January 9, 2009

Photoessay: Living Under the Trees

By David Bacon

About 30 million Mexicans survive on less than 30 pesos per day-not quite $3. The minimum wage is 45 pesos per day. The Mexican federal government estimates that 37.7 percent of its 106 million citizens-40 million people-live in poverty. Some 25 million, or 23.6 percent, live in extreme poverty. In rural Mexico, more than 10 million people have a daily income of less than 12 pesos-a little more than one dollar.

It’s no accident the state of Oaxaca is one of the main starting points for the current stream of Mexican migrants coming to the United States. Extreme poverty encompasses 75 percent of its 3.4 million residents, according to EDUCA, a Mex-ican education and development organization.

A young woman holds her son outside their tent in a camp on a hillside outside Del Mar, one of San Diego’s most affluent suburbs. Most residents in this camp are indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec farmworkers from Oaxaca.

Thousands of indigenous people leave Oaxaca’s hillside villages for the United States every year, not only for economic reasons but also because a repressive political system thwarts the kind of economic development that could lift incomes in the poorest rural areas. Lack of development pushes people off the land. The majority of Oaxacans are indigenous people-that is, they belong to communities and ethnic groups that existed long before Columbus landed in the Caribbean. They speak 23 different languages.

“Migration is a necessity, not a choice,” explained Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, a teacher in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in Oaxaca’s rural Mixteca region. “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.”

In California, migrants have become the majority of people working in the fields. Settlements of Triquis, Mixtecs, Chatinos, and other indigenous groups are dispersed in a Oaxacan diaspora. This movement of people has created larger transnational communities, bound together by shared culture and language, and the social organizations people bring with them from place to place.

Every Sunday, a priest celebrates mass for migrant workers from Oaxaca in the ravine below the hill where they live in Del Mar. Migrants living here harvest tomatoes, strawberries, oranges and avocados, the county’s principal crops. Until last year, they had camped under the trees on hillsides within sight of new housing developments. Their settlement was forcibly removed by county authorities after activists with the anti-immigrant Minutemen Project destroyed an altar built by the workers for the Catholic mass.

Living Under the Trees is a project that documents the experiences and conditions of indigenous farm worker communities. It focuses on social movements in indigenous communities and how indigenous culture helps communities survive and enjoy life. The project’s purpose is to win public support for policies to help those communities by putting a human face on conditions and providing a forum in which people speak for themselves. It is a joint effort of California Rural Legal Assistance, its Indigenous Farm Worker Project, and the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations. An exhibition of photographs and oral history panels from this project has been touring throughout California for two years.

These particular photographs highlight the relationship between community residents and their surroundings, as well as their relations with each other. They show situations of extreme poverty, but are also intended to depict people who are capable of changing conditions, by organizing themselves and creating social change.

David Bacon is a documentary photographer and journalist. He is the author of IllegalPeople How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.

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