Indigenous people from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca have been migrating within their country and to the United States for decades. Many took part in the U.S. bracero program during its 22-year run from 1942 to 1964. In Mexican agricultural valleys from Sinaloa to Baja California, Oaxacan migrants are the backbone of the labor force that made corporate agriculture possible.
As a result, communities of Oaxacans, or oaxaqueños, as they are called in Spanish, have settled in a broad swath reaching from their state of origin, northeast through Veracruz, where they went first as the labor force in the sugar harvest, on through northwest Mexico's fields of tomatoes and strawberries, into the valleys of California's San Joaquin and Oregon's Wilamette rivers, and to Washington state, Florida, and beyond. In Madera, California, restaurants bear Mixtec names. During meetings of Florida's Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Oaxacan people can be heard talking in their indigenous language. Los Angeles furniture shops employ Zapotec-speaking workers, and Triqui-speakers are an important constituency in Oregon's union for farm workers.
Despite this dispersal, the migrants of Oaxaca have found a way to unite, not just around their language and their towns of origin, but also around their traditions and their identity as indigenous Oaxacan migrants. The distillation of this phenomenon is the Frente Indigena Oaxaqueño Binacional (FIOB), or Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front, which brings together different language groups in order to promote the migrants' community and workplace struggles for social justice.
As might be expected from the simultaneous existence of their communities on both sides of the border, participants have one center of activity in Oaxaca and another in California, where meetings in 1987 in the central valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego were the precursor of the organization.
At its founding on Oct. 5, 1991, it was called Frente Mixteco Zapoteco
Binacional because the organizers wanted to unite three Mixtec and two
Zapotec migrant associations. In 1994, it took on its current name to
also reflect the reality of settlements of Triquis and other Oaxacan
indigenous groups in the 3,000-mile migrant stream from their home
state to the U.S. Pacific Northwest. All along, they have referred to
the organization as simply the
Among indigenous Oaxaqueños, we already have the concept of
community and organization, says Frente director Rufino
When people migrate from a community in Oaxaca, they
already have a committee comprised of people from their home
town. They are united and live very near one another. It's a
tradition that we don't lose, wherever we go.
In 1984, as a young man, Domínguez left Oaxaca and migrated to the northwestern state of Sinaloa, where he formed the Organizacion del Pueblo Explotado y Oprimido (Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People). He cooperated with leaders, such as Benito Garcia, and organizations, such as the Independent Confederation of Farmers and Farm Workers (CIOAC), in strikes by the state's farmworkers. Extreme conditions for migrants in Sinaloa were the scandal of Mexico, and the strikes put them into the public eye.
We lived in labor camps made of steel sheets, remembers Jorge
Girón, from the Mixtec town of Santa Maria Tindu. He now lives with
his family in Fresno, California, but was a farmworker in Sinaloa for
During the hot season it was unbearable. In the morning we
would huddle around the foreman and he would hand out buckets for the
tomato harvest. Often they were irrigating, and we took off our shoes
and went into the fields barefoot. In the early morning the water
would be freezing, and sometimes going in like that made you sick, but
rubber boots were unknown among us. We would work from sunup to
sundown. Even if we worked 10 or 11 hours, we were paid the
The camp owners ran company stores that sold food on credit.
Saturday we would get paid and then we would go pay our debt, says
Girón. As a single man, he slept in a room with 15 others. Eventually
he brought his wife and children, and they shared a room with another
These are not happy memories for Margarita Girón.
In Sinaloa the
rooms were made of cardboard, she recalls.
cardboard was ripped and you could see the other families through the
holes. When you had to relieve yourself, you went in public because
there were no bathrooms. You would go behind a tree or tall grass and
squat. In the camps we lived in you couldn't be picky.
There was no running water, only water from the canals and the
I didn't like it because there would be people bathing
upstream and further down people would be washing their clothes, and
somewhere else people would be drinking the water, she
People would sometimes boil the water, but not always, and a
lot of people became ill with diarrhea and vomiting. Others drowned
after going down in the channel, because in some places it was very
Everything was bad in those times, Jorge adds.
Now there are
houses made of better materials, electricity, and everything. But
before there was nothing except for candlelight. That was our only
form of light. He credits CIOAC for ending the worst aspects of
They organized most of the strikes. They wanted
workers' rights to be respected, our salaries and jobs protected,
better housing, running water, and transportation to and from
work. And they did accomplish many of those things.
After organizing around conditions like these, Rufino Domínguez
followed the migrant trail further north across the Gulf of
California, to San Quintín on the Baja California peninsula.
Benito a letter to come because there were many problems among our
people there, Domínguez remembers.
We were able to organize
thousands of people. In San Quintin they organized strikes as
From there Domínguez crossed the border, winding up in Selma, California, just outside of Fresno. There he met farmworkers from his home state, who were also anxious to get organized.
I felt like I was in my town. There were people all over, very
happy, greeting me. One of them said, 'Welcome compañero
Rufino. Tell us, what is happening in our town? What did you do in
Sinaloa and Baja California? What can you do to help us here?' I
was so new that I didn't even know where to look to see the sun
rise. Even so, I began to explain how we organized in Sinaloa and
Baja, and that we could create the same type of organization here.
The Frente's first big activity began in 1993, when it proposed to California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) that it create a staff position for an educator who would explain labor rights to Mixtec farmworkers in the central valley, in their own language. Domínguez was the first person hired for that job.
The same year Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, died in Arizona. The Frente began collaborating with his successor, the UFW's new president Arturo Rodriguez.
The union organized a month-long pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento, recapitulating its seminal march in 1967, to dramatize to California farmworkers its renewed commitment to field organizing. The pact with the Frente had a similar aim for the union--to win support among a key group in the fields, the growing community of Mixtec-speaking migrants from Oaxaca.
We recognized that the UFW was a strong union representing
agricultural workers, Domínguez explained.
They in turn
recognized us as an organization fighting for the rights for
indigenous migrants. That campaign was historic for us, because the
union finally recognized us in a formal way.
But it was an uneasy relationship, and Mixtec activists felt that UFW members often exhibited the same discriminatory attitudes common among Mexicans toward indigenous people back home.
The nascent organization used the celebrations of the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Colombus in the Americas as a platform to dramatize its call for indigenous rights.
people who say that Christopher Columbus was
welcomed when he came, noting,
they see in him a grand hero who
brought good things. But they never talk about the massacres or the
genocide that occurred in our villages, on the whole of the American
continent. Our people were stripped of our culture, our belief in our
gods. They told us that nature wasn't worth anything, when in
reality nature gives us life. That different side of the story is what
we wanted to tell all the people we could find. That was the object of
the Frente Mixteco Zapoteco Binacional: to dismantle the old
stereotype, to march, to protest.
When the Zapatista army rose up on Jan. 1, 1994, the Frente immediately mounted actions to pressure the Mexican government to refrain from using massive military force against the indigenous rebels in Chiapas. From Fresno to Baja California to Oaxaca, Frente activists went on hunger strikes and demonstrated in front of consulates and government offices.
That binational movement helped us realize that when there's
movement in Oaxaca there's got to be movement in the U.S. to make
an impression on the Mexican government. That helped us grow
immensely, Domínguez says.
Its binational character grew even stronger. The Frente already had
begun serious organizing in Oaxaca itself in 1993.
We began with
various productive projects such as the planting of the Chinese
pomegranate, the forajero cactus, and strawberries, Domínguez
so that families of migrants in the U.S. would have an
income to survive.
Those efforts grew into five separate offices in the state, and a
membership base larger than that in the United States, in more than 70
towns. In 1999, the Frente made an alliance with the leftwing
Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), and helped elect one of its
leaders, Romauldo Juan Gutíerrez-Cortez, to the state Chamber of
Deputies in District 21.
For the first time we beat the caciques
[political bosses], Domínguez crows.
The Frente's organizing strategy is based on the culture of
Oaxacan communities, particularly a practice called the
This is the concept that we must participate in collective
work to support our community, he explains.
In our communities we already know one another and can act
together. That understanding of mutual assistance makes it easier for
us to organize ourselves. Wherever we go, we go united. It's a way
of saying that I do not speak alone--we all speak together.
We make efforts so that our communities don't lose their
culture, their language, and their traditions. Beyond organizing and
teaching our rights, we would like to save our language so that it
lives and continues into the future. Even though 509 years have passed
since the Spanish Conquest, we still speak our language. We are
conserving our way of dancing, and rescuing what we lost in terms of
our beliefs--that nature is something sacred for us just as it was for
our ancestors. We want to live our culture and to ensure that it
In addition to advising workers on their labor rights, the Frente organizes communities in California's rural areas. One of them is Malaga, a trailer park outside of Fresno, in which most people come from San Miguel Cuevas in Oaxaca. Residents discovered that the land under their homes had been contaminated for years by oil and toxic waste from Chevron and other oil companies. With the aid of CRLA, the Frente mounted a campaign, which won a million dollars from Chevron and $7 million more from the other polluters for use in resettling the area's families. Some residents took cash, while others pooled their money, and with the Frente's help, built new housing.
The organization has also begun to change the conventional domination
of community political life by men. Says Oralia Maceda, a 26-year-old
organizer from Oaxaca, who moved to Fresno to develop women's
participation in the Frente:
At the beginning men were the ones who
would come to the organization. Before I started there were two other
women that lasted no more than a month. But I believe it is
women's responsibility to get involved and to find out how to
participate. I use different tactics to get them to come, say a small
party for Mothers Day, with small gifts and food. But it's not
really the party that gets their interest. It's letting them know
how we can help them. I'll ask, who wants to become legal in this
country? We talk about very basic problems like that. Really, it all
starts with a small group of people.
Maceda's presence is also a key to developing the participation of young people in the Frente. Given the pressure in the United States on children and teenagers to assimilate into a consumerist lifestyle, maintaining the connection to home communities far away is very difficult. Winning youths' interest in indigenous languages and cultural practices is even more so. But many Oaxacans are fanatical basketball players, so the Frente has used tournaments to attract young people and draw them into its activities.
Along with its bases in Oaxaca and California, the Frente also set up
offices in Cañon Buenavista and San Quintin on the Baja California
Peninsula. Oaxacan migrants make up the bulk of the labor force in the
state's industrialized agriculture. Wages are very low, and whole
families work in the fields as a result, including children. There is
little housing on the peninsula, so land invasions and struggles to
find places to live are common.
But it's been a very difficult
experience, Domínguez says.
In 2001, the organization had an internal division over the actions of Arturo Pimentel, one of its founders. Pimentel had been an active leader in many demonstrations for housing and workers' rights in Baja, and many Frente leaders on the peninsula were his allies. But he also had been the director of the Frente in Oaxaca, and was accused by many members of not being accountable to them for the organization's finances. In addition, he was questioned for wanting to run for political office without a collective decision for him to do so. At the FIOB Congress in Tijuana in December 2001, he was expelled.
That strife added to tension already created over the national election of 2000, in which Benito Garcia's brother Celerino Chávez, became the first Mixtec candidate for the national Chamber of Deputies in Baja California state's history, running for the PRD. Following the election, the conservative state government of the National Action Party (PAN) manipulated divisions in the Frente and the PRD, weakening political opposition in Baja California in the process.
Domínguez and other Frente leaders are not overly optimistic about the new political environment under Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was the candidate of the PAN.
The political party changed, the name of the government changed,
but the system continues to be the same, he says wearily.
view of Vicente Fox is very attractive, very optimistic, and full of
promises, but we're not seeing anything done. He didn't defend
the proposed indigenous rights law. [Human rights lawyer] Digna Ochoa
was murdered in Mexico City. There is a lot of discourse, but no
definite things like electricity, potable water, and productive
projects in our communities.
The Frente is committed to its strategy of combining workers' rights, community organizing, and, in Mexico, electoral action. In the United States, it advocates for the right of Mexican citizens to vote in Mexican elections. But Domínguez warns against members diluting the organization's power by becoming part of political party leadership.
Mexican electoral laws don't permit a social organization to
run independent candidates, he notes. Yet, he adds,
We have to
be autonomous in relations to political parties. Recalling his
organization's success in influencing the PRD victory in 1999
elections in Oaxaca, he says,
the Frente should have an alliance
with political parties without losing our identity and being dependent
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