Some of the last braceros - the more than 2 million Mexican laborers who toiled in California's fields under a legal guest worker program from 1942 through 1964 - came to the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento on Wednesday, looking for wages they never received.
Many braceros have died without ever seeing any of the 10 percent of their pay that was sent to a Mexican farm bank by their California employers.
The 10 percent was supposed to be a nest egg to help them when they returned to Mexico. But the farm bank disappeared, and it wasn't until 2008 that the Mexican government created a new program that paid $3,000 each to braceros who applied with their work permits and other documents, said Carlos González Gutiérrez, Sacramento's Mexican consul general.
But many braceros, including Manuel Chavez of Stockton, had lost their papers by then.
"From 1956 through 1960 I worked for 70 cents an hour in Tracy, Blythe, Salinas and Arizona picking tomatoes and lettuce," said Chavez, 78.
"I lost my papers crossing the border and without them, I can't get the money the Mexican government owes me: $3,089," Chavez said. "We hope the consulate can help us."
Time's running out, said Luis Magaña, whose father, Luciano Magaña, died in January. "He came at 17, worked from 1943 to 1963 picking apricots, peaches, asparagus, tomatoes and grapes, and never got his $3,000," Luis Magaña said.
His Association of Braceros of North America brought five braceros from San Joaquin County to the Mexican Consulate to protest Wednesday.
One Mexican study said each bracero was owed more like $10,000, Magaña said, "but very few kept their papers and as many as 90 percent never got paid by the Mexican government."
The braceros "were poor people, like my father, who came from the town of Jaripo, Michoacán, along with a big community of guest workers," Magaña said. "For me it's a sad memory. My father sent money, but I remember my mother crying because there was not enough, and one of my sisters died because of lack of medical assistance."
Jose Maria Zepeda, who could barely speak, held up the short hoe or el cortito he used for 21 years in the fields. "This was my work tool when I was strong and young," said Zepeda, 91, who came here in 1942.
"We had to provide food to the citizens here, and I never received anything from the Mexican government. Many us were never paid, and we're dying."
Zepeda and the other braceros also participated in a protest outside the Mexican Consulate against the new guest worker program being proposed as part of a bipartisan immigration reform bill working its way through Congress.
The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have agreed in principle to a new guest worker program that would authorize 75,000 work visas in five years.
But Zepeda, holding a sign that read Cosecha Sin Justicia (Harvest Without Justice), said: "The workers are here; they don't need guest workers. Now they're considering adding modern slaves to immigration reform. They're going to give them two- or three-year contracts and kick them out of the country with no help, just like they did to us."
Bracero Sotero Cervantes said the new guest workers "will suffer and be exploited as we were. It's more important this country legalize everyone who is illegal right now so they come out of the shadows and work."
González Gutiérrez, the consul general, said the Mexican government has tried to compensate the braceros whose savings disappeared in the Mexican farm bank.
During an application period from October 2008 through January 2009, 230 of 300 braceros who applied to the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento for their savings received $3,000 each, González Gutiérrez said.
"We know there are some people who could not show proof or documents they were in the bracero program or didn't know there was a compensation program," he said.
To compensate braceros who never got their 10 percent savings, "Mexico would have to appropriate new funds approved by Mexico's Congress and a new call for applicants must go out. But the braceros would still need some proof they were in the program," González Gutiérrez said.
The Mexican government has already compensated more than 5,000 braceros for lost wages, he said.
An estimated 4.6 million Mexican farmworkers came to the United States as part of the bracero program, more than half of them to California.
The Association of Braceros of North America "registered close to 5,000 braceros in Northern California, the region served by the Mexican Consulate," Luis Magaña said. "Everybody knows Chavez and others were braceros, but now it will be harder than ever to prove."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.