Saturday, August 10, 2019


By David Bacon,
Truthout  August 10, 2019

Marchers take part in the Farmworker March for Dignity 2019, on August 4, 2019, in Whatcom County, Washington.  David Bacon

Washington State today is ground zero in the effort to hold back the massive use of agricultural guest workers by U.S. growers, and to ensure that farmworkers, both those living here and those coming under the H-2A visa program, have their rights respected. For a second year, on August 4 workers and their supporters marched 14 miles in 90-degree heat through berry fields just below the Canadian border, protesting what they charge is widespread abuse of agricultural labor.

"Farmworker families have been living and working in local fields since the early 1950s," according to Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a farm worker organizing and advocacy group in Whatcom County. "But we've seen a big increase in growers' use of the H-2A guest worker program in the last few years, and it's had a huge impact on working conditions in the fields. We've had to feed guest workers who come to us hungry, fight to get them paid their wages, and help them deal with extreme work requirements. At the same time, our local workers find they're not being hired for jobs they've done for many seasons."

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community.  David Bacon

At dawn on August 4, two hundred marchers gathered in front of the immigration detention center in Ferndale, about three hours north of Seattle. Before starting the 14-mile peregrination, Guillen told the crowd that most of the immigrants detained there, and later deported, are farmworkers. "The Trump administration is targeting our local community, deporting people who have been living here for years," she charged. "Then growers complain there aren't enough workers, and begin using the H-2A program to bring in guest workers. It is a vicious revolving door of exploitation."

Marchers gather in front of the immigrant detention center in Ferndale before setting out on the rest of their route.David Bacon

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, there are about 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., about three quarters of whom were born outside the country. Half are undocumented and the rest are visa holders or people born in the U.S.

Last year growers were certified to bring in 242,762 H-2A workers - a tenth of the total workforce and a number that in just four years has increased from 139,832.

In 2017, Washington State growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, about 12,000 of whom were recruited by WAFLA (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, a H-2A labor contractor). "We predict growers will request more than 30,000 H-2A workers during 2019," according to Washington Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine.

The department estimated that 97,068 farm workers were employed in Washington State in 2016, so the projected number of H-2A workers would be a third of the entire workforce.

At the same time as H-2A employment is rising, deportations are increasing. The Trump administration deported 256,000 people in 2018, just slightly more than the number of people brought to the U.S. under H-2A visas. Local deportations are increasing as well in Washington. In August last year 16 people were arrested and held at the Ferndale center. Half were deported immediately, and others were charged bail as high as $18,000 to be released pending hearings. A month earlier 19 others had also been arrested for deportation.

Stories are common, according to C2C, of people stopped for traffic violations, and then held for detention by immigration authorities. In 2017, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order barring state agents from helping to enforce federal immigration laws in most cases, ordering them not to ask about immigration status. Nevertheless, immigration detention centers are scattered around the state, including one of the nation's largest in Tacoma, three hours south of Whatcom County, where the GEO Group holds around 1500 people.

Protesting Exploitation at Crystal View Raspberry Farm

After leaving the Ferndale detention center, people walked north for four hours, arriving at the Crystal View Raspberry Farm. There they stopped to hold an informal hearing to highlight the decision by the farm's owners to bring in 80 guest workers for this year's blueberry harvest.

A marcher carries the flag of Washington State's new farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  David Bacon

Growers recruit H-2A workers every year from other countries, mainly Mexico. Companies using the H-2A program must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, listing the work, living conditions and wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation and housing. Workers are given contracts for less than one year, and must leave the country when their work is done. They can only work for the company that contracts them, and if they lose that job they must leave immediately.

The H-2A program has its roots in the notorious "bracero" program, which brought workers from Mexico in extremely exploitative conditions starting in 1942. At its height in 1954 about 450,000 workers were brought in by growers, and in the same year over a million people were deported - the same "vicious revolving door" described by Guillen. Although the program was abolished in 1964, the H-2 visa on which it was based was never eliminated. In 1986 an organized farm labor importation program began again, and the H-2A visa was created. It has been growing ever since.

In August last year, about 60 Crystal View workers, brought from Mexico and Guatemala under H-2A visas, went on strike to protest the non-payment of their wages. They reached out to Community to Community (C2C) and Washington's new farm worker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, looking for help. Workers told C2C organizer Edgar Franks they'd been threatened that if they didn't work fast enough they'd be fired and sent back home. "They didn't feel safe reaching out to anyone because of the threats," he said. Workers were isolated because they lived on the farm property, miles from the nearest town, and had no cars or transportation of their own.

Crystal View owner George Sandhu brought in two representatives of WAFLA, which had contracted the workers, to negotiate. The strikers were eventually paid the money owed them and returned to work after two days. "But I don't think those workers will be coming back this year," Franks predicted.

The problem of high production standards, enforced by blacklisting threats, was highlighted by several recent strikes over the past two years. On June 21 this year workers at the King Fuji apple ranch stopped work because of production pressure. According to one striker, Sergio Martinez, "We're all working as fast as we can, but the company always wants more. When we can't make the production they're demanding, they threaten us, telling us that if we don't produce they won't let us come back to work next year."

Pressure to work harder and faster is permitted by the U.S. Department of Labor, often written into the certifications that allow growers to import workers. The job order approved for King Fuji Ranch, Inc. lists the first reason why a worker can be fired: "malingers or otherwise refuses without justified cause to perform as directed the work for which the worker was recruited and hired." If a worker's productivity doesn't improve after "coaching" then "the Worker may be terminated."

Young women carry the banner of the new cooperative set up by Community to Community, Tierra y Libertad.  David Bacon

Coaching at King Fuji, according to Martinez, means "they threaten to send us back to Mexico." Another worker, who preferred not to give his name, explained that "they give you three tickets [warnings], and then you get fired. They put you on the blacklist so you can't come back next year. Workers who were fired last year aren't here this year."

Forced to Work on the Brink of Death

At the impromptu hearing in front of the Crystal View farm the marchers held a brief moment of silence in memory of Honesto Silva Ibarra. In 2017 Silva, an H-2A guest worker brought from Mexico to harvest blueberries, collapsed in a field belonging to Sarbanand Farms near the Canadian border, and later died. One of his coworkers, Raymond Escobedo, said when Silva began feeling sick "he asked to leave work. They wouldn't give him permission, but he went back to the barracks to rest anyway. Then the supervisor went and got him out and forced him back to work."

According to a suit filed by Columbia Legal Services against Sarbanand Farms, Nidia Perez, who supervised workers on behalf of the company's recruiter, told them that they had to work "unless they were on their death bed." Nevertheless, 70 Sarbanand workers stopped work after Silva's death, and were fired and expelled from the company labor camp. Because they were no longer employed, they soon lost their visas and were forced to return to Mexico. A Sarbanand statement said "H-2A regulations do not otherwise allow for workers engaging in such concerted activity."

Lynne Dodson, former Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, condemned the reprisals. "If you get deported for collective activity," she says, "that's basically saying you have no enforceable labor rights. No right to organize. No right to speak up on the job. No right to question working conditions without being deported."

A marcher carries the banner remembering Honesto Silva Ibarra, an H-2A worker who died in a field in 2017.  David Bacon

Sarbanand Farms belongs to Munger Brothers, LLC, a family corporation based in Delano, California. Beginning in 2006, the company brought more than 600 H-2A workers from Mexico to harvest 3,000 acres of blueberries in California and Washington. Munger calls itself the world's largest blueberry grower, and is the driving force behind the growers' cooperative that markets under the Naturipe label.

In February 2018, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries announced that Silva had died of natural causes, and that the company was not responsible. The department said it had investigated conditions at the Sarbanand ranch and had found no workplace health and safety violations. Nevertheless, Sarbanand Farms was fined $149,800 for not providing required breaks and meal periods, an amount a judge later cut in half. And this year, in a rare move, the U.S. Department of Labor finally debarred Sarbanand and Munger from using the H-2A program. While the DoL does not list a specific citation or cause for the disbarment, the publicity around Silva's death and the workers' strike made it clear that Sarbanand felt no hesitation in violating rights and enforcing brutal conditions, and that the department had not monitored the company's actions.

In theory, growers have to advertise for local workers first, and can only bring in guest workers if none are available. In another suit, however, Columbia Legal Services sued WAFLA, a labor recruiter called CSI, and a large Washington State winery, Mercer Canyons, charging that it had used the H-2A program to replace local farmworkers. The suit quoted company manager Garrett Benton, who said that when Mercer Canyons brought in WAFLA "it left very little work for the local farmworkers."

"Working conditions got so bad for the local workers that they eventually went on strike on May 1, 2013," Benton charged. "They felt strongly that they were being given harder, less desirable work for less pay. Mercer Canyons was doing everything it could to discourage local farm workers from gaining employment." The suit was settled in 2017, and Mercer Canyons agreed to pay workers $545,000 plus attorneys' fees.

Trump Administration Fuels Increased Use of Vulnerable Guest Workers

Growers, however, have the support of President Donald Trump, despite his otherwise violent anti-immigrant rhetoric. At a Michigan rally in February, 2018, he told supporters, "For the farmers it's going to get really good.... We have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in.... We're gonna let them in because you need them.... We have to have them."

On July 26 this year, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed rule changes for the H-2A program to make it cheaper and easier for growers to use. The administration has been promising these changes for the last two years, and can make them without having to get anything passed through Congress. The rule changes have a 60-day comment period, after which they go into effect.

The marchers as they string out along the highway in the early morning.  David Bacon

The new rule changes would make it easier for growers to recruit H-2A workers without offering the jobs to farmworkers already living locally, who are almost all immigrants themselves and mostly undocumented. The relaxed rules already allow multiple growers to cooperate in recruiting a group of H-2A workers, and to move them from job to job. Previously growers have had to advertise each job to local workers. Now they will only have to offer the first job in the series, rather than in each place H-2A workers will work. That makes it easy for a contractor like WAFLA to bring in a crew and move them from ranch to ranch, job to job, without ever offering those jobs to local farmworkers. WAFLA's website already offers growers ways to create such pools of workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor proposal would allow growers to self-inspect housing for H-2A workers. There are many legal cases documenting terrible housing, even with the current government inspection, which would now be eliminated. Already Washington State gives farm worker housing subsidies to WAFLA and other growers for building H-2A barracks.

Columbia Legal Aid has protested that the state Department of Commerce's own surveys show that 10 percent of farmworkers who are Washington residents live outdoors in a car or in a tent, and 20 percent live in garages, shacks, or "in places not intended to serve as bedrooms."

Monica Atkins of the Climate Justice Alliance in Jackson, MS, spoke with marchers about immigration raids in Mississippi and their similarity to those in Washington State.  David Bacon

Growers now have to pay the transportation costs of H-2A workers from their homes to the place where they'll be working. In the future, they would only have to pay transportation from the border or the place where the workers get their visa, relieving growers of about $80 million in expenses per year, forcing the H-2A workers themselves to pay it.

Currently every state is required to survey wages every year to establish an Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) -a minimum wage for H-2A workers that theoretically won't undercut the wages of resident farm labor. The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing a complicated change in the method for calculating that wage.

In Washington State the department has a history of cooperation in wage cutting. Last year's hourly AEWR wage in Washington was $14.12. In the apple harvest, however, most workers are paid a piece rate that can reach the equivalent of $18 to $20 hourly. WAFLA asked the state Employment Security Department and the U.S. Department of Labor to eliminate any standard for piece rates, effectively slashing wages by up to $6 per hour. The Employment Security Department and the Department of Labor agreed. WAFLA President Dan Fazio boasted, "This is a huge win and saved the apple industry millions."

According to Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C., farm worker advocacy group, "The Trump Administration seeks to guarantee agribusiness unlimited access to a captive workforce that is deprived of economic bargaining power and the right to vote. The Administration would transform the farm labor force of roughly 2.4 million people into a workforce of 21st-century indentured servants."

In California, the United Farm Workers condemned the proposed changes as well. "If Trump's H-2A rules-changing scheme happens," a union statement predicted, "there would be a huge negative impact on those currently working in agriculture. This scheme would deprive U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents of job opportunities by weakening the laws that require U.S. citizens and legal residents to be offered these jobs first.... This drastic move could replace local U.S. workers with foreign H-2A workers."

State-Level Efforts to Monitor Abuses Against Guest Workers

This spring Community to Community and Familias Unidas por la Justicia convinced the Washington State legislature to pass a bill to address the concerns highlighted by the march. SB 5438, "Concerning the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program" funds an oversight office and advisory committee to monitor labor, housing, and health and safety requirements for farms using the H2A program, as well as prioritizing outreach to domestic workers. Representatives from C2C and FUJ along with representatives from corporate agriculture will be on that committee. SB 5497, "Keep Washington Working Act," requires local law enforcement to strengthen protections for undocumented community members and limits local law enforcement's cooperation with ICE.

Growers complained they faced a labor shortage and needed greater freedom to use H-2A workers. Familias Unidas por la Justicia's president Ramon Torres responded that they themselves were guilty of causing any alleged shortage. Before the explosive growth of the H-2A program, a large part of Washington's farm labor force consisted of people who live in California, and come north for work during the harvest season. "Who do growers think was harvesting their fruit all those years before H-2A?" he asked.

"In the last few years when those workers call they find out that the jobs and housing have been filled by H-2A workers," Torres charged. "They have no alternative but to look for work elsewhere. Workers aren't stupid. The more the H-2A program grows, the more the message goes out to the traditional workers that there's no work for them. But if growers decide to give them back their jobs, those workers will come back, especially if the wages are good and there's a union."

Marchers head down the main highway leading into Bellingham.  David Bacon

For a full set of march photographs, click here:

Thursday, August 8, 2019

THE PEOPLE WENT WALKING: How Rufino Dominguez Revolutionized the Way We Think About Migration - Part I - English y Español

How Rufino Dominguez Revolutionized the Way We Think About Migration - Part I
By David Bacon
Edited by Luis Escala Rabadan
Food First | 08.08.2019

Español sigue despues.

This publication is the first part of a three part Issue Brief on the life of the radical organizer, Rufino Dominguez. This Issue Brief is part of Food First's Dismantling Racism in the Food System Series. This Issue Brief has also been translated into Spanish.

Click here to download the PDF version in English.


It is a great pleasure for the members of the Binational Central Committee of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB in Spanish) spread across Oaxaca, Baja California and California, to present readers with the life history of one of the founders of our organization in this piece, entitled "The people went walking: How Rufino Dominguez revolutionized the way we think about migration," written by independent journalist David Bacon, a longtime ally of the FIOB. This editorial effort is a collaboration between FIOB and the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First.

Our movement and struggle for justice and the rights of the original peoples of Mexico and for the human rights and labor rights of indigenous migrants in Baja California and the United States has been constructed over many years with the participation of many people. When he sat down to speak with farmworkers along the edges of the immense fields where he organized improvised meetings, Rufino Dominguez used to say "One person alone doesn't create a movement of struggle."

Nonetheless, of the many activists that have made up our movement, our compañero Rufino Dominguez is one of the most important. For all of us who worked closely with him, he was a leader who inspired us with discipline, dedication, and love for our struggle. As David Bacon points out in his piece, Rufino began his activism at a young age, adapting his organizational forms of struggle to the different contexts along his migratory route: Culiacan and San Quintin, Mexico, and the Central Valley of California. Long before our organization was founded, he was thinking of the different ways that our people could resist the enormous problems and challenges we faced in our communities of origin, and in the different points that poverty and marginalization forced us to migrate.

Rufino's own experience as a Mixtec, as an indigenous person and as a migrant laborer, helped him formulate organizational proposals with a broad vision because his objective was always to be an effective political actor in Mexico as well as the United States. His goal was not modest: to struggle transnationally for the right not to migrate and to have a dignified life in our communities of origin, and at the same time to struggle in defense of the rights of migrant people wherever they found themselves.

We hope that by publishing this biographical semblance of Rufino Dominguez, many more migrants and our sisters and brothers in our communities of origin learn more about the history of our organization and the ideas that guided his struggle. We want this publication to be used by the local committees in Oaxaca, Baja California and California to raise the political consciousness and kindle the popular indigenous resistance struggles that we so badly need in Mexico and in the United States.

We also want the allies of our movement to know the people that have made the consolidation of our movements possible, and learn about the political, ideological, practical and organizational contributions of leaders like Rufino Dominguez, so that together we can develop strategies that help build a better world with justice and dignity for all, including the indigenous peoples and migrant laborers on both sides of the conflictive border between the United States and Mexico.

"Never again a Mexico without us!"

"For the respect of the rights of indigenous peoples"

The Binational Central Committee of the FIOB

The People Went Walking:
How Rufino Dominguez Revolutionized the Way We Think About Migration

It is a bitter irony that when it was time to bury Rufino Dominguez, his own community of San Miguel Cuevas initially refused him a place in its pantheon. In the end, the town's communal leaders relented, but by then it was too late. His body was already on its way from Fresno, California, to its final resting place in Paxtlahuaca, the hometown of his wife Oralia.

It's hard to imagine that Rufino would not have cared deeply. His commitment to the indigenous culture of the place where he was born, in Oaxaca's Mixteca region, guided his life's work. Yet Rufino had long since chosen to serve the larger concerns of the entire migrant exodus from southern Mexico over his own town's requirements for remaining a comunero in good standing. That choice enabled him to shape the political thinking of an entire generation of migrant activists in Mexico and the U.S. But it came at a high price.

Like many Oaxacan indigenous towns, San Miguel Cuevas has a system of cargos, or community responsibilities, that provide the structure for its economic, social and political life. The obligation of the "tequio" allows the town to require work from its residents. In an era in which many, if not most, of those residents live as migrants thousands of miles away, the rule is strict. If you are chosen, you must return in order to fulfill your responsibilities.

Rufino himself recognized the value of this tradition. "We use the tequio, the concept of collective work to support our community," he told me in an oral history for the book, Communities Without Borders. "We know one another and can act together. For instance, when a community gathers to build a school, the government doesn't send workers to gather rocks or sand for construction. People from the community do it. They each take turns, carrying 5 rocks or a bag of sand. The whole town is obligated to help, and if people don't, there are consequences, like going to jail or getting fined.

"Wherever we go, we go united. It's a way of saying that I do not speak alone - we all speak together. Our people in Oaxaca don't care if we have been here for 10 years. They send us notices telling us, 'Rufino, you have to return to serve the community as a secretary, to be a council person or a president.' Mexican law doesn't recognize that we, living here [in the U.S.], have political rights and obligations. But in our indigenous communities, we do."

Rufino's passionate defense of the tequio and the system of cargos was typical of his lifelong campaign to demonstrate to the rest of the world the value of indigenous Oaxacan culture. But this was not his main contribution to the politics of migration.

Rufino Domiguez' sense of responsibility went beyond the cargos of San Miguel Cuevas. He inherited the political ideas of the Mexican left, and combined them with the indigenous traditions and culture that developed in Oaxaca long before the arrival of Europeans. He analyzed the roots of modern mass forcible migration. He formulated a new way of looking at migrant communities that sees their crucial importance to the political economy of states like Oaxaca, and to the regions to which they travel, both in northern Mexico and the U.S. And he acted, helping to develop organizations reflecting this new social reality - vehicles for migrant communities to attain self-awareness and to fight for power.

1968, the Dirty War and the CIOAC

Rufino's generation followed that of the veterans of 1968, who were formed politically by the Mexican army's attack on an increasingly radical student movement, ending in the worst political crime in modern Mexican history. As students gathered in the dusk at Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza, just weeks before the opening of the 1968 Olympics, soldiers opened fire. Hundreds died. Hundreds more were sent to prison.

Students in Mexico City march in memory of the 1968 massacre. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

Four years after the Tlatelolco massacre, in 1972, students and leftwing political groups tried to end the nightmare by marching through the capital's Centro Historico. Again, activists were carried from the streets covered in blood, attacked by the Halcones, the government's paramilitary thugs. To maintain control through the 1960s and 70s, the government and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) organized a wave of repression - the Dirty War. Social movement activists disappeared and were murdered - many whose names are still unknown or unacknowledged.

At the time of the Dirty War the great wave of migration from Oaxaca to the U.S. was still a decade in the future. But already, in central Mexican states like Michoacan, Zacatecas and Jalisco, farmers displaced by poverty had begun a great mass migration. Their home villages in the countryside were stripped of working-age people, leaving just the very young and very old. Political refugees from the Dirty War joined economic migrants on this road to the north. Soon, in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and other concentrations of Mexicans on the west coast, militants in exile gave the growing Chicano movement an infusion of energy and ideology.

This combination was no accident. Leftwing groups in Mexico, especially the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), had begun sending members north, convinced that the expanding Mexican communities in the U.S. could be a natural source of support for the movement back home. In the Los Angeles union locals of the United Electrical Workers, labor leader Humberto Camacho welcomed refugees and gave them jobs as organizers. Political migrants organized other unions among undocumented workers, like the General Brotherhood of Workers, or later, the California Immigrant Workers Association. This powerful combination, which included radicals coming north from Central America's civil wars, had a profound impact on California, especially on Los Angeles' politics. Over the next two decades, it transformed the city from the citadel of the open shop to a labor stronghold, and ended Republican Party control.

South of the border, this wave of migrants furnished a workforce as well for Tijuana's maquiladoras. Soon they began striking to win recognition for independent unions, at Solidev and other factories. Help began flowing back across the border from southern California. Militant PCM members in Baja California, like Blas Manriquez, began seeing this growing population of migrants from the south as a base for political change.

Rufino Dominguez, born on September 4th, 1964, was only 3 when soldiers shot the students in Mexico City, and a boy during the years of the Dirty War. In many ways, San Miguel Cuevas was still a town at the margin of Mexican society. In the 1960s electricity had yet to reach its homes. In later decades the streets would be paved, the church fixed and other improvements made, all paid for by remittances sent home by San Migueleños working in the north. But in Rufino's first years, candles were still the only light at night.

"Before I was born my mother and father would leave to work in Veracruz, in the sugar cane," he remembered. "People had no cars, so they went walking, as they used to say. I don't know how far it was, but my dad would count the days it took to get there. Later, when I was born, they got more established in town and didn't leave.

"We planted corn and beans, and had fruit trees. My father, Primo Dominguez Tapia, was a carpenter, an artist and a curandero, treating people's illnesses." Bonnie Bade, a California anthropologist, studied with Primo Dominguez. She recalls "we documented the names and uses of medicinal plants, ancient diagnostic methods and medicinal treatments, and the underlying concepts of illness and health in Mixtec medicine."

While San Miguel Cuevas had an elementary school, continuing on to high school meant going to the nearest large town, Santiago Juxtlahuaca. Rufino was recruited by a religious order, the Marist brothers, who ran a boarding school based on the ideas of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. "They were like the Jesuits," Rufino explained. "They showed me a lot of things about life, about our communities. That's where my social consciousness began. They had a beautiful life, but they didn't get married, and couldn't organize, something that I was already becoming passionate about. By then I'd learned that if there's a problem, it is important to organize the people to resolve it. The brothers spoke about the need to stand up for justice, but they would only talk and not actually do it."

Mexico was filled with political challenges to the ruling PRI in the late 1970s, especially in the rural states of the south - Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca. Sometimes church radicals and leftwing organizers found themselves on the same side. In "Popular Movements in Autocracies: Religion, Repression, and Indigenous," Guillermo Trejo notes that "Unlike the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, in which independent rural indigenous communities petitioned for land without institutional assistance from any external actors, in the late 1970s the Catholic Church and the Mexican Communist Party became major promoters and sponsors of rural indigenous movements [leading to] powerful collective movements for land redistribution."

Campesinos march in Mexico City for land reform. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

Although the Dirty War had driven most urban political activity underground, poverty and land hunger in rural communities continued to provoke rebellions, often led by leftwing organizers. From 1965 to 1975 Ramon Danzos Palomino organized land invasions and campaigns to implement land reform through the Independent Central of Farmers. Then, in 1975 he left to start the Independent Central of Agricultural Workers and Farmers (CIOAC). Both organizations were closely tied to the PCM, of which he was also a leader.

The CIOAC had an indigenous character from the beginning. In Chiapas it was organized by a Tojolab'al farmer from the Plan de Ayala Ejido, Margarito Ruiz Hernandez. Antonio Hernandez Cruz, a CIOAC activist in Chiapas, says in Trejo's book that "the construction of Tojolab'al autonomy ... can be traced back to different forms found in the 1970s, be they unions of ejidos or the CIOAC."

Rural organizing on the left included the recruitment of teachers. Historically, going back to the Revolution of 1910-20, Mexico's rural teachers were very often community leaders. They generally opposed the clericalism of the church, and advocated land reform. Under President Lazaro Cardenas, in 1934 the Mexican Constitution was amended to say, "State education will be socialist in character." Many Communists and radicals worked for the Secretariat of Public Education.

Later, during the Cold War and then the Dirty War, rightwing leaders of the National Union of Education Workers, the largest union in Latin America, purged the teachers' union of leftwing educators. However, when Luis Echeverria, who as attorney general gave the order to shoot at Tlatelolco, became President, he sought to soften the government's (and his own) harsh image. Mexico's official policy of discouraging indigenous languages in school was ended. A new wave of bilingual teachers began working in rural areas.

Trejo adds that rural organizing was tied to "recruiting bilingual indigenous teachers trained by the state, and local leaders ... carefully selected and trained by sending them to Mexico City and abroad, including such places as Cuba, Nicaragua and the former Soviet Union." Many of these dissident teachers, including Communists, organized a leftwing caucus within the union, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE). By the 1980s they had won control of the state unions in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan. In this bloody struggle over 100 teachers were murdered in Oaxaca alone.

Finally President Echeverria lifted the illegal status of the PCM and other left parties. In 1976 four of them united in the Coalition of the Left to run a railroad union leader, Valentin Campa, for president.

Rufino's Birth as an Activist in Oaxaca and Baja California

In 1980, in the midst of this political effervescence, Rufino Dominguez entered the preparatoria, a school in Tlaxiaco that funneled students into Oaxaca's "normales," or teacher training schools. According to Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a Mixtec professor at UCLA who worked with him for many years, "Rufino found a traditional left environment in this prepa run by the normales. He was only there for six months, because the school went out on strike and the students shut it down. He used to joke that otherwise he would have become a teacher. But even then he was elected president of the student body."

Laura Velasco at Tijuana's Colegio de la Frontera Norte interviewed Rufino several times for her books on the Oaxacan diaspora. "Rufino told me that he was a militante in the PCM when he was 16," she recalls. "It's where he got his vision of class, that indigenous people and migrants are people who are exploited economically." Some of that ideological training Rufino also got from Ernestino Sixto Chávez, a radical teacher who owned a small shop fixing radios and televisions in Juxtlahuaca.

In 1980 the PCM won its first election victories - the municipal presidencies of the small towns of Alcozauca de Guerrero in Guerrero state, and Tlacolulita and Magdalena Ocotlan in Oaxaca. The following year the Coalition of Workers, Farmers and Students of the Isthmus (COCEI) won control of the municipal government of Juchitan de Zaragoza, one of Oaxaca's most important cities. By then, the PCM had organizationally merged with its partners in the Coalition of the Left, and formed a new party, the United Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM). In the new Juchitan city council, the PSUM held two of the seats.

COCEI's victory electrified Mexico's left. The new government ran literacy programs for a town in which 80% of the people couldn't read, purged corrupt police, fixed roads and the municipal market, and built new health clinics. "In those years COCEI was very strong in Oaxaca," Rivera Salgado recalls. "Here Rufino began trying to adapt the traditional radical ideas of the Mexican left, including the ideas of Marx, to the struggles of indigenous people.

"COCEI itself held its meetings in Zapoteco, although they didn't yet have a word in Zapoteco for class struggle. People were so proud of who they were. At this time PSUM was becoming a legal party, and Rufino was part of that. But because of the strike he'd lost his fellowship and couldn't survive without it. He went back to his community, and began to fight to get rid of the cacique [town boss]."

That cacique was Gregorio Platon, the Deputy for Communal Property in San Miguel Cuevas. That position gave him control over communal town lands, and enabled him to fine town residents who'd had to leave to look for work elsewhere - as much as 15,000 pesos. "Those who didn't pay were put in jail or were threatened with being kicked out of the town," Rufino remembered. "He burned five homes, and killed three people, including a friend. That's why I did something, because it hurt me. After two years we were able to get him out of there."

On October 30, 1983, Rufino and his fellow activists organized an occupation of the town hall, but were then confronted by Platon and his supporters, carrying guns. They were forced into the building, where they were tortured for four hours. Rufino's father gathered the town's residents and they marched on the town hall. "We were rescued by the town - otherwise we wouldn't be alive today," Rufino recalled. "That's where my struggle really began."

San Miguel Cuevas. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

Living in Oaxaca was still dangerous, however, and Rufino had just gotten married. With his new wife he took the road north, first to Sinaloa, where thousands of Oaxacan migrants made up the workforce on giant plantations growing tomatoes and strawberries for the U.S. market. The PSUM and CIOAC had already sent organizers there to fight to change the worst conditions in Mexican agriculture.

The export farms of Sinaloa and Baja California were, and are, plantations - giant fields on the scale of the industrial agriculture of California's San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. Export plantations were a product of the turn in Mexico's economic development program in the years after Tlatelolco.

In the early 1970s a generation of technocrats in the PRI began reducing the state sector and reversing the nationalist direction of Mexico's economy. Beginning with the Border Industrialization Program of 1964, the barriers to foreign investment were taken down in a series of economic "reforms." Foreign-owned factories - maquiladoras - were originally allowed to operate near the border, using a low-paid workforce to produce for the U.S. market. Eventually the geographic restrictions were eliminated, and maquiladoras spread throughout Mexico.

Mexico's increasing foreign debt to U.S. and European banks became a lever to enforce a neoliberal development model. Instead of an economy producing for consumers in Mexico, whose jobs and income might enable them to buy what was produced, the economy instead encouraged foreign investment in enterprises producing for foreign (especially U.S.) markets. That gave the Mexican government a stake in keeping wages low enough to attract investment and to keep Mexican products cheap in the U.S.

The consequences for indigenous people in southern Mexico were enormous. Any commitment by the government to maintaining high farm prices was gradually reversed (and later abandoned altogether with the North American Free Trade Agreement.) Once people could no longer sell what they grew for a price that paid the cost of growing it, they needed to seek alternatives to farming in their home communities. That meant migration. As people were displaced by economic crisis, a mobile low-wage workforce mushroomed.

The giant farms developed in the 1970s in Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California were like maquiladoras, producing for foreign markets, and needing the same cheap labor. But they were located in low population areas. Growers, often partnerships between Mexican landowners and U.S. investors, required a workforce far more numerous than the local population.

The relatively small migration of the era when Rufino's father went walking to Veracruz was transformed. Recruiters throughout Oaxacan villages filled trains and busses with thousands of people who could no longer make a living. "The living conditions in Mexico were at their worst moment," Rufino recalled. "That is why during that time many families came with their wives, even their children. This was never seen before."

Jorge and Margarita Giron left Santa Maria Tindu in Oaxaca to work in Sinaloa in the late 1970s. "We lived in labor camps made of steel sheets," Jorge remembered. "During the hot season it was unbearable. The roof was flimsy and when it rained everything got wet. We would put everything up on a table to avoid having things swept away by the water, which would even take bowls and pans with it. In the morning we would huddle around the foreman and he would give us buckets for the tomato harvest. When they were irrigating, we took off our shoes and went into the fields barefoot, even if it was freezing. Going in like that made us sick, but there were no rubber boots. We worked from sunup to sundown. Candlelight was our only form of light. The towns and cities were far away. We could only go there on Sundays, so the camps provided everything. There was a store that gave us food on credit. On Saturday we would get paid and pay our debt."

His wife Margarita recalled that in the fields "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 would bathe upstream while downstream others would wash their clothes, and even drink the water. That's why many came down with diarrhea and vomiting. Others drowned in the river because it was very deep. The walls in the camp were made of cardboard, and you could see other families through the holes. In the camps you couldn't be picky."

Isabel Zaragoza and her infant daughter Lagoberta in a labor camp in Vicente Guerrero, in the San Quintin Valley.

In the early 80s students came out to the camps from the University of Sinaloa in Culiacan. CIOAC sent organizers from Oaxaca, like Benito Garcia, a Mixteco from San Juan Mixtepec. Together they organized strikes. "When the students came we would leave the fields and stop working," Jorge Giron remembered. "Then the police would come and take away the students. We wanted workers' rights, better salaries and jobs, better housing, running water, and transportation to and from work. Eventually the bosses began to cut the workday to eight hours, and when they needed a couple of extra hours they paid double. Before, if we worked ten or eleven hours, we were paid the minimum. After that movement, things got better."

Rufino met the CIOAC organizers, especially Benito Garcia. "I saw a lot of discrimination towards indigenous people," he remembered. "The bosses would shout at them, 'you donkey, put your back into it!' I began to organize the people from my town that were working there. They asked me to set up a meeting to talk about what had happened [with Gregorio Platon] in San Miguel Cuevas, and what I had done. Then we decided to set up an organization outside of the political parties, the Organization of Exploited and Oppressed People (OPEO), with help from CIOAC. Benito helped us come up with a symbol for the organization and got our flyer printed, and we supported the marches and strikes he organized. I worked very closely with him."

Velasco says that in OPEO Rufino was combining two ways of looking at the people he was organizing. "They were oppressed because they were indigenous, and they were exploited as workers," she says. "He didn't call it a political front or coalition of other organizations, but an organization of people themselves."

It was unique and new in other ways as well. Indigenous migrants ran OPEO according to rules and principles they themselves adopted. It had no paid staff - not in Mexico, nor later in the U.S. Its purpose was to fight against injustices perpetrated against people as migrants, in the areas where they were working and living, as well as to deal with the problems back in San Miguel Cuevas.

Marcial Sayas Flores, a disabled farmworker living in a labor camp in Vicente Guerrero, in the San Quintin Valley.

It was new also in the sense of what it was not. While it was part of the left, and worked with leftwing organizations, it was not the creation of a leftwing political party. And while it organized workers to fight, even to strike for better wages and conditions, it was not a union.

"In his thinking we see the combination of three big ideas," adds Rivera Salgado. "From the Maristas he got the ideas of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. You can see their influence in the way Rufino believed you have to dedicate your life to your ideals. In the traditional left he found a class-based way of looking at exploitation, and the need for organized social resistance to it. And from his own community he took the ideas of identity, obligations and responsibility, and the collective way of making decisions."

Rufino dated his turn to questions of indigenous identity to his experiences in Sinaloa and Baja California. "During that time when I first began, I didn't know what being Mixteco was," he explained in his oral history for Communities Without Borders. "I didn't know why they were calling me Mixteco. I didn't know how to appreciate what I was, what I spoke, or what I had. I didn't know what it was to be indigenous. When I went to high school in Juxtlahuaca, away from the town where I'd grown up, the girls would laugh and I felt embarrassed. I thought, 'I'm going to stop speaking Mixteco because they laugh at me. I'm going to stop walking next to my mother because she dresses in traditional clothes.' Many of us stopped speaking our language and denied being indigenous. It wasn't our fault. It was the racism from the mestizos and the lack of education.

"We began to understand this in Sinaloa, and when I arrived in Baja California, we continued because they'd call us Oaxaquitos or Oaxacos or Indians. They'd tell us we were ignorant, and I realized that they were making me feel different. During that time I felt scared. There wasn't much talk then about an indigenous movement. We were very isolated. We weren't in the news; we didn't exist during that time. In addition, [during our strikes] we were accused of being involved with the FMLN of El Salvador, manipulated by the commanders of Central America. The bosses said we were foreigners. We'd tell them, 'How can we be foreigners if we're from Oaxaca, in our own country?'

"Now I speak my language in front of people, and I don't feel embarrassed. I am a human being like everyone else. I know my identity and I'm proud of it. I know I am Mixteco or a 'Nusami' as we say in our language, and that all of us are important. I appreciate who I am. If someone calls me Native or Oaxaquito or Oaxaco I respond, 'Don't say that, I am Oaxaqeño and a human being - just like you.'"

Later in 1984 Rufino crossed the Gulf of California to the San Quintin valley on the Baja California peninsula. There he found conditions that were just as bad. "So I sent Benito a letter to come because there were so many problems. And he came."

According to human rights activist Victor Clark (in "De Jornaleros a Colonos," by Laura Velasco, Christian Zlolniski and Marie Laure-Coubes), the Mexican newspaper Zeta published reports of people living outside under trees or making their own shacks out of pallets or other discarded materials from the ranches. After complaints to the state government, growers built the first labor camps, but according to PSUM leader Blas Manriquez, "the foremen and supervisors with guns in their hands don't let anyone in who appears to be an outsider, thinking they're agitators." Repression and violence got so bad that in 1987 CIOAC appealed to the governor to disarm the guards.

Natalia Bautista, who fell in love with Benito and later married him, remembers that her father used his house for the meetings because they all came from San Juan Mixtepec. "They had organized workers in various camps, painting signs, making banners and planning a grand march. Lots of people came from Ensenada and Tijuana over to the house. Now as an adult, I realize the majority were from the PSUM.

"On the day of the march nobody worked. The strike was huge and spread through Vicente Guerrero [a town in the San Quintin valley]. In the labor camps they agreed that nobody would show up for work, and if someone did, they would throw tomatoes at them until they stopped working. They were asking for a salary increase, better treatment from the foremen, a set lunch period and buckets that weren't so heavy. The strike won higher wages and transportation for the workers. Up to then, workers were brought to work in large tomato containers. After the strike they were transported in buses.

"The political party established itself with the workers after the strike, and worked in support of the union. If there was a work stoppage, the party was there to help. Leaders would speak to the workers about struggles around the world. They spoke of changing the system and establishing a new and different government. I imagined a marvelous place. I guess we're still waiting for that."

Click here to download the PDF version in English.

The second part of this three part Issue Brief will be released next week.

Cómo Rufino Domínguez transformó nuestra manera de pensar acerca de la migración - Parte I
Por David Bacon
Traducción por Rosalí Jurado y Alan Llanos Velázquez
Edición: Nancy Utley García y Luis Escala Rabadán
Food First| 08.08.2019

Esta es la primera de tres partes de la publicación sobre la vida de Rufino Domínguez, organizador radical. Es parte de la serie Desmantelando el Racismo en el Sistema Alimentario de Food First. Este artículo originalmente fue escrito en inglés.

Puedes descargar la versión en PDF aquí.


Es un gran placer para los miembros del Comité Central Binacional del Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), asentados en Oaxaca, Baja California y California, presentar a los lectores la historia de vida de uno de los fundadores de nuestra organización, titulada La gente se iba andando: cómo Rufino Domínguez transformó nuestra manera de pensar acerca de la migración, escrita por David Bacon, periodista independiente y aliado de muchos años del FIOB. Este esfuerzo editorial es una colaboración entre el propio FIOB y la organización Alimentación Primero/Instituto para la Política de Alimentación y Desarrollo (en inglés Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy).

Nuestro movimiento y lucha por los derechos y la justicia de los pueblos originarios en México y por los derechos humanos y laborales de los indígenas migrantes en Baja California y en los Estados Unidos, ha sido construida a lo largo de muchos años, y en la que han participado muchas personas. "Una sola persona no crea un movimiento de lucha", decía Rufino Domínguez cuando se sentaba a hablar con los campesinos en las orillas de los inmensos campos de cultivo donde organizaba sus reuniones improvisadas.

Sin embargo, entre los muchos activistas que han sido parte de nuestro movimiento, el compañero Rufino Domínguez ha sido uno de los más importantes. Para todos los que trabajamos cerca de él, ha sido un líder que nos ha inspirado con su disciplina, dedicación y amor por la lucha. Como lo apunta David Bacon en su escrito, Rufino comenzó su activismo desde muy joven y fue adaptando su lucha organizada en los diferentes contextos donde lo fue llevando su ruta migratoria: Culiacán, en Sinaloa; San Quintín, en Baja California; y el Valle Central, en California. Mucho antes de que se fundara nuestra organización, él ya estaba pensando en las diferentes maneras en que nuestros pueblos pudieran resistir los enormes retos y problemas que enfrentaba nuestra gente tanto en las comunidades de origen como en los puntos de destino de nuestra migración, forzada por la pobreza y la marginación.

La experiencia de vida propia de Rufino como mixteco, como indígena y como migrante jornalero le ayudó a formular propuestas organizativas con una visión muy amplia, ya que su objetivo siempre fue ser un actor político efectivo tanto en México como en los Estados Unidos. Y su meta no era nada modesta: luchar de manera transnacional por el derecho a no migrar y tener una vida digna en nuestras comunidades de origen; y al mismo tiempo luchar por la defensa de los derechos de los migrantes donde quiera que estuvieran.

Tenemos la esperanza de que al publicar esta semblanza biográfica de Rufino Domínguez, muchos migrantes y nuestras hermanas y hermanos en nuestras comunidades de origen sepan más de las ideas que guiaron su lucha y se enteren de la historia de nuestra organización. Queremos que esta publicación se utilice por los comités locales en Oaxaca, Baja California y California para crear una conciencia política y fomentar la lucha de resistencia popular indígena que tanto se necesita en México y en los Estados Unidos.

También queremos que los aliados de nuestro movimiento conozcan de cerca a las personas que han hecho posible la consolidación de nuestras organizaciones y se enteren de las contribuciones políticas, ideológicas y organizativas de líderes como Rufino Domínguez, y así podamos desarrollar estrategias conjuntas que ayuden a construir un mundo mejor, con justicia y dignidad para todos, incluyendo a los pueblos originarios y a los jornaleros migrantes en ambos lados de esta conflictiva frontera entre los Estados Unidos y México.

"¡Nunca más un México sin nosotros!"

"Por el respeto a los derechos de los pueblos indígenas"

Por el Comité Central Binacional del FIOB

La gente se iba andando:
Cómo Rufino Domínguez transformó nuestra manera de pensar acerca de la migración

Resulta irónico que llegado el momento de sepultar a Rufino Domínguez, su propia comunidad de San Miguel Cuevas le haya negado un espacio en el panteón. Posteriormente, los líderes comunales del pueblo accedieron, pero para entonces su cuerpo ya iba de Fresno, California hacia Paxtlahuaca, lugar que sería su último destino y ciudad natal de su esposa Oralia.

Podemos imaginar lo importante que hubiera resultado esto para Rufino, en virtud de su compromiso con la región mixteca de Oaxaca y la cultura indígena del lugar donde nació, elementos que guiaron el trabajo que desarrolló durante toda su vida. Sin embargo, Rufino desde hace tiempo había decidido atender las preocupaciones más amplias de los migrantes del sur de México, tales como las condiciones necesarias requeridas por su pueblo para conservar su estatus como buen ciudadano. Esa decisión le permitió reformar el pensamiento político de toda una generación de activistas migrantes en México y en Estados Unidos. Pero, a su vez, tuvo un costo muy alto.

Al igual que muchos pueblos indígenas oaxaqueños, San Miguel Cuevas mantiene su estructura social, política y económica a través del sistema de cargos o responsabilidades comunitarias. La obligación del "tequio" permite que la comunidad solicite trabajo a sus miembros. Esta regla resulta estricta en una época en la que muchos de sus residentes han migrado a miles de kilómetros de distancia, ya que si alguno de ellos es elegido, deberá regresar a su lugar de origen para cumplir con esta responsabilidad.

Rufino mismo reconoció el valor de esta tradición en una entrevista concedida para el libro Communities Without Borders (Comunidades sin fronteras): "Usamos el tequio, el concepto de trabajo colectivo para apoyar a nuestra comunidad. Nos conocemos y podemos trabajar juntos. Por ejemplo, cuando una comunidad se reúne para construir una escuela, el gobierno no envía trabajadores a recoger piedras o arena para la construcción. La gente de la comunidad lo hace, cargando por turnos cinco rocas o una bolsa de arena. Todo el pueblo está obligado a ayudar, y si la gente no lo hace, la consecuencia puede ser desde una multa hasta la cárcel.

"A donde sea que vayamos, vamos unidos. De tal manera que cuando hablo, no lo hago sólo por mí, sino por todos. A nuestra gente en Oaxaca no le importa si hemos estado aquí por 10 años. Nos envían avisos diciéndonos 'Rufino, tienes que regresar para servir a la comunidad como secretario, para ser concejal o presidente'. La ley mexicana no reconoce que nosotros, aun viviendo aquí [en EE. UU.] tenemos derechos y obligaciones políticas en nuestras comunidades de origen, pero sí las tenemos."

La pasión con la que Rufino defendía el tequio con la finalidad de demostrar al resto del mundo el valor de la cultura indígena oaxaqueña fue un sello característico de su trayectoria de toda la vida. Sin embargo, esta no fue su principal contribución a la política de migración.

El sentido de responsabilidad de Rufino Domínguez iba más allá del sistema de cargos de San Miguel Cuevas. Había heredado las ideas políticas de la izquierda mexicana y las combinó con las tradiciones y la cultura indígena que se desarrolló en Oaxaca mucho antes de la llegada de los europeos. Analizó las raíces de la actual migración forzosa masiva. Reconfiguró la forma de ver a las comunidades de migrantes al resaltar su importancia en la economía y política de los lugares de origen como Oaxaca, así como de los lugares de destino en el norte de México y en Estados Unidos. Y para ello, promovió la formación de organizaciones que reflejaran esta realidad social, y que funcionaran como vías para que las comunidades de migrantes alcanzaran la autoconciencia y la voluntad de luchar por el poder.

1968, la Guerra Sucia y la CIOAC

Estudiantes honran a los héroes de la Masacre de 1968 en la Ciudad de México. Foto, David Bacon, 2019

La generación de Rufino fue la siguiente a la de los veteranos de 1968, cuya formación política provenía de la experiencia de la represión por parte del ejército mexicano contra un movimiento estudiantil cada vez más radical, y que culminó en el peor crimen político de la historia del México contemporáneo. Cuando los estudiantes se reunieron al anochecer en la Plaza Tlatelolco de la Ciudad de México, unos días antes de la inauguración de los Juegos Olímpicos de 1968, los soldados abrieron fuego. Cientos murieron. Cientos más fueron enviados a prisión.

En 1972, cuatro años después de la masacre de Tlatelolco, los estudiantes y los grupos políticos de izquierda trataron de poner fin a la pesadilla marchando por el Centro Histórico de la capital. De nueva cuenta, los activistas se retiraron de las calles cubiertos de sangre ante el ataque de los Halcones, un grupo paramilitar del gobierno. Para mantener el control durante las décadas de 1960 y 1970, el gobierno y el Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) organizaron una ola de represión: la llamada Guerra Sucia. Los activistas de los movimientos sociales desaparecieron y fueron asesinados, muchos de los cuales aún se desconocen sus nombres o nunca fueron reconocidos.

Aunque la gran oleada migratoria desde Oaxaca hacia Estados Unidos aún estaba a una década de la Guerra Sucia, en los estados del centro de México como Michoacán, Zacatecas y Jalisco, los campesinos habían comenzado una emigración masiva, desplazados por la pobreza. Sus pueblos se quedaron sin gente en edad de trabajar, permaneciendo solamente los muy jóvenes y los muy viejos. Los refugiados políticos de la Guerra Sucia se unieron a los migrantes en el camino hacia el norte. Pronto, los asentamientos de migrantes mexicanos en Los Ángeles, en el área de la Bahía y en otros lugares de la costa oeste, dieron impulso ideológico y energético al creciente movimiento chicano.

Esta combinación no fue accidental. Los grupos de izquierda en México, especialmente el Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM), habían comenzado a enviar miembros al norte, ya que estaban convencidos de que las comunidades mexicanas en expansión en Estados Unidos podrían ser una fuente natural de apoyo para el movimiento en sus lugares de origen. El líder sindical Humberto Camacho, del United Electrical Workers de los Ángeles, recibió a los refugiados y les dio trabajo como organizadores. Los migrantes políticos formaron otras organizaciones con trabajadores indocumentados, tales como la Hermandad General de Trabajadores (General Brotherhood of Workers) y posteriormente la Asociación de Trabajadores Inmigrantes de California (California Immigrant Workers Association). Esta poderosa combinación, que incluía a activistas radicales provenientes de las guerras civiles de América Central, tuvo un profundo impacto en California, especialmente en la política de Los Ángeles. Durante las siguientes dos décadas, la región transitó de ciudadela de mano de obra barata a fortaleza laboral, y que puso fin al control del Partido Republicano.

Al sur de la frontera, esta ola de migrantes también suministró mano de obra para las maquiladoras de Tijuana. Al poco tiempo, en Solidev y en otras fábricas comenzaron a realizarse huelgas para ganar el reconocimiento de los sindicatos independientes. La ayuda empezó a fluir desde el sur de California a través de la frontera. Militantes miembros del PCM en Baja California, como Blas Manríquez, comenzaron a considerar esta creciente población de migrantes del sur como una base para el cambio político.

Rufino Domínguez nació el 4 de septiembre de 1965, tenía sólo 3 años cuando los soldados reprimieron a los estudiantes en la Ciudad de México y aun era un niño durante los años de la Guerra Sucia. En diversos aspectos, San Miguel Cuevas todavía era un pueblo en los márgenes de la sociedad mexicana. En la década de 1960 la electricidad todavía no había llegado a sus hogares. Décadas después las calles se pavimentarían, la iglesia se arreglaría y se realizarían otras mejoras, todas pagadas con remesas enviadas a casa por sanmigueleños que trabajaban en el norte. Pero durante los primeros años de Rufino, las velas seguían siendo la única luz en la noche.

"Antes de que yo naciera, mi madre y mi padre se iban a trabajar a Veracruz, a la caña de azúcar", recordó. "La gente no tenía autos, así que se iban andando, como solían decir. No sé qué tan lejos estaba, pero mi papá contaba los días necesarios para llegar allí. Después, cuando nací, lograron una mejor estabilidad en el pueblo y ya no se iban.

"Plantábamos maíz y frijol, y teníamos árboles frutales. Mi padre, Primo Domínguez Tapia, era carpintero, artista y curandero, y trataba las enfermedades de las personas". Bonnie Bade, una antropóloga de California, estudió con Primo Domínguez. Ella recuerda que "documentamos los nombres y usos de plantas medicinales, y de antiguos métodos de diagnóstico y tratamientos medicinales, así como los conceptos subyacentes de la enfermedad y la salud en la medicina mixteca".

"Aunque San Miguel Cuevas tenía una escuela primaria, continuar en la escuela secundaria significaba trasladarse a Santiago Juxtlahuaca, que era el pueblo más cercano. Rufino fue seleccionado por los hermanos maristas, una orden religiosa que dirigía un internado basado en las ideas de la teología de la liberación y la opción preferencial por los pobres. "Ellos eran como los jesuitas", explicó Rufino. "Me mostraron muchas cosas sobre la vida, sobre nuestras comunidades. Ahí es donde comenzó mi conciencia social. Tenían una vida hermosa, pero no se podían casar ni podían organizar, y eso era algo que ya me apasionaba. Para ese entonces, yo ya había aprendido que, si hay un problema, es importante organizar a la gente para resolverlo. Los hermanos hablaban sobre la necesidad de luchar por la justicia, pero solo hablaban y no lo hacían".

Manifestación de Campesinos por reforma agraria en la Ciudad de México. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

A finales de 1970, México presentaba múltiples desafíos políticos para el PRI, especialmente en los estados rurales del sur: Chiapas, Guerrero y Oaxaca. A veces los miembros radicales de la iglesia y los activistas de izquierda se encontraban del mismo lado. En su libro Movimientos populares en autocracias: religión, represión y acción colectiva en México, Guillermo Trejo señala que: "A diferencia de las luchas de los años 60 y 70, en las que las comunidades indígenas rurales independientes solicitaron tierras sin asistencia institucional de actores externos, a fines de la década de 1970 la Iglesia Católica y el Partido Comunista Mexicano se convirtieron en grandes promotores y avales de movimientos indígenas rurales [que condujeron a] importantes movimientos colectivos para la redistribución de la tierra".

Aunque la Guerra Sucia había llevado a la clandestinidad a la mayoría de las actividades políticas urbanas, la pobreza y el hambre en las comunidades rurales continuaron provocando rebeliones, a menudo dirigidas por organizadores de izquierda. De 1965 a 1975, Ramón Danzós Palomino organizó invasiones de tierras y campañas para implementar la reforma agraria a través de la Central Campesina Independiente. Posteriormente, en 1975, se separó para fundar la Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos (CIOAC). Ambas organizaciones estaban estrechamente vinculadas al PCM, del cual también era un líder.

La CIOAC tuvo carácter indígena desde sus inicios. En Chiapas fue organizada por Margarito Ruiz Hernández, un campesino tojolab'al del Ejido Plan de Ayala. Antonio Hernández Cruz, activista de la CIOAC en Chiapas, señala en el libro de Trejo que "la construcción de la autonomía tojolab'al ... se remonta a diferentes formas encontradas en la década de 1970, ya sean sindicatos de ejidos o la CIOAC".

La organización rural de la izquierda incluía el reclutamiento de docentes. Históricamente, ya desde la Revolución Mexicana de 1910-1920, los maestros rurales a menudo eran también líderes comunitarios. Generalmente se opusieron al clericalismo de la iglesia y defendieron la reforma agraria. En 1934, durante la presidencia de Lázaro Cárdenas, la Constitución Mexicana fue modificada para establecer que: "La educación del Estado será de carácter socialista". Muchos comunistas y activistas radicales trabajaron para la Secretaría de Educación Pública.

Posteriormente, durante la Guerra Fría y posteriormente la Guerra Sucia, los líderes de derecha del Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), el sindicato más grande de América Latina, purgaron el sindicato de educadores de izquierda. Sin embargo, cuando Luis Echeverría, -que fue el funcionario que había dado la orden de disparar en Tlatelolco- se convirtió en presidente, buscó suavizar la dura imagen del gobierno (y la de él mismo). Se eliminó la política oficial de México que desalentaba el aprendizaje en lengua indígena en las escuelas, y una nueva ola de maestros bilingües comenzó a trabajar en las áreas rurales.

Trejo comenta que la organización rural estaba ligada al "reclutamiento de maestros indígenas bilingües capacitados por el Estado, junto con líderes locales...cuidadosamente seleccionados y formados enviándolos a la Ciudad de México y al exterior, incluyendo lugares como Cuba, Nicaragua y la ex Unión Soviética." Muchos de estos maestros disidentes, incluidos los comunistas, organizaron una sección de izquierda dentro del sindicato, la Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE). En la década de 1980 ya habían ganado el control de los sindicatos estatales en Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero y Michoacán. En esta sangrienta lucha, más de 100 maestros fueron asesinados tan sólo en Oaxaca.

Finalmente, el presidente Echeverría eliminó el estatus ilegal del PCM y de otros partidos de izquierda. En el año 1976, cuatro de ellos se unieron en una coalición para apoyar al líder del sindicato ferrocarrilero Valentín Campa a la presidencia.

El nacimiento de Rufino como activista en Oaxaca y Baja California

En 1980, en medio de la efervescencia política, Rufino Domínguez entró a la preparatoria en Tlaxiaco, que orientaba a los estudiantes hacia las Normales de Oaxaca, que son las escuelas para la formación de maestros. De acuerdo con Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, un profesor de origen mixteco de la Universidad de California en Los Ángeles (UCLA), quien trabajó con él por muchos años, "Rufino encontró un ambiente tradicional de izquierda en esta prepa, dirigida por las Normales. Él estuvo allí sólo por seis meses porque la escuela se puso en huelga y los estudiantes la cerraron. Él solía bromear diciendo que si no fuera por eso, él habría sido maestro. Aun así, fue elegido presidente de la asociación de estudiantes".

Laura Velasco, investigadora de El Colegio de la Frontera Norte en Tijuana, entrevistó a Rufino muchas veces para sus libros sobre la diáspora oaxaqueña. "Rufino me decía que él era un militante en el PCM cuando tenía 16 años. Es allí donde él adquirió su visión de clase en la que los indígenas y migrantes son explotados económicamente". Rufino obtuvo una parte de esa formación ideológica a través de Ernestino Sixto Chávez, un maestro radical que era dueño de una pequeña tienda reparadora de radios y televisiones en Juxtlahuaca.

En la década de 1980, el PCM ganó sus primeras victorias electorales - las presidencias municipales de los pequeños pueblos de Alcozauca de Guerrero, en el estado de Guerrrero, y Tlacolulita y Magdalena Ocotlán, en el estado de Oaxaca. Al año siguiente, la Coalición Obrera, Campesina y Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI) ganó el control del gobierno municipal de Juchitán de Zaragoza, una de las ciudades más importantes de Oaxaca. Para entonces, el PCM se había unido con otras organizaciones de izquierda para formar un nuevo partido, el Partido Socialista Unificado de México (PSUM). En el nuevo concejo municipal de Juchitán, el PSUM llegó a ocupar dos puestos.

La victoria de la COCEI tuvo un profundo efecto en la izquierda en México. El nuevo gobierno promovió programas de alfabetización para un pueblo en el que el 80 por ciento de las personas no podía leer, combatió la corrupción en la policía, reparó los caminos y el mercado municipal, y construyó nuevas clínicas. Rivera-Salgado comentó al respecto: "En esos años la COCEI era muy fuerte en Oaxaca". Y añadió: "Ahí Rufino empezó a tratar de adaptar las ideas tradicionalmente radicales de la izquierda mexicana, incluyendo las ideas de Marx, a las necesidades de la gente indígena".

San Miguel Cuevas. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

"La COCEI mantenía sus reuniones en zapoteco, aunque ellos aún no tenían una palabra que definiera la lucha de clases en zapoteco. No obstante, la gente siempre ha sido muy orgullosa de quienes son. Durante esta época, el PSUM llegó a ser un partido legal, y Rufino era parte de él. Pero debido a la huelga, perdió su beca y no podía sobrevivir sin este recurso, por lo que tuvo que regresarse a su comunidad y empezó a luchar para eliminar al cacique".

Ese cacique era Gregorio Platón, el encargado de la propiedad comunal en San Miguel Cuevas. Esa posición le brindó el control sobre las tierras comunales y le permitió multar a los residentes del pueblo que hubieran salido a buscar trabajo en otros lugares, con multas de hasta 15,000 pesos. Rufino comentaba que "quienes no pagaban eran mandados a la cárcel o amenazados con ser expulsados del pueblo. Este cacique mandó quemar cinco casas y mató a tres personas, incluyendo a un amigo. Por eso yo hice algo, porque a mí me dolió. Después de dos años, logramos sacarlo de ahí".

El 30 de octubre de 1983, Rufino y sus compañeros activistas organizaron una toma del palacio municipal pero fueron enfrentados por Platón y sus simpatizantes, quienes estaban armados. Fueron arrinconados en el edificio, donde fueron torturados por cuatro horas. El padre de Rufino reunió a los residentes de la ciudad y todos marcharon hacia el recinto. "Fuimos rescatados por el pueblo - de otra manera hoy no estaríamos vivos", cuenta Rufino. "Fue allí donde mi lucha comenzó verdaderamente".

Rufino se había casado recientemente, y para él vivir en Oaxaca era peligroso. Por ello, se marchó al norte con su esposa. Primero, se dirigieron hacia Sinaloa, donde miles de migrantes oaxaqueños son parte de la mano de obra en enormes plantaciones de tomate y fresa para el mercado estadounidense. El PSUM y la CIOAC ya habían enviado organizadores para luchar por un cambio en las malas condiciones laborales de la agricultura mexicana.

Los mercados de exportación de Sinaloa y Baja California eran y son las plantaciones - campos inmensos del tipo de la agricultura industrial que existe en los Valles de San Joaquín y Salinas en California. Las plantaciones agroexportadoras fueron el resultado del cambio en el desarrollo económico de México ocurrido en los años posteriores a Tlatelolco.

A comienzos de la década de 1970, una generación de tecnócratas pertenecientes al PRI empezó a reducir el sector estatal y a modificar la dirección de la economía nacional de México. Comenzando con el Programa de Industrialización Fronteriza de 1964, los obstáculos a la inversión extranjera fueron eliminados en una serie de "reformas" económicas. Inicialmente, empresas de dueños extranjeros - maquiladoras - comenzaron a operar cerca de la frontera, utilizando mano de obra barata con producción para el mercado estadounidense. Eventualmente, las restricciones geográficas fueron eliminadas y las maquiladoras se esparcieron por todo México.

LA creciente deuda extranjera con Estados Unidos y los bancos europeos se convirtió en una forma de presión para establecer un modelo de desarrollo neoliberal. En lugar de una economía que produjera para los consumidores mexicanos, quienes podrían haber consumido lo que se producía con base en sus trabajos e ingresos, se favoreció la inversión extranjera en empresas que producían para los mercados extranjeros (especialmente el de Estados Unidos). Esto motivó al gobierno mexicano para mantener los salarios lo suficientemente bajos con el fin de atraer inversión, y mantener así los productos mexicanos a bajos precios en Estados Unidos.

Las consecuencias para la población indígena en el sur de México fueron enormes. Cualquier compromiso del gobierno de mantener altos los precios agrícolas fue gradualmente suprimido (y luego totalmente abandonado con el Acuerdo de Libre Comercio). Una vez que las personas no pudieron vender lo que cosechaban por un precio que cubriera los costos, buscaron alternativas a la agricultura en sus comunidades locales, lo que los condujo a emigrar. Al ser desplazados por la crisis económica, la fuerza laboral barata y móvil se incrementó.

Los campos agrícolas más grandes se desarrollaron en la década de 1970 en Sinaloa, Sonora y Baja California, y eran como las maquiladoras en la medida en que producían para los mercados extranjeros y requerían de la misma mano de obra barata. Pero dichos campos estaban ubicados en áreas de baja población. Los productores, que a menudo eran asociaciones de propietarios mexicanos de tierras e inversionistas estadounidenses, requerían una fuerza laboral mucho más grande que la de las poblaciones locales.

La migración relativamente pequeña del tiempo en el que el padre de Rufino se iba caminando a Veracruz sufrió una transformación. Los contratistas iban a los pueblos oaxaqueños y llenaban trenes y autobuses con miles de personas que no tenían cómo ganarse la vida. "Las condiciones de vida en México estaban en su peor momento", comentaba Rufino, "por esa razón, muchas familias venían con sus esposas y hasta con sus hijos en ese tiempo. Eso nunca se había visto".

Jorge y Margarita Girón dejaron Santa María Tindú en Oaxaca para trabajar en Sinaloa a finales de los años 1970. Jorge comentaba: "Nosotros vivíamos en los campos de trabajo que estaban hechos de láminas de acero. Durante la época de calor, era insoportable. El tejado era frágil y cuando llovía todo se mojaba. Nosotros poníamos todo sobre la mesa para evitar que el agua se llevara nuestras cosas, pues se llevaba hasta las ollas y los sartenes. En la mañana nos juntábamos alrededor del capataz y nos daba unas cubetas para recoger tomates. Cuando los campos eran irrigados, nos quitábamos los zapatos y trabajábamos descalzos aunque nos estuviéramos congelando. Aquello nos ponía muy enfermos, pero no teníamos botas de hule. Trabajábamos desde que amanecía hasta que anochecía. La luz de la vela era nuestra única manera de alumbrarnos. Los pueblos y ciudades estaban muy alejados. Sólo podíamos ir allí los domingos, pues en los campos nos ofrecían de todo. Y había una tienda en la que nos daban comida a crédito. Los sábados nos pagaban, y entonces pagábamos nuestras deudas".

Al recordar la vida en el campo, su esposa Margarita comenta que "cuando querías ir al baño, tenías que hacerlo en público porque no había dónde. Te ibas detrás de un árbol o a un prado elevado y te ponías en cuclillas. La gente se bañaba río arriba mientras otros lavaban sus ropas y hasta bebían del agua río abajo. Por eso muchos terminaban con diarrea y vómito. Otros se ahogaban en el río, el cual era muy profundo. Las paredes en el campo estaban hechas de cartón, así que se podía ver a otras familias a través de los agujeros. En los campos no se podía ser exigente".

A comienzos de los años 80, estudiantes de la Universidad de Sinaloa, en Culiacán, visitaron los campos. La CIOAC envió a organizadores como Benito García, un mixteco de San Juan Mixtepec, desde Oaxaca. Juntos llegaron a organizar huelgas. Jorge Girón señala que "cuando los estudiantes venían, dejábamos de trabajar y dejábamos los campos. Luego la policía venía y se llevaba a los estudiantes". Y agrega: "Nosotros queríamos tener derechos como trabajadores, mejores salarios y trabajos, mejores viviendas, agua potable y transporte para ir y regresar del trabajo. Con el tiempo, los dueños empezaron a recortar la jornada de trabajo a ocho horas, y cuando nos pedían trabajar horas extra nos pagaban doble. Antes, si nosotros trabajábamos 10 u 11 horas, nos pagaban el mínimo. Después de ese movimiento, las cosas mejoraron".

Isabel Zaragoza y su hija Lagoberta. Foto, David Bacon, 2019

Rufino conoció a los organizadores de la CIOAC, especialmente a Benito García: "Yo vi mucha discriminación hacia la gente de origen indígena," comentaba, "los jefes les gritaban: "tú, burro, pónte a trabajar...". Así que empecé a organizar a la gente de mi pueblo que estaba trabajando allí. Ellos me pedían realizar una reunión para hablar acerca de lo que había ocurrido [con Gregorio Platón] en San Miguel Cuevas y lo que yo había hecho. Entonces, decidimos crear una organización por fuera de los partidos políticos, la Organización del Pueblo Explotado y Oprimido (OPEO), con la ayuda de la CIOAC. Benito nos ayudó a crear un símbolo para la organización e imprimió nuestro boletín. A cambio, nosotros apoyamos las marchas y huelgas que organizaban. Yo trabajé con él muy de cerca".

Velasco comenta que en la OPEO, Rufino veía a la gente que él organizaba de dos maneras: "Ellos eran oprimidos porque eran de origen indígena, y eran explotados como trabajadores". Y agrega: "Él no lo llamó un frente político o una coalición de otras organizaciones, sino una organización que pertenecía al pueblo mismo".

Esta organización era nueva y única también de otras formas. Migrantes indígenas dirigían la OPEO de acuerdo a las normas y los principios que ellos mismos habían adoptado. No tenían personal pagado - ni en México ni en Estados Unidos. Su propósito era luchar contra las injusticias perpetradas hacia la gente migrante en las regiones donde trabajaban y vivían, así como lidiar con los problemas que ocurrían en San Miguel Cuevas.

Era nueva también en el sentido de lo que no era. Si bien formaba parte de la izquierda y trabajaba con organizaciones izquierdistas, no era la creación de un partido político de izquierda. Y aunque organizaba a los trabajadores para luchar e incluso para hacer huelgas por mejores salarios y condiciones laborales, no era un sindicato.

"En esta forma de pensar, vemos la mezcla de tres grandes ideas", comenta Rivera- Salgado. "De los maristas, obtuvo las ideas de la teología de la liberación y la opción preferencial por los pobres. Puedes ver esas ideas en la manera en la que Rufino creía que uno tiene que dedicar su vida a sus ideales. De la izquierda tradicional, él retomó la explotación basada en la clase social y reconoció la necesidad de resistencia social organizada en respuesta a esa explotación. Y de su propia comunidad, retomó las ideas sobre identidad, obligación y responsabilidad, y la toma de decisiones colectiva".

Rufino se enfocó en las cuestiones relativas a la identidad indígena debido a sus experiencias en Sinaloa y Baja California. En su historia oral para Communities Without Borders, amplía al respecto: "Cuando yo era más chico, no sabía lo que era ser mixteco, no sabía realmente por qué me llamaban mixteco. Yo no sabía apreciar quién era yo, cómo hablaba o lo que tenía. No sabía lo que significaba ser indígena. Cuando fui a la preparatoria en Juxtlahuaca, lejos del pueblo donde había crecido, las muchachas se reían de mí y me sentía avergonzado. Yo me decía a mí mismo, 'Voy a parar de hablar mixteco porque ellas se burlan de mí. Voy a parar de caminar junto a mi mamá porque ella usa ropas tradicionales´. Muchos de nosotros dejamos de hablar nuestra lengua y negamos ser de origen indígena. No fue nuestra culpa. Fue el racismo de los mestizos hacia los indígenas y la falta de educación.

Marcial Sayas Flores, campesino minusválido que vive en el campamento del área laboral en Vicente Guerrero en el valle San Quintín. Foto, David Bacon, 2019

"Comenzamos a entender esto en Sinaloa, y cuando yo llegué a Baja California, lo seguimos viviendo porque la gente nos llamaba oaxaquitos, o oaxacos, o indios. Nos decían que éramos ignorantes, y yo noté que me estaban haciendo sentir diferente a los demás. Durante ese tiempo me sentía asustado. En ese entonces no se hablaba mucho sobre los movimientos indígenas. Estábamos muy aislados. No estábamos en los medios. Prácticamente no existíamos en ese tiempo. Además, [durante nuestras huelgas] se nos acusaba de estar vinculados con el FMLN de El Salvador, y que estábamos manipulados por los comandantes de América Central. Los dueños incluso decían que éramos extranjeros. Nosotros les decíamos: "¿Cómo vamos a ser extranjeros si somos de Oaxaca, que está en nuestro país?"

"Ahora hablo mi propia lengua entre la gente y no me siento avergonzado. Soy un ser humano como todos los demás. Conozco mi identidad y estoy orgulloso de ella. Yo sé que soy un mixteco, o 'Nusami' como decimos en nuestro idioma, y que todos somos importantes. Aprecio quién soy. Si alguien me llama nativo, o oaxaquito, o oaxaco, yo respondo: 'No diga eso, yo soy oaxaqueño y un ser humano, al igual que usted'".

En 1984, Rufino cruzó el Golfo de California hacia el Valle de San Quintín de la península de Baja California. Allí se topó con condiciones que eran igual de malas. Comentaba lo siguiente: "Le envié una carta a Benito para que viniera, porque habían muchos problemas. Y él vino".

De acuerdo con el activista de derechos humanos Victor Clark (referido en el libro De jornaleros a colonos, de Laura Velasco, Christian Zlolniski y Marie Laure-Coubés), el periódico mexicano Zeta publicó varios reportajes de personas viviendo bajo los árboles o haciendo sus propias chozas con paletas de carga u otro material desechado de los ranchos. Después de las quejas presentadas ante el gobierno estatal, los productores construyeron los primeros campos de trabajo, pero según el dirigente Blas Manríquez del PSUM, "los capataces y supervisores estaban armados y no permitían la entrada a extraños, para evitar a los agitadores". La represión y la violencia se pusieron peor, por lo que la CIOAC solicitó al gobernador desarmar a los guardias.

Natalia Bautista, quien se enamoró de Benito y eventualmente se casó con él, recuerda que su padre usó su casa para las juntas porque todos ellos venían de San Juan Mixtepec. Ella comentaba al respecto: "Ellos organizaban trabajadores en varios de los campos, preparaban carteles y mantas, y hasta planeaban una gran marcha. Mucha gente vino de Ensenada y Tijuana a la casa. Ahora de más edad, me doy cuenta que la mayoría eran del PSUM.

"El día de la marcha, nadie trabajó. La huelga era enorme y se expandió a través de Vicente Guerrero [una comunidad en el Valle de San Quintín]. En los campos de trabajo, todos los trabajadores se pusieron de acuerdo para que nadie fuese a trabajar, y si alguien lo hacía, le aventaban tomates hasta que paraban de trabajar. Estaban pidiendo un incremento salarial, mejores tratos por parte de los capataces, un periodo fijo para el almuerzo y cubetas que no fueran tan pesadas. Con la huelga se lograron obtener salarios más altos y transporte para los trabajadores. Antes de eso, los trabajadores eran transportados en grandes camiones con contenedores de tomate. Después de la huelga, los trabajadores ya fueron transportados en autobuses.

"El partido político se estableció firmemente entre los trabajadores después de la huelga y apoyó al sindicato. Si había un paro de trabajo, el partido estaba allí brindando ayuda. Los dirigentes hablaban con los trabajadores acerca de las luchas en otros lugares del mundo. Hablaban de cambiar el sistema y establecer un gobierno nuevo y diferente. Yo imaginaba que eso sería un lugar maravilloso. Y aún estamos esperando llegar a ese lugar".

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