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Indigenous Farmworkers Are Breaking New Ground in California

In her tiny office in Greenfield, California, Estela Ramirez, 24, patiently asks the woman on the other side of the desk about her life: “Do you need any help filling out forms? Do you have any childcare? Do the children have any books in the house?”

Ramirez, a worker of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, and her visitor are speaking Trique, one of the languages of the more than 120,000 indigenous Mexican farmworkers in California. Many of these new immigrants come from the ancient civilizations of Oaxaca, Mexico; Trique, Mixtec, Zapotec and other peoples who now face the challenge of not only harvesting the food that goes onto America’s dinner tables, but of creating a life that bridges two very different worlds.

“Everybody kept saying ‘El Norte, El Norte’—here there is more opportunity,” says Ramirez, who gave up her college studies in Oaxaca at 18 to come to the United States and help support her brothers and sisters back home. After a stint picking beans, Ramirez landed a job with the Binational Center, one of four centers throughout California created by the Los Angeles–based Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations to serve the indigenous migrant communities from Mexico. “I still dream of going back home to live someday,” she says.

“It’s not as easy to help my family as I thought. Everything is more expensive here.”

Mexicans who speak one of the 60 indigenous languages of that country are often considered the fastest growing farmworker population in California, according to The California Farm Labor Force, a survey published in 2005, 38 percent of newcomer farmworkers that year were indigenous. Almost half the people who are picking the nation’s fruits and vegetables are working in California. Of these, 99 percent are Hispanic. Most are undocumented.

Though locally grown maize once touched every aspect of many Oaxacan Native cultures, including diet, ritual and trade, these days a Mixtec farmer is more apt to abandon his corn harvest to move to central California and pick broccoli or lettuce for someone else. The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, which flooded Mexico with American-grown corn, wiped out local farmers who wanted to sell their corn on the market. In addition, Mexico slashed wages and cut social welfare programs. “In Mexico, you can only farm enough to feed yourself and your family for the day. So we come here,” said Mariano Martinez, sitting quietly with his fellow workers during a half-hour lunch break in a field of broccoli in Chualar, California. “I’m older now,” he said philosophically, “so I don’t have a lot of future dreams for myself. But I do this so my children will have a better life.”

While the Mixtec people come primarily for economic reasons, many of the Trique people are political refugees, fleeing the conflict in their region between armed groups. Most farmworkers are adult men, according to the 2005 survey. But women and children over 12 are also picking crops in California and other states.

Since the average wage in Oaxaca is $6.50 per day, a person who wants to cross the border usually relies on family members who have already made it across to help pay the $3,000 to $4,000 asked by the coyote, or facilitator. Then there’s getting to the other side, either by bribing a border guard, risking death with the long trek across desert or mountains, crawling through drug tunnels or hiding inside a vehicle.

Once in California, the indigenous Oaxacan faces discrimination from the earlier mestizo—that is mixed race—arrivals. “The mestizos call us Oaxaquitas [little Oaxacan girls],” says Jesús Estrada Velasco, coordinator of the Binational Center in Santa Maria, California. “They belittle us and treat us as if we were ignorant.” Although they carry a wealth of knowledge about their own culture, many who come from indigenous communities don’t speak English or Spanish, don’t read or write, and don’t understand the laws of the United States. “They drive without a license and get caught, or they run from the police at a traffic stop because they are used to the police in Mexico robbing or stealing from them,” says Greenfield Binational Center coordinator and United Farm Workers (UFW) organizer Eulogio Donato Solano. “They’ll start wood fires or do other things that are legal back home but not here in the U.S.”

Last year the culture clash in Greenfield between the indigenous newcomers and Mexican American residents reached a boiling point. The residents in this largely Hispanic town accused the newcomers of clustering in overcrowded apartments and garages, throwing trash in the streets, and holding loud public parties; they urged the police chief to deport them. The Oaxacans countered with demonstrations. This year, the political climate has been quieter, but indigenous leaders say they lost an ally with the departure last year of Police Chief Joe Grebmeier, and fear increased deportations in this town that has traditionally been a sanctuary for undocumented workers.

Lisa Gale Garrigues

UFW organizer Donato Solano

Health care is also an issue, Donato Solano says, with diabetes on the increase because of dietary changes, high medical costs and a distrust of the American medical system. Farmwork can lead to health problems like muscle injuries, heat stroke or skin diseases.

A California migrant worker generally makes $8 to $8.50 per hour for 10-hour days. After a 10-hour day or a 60-hour week, they earn overtime. But a new arrival could end up working for one of the smaller farmers who may not pay overtime, or give breaks, or sometimes not pay at all. “We can refer them to legal help or to the Labor Commission,” Estrada Velasco says, “but how are you going to make these small growers pay when they change names and companies all the time?”

“Sometimes the workers just don’t say anything,” says Donato Solano. “The growers know they won’t say anything and take advantage of this.”

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Though the United Farm Workers union has fought to improve working conditions for farmworkers, and helped stop the sale of the controversial strawberry pesticide methyl iodide in the United States, workers continue to suffer from heatstroke, with at least 16 deaths since 2005. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed two bills that would have increased grower accountability for farmworker heatstroke, and the UFW filed a lawsuit against the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, for failing to enforce regulations protecting outdoor workers. In August, the California assembly killed a bill that would have given farmworkers the same overtime pay as other workers.

Growers depend on this undocumented work force to harvest the lettuce, strawberries, artichokes and other produce that will end up on dinner tables throughout the country. “They show up with a document that says they’re legal. I don’t care where they get it, I just sign them up,” said one Central Valley supervisor, who estimated that about 60 percent of his team came to the U.S. illegally.

This past summer, because of increased border militarization, higher prices charged by coyotes, and the danger of death or robbery from drug traffickers, farmers have not been able to find enough migrant workers to pick their crops. “There are definitely fewer people here in Greenfield than there used to be,” said Ramirez. “And fewer coming here.”

Because farmwork is seasonal, most workers move on to another region and another crop, or stay where they are and subsist on savings when there is no work. In Greenfield and Santa Maria, two or three families might share one bedroom in an apartment. Because of high rents in San Diego, many working farmworkers are homeless, living in city shelters or makeshift tents.

The dream for many first-generation Oaxacans is to make enough money to return home. For some, periodically returning to their communities back in Mexico is not just a desire, it is a

Lisa Gale Garrigues


responsibility. In these communities, all men are required to perform cargos—community service—for a year to a year and a half. The cargos might include anything from leading the community council to protecting the borders of the community against encroachment. “You take it on yourself with humility,” says Silvia Ventura Luna, Mixtec, speaking at a recent conference on indigenous knowledge hosted by the Binational Front in Santa Maria, California. “You say ‘Yes I’ll do it, I’ll do my best.’ ”

Ventura Luna is writing her doctoral thesis in anthropology at the University of California, Riverside on her own community, San Miguel Cuevas.

Since these communities discourage the accumulation of individual wealth, cargos are unpaid, rewarded instead with prestige and respect. Noncompliance can mean harsh sanctions such as fines, confiscation of property, and expulsion from the community. “These people are immersed in two worlds. I remember growing up [here] and when my dad left I felt a sense of abandonment,” she says. “I didn’t really know why he had to go back.”

Immigration and the increasing difficulty of going back and forth have changed the cargo system, Ventura Luna says. Community leaders have voted to eliminate some of the cargos, or allow the men to pay others to do their work for them. Increasingly, once they’ve crossed into the U.S., people just don’t go home again. “For a long time the struggle for indigenous people was tied to a territory, to the land and what happens if there’s no people there?” says Gaspar Rivera-Salgado (Mixtec), project director for the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA, and one of the founding members of the Binational Front. “The conquest didn’t do away with indigenous communities, but we wonder if international migration is going to break the back of these communities. We’re losing the next generation, we’re losing people.”

The response of the Binational Front has not only been to create programs that encourage people to stay in Mexico, but to work with and foster the new binational community that has developed. “The attempt to stay connected is through this building a sense of community that transcends borders, that our community is not bounded by the limits of our territory but that also we need to incorporate people outside,” Rivera-Salgado says.

Rivera-Salgado sees events like the Santa Maria conference, attended by more than 60 people who work with the Oaxacan community, as both a way of saying “We’re still here” and a way to educate Californians about the new immigrants. “They have a lot of assets that they can contribute, some wonderful things that we can learn from,” he says. “That sense of giving back to the community, going back to your hometown at a great expense and great economic hardship is a lesson to be taught. When you tie your future and well-being to the community, you make sure you give back to that community. I think that’s something that is kind of foreign now here in the United States. Your individual freedom is important to pursue [here], your happiness and well-being, and you cannot rely on other people.”

Rivera-Salgado feels that indigenous people of the north and south have a lot to learn about each other. Two months ago, he and a group of Oaxacans met with a Lakota delegation. They got into a circle and inside the circle they put something that is sacred to both peoples: corn. “We talked about it, what does it mean for us, how we view corn,” he says. “That was such a beautiful dialogue. There was no agenda, no objective—it was just creating a space so we could share bread together. It was just wonderful. That to me symbolizes what we should do.”

Despite the challenges faced by California’s indigenous immigrants, the building of this “sense of community that transcends borders”—what Rivera-Salgado and others have called “Oaxacalifornia”—was thriving at the Santa Maria conference, especially in the youth panelists, the sons and daughters of farmworkers now working toward degrees in sociology, anthropology, media and other fields.

In Fresno, it is these young people who organize the Guelaguetza, the annual festival of Oaxacan culture. “For a long time I would not say where I was from,” says Fresno State University student Venedit Valencia, who remembers being teased as a child for her long Indian braids.” But now, through meeting other Oaxacan students, she says proudly: “I’m a Oaxaquena. I’m indigenous.”