Contracting Freedom: Race, Empire, and U.S. Labor Importation Programs, 1942-1964
Quintana, Maria L.
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This dissertation reviews the historical interpretations of “guestworkers” that emerged with the creation of the labor importation agreements between the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean during and after World War II, to expose “guestworker” programs as a pivotal axis in the U.S. imperial framework of the twentieth century. Cast as facilitating individual salvation and international reciprocity, U.S. migrant labor importation policies with Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, Honduras, Barbados, and Puerto Rico emphasized the labor contract, bilateral agreements between nation-states, and equal rights, all of which appeared as advances from older labor arrangements forged under colonialism and slavery. Through various debates between and among U.S. government officials, leftist labor leaders, civil rights activists, and agribusiness employers, this dissertation examines how they all, in contradictory ways, celebrated and projected these labor programs as marking a new global age of freedom. This emergent rhetoric of freedom surrounding labor migrations to the United States facilitated, obscured, legitimated, and extended global racial and colonial dynamics in the post-World War II era. To expose how empire and race drove the programs, each chapter places the labor programs within the context of their formative moments: U.S imperial interventions in Latin America in the nineteenth century, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, slavery and indentured servitude in the British Caribbean colonies, the U.S. labor and civil rights movements, and the movements for independence in the British West Indies. In viewing the co-constitutive logic of “guestworker” labor programs within these formative contexts, it reveals that the “break” from empire that the labor programs seemed to signify in the 1940s was hardly a break at all. It then addresses how “guestworkers” and their advocates struggled to compel the state to fulfill the “freedom” of the labor programs during the long civil rights movement. Within the daily struggles of migrant workers and anticolonial activists, we can begin to find glimpses of wider visions of social justice that challenged the mandates of the U.S. liberal state, beyond universal “freedom” as it is framed by “rights” under nation. “Contracting Freedom” demonstrates that the racial formation of the U.S. “guestworker” was much more than a minor footnote to U.S. race relations, usually assumed to matter only along the West Coast with the advent of the Bracero Program. Instead, the “guestworker” proved central to the reconstruction of race, class, and nation during the mid-twentieth century, by upsetting and then recreating social and cultural dualisms that lay at the heart of American identities and imperial subjectivities: foreign and domestic, freedom and slavery, citizen and noncitizen, guest and alien.
- History