YUMA, Ariz. -- As the oldest of his siblings, Juvencio Rincon didn't get to go to school. At the age of 7, he went to work to help support his siblings.
When Rincon learned that men from his community were applying for the Bracero program, he saw it as his opportunity to get ahead.
His father was already working as a bracero in Gila Bend, Ariz., and would end up working as one for 10 years.
The name ``braceros'' refers to ``strong arms'' in Spanish, an apt name for a program instituted by the U.S. and Mexico governments to fill a demand for manual labor. As a result, ``thousands of impoverished Mexicans abandoned their rural communities and headed north to work as braceros,'' according to www.farmworkers.org.
Rincon, a native of Michoacan, applied and was accepted in 1959. Now 73, the Somerton resident has fond memories of that era. He recalls arriving in El Centro, Calif., as an eager 19-year-old ready to work.
Rincon received a one-year contract to work in Soledad, Calif., near Salinas. His first job, along with 300 other farmworkers, was to pick tomatoes for 26 cents a box. To someone else, it might have seemed like hard work, but he was used to that type of labor. He grew up on his father's ranch, planting and harvesting cotton, wheat and corn.
When his contract expired, Rincon decided he didn't want to leave the country and stayed working the fields without work authorization. He planted and harvested lettuce, strawberries, onions and broccoli and even cleaned beans in Yuma and the surrounding area.
``In those days, everything was planted close together. Today they don't plant everything so tight. They have very strict rules nowadays,'' he observed. And workers didn't have the convenience of on-site bathrooms. ``We just closed our eyes so no one could see us,'' he joked.
Although without legal documents, Rincon and his fellow workers tried to stay out of trouble. ``One comes to work in a foreign country that's not our home, We had respect for the laws.''
He worked illegally until the 1986 amnesty that allowed him to be sponsored by his employer. Even with legal papers, he never considered leaving the fields.
``I liked the environment,'' Rincon explained. ``They've treated me very well here.''
In between working and raising a family, he taught himself to read and write and went to night school. He married in 1965 and he and his wife had five children and eventually seven grandchildren, with one more on the way.
He worked in agriculture until he suffered a stroke and had open heart surgery in 2004. Today he's grateful to the Bracero program for opening doors to a new life in the U.S., and he's satisfied with the life he has lived.
``Thanks to God, I have done well,'' Rincon said.
The Bracero program also introduced Isaias Pedro Villalpando, now 89 and a Somerton resident, to a life of living and working in the U.S.
A native of La Palma, Michoacan, Villalpando already worked in agriculture. He learned co-workers were applying for work contracts and applied himself in 1955.
In his early 40s, he was married to Cristina and had four of their 11 children at the time. With a one-month contract in hand, Villalpando headed to Washington's apple orchards. He was assigned to work at a small family farm along with two other Mexican workers.
``I liked the work,'' he said in Spanish. Once they finished picking all the apples on the first farm, they helped out neighboring farmers. The braceros shared a small apartment on the farm. They cooked on a wooden stove, which also kept them warm. He wrote letters to his wife.
``All the time I was there, I was comfortable. It was more cold, than hot,'' he noted. It was also the first time he saw snow. ``It scared him,'' his wife Cristina, now 85, said, laughing.
Villalpando was struck by the beauty of the winter wonderland, recalling that snow blanketed everything, from the trees to the rooftops. He could only stare in awe.
Needless to say, that day the braceros didn't work. Villalpando walked to a tree with ``apples that tasted like pineapples,'' picked some, and they ate them in their little apartment. Wanting his family to taste the fruit, he brought back a box loaded with the ``huge'' apples. He thought perhaps the Mexican customs officers wouldn't let him keep the apples, but to his surprise, they did and he arrived home with the box.
Having had a taste of life in the U.S., Villalpando hoped to return one day. By October 1962, the family had inched closer to the U.S. They were living in Hermosillo, Sonora, where Villalpando was making adobe bricks. Cristina inquired how her husband could immigrate.
A U.S. citizen born in Williams, Ariz., Cristina's family had returned to Mexico before she was 2. Immigration officers told her he only needed an employer to sponsor him. A ``paisano'' (a fellow countryman) took him to Yuma, where he quickly found a sponsor.
By 1963, he received papers allowing him to work in the U.S. Initially he lived in housing with other campesinos and worked in irrigation. After about 18 years with the same employer, he went to work for another farmer doing the same work.
He enjoyed the work. It wasn't hard, he said. What was hard was being away from his family and the long hours.
``I slept very little,'' he recalled. But he did it for his family. His family joined him in the U.S. in 1964, and the last five of their 11 children were born in the U.S. Sometimes his work would take him to California and the whole family would follow him.
Occasionally Cristina also picked lettuce and climbed trees to pick lemons. Now married for 77 years, they enjoy retirement and spending time with their 32 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.