The Bracero History Archive

The Bracero History Archive (BHA), part of the Bracero History Project, is a “collaborative, bilingual, online archive documenting the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican guest workers to the United States between 1942 and 1964” (NEH Funded Grants).

The BHA functions primarily as a digital repository for oral histories, artifacts, and archival materials, as well as a community collecting initiative. The homepage directs visitors to explore the archive (in Spanish or English) and the mission statement emphasizes the collection and dissemination aspect of the project.

“The Bracero History Archive collects and makes available the oral histories and artifacts pertaining to the Bracero program, a guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964. Millions of Mexican agricultural workers crossed the border under the program to work in more than half of the states in America.”

The BHA is a multi-organization initiative with many moving parts. It was created by and is currently run by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso; the National Endowment for the Humanities funds the project.

There is little discussion on the website on where the collections are sourced from; visitors must click on individual records to view their source. One thing to note when exploring the collection, materials are listed in reverse chronological order from when they were posted. This means that user-posted materials are the first that visitors will see. This information is also not clear on the website. I only found out after watching the introduction to the archive video tutorial.

Note the green bar at the top of the record that states that the item was user-contributed.
For non-user-generated items, the source is found in the metadata. This item was contributed by NMAH.

When the BHA launched in 2007, visitors could add their own historical content to the archive. This part of the project appears to have been removed or gone defunct around 2017. The website still provides resources on how to add content to the project and guides on how to collect materials and conduct oral histories. It is unclear why this part of the project no longer functions and whether it is temporary or permanent.

In addition to the digital archive, the BHA provides three lesson plans on the Bracero Program for K-12 teachers that use the BHA’s collections, as well as a two-part bibliography. The first part of the bibliography is a selection of resources on bracero history; the second part is a full BHA research bibliography. Interestingly, the bibliography does not include the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) online exhibit about the Bracero Program, which ran as a traveling exhibit on the Bracero Program from 2009-2017. Despite both the exhibit and the BHA being part of the Bracero History Project, there is no mention of the online exhibit anywhere on the BHA. The exhibit did not use source material from the BHA, but it does link to the BHA for further visitor exploration and contribution.

The project’s original collaborative collecting initiative has led to a few problems. First, items uploaded by users lack much of the basic metadata and the metadata that does exist is not “quality” metadata, meaning that it is not consistent, which makes the archive less searchable and sensible. Although the BHA does provide metadata and uploading guides, these guides are inevitably not followed to the letter of the guide, especially since users were inputting the data rather than choosing from a pre-selected drop-down menu.  Second, most user-generated oral histories were uploaded with no transcript or description of the oral history, which forces visitors to listen to entire oral histories for the content. There is also no way to know whether an oral history has a transcription without clicking on the individual oral history record and then clicking on “Switch to Full View”.

The project was initially created with an aim to be bilingual, with content available in both Spanish and English. When visitors first view the site, they are immediately given the option to view the site in Spanish. Although I do not speak Spanish, I chose the Spanish option to see if I could get a sense of how well the website achieves its bilingual goal. My conclusion: not too well. The History, Resources, and Partners pages are entirely in English and the About page is two tiny paragraphs rather than thirteen full-length paragraphs. To the BHA’s credit, the teaching resources and collection material uploaded by “project historians” do seem to be available in full in Spanish, but I’d need a bilingual person to confirm.

In terms of user-generated content and the language barrier, many oral histories are done in Spanish, as one would expect, but the lack of any metadata (and particularly a transcription) makes it almost impossible for non-Spanish speakers to learn from these oral histories (the same goes for English oral histories for non-English speakers). There is no great solution to this problem, but it is worth considering.

For a more in-depth discussion of the BHA and some of its pitfalls, I highly recommend reading the following two articles. I included snippets of the discussions and arguments from the articles, but not everything.

Facilitating History: The Bracero History Archive

Omeka, Collecting, & Crowdsourcing

Questions to consider:

  • Do you have any ideas on how to avoid some of the pitfalls the BHA faced as a community collecting initiative?
  • Do you think the website achieves its goal to document the Bracero Program?
  • Do you think there is enough information about where the materials are sourced from?
  • How would you improve the BHA?

3 Replies to “The Bracero History Archive”

  1. Hi Emily, thanks for the great post. I was wondering if you found any evidence as to why the site went defunct in 2017? My suspicion for this project and the Rossetti Archive as well is that funding ran out and the resources to continue simply didn’t exist. This is just my guess, but it seems that comparatively the September 11th Digital Archive has progressed since its establishment while these other projects have fizzled out. Funding is the first reason that comes to mind since most projects around 9/11 memorialization are typically well endowed so it’s not as much of an issue. This leads me to think about the long term funding requirements necessary to maintain and develop projects like this as the digital world progresses and the humanities along with it. I’m wondering if the Humanities will be able to keep up.

    1. I found no evidence at all. There was not even anything on the website that addresses the change despite the resources on contributing to the archive still being available. I read an article published in 2017 that indicated that the community collection component was still running, so it was a relatively recent development, but not one that is addressed anywhere.

      I agree with you that funding was probably the driving factor. The user contributed content is also unwieldy given the lack of metadata and oral history transcripts and possibly it was deemed that the benefit of new materials did not outweigh the lack of collection data.

      I do think that digital archives like this one need to think deeply about any community collecting initiative. I think they are really good projects, but should not take lightly. A lot of historical materials with little context may not be the most useful, especially if there is no staff to process the materials.

  2. Emily, I really like your idea for a drop-down menu as a way to collect metadata. Not only would it be a simple solution for missing metadata, but it would serve well as a way to group items easily by material and subject information–whereas it might be difficult to classify many different terms entered through a text box.

    I also did some research of the various project managers of the Bracero Archives, and found that there seems to have been a some turnover in project collaborators in the past few years. One of the co-principal investigators, Sharon Leon, left the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in 2017, and Kristine Navarro, the Collections Director and director of the Institute of Oral History was only serving as an interim director until 2018. I wonder if it’s a combination of lack of funding and turnover of staff that has led to the feature being removed. This seems like a really important project, given the current political climate, and I hope the initiative reignites.

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