Indigenous migrants demand change in the fields

When thousands of indigenous farm workers went on strike in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California onMarch 16, their voices were not just heard in the streets of the farm towns along this peninsula in northern Mexico.  Two years earlier, migrants from the same region of Oaxaca struck one of the largest berry growers in the Pacific Northwest, Sakuma Farms, and organized an independent union for agricultural laborers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice).

Indigenous Oaxacan migrants have been coming to California for at least three decades, and the echoes of San Quintin were heard as well in towns like Greenfield, where worker frustration has been building over economic exploitation in the fields and discrimination in the local community.

“We are the working people,” declared Fidel Sanchez, leader of the Alianza de Organizaciones Nacionales, Estatales y Municipales para Justicia Social (the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice).  “We are the ones who pay for the government of this state and country with the labor of our hands.”  This was not an excess of rhetoric.  In just the first two weeks of striking at the height of the strawberry season in April, Baja California’s conservative Governor Francisco Vega de Lamadrid estimated grower losses at over forty million dollars.  

While the strike demands ranged from a daily wage of 200 pesos ($13) to better conditions in labor camps, Sanchez explained it in basic terms:  “We want to work as men, as fathers of our families.  Our wives suffer the most from these hunger wages, because they have to stretch 700 or 800 pesos so that it can cover the cost of the food, of the clothes for our children and their schoolbooks and pencils, for their medical care when they get sick, for the gas and water so that we can wash up.”

Agribusiness farming started in San Quintin in the 1970s, as it did in many areas of northern Mexico, to supply the U.S. market with winter tomatoes and strawberries.  Baja California had few inhabitants then, so growers brought workers from southern Mexico, especially indigenous Mixtec and Triqui families from Oaxaca.  Today an estimated 70,000 indigenous migrant workers live in labor camps notorious for their bad conditions.  Many of the conditions are violations of Mexican law.

Once indigenous workers had been brought to the border, they began to cross it to work in fields in the U.S.  Today the bulk of the farm labor workforce in California’s strawberry fields comes from the same migrant stream that is on strike in Baja California.  So does the migrant labor force picking berries in Washington State, where workers went on strike two years ago.

Two of the 500 strikers at Sakuma Farms were teenagers Marcelina Hilario from San Martin Itunyoso and Teofila Raymundo from Santa Cruz Yucayani.  Both started working in the fields with their parents, and today, like many young people in indigenous migrant families, they speak English and Spanish – the languages of school and the culture around them.  But Raymundo also speaks her native Triqui and is learning Mixteco, while Hilario speaks Mixteco, is studying French, and thinking about German.

“I’ve been working with my dad since I was 12,” Raymundo remembers.  “I’ve seen them treat him bad, but he comes back because he needs this job.  Once after a strike here, we came up all the way from California the next season, and they wouldn’t hire us.  We had to go looking for another place to live and work that year.  That’s how I met Marcelina.”  They both accused the company of refusing to give them better jobs keeping track of the berries picked by workers – positions that only went to young white workers.  “When I see people treat us badly, I don’t agree with that,” Hilario added.  “I think you have to say something.”

Rosario Ventura was another Sakuma Farms striker.  She lives in California, and comes to Washington with husband Isidro, for the picking season.  Ventura is from a Triqui town, while her husband Isidro is from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.  They met and married while working at Sakuma Farms, something that might never have taken place if they’d stayed in Mexico.
But Ventura didn’t come to the U.S. for romance.  During the dry years in San Martin Itunyoso, “there is nothing with which to get food, nothing.  Sometimes we were starving because there would be no money.”
Nevertheless, her father wept when she announced she was leaving, saying she’d never return.  In some ways he was right.  “If you go you aren’t going to come back — it is forever.  That is what he said,” she remembered.  “I don’t call or even talk with him, because if I do, it will make him sad. He’ll ask, ‘When will you return?’  What can I say?  It is very expensive to cross the border.  It is easy to leave the U.S., but difficult to cross back. When I came, in 2001, it cost two thousand dollars.”

Miguel Lopez, a Triqui man who lives in Greenfield, in California’s Salinas Valley, came for the same reasons, and had an even harder time when he arrived twenty years ago.  With no money he couldn’t rent an apartment.  “I lived under a tree with five others, next to a ranch,” he recalled.  “It rains a lot in Oregon, and there we were under a tree.”
Eventually he found work, and after some years, brought his family.  That was a mixed blessing, however, because he and his wife had to work so hard.  “My children didn’t even know me because I would go to sleep as soon as I got home.  It was hard to care for them properly,” he explained.  And he didn’t meet with a warm welcome in Greenfield.  “Indigenous people face discrimination at school and around town in general.  Many people speak badly of Triqui or indigenous people.”

Bernardo Ramirez, former binational coordinator of the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations) went to Sakuma Farms to help with the strike, and came away angry over that discrimination.  “Foremen insult workers and call them burros,” he charged.  “When you compare people to animals, this is racism.  We’re human beings.”  But, he cautioned, discrimination involves more than language.  “Low wages are a form of racism too, because they minimize the work of migrants.”
The big agribusiness corporations that market the strawberries, blueberries and blackberries sold in the U.S. dispute such charges. Sakuma Farms says it guarantees its workers $10/hour with a piecerate bonus, and workers have to meet a production quota.  But these companies should start paying attention to these voices.  They are not only coming from their own workers, who produce their profits, but they express a building anger and frustration at the continued poverty among Oaxaca’s indigenous migrants.  Maybe the growers should learn Triqui and Mixteco, so they can hear what’s being said.

Photo: David Bacon


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California journalist covering farm labor and immigration. His latest book is In the Fields of the North (University of California, 2017).