who remember seeing the workers in the county, they have not yet found any families who trace their roots back to them. Researchers plan to keep looking and hope the exhibition will inspire area residents with connections to the program to contact them.

Anyone with memories, photographs, artifacts or documents from the Bracero Program in Washington County is encouraged to contact Beth Dehn, the museum’s education and folklife coordinator, at 503-645-5333, ext. 133.

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