Child migrant farm laborer harvesting cotton, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 1959.
VIEW GALLERY | 41 PHOTOS
Child migrant farm laborer harvesting cotton, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 1959.Michael Rougier—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Child migrant farm laborer harvesting cotton, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 1959.
Celery harvest, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers picking cotton, California, 1959.
Mexican migrant farm laborers pick tomatoes in Ventura County, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers picking carrots, Upstate New York, 1959.
Mexican migrant farm laborers crowd International Bridge in Texas upon entering the U.S., 1959.
Processing "braceros" (manual laborers) in Texas; inspecting Mexican workers for knives, fruit, etc., after day's work, 1959.
Processing "braceros" (manual laborers) in Texas; inspecting Mexican workers for knives, fruit, etc., after day's work, 1959.
Mexican migrant farm workers at reception center in Hidalgo, Texas, line up for job interviews, 1959.
"Model camp" for Mexican farm workers near Fullerton, Calif., 1959.
Pay night at bracero camp near Pharr, Texas. Average pay for picking cotton: $26 a week.
California Dept. of Employment's local office for migrant farm workers in Stockton, Calif., 1959. Loudspeakers announce jobs available for that day to applicants gathered before dawn.
Crowd of Mexican "braceros' at reception center in Hidalgo, Texas, 1959.
Braceros examined at reception center at Hidalgo, Texas, 1959.
Migrant laborers await work, USA, 1959.
Truck crowded with migrant workers on its way from South Carolina to New Jersey, 1959.
Migrant farm workers harvest celery, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers harvest carrots, Upstate New York, 1959.
Migratory farm workers pick cotton near McAllen, Texas, 1959.
Migratory farm workers and their families living in squalid conditions, California, 1959.
Old buses used for housing migrant farm workers in Upstate New York, 1959.
Migrant workers housed in makeshift automobiles, California, 1959
Migrant workers, United States of America, 1959.
A priest and workers' rights activist speaks with a migrant worker's family in Stockton, California, 1959.
Squalid conditions for migrant farm workers and their families, California, 1959.
Children of migrant farm workers, San Joaquin Valley, Calif., 1959.
Migrant workers harvesting potatoes, USA, 1959.
Migrant workers harvesting potatoes, USA, 1959.
Migrant farm workers during the grape harvest, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers, USA, 1959.
Migrant laborers, North Carolina, 1959.
Migrant laborers, North Carolina, 1959.
Migrant laborers, USA, 1959.
Migrant laborers, North Carolina, 1959.
Camp in Texas for housing migrant workers, 1959.
Migrant farm workers, USA, 1959.
Father Thomas McCullough says mass for Mexican day laborers, Calif., 1959.
Migrant farm workers picking peaches, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers load picked carrots into a truck, California, 1959.
Migrant farm workers sprayed with unidentified chemical after day's work, USA, 1959.
Migrant farm workers sprayed with unidentified chemical after day's work, USA, 1959.
Child migrant farm laborer harvesting cotton, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 1959.
Michael Rougier—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Bitter Harvest: LIFE With America's Migrant Workers, 1959

Mar 10, 2013

America has transformed its economic landscape (and has seen that landscape transformed by outside forces) so thoroughly in the past half-century that, to a large degree, today's workplace is a different universe than that of, say, the 1950s. The explosion in service jobs, the collapse of so much of the country's industrial sector, outsourcing, the digital revolution, "permalancing," telecommuting—these and countless other developments can make the relative stability of the United States' post-war economic hegemony seem like something of a Golden Age.

Some sectors of the economy, however, have hardly changed in the past five or six decades—or the past few centuries, for that matter—and perhaps the best example of employment that looks much the same today as it did in the middle part of the last century is the harvesting of crops with migrant labor. The fraught debate about illegal immigration and jobs "stolen" from native-born Americans by undocumented aliens is not going to be settled here. But when we get right down to it, a huge percentage of the fruits and vegetables we eat (and the cotton and other plants harvested in this country) are worked by migrant labor—both "illegal" and native-born.

In 1959, LIFE sent photographer Michael Rougier around the country to document the conditions faced by migrant workers. Rougier traveled from the South Carolina to Upstate New York and west to California's rich, vast Central Valley. Over the course of several weeks, Rougier took nearly 3,000 pictures, capturing workers and their families struggling though harvest seasons for potatoes, celery, carrots, snap beans, lettuce—workers most of us rarely even think about, but who nonetheless put food on our tables while laboring in conditions that most American workers consider too demeaning, demanding and low-paying to even contemplate.

Incredibly, none of the thousands of pictures Rougier made for the story ever ran in LIFE. A single picture ran in Fortune—but for reasons lost to time, LIFE magazine never published the big migrant-worker story it had obviously planned. After hundreds of rolls of film, thousands of miles of traveling, scores of interviews and a lot of hard research (more than 40 pages of type-written notes accompany Rougier's pictures in the LIFE archive), the feature was shelved and, by all accounts, forgotten. Until now.

[See more of Rougier's stellar work in his "Photographer Spotlight"]

Here, LIFE.com offers a relatively small selection of Rougier's pictures of migrant workers and their families in 1959. As with so much of Rougier's work, the photographs here are models of a rare kind of empathetic photojournalism, at-once clear-eyed—never flinching from harsh realities unfolding before the lens—and deeply humanistic. Pictures like this don't simply happen. Instead, Rougier (who died in 2012, at the age of 86) ceaselessly, consciously worked—and worked hard—to portray these laborers' lives honestly, and with dignity.

After all, they earned it.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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