International Solidarity — Oaxacan Style: Cross-border Organizing at the Grassroots

by David Bacon

FRESNO, CA (8/4/02) — Indigenous people from Oaxaca have been migrating within Mexico, and to the US, for decades. Many were braceros during that program’s 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 which made corporate agriculture possible.

As a result, communities of Oaxacans have settled in a broad swath leading from their state of origin, through Veracruz, where they went first as the labor force in the sugar harvest, 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, people can be heard talking softly in the same language in the back of the room. Los Angeles furniture shops employ Zapotec-speaking workers, and Triqui-speakers are an important constituency in Oregon’s PCUN union for farmworkers.

But despite this dispersal, the indigenous people of Oaxaca have found a way to unite, not just around language and their towns of origin, but their identity as indigenous Oaxacan migrants. And as might be expected from the simultaneous existence of their communities on both sides of the border, one center of activity lies in Fresno and the other in Oaxaca itself. The organization at the heart is the Frente Indigena Oaxaqueña Binacional, the Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front, which began in 1987 at meetings in California’s central valley, Los Angeles and San Diego. At its founding on October 5, 1991 it was called Frente Mixteco Zapoteco Binacional because the founders wanted to unite three Mixtec organizations and two among Zapotec immigrants.

Soon the organization began looking for a strategy that would reflect the reality of Oaxacan communities. While dispersed inside Mexico and the US as a result of migrations from Oaxaca in search of work, the movement of people has created, in a sense, one larger community, located in different places simultaneously. Settlements of Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Triquis and other Oaxacan indigenous groups along the 3000-mile migrant stream from Oaxaca to the Pacific Northwest are bound together by shared culture and language, and by the social organizations people carry with them from place to place.

Some of the organizations among Oaxacan migrants are based on common towns of origin — a not-uncommon phenomenon among immigrants to the US from many countries. But Oaxacans have also developed the Frente, which unites different language groups in order to promote community and workplace struggles for social justice.

“Among indigenous Oaxaqueños, we already have the concept of community and organization,” says Frente director Rufino Dominguez. “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, Dominguez left Oaxaca and migrated to Sinaloa, where he formed the Organizacion del Pueblo Explotado y Oprimido (The Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People), and cooperated with leaders like Benito Garcia, and organizations like the Independent Confederation of Farmers and Farm Workers (CIOAC) in strikes among the state’s farmworkers.

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 Giron, from the Mixtec town of Santa Maria Tindu. He now lives with his family in Fresno, but was a farmworker in Sinaloa through those 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 ten or eleven 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.” As a single man, Giron slept in a room with fifteen others. Eventually he brought his wife and children, and they shared a room with another family.

These are not happy memories for Margarita Giron. “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.”

After organizing around conditions like these, Rufino Dominguez followed the migrant trail further north across the Gulf of California, to San Quintin on the Baja California peninsula. “I sent Benito a letter to come because there were many problems among our people there,” Dominguez remembers. “We were able to organize thousands of people.” In San Quintin they mounted strikes as well.

From there Dominguez 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 foray into activity came 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 farm workers in the state’s central valley, in their own language. Dominguez 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 a collaboration with his successor, the UFW’s new president Arturo Rodriguez. The union organized a month-long perigrination from Delano to Sacramento, recapitulating its seminal march in 1967, to dramatize to California farm workers 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,” Dominguez 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 back home towards indigenous people.

Meanwhile, 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. Dominguez denounces “people who say that Christopher Columbus was welcomed when he came, 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 on January 1, 1994, the Frente immediately mounted actions to pressure the Mexican government to refrain from using massive military force 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 US to make an impression on the Mexican government. That helped us grow immensely,” Dominguez says.

Soon the organization had to change its name. Triquis and other indigenous Oaxacan people wanted to participate, but felt the Frente’s name excluded them. It became the Frente Indigena Oaxaqueña Binacional, the Indigenous Oaxacan Binational Front.

It’s binational character grew even stronger. In 1993 the Frente began serious organizing in Oaxaca itself. “We began with various productive projects such as the planting of the Chinese pomegranate, the forajero cactus, and strawberries,” Dominguez explains, “so that families of migrants in the US 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 US, in more than 70 towns. In 1999, the Frente made an alliance with the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and elected one of its leaders, Romauldo Juan Gutierrez-Cortez, to the state Chamber of Deputies in District 21. “For the first time we beat the caciques,” Dominguez crows.

The Frente’s organizing strategy is based on the culture of Oaxacan communities, particularly an institution 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, which was used to resettle the area’s families. Some residents took cash, but others pooled their money, and with the Frente’s help, built new housing.

The organization has also begun to change the traditional domination of community political life by men. Oralia Maceda, a 26-year old organizer from Oaxaca, came 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 strong pressure in the US on children and teenagers to assimilate into the dominant consumerist lifestyle, maintaining the connection to home communities far away is very difficult. Winning the interest of youth in indigenous languages and cultural practices is even more so. Many Oaxacans are fanatical basketball players, and the Frente has used tournaments to attract young people and draw them into its activities.

Along with its bases in Oaxaca and California, FIOB 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 a place to live are common.

“But it’s been a very difficult experience,” Dominguez says. In 2001, the organization had an internal division over the actions one of its founders, Arturo Pimentel. Pimentel 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, and because he wanted to run for political office without a collective decision that he do so. At the FIOB Congress in Tijuana in December, 2001, he was expelled.

In the national election of 2000, Celerino Chavez, Benito’s brother, was the first Mixtec candidate in the state’s history for the national Chamber of Deputies, running for the PRD.. Pimentel had been an active leader in many demonstrations and marches for housing and workers’ rights in Baja, and many Frente leaders on the peninsula were his allies. Following the election, the conservative state government of the National Action Party manipulated the divisions in the PRD and the Frente, and its the political opposition in Baja California was weakened as a result.

Frente leaders like Dominguez are not overly optimistic about the new political environment under 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.

Nevertheless, the Frente is committed to its strategy combining workers’ rights, community organizing, and, in Mexico, electoral action. In the US, it advocates for the right of Mexican citizens to vote in Mexican elections. “The Frente should have an alliance with political parties without losing our identity and being dependent on politicians,” Dominguez says. “We have to be autonomous in relation to political parties and create alliances to win these positions. Mexican electoral laws don’t permit a social organization to run independent candidates. So we have to make an alliance, not with the PAN or the PRI, but with the PRD. Within the PRD there are a lot of divisions and internal problems, and they must resolve their internal conflicts. But it’s all we have.”