Photo by Leonard Nadel. Courtesy National Museum of American History


Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964

Begun in 1942 as a temporary war measure to address labor needs in agriculture and the railroads, the bracero program eventually become the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican braceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times. By the time the program was canceled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded.

Bracero workers. Photo by Leonard Nadel. Courtesy National Museum of American History.Bittersweet Harvest, a moving new bilingual exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) and circulated by SITES, examines the experiences of bracero workers and their families, providing rich insight into Mexican American history and historical background to today’s debates on guest worker programs. Consisting of 15 freestanding, illustrated banners, the exhibition combines recent scholarship, powerful photographs from the Smithsonian’s collection, and audio excerpts from oral histories contributed by former contract workers.

The bracero program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, eager for cash work, were willing to take harsh jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the U.S. worried that braceros would compete for jobs and drive down wages. “The braceros experienced exploitation but also opportunity,” says NMAH curator Peter Liebhold. “The work was grueling, the time spent away from home difficult, but the opportunity to earn money was real. The program was truly bittersweet.”

Exhibitors are encouraged to supplement Bittersweet Harvest with local materials and to generate productive community dialogue about a topic that still resonates today. The exhibition opens at the newly renovated NMAH in October 2009 before beginning its national tour.

>> Visit the Bracero History Archive

>> Smithsonian Secretary on Bittersweet Harvest

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Exhibition specifications

Contents 15 freestanding banners with text and images, audio station (venue to provide equipment)
Supplemental Educational and promotional resources
Participation Fee $2,000 per 10-week booking period
Size 1,000-1,500 square feet, est.
Crates 5
Weight 500 lbs. total
Category History & Culture
Security Limited
Shipping Outgoing
SITES Contacts Maria del Carmen Cossu, 202.633.3101 (Content)
Minnie Russell, 202.633.3160 (Scheduling)
Tour Through November 2017
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Tour itinerary


Opening Closing Copy 1: Host Institution Status
02/20/2010- 05/02/2010 Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose, CA Booked
05/22/2010- 08/01/2010 Museo Alameda, San Antonio, TX Booked
08/21/2010- 10/31/2010 El Museo Latino, Omaha, NE Booked
11/20/2010- 01/30/2011 Chamizal National Memorial, El Paso, TX Booked
02/19/2011- 05/01/2011 Chandler Gilbert Community College Library, Chandler, AZ Booked
05/21/2011- 07/31/2011 The Historical Society of Saginaw County and the Castle Museum, Saginaw, MI Booked
08/20/2011- 10/30/2011 Park City Museum, Park City, UT Booked
11/14/2011- 11/16/2011 Office of Migrant Education Annual Conference, Nashville Convention Center, Nashville, TN Booked
02/18/2012- 04/01/2012 Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR Booked
05/19/2012- 07/29/2012 Springs Preserve, Las Vegas, NV Booked
08/18/2012- 10/28/2012 The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History Booked
11/17/2012- 01/27/2013 Town of Windsor Museum, Windsor, CO Booked
02/16/2013- 04/28/2013 Roland Park Country School, Baltimore, MD Booked
05/18/2013- 07/28/2013 Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum, Ontario, Oregon Booked
08/17/2013- 10/27/2013 Reynolds Gallery, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA Booked
11/16/2013- 01/26/2014 Lakeshore Museum Center, Muskegon, MI Booked
02/15/2014- 04/27/2014 Dittmar Memorial Gallery, Norris Center, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL Booked
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Opening Closing Copy 2 : Host Institution Status
05/22/2010- 08/01/2010 Branigan Cultural Center, Las Cruces, NM Booked
08/21/2010- 10/31/2010 Center for Community Engagement, John Spoor Broome Library, California State University, Channel Islands Booked
11/20/2010- 01/30/2011 Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA Booked
02/19/2011- 05/01/2011 Wittliff Gallery, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX Booked
05/21/2011- 07/31/2011 Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, MO Booked
08/20/2011- 10/03/2011 Museum of History and Art, Ontario, CA Booked
02/18/2012- 04/29/2012 Visitors Center , University of Texas - Pan American, Edinburg, TX Booked
05/19/2012- 07/29/2012 Coachella Valley History Museum, Indio, CA Booked
08/18/2012- 10/28/2012 Dayton Memorial Library, Regis University, Denver, CO Booked
11/17/2012- 01/27/2013 El Progreso Memorial Library, Archives & Museum, Uvalde, TX Booked
02/16/2013- 04/28/2013 Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL Booked
05/18/2013- 07/28/2013 San Lorenzo Park, Monterey County Parks, Salinas, CA Booked
08/17/2013- 10/27/2013 Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, MO Booked
11/16/2013- 01/26/2014 Carlsbad Museum & Art Center, Carlsbad, NM Booked
02/15/2014- 05/18/2014 Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA Booked
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Extension Tour Dates      
09/01/2014- 11/16/2014 Wyandotte County Historical Museum, Bonner Springs, KS Booked
12/06/2014- 02/15/2015 Columbia Gorge Discovery Center - Wasco County Historical Museum , The Dalles, OR Booked
03/07/2015- 05/17/2015 Living History Farms, Urbandale, IA Booked
06/06/2015- 08/16/2015 South Dakota Agricultural Museum, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD Booked
09/05/2015- 11/15/2015 Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead, MN Booked
12/05/2015- 02/14/2016 Tucson Desert Art Museum, Tucson, AZ Booked
03/05/2016- 05/15/2016 Clovis Community College Center, Fresno, CA Booked
06/04/2016- 08/14/2016 Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Austin, TX Booked
09/03/2016- 11/13/2016 Bayer Museum of Agriculture, Lubbock, TX Booked
12/03/2016- 05/14/2017 Holocaust Museum Houston, Houston, TX Booked
06/03/2017- 08/13/2017 Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site, Laramie, WY Booked
09/02/2017- 11/12/2017 J. Murrey Atkins Library - UNC Charlotte, NC Booked
09/02/2017- 11/12/2017 Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, CA Booked


Related publications

Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964; exhibition prospectus.

Contains information about the traveling exhibition as well as descriptive text about the bracero program itself. English/Spanish

>> Download. FREE.

Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program exhibition prospectus cover


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Press release
Media only: Paula Newbaker, 202.633.3117
Media Web site:

The “Bittersweet” Struggle of the Bracero Is Revealed in a New Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition

In 1943, President Roosevelt announced the creation of what would become the largest Mexican guest-worker program in U.S. history. Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964, a new bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibition debuting at the National Museum of American History and organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), will explore this chapter of American history. The exhibition will be on view at the museum Sept. 9 through Jan. 3, 2010, and will then travel to museums around the country on a two-year, multicity tour.

Facing labor shortages on the home front during World War II, the United States initiated a series of agreements with Mexico to recruit Mexican men to work on American farms and railroads. The Emergency Farm Labor Program, more familiarly known as the Bracero Program, enabled approximately 2 million Mexicans to enter the United States and work on short-term labor contracts.
“SITES is deeply gratified to share with the nation a central part of American labor history of which so few are aware,” said Anna Cohn, director of SITES. “The story of the bracero is rooted in hope and determination. It is a testament to the enduring contributions that Mexicans and Mexican Americans have made to American life.”

The exhibition explores the braceros’ contributions to communities in Mexico and the United States, the opportunities that became available to braceros and the challenges that they faced as guest workers during the war years and afterward. Included in the exhibition are 15 free-standing banners featuring oral histories, quotes and photographs by Leonard Nadel, a photographer who, in 1956, exposed employer violations endured by many braceros. The Nadel photos inspired the museum’s work on Bittersweet Harvest and the Bracero History Project, which also includes audio clips of former braceros relating their experiences. The firsthand accounts were collected as part of the project’s oral-history initiative.

“This exhibition allows us to explore complex issues of race, class, community and national origin while highlighting the irrefutable contributions by Mexican Americans to American society,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “‘Bittersweet Harvest’ is a unique opportunity to share an important but overlooked chapter in American history with visitors across the country.”

Two versions of Bittersweet Harvest will travel through the country through 2011. Scheduled stops include the Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture in San Antonio: El Museo Latino in Omaha, Neb.; Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas; and the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas.

Accompanying the exhibition is a Web site with transcripts, audio files of all of the oral histories, photos, essays, bibliographies and teaching resources. Developed by the Center for New Media at George Mason University, the Web site features a section where braceros and their families can contribute their own stories. The Web site is located at

Bittersweet Harvest is organized by the National Museum of American History and organized for travel by SITES. Funding is made possible through the Smithsonian’s Latino Center, which celebrates Latino culture, spirit and achievement in America by facilitating the development of exhibitions, research, collections and education programs. For more information, visit

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. Exhibition descriptions and tour schedules are available at

The National Museum of American History collects preserves and display American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. After a two-year renovation and a dramatic transformation, the museum shines new light on American history, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check

For Smithsonian information, the public may call 202.633.1000, 202.633.5285.

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Exhibition Specifications

Tour Itinerary

Exhibition Images

Exhibition Prospectus

Related Publications

Press Release

FREE Poster Set

Bracero Oral Histories


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