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Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Migrant Organizers Face New Century

By David Bacon, Americas Program,
21 August 2002

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 Frente.

Among indigenous Oaxaqueños, we already have the concept of community and organization, says Frente director Rufino Domínguez. 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.  

Exploited and Oppressed

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 years. 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 minimum.

The camp owners ran company stores that sold food on credit. On 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 family.

These are not happy memories for Margarita Girón. In Sinaloa the rooms were made of cardboard, she recalls. Sometimes the 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 river. 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 says. 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 deep.

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 their situation. 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.  

Movement Further North

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. I sent 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 well.

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.

'Where to Look to See the Sun Rise'

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.

Countering Racism, Breaking Boundaries

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.

Domínguez denounces 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 explains, 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.

Mutual Self Help by Any Other Name Will Smell as Sweet

The Frente's organizing strategy is based on the culture of Oaxacan communities, particularly a practice called the tequio. 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 won't die.

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.

Starting Small with Women, Children

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.

Party Politics Divisive

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. The 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 on politicians.

Sources for more information:

Deadly Tactic by Smugglers: Wrong Lane Driving | New York Times, August 15, 2002

A Saint Who Guides Migrants to a Promised Land | New York Times, August 14, 2002

Child-Smuggling Ring Broken Up by the U.S. Immigration Agency | New York Times, August 13, 2002

U.S. Anti-Migration Efforts Move South, Americas Program, July 8, 2002

Political Support for Immigration Pact May Have Evaporated, but in Mexico, Migration Pressures are on the Rise, Americas Program, February 1, 2001