September 3, 2018

Faces of Labor in Oakland

How World War II helped reshape the California labor force

by OMCA Staff

A version of this article originally appeared in the Museum of California Magazine, Summer 2001 issue by Marcia Eymann.

At the beginning of World War II California faced a critical labor shortage. More than 700,000 Californians had entered military service by 1942. Women and Dust Bowl migrants were working for booming war industries. In addition, the removal and detention of all the state's ethnic Japanese left California's growers and other businesses desperate to find other workers. Growers' complaints finally persuaded the federal government to arrange a harvest labor importation program with Mexico in 1942. Thus began the bracero program, a pact between the United States and Mexico. 

The braceros in the jovial group snapshot came to California specifically to work on the Southern Pacific Rail Road (as it was then spelled), and the photograph was taken at the SP tracks in Oakland. According to Jose Cruz, who donated the photograph to the Oakland Museum of California and is one of the pictured men, life in California was very appealing. The majority of men in the photograph eventually made California their permanent home.

xavier cugat_01.jpg

Black and white image of Xavier Cugat performing at Sweets Ballroom in 1943
Cruz recalls working on the railroad by day and dancing by night at Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, where some of the finest Latin musicians played, including Xavier Cugat, pictured above

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