Sunday, August 18, 2019

THE PEOPLE WENT WALKING: How Rufino Dominguez Revolutionized the Way We Think About Migration - Part II

How Rufino Dominguez Revolutionized the Way We Think About Migration - Part II
By David Bacon
Edited by Luis Escala Rabadan
Food First | 08.16.2019

This publication is the second 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.

Download the PDF version of this Issue Brief.

Part II

CIOAC survived in San Quintin until the early 2000s, fighting more as the years went by for land on which migrants from Oaxaca could build houses and settle permanently. Benito Garcia was eventually expelled, however, and from the PSUM as well. Rufino organized OPEO, and helped CIOAC in San Quintin, through 1984. Then he left with his wife for the other side of the border. By then his first son, Lenin, had been born in San Quintin.

"I got married in 1983, although I didn't want to," he remembered later. "I wanted to devote my life completely to organizing. We need to organize and it demands a great deal, but if you have a family you can't dedicate yourself completely to this commitment. Once I got married, I had to come to the U.S. because it wasn't fair to ask my father to keep supporting me and my wife. So I got married and decided to seek my future here."

In California, Indigenous Migrants and Farm Workers Begin to Organize

Once he arrived in Selma, California, he found that people from San Miguel living there had also heard about his fight to free the town from its cacique, and the strikes in Sinaloa and Baja California. "I felt like I was in my hometown," he remembered. "People paid off my coyote [the smuggler who helped him cross the border], and asked me to continue my work here. I didn't even know how to drive, or where the sun rises and where it sets. But we began.

"In 1985 we formed a local committee of people from San Miguel Cuevas. We worked on setting up a clinic back home, as well as playing fields and rebuilding the church. But we were also interested in building up awareness about our need to organize to defend our human and labor rights here. In 1986 I went to Livingston, because it was the center of Oaxacan migrants in Madera County. I started another committee, and began working not just with people from San Miguel Cuevas, but from other towns as well, like Teotitlan del Valle. We set up more committees of the OPEO in Madera and Fresno."

Rufino and journalist Eduardo Stanley on their bilingual program for farm workers on KFCF radio. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

In many ways, conditions in California were not so different from those in Sinaloa and San Quintin. "Everyone was a farm worker, and we did a lot about the working conditions. I know them well, because I worked in the fields picking grapes and tomatoes, and working with the hoe. I participated in various strikes in the tomatoes to demand improvements in 1986, 87 and 88. They'd fire me, and then they wouldn't want to give me any work because they were afraid I'd organize more strikes. I don't remember how many I participated in, in the tomatoes, and pruning grapes. We were able to force the labor contractors to pay more, but then we'd be blacklisted.

"I worked in the fields until 1991, and then in a turkey farm for a few more years. It was a life of slavery, with no weekends or days off. We worked seven days a week."

OPEO fought the discrimination against indigenous migrants as much as it did their exploitation at work. "We started one of our first projects in 1986 because many people went to jail because they couldn't speak Spanish or English. We started an organization of indigenous interpreters, and fought for the legal right in the United States for each person to have translation in court in their primary language. We won this in the U.S., and it's still something we don't have in our native country. In Mexico they judge you in Spanish, and they punish you in Spanish. You don't even know what you did wrong."

Language discrimination against indigenous migrants reflects a deeper structural racism. The number of migrants from Oaxaca in California, especially in rural areas, began to rise sharply in the early 1980s. By 2008 demographer Rick Mines found that 120,000 migrant farm workers in California had come from indigenous communities in Mexico - Mixtecos, Triquis, Purepechas and others. Together with family members, they accounted for slightly less than 170,000 people. The percentage of farmworkers coming from Oaxaca and southern Mexico grew by four times in less than twenty years, from 7% in 1991, to over 20% in 2008.

In new centers of indigenous population, Triquis, who'd migrated from the same region of the Mixteca that Rufino had left, founded Nuevo San Juan Copala in Baja California. They became the majority of the residents of Greenfield, in California's Salinas Valley. Purepechas from Michoacan populated huge dilapidated trailer parks in the Coachella Valley, and were packed into garages and tiny apartments in Oxnard.

A third of those workers reported to Mines they were earning below the minimum wage. The median income for a mestizo farmworker family in 2008 was $22,500 - hardly a livable wage. But the income for an indigenous farm worker family was $13,750. In part, the difference reflects the lack of legal immigration status for most indigenous migrants. While 53% of all farm workers are undocumented, according to the Department of Labor, the wave of indigenous migration came after the cutoff date (January 1, 1982) for the immigration amnesty in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. When that cutoff date was chosen, it couldn't have escaped notice by the Act's authors that Mexico had suffered the "peso shock" later in 1982. The subsequent devaluation of the peso aggravated the existing economic crisis in the countryside, and led to the migration of thousands of desperate families, who crossed the border too late for the amnesty.

Low wages in the fields have brutal consequences. In northern San Diego County, many strawberry pickers sleep out of doors on hillsides and in ravines. Each year the county sheriff clears out some of their encampments, but by next season workers have built others. As Romulo Muñoz Vasquez, living on a San Diego hillside, explained: " We're outsiders. If we were natives here, then we'd probably have a home to live in. But we don't make enough to pay rent. There isn't enough money to pay rent, food, transportation and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do." And San Diego is not the only California county where workers live under trees or in their cars at harvest time.

Despite their poverty, workers in the U.S. earn three of four times what they do in Mexico, Velasco points out. But the cost of living north of the border is higher too. Migrants quickly begin measuring their earnings, as Muñoz Vasquez did, not in comparison to what they earned in Mexico, but to what it takes to live in the U.S. They can see themselves on the bottom compared also to the standard of living in the U.S. world surrounding them, sometimes falling below the legal minimum.

Even after a decade of activity, "the conditions haven't changed at all," Rufino concluded in the mid-90s. "The growers don't obey the state and federal labor laws. They don't pay the minimum wage, and sometimes workers are robbed of their wages entirely. People work on piece rate, where they get paid according to what they do. If they pay a dollar a bucket, and I pick 20 buckets in eight hours, they still just pay me $20, even though the law says I'm guaranteed the minimum wage, which (in 1996) would be $34."

Rufino's activity brought him into contact with other organizations of indigenous migrants, who were produced by the same flow of displaced people and painful political turmoil that was part of the migrant experience. Some, like Arturo Pimentel, were also militants, and shared with Benito Garcia and Rufino himself a political history on the left and in the PSUM. Rufino's work organizing OPEO connected him with other indigenous organizers like Filemon Lopez in the Asociación Cívica de Benito Júarez, organized in Fresno in 1986. Sergio Mendez, Algimiro Morales, and others had organized migrants from Tlacotepec, first as the Comite Civico Popular Tlacotepense (closely tied to the PCM, according to Rivera Salgado), and then in the Comité Cívico Popular Mixteco in Vista. They had longstanding ties with the left across the border in Baja California.

Jorge and Margarita Giron pruning grapevines near Fresno. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

Rufino got to know the Organizacion Regional de Oaxaca (ORO), started in 1988 in Los Angeles, where over 70,000 Zapotec migrants were concentrated. There ORO began organizing the Guelaguetza dance festival in Normandie Park, reproducing the festival in Oaxaca that every year showcases the dances of the state's indigenous communities. By 1992 The ORO Guelaguetza featured 16 dances from all seven regions of Oaxaca, and for the first time in the U.S., the famous Danza de la Pluma. A decade later at least seven other Guelaguetza festivals had been organized in farm worker towns throughout California.

Laura Velasco argues that "the organizing traditions of these activists came together, which made it possible to mix the tactics and ideas of indigenous rural community organizing, the urban peoples' movements and the class vision of the leftwing parties of the 80s, especially the PSUM. A new organizing space opened with the experience they'd gained in the fields of California. The conditions of work and displacement created the possibility for new alliances between peoples and ethnic groups."

Velasco says that many of those organizations and their leaders participated in the first campaigns of Mexican political parties on the U.S. side of the border. In 1988 Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a former governor of Michoacan who'd broken with the PRI, became the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Front. Earlier the PSUM had merged with another leftwing party to form the Mexican Socialist Party, and initially fielded its own presidential candidate, Heberto Castillo. When it appeared that Cardenas could beat the PRI, however, Castillo's candidacy was withdrawn and they backed Cardenas instead.

Cardenas won, by all non-PRI accounts, but the government nevertheless declared the PRI's Carlos Salinas de Gortari the victor after a fraudulent vote count. Afterwards the PSUM/Mexican Socialist Party merged with Cardenas supporters who'd broken from the PRI, and formed the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In the process, however, the original socialist ideology of the PCM and PSUM was gradually jettisoned. The PRD eventually became the governing party of Mexico City and several other Mexican states.

In Los Angeles, the four migrant organizations came together on October 5, 1991 and formed the Binational Mixteco/Zapoteco Front. "It then took off in 1992," Rufino recalled, "when the governing bodies of the world were celebrating the famous 500 years of the discovering of the Americas. They said that Christopher Columbus was welcomed as a grand hero who brought good things. They wouldn't talk about the massacres or the genocide in our villages. All the indigenous organizations on the American continent protested against this celebration.

"We wanted to tell a different story - that our people were stripped of our culture. They imposed a different God on us, and told us that nature wasn't worth anything. In reality nature gives us life. Our purpose was to dismantle the old stereotypes, to march, to protest. Afterwards we thought, why not keep organizing for human rights, labor rights, housing, and education?"

Academics began taking note of this growing wave of activism. David Runsten, Carol Zabin and Michael Kearney at the University of California made one of the first surveys of indigenous farm workers in California, showing that settlements in the U.S. were linked to hometowns in Oaxaca, and to other settlements in Baja California. In 1992 Don Villarejo and the California Institute for Rural Studies published a report criticizing California Rural Legal Assistance, the legal aid organization for the state's farm workers, for not paying attention to this demographic change.

Jose Padilla, CRLA's director, and Claudia Smith, a CRLA attorney in San Diego, organized a conference to talk about the challenge of providing legal services to farm workers in Mixteco, Triqui and other indigenous languages. Most of the activists urging CRLA to respond, including Rufino, Pimentel, Morales and others, came from the organizations that had formed the Frente Mixteco/Zapoteco. "I knew right away that we needed to hire Rufino, to ensure that we had a strong connection to the leadership of this movement," says Padilla.

Eventually other Frente members also went to work for CRLA as community outreach workers. Rufino was the first. It was his first step out of the fields, and gave him the opportunity to do political and labor rights work full time. In one of their first battles, Rufino and CRLA fought Chevron Corporation over a toxic dump beneath a trailer park inhabited by families from San Miguel Cuevas, and forced the company to pay several million dollars to resettle them.

Rufino also tried to negotiate a cooperative relationship with the United Farm Workers in the same period, but with much less success. "We recognized that the UFW is a strong union representing agricultural workers. They in turn recognized us as an organization that tries to gain rights for indigenous migrants. Even within the UFW, though, some people said that indigenous people were 'rompehuelgistas' [strikebreakers] or 'esquiroles' [scabs]. In '84 there was a strike in Merced, and we were called these names. But the people from the union only spoke to us in Spanish. They didn't understand that our people only spoke Mixteco or Zapoteco, so many times, because of the language barrier, we couldn't understand each other. This treatment doesn't live up to the political ideals of the union. They should welcome indigenous people, and be more open-minded. In reality, although we felt the union didn't take us seriously, that campaign was historic because the union finally recognized us in a formal way."

After the relationship foundered, the UFW mounted a long campaign in the late 1990s to organize strawberry workers in Watsonville, a large percentage of whom are from Oaxaca. There the union suffered from its lack of a more organic connection to indigenous communities. At the same time, Mixteco leader Jesus Estrada and a handful of others organized a strike of strawberry workers in Santa Maria. Those leaders were blacklisted, and no permanent organization emerged from that struggle. But in later years the UFW did develop a different relationship with indigenous workers. It fought immigration raids against the Triqui community in Greenfield, and hired Mixteco and Triqui community leaders there as organizers, even veterans of the teachers' movement. Rufino and other leaders of the Frente Mixteco/Zapoteco, and the organization that grew out of it, continued to support strikes by Oaxacan workers in San Quintin and Washington State, although they didn't organize them themselves.

The Birth and Growth of the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales

In a conference in Tijuana in 1994 the Frente Mixteco/Zapoteco expanded to include people from other Oaxacan indigenous groups, such as Triquis and Chatinos, and renamed itself the Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front (FIOB). "Three things made this possible," Velasco says, "the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatista uprising with its demand for indigenous autonomy, and the imposition of Operation Guardian/Gatekeeper on the border in San Diego County."

The Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994, had a profound impact on indigenous Mexicans in the U.S. "The rise of the Zapatista army made it easier for the rise of many indigenous organizations in Mexico and in the whole continent - I would say the world," Rufino said. "When the Zapatistas rose, the war lasted 8 days. We organized right away - here in California, in Oaxaca and Baja California - with hunger strikes, denouncing the government. When the Zapatistas were detained or their lives were threatened we picketed consulates in Fresno and Los Angeles to pressure the Mexican government. These simultaneous actions helped us realize that when there's movement in Oaxaca there's got to be movement in the U.S. also. We put that lesson to use later on, when our own leaders were attacked.

"The Zapatistas helped the mestizos to civilize themselves a little bit. They became more humane, recognizing that indigenous people are human. Afterwards we began to make advances in Mexico in rescuing our languages, and getting laws making it illegal to discriminate against indigenous people. Even outside the framework of the San Andres Accords, we have been able to propose a reform to the law protecting our right to indigenous culture. We are trying to create an institution of the indigenous languages of all of Mexico, not just Mixteco or Zapateco, but for the Purepecha, the Triqui, and the Tarahumara and Mayo people in Sonora, which would create written materials such as dictionaries, books and stories. In addition to Spanish, we want Mixteco, Zapoteco, Tarahumara and other languages taught in the schools, including to mestizos if they live in that region."

FIOB members vote to expel Arturo Pimentel. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

The Zapatistas chose to start their uprising on January 1, 1994, because it was the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. They warned that the treaty, and the neoliberal development model it was reinforcing, would spell disaster for indigenous communities in Mexico. In the countryside, government policy favored large landholders producing for export, over small ones producing for a national market. That especially affected indigenous communities, which often hold land in common, as well as agricultural communities based on the ejidos established by earlier agrarian reform.

Oaxaca suffered more than most. It is one of the poorest states in Mexico, where the government category of extreme poverty encompasses 75 percent of its 3.4 million residents, according to Servicios Para una Educación Alternativa A.C. (EDUCA). A 2005 study by Ana Margarita Alvarado Juarez published by the Institute for Sociological Investigation of the Autonomous University Benito Juarez of Oaxaca, called "Migration and Poverty in Oaxaca," says Oaxaca consistently falls far below the national average for every measure of poverty and lack of development.

She cites data by the National Council of Population (CONAPO), that while nationally 9.4% of Mexico's people are illiterate, in Oaxaca 21.5% are. Nationally 28.4% of students don't finish elementary school, but in Oaxaca 45.5%, almost half, never complete it. Nationally 4.8% of Mexicans live with no electricity, 11.2% live in homes with no running water, and 14.8 percent walk on dirt floors. In Oaxaca, the numbers are more than double - 12.5%, 26.9% and 41.6% respectively. Only in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, do children get less schooling then Oaxaca's average of 6.9 years per person.

Displacement of people from Oaxacan communities tracks the growth in poverty. In 1990 the net out migration from Oaxaca was 527,272 (people leaving minus people arriving or returning). In 2000 that number grew to 662, 704. In the five years between 2000 and 2005, despite a high birthrate, Oaxaca's population only grew 0.39%. Eighteen percent of its people have left for other parts of Mexico and the U.S. Oaxacan migration was part of a much larger movement of people. In 1990 4.5 million Mexican migrants lived in the U.S. By 2008 that number had mushroomed to 12.7 million - a little less than 10% of Mexico's entire population.

"There are no jobs, and NAFTA made the price of corn so low that it's not economically possible to plant a crop anymore," Rufino charged in an interview in 2004. "We come to the U.S. to work because we can't get a price for our product at home. There's no alternative. We know the reasons we have to leave. Over 5000 of us have died trying to cross the border in the last decade."

As Velasco points out, the rising death toll on the border, and the impact of increasing immigration enforcement, including the construction of prisons ("detention centers") for deportees, had a big impact on indigenous migrants, because of their widespread lack of status. That produced a sense of urgency among the organizations that came together to form the FIOB.

While it sought to build a base of indigenous members from Oaxaca, the FIOB was not a hometown association. In fact, OPEO itself disbanded. "If we have a committee just of people from San Miguel Cuevas, we can't organize or go beyond it. In the organization of the FIOB, though, all of the communities are working together, to create consciousness, to educate, to orient, and all of the rest. That is the biggest difference," Rufino explained.

And from the beginning, the FIOB consciously saw itself as a binational organization, and its members as people belonging to binational communities that span the border. Its presence grew, and subsequently several indigenous organizations from the states of Guerrero and Michoacan joined, resulting in a change of its name to the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations in 2005. At the same time, almost as soon as it started in California, it began to organize back in Oaxaca itself, as well as in Oaxacan communities in Baja California. It set up a structure of local committees that belong to state organizations. Every three years, the FIOB chapters elect delegates to a binational assembly, who choose a binational governing committee, and a binational coordinator responsible to it.

Those triennial assemblies are held in Mexico. In part, this is a practical matter. Indigenous farmers can't easily come up with the money to travel as delegates to meetings in the U.S. Even if they could, getting visas would be virtually impossible. U.S. consulates suspect that poor Oaxacans trying to visit California are just looking for a way to cross the border to stay and work. Consequently, the FIOB's Mexican assemblies always draw far more delegates from Mexico than from the U.S. While the leaders of the FIOB in the 1990s came from the migrant organizations and movement in the U.S., its growth in Oaxaca has slowly been shifting the organization's center of gravity, and its political activity, to the south.

Being accountable to decisions by its base communities is not just rhetoric. The FIOB's first director, Juan Martinez, who'd been the coordinator of the Associacion Civica Benito Juarez, was removed because he organized a conference in Oaxaca without agreement from other leaders, and to make it worse, invited the governor of Oaxaca to participate. FIOB's second director, Arturo Pimentel, was expelled for running for office in Oaxaca while refusing to give up his position as the FIOB binational coordinator (required by the bylaws) and for misappropriating the organization's funds. Rufino was the FIOB's third binational coordinator, from 2001 to 2008, and was followed by Gaspar Rivera Salgado. All were leaders of the FIOB and its predecessor organizations in California.

In 2011 Rivera Salgado stepped down, and his successor, Bernardo Ramirez, lived in the heart of the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. Ramirez worked five seasons in the fields of the United States, an experience shared with most FIOB delegates. His election, however, signaled that the organization's center of gravity was moving more firmly into Mexico. Ramirez was followed by Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, the FIOB's current binational coordinator, a teacher and former leader of the state's teachers union.

From the beginning, one of the biggest problems the FIOB organizers faced was the participation of women. According to FIOB activist Irma Luna, "the subject of domestic violence is taboo in the Oaxaqueño community, but it happens often. "Many women are used to taking abuse. Divorce and separation are not options and they feel they have to stay in that environment," Luna charges. She comes from San Miguel Cuevas, like Rufino, although she was born when her parents were working in Sinaloa. Rufino recruited her when she and her husband moved to Fresno, and encouraged her to resist losing her ability to speak Mixteco. Luna followed Rufino in going to work for CRLA, and he asked her to organize a FIOB program to stop domestic violence.

Irma Luna tells a foreman to provide drinking water. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

"After I began to work in the domestic violence team, I noticed that when I spoke about it, people would slowly leave the room," she recalled in Communities Without Borders. "Others would ask why I was telling women to call the police on their husbands. When I would go to the radio station to talk about my project, listeners called to ask why I was giving this information to the women. It is a problem that goes back to Mexico, but there is a lot of pressure in the United States too. Immigration only adds to the domestic violence problem. But now there is more support in towns in Oaxaca for women to report their husbands, and many women send their husbands to jail after receiving a brutal beating.

"Now I am a community worker and help people working in farm labor. When they don't have portable bathrooms, or if their employer refuses to pay them their wages, I go the worksite and investigate. I knew I wasn't going to be a woman that would just stay at home and have about ten children and wait to see what life imposed on me."

Oralia Maceda showed up in California in 1998, when she was 22, planning to stay a month. She'd worked in the FIOB office in Oaxaca, but complained that she had to ask permission from its director, Arturo Pimentel, before she could do anything. Gaspar Rivera Salgado brought her into the Fresno office where she met Rufino. "Rufino asked me if I was interested in working with women, and I agreed," she recalled. "At first there were few women involved in FIOB. Rufino asked me to share my experiences in Oaxaca, and we started going to different cities - Fresno, Selma, Santa Maria, and Santa Rosa. He was always doing something and he never got tired. It motivated me to see him going."

Rufino saw that Maceda had organizing skills, and tried to help her develop them. "In Oaxaca you are not allowed to go to the agency [local government office] and sit with the presidents, because you are a woman," she charges. "Another issue was my age. I would advise older women how to care for their children and they would get upset. But thanks to Rufino's support, in California I was able to do this work. As Mixteca women we created a calendar that showed our stories, and then we created a memory book. We tried to create a youth group. We organized a meeting in a ranch, and 20 young people participated. But sometimes only 2 or 3 people would show up for meetings I organized. When things went wrong I'd ask Rufino why he didn't say anything first. He told me that if I have an idea I should go ahead with it, and if it went wrong I would learn from it, instead of him just telling me how to do things.

"Today, women sometimes participate more than men. Their biggest obstacle is the lack of time. They have to work in the fields, and take care of their families. They don't have childcare. I believe men have to be more conscious of women's needs, so they can participate. But right now there is room for women and their ideas to develop."

Odilia Romero, who anchored FIOB in Los Angeles, was elected the first woman as binational coordinator at the March 2018 assembly in Huajuapan, Oaxaca. Romero and Rufino worked closely together from the organization's first years. Brought by her parents from San Bartolome Zoogocho, she witnessed as a child the town's depopulation - the formative experience of thousands of Oaxacan migrants. "In the 80s there were about a thousand people there," she remembers. "Then we started leaving to the city of Oaxaca, and then to the U.S., until only 88 were people left. All of a sudden on a Thursday, for instance, people would leave, and us children were left behind."

Maylei Blackwell. Associate Professor of Chicana & Chicano Studies and Gender Studies at UCLA, says Romero has a "rebellious spirit that has characterized her since childhood." Blackwell recorded her oral history, in which Romero says, "my rebellion helps me to hope that a better society is possible."

Before meeting Rufino Romero read an article he'd written about the FIOB. "It talked about how it started, and that some of its leaders were fired for corruption and negative actions towards the members," she remembers. "I was very touched because I found what I was looking for. An organization that speaks of its triumphs and barriers is worthy of admiration." Rufino encouraged her to join, and then to organize.

"We are not going to have Barbie positions here," Romero declares. "The Frente is one of the few organizations that truly gives us space to talk about gender, with the intention of going from talk into action, so that women have a real role ... We have to take up some of the good things of the indigenous peoples, of an egalitarian society, and implement it as an indigenous organization, but also talk about the things we do not like. One of the things we do not like is to exclude women."

Rufino and FIOB members demonstrate at the Mexican consulate. Photo copyright (c) 2019 by David Bacon.

Laura Velasco worked with Romero and another woman in FIOB leadership, Centolia Maldonado, an activist in Oaxaca who developed the evidence that led to the expulsion of Arturo Pimentel. Maldonado herself was eventually expelled amid accusations of sexism among FIOB leaders (an accusation that Romero also made). Velasco says she's still angry about it, "but Rufino always treated women in the organization with friendship and respect. He and Gaspar were among the few in a conflict clearly about sex who were ethical and sympathetic towards Maldonado. Both she and Romero were very important in Rufino's development as a leader, and in the development of FIOB's gender policy."

The FIOB also organized its members in the U.S. to advocate for immigration reform. In its 2005 binational assembly the FIOB passed a resolution condemning guest worker programs. That set it apart from many migrant rights organizations in the U.S. at the time, many of whom were willing to accept new programs (supposedly with greater rights for migrants), in exchange for legalization for the undocumented. While Mexico's government was also calling for the negotiation of a new bracero program, Rufino charged that "migrants need the right to work, but these workers don't have labor rights or benefits. It's like slavery."

Gaspar Rivera Salgado, who guided the development of FIOB's immigration program, connected migrant rights with the right to not migrate. "Both rights are part of the same solution," he explained. "We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a problem to a debate over rights. The real problem is exploitation." The FIOB position also emphasized language rights for migrant communities and respect for their indigenous culture.

Organizing for immigrant rights was more than taking a political position; it was part of building the FIOB's membership base. In the early 2000s, Lorenzo Oropeza, a FIOB activist who also worked for CRLA, organized a chapter among a group of Triqui farm workers living out of doors in the reeds beside the Russian River in Sonoma County. Fausto Lopez, the group's leader, explained, "I joined the FIOB because Lorenzo speaks my native language. He is Mixteco and we are Triqui, but he works with all Oaxaqueños. Since we're from the same state we're all the same. Then our local group elected me to represent them. I traveled to various parts of California with Lorenzo and met with other leaders. A lot of us farm workers don't know our rights, and the FIOB teaches us. We also work for amnesty for immigrants, because so many of us cross the border illegally and so many die in the process."

Click here to download the PDF version in English.

The third 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 II
Por David Bacon
Traducción por Rosalí Jurado y Alan Llanos Velázquez
Edición: Nancy Utley García y Luis Escala Rabadán
Food First| 08.16.2019

Segunda de tres partes de la publicación sobre Rufino Domínguez, organizador laboral radical de Oaxaca. Pertenece a la serie Desmantelando el Racismo del Sistema Alimentario de Food First. Este artículo originalmente fue escrito en inglés.

Puedes descagar la versión en PDF aquí.

Parte II

La CIOAC subsistió en San Quintín hasta los primeros años del siglo XXI. La CIOAC luchaba con más fuerza al pasar de los años, defendiendo tierras en las que los migrantes de Oaxaca pudiesen construir sus hogares y establecerse de manera permanente. Sin embargo, Benito García, fue eventualmente expulsado no sólo de la CIOAC, sino también del PSUM. Rufino organizó la OPEO y ayudó a la CIOAC en San Quintín hasta 1984. Después cruzó la frontera junto con su esposa. al Para entonces su primer hijo, Lenin, ya había nacido en San Quintín.

Rufino lo recuerda de la siguiente manera: "Yo me casé en 1983, aunque yo no quería. Yo quería dedicar mi vida a ser organizador. Necesitábamos organizarnos y eso exige muchísimo de uno mismo, y con una familia uno no se puede dedicar por completo a eso. Una vez que me casé, me tuve que venir a Estados Unidos porque no era justo pedirle a mi padre que me siguiera apoyando a mí y a mi esposa. Así que me casé y decidí buscarme un futuro ahí".

Migrantes indígenas y trabajadores agrícolas comienzan a organizarse en California

Una vez que llegó a Selma, California, se enteró que la gente de San Miguel que ahí vivía había escuchado de su lucha por liberar al pueblo del cacique, así como de las huelgas en Sinaloa y Baja California. "Me sentí como en casa", decía Rufino. "La gente le pagó a mi coyote [el traficante que lo ayudó a cruzar la frontera] y me pidieron que continuara con mi labor aquí. Yo no sabía ni siquiera cómo manejar un carro o de qué lado salía y se metía el sol. Pero así fue que comenzamos de nuevo.

"En el año 1985, formamos un comité local de los pobladores de San Miguel Cuevas. Trabajamos para que se construyera una clínica en nuestro pueblo, también algunas canchas deportivas y en la reconstrucción de la iglesia. Pero lo que más nos interesaba era crear conciencia sobre la necesidad de organizarnos para defender aquí nuestros derechos laborales y humanos. En 1986, fui a Livingston porque era el centro de los migrantes oaxaqueños en el condado de Madera. Comencé a formar otro comité allí y trabajé con gente de San Miguel Cuevas pero también con gente de otros pueblos como Teotitlán del Valle. Y creamos más comités de la OPEO en Madera y Fresno".

Rufino Domínguez y el periodista Eduardo Stanley en su programa bilingüe para trabajadores agrícolas transmitido por la radio KFCF. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

En muchos sentidos, la situación en California no era muy diferente a la de Sinaloa y San Quintín. Rufino comenta que "todos eran jornaleros, e hicimos mucho por cambiar las condiciones de trabajo. Los conozco bien a todos porque trabajábamos juntos recogiendo uvas y tomates, usando el azadón. En 1986, 1987 y 1988, participé en varias huelgas para demandar mejores condiciones laborales en los campos del tomate. Me despidieron y ya no me querían dar más trabajo porque temían que fuese a organizar más huelgas. No recuerdo en cuántas huelgas participé, en los campos de tomates y de pasas. Pero logramos que los contratistas mejoraran los salarios, pero por esa razón, nos pusieron en la lista negra.

"Trabajé en los campos hasta 1991 y luego en una granja de pavos por unos años más. Llevaba una vida de esclavitud, sin días de descanso ni fines de semanas. Trabajábamos siete días a la semana".

La OPEO luchó contra la discriminación hacia los migrantes indígenas y contra su explotación laboral. Rufino recuerda que "en 1986, comenzamos uno de nuestros primeros proyectos, el cual surgió debido a que muchas personas terminaban en la cárcel porque no sabían hablar español o inglés. Comenzamos una organización de intérpretes indígenas, y peleamos por el derecho legal de cada persona en Estados Unidos a tener acceso a servicios de traducción en la corte. Logramos ganar esta demanda en Estados Unidos, pero eso es algo que aún no lo tienen las personas en nuestro país de origen. En México, te juzgan en español y te castigan en español, sin saber lo que hiciste mal".

La discriminación lingüística contra los migrantes indígenas refleja un racismo estructural muy arraigado. El número de migrantes de Oaxaca en el estado de California, especialmente en las áreas rurales, empezó a incrementarse considerablemente a principios de la década de 1980. En el 2008, el demógrafo Rick Mines encontró que 120,000 trabajadores migrantes agrícolas en California venían de comunidades indígenas en México -mixtecos, triquis, purépechas y de otros grupos. Ellos y sus familias sumaban poco menos de 170,000 personas. El porcentaje de campesinos que provenía de Oaxaca y del sur de México creció cuatro veces más en menos de 20 años, del 7 por ciento en al año 1991 a más del 20 por ciento en el año 2008.

En los nuevos centros de población indígena, los triquis, quienes migraron de la misma Región Mixteca de donde Rufino había emigrado, fundaron Nuevo San Juan Copala en Baja California. Ellos también conformaban la mayoría de los residentes de Greenfield, en el Valle de Salinas del estado de California. Por otro lado, los purépechas de Michoacán ocupaban los enormes campamentos de deterioradas casas móviles en el Valle de Coachella, y se amontonaban en cocheras y pequeños apartamentos en Oxnard.

De acuerdo con la información recabada por Mines, un tercio de estos trabajadores estaba ganando menos del salario mínimo. El ingreso promedio para la familia de un jornalero mestizo era de 22,500 dólares anuales en 2008, un ingreso que a duras penas alcanza para sobrevivir. Sin embargo, el ingreso para la familia de un jornalero indígena era de 13,750 dólares anuales. En parte, la diferencia refleja la falta de estatus migratorio legal entre los migrantes indígenas. De acuerdo con el Departamento del Trabajo, el 53 por ciento de todos los trabajadores agrícolas son indocumentados, ya que la oleada de migración indígena fue posterior a la fecha límite (1 de enero de 1982) para poder tener acceso a la amnistía de la Ley de Control y Reforma Migratoria (IRCA, por sus siglas en inglés) de 1986. Cuando se estableció dicha fecha límite, es poco probable que los responsables de esta iniciativa no se hubiesen dado cuenta de la "crisis del peso mexicano" posterior al año 1982. La devaluación del peso en México agravó la crisis económica en el sector rural, y trajo como consecuencia la migración de miles de familias desesperadas que cruzaron la frontera, pero demasiado tarde para tener acceso a la amnistía.

Los bajos salarios en el medio rural tuvieron consecuencias brutales. En el norte del condado de San Diego, muchos piscadores de fresas dormían en el exterior, en las laderas de los cerros y en barrancas. Cada año, el sheriff del condado desalojaba varios de los campamentos pero para la siguiente temporada agrícola, los trabajadores ya habían construído otros. Rómulo Muñoz Vásquez, quien vivía en las barrancas de San Diego, comentaba al respecto: "Somos de fuera. Si hubiésemos nacido aquí, entonces tal vez tendríamos un hogar dónde vivir. Pero no ganamos lo suficiente para pagar una renta. El dinero no alcanza para pagar renta, comida, transporte y para mandar a México. Por eso me conformo con cualquier espacio debajo de un árbol". Y San Diego no es el único condado en el que los trabajadores viven bajo los árboles o en sus autos durante el tiempo de la cosecha.

Velasco señala que a pesar de su pobreza, los trabajadores en Estados Unidos ganan tres o cuatro veces más de lo que ganarían en México. Pero el costo de vivir al norte de la frontera es también muy elevado. Así que los migrantes empezaron rápidamente a comparar sus salarios con el costo de vida en Estados Unidos, y no con lo que ganaban en México, cosa que Muñoz Vásquez hizo también. Se veían a sí mismos hasta abajo cuando se comparaban con el nivel promedio de vida que los rodeaba en Estados Unidos, incluso quedando a veces por debajo del mínimo legal.

Después de una década de actividad, a mediados de la década de 1990, Rufino concluía que "las condiciones no habían cambiado para nada. Los patrones no obedecían las leyes laborales estatales ni federales. No pagaban el salario mínimo, y a veces les robaban sus salarios a los trabajadores. A los trabajadores se les pagaba a destajo, por lo que se les paga por lo que hacen. Si pagan un dólar por una cubeta y yo recojo 20 cubetas en ocho horas, me pagan 20 dólares solamente, aun cuando la ley dice que tengo garantizado el salario mínimo, el cual (en 1996) era de 34 dólares diarios".

La actividad de Rufino lo puso en contacto con otras organizaciones de migrantes indígenas, que eran el resultado de la misma oleada de gente desplazada y de la agitación política que formaban parte de la misma experiencia migrante. Algunos, como Arturo Pimentel, eran también militantes, y compartían una historia política con Benito García y Rufino dentro de la izquierda y el PSUM. El trabajo de Rufino organizando la OPEO lo vinculó con otros organizadores indígenas como Filemón López, de la Asociación Cívica Benito Juárez, la cual se creó en Fresno en el año 1986. Sergio Méndez, Algimiro Morales y otros habían organizado a migrantes de Tlacotepec, primero como parte del Comité Cívico Popular Tlacotepense (con conexiones con el PCM, de acuerdo con Rivera-Salgado), y luego en el Comité Cívico Popular Mixteco en Vista. Ellos tenían estrechos vínculos con la izquierda de Baja California.

Rufino llegó a conocer la Organizacion Regional de Oaxaca (ORO), creada en 1988 en Los Ángeles, donde más de 70,000 migrantes zapotecos estaban concentrados.  ORO empezó a organizar el festival de la Guelaguetza en el Parque Normandie, replicando así el festival original de la ciudad de Oaxaca en el que se presentan las danzas de las comunidades indígenas del estado. En 1992, la Guelaguetza de ORO presentó 16 danzas de las siete regiones de Oaxaca, y por primera vez en Estados Unidos, la Danza de la Pluma. Una década después, al menos otros siete festivales de la Guelaguetza se organizaron en las ciudades en donde había jornaleros a lo largo de California.

Jorge y Margarito Girón podando viñales cerca de Fresno. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

Laura Velasco comenta que "las tradiciones organizativas de estos activistas venían juntas, lo que hacía posible combinar las tácticas e ideas de la organización en las comunidades rurales indígenas, con los movimientos populares urbanos y la visión de clase de los partidos de izquierda de los años ochenta, especialmente el PSUM. Así se abrió un nuevo espacio organizativo con la experiencia que ellos habían ganado en los campos de California. Las condiciones de trabajo y de desplazamiento crearon la posibilidad para nuevas alianzas entre grupos de clase y étnicos".

Velasco señala que muchas de estas organizaciones y sus líderes participaron en las primeras campañas políticas de los partidos políticos mexicanos en Estados Unidos. En 1988, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, un ex gobernador de Michoacán quien había dejado atrás su relación con el PRI, llegó a ser candidato presidencial del Frente Nacional Democrático. Antes de ello, el PSUM se había unido con otro partido de izquierda para formar el Partido Socialista Mexicano e inicialmente presentaron a Heberto Castillo como su propio candidato presidencial. Cuando se hizo evidente la posibilidad de que Cárdenas pudiese derrotar al PRI, la candidatura de Castillo fue retirada y decidieron apoyar a Cárdenas en su lugar.

De acuerdo con fuentes ajenas al PRI, Cárdenas ganó esas elecciones, Sin embargo, el gobierno declaró a Carlos Salinas de Gortari del PRI como ganador después de un fraudulento recuento de votos. Posteriormente, el PSUM se unió con los seguidores de Cárdenas y formaron el Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). No obstante, en el proceso, la ideología socialista del PCM y del PSUM se fue diluyendo gradualmente. El PRD llegó a ser el partido gobernante de la Ciudad de México y de otros estados mexicanos.

En Los Ángeles, las cuatro organizaciones migrantes se unieron el 5 de octubre de 1991 y formaron el Frente Binacional Mixteco-Zapoteco. Rufino comentó al respecto: "Este Frente comenzó en 1992, cuando los gobiernos del mundo estaban celebrando los famosos 500 años del descubrimiento de América. Decían que Cristóbal Colón había sido recibido como un gran héroe y que había traído cosas buenas. No hablaban para nada de las masacres o los genocidios de nuestros pueblos. Todas las organizaciones indígenas del continente americano protestaron contra esta celebración.

"Queríamos contar una historia diferente, una historia en la que la gente fue despojada de su cultura. Se nos impuso un Dios diferente, y se nos dijo que la naturaleza no valía nada. La realidad es que la naturaleza es la que nos da la vida. Nuestro propósito era eliminar los viejos estereotipos, marchar y protestar. Después, nos preguntamos: '¿por qué no continuamos organizándonos para defender los derechos humanos, los derechos laborales, los derechos a una vivienda digna y a una buena educación?'"

Los académicos comenzaron a advertir esta creciente ola de activismo. David Runsten, Carol Zabin y Michael Kearney, de la Universidad de California, hicieron uno de los primeros estudios sobre jornaleros indígenas en California, mostrando que sus asentamientos en Estados Unidos estaban vinculados con sus pueblos de origen en Oaxaca y con otros asentamientos en Baja California. En 1992, Don Villarejo del Instituto de Estudios Rurales de California publicó un reporte en el que criticaba a la California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), la organización que proporcionaba asistencia legal a los jornaleros del estado, por no prestar la debida atención a este notable cambio demográfico.

José Padilla, director de CRLA y Claudia Smith, una abogada de CRLA en San Diego, organizaron un evento para exponer los retos que implicaba proporcionar servicios legales a los trabajadores del campo en mixteco, triqui y otras lenguas indígenas. Muchos de los activistas que demandaron una respuesta por parte de la CRLA, incluyendo a Rufino, Pimentel, Morales y otros, provenían de organizaciones que habían sido parte del Frente Mixteco-Zapoteco. Padilla comenta que "supe de inmediator que tenía que contratar a Rufino, para asegurarse de tener una fuerte conexión con el liderazgo de este movimiento".

Eventualmente, otros miembros de Frente también fueron parte de la CRLA como trabajadores de asistencia social. Rufino fue el primero. Este fue su primer paso fuera de los campos y su oportunidad de tener un trabajo de tiempo completo relacionado con la política de los derechos laborales. En una de sus primeras batallas, Rufino y la CRLA demandaron a la Corporación Chevron por descargar desechos tóxicos debajo de un campamento de casas móviles habitado por familias de San Miguel Cuevas, lo que obligó a la compañía a pagar varios millones de dólares para reubicar a esas familias.

En ese periodo, Rufino también trató de establecer una relación de colaboración con el sindicato agrario United Farm Workers (UFW), sin mucho éxito. Posteriormente comentaría lo siguiente: "Nosotros reconocemos que el UFW es un sindicato fuerte que representa a los trabajadores del campo. A su vez, ellos nos reconocen como una organización que intenta ganar derechos para los migrantes indígenas. No obstante, incluso dentro del UFW, algunos decían que la genteindígena eran "rompehuelgas" o "esquiroles". En el año 1984, hubo una huelga en Merced y nos decían así. Pero la gente del sindicato nos hablaba en español, y no entendían que nuestra gente sólo hablaba mixteco o zapoteco. Muchas veces, por la barrera del lenguaje, terminábamos sin entendernos. Ellos deberían darle un mejor trato a la gente indígena y tener la mente más abierta. En realidad, aunque sentimos que el sindicato no nos tomaba en serio, esa huelga fue histórica porque el sindicato finalmente nos llegó a reconocer de una manera formal".

Después de que la relación fracasara, el UFW montó una larga campaña a fines de la década de 1990 para organizar a los trabajadores agrícolas de la fresa en Watsonville, un gran porcentaje de los cuales eran de Oaxaca. Allí el sindicato padeció la falta de una conexión más orgánica con las comunidades indígenas. Al mismo tiempo, el líder mixteco Jesús Estrada y algunos otros organizaron una huelga de trabajadores de la fresa en Santa María. Esos líderes fueron incluidos en la lista negra, y no surgió ninguna organización permanente de esa lucha. Pero en años posteriores, el UFW sí desarrolló una relación diferente con los trabajadores indígenas. Combatió las redadas de las autoridades de inmigración contra la comunidad triqui en Greenfield, y contrató a los líderes de la comunidad mixteca y triqui como organizadores, incluso a veteranos del movimiento de maestros. Rufino y otros líderes del Frente Mixteco-Zapoteco, y la organización que surgió de dicho Frente, continuaron apoyando las huelgas de los trabajadores oaxaqueños en San Quintín en México y en el estado de Washington en Estados Unidos, aunque ellos mismos no las organizaron.

El nacimiento y consolidación del Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales

En una asamblea en Tijuana en 1994, el Frente Mixteco-Zapoteco se expandió para incluir a personas de otros grupos indígenas oaxaqueños, como triquis y chatinos, y se renombró como el Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional (FIOB). "Tres cosas hicieron esto posible", dice Velasco: "la implementación del Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte; el levantamiento zapatista, con su demanda de autonomía indígena; y la imposición de la Operación Gatekeeper (Guardián) en la frontera en el condado de San Diego".

El levantamiento zapatista del 1 de enero de 1994 tuvo un profundo impacto entre los indígenas mexicanos en Estados Unidos. "El ascenso del Ejército Zapatista hizo más fácil el surgimiento de muchas organizaciones indígenas en México y en todo el continente, yo diría que en el mundo", dijo Rufino. "Cuando los zapatistas se levantaron, la guerra duró ocho días. Nos organizamos de inmediato -aquí en California, en Oaxaca y Baja California- con huelgas de hambre, denunciando al gobierno. Cuando los zapatistas fueron detenidos o amenazados, protestamos en los consulados en Fresno y Los Ángeles para presionar al gobierno mexicano. Estas acciones simultáneas nos ayudaron a darnos cuenta de que cuando hay movimiento en Oaxaca, también debe haber un movimiento en Estados Unidos. Nos pusimos esa lección para usarla más tarde, cuando nuestros propios líderes fueron atacados.

"Los zapatistas ayudaron a los mestizos a civilizarse un poco. Se volvieron más humanos, reconociendo que los indígenas son humanos. Luego comenzamos a avanzar en México para rescatar nuestros idiomas y obtener leyes que hacían ilegal discriminar a los pueblos indígenas. Incluso fuera del marco de los Acuerdos de San Andrés, hemos podido proponer una reforma a la ley que protege nuestro derecho a la cultura indígena. Estamos tratando de crear una institución de las lenguas indígenas de todo México, no sólo mixteco o zapoteco, sino para los purépechas, los triquis, los tarahumaras y los mayos de Sonora, que crearían materiales escritos como diccionarios, libros e historias. Además del español, queremos que se enseñe mixteco, zapoteco, tarahumara y otros idiomas en las escuelas, incluso a los mestizos si viven en esa región".

Miembros de FIOB votan para expulsar a Arturo Pimentel. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

Los zapatistas decidieron comenzar su levantamiento el 1 de enero de 1994, porque fue el día que entró en vigencia el Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte. Ellos nos advirtieron que el tratado y el modelo de desarrollo neoliberal que estaba reforzando representarían un desastre para las comunidades indígenas en México. En el campo, la política del gobierno favoreció a los grandes terratenientes que producían para la exportación, por encima de los pequeños productores que producían para un mercado nacional. Eso afectó especialmente a las comunidades indígenas, que a menudo tienen tierras en común, así como a las comunidades agrícolas basadas en los ejidos establecidos por la reforma agraria anterior.

Oaxaca sufrió más que la mayoría de los estados. Es una de las entidades más pobres de México, donde la categoría oficial de pobreza extrema abarca al 75 por ciento de sus 3.4 millones de habitantes, de acuerdo con Servicios Para una Educación Alternativa A.C. (EDUCA). Un estudio de 2005 de Ana Margarita Alvarado Juárez, publicado por el Instituto de Investigaciones Sociológicas de la Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, titulado "Migración y pobreza en Oaxaca", señalaba que Oaxaca constantemente cae muy por debajo del promedio nacional en cada una de las categorías de pobreza y falta de desarrollo.

Ella cita los datos del Consejo Nacional de Población (CONAPO), en los que si bien a nivel nacional el 9.4 por ciento de la población de México es analfabeta, en Oaxaca esta cifra asciende al 21.5 por ciento. A nivel nacional, el 28.4 por ciento de los estudiantes no termina la escuela primaria, pero en Oaxaca el 45.5 por ciento, casi la mitad de su población, nunca lo completa. A nivel nacional, el 4.8 por ciento de los mexicanos no tiene electricidad, el 11.2 por ciento vive en hogares sin agua corriente y el 14.8 por ciento camina sobre pisos de tierra. En Oaxaca, las cifras son más del doble: 12.5, 26.9 y 41.6 por ciento, respectivamente. Solo en Chiapas, el estado más pobre de México, los niños obtienen menos educación que el promedio de Oaxaca de 6.9 años por persona.

El desplazamiento de personas de las comunidades oaxaqueñas revela el crecimiento de la pobreza. En 1990, la migración neta desde Oaxaca fue de 527,272 (personas que emigran menos las personas que llegan o regresan). En 2000, ese número aumentó a 662,704. En los cinco años entre 2000 y 2005, a pesar de una alta tasa de natalidad, la población de Oaxaca solo creció un 0.39 por ciento. El 18 por ciento de sus habitantes se fue a otras partes de México y Estados Unidos. La migración oaxaqueña fue parte de un movimiento mucho más grande de personas. En 1990, 4.5 millones de migrantes mexicanos vivían en Estados Unidos. Para 2008, esa cifra había aumentado a 12.7 millones, poco menos del 10 por ciento de la población total de México.

"No hay trabajos, y el TLCAN hizo que el precio del maíz fuese tan bajo que ya no es económicamente posible plantar un cultivo", denunció Rufino en una entrevista en 2004. "Venimos a Estados Unidos a trabajar porque no podemos conseguir un buen precio para nuestro producto en casa. No hay alternativa. Sabemos las razones por las que tenemos que irnos. Más de 5,000 de nosotros hemos muerto tratando de cruzar la frontera en la última década."

Como señala Velasco, el creciente número de víctimas mortales en la frontera y el impacto de la creciente criminalización de la migración, incluyendo la construcción de cárceles ("centros de detención") para deportados, tuvieron un gran impacto entre los inmigrantes indígenas, debido a su falta generalizada de estatus. Eso produjo un sentido de urgencia entre las organizaciones que se unieron para formar el FIOB.

En la medida en que buscaba construir una base de miembros indígenas de todo Oaxaca, el FIOB no era una asociación local de migrantes. De hecho, la OPEO se disolvió como tal. "Si tenemos un comité solo de personas de San Miguel Cuevas, no podemos organizar o ir más allá. Sin embargo, en la organización del FIOB, todas las comunidades están trabajando juntas para crear conciencia, educar, orientar y todo lo demás. Esa es la mayor diferencia", explicó Rufino.

Y desde el comienzo, el FIOB conscientemente se vio a sí mismo como una organización binacional, y a sus miembros como personas que pertenecen a comunidades binacionales que cruzan la frontera. Su creciente presencia condujo a que posteriormente varias organizaciones indígenas migrantes originarias de los estados de Guerrero y Michoacán se incorporaran, por lo que su nombre cambió a Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, en 2005. A su vez, casi tan pronto como comenzó a funcionar en California, comenzó a organizarse nuevamente en Oaxaca, así como en las comunidades oaxaqueñas en Baja California. Estableció una estructura de comités locales que pertenecen a organizaciones estatales. Cada tres años, las secciones de FIOB eligen delegados a una asamblea binacional, que eligen un comité binacional y un coordinador binacional.

Esas asambleas trienales se llevan a cabo en México. En parte, esta es una cuestión práctica. Los campesinos indígenas no pueden obtener fácilmente el dinero para viajar como delegados a las reuniones en Estados Unidos. Incluso si pudieran, obtener visas sería prácticamente imposible. Los consulados de Estados Unidos sospechan que los oaxaqueños pobres que intentan visitar California sólo buscan una manera de cruzar la frontera para quedarse y trabajar. En consecuencia, las asambleas mexicanas del FIOB siempre atraen a más delegados del lado mexicano que del estadounidense. Mientras que los líderes del FIOB en la década de 1990 provenían de las organizaciones y movimientos migratorios en Estados Unidos, su crecimiento en Oaxaca ha estado cambiando lentamente el centro de gravedad de la organización, así como su actividad política, hacia el sur.

Hacerse responsables ante las decisiones de sus comunidades de base no es sólo retórica. El primer director del FIOB, Juan Martínez, que había sido el coordinador de la Asociación Cívica Benito Juárez, fue removido porque organizó una conferencia en Oaxaca sin el acuerdo de otros líderes, y para empeorar las cosas, invitó al gobernador de Oaxaca a participar. El segundo director de FIOB, Arturo Pimentel, fue expulsado por postularse para un cargo en Oaxaca y negarse a renunciar a su puesto como coordinador binacional de FIOB (requerido por los estatutos), así como por malversar los fondos de la organización. Rufino fue el tercer coordinador binacional del FIOB, de 2001 a 2008, seguido por Gaspar Rivera-Salgado. Todos fueron líderes del FIOB y de sus organizaciones predecesoras en California.

En 2011, al término del periodo de Rivera-Salgado, su sucesor, Bernardo Ramírez, vivió en el corazón de la Región Mixteca de Oaxaca. Ramírez trabajó cinco temporadas en los campos de Estados Unidos, una experiencia compartida con la mayoría de los delegados del FIOB. Sin embargo, su elección hizo evidente que el centro de gravedad de la organización se estaba moviendo más firmemente hacia México. Ramírez fue seguido por Romualdo Juan Gutiérrez Cortez, el actual coordinador binacional del FIOB, un maestro y ex líder del sindicato de maestros del estado.

Desde el principio, uno de los mayores problemas a los que se enfrentaron los organizadores de FIOB fue la participación de las mujeres. Según la activista del FIOB Irma Luna, "el tema de la violencia doméstica es tabú en la comunidad oaxaqueña, pero sucede a menudo. Muchas mujeres están acostumbradas a los abusos. El divorcio y la separación no son opciones y sienten que tienen que permanecer en ese entorno", señala Luna. Ella es originaria de San Miguel Cuevas, al igual que Rufino, aunque nació cuando sus padres trabajaban en Sinaloa. Rufino la reclutó cuando ella y su esposo se mudaron a Fresno y la animó a que no dejara de hablar en mixteco. Luna se sumó a Rufino en su trabajo para CRLA y le pidió que organizara un programa en el FIOB para detener la violencia doméstica.

Irma Luna solicita a un capataz agua para beber. Foto, David Bacon, 2019

"Después de comenzar a trabajar en el equipo de violencia doméstica, noté que cuando hablaba de ello, la gente abandonaba lentamente la sala", recordó de su labor en el libro Communities Without Borders. "Otros preguntaban por qué les decía a las mujeres que acusaran a sus maridos con la policía. Cuando iba a la estación de radio para hablar sobre mi proyecto, los oyentes me llamaban para preguntar por qué les estaba dando esta información a las mujeres. Es un problema que se remonta a México, pero también hay mucha presión en Estados Unidos. La migración sólo se suma al problema de la violencia doméstica. Pero ahora hay más apoyo en los pueblos de Oaxaca para que las mujeres denuncien a sus maridos, y muchas mujeres los envían a la cárcel después de recibir una paliza brutal.

"Ahora soy una trabajadora comunitaria y ayudo a las personas que trabajan en labores agrícolas. Cuando no tienen baños portátiles, o si su empleador se niega a pagarles el sueldo, voy al lugar de trabajo e investigo. Yo sabía que no iba ser una mujer que se quedara en casa, que tendría como diez hijos y que esperaría a ver qué me traía la vida".

Oralia Maceda se presentó en California en 1998, cuando tenía 22 años y planeaba quedarse un mes. Ella había trabajado en la oficina de FIOB en Oaxaca, pero se quejó de que tenía que pedirle permiso a su director, Arturo Pimentel, antes de poder hacer nada. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado la llevó a la oficina de Fresno donde conoció a Rufino. "Rufino me preguntó si estaba interesada en trabajar con mujeres y acepté", ella recuerda. "Al principio había pocas mujeres involucradas en el FIOB. Rufino me pidió que compartiera mis experiencias en Oaxaca, y comenzamos a ir a diferentes ciudades: Fresno, Selma, Santa María y Santa Rosa. Él siempre estaba haciendo algo y nunca se cansaba. Verlo así me motivaba".

Rufino se dio cuenta que Maceda tenía habilidades organizativas y trató de ayudarla a desarrollarlas. "En Oaxaca no se te permite ir a la agencia [la oficina del gobierno local] y sentarte con los presidentes, porque eres una mujer", señala. "Otro problema era mi edad. Si les aconsejaba a las mujeres mayores cómo cuidar a sus hijos, se molestaban. Pero gracias al apoyo de Rufino, en California pude hacer este trabajo. Como mujeres mixtecas, creamos un calendario que mostraba nuestras historias, y luego creamos un libro de recuerdos. Intentamos crear un grupo de jóvenes. Organizamos una reunión en un rancho y participaron 20 jóvenes. Pero a veces solamente dos o tres personas asistían a las reuniones que organizaba. Cuando las cosas iban mal, le preguntaba a Rufino por qué no me decía nada desde el principio. Me dijo que si tenía una idea, debería seguir adelante con ella, y que si salía mal, debería aprender de ella, en lugar de sólo esperar a que él me dijera cómo hacer cosas.

Miembros de FIOB y Rufino en una manifestación frente al consulado de México. Foto, David Bacon, 2019.

"Hoy en día, las mujeres a veces participan más que los hombres. Su mayor obstáculo es la falta de tiempo. Tienen que trabajar en el campo y cuidar a sus familias. No tienen guarderías. Creo que los hombres tienen que ser más conscientes de las necesidades de las mujeres, para que ellas puedan participar. Pero ahora hay espacio para que las mujeres y sus ideas se desarrollen".

Odilia Romero, quien consolidó al FIOB en Los Ángeles, fue elegida como la primera mujer coordinadora binacional en la asamblea de marzo de 2018 en Huajuapan, Oaxaca. Romero y Rufino trabajaron en estrecha colaboración desde los primeros años de la organización. Llevada por sus padres desde San Bartolomé Zoogocho, fue testigo del despoblamiento del pueblo cuando era niña, la experiencia formativa de miles de migrantes oaxaqueños. "En los años ochenta había alrededor de mil personas allí", recuerda. "Luego comenzamos a irnos a la ciudad de Oaxaca, y luego a Estados Unidos, hasta que sólo quedaron 88 personas. De repente, un jueves, por ejemplo, la gente se iba y los niños se quedaban atrás".

Maylei Blackwell, profesora de Estudios Chicanos y de Género de la Universidad de California en Los Ángeles (UCLA), comenta que Romero tiene "un espíritu rebelde que la ha caracterizado desde la infancia". Blackwell registró su historia oral, en la cual Romero dice, "mi rebelión me ayuda a tener la esperanza de que una sociedad mejor sea posible".

Antes de conocer a Rufino, Romero leyó un artículo que él había escrito sobre el FIOB. "Hablaba de cómo comenzó, y de cómo algunos de sus líderes fueron despedidos por corrupción y acciones negativas hacia los miembros", recuerda. "Estaba muy impresionada porque encontré lo que estaba buscando, una organización que hablara de sus logros y de sus limitaciones es digna de admiración". Rufino la animó a unirse, y luego a promover la organización.

"No vamos a tener posiciones de Barbie aquí", declara Romero. "El Frente es una de las pocas organizaciones que realmente nos da espacio para hablar sobre género, con la intención de pasar de la conversación a la acción, para que las mujeres tengan un papel real... Tenemos que tomar algunas de las cosas buenas de los pueblos indígenas, de una sociedad igualitaria e implementarlo como una organización indígena, pero también hablar de las cosas que no nos gustan. Una de las cosas que no nos gustan es excluir a las mujeres".

Laura Velasco trabajó con Romero y con otra mujer en el liderazgo de FIOB, Centolia Maldonado, una activista en Oaxaca que recolectó la evidencia que condujo a la expulsión de Arturo Pimentel. La propia Maldonado finalmente fue expulsada en medio de acusaciones de sexismo entre los líderes de FIOB (una acusación que Romero también hizo). Velasco señala que todavía está molesta por eso, "pero Rufino siempre trató a las mujeres de la organización con amistad y respeto. Él y Gaspar estaban entre los pocos que eran éticos y comprensivos, en un conflicto claramente relacionado con el sexo, con respecto a Maldonado. Tanto ella como Romero fueron muy importantes en el desarrollo de Rufino como líder y en el desarrollo de la política de género del FIOB".

El FIOB también organizó a sus miembros en Estados Unidos para abogar por la reforma migratoria. En su asamblea binacional de 2005, aprobó una resolución condenando los programas de trabajadores invitados. Eso lo diferenció de muchas organizaciones de derechos de los migrantes en Estados Unidos en ese momento, las cuales estaban dispuestas a aceptar nuevos programas (supuestamente con mayores derechos para los migrantes), a cambio de la legalización para los indocumentados. Si bien el gobierno de México también pedía la negociación de un nuevo programa de braceros, Rufino alegó que "los inmigrantes necesitan el derecho al trabajo, pero estos trabajadores no tienen derechos laborales ni prestaciones. Es como la esclavitud".

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, quien condujo el desarrollo del programa de migración del FIOB, vinculó los derechos de los migrantes con el derecho a no migrar. "Ambos derechos son parte de la misma solución", explicó. "Tenemos que cambiar el debate en el que la migración se presenta como un problema por un debate sobre derechos. El verdadero problema es la explotación". La posición del FIOB también enfatizó los derechos lingüísticos para las comunidades migrantes y el respeto por su cultura indígena.

Organizar los derechos de los migrantes fue más que tomar una posición política; fue parte de la construcción de la base de miembros del FIOB. A principios de la década de 2000, Lorenzo Oropeza, un activista del FIOB que también trabajaba para CRLA, organizó una sección entre varios campesinos triquis que vivían al aire libre en las orillas del río Russian en el condado de Sonoma. Fausto López, el líder del grupo, comentó: "Me uní al FIOB porque Lorenzo habla mi lengua. Es mixteco y nosotros somos triquis, pero él trabaja con todos los oaxaqueños. Como somos del mismo estado, todos somos iguales. Entonces, nuestro grupo local me eligió para representarlos. Viajé a varias partes de California con Lorenzo y me reuní con otros líderes. Muchos de nosotros los trabajadores agrícolas no conocemos nuestros derechos, y el FIOB nos enseña. También trabajamos para la amnistía para los migrantes, porque muchos de nosotros cruzamos la frontera ilegalmente, y muchos mueren en el proceso".

Puedes descargar la versión en PDF aquí

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: