Cross-Border Organizing


Indigenous people from Oaxaca have been migrating within Mexico and to the
U.S. 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 that 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 farm workers.


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. 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. The organization at the heart is the 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 U.S. 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 3,000-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 U.S. from many countries. But Oaxa- cans 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 (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 farm- workers. 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 farm- worker 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 to us. We would work from
sunup to sundown. Even if we worked ten or eleven hours, we were
paid the minimum.” 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 15 others.

Giron
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 Domin- guez
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 farm-workers 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
peregrination 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.


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 U.S. 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 Oaxa-
can Binational Front. Its binational character grew even stronger.


In 1993 the Frente began serious organizing in Oaxaca. “We
began with various productive projects such as the planting of the
Chinese pomegranate, the forajero cactus, and strawberries,”
Domin- guez 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 U.S., in more than 70 towns. In 1999, the Frente
made an alliance with the left-wing 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.”


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 seven 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, to 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 U.S. 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 of one of its founders, Arturo Pimentel. Pimentel had been
the director of the Frente in Oaxaca. He 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 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 U.S., 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,”
Domin- guez 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.”


David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer. His book on the cross- border
solidarity movement,
The Children of NAFTA, is
due out from University of California Press in 2003.