August 31, 2001

The New Face of Farm Labor - Indian Teens from Mexico, Guatemala

EDITOR'S NOTE: There is a new ethnic group among America's 1.8 million farm-workers — Indian teenagers from Mexico and neighboring Guatemala. Some are as young as 14, and with about 40,000 of them arriving annually to work U.S. farms, there are new implications for government policies and organizations working with migrant laborers.


By Mary Jo McConahay

MADERA, CA — A soft-spoken 17 year old named Eduardo is the new face of the labor force that puts American food on the table: a teenage Mexican Indian.

Only a month after his secret, illegal border crossing, Eduardo sits contentedly on a park bench after work, watching pick-up basketball played by a dozen youngsters with his same ruddy, chiseled features from the same handful of villages in the central Mexican highlands. Longingly, Eduardo eyes their jalopies nearby. "If you are here a few years, you can get a car," he says.

Indian teenagers, sometimes as young as 14, according to researchers, are arriving from Mexico and neighboring Guatemala in ever-greater numbers — perhaps 35,000 to 40,000 annually — looking for alternatives to subsistence farming at home. Their increasing numbers among America's 1.8 million farmworkers signal a sea-change with implications for government policies, others who work with migrant laborers, even those who would unionize them.

Once across the U.S. border, the youngsters travel east to work crops from Florida to New Jersey, or west to the peaches, grapes, apples, oranges and other harvests in Oregon, Washington and California. They come from remote Maya villages in Chiapas and Guatemala, from Mexican Mixtec, Triqui, and Zapotec towns and elsewhere. They are not Latino, but young indigenous ethnic minorities joining an aging Latino farm labor force. "They haven't replaced Latinos in the migrant stream, but it's all going to come up for grabs in coming years," says Susanne Jonas, a Guatemala expert at University of California at Santa Cruz.

The long Guatemalan war that ended in l996 uprooted a million Maya, and many found their way north. Some who fled across the border to Chiapas in southernmost Mexico in the l980's shared their newly established routes with Maya there. Tight economic conditions mean the flow continues. While government programs and other conditions translate to the average Mexican family shrinking in size in the last 20 years, rural indigenous families have more children than the average. Drought and deforestation that makes working the land for big families untenable drives their young men to seek cash to send home. In some cases, old migration networks have taken on new life: Oaxacan Indians had been recruited to work here as braceros in the l940's.

Eduardo, whose native language is Mixtec, made a typical journey with three young cousins: 12 days from their village to the Arizona border, a dark crossing, then four days to this town center where they found the house of villagers who had come before. Cost: $1,000 each to coyotes, human smugglers, debt the boys must work off in coming months. But in village life, a boy of 16 is a man, and with a widowed mother and two sisters to support, Eduardo's path was clear. He and his cousins, aged 12, 15 and 20, quickly found work at six dollars an hour harvesting cantaloupes in Dos Palos, an hour-and-a-half away from this town by van — a daily trip that costs six dollars per seat. "Nobody asks" the age of the 12 year old who "keeps up" with the others, according to Eduardo.

Most of the arriving teenagers, like him, are unfamiliar with urban life and some do not even speak Spanish well.

"Many agencies and service organizations don't understand the diversity of farmworkers, that they're not all Hispanics," says Edward Kissam, a senior researcher for the Aguirre Institute. Kissam has tracked the growth of the number of teenage Indian workers since the early l990s. At that time, Guatemalan Maya already made up a quarter to a third of the farm force in south Florida, he says, "but surely the proportion is now much higher."

Here in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, Mexican Indians from the state of Oaxaca are so established that they have public fiestas, listen to their own bands, read their own newspaper, and seek translation assistance and other help at an activist rights and service organization, the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front. The federally- and state-funded California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Inc., which represents farmworkers, formed an indigenous unit whose young employees speak the pre-Colombian home languages, advising fieldworkers on wage and workplace rights. But the world of the Indian youth, often very different from that of Latinos, is for most agencies an unknown.

They may maintain the custom of deferring to elders or community leaders, for instance, rather than making important individual decisions. Thus, a public health worker might be well advised to determine who a local indigenous leader is and work through that person to promote a vaccination or HIV/AIDS-education campaign.

In Mexico and Guatemala, Indians complain of discrimination, a fear - or experience - newcomers may bring with them. Just because a foreman, labor contractor or health outreach worker is from the same country and speaks Spanish doesn't mean there won't be a gulf between them and teenage indigenous, experts caution.

Language itself can be a stumbling block. "Our experience is that there is a lack of persons everywhere who speak the language of the newcomers," says Leoncio Vasquez of the Binational Front, which has trained 12 trilingual interpreters. "Health, especially, is a little difficult — some words can't be explained well in Mixteco, for instance X-rays and MRI's."

A decade ago, Edward Kis-sam found in a study that there was little problem of families taking kids to work in fields, as some in the U.S. Labor Department and human rights groups feared. Instead, the youngest fieldworkers were already the adolescents from the far off Indian villages. The image of the migrant family following the crops was long over — as it became more difficult and dangerous to cross the border, families were left behind, and growers invested little in family housing.

Today, newcomer youngsters work in a farm labor force that is 80 percent male.

"There should be investment in building the skills of these young workers who are seen simply as arms or hands," says Kissam. He urges education outside the classroom such as evening discussion groups, and distance learning via television, radio and the Internet. Many of the teenagers are educational high achievers, reluctant to have left school, according to one study with interviews by Kissam and colleagues. Eduardo, for example, is proud to have graduated the equivalent of 9th grade "tele-secundaria," a Mexican program for learning by television found in remote villages. "These teenagers are still growing up, many courageous pioneering young men," said Kissam. "Many will go back to be somebody in their villages, and many will stay."

CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla said the indigenous are beginning "lateral movement" in some areas such as San Diego from nurseries and tomato picking into construction and day labor. Those from Oaxaca, one of the strongest networks, "are very insular and live and travel with their own groups, don't say `I'm from Mexico' — or even Oaxaca, but identify by villages — `I'm from San Juan Mixtepec.'" It is a strong identification with a small group, which may serve them well. "They have a sense of political community," said Padilla.

In his afternoon in the park, Eduardo never puts down a small tape recorder with a built-in radio — a prized possession he brought from home. He lost his only cassette on the journey north, but enjoys listening to the Spanish-language radio stations through his earphones — the English ones unintelligible to him yet. He doesn't know how long he'll stay. "We have a basketball court at home, in the center of town," he says wistfully.

Mary Jo McConahay ( has reported from Latin America for the National Catholic Reporter, Choices, Mother Jones and other publications for over a decade.

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