David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The New Indian Face of Insurgent Politics in Baja California
by David Bacon

THE VALLEY OF SAN QUINTIN, BAJA CALIFORNIA (7/3/00) - If you think the National Action Party, which won Sunday's national presidential election in Mexico, represents political change, look no further than Baja California, where it has governed for ten years.

Just eight months ago, 38-year old Celerino Garcia and his older brother were sitting in a jail cell, arrested by Baja California's PAN authorities on trumped up charges of illegally taking land. Today Garcia, not the PAN, is the new face of politics in Baja California. It is a face with the angular lines and dark complexion of the native Mixtec people of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.

The village where Garcia was born, San Juan Mixtepec, sits in the heart of a hilly region that in many ways was never completely colonized by the Spaniards centuries ago. Both Mixtecs, and their neighboring Zapotecs, preserved their native pre-Columbian languages and many of their customs, setting them apart from the Mexican mainstream. Today many Mexicans still scornfully refer to these indigenous people as "oaxacitas," or "little Oaxacans." Discrimination against them is widespread.

Garcia and his brother Benito joined the great exodus of Mixtecs and Zapotecs from their ancestral villages, forced by poverty to seek jobs as migrant farm laborers in northern Mexico. They arrived in the dusty farm town of San Quintin, three hours south of the U.S. border, where a tiny coterie of wealthy growers own almost all the land from the ocean to the mountains, and plant their extensive fields with tomatoes and strawberries for the U.S. market.

The brothers were more than just workers, however. They quickly became organizers, demanding conditions for their people better than the starvation wages and debt-driven servitude they found in the fields. "For the last twelve years, we've been trying to organize an independent union," Celerino Garcia explains. "But any act of protest here to win our rights is met with repression." The brothers' efforts made the two of them well-known personalities. Celerino became even better-known when he began telling the valley's farm laborers about their rights in the native Mixtec language, on the town's tiny radio station, XEQIN.

Their efforts didn't make the Garcias popular with the growers, however. In Baja California, the misery of Mixtec and Zapotec migrant workers has been a national symbol of social discrimination for decades. This year, for the first time, a Mixtec has been running for the Mexican Federal Chamber of Deputies. Garcia's candidacy, on the slate of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution, is part of a rising from below. Indios in Baja are giving notice that they will no longer be treated as political nonentities.

But his campaign is more than that.

Garcia's campaign is the above-ground, visible tip of a struggle for political change with roots far deeper. From Tijuana south down the peninsula, social movements are coalescing into a progressive power base. That base shows every sign of transforming the Baja California political landscape, and is spilling across the U.S. Mexico border into California as well.

It is a different political transformation than the one chronicled this week by the mainstream press in both Mexico and the United States. Their attention is focused on Vicente Fox, the national presidential candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), which unseated Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time in its history.

But to Garcia, "the PAN here is no different than the PRI. If anything, it's worse." The decade of PAN rule in Baja California has been an era, the brothers charge, been marked by political repression, unfettered capitalism and an abdication of any responsibility for social justice towards the poor.

While the Mexican press presents Fox, a Coca-Cola executive, as a new democratic alternative to the old PRI, which has governed Mexico for 70 years, the migrants from the south who live in Baja don't expect much change. "The PAN's policies here are the same as the PRI's," asserts Ramiro Orea, a PRD organizer in Ensenada. "They both rely on our low wages to provide an incentive to foreign investors in the maquiladoras, or to keep our agricultural exports cheap. Anytime we try to change that, the government sees us as a threat and intervenes to try to stop us. If people in the U.S. think that Vicente Fox is going to bring about a change of policy here in Mexico, just look at what his party does here in Baja."

The election has tested the new Baja alliance's power to challenge the barriers to the political participation of people on the bottom. "People who still have homes in Oaxaca have to vote in special places, often many kilometers from where they're staying, and the ballots there ran out with dozens of people still in line," Celerino Garcia explains. "They lose a whole day of work when they vote, and this year ranchers offered to pay them twice the day's pay if they worked instead. When workers did vote in past elections, some were fired for that alone, because the ranchers know without asking which party they were voting for. We know they were threatened again this time. And in at least one workers' neighborhood here, Lazaro Cardenas, the PRI brought in over 200 ineligible people to vote."

The PRD's national standard-bearer, presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, came in third in Sunday's national election. And Garcia won't become a deputy in Mexico City this term either, finishing third behind the PAN and PRI. But writing off the PRD here would be a big mistake.

The arrest of the two brothers highlights the impact of demographic changes sweeping the peninsula. Until the 1960s, Baja California Norte was a desert state with a small population. But in the wake of the end of the bracero program in 1964, maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories) began to proliferate in Tijuana, eventually drawing hundreds of thousands of workers up to the border.

Further south down the peninsula, San Quintin's growers also looked north, developing an agro-industrial empire supplying produce for the U.S. market. To bring in their crops, thousands of workers migrated every year from extremely poor indigenous communities in Oaxaca and other states of southern Mexico.

Wages in San Quintin were kept low to make the valley's strawberries and tomatoes cheaper in New York and Los Angeles. "Today the minimum wage here is 37.4 pesos a day (about $4)," says Domiciano Lopez, a local community organizer. "While some workers can earn twice that much in the fields, a kilo of meat costs 38 pesos in the local market - half a day to a day's wages. That means families here eat meat once a month."

At first, Mixtec and Zapotec families lived in labor camps, and returned to their homes at the end of each harvest season. But as the years went by, many decided to stay in the valley. As the permanent population grew, so did discontent. In 1988, over a thousand tomato and strawberry pickers struck to win better wages. Their efforts to form an independent union were broken, however, and the strike's leaders fled to the U.S.

"We've been trying to gain a registro (government legal recognition) since 1984, but we've always been denied, first by the PRI, and then the PAN," says Julio Cesar Alonzo, an organizer for the Independent Confederation of Farm Workers and Peasants (CIOAC), in which the Garcia brothers are also active.

With more workers settling in San Quintin, the pressure for housing in the valley's small towns escalated, as families tried to escape the miserable conditions in the camps.

"Over 20,000 of us here in San Quintin have no property," Garcia says. "We've always had to live in the camps. So we made a proposal to the state - that they set aside an area of 50 hectares, which we would divide and develop for workers. But the PAN refused to do this. In their eyes, we're strangers. They just want us to work to make the ranchers wealthy, and then go back to Oaxaca."

In San Quintin, as in Ensenada and other peninsula towns, the local PAN government has its own program for selling land for new homes. But farm laborers say they can't afford the price and the interest rates. So the CIOAC organized the workers and pooled their money. They found an older woman in the local community who still had some land of her own, and they bought it.

San Quintin's tiny coterie of big landowners were already nervous. One of the local companies, facing financial problems, had failed to pay its workers for four weeks. When its owners, the Canelos family, didn't come up with the money, an angry crowd of pickers set fire to their ABC packing shed.

Fear of labor unrest was compounded by new fears of losing political control.

While 60% of the valley's population consists of migrants, in past years they never voted in local elections because they still officially resided in their home towns in Oaxaca. By settling down in San Quintin, however, these workers potentially might become an indigenous voting majority in the valley, upsetting the political structure long-dominated by the growers. To head it off, police moved in. Local authorities ignored the documents showing the land had been bought legally, and instead accused the Garcias of illegally occupying it. The two were sent to jail.

According to Celerino Garcia, "here in San Quintin, the government associates the movement for indigenous rights with the movement to organize a union, They thought putting me and Benito in jail would stop us, but the opposite happened. People got angry and our movement got bigger."

CIOAC's political allies in other Baja cities began organizing demonstrations and marches. For two days, crowds of protestors sat-in at state government offices in San Quentin, Ensenada and Tijuana. Celerino and Benito were released, but others were then arrested for the sit-ins.

The fight over land in San Quintin wasn't the first in Baja. The influx of hundreds of thousand of people from southern Mexico, heading towards the border in search of work, has produced immense pressure for land and housing. The PAN state government has done almost nothing to provide it in an affordable way.

While the state set up an agency in 1987 to sell land to barrio residents to build houses, Ensenada's Ramiro Orea says it charges prices most can't afford, and high interest on its loans. When people get together to buy land of their own at lower prices, as they did in San Quintin and are now doing in Ensenada as well, the state tries to stop them, fearing competition.

Further north in Tijuana, maquiladora workers have also struggled to find the land on which to build homes. There the CIOAC organized maquiladora workers to take over vacant land and form the neighborhood of Maclovio Rojas a decade ago. Since then, as in San Quintin, residents have faced the hostility of the state government. Barrio leader Hortensia Hernandez was jailed twice, the last time for over 2 months in 1997, when a group of neighboring ranchers, backed by government officials, contested the land's title.

"For poor people - workers, people in the barrios - the state has refused to budget money for social services," Orea explains. "We have terrible problems of lack of housing in Baja. In the colonias for workers, dirt streets turn to mud when it rains, and in many neighborhoods there are no sewers, running water or electricity. Getting any of these services requires a big fight. So that's what we do. We fight."

Common struggles over land and housing, like those Orea describes, have become the magnet pulling together the social movements of the poor in different Baja cities, "We've came together to oppose the policies of the PAN state government," he explains.

In addition to housing organizations, this new statewide network also includes independent unions - the October 6 union organized by maquiladora workers in Tijuana and a union for street sellers in Ensenada.

Two years members of the Tijuana union struck the Han Young factory, which produces truck bodies for Hyundai, in the border's first legal walkout by maquiladora workers. Since then Baja's PAN government has defied a succession of Federal court orders which upheld the legality of the union and its strike. Not only have authorities brought in police and strikebreakers to break it, but strikers and their supporters were beaten a week ago in front of state and federal labor officials by government-affiliated union thugs.

In Ensenada, Ramiro Orea and Armando Reyes helped streetsellers who hawk souvenirs and craft items to tourists on the waterfront to leave another government-affiliated union and form a similar independent organization. Sellers were unhappy because the old organization had charged them numerous fees, but failed to protect them against the police, who tried to run them off of the streets. "

Every day some of us were getting arrested," says Filiberto Delgado, one of the sellers. "Only the PRD tried to help us, proposing to the city that we get permanent places to sell our goods, so we'll be secure and safe."

Delgado, like many sellers, has his three children with him when they're not in school. "I don't let them work, but I don't have money to pay for childcare either," he says, "so here they are, suffering the heat and thirst on the streets along with me." When the police would pick him up, other sellers or friends would have to grab the children and take care of them until he returned.

"It's a bad life, but we make it good," he says.

In Ensenada, the PRD is based among the streetsellers, and in the poor barrios on the hills which ring the city. Only one of city's thirteen city councilmembers belongs to the PRD, although the party's vote has grown in each of the past two elections. If the state PAN government hadn't changed the election laws two years ago, the PRD would have had two councilmembers for their current 15% of the vote, and Orea would be one of them.

Together these housing groups and unions make up ENFOCA, the Power Network of Citizens, Workers and Farm Laborers. This network provides the popular base for the growth of the Party of the Democratic Revolution in Baja California.

When Celerino and Benito Garcia were arrested in San Quentin, ENFOCA's network up and down the peninsula came together to mount the demonstrations which eventually freed them. The actions marked the organization's first attempt to operate on a statewide level.

The defense effort even spread north across the border, to a radio station in El Centro, in California's Imperial Valley. There Filemon Lopez, a Mixtec like Celerino Garcia, hosts a radio show called "The Mixtec Hour." Lopez became the coordinator of the International Network of Oaxacan Indigenous People, and used his access to the airwaves to alert the thousands of Oaxacans living in the Imperial and Central Valleys to the crisis in San Quintin. People responded by deluging the Baja California governor with letters and faxes, demanding the Garcia brothers' release.

Oaxacans in California, Washington state, and other states maintain a close network of families and people from the same towns back home. That network mobilized many Oaxacans living in the U.S. to come to the border, to cast their votes for the PRD. Although Mexican law permits its citizens to cast votes outside the country, the PRI government has never created a system for doing that, fearing that most would cast votes for the opposition. "We're helping Oaxacans to organize in all the places we find ourselves," Lopez says. "Being discriminated against because of being indigenous, and having our labor rights violated, has forced us to get better organized."

Another indigenous leader, Sergio Mendez of the Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front, declares angrily that while "San Diego is the most racist area of California, the indignities which our brothers are subjected to there don't compare to those they suffer here, where the government says its on our side." Mendez' anger was fueled by Fox's campaign proposal that Mexicans be trained to do gardener jobs in Los Angeles. "We aren't animals to be exported," he declared angrily. "Although we're exploited and treated like slaves, we know how to think for ourselves."

Whether in California or in Baja, the organization of Oaxacan communities in exile is destined to play a key role in reshaping local politics. In San Quintin, while farm workers made up 18% of the vote recorded in the previous election according to CIOAC, Garcia says this year it almost doubled to 32%. Although in the district as a whole he came in third, in some precincts in the San Quintin Valley the PRD won a majority. While it may take some time for detailed figures to be released, it is clear that the organization which produced those votes, and those of indigenous people, workers and barrio residents elsewhere on the peninsula, is growing.

"This election gives us a base for 2001 - it's the best the PRD has ever done in this state," he announced.

Political change is in the wind in Baja California. But it's not coming from a PAN victory in Mexico City. And if it didn't overturn the state's power structure in this election, it will clearly provide the vehicle for serious challenges to it in the years to come.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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