OAXACA DE JUAREZ, Mexico – For six weeks hundreds of teachers in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca have been living in tents, in the capital city’s main plaza, the zocalo. Bonifacio Garcia, one of the protestors, declares, “We will stay here until the state Chamber of Deputies agrees that our education reform will move forward in all our schools.”
Each week teachers from one of Oaxaca’s regions take a turn at sleeping in the tents. This is the week for the schools on the coast, including the communities of people whose ancestors were slaves. Garcia comes from Santiago Tapextla, near Pinotepa Nacional, where most people trace part of their ancestry back to Africa.
On the coast, family trees are very mixed. Most also reveal other ancestors among the indigenous people who were here long before the Spanish conquerors arrived. “Spaniards brought slaves with them from the Caribbean and Africa,” Garcia explains. “After Mexico outlawed slavery in 1821 we became an autonomous community. But in Mexico African people aren’t considered an original people, the way indigenous people are. We’re still not really recognized, so we have to fight for our rights.”
Garcia is principal of a “telesecondaria” — a secondary school in a remote area where part of the instruction is given through a national televised curriculum. While he uses that TV program, he and his fellow teachers reject most of the other reforms Mexico’s national government has attempted to impose. Oaxacan teachers and their union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, say the Federal education reforms rely too heavily on standardized testing, and punish teachers for the low scores of their students.
Instead, Section 22 formulated its own education reform plan five years ago, the Program to Transform Education in Oaxaca (PTEO). It seeks to develop an intensely cooperative relationship between teachers, students, parents and the surrounding community. Lulu, a young preschool teacher from Huatulco, further south along the coast, says, “I have a much closer relationship now to the parents of my children than we did before.”
For Garcia, the central purpose of PTEO is to help students get a better education, especially those in rural areas who speak pre-Hispanic languages like Mixteco, Zapoteco or Triqui — Oaxacans speak 23 indigenous tongues. But education, he believes, should also provide an alternative to the out-migration that is devastating small farming communities.
“I know the cost of migration very well, ” he says. “I lived for four years in Elgin, Illinois, working for an organization there that helped immigrants understand their rights. So I know how hard life can be in the north. Migration also hollows out our communities here. If we want young people to stay, we have to have an alternative that is attractive to them. That starts with education. That’s why our program to change the schools is so important, and why we’re willing to sit here in the zocalo until the government agrees.”
Oaxaca has about 3.5 million people, who began leaving the state because of intense rural poverty in the 1970s. At first people migrated to work on the industrial farms of northern Mexico. But then indigenous Oaxacan towns, dependent on growing corn and other agricultural products, were hit hard by the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1990, before the agreement was implemented, about 527,000 people had already left. A decade later that number had mushroomed to 663,000.
Beginning in the 1980s, Oaxacan migrants began crossing the border, first into California, and then dispersing into states all over the U.S. By 2008 about 12.5 million Mexican migrants were living north of the border (up from 4.6 million in 1990) — 9.4 percent of the population of Mexico. But even in this huge wave, Oaxacans have been over-represented — 19 percent of its people are migrants.
Rufino DomÆnguez, who heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, estimates that there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca in the U.S., 300,000 in California alone. One result has been an explosion of Oaxacan culture in exile. Currently, at least 16 Guelaguetzas (the annual festival that showcases the elaborate dances of Oaxaca’s many regions) take place, not just in California (where there are 11), but also in Seattle WA, Poughkeepsie NY, Salem OR, Odessa TX, and Atlantic City NJ.
Beautiful dances, however, are performed by communities that live on the economic margin. Rick Mines, author of the 2010 Indigenous Farm Worker Study, says surveys reveal that among California indigenous Mexican farm workers (about 120,000 people) a third earn minimum wage, while a third are paid illegal wages below that. The U.S. food system has long been dependent on the influx of an ever-changing, newly-arrived group of workers that sets the wages and working conditions at the entry level in the farm labor market, he elaborates.
California has a farm labor force of about 700,000 workers, so the day is not far off when indigenous Oaxacan migrants may make up a majority. Indigenous people constituted seven percent of Mexican migrants in 1991-3, the years just before NAFTA. In 2006-8, they made up 29 percent – four times more. The rock-bottom wages paid to this most recent wave of migrants sets the wage floor for all the other workers in California farm labor, keeping the labor costs of California growers low, and their profits high.
It was no surprise, therefore, that anger over discrimination, displacement, migration and poverty ran through many denunciations heard last week in Oaxaca at the triennial assembly of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB). “We are not people who were ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards, the Americans or anyone else,” thundered Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, FIOB’s new binational coordinator. “We are people in struggle!”
Gutierrez is a teacher with a long political history in Oaxaca. He was elected a decade ago to the state Chamber of Deputies, and after his term ended, was jailed in reprisal by the governor from Mexico’s old ruling party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution. When a teachers’ strike spiraled into a virtual insurrection in 2006, the following governor put his name on a list of activists to be arrested yet again. When the PRI lost the governorship for the first time in 70 years in 2010, Gutierrez went to work in the state’s migrant assistance agency.
FIOB is a unique organization created in 1992 by both Oaxacan migrants in California, and by the communities in Oaxaca from which they come. It has chapters in four California cities, in several towns in Baja California in north Mexico where Oaxacans work as migrants, and in many indigenous towns in Oaxaca itself. Many FIOB activists are teachers because educators play such an important role in community life. Now FIOB will be headed by two of them — Gutierrez and Ezequiel Rosales, who led the union during the 2006 strike.
In 2010 both FIOB and the union supported the candidate who defeated the PRI — Gabino Cue, the former mayor of Oaxaca’s capital city. That gave teachers enough political influence to insist that the Oaxaca Institute for Public Education, which administers the state schools, begin implementing their PTEO reform. It’s been a fight, however. Two years ago, Claudio Gonzçlez, one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen and head of a national group backing standardized testing, warned Governor Cue that he had to “break the hijacking of education by Secciùn 22”. He called the teachers “tyrants.” Under pressure from the PRI administration in Mexico City, Oaxaca’s state government is backtracking on its commitment to PTEO. That’s the reason for the encampment in the zocalo.
When Cue was elected, FIOB met with him to ask that he appoint Dominguez, FIOB’s former binational coordinator, to head the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants. Cue then declared that his administration was dedicated to implementing the “right to not migrate.” This right, a centerpiece of FIOB’s political program for a decade, calls for alternatives to forced migration, including better schools, higher agricultural prices, jobs, and health care in rural areas. If people have an alternative, FIOB activists argue, they can choose freely if they want to leave home or not.
FIOB’s outgoing binational coordinator, Bernardo Ramirez, says people in the U.S. don’t really understand what causes migration. “The wage here in Oaxaca is 73 pesos ($6) a day,” he explains, “and in some of the poorest areas people are living on 30 pesos a day. They’ll eat if they produce their own corn for tortillas and beans, but they just have enough money to buy an egg. When the free trade agreement came in, they lost the market for the little they were producing. The products coming in from the U.S. had government support and subsidies. Mexicans couldn’t compete with that. People see migration as their only option to survive.”
In a poor state like Oaxaca it is difficult to provide the alternative. High hopes for Cue led to frustration and anger when the state couldn’t deliver on many promises of economic development. FIOB has tried to encourage its own rural development projects. “We want people to produce what we eat,” Ramirez says, depending less on buying processed food, or instance.
FIOB also goes into the schools, especially secondary schools where young people are already thinking of leaving, to dispel illusions that life is always better in the north. “The people who come back just talk about the good part of migration,” Ramirez charges bitterly. “They don’t talk about how many days they had to walk through the desert. They don’t mention that seven or eight people were sleeping on the floor in the room where they were living. They don’t say they were robbed or beaten while they were traveling, and the government did nothing.”
Therefore, in addition to advocating the right to not migrate, FIOB also says people have the right to migrate, and to basic human and civil rights when they do. Deportations from the U.S. were on everyone’s mind. FIOB members in California have been marching for months to demand a halt to the separation of families, and to support the thousands of migrants who spend time in detention centers every year. In Oaxaca, people in almost every community have had a deportation experience that has left its bitter memories.
The California section of FIOB has criticized for years U.S. proposals for immigration reform, because of their emphasis on enforcement and guest worker programs. It has called for a progressive alternative, based on labor and human rights, and at the Oaxaca meeting voted to join a U.S. network of organizations supporting it, the Dignity Campaign.
Last year FIOB activists implemented this formal position by helping Oaxacan farm workers organize an independent union in Washington State. During that fight the grower employing them, Sakuma Farms, fired several workers, denied families a space to live in the company labor camp, and tried to keep wages at the level of the state’s minimum. When workers organized to protest, ranch owners tried to bring in a replacement force of guest workers from Mexico, under the H2A work visa program.
During the workers’ strike last year, Ramirez went to Washington State. FIOB and the new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, then mobilized opposition that kept the U.S. Department of Labor from approving the farm’s application. In last week’s assembly one worker, Herminio Ortiz Espinoza, described his four years as a guest worker in Canada. “The bosses always yelled at us and treated us as though we were inferior,” he recalled. “I had a friend who protested, and he was deported right away. After that, we were all afraid to say anything.”
“We’ve talked with 70 percent of the people recruited in Oaxaca, and there are enormous violations of the rights of workers by guest worker programs,” Ramirez adds. “We’re also concerned about the Oaxacans who are already living in the United States. Sakuma Farms already had a lot of workers, very good ones. But the grower wanted to keep them from organizing, defending themselves and demanding higher wages. He knew people here in Mexico are desperate for work, and that he could make them work for the minimum. He wanted to put Oaxacans into competition with other Oaxacans. That’s why in FIOB we want an immigration reform in the U.S. that doesn’t have guest worker programs. Migrants need the right to come and work, but to work with rights.”
At the end of the assembly, FIOB reiterated its support for the union at Sakuma Farms, and its opposition to guest worker programs. When it announced its opposition a decade ago, it was virtually alone among migrant organizations in Mexico in doing so. Today, as guest worker programs grow in the U.S., and the number of people who return with direct experience in them grows as well, so does that opposition.
As the delegates left at the end of the assembly, a number went to talk with the teachers in the zocalo, sharing their outrage over the students killed and kidnapped at the teachers’ training school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. This issue is convulsing Mexico. Banners and signs hung everywhere in the encampment, expressing revulsion at the attack.
The assembly itself accused the government of responsibility for Ayotzinapa, calling it “state terrorism that the government is implementing in order to suppress social protest.” Back in the U.S., FIOB members mounted protests at consulates in Los Angeles, Santa Maria, San Diego, Oxnard, and Fresno. In a letter delivered in each, FIOB’s new officers also demanded that the U.S. government recognize its responsibility “for the economic and political instability of Mexico, because it is the greatest consumer of drugs, because it supports the big corporations that produce the arms used by Mexican criminal groups, and because it imposed on Mexico the North American Free Trade Agreement and other neoliberal policies.”
The letter added, “We want a Mexico with democracy, justice and liberty, where young people who are the future of our country can thrive and participate with their knowledge and skills in building a healthy, strong and dignified country.”
Today people speaking Oaxaca’s indigenous languages live in very distant places, separated by thousands of miles and a militarized border. But whether in the zocalo or the FIOB assembly, they increasingly function as a single community. Anti-immigrant hysteria may have come to dominate politics in the rich countries of the north, but Oaxacans are moving in the opposite direction. They are asserting the right to decide when and how crossing borders is in their interest. And instead of being simply divided by borders, they are organizing across them.
Photo: Teachers Bonifacio Garcia and Gabriel Vielma Monjaroz talk with another teacher in their encampment in the main plaza of Oaxaca. David Bacon