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Indigenous people from Oaxaca have been migrating within Mexico and to the U.S. for decades. Many were braceros during that programs 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 Mexicos fields of tomatoes and strawberries, into the valleys of Californias San Joaquin and Oregons Wilamette Rivers, and to Washington State, Florida, and beyond.
In Madera, California, restaurants bear Mixtec names. During meetings of Floridas 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 Oregons 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 Californias 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 origina 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. Its a tradition that we dont 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 states 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 didnt 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 Frentes 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 states 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 UFWs 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 unionto 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 theres movement in Oaxaca theres 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 Frentes 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 Frentes 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. Its a way of saying that I do not speak alonewe all speak together. We make efforts so that our communities dont lose their culture, their language, and their traditions.
In addition to advising workers on their labor rights, the Frente organizes communities in Californias 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 areas families. Some residents took cash, but others pooled their money and with the Frentes 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 womens 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 womens 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 its not really the party that gets their interest. Its letting them know how we can help them. Ill 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.
Macedas 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 states 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 its 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 organizations 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, Benitos brother, was the first Mixtec candidate in the states 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 were not seeing anything done. He didnt 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 dont 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 its 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.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
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Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
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