[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Communities Without Borders (US-Mexico Borderlands)

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Thu Oct 27 14:37:32 EDT 2005

Communities Without Borders
By David Bacon
The Nation, October 24, 2005 issue, posted Oct. 6, 2005


In 1982 Guatemalan army troops filled the roads through
the highlands above Huehuetenango. As part of the
country's civil war, soldiers, carrying Armalite rifles
supplied by US President Ronald Reagan, swept into the
small indigenous 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
through the mountains, all the way to the Mexican
border. For those who stayed behind, there was no work-
just devastation.

That same year 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 left-
wing 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 they 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

Over the next twenty years, Guatemala's Qan-jobal and
Mam refugees, and Oaxaca's indigenous farm workers,
moved north through Mexico. Eventually they began
crossing the border into the United States. 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, named 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

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 false assumptions. US policy treats
migrants as individual workers, ignoring the social
pressures that force whole communities to move, and the
networks of families and hometowns that 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 United States. Sometimes, in this arbitrary Alice
in Wonderland world, the opposite happens, and
undocumented youth find themselves forced to move back
to a place they don't even remember.

Policy-makers 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 simply on economics-the need for a job.
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.

What US immigration policy does not take into account
is how the drive for community motivates migration.
Current proposals for guest workers are the latest form
of this denial. Corporate interests have successfully
made them the centerpiece of almost all current
immigration reform proposals, whether made by
Republicans or Democrats. By definition, guest workers
are admitted 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 come only 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.

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 United
States 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. The 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. Among the crucial rights denied
to them is the right to community-both to live in
communities of their own creation and to be part of the
broader community around them.

Nonetheless, migrants can and do carry community with
them, along with traditions of social rights and
organization. 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[-al?],
demanding drivers' licenses and amnesty for
undocumented immigrants. Living in conditions most
Americans equate with extreme poverty, they see
themselves not as victims but social actors with a
right to acceptance both in Mexico and the United

"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. This is a tradition they don't lose,
wherever they go."

Indigenous migrants from Mexico and Central America
overwhelmingly belong to transnational communities like
those of Oaxaca's Mixtecs and Triquis, or Guatemala's
Mams and Qanjobales. Mixtec scholar Gaspar Rivera-
Salgado and Jonathan Fox, an authority on Oaxacan
migration at the University of California in Santa
Cruz, refer to "Oaxacalifornia" as a "space in which
migrants bring together their lives in California with
their communities of origin more than 2,500 miles
away." They might have equally referred to Pueblayork,
the title bestowed on New York by a similar flow of
indigenous migration from the Mexican state of Puebla.
Migrants from Guatemala's Santa Eulalia don't yet call
their Midwest community Nebraskamala, but there are
enough of them living in Omaha and surrounding
meatpacking towns to justify such a nickname. 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 one another 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
border that formally divides their countries.

For Oaxacans, the formation of communities outside
their home state began back 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 in Fresno. His wife, Margarita, 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

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 toward indigenous
people. Fighting racism in Mexico, however, had
prepared them for this. 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."

Even among other organizations of Mexican immigrants,
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 United States, 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 Romualdo Gutierrez, not only voiced outspoken
criticism but allied themselves with Mexico's left-wing
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Last year
Gutierrez was arrested and held in jail on bogus
charges of misappropriating a computer 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

In Baja California, south of the border, 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 Triqui activist Julio Sandoval have led
land invasions in the state's agricultural valleys.
Large growers are so threatened that Sandoval was
locked up for three years in an Ensenada prison. 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
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.

Mexican indigenous communities in the United States
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 grows out of indigenous
culture, particularly an institution called the tequio.
"This is the concept of collective work to support our
community," Dominguez says. "Wherever we go, we go
united. Even though 509 years have passed since the
Spanish conquest, we still speak our language. We want
to live our culture and to insure that it won't die."

Part of this culture is participatory democracy, with
roots in indigenous village life. The organization's
binational assemblies discuss bylaws and political
positions. 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 a product of the migration experience, which is
changing some of the migrating communities' old,
patriarchal traditions. 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, and calls for an
extension of the rights of citizenship by implementing
the decision made in 1995 by the Mexican government to
allow its citizens in the United States 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 United States, 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 even as some cultural adaptation is
inevitable and sometimes even desirable, the experience
of forty 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 photo-documentary project by
this author), asks, "Is there today a growing culture
of migration itself, a kind of cultural capital that
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 United States. Transnational
migrants insist that they have important political and
social rights, both in their communities of origin and
in their communities abroad.

Today's migrants often come with experience in the
radical social movements of their homelands. 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," Sergio 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 founded around a
single indigenous ethnic identity, don't exist in
isolation from one another. 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 twenty-three 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 countryman
were to pass away, we would quickly mobilize to gather
money and send the body to Guatemala," explains Jesus
Martinez, a meatpacking worker. 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 United States 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, which has much to do with the fact that so many
Guatemalans now live in exile. In the end, they voted
to send the letter.

Emigration has complicated social costs and benefits in
communities of origin. It threatens cultural practices
and indigenous languages. It exacerbates social and
economic divisions in small rural towns, as families
with access to remittances sent home by relatives bid
up land prices beyond the reach of families without
that access. San Miguel now boasts a number of large
modern houses, owned by refugees of 1982 who live in
the United States. 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.

The creation of transnational communities is a global
phenomenon. They exist at different stages of
development in the flow of migrants from developing to
developed countries worldwide. According to Migrant
Rights International, more than 130 million people live
outside the countries in which they were born-a
permanent feature of life on the planet.

Immigration policy in almost all developed, industrial
countries is institutionalizing this global flow of
migration, as well as the roles of countries that
employ it (like the United States) and those that
produce the migrants (like Mexico and Guatemala). The
main mechanism are guest-worker programs, which assign
the migrants' communities of origin the function of
providing a labor pool for the production of future
workers, while offering no support in return. Instead,
home communities depend on remittances from migrants.
Mexican President Vicente Fox boasts that some of the
world's most impoverished workers send home more than
$18 billion annually-a contribution to the economy
approaching those of oil and tourism.

FIOB's Los Angeles coordinator, Ofelia Romero, predicts
that "expanded guest-worker programs will lead to the
wholesale violation of migrants' 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 more than half a century. And before
them the Japanese and Chinese, all the way back to

Today, guest workers are brought from tiny Guatemalan
towns to the pine forests of the American East and
South. Their experience is remarkably similar [see "Be
Our Guests," September 27, 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. Guest-worker programs undermine both
workplace and community rights, affecting non-
immigrants as well. They inhibit 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, anticorporate
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 United Nations' 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 United
States, 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 insure 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. He argues that 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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