Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower 1960s student instead of migrant program.
The year thousands of American teenage boys heeded the call of the federal government … to work on farms. The year was 1965. On Cinco de Mayo, newspapers across the country reported that Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz wanted to recruit 20,000 high schoolers to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican agricultural workers who had labored in the United States under the so-called Bracero Program. Started in World War II, the program was an agreement between the American and Mexican governments that brought Mexican men to pick harvests across the U.S. It ended in 1964, after years of accusations by civil rights activists like Cesar Chavez that migrants suffered wage theft and terrible working and living conditions.
Farmers complained about the failure of the program — in words that echo today’s headlines — that Mexican laborers did the jobs that Americans didn’t want to do, and that the end of the Bracero Program meant that crops would rot in the fields.
Wirtz cited this labor shortage and a lack of summer jobs for high schoolers as reason enough for the program. But he didn’t want just any band geek or nerd — he wanted jocks.
“They can do the work,” Wirtz said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing the creation of the project, called A-TEAM — Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. “They are entitled to a chance at it.” Standing beside him to lend gravitas were future Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Warren Spahn and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown.
Over the ensuing weeks, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness bought ads on radio and in magazines to try to lure lettermen. “Farm Work Builds Men!” screamed one such promotion, which featured 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte.
“These [high school students] had the words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply didn’t have the power or space for the American public to listen to them,” she says. “The students dropped out because the conditions were so atrocious, and the growers weren’t able to mask that up.”
She says the A-TEAM “reveals a very important reality: It’s not about work ethic [for undocumented workers]. It’s about [the fact] that this labor is not meant to be done under such bad conditions and bad wages.”
Yet the immigration debate wages on today, as immigration has tightened on the border millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables wilt on the vines as America’s cities go hungry in the Covid world we live in. Will we ever learn the lessons of history? Will our whiteness be our downfall?