When America was forced into the Second World War, workers were drafted into battle, leaving farm fields unattended. To prevent crops from rotting, the Mexican Farm Labor Program was signed in 1942. Also known as the "bracero" program, this binational treaty summoned Mexican workers to pick American crops. More than three million Mexicans entered the US to labor in the agricultural fields as guest workers under the agreement. The benefits of the program led to its annual renewal until 1964, when an excess of migrant labor and the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester, along with the Farm Workers Association's movement, led by Cesar Chavez, and the civil rights movement, rendered the program unviable. The plot takes place in 1964, the last year of the treaty.
Pedro wants to marry Consuelo. Her father Jorge, who needs to know more about how they plan to pay the bills, learns that Pedro will join the bracero program, and save his earnings for the wedding. This does not sit well with Jorge, who, when he was young, was one of the first workers to be hired at Pecos, Texas. He had a bad experience, given the existing segregation culture in Texas, as well as the meager working conditions. He gives voice to those workers that were mistreated by Mexican officials and agricultural bosses, and has little more to say than resentful complaints. In contrast, his wife Dolores points to the positive aspects he is ignoring in his bitter account, and has a kinder approach to parenthood towards their daughter Consuelo.
Nevertheless, Jorge is reluctant to let his little girl get married to a bracero worker, or even worse, to an illegal wetback, if the program gets canceled and the plan deteriorates into a life-threatening-desert-crossing undertaking. So, he recounts his own misfortunes as a young bracero, 20 years earlier. But Jorge's story fails to discourage Pedro, who after learning from his own words that Jorge was a cotton-picking champion, and that he ran into significant troubles because of his addictive betting habits, Pedro challenges Jorge to a bet: if he comes back from the fields to beat the old man in a sun-to-sun-cotton-picking match, the reluctant father will have to consent to the wedding. Consuelo, who is not thrilled about watching her boyfriend bet their future with her seasoned father, finds his resolve very romantic and reads with passion the adventurous letters describing his progress at the agricultural farms of California.
The term "bracero" comes from the Spanish word brazo (“arm”) and describes someone who works with his arms.