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Mixtecs on the border fall on hard times

Lagging economy affects southern neighbors

MEXICALI, Mexico - For eight years, indigenous Mixtecs from the Mexican southern state of Oaxaca have sustained themselves by selling merchandise to U.S.-bound travelers waiting in line to cross the border that divides Mexicali and Calexico in southeastern California.

The 150 Mixtecs have carved out a neighborhood in this sprawling frontier city of almost 1 million where foreign factories, including some of the biggest U.S. aerospace companies, have set up industrial plants. The Mixtecs park their jalopies in front of their tiny cinderblock homes not far from the city's Mercedes-Benz dealer and newest Wal-Mart. They have cell phones and their children attend public schools.

They have lived in relatively calm and reasonable conditions since joining the exodus escaping the 38 - 50 percent poverty level that Mexican think tank CONEVAL estimates plagues Oaxaca and other southern Mexican states in 2005 data.

But several abrupt forces have the Mexicali Mixtec cornered.

They have been ousted from the Mexican customs compound.

Mexicali municipal officials have agreed to allow them to sell on the city limits near the federal compound after the Mixtecs attended a council meeting to protest the federal government's treatment.

But the municipal officials issued few and expensive permits. And municipal officials have also issued a considerable amount of permits to other non-Mixtec vendors, a Mexicali spokesman said. The Mixtecs have traditionally monopolized the port, but now have to contend with more competition for fewer customers. The changes have many Mixtecs resenting the government, claiming they are targets of discrimination in a nation that still sees indigenous groups under a colonial eye and where they are ranked at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

''We are being taxed for this very ground we stand on,'' said Pedro Barrios, president of the Mixtec Civil Association.

Municipal officials said they have done much for the Mixtec by granting them the permits and soliciting assistance from the state of Baja California on their behalf. Each vendor has received $100 (U.S.) to replace merchandise lost or confiscated during the recent purges. But the Mexicali municipality has no control over access into the traveler-congested federal compound.

''In other words, the municipal government can't issue commercial permits for street vendors in that zone and, to put it simply, we don't have jurisdiction,'' Mexicali municipal spokesman Alejandro Dominguez said in an e-mail.

Mixtec vendors who have city permits stay within the city limits, but have few travelers to sell to. Those who don't, circumvent Mexican federal customs officers and sometimes their K-9s by rounding the port and precariously entering the port close to U.S. inspections stations through holes cut in fences. U.S. customs officers allow them at the port mostly because the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency does not have enough officers to shadow the vendors, said Billy Whitford, port director of the Calexico port of entry.

The Mixtec have also been impacted by the dwindling U.S. economy. Travelers, most with U.S. ties, buy less and bargain more.

For 29-year-old Fedilina Barrios, the $20 (U.S.) per day profit she used to make last year selling beverages was tolerable. Now she is lucky if she makes half that, she said.

''They don't buy anything. I don't know how long we could do this.''

In addition, officials of the U.S. border county of Imperial have claimed the long border lines have interrupted their economy. Their fervent pleads to U.S. authorities to mitigate prolonged wait times has the line down significantly since increased security measures were implemented after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But that has had an inverse effect on the Mixtecs who depend on the lines.

Altogether, the shorter lines, fewer customers and increased competition, scrutiny and consumer fear are forcing the Mixtecs to rethink their future on the frontier. For the first time since settling in Mexicali, they are mulling over the idea of traveling yet farther north and working in the U.S. as farm workers.

''If we don't have any other choice, we may have to do it. We are beginning to look into it,'' Barrios said.