OF THE WORLD
That year soldiers swept into the small villages of Santa Eulalia and San Miguel Acatan. Accusing the towns of using church youth groups to recruit guerrillas, they began killing political activists. Finally, after the army shot down San Miguel teenagers in front of the church, many families fled.
"Helicopters chased and bombed them, as they ran through the mountains, all the way to the border," recalls Francisco Martin Quixic, who now heads the San Miguel parish council. Refugees wound up living in tents in Chiapas camps, 50 miles north in Mexico. "For those who stayed behind, there was no work - just devastation. You couldn't even buy salt or vegetables here anymore."
1982 was also the year when indigenous farm workers from Oaxaca, living in Sinaloa's migrant labor camps in northern Mexico, began to rise up against filthy living conditions and backbreaking labor. Radical young Mixtec organizers launched strikes, and together with leftwing students from the local university in Culiacan, faced down growers, police, armed guards and, ultimately, Mexican troops.
Oaxaca's Mixtec, Zapotec, and Triqui laborers were recent arrivals in Sinaloa, but had already been migrating within Mexico for two decades. Starting in the late 1950s, when Mexican policies of rural development and credit began to fail, the inhabitants of small Oaxacan villages traveled first to nearby Veracruz. There they found work unavailable in their home state, cutting sugar cane and picking coffee for the rich planters of the coast.
Then Sinaloa's new factory farms a thousand miles north, growing tomatoes and strawberries for US supermarkets, needed workers too. Soon growers began recruiting the south's indigenous migrants, and before long, trains were packed with Oaxacan families every spring.
Over the next twenty years, Guatemala's Qanjobal and Mam refugees, and Oaxaca's indigenous farm workers, moved north through Mexico. Eventually they began crossing the border into the US. Today, both of these migrant streams have developed well-established communities thousands of miles from their hometowns. In Nebraska, Los Angeles and Florida, Huehuetenango highlanders affectionately call their neighborhoods Little San Miguel. Triquis, living just below the border in Baja California, name their settlements Nuevo San Juan Copala in honor of their Oaxacan hometown. In Fresno and Madera, California, the Mixtec community is so large that signs in grocery stores list sale items, not just in Spanish, but in a tongue that predates the Spaniards' arrival by centuries.
Indigenous migrant streams have created communities all along the northern road. Their experience defies common US preconceptions about immigrants.
In Washington DC, discussions of immigration are filled with wrong assumptions. US policy treats people coming to the US as individuals, ignoring the social pressures forcing whole communities to move, and the networks of families and hometowns which sustain migrants on their journeys. Government policy often requires the deportation of parents caught without papers, who have to leave behind their children born in the US. Sometimes this arbitrary Alice-in-Wonderland world does just the opposite, deporting undocumented young people who have no memory of the place they were born, but to which they find themselves forcibly relocated.
Policymakers see migration simply as a journey from point A to point B. They assume that people make decisions about when to leave home, where to go, and how to live based almost entirely on economics - the need for a job.
What US immigration policy does not take into account is the equally strong drive for community. Current proposals for guest workers are the latest form of this denial of one of the most basic aspects of human life. By definition, guest workers are admitted to the US on a temporary basis, contracted to employers. They have no right to settle in communities, send their children to school, practice their culture and religion, or speak their language. They can't vote, or exercise fundamental political or labor rights. They can only come if an employer, or a gang boss recruiter, offers them a job. Without constant employment, they have to leave. The assumption is that they are here to work, and only to work.
The bracero program was the largest and longest such guest worker scheme in US history. Migrant contract workers were housed in barracks, shipped from job to job, and deported if they went on strike. They were isolated from, and pitted against, the communities around them, as employers sought to create a labor surplus to drive down wages. Modern guest worker programs serve the same economic purpose. But the results of denying migrants the ability to build communities and participate in the broader society are disastrous.
There is no denying the importance of the universal human need for work. But the dislocation of communities worldwide, forced to migrate in search of it, has never been a voluntary process. In Washington, dislocation is a dirty, unmentionable secret of the global economy.
Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan organizer of Omaha Together One Community in Nebraska, emphasizes that "Mams and Qanjobales face poverty and isolation, even the possible disappearance of their identity. But they didn't choose this. People from Europe and the US crossed our borders to come to Guatemala, and took over our land and economy. Migration is a form of fighting back. Now it's our turn to cross borders."
When they do, though, they confront a second dirty secret of globalization - inequality.
Inequality is the most important product of US immigration policy, and a conscious one. Washington's current spate of guest worker proposals all assume that immigrants should not be treated as the equals of the people around them, or have the same rights. This assumption denies the reality that the migration of people is as much a product of the global economy as the migration of capital. At the same time, the philosophy these proposals reflect would reverse a 400-year history of struggle in the US to expand the rights of all people.
Migration is a complex economic and social process in which whole communities participate.. Migration creates communities, which today pose challenging questions about the nature of citizenship in a globalized world.
While living in a settlement of bamboo and plastic tents, for instance, in the reeds beside California's Russian River, Fausto Lopez, a Triqui migrant farm worker, became president of the Sonoma County chapter of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB). He brought fellow Triquis from their impromptu encampment to marches and demonstrations in California's state capitol, demanding drivers' licenses and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Living in conditions most Americans equate with extreme poverty, they see themselves, not as victims, but as social actors, with a right to acceptance both in Mexico and the US.
"Indigenous Oaxaqueños understand the need for community and organization," says Rufino Dominguez, who coordinates the FIOB. "When people migrate from a community in Oaxaca, in the new places where they settle they form a committee comprised of people from their home town. They are united and live near one another. This is a tradition they don't lose, wherever they go."
Just as migrants carry community with them, they also carry those traditions of social rights and organization, just as a turtle carries its protective shell. The desire for community is as important and necessary to survival as the need to find work, or to escape hunger and state violence. David Fitzgerald, an LA Times photographer turned academic, says "community lies at the heart" of the questions posed by migration.
These migrants retain ties to their communities of origin, and establish new communities as they migrate in search of work. They move back and forth through these networks, at least to the extent the difficult passage across borders allows. Their ties to each other are so strong, and the movement of people so great, that in many ways people belong to a single community that exists in different locations, on both sides of the borders that formally divide their countries.
For Oaxacans, the formation of communities outside their home state began long before they migrated to the US, when they became the workforce for industrial agriculture in the northern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Baja California. In 1984, as a young man, Dominguez was one of those who left Oaxaca. In Sinaloa, responding to conditions for migrants that were the scandal of Mexico, he formed the Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People. The strikes he helped organize put their abuse into the public eye.
" Often we went into the fields barefoot," remembers Jorge Giron, from the Mixtec town of Santa Maria Tindu, who now lives with his family in Fresno. His wife, Margarita Giron, recalls that in the labor camp "the rooms were made of cardboard, and you could see 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. People bathed in the river, and further down others would wash their clothes and drink. A lot of people came down with diarrhea and vomiting." The strikes, they say, forced improvements.
While bad conditions kept the cost of tomatoes low in Los Angeles, they were also a factor motivating people to keep moving north. Dominguez followed the migrant trail to San Quintin on the Baja California peninsula, where he and his friends organized more strikes. Finally he crossed the border, winding up in California's San Joaquin Valley. There he again found Mixtec farm workers from his home state. "I felt like I was in my hometown," he recalls. And just as they had in northern Mexico, Oaxacan migrants formed the Frente, using the network of relationships created by common language, culture and origin.
Labor organizing was part of the mix here too. In 1993, FIOB began a collaboration with the United Farm Workers. "We recognized the UFW was a strong union representing agricultural workers," Dominguez explains. "They recognized us as an organization fighting for the rights for indigenous migrants." But it was an uneasy relationship. Mixtec activists felt that UFW members often exhibited the same discriminatory attitudes common among Mexicans back home towards indigenous people.
Fighting racism in Mexico, however, had given indigenous migrant communities an important advantage in facing it in the US. According to Rivera Salgado, "the experience of racism enforces a search for cultural identity to resist [and] creates the possibility of new forms of organization and action." The FIOB is one of those new forms. "Our people were stripped of our culture, our belief in our Gods," Dominguez asserts.. "They told us nature wasn't worth anything. We want to tell people our own story. That was the object of the Frente: to dismantle the old stereotypes, to march and protest."
Even among other organizations of Mexican immigrants in the US, the FIOB is unique. It is a truly binational organization, with chapters all along the migrant trail. Members adopt one overall political program every two years, while chapters address the distinct problems of indigenous communities in each location.
In Oaxaca in the mid-1990s, the Frente began to help women organize weaving cooperatives and development projects, to sustain families in small depopulated towns, left behind by migrating men. Taking advantage of its chapters in the US, the Frente began selling their clothes, textiles and other artisan work in the north, to support the communities in the south. This activity was an embarrassment to the Oaxacan state government, however, which is still run by Mexico's old ruling party, the PRI. Government hostility grew even sharper because FIOB leaders, like high school teacher Juan Romuado Gutierrez, not only voiced outspoken criticism, but allied themselves with Mexico's leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Last year Gutierrez was arrested and held in jail until a binational campaign of telegrams and demonstrations won his release.
"You can't tell a child to study to be a doctor if there is no work for doctors in Mexico," Gutierrez says. "It is a very daunting task for a Mexican teacher to convince students to get an education and stay in the country. If a student sees his older brother migrate to the United States, build a house and buy a car, he will follow. The money brought in by immigrants is Mexico's number one source of income, but the state government only recognizes the immigrant community when it is convenient." Like many others on the Mexican left, Gutierrez accuses authorities of relying on remittances from workers to finance social services and public works, which are really the government's responsibility.
In Baja California, FIOB activists fight for housing for indigenous migrants. They seek to enforce the old Constitutional right of people to settle and build housing on vacant land, a right largely eliminated by the neoliberal economic reforms of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Militants like indigenous Triqui activist Julio Sandoval have led land invasions in the state's agricultural valleys. Large growers, who supply produce for the US market, are so threatened that Sandoval was locked up for three years in an Ensenada prison. Interviewed at FIOB's binational congress in Oaxaca in March, Sandoval declared that "as Mexicans, we have a right to housing, and we will force the government to respect us." Binational pressure was indispensable to winning his release as well.
The FIOB started in California as an organization of two indigenous groups from Oaxaca - Mixtecs and Zapotecs - and then broadened to include all Oaxacan indigenous groups. At this year's assembly in Oaxaca, members voted to expand its reach again, to include indigenous organizations from Puebla, Guerrero and Michoacan. It views itself as representing the interests of all indigenous people in Mexico, in communities both there and in the US. FIOB has become much more political than previous cross-border organizations, like the hometown clubs of immigrants from the same village or state.
Mexican indigenous communities in the US live at the social margin, and FIOB's activity confronts that fact. It is an organization of cultural activists, mounting an annual celebration of Oaxacan dance, the Guelagetza, every year. Its organizers work for California Rural Legal Assistance, advising farm workers of their rights in indigenous languages. In fact, FIOB has won the right to Mixtec translation in California courts, a right still not recognized in Mexico. It knits different communities together through basketball tournaments (unlike most Mexicans, Oaxacans prefer this sport to soccer) and leadership training groups for women.
FIOB's organizing strategy is based on indigenous culture, particularly an institution called the tequio. "This is the concept of collective work to support our community," Dominguez explains. "Wherever we go, we go united. It's a way of saying that I do not speak alone -- we all speak together. Even though 509 years have passed since the Spanish conquest, we still speak our language. We want to live our culture and to ensure that it won't die."
Part of this culture is a participatory democracy, with roots in indigenous village life. The organization's binational assemblies discuss bylaws and political positions in detail. In one of the Frente's defining moments, the 2002 Tijuana assembly removed a longtime leader who was no longer accountable to FIOB's members. A woman, Centolia Maldonado, played the central role in this difficult process - a recognition of new sex roles that are, in part, a product of the migration experience.
FIOB's political platform, adopted at the same assembly, maintains a focus on the problems faced by transnational communities. It condemns US guest worker proposals, arguing that they treat migrants only as temporary workers, rather than as people belonging to, and creating community. The organization also calls for extending the rights of citizenship, by implementing the decision made in 1995 by the Mexican government to allow its citizens in the US to vote in Mexican elections.
Discrimination in Mexico is not the only obstacle to preserving indigenous culture. It's not easy for Mixtec and Triqui parents in Fresno to convince their children, born in the US, to hold fast to language and traditions light-years removed from California schools and movie theaters. The state's ban on bilingual education, and discrimination from local school authorities make cultural preservation even harder. But the experience of 40 years of migration argues that economic and social survival depends on maintaining the identity, language and traditions that hold a community together.
Ruben Puentes, director of the transnational communities program at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has supported cultural development among Mexican indigenous migrants (and a photodocumentary project by this author), asks, "Is there today a growing culture of migration itself, a kind of cultural capital which helps communities survive?" He argues that this developing transnational culture does not get adequate consideration in the debate around immigration policy.
Transnational communities play a growing role in the political life of their home countries, changing the very definition of citizenship and residence. This year, for instance, Jesus Martinez, a professor at California State University in Fresno, was elected by Michoacan residents to their state legislature. His mandate is to represent the interests of the state's citizens living in the US. Transnational migrants insist that they have important political and social rights, both in their communities of origin, and in their communities abroad.
US electoral politics can't remain forever immune from these expectations of representation, and they shouldn't. US democracy is based on the idea that those who make economic contributions should have political rights. That requires recognition of the legitimate social status of everyone living here. Legalization isn't just important to migrants. It is a basic step in the preservation and extension of democratic rights for all people.
Migration across the US/Mexico border, of course, is not new. In its earliest moments, it wasn't migration from one country to another at all. Before 1848, the states that receive the most migrants today were part of Mexico - California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Colorado, Utah, and parts of others. Mexicans coming north now return as immigrants to a land from which their countrymen were dispossessed two centuries ago. Facing down the media-hyped border patrols of nativist Minutemen, today's immigrant rights demonstrators often wear t-shirts declaring, "We didn't cross the border - the border crossed us!"
Current transnational organizations are part of a long historical process. From the beginning, immigration to the US led to the formation of associations based on towns and countries of origin. Irish immigrants were and are a support base for anti-colonial movements back home. The Flores Magon brothers, immigrants from Oaxaca, organized the Liberal Party and the first battles of the Mexican Revolution in barrios from Los Angeles to St. Louis in the first decade of the 1900s. Sun Yat Sen's statue on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown honors his efforts to organize the Chinese Nationalist Party among Toishan migrants originally brought to build US railroads.
While almost all immigrants have organized for similar purposes, the US color line enforces vast differences in their treatment. Assimilation into mainstream culture was accessible to Europeans. Immigrant communities from Latin America and Asia faced a hypocritical exclusion, which demanded that people give up their culture, language and identity, while maintaining a color line denied them equal social status.
The roots of this inequality lie in slavery. Any attempt by Africans to recreate their culture was viciously put down for 250 years. Even the current concept of the "illegal" person has its roots in the Black Codes, used to define who could be enslaved and who couldn't. Chinatowns and Manilatowns owe their existence, not simply to the desire for community and group identity, but to a century of social segregation.
Immigrants subjected to racism and xenophobic exclusion organized hometown associations, at least in part, to resist. In the 1920s, when a generation of Filipino men were recruited to provide contract labor to western growers, US policy forbade the entry of Filipina women, while local laws prohibited marriage between Filipinos and white women. Hometown associations, like the Sons of Garcia Hernandez, helped migrants locate jobs, filled their need for community and family, and even organized defense against anti-Asian riots. Progressive trends in the US labor movement learned early to use these traditions. The network of Filipino hometown associations, for instance, was an important base for Filipino radicals, like Chris Mensalves and Ernesto Mangaoang, organizing workers in the Alaskan fish canneries in the late 1940s.
Today's migrants often come with experience in the radical social movements of their homelands. Sergio Sosa, a church lay worker during the civil war, organized young people in highland towns. "We wrote songs and organized groups where people created their own theater," he explains, "but many of the youth involved were seen as guerrillas because they were advocating political change." The massacre in San Miguel Acatan was one consequence.
When Qanjobales and Mams came to Nebraska, their experience dovetailed with efforts to organize meatpacking workers already underway in the church parishes of South Omaha. "Using social networks to organize people is part of our culture," Sosa says. "The art is to transform these networks and connect them with African Americans and Anglo-Saxons. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can't do them alone."
Transnational communities, while often formed originally around a single indigenous ethnic identity, don't exist in isolation. In Omaha's organizing ferment, the organizing styles of Guatemalans and Mexicans blend together, as people reinterpret various traditions of collective action. The alliance between South Omaha's immigrants, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Omaha Together One Community, an organizing project started by the Industrial Areas Foundation, successfully organized one of the city's main meatpacking plants.
Sosa and another activist from Santa Eulalia, Francisco Lorenzo, then started Grupo Ixim with local Guatemalans. Ixim is the word meaning corn in each of Guatemala's 23 indigenous languages. "It also means the common good - the way that inside an ear of corn all the grains are together," Sosa says.
Like many immigrant groups, it first gelled around practical goals. "For example if a fellow countrymen were to pass away, we would quickly mobilize to gather money and send the body to Guatemala," explains Jesus Martinez, a meatpacking worker. Ixim also had a cultural purpose - from ensuring that young people learn indigenous languages to preserving the heritage of the marimba, a musical symbol of Qanjobal and Mam culture. Santa Eulalia is famous for making the instruments, but the town's young people now leave Guatemala as migrants, instead of following their fathers into the marimba workshops. Ironically, groups like Ixim in migrant communities in Nebraska are now the major market keeping those workshops alive. "Our purpose is to pass on our culture to our children," Martinez says. "It is important for them to know where we came from."
Ixim groups have also been organized in Chicago, Los Angeles and other US cities. In the Nebraska group, tension surfaced last year between those who see its function mainly as cultural preservation, and others who want more politics. Last year Rodolfo Bobadilla, bishop of Huehuetenango and a former disciple of assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, visited his parishioners living in Omaha. A heated debate broke out in a back room at the welcoming fiesta. Martinez, Sosa and their allies proposed to give the Bishop a letter to take home, expressing the sentiment of Guatemalans in the US about the country's national election. Former General Efrain Rios Montt, the president who ordered the bloodiest massacres of the 1980s, was once again a candidate. Ixim's activists wanted to remind their countrymen about this terrible past, the principal reason why Guatemalans now live in exile.
"I don't think it is a political move. It is just a call to consciousness," Martinez said at the time. But the letter provided convincing evidence that even those who left Guatemala long ago (in his case, 22 years) still feel they belong to a community partly located in Nebraska, and partly in Santa Eulalia and San Miguel as well. "We must not forget the people in Guatemala," he cautioned. "As citizens, it is our obligation to take an active role in who enters the presidency." In the end, they voted to send the letter.
Bobadilla's visit was also evidence of the close relationship between church parishes in Omaha and the diocese of Huehuetenango. Sosa and Lorenzo even made the daring step of inviting non-Guatemalans to join Ixim, taking North Americans to Santa Eulalia with groups of migrants returning home. This effort sought to provide the resources of rich US parishes to the poor ones of Huehuetenango. "But we can't just organize Guatemalans," Sosa explains. "We have to open our own internal borders, and let strangers into our lives."
He and other transnational community activists see migration itself as an act of resistance to globalization. To resist successfully, Sosa believes, indigenous communities have to preserve their own identities, but also find allies in the countries to which they've migrated. Bobadilla agrees: "Our people here need to keep their own culture, and integrate themselves in US culture as well. They need to participate in social movements to protect themselves. People must plant their roots."
With no economic development at home, migration has become a necessity. The ability to emigrate increasingly determines social and economic status in communities of origin. At the same time, poverty in industrial countries is increasingly defined by migration status.
US immigration policy is institutionalizing this global flow of migration, as well as the roles of countries that employ it (like the US) and those that produce the migrants (like Mexico and Guatemala). The main mechanism for organizing the flow are guest worker programs. Corporate interests have successfully made them the centerpiece of almost all current reform proposals, whether made by Republicans or Democrats. As guest workers, migrants will now be considered only as workers, to be directed to the industries where they can be used most profitably. At the same time, their communities of origin are assigned the function of providing a labor pool for the production of future workers.
No support is offered by rich countries for the support of their externalized labor reserves. Instead, home communities depend on remittances from migrants. Mexican President Vicente Fox boasts that some of the world's most impoverished workers now send home more than $18 billion annually - a contribution to the economy approaching oil and tourism. At the same time, his government's polices for encouraging foreign investment are guaranteed to produce more migrants. Economic reforms cut subsidies on food, transport and other necessities for poor families, while keeping wages low by making it difficult to organize militant independent unions. Lack of rural credit and a flood of cheap US agricultural imports make it almost impossible to earn a living as a small farmer. As economic pressure ratchets up, and people leave, guest worker programs step in to recruit labor for US business.
This is not simply a US or Mexican policy, but an aspect of globalization. Dependence on immigrant labor is growing in all industrial countries, and similar guest worker programs are on the table in most. While the authors of these schemes may not choose to acknowledge it, transnational migrants are simply workers in the global economy, and at the same time, the products of it.
FIOB's Los Angeles coordinator, Ofelia Romero, predicts that "expanded guest worker programs will lead to the wholesale violation of migrant's rights." In previous periods, when US immigration policy valued immigrants only for their labor power, it produced extremely abusive systems. The memory of the bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, is so bitter that even today defenders of guest worker schemes avoid association with the name. But before the braceros came, Filipinos were treated the same way - as a mobile, vulnerable workforce, circulated from labor camp to labor camp for over half a century. And before them the Japanese and Chinese, all the way back to slavery.
Today, guest workers are brought from tiny Guatemalan towns to the pine forests of the US east and south. Their experience is remarkably similar [see "Be Our Guests," The Nation, April 2004].
US immigration policy doesn't deter the flow of migrants across the border. Its basic function is defining the status of people once they're here. A policy based on supplying guest workers to industry, at a price it wants to pay, has inequality built into it from the beginning. An immigration policy that denies community inevitably produces rootless people, vulnerable to exploitation. It undermines workplace and community rights, affecting non-immigrants as well. It inhibits the development of families and culture, denying everyone what newcomers can offer.
The alternative is a policy that recognizes and values transnational communities. A pro-people, anti-corporate immigration policy sees the creation and support of communities as a desirable goal. It reinforces indigenous culture and language, protects the rights of everyone, and seeks to integrate immigrants into the broader US society.
The UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families proposes this kind of framework, establishing equality of treatment with citizens of the host country. Both sending and receiving countries are responsible for protecting migrants, and retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories, and who has the right to work. Predictably, the countries that have ratified it are the sending countries. Those countries most interested in guest worker schemes, like the US, have not.
"Another amnesty is part of the alternative also," Sosa adds," but ten years from now we're going to face the same situation again, if we don't change the way we treat other countries. Treaties like CAFTA ensure that this will happen." Today working people of all countries are asked to accept continuing globalization, in which capital is free to go wherever it can earn the highest profits. By that same token, he argues, migrants must have the same freedom, with rights and status equal to those of anyone else. "I come from a faith tradition," he concludes. "Faith crosses borders. It says, this world is our world, for all of us."
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