These World War II-Era Bracero Workers Had a Hand in Rhode Island’s Railroad Industry
A new collaborative exhibit between the Museum of Work and Culture and Rhode Island Latino Arts retraces the Mexican laborers who traveled to East Greenwich to meet labor shortages during World War II.
If you’ve ever caught an Amtrak train in Providence and taken it to New Haven, Connecticut, or traveled further to New York City, you likely didn’t think much about whose hands built and maintained those railroad tracks under your feet.
For Rhode Island Latino Arts and Woonsocket’s Museum of Work and Culture, those tracks tell a rich story that’s now part of “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964,” a new, collaborative exhibit that explores the history of migrant laborers in Rhode Island.
In 1944, eighty men arrived by train to East Greenwich on a chilly January morning to work on the New Haven Railroad as part of the Bracero Program, a migrant laborer program established during World War II. The men traveled from Mexico on short-term labor contracts to fill labor shortages created by the war. By the end of their first day in Rhode Island, they would see their first New England snowfall, a sharp contrast from the warmer climes where they came from.
“By the time they got here, it was winter, and they never experienced it,” says Marta Martínez, executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts. “They weren’t prepared for that. They had open toed-shoes and they weren’t dressed for it.”
Martínez has done extensive research on the braceros as part of her study of Rhode Island’s Latino communities. Many of the program’s laborers worked in agriculture in California and other western states, but a handful ended up in New England, where they maintained and laid tracks for the New Haven Railroad. The workers lived in dorm-style barracks in East Greenwich with a chapel and recreation hall, according to newspaper accounts from the time.
Though the program was often criticized for its inhumane working conditions, Martínez says those same newspaper accounts report workers living in good housing with several hearty meals a day. (She also notes those accounts only reported one point of view, and must be taken with a grain of salt.) They participated in cultural events organized by El Club Panamericano, a volunteer group associated with the International Institute of Rhode Island.
The laborers’ time in Rhode Island was short-lived. In 1945, their contract was up and they returned to Mexico or went on to other work assignments despite continued demand for laborers from local companies, according to Martínez.
“Part of what I’m trying to reveal is that the Latinos had a hand in creating things that you don’t ever imagine that make places like Rhode Island hum, and in this case New England,” she says. “What I want people to leave knowing is that when they take the train from Providence, say to New Haven and Philadelphia, that was built by the braceros. By the Mexicans. And nobody knew that.”
Earlier this year, Rhode Island Latino Arts and the Museum of Work and Culture collaborated to tell their story as part of “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964,” a new exhibit at the Woonsocket museum. The exhibit is based on a bilingual poster exhibit of the same name by the Smithsonian Institution on the Bracero Program nationally. Martínez and Deborah Krieger, the museum’s exhibit and program coordinator, added details from their own research on the program locally to tell the story of workers in Rhode Island.
“As I researched, I realized that there were braceros in Rhode Island, people have done this research, and this would be a really interesting way to tell stories of labor and immigration in Rhode Island, fitting in with the theme of this museum,” Krieger says.
In addition to the Bracero Program, the exhibit expands its reach to share the stories of other Latino individuals who traveled to work in Rhode Island. That includes the Colombian community of Central Falls, which was largely responsible for filling labor shortages in the city’s textile industry in the 1960s. Martínez notes how unlike the Mexican workers who left the area after their contracts ended, later waves of immigrants had a strong influence on the area that continues in the many Colombian restaurants and professionals working in Central Falls today.
Martínez and Deborah Krieger also worked closely with Valerie Gonzalez, a Woonsocket city councilwoman and pastor at Vida Church in Woonsocket, to collect stories from Woonsocket’s Latino communities. The result is a layered exhibit that shares the stories of people traveling to work in the Blackstone Valley at different points in time.
“I hope that people who are from the different Latino communities around Rhode Island can see themselves represented and know there’s another place where their stories will be told,” Krieger says.
Many of the histories shared in the exhibit were collected as part of “Nuestras Raíces,” an oral history project Martínez originated with Rhode Island Latino Arts. A coffee cart decorated by artist Ana Flores stands as a centerpiece of the exhibit. Prior to the start of COVID-19, Martínez says, she sometimes wheeled the cart down to the Dexter Training Ground in Providence and allowed individuals to share their stories with her over coffee.
“For me, it was to bring out those stories that you never know. They’re not in history books, and these are important stories that you don’t find in history books. I think the idea of putting out a history that is often underrepresented — the idea that the Mexicans came here. Nobody knew that, and that to me was exciting,” she says.
Visitors to the exhibit can share their own stories at an oral history station that invites participants to write down their accounts of traveling to and working in Rhode Island. The museum also plans to hold oral history collection events in August and September.
“I really want people to feel like their story will matter. Fifty years from now, we’re going to look back at 2022 and what they read and what they see and what they hear, it’s going to be their history,” Martínez says. “Don’t think that what you’re doing doesn’t matter, because it does.”
“Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942–1964” is on display at the Museum of Work and Culture through September 24. For more information about the museum, visit rihs.org. For more information about Rhode Island Latino Arts and its oral history projects, visit rilatinoarts.org or nuestraraicesri.org.