Thursday, September 24, 2015


By David Bacon
Working In These Times, 9/25/15

A California farm worker picking peaches.

FRESNO, CA -- The strategy by one of the nation's largest growers to shed its obligation to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers was dealt a key setback last week.  An administrative law judge not only threw out one of the dirtiest decertification elections in recent labor history, but did so because California growers had given tens of thousands of dollars to set the union-busting scheme in motion.

That election, at Gerawan Farming, has a key role in an even broader grower strategy to invalidate the enforcement mechanism of the state's farm worker labor law.  Last week's ruling seriously undermines their case, now before the state's Supreme Court, in which they claim to be protecting workers' democratic rights.  Instead, they have been exposed using obviously illegal methods to deny workers union representation.

The decertification election, held in November of 2013, was intended to undo the results of an earlier union election held at Gerawan Farming in 1992.  At that time, a majority of workers voted to be represented by the United Farm Workers.  That was a dirty campaign as well, and the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) made numerous legal charges against the company.  Gerawan laid off workers in 32 crews, the ALRB charged, to eliminate them from the voting list, and fired one crew because workers were UFW supporters. A state hearing officer found the company guilty of tearing down six labor camps where workers lived, to intimidate them. 

Five years after that election, having exhausted legal efforts to overturn the vote, Mike Gerawan finally sat down with UFW representatives.  He told them: "I don't want the union and I don't need the union."  That ended bargaining. Over the next 17 years, with no contract, Gerawan Farming grew to become one of the nation's largest growers of grapes, peaches and nectarines, marketed under the Prima label.  Today Gerawan employs about 5,000 field workers, hiring about half through labor contractors.

Gerawan's refusal to bargain, despite its legal obligation, was not unique among California growers.  Although the state's farm workers won the right to vote for union representation with passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, there was no effective legal mechanism that could compel growers to sign contracts.  As a result, although workers voted for the UFW in 428 farms from 1975 to 2002, they were able to negotiate contracts only in 243.

In 2002 the state legislature then passed two bills that set up a process for mandatory mediation of first-time contracts.  Once workers vote for a union, if the grower won't sign an agreement, competing contract proposals are given to a mediator.  The mediator then decides on the provisions.  Once the Agricultural Labor Relations Board accepts the mediator's report, it becomes a binding union contract.  Growers called the new mechanism unconstitutional but lost at the state court of appeals in 2007.

The UFW then began using the law to require growers to bargain where workers had voted for the union.  In 2012 it demanded bargaining at Gerawan, and negotiations started the following year.  While sitting down with the union's elected negotiating committee, however, the company was actually pursuing a strategy to make those negotiations fruitless.

At the invitation of the company, a Gerawan supervisor took his girlfriend, Sylvia Lopez, to a negotiation session.  Outside the room, Lopez got together with Paul Bauer, a management lawyer.  In last week's remarkable 192-page decision, Administrative Law Judge Mark R. Soble says, "Sylvia states that on the date of the mediation session, she decided that she was going to take on the lead role of opposing the union."  Lopez wasn't even working for Gerawan at the time, although she'd been an employee a few years before.

Lopez was then promptly hired, along with her two daughters - "nepotism runs rampant at Gerawan," Soble comments drily.  "Many of the key decertification leaders or signature gatherers had immediate relatives or household members who were company supervisors or foreman."  Later in the decision, Soble notes "Silvia admitted that she started working at Gerawan specifically to help her son-in-law [a foreman] get rid of the union.  Silvia testified that she spent more time working on the decertification effort than actually working in the fields."

Just days after being hired, she was one of several workers taken by owner Dan Gerawan to Sacramento, to lobby legislators against further pro-worker changes to the farm labor law.  "Silvia Lopez admitted speaking out against the UFW while in Sacramento, telling Legislators that the UFW had abandoned Gerawan workers," Soble says.

Helped by foremen, she, her daughters and friends then collected signatures on a decertification petition and filed it with the ALRB.  The regional office found that there weren't enough signatures.  A second lawyer working for Lopez, Anthony Raimondo, then brought in an additional hundred signatures, many collected in crews for contractors that were his clients.  Some of them were found to be forged, and the petition was thrown out.  This first petition, because it didn't lead to an election, wasn't the subject of Soble's decision.  Raimondo, meanwhile, is also being sued by California Rural Legal Assistance for turning an undocumented worker in to immigration authorities in the middle of a grievance hearing, in which Raimondo was opposing another union.

Immediately after the first petition was thrown out at Gerawan, Lopez and her helpers mounted a second petition drive.  In his long decision, Soble goes crew-by-crew, witness-by-witness through the testimony about how the signatures on this petition were collected.  Some witnesses he believes, some he does not, regardless of whether they are pro- or anti-union.  But at the end of 130 witnesses, testifying over the course of 105 days of hearings, his conclusions are inescapable.  In instance after instance, foremen either circulate petitions or allow Lopez and her friends to do so freely. 

For over two months, "Gerawan gave Petitioner Silvia Lopez a 'virtual sabbatical' to facilitate circulation of the decertification petitions, with Lopez working an average of only eight hours a week compared to co-workers who were working fifty hours a week."  Her daughter was later promoted to a lighter job as a checker, despite missing 40 of 54 days when she was collecting signatures instead of picking grapes.

Despite their heroic efforts, however, Lopez began to run out of time.  The second petition had to be filed before seasonal employment at the company dropped below its peak level.  So on September 30, 2013, she and other workers, who were also basically working fulltime on signature collecting, blocked the entrances to the ranches.  They wouldn't let anyone go in to start work, while foremen just stood by looking on.  With the signatures she collected that day, Lopez filed the petition. 

Two days later, Barry Bedwell, director of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League (now the California Fresh Fruit Association), authorized a payment of $13,348 at the request of Lopez and her growing stable of lawyers.  Another payment of $5,890 was authorized on October 31.  Both were allegedly to cover expenses in bringing workers to Sacramento and Visalia, to demand the ALRB accept the decertification petition and schedule an election. 

The Board in Sacramento overruled its staff and director, who'd been investigating the issue of company domination, and ordered them to hold the election.  After voting concluded on November 5, the ballots were impounded pending a decision on the validity of the petition.  Soble's decision last week throws out that election, on five grounds:  payments from Bedwell to Lopez, allowing her to circulate petitions instead of working, allowing her to block workers from working to get them to sign, signature gathering by supervisors, and giving workers a wage raise the day the petition was filed - just weeks before the voting.  The decision calls the actions illegal violations of California Labor Code Section 1153.

Soble also notes. "Silvia Lopez confirmed her receipt of financial support from the Center for Worker Freedom" although, because it took place after the vote, he doesn't include it as a reason to set aside the election. 

Behind the dry language of the decision is a disturbing picture.  At the time Bedwell makes the two payments, Gerawan is represented on the board of the Grape and Tree Fruit League by company vice-president George Nikolich.  Other board members include some of the biggest family names in California agriculture: Giumarra, Pandol, Bagdasarian, Zaninovich and others.  The money from Bedwell to Lopez comes from the dues these growers paid.

The demonstrations at the ALRB offices are part of a political pressure campaign to lean on the board to hold the election, and create an atmosphere for getting rid of the mandatory mediation law.  That campaign included billboards attacking the ALRB and the UFW, paid for by the Center for Worker Freedom.  This group is a project of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, funded by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers, among other conservative sources. 

The Center's director, Matt Patterson, wrote an editorial for, extolling Lopez and charging, "farm workers in California's Central Valley are finding their civil liberties stripped from them today - by a government agency ... [that] wants to force the union on Gerawan until the election is 'investigated'." 

The pressure campaign is based on charging that the UFW "abandoned" the workers at Gerawan after the first election in 1992.  With this accusation, the company and its supporters simply ignore the fact that Gerawan had illegally refused to bargain for 17 years.  Lopez and other workers made the same "abandonment" charge at the demonstrations paid for by Bedwell.  "Abandonment" became the subject of a bill introduced by a Republican legislator, which would prevent unions from using past elections to invoke mandatory mediation. 

Most important, the "abandonment" charge was repeated in the company's legal case for throwing out the mandatory mediation law itself.  Ruling on Gerawan's challenge, a conservative appeals court judge in Fresno, Associate Justice Stephen Kane, accepted the company's argument that the UFW had "abandoned" the workers.  Legal briefs using that argument were filed by the Grape and Tree Fruit League, numerous grower organizations, and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, far-right legal institute with a long track record fighting against civil and labor rights.

That appeals court decision is now before the state Supreme Court.  If the case had come before the Supreme Court thirty years ago, one of the justices deciding it would have been Cruz Reynoso, a son of farm workers.  Growers and rightwing Republicans targeted him in 1986, along with fellow justices Rose Bird and Joe Grodin.  All were recalled.

Last year Reynoso wrote a short article for the Rosenberg Foundation's website, about the conflict at Gerawan Farming.  Dan Gerawan sent him a threatening letter in response, demanding he retract it.  Reynoso refused, and in doing so, explained the key issue at the root of the conflict.  "Had the negotiations been successful many years ago you would have had years to deal with the union," he advised this powerful grower.  "Your employees could have talked to you through their chosen spokespersons.  The relationship could have matured and stabilized.  You are clearly a leader in agriculture.  You can set the example ... What is troubling ... is that your refusal to implement the contract issued by the neutral mediator and the ALRB board means your workers continue to be denied many millions of dollars in wage increases and other benefits they are already owed."

Sunday, September 20, 2015


By David Bacon
September 20, 2015

This is an expanded version of an article in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Larry Itliong.  Photo:  Bob Fitch Photo Archive © Stanford University Libraries

Fifty years ago the great grape strike started in Delano, when Filipino pickers walked out of the fields on September 8, 1965.  Mexican workers joined them two weeks later.  The strike went on for five years, until all California table grape growers were forced to sign contracts in 1970.

The strike was a watershed struggle for civil and labor rights, supported by millions of people across the country.  It helped breathe new life into the labor movement, opening doors for immigrants and people of color.  Beyond the fields, Chicano and Asian American communities were inspired to demand rights, and many activists in those communities became organizers and leaders themselves.

California's politics have changed profoundly in 50 years.  Delano's mayor today is a Filipino.  That would have been unthinkable in 1965, when growers treated the town as a plantation.

But a mythology has hidden the true history of how and why the strike started, especially its connection to some of the most radical movements in the country's labor history.  Writer Peter Matthiessen, for instance, claimed in his famous two-part 1969 profile of Cesar Chavez in The New Yorker: "Until Chavez appeared, union leaders had considered it impossible to organize seasonal farm labor, which is in large part illiterate and indigent..."

After 50 years that curtain of silence is lifting. Dawn Mabalon, a history professor at San Francisco State University, has documented the radical career of Larry Itliong, who headed the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), one of the two organizations that carried out the 1965 strike.  Itliong not only shared leadership with Cesar Chavez, but actually started the strike.  In tens of thousands of words Matthiessen only mentions Itliong twice, in passing.

The Delano strike was not spontaneous or unexpected.  It was a product of decades of worker organizing and earlier farm worker strikes.  Leaders of the grape strike, like Itliong, had helped organize previous unions, including ones expelled from the CIO in the anti-communist purge of 1949.

The timing of the 1965 strike was not accidental.  It took place the year after civil rights and labor activists forced Congress to repeal Public Law 78 and end the bracero contract labor program.  Farm worker leaders then acted because growers could no longer bring braceros into the U.S. to break strikes.

The 1965 strike did not, in fact, start in Delano.  In Coachella, where California's grape harvest begins, Filipino workers went on strike that summer.  They won a 40¢/hour wage increase from grape growers, and forced authorities to drop charges against arrested strikers.

Larry Itliong organized the Coachella strike.  He and the Filipino workers of AWOC then started the walkout in Delano.  Itliong had a long history as an organizer, going back to the 1930s.  He was a protégé of Ernesto Mangaoang, a revered leader of the CIO union for Alaska fish cannery workers, Local 7 of the United Cannery, Agricultural and Packinghouse Workers of America.  Itliong himself ran for office in that union.

The Federal government accused Mangaoang of being a Communist during the McCarthyite hysteria, and tried to deport him to the Philippines.  After UCAPAWA (renamed the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers) was destroyed in the 1949 purge of the CIO, Local 7 was taken in by Harry Bridges' union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.  It became ILWU Local 37, and today is part of the ILWU's Inland Boatman's Union.

In leftwing unions Filipinos and other farm workers mounted huge agricultural strikes in the 1930s.  After World War Two, Local 7 struck Stockton's asparagus fields in 1949.  Itliong was active in that strike, as was Chris Mensalvas, who later became Local 37 president.  The Federal government also tried to deport Mensalvas as a Communist.

In the early 1950s Filipino farm workers continued to organize with the National Farm Labor Union, headed by Ernesto Galarza (author of Merchants of Labor - The Mexican Bracero Story).  They struck the giant DiGiorgio Corporation, then California's largest grower.  In 1959 the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) was set up by the American Federation of Labor, which had merged with the CIO to form the AFL-CIO in 1953.  Despite the federation's conservative politics, AWOC hired Itliong as an organizer because of his long history among Filipino workers.  AWOC used "flying squads" of pickets to mount quick strikes, and struck the Imperial Valley lettuce harvest in 1961-2, demanding $1.25 per hour.

Many Filipino workers in Coachella and Delano were members of ILWU Local 37 in 1965, when the grape strike began.  Every year they would travel from the San Joaquin Valley (where Delano is located) to the Alaska fish canneries.  Through the end of their lives, they were often active members of both Local 37 and the United Farm Workers.

Cold war fears of communism were strong in the 1960s - one reason why the contributions of Itliong and the Filipinos were obscured.  The strike in Delano owes much to Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla and other Chicano and Mexican leaders who came out of the CSO.  But the left wing leadership of Itliong, Philip Veracruz and other rank-and-file Filipino workers was equally important.

The alliance between Itliong's AWOC and the Cesar Chavez-led National Farm Workers Association was a popular front alliance of workers who had, in many cases, different politics.  AWOC's members had their roots in the red UCAPAWA.  NFWA's roots were in the Community Service Organization (CSO), which was sometimes hostile to Communists.  Yet both organizations were able to find common ground and support each other during the strike.  They eventually merged to form the UFW.

Both the Filipinos and Chavez, in the CSO, opposed the bracero program.  To organize farm labor they sought immigration policies favoring workers, which would keep growers from using braceros to break strikes.  The Delano strike was a movement made up of immigrant workers, who wanted to keep growers and the government from using immigration policy against them.  Their opposition to contract labor programs is as important for immigration reform today as it was in 1965.

Chavez willingly acknowledged that the NFWA hadn't intended to strike for another two or three years.  The decision to act was made by Filipinos - left wing workers.  It was a product of their history of militant fights against growers.

The political philosophy of the Filipinos saw the strike as their fundamental weapon to win better conditions.  The 1965 grape strike was started by workers on the ground, not by leaders or strategists far away.  Although some couldn't read or write, as Matthiessen charged, they were politically sophisticated.  They had a good analysis and understanding of their situation as workers, and chose their action carefully.

In Delano Filipinos used popular front ideas they'd used before - that workers and organizations with different politics, or of different nationalities, could work together to win fundamental social change.  Growers had pitted Mexicans and Filipinos against each other for decades.  When Filipino workers acted first by going on strike, and then asked the Mexican workers, a much larger part of the workforce, to join them, they believed that workers' common interest could overcome those divisions.

Strikers in Delano developed close friendships and personal connections with each other.  Many of the Filipinos died as single men, because anti-miscegenation laws prohibited them from marrying non-Filipinas, and the immigration of women from the Philippines was limited until the late 1960s.  Cesar Chavez' son Paul recalls the way the older Filipino men looked at him and other children of Mexican strikers as their own family.  In the wake of the grape strike, the UFW and scores of young activists from California cities built a retirement home for them in Delano, Paolo Agbayani Retirement Village, to honor their contribution.

Philip Veracruz, a Filipino grape picker who became a vice-president of the UFW and later left over disagreements with Chavez, wrote during the strike's fourth year:  "The Filipino decision of the great Delano Grape Strike delivered the initial spark to explode the most brilliant incendiary bomb for social and political changes in U.S. rural life."  The contribution of these Filipino workers should be honored - not just because they helped make history, but because their political and trade union ideas are as relevant to workers today as they were in 1965.


The first school in the nation named after Filipino American labor leaders is in Union City, the Itliong/Vera Cruz Middle School. The New Haven Unified School District Board approved the renaming of Alvarado Middle School, effective January 2016.

Filmmaker Marissa Aroy has released a video on Filipino farmworkers, "The Delano Manongs."

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


From Baja California to Washington State
By David Bacon
Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2015

BURLINGTON, WA - Migrant farm workers on strike against Sakuma Farms, a large berry grower in northern Washington State, in the labor camp where they live during the picking season

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

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

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - Striking farm workers from the San Quintin Valley marched to the U.S. Mexico border, to draw attention to the fact that the tomatoes and strawberries they pick are exported to the U.S.

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

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

SANTA MARIA, CA - Hieronyma Hernandez works in a crew of indigenous Oaxacan farm workers picking strawberries in a field near Santa Maria.  Many members of the crew are Mixteco migrants from San Vincente, a town in Oaxaca.  The earth in the beds is covered in plastic, while in between the workers walk in sand and mud, working bent over the plants all day.

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

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

BURLINGTON, WA - Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, an advocacy organization for farm workers and the strike's main supporter, talks with the strikers Teofila and and Rosalba Raymundo and Marcelina Hilario.

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

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

MADERA, CA - Rosario Ventura a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and striker at Sakuma Farms. She and her daughter Hilda show the pieces for an adult huipil, and a chid-size huipil, together with her sons Ubaldo and Rigoberto, and her neice Joanna.

Rosario Ventura was another Sakuma Farms striker.  She lives in California, and comes to Washington with husband Isidro, for the picking season.  Ventura is from a Triqui town, while her husband Isidro is from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.  They met and married while working at Sakuma Farms, something that might never have taken place if they'd stayed in Mexico.

But Ventura didn't come to the U.S. for romance.  During the dry years in San Martin Itunyoso, "there is nothing with which to get food, nothing.  Sometimes we were starving because there would be no money."

Nevertheless, her father wept when she announced she was leaving, saying she'd never return.  In some ways he was right.  "If you go you aren't going to come back -- it is forever.  That is what he said," she remembered.  "I don't call or even talk with him, because if I do, it will make him sad. He'll ask, 'When will you return?'  What can I say?  It is very expensive to cross the border.  It is easy to leave the U.S., but difficult to cross back. When I came, in 2001, it cost two thousand dollars."

GREENFIELD, CA - Miguel Lopez is a migrant farm worker in Greenfield, in the Salinas Valley.  He comes from Rio Venado, a Triqui town in Oaxaca.

Miguel Lopez, a Triqui man who lives in Greenfield, in California's Salinas Valley, came for the same reasons, and had an even harder time when he arrived twenty years ago.  With no money he couldn't rent an apartment.  "I lived under a tree with five others, next to a ranch," he recalled.  "It rains a lot in Oregon, and there we were under a tree."

Eventually he found work, and after some years, brought his family.  That was a mixed blessing, however, because he and his wife had to work so hard.  "My children didn't even know me because I would go to sleep as soon as I got home.  It was hard to care for them properly," he explained.  And he didn't meet with a warm welcome in Greenfield.  "Indigenous people face discrimination at school and around town in general.  Many people speak badly of Triqui or indigenous people."

BURLINGTON, WA - Bernardo Ramirez, coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), talks with Ramon Torres, president of the new union at Sakuma Farms, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and other strikers.

Bernardo Ramirez, former binational coordinator of the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations) went to Sakuma Farms to help with the strike, and came away angry over that discrimination.  "Foremen insult workers and call them burros," he charged.  "When you compare people to animals, this is racism.  We're human beings."  But, he cautioned, discrimination involves more than language.  "Low wages are a form of racism too, because they minimize the work of migrants."

The big agribusiness corporations that market the strawberries, blueberries and blackberries sold in the U.S. dispute such charges. Sakuma Farms says it guarantees its workers $10/hour with a piecerate bonus, and workers have to meet a production quota.  But these companies should start paying attention to these voices.  They are not only coming from their own workers, who produce their profits, but they express a building anger and frustration at the continued poverty among Oaxaca's indigenous migrants.  Maybe the growers should learn Triqui and Mixteco, so they can hear what's being said.

BURLINGTON, WA - One of the children of migrant farm workers on strike against Sakuma Farms, at the gate into the labor camp.

Monday, September 7, 2015


by David Bacon
Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association
September 7, 2015, Summer 2015 issue
All photos and text (c) David Bacon, 2015.

Dancers perform the "Danza de la Pluma" or Dance of the Feather (Guyach in Zapotec).

The Spaniards conquered the Zapotecs of the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, almost 500 years ago, in an earth-shattering series of events. It changed everything in the lives of the conquered. So many died that many indigenous peoples came close to disappearing; some estimates hold that the indigenous population of the Americas was reduced by 90% in the two centuries following the conquest. The population drop was so great that the Spaniards later had to bring slaves to labor in their plantations on the Costa Chica (Oaxaca's Pacific coast).

Such change and catastrophe, however, produced one of the world's most beautiful dances: The Dance of the Feather. Today, it is performed in a number of towns in central Oaxaca, among them the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. In one of life's ironies, the forced migration of the Zapotecs, driven from their homes by poverty and conquest, helped this commemorative dance survive.

The name of the city, Teotitlán, comes from Nahuatl and means "land of the gods". Its Zapotec name is Xaguixe, which means "at the foot of the mountain". It still retains its Zapotec culture and language. The dance is performed in the town plaza in front of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo Church, begun in 1581 and completed in 1758. The church sits on the ruins of a Zapotec temple, which the Spanish destroyed.

The rattle and the baton, symbols of power.

The dance recalls the basic history of the conquest. At the time of the Spaniards' arrival, indigenous people had been living in Oaxaca's central valleys for 11,000 years. The first site of human habitation is not far from Teotitlan, in the Guilá Naquitz cave near the town of Mitla. The discovery of corncob fragments indicates that the world's first people to cultivate corn lived there.

Doña Marina.

People speaking Zapotec in Oaxaca's central valleys built towns with palaces, temples, ball courts and markets, coexisting and sometimes fighting with each other until 1457. That year the Aztec tlatoani, or ruler, Moctezuma invaded. First he conquered the towns inhabited by Mixtecs, then those of the Zapotecs. The Aztec invasion halted when Hernando Cortes arrived in the Yucatan, traveling up the coast of Tabasco in 1519. Cortes made alliances with the Aztecs' enemies and marched on Tenochtitlan, their capital, massacring thousands of indigenous people at Cholula on the way.

By then, the first Moctezuma was dead. The second Moctezuma let Cortes and his soldiers into the city. Moctezuma was then taken hostage and later murdered. The city's inhabitants rose up, forcing Cortes to flee, but they won only temporary respite. Cortes laid siege to Tenochtitlan and finally destroyed it, burying the huge temple pyramid under what is now Mexico City's main cathedral and central plaza, the Zocalo. Moctezuma's successor, Cuauhtemoc, was eventually captured and, with his death, the Aztec empire crumbled.

Children representing the soldiers of Cortes march in front of the community authorities.

To form alliances against the Aztecs, Cortes needed a translator. First he found a priest who could speak Mayan, then a Nahuatl woman from the Gulf Coast who could translate between Mayan and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and surrounding peoples. Malinalli, or Doña Marina, was one of 20 women given to the Spaniards by the residents of Tabasco. She became Cortes' lover and advisor, and bore Cortes' first son, Martin.

The dance of Malinche.

Malinalli became known as the Malinche, an object of hatred and veneration ever since. She is blamed for the defeat of the feathered warriors of Tenochtitlan and the end of purely indigenous civilization in Mexico. But she was also the mother of one of the first children borne of this enormous clash. The Oaxacan Jose Vasconcellos, secretary of education in Mexico's first post-Revolutionary government, called the mix a new race: la raza cosmica or "the cosmic race." He and his intellectual companions held that Mexico had people of mixed indigenous, African, and European ancestry, and was therefore moving beyond the boundaries of the old world.

While the union of Malinalli and Cortes gave birth to the mestizo, this did not free indigenous people, who were forced into conditions close to slavery. When Cortes died, Martin became Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. His lands included 23,000 people living in 11,500 square kilometers of territory. The Spaniards set up the encomienda system, huge land grants that included the indigenous population, forced into slavery to "pay" for room, board, and religious instruction.

The symbols of nationalism incorporated into the dance.

Martin, so the legend goes, invented a dance to dramatize the conquest of indigenous people by the Spaniards. Jorge Hernandez Diaz, an anthropologist at the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca, writes that there are three theories of the origin of the dance. In one, Martin celebrated the birth of twins by staging a fight between dancers representing the conquering Spaniards (headed by Martin himself in the role of his father) and the defeated native people. The roles of the dancers in the Dance of the Feather today are still the same: Cortes, his captains and soldiers, Moctezuma and his allies. The personality of Malinalli was split into the roles of two people: Doña Marina and the Malinche.

Women watching the dancers.

A second version of the dance's history points to the existence of performances carried out before the conquest, which represented battles between different groups of the feathered warriors of the kingdoms of that period. Yet a third version reported by Hernandez "has a more symbolic, ancestral and astronomical role," which is also traced to the pre-conquest epoch. In this, Moctezuma represents the sun, while other dancers perform the role of planets.

"Independently of the historical origin of the dance," Hernandez explains, "its essence is renewed, adapted and given new meaning with the symbolism it has for the social group that takes ownership of it throughout its history, giving it new life." The dance is an important part of the celebration of the town's fiesta. "It is a tradition," he continues, "that can't be overlooked, given that it's part of its cultural, ceremonial and spiritual identity." Eighty-six percent of the town's residents aspire to become actors in this dance, he says.

Dancers in the courtyard in front of the church.

Martin's intention was to use the dance justify his rule and to emphasize to indigenous people the uselessness of resistance. But after over 450 years, the dance no longer means what it once did. If anything, it represents a spirit of resistance to those forces that would deny Zapotecs their language, dance, music, and other cultural traditions. The Dance of the Feather is one element of a broader indigenous culture maintained through hundreds of years of colonization, followed by decades of official national policies denying their culture's autonomy and value.

Hernandez says, "The Dance of the Feather keeps its importance in communities that hold to the tradition, like Teotitlan del Valle, because it fulfills the function of reaffirming their cultural identity by recalling a glorious past, that is, of what the community was before the arrival of the Spanish, and what it continues to be in spite of them. The Dance prevents forgetting, because it recalls the struggle that native Zapotecs maintained with the Spanish to defend their territory, and from whom they inherited, according to the perception of the townspeople, only negative things."

Teotiles dancing.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the dance also highlights another contradiction. Fifty years ago, the town was very poor and much of the traditional weaving craft that had created part of its historical identity was no longer practiced. That poverty, reinforced by economic reforms and trade agreements that undermined Oaxaca's agricultural economy, forced many of the town's residents to leave. They became migrants, first within Mexico and then across the border into the United States. As remittances began arriving to support the families left behind, expatriates also provided money to buy materials for weaving. With the influx of tourists anxious to buy rugs in traditional Zapotec designs, weaving workshops were reestablished.

Migrants saved money to buy the materials for the elaborate clothing and headdresses needed for the Dance of the Feather. Some returned home to fulfill the three-year commitment required of those wanting to perform the dance.

Teotitlan has a complicated relationship with migration. The remittances helped to revitalize the town. The workshops now weave not just for tourists, but also for museums in the U.S. But how easy is it to keep a culture in an economy that still depends heavily on the willingness of people to leave home to seek work elsewhere? "This dance is also a strategy for defense against what they felt were negative influences of the modern world, against the consequences of migration, against the loss of moral values and customs," Hernandez emphasizes.

The community's authorities preside over the dance.

"Why do people make the commitment?" he asks. "These commitments have a religious and spiritual importance. [Benito Mendoza Mendoza, who played Moctezuma in 1977, says:] 'In some cases we do it because the Lord helped us overcome our food situation, when we had no money. Others do it because of their faith. And other people do it because they had a personal problem, or were sick and got better. Therefore, to give thanks to God that they were able to move forward they made the commitment. There are many reasons why people do it.'"

The Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan has had its ups and downs, according to Hernandez. "There have been long periods in which it wasn't performed, until someone takes the initiative to revive it. In different historical periods various situations have caused a break in the tradition. Modern social forces have played a paradoxical role, sometimes leading to changes in the dance. But at the same time, they've allowed it to survive, to be reproduced and to continue to exist."