By David Bacon
At 8:30 AM on October 21, 2002, Oaxaca state police arrested a dangerous schoolteacher.
Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez was pulled over as he was driving to his school in the rural Mixteca region. Police took him to Oaxaca de Juárez, the state capital, where he was held for days on false charges. Gutierrez is the state coordinator for the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (the Frente), which had organized a loud, embarrassing protest during a visit to Oaxaca by Mexican President Vicente Fox not long before. Oaxaca Governor Jose Murat was out for revenge.
As Gutierrez languished in jail, Oaxacan migrant farm workers north of the border in Cali-fornia’s central valley reacted quickly. They picketed the Mexican consulate, held press conferences, and clogged Murat’s phone lines with calls and faxes. In Oaxaca itself, other Frente members organized similar protests. After a week, the governor succumbed to the pressure: Gutierrez was released.
That binational campaign to defend the Frente leader has since been repeated many times. Cooperation across the border is today one of the most important tools Oaxacans have for defending human rights in their home state.
Thousands indigenous people migrate from Oaxaca’s hillside villages to the United States every year-among Mexican states, Oaxaca has the second-highest concentration of indigenous residents.
Winning political change in Mexico itself is central to the Frente’s activity. For Oaxaca’s indigenous residents, greater democracy and respect for human rights are the keys to eventually achieving a government committed to increasing rural family income. That in turn might make it possible for people to make a living at home, instead of heading to California for survival.
Migration: A Consequence of Economic Reforms
“Migration is a necessity, not a choice,” Gutierrez explains. “There is no work here. You can’t tell a child to study to be a doctor if there is no work for doctors in Mexico. It is a very daunting task for a Mexican teacher to convince students to get an education and stay in the country. It is disheartening to see a student go through many hardships to get an education here in Mexico and become a professional, and then later in the United States do manual labor. Sometimes those with an education are working side by side with others who do not even know how to read.”
Lack of economic opportunity in Oaxaca’s villages is a result of Mexican economic development policies. For more than two decades, under pressure from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and conditions placed on U.S. bank loans and bailouts, the government has encouraged foreign investment, while cutting expenditures intended to raise rural incomes. Prices have risen dramatically since the government cut subsidies for necessities like gasoline, electricity, bus fares, tortillas, and milk.
The Mexican government estimates that 37.7%, or 40 million, of its 106 million citizens live in poverty, with 25 million, or 23.6%, living in extreme poverty. According to a representative of EDUCA, a Oaxacan education and development organization, 75% of the state’s 3.4 million residents live in extreme poverty. It is the second-poorest state in Mexico, after Chiapas. Meanwhile, President Fox boasts that Mexicans in the United States-often working for poverty wages-are sending home over $18 billion a year. “Migration helps pacify people,” Gutierrez says. “Poverty is a ticking time bomb, but as long as there is money coming in from family in the United States, there is peace. To curb migration our country has to have a better employment plan. We must push our government to think about the working class.”
The Frente’s Cross-Border Social Movement
Oaxacans abroad don’t just protest conditions at home. The Frente defends worker rights in California fields, has convinced the state’s courts to provide indigenous language interpreters, and helps keep alive the traditions that are the cultural glue binding together Mixtec, Zapotec, Triqui, and Chatino communities.
The Frente was, in fact, founded in California. Leaders like Dominguez have a long history organizing strikes and other movements in Mexico. When they arrived in California in 1987, they started the group with meetings in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. At first it was called the Mixtec/Zapotec Binational Front, because organizers wanted to unite Mixtec and Zapotec immigrants, two of the largest indigenous groups in Oaxaca.
Soon it had to change its name. Triquis and other indigenous Oaxacans wanted to participate, so the organization became the Indigenous Oaxacan Binational Front. Then Purepechas from Michoacan and indigenous people from other Mexican states also joined, and it became the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. Through all the changes, its binational character has only grown stronger.
Oaxacans have formed many other organizations during their long migration through Mexico and the United States. Most of these organizations are composed of members from a single town. The Frente is different and more political, in that it unites people speaking different languages, from different indigenous groups, in order to promote community and workplace struggles for social justice.
Racism against indigenous people in Mexico required them to develop a history of community resistance, and to fight for their own cultural identity. Centolia Maldonado, one of the Frente’s leaders in Oaxaca, recalls her bitter experience as a migrant in northern Mexico. “They called us ‘Oaxaquitas’-Indians,” she remembers. “The people from the north were always valued more. There is terrible discrimination when people migrate.”
In 1992, the Frente used the celebrations of the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas as a platform to dramatize its call for indigenous rights. Dominguez denounced “people who say that Christopher Columbus was welcomed when he came. They never talk about the massacres or the genocide that occurred in our villages, on the whole of the American continent. We wanted to tell the other side of the story. That was the object of the Frente Mixteco/Zapoteco Binacional: to dismantle the old stereotype, to march, to protest.”