January 11, 2002

Baja Battle — Indigenous Mexicans Fight For Housing

By David Bacon

ENSENADA, BAJA CALIFORNIA—Mexican President Vicente Fox won election in part because he promised, in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion, a new era of respect for the rights of indigenous communities. But his own National Action Party, which has governed the Mexican state of Baja California for almost two decades, stands accused of treating indigenous communities as a source of cheap labor for the state's big ranchers and arresting activists when they demand basic housing and government services.

The fight is not just in Mexico. Because tens of thousands of workers from the indigenous communities of southern Mexican state of Oaxaca now labor in U.S. fields from Florida to California, protest against Baja authorities is coming from this side of the border too. Another reason the issue spills over: indigenous workers in Baja California pick the tomatoes and strawberries found in U.S. markets in early spring.

Throughout desert valleys here, landless migrant families who come to harvest the fields are squatting on federal land, trying to build permanent homes. Housing is simply not available, they say, for all the indigenous Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Triquis who arrive to make up Baja California's agricultural work force.

Police have jailed two of the state's best-known organizers of the migrant farmworkers, deeming them threats to the social order, and warrants have been issued for more than a dozen others. Almost all are members of migrant indigenous communities.

In May, Beatriz Chavez, leader for two decades of the Independent Confederation of Farmworkers and Peasants (CIOAC) in the agricultural valley of San Quintin, was arrested by state Judicial Police. In December, Triqui community leader Julio Sandoval was picked up in Maneadero, a farm town just south of Ensenada.

Both were accused of leading illegal land occupations and remain imprisoned in Ensa-nada.

Organizers say that racism against indigenous migrants has become official government policy. "There's a crisis of justice in Baja California," says Julio Cesar Alonso, another CIOAC leader, "in which the leaders of social movements in this state are being systematically jailed." Alonso too is on the arrest list.

Reaction to the jailings has spread to Oaxacan communities in California, provoking outraged letters and telegrams to Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy. "The policies followed in Baja are being dictated by big ranchers, who don't want to see any kind of organization among indigenous communities," says Rufino Dominguez, coordinator of the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front office in Fresno, in California's agricultural heartland.

Baja ranchers remember strikes led by Oaxacans in Sinaloa and Baja's San Quintin Valley during the l980s, reckons Dominguez, "and they're afraid that any kind of organizing effort is eventually going to lead to the same thing."

Chavez, the state says, led migrant farmworkers from the Ejido Graciano Sanchez onto land owned by the government. Sandoval is accused of seeking to double the size of a migrant settlement onto adjacent federal land.

After the Mexican revolution of 1910, a principle of national law maintained vacant federal land could and should be used to house those who had no land or shelter. But beginning in the l970s, as government implemented reforms dictated by the World Bank and other international lenders, and prepared to enter the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, traditional protections for the time-honored land occupations disappeared. An agency established to buy up vacant land and sell it to the poor has not worked, charge the activists, putting families who participate in greater debt.

Meanwhile, land hunger on the peninsula remains intense. In Maneadero and the San Quintin Valley, thousands of workers are brought in every year from Oaxaca indigenous villages to meet the labor needs of large growers.

Wages remain low, making the strawberries and tomatoes cheap, even as ranchers' profits remain high. "While some workers can earn 80 pesos a day (about $8) in the fields," says Domiciano Lopez, a San Quintin community organizer, "a kilo of meat costs 38 pesos in the local market — half a day's wages. Families here eat meat once a month."

Pressure grows because indigenous families are attempting to escape miserable conditions in work camps. Typically, families are crowded into single rooms, often with dirt floors and inadequate water and sanitation. Over 20,000 landless families live in San Quintin, for instance, but in the eyes of state and local authorities, they remain strangers.

In 2000, Mixtec activist Celerino Garcia ran for election as a federal deputy, as the candidate of grassroots organizations that sought to bring attention to the need for housing. Garcia didn't win, but the thousands of votes he received demonstrated growing anger among workers and the homeless. Last spring, activists sat in at municipal and state offices, and even blocked the main highway that connects the U.S. border with the south of the peninsula.

Then began the current wave of warrants and arrests, which shows no sign of abating.

"The struggle for housing has a long history in Baja California," Dominguez says. "It includes land occupations, because the government has never been willing to make land available in a legal way." When the legal avenues are shut off, barrio residents say, direct action is their only choice.

David Bacon (dbacon@ igc.org) writes widely on immigration and labor issues.

Return to the Frontpage