Indigenous Migrant Farmworkers Demand Change in the Fields
From Baja California to Washington State
When thousands of Indigenous farmworkers went on strike in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California on March 16, their voices were heard not just in the streets of the farm towns along this peninsula in northern Mexico, but well beyond. Two years earlier, migrant workers struck one of the largest berry growers in the Pacific Northwest, Sakuma Farms, and organized an independent union for agricultural laborers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice). An Indigenous diaspora stretches the entirety of North America’s Pacific coastline, as Mixtec and Triqui workers form the backbone of industrial agriculture on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Now, those workers are demanding better pay and an end to ethnic discrimination in the fields.
“We are the working people,” declared Fidel Sanchez, leader of the Alianza de Organizaciones Nacionales, Estatales y Municipales para Justicia Social (the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice) during the San Quintin strike. “We are the ones who pay for the government of this state and country with the labor of our hands.” This was not an excess of rhetoric. In just the first two weeks of striking at the height of the strawberry season in April, Baja California’s conservative governor, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, estimated grower losses at more than $40 million.
The strike demands ranged from a daily wage of 200 pesos ($13) to better conditions in labor camps. Sanchez explained the strain the low wages puts on fathers and mothers in traditional households: “We want to work as men, as fathers of our families. Our wives suffer the most from these hunger wages, because they have to stretch 700 or 800 pesos so that it can cover the cost of the food, of the clothes for our children and their schoolbooks and pencils, for their medical care when they get sick, for the gas and water so that we can wash up.”
Agribusiness farming started in San Quintin in the 1970s – as it did in many areas of northern Mexico – to supply the US market with winter tomatoes and strawberries. Baja California had few inhabitants then, so growers brought workers from southern Mexico, especially Indigenous Mixtec and Triqui families from Oaxaca. Today an estimated 70,000 Indigenous migrant workers live in labor camps across the narrow peninsula. The camps are notorious for their bad conditions; many are in violation of Mexican law.
Once Indigenous workers had been brought to the border region, they began to cross the international boundary to work in the US. Indigenous Oaxacan migrants have been coming to the United States for at least three decades, and today the bulk of the farm labor workforce in California’s strawberry plantations and the apple orchards and blueberry fields of Washington comes from the same migrant stream that is on strike in Baja California.
Two of the 500 strikers at Sakuma Farms in 2013 were teenagers Marcelina Hilario from San Martin Itunyoso and Teofila Raymundo from Santa Cruz Yucayani. Both started working in the fields with their parents, and today, like many young people in Indigenous migrant families, they speak English and Spanish – the languages of school and the culture around them. But Raymundo also speaks her native Triqui and is learning Mixteco, while Hilario speaks Mixteco and is studying French.
“I’ve been working with my dad since I was 12,” Raymundo said. “I’ve seen them treat him bad, but he comes back because he needs this job. Once after a strike here, we came up all the way from California the next season, and they wouldn’t hire us. We had to go looking for another place to live and work that year. That’s how I met Marcelina.” They both accused the company of refusing to give them better jobs, such as keeping track of the picked berries. Those positions, they said, went only to young white workers. “When I see people treat us badly, I don’t agree with that,” Hilario added. “I think you have to say something.”
Rosario Ventura was another Sakuma Farms striker. She lives in California most of the year, and comes to Washington with her husband, Isidro, for the picking season. Rosario is from a Triqui town, while Isidro is from the Mixteca region. They met and married while working at Sakuma Farms, something that might never have happened if they had stayed in Mexico. But the Venturas didn’t come to the US for romance. During the dry years in San Martin Itunyoso, Rosario said, “There is nothing with which to get food – nothing. Sometimes we were starving because there would be no money.”
Nevertheless, her father wept when she announced she was leaving, saying she’d never return. In some ways, he was right. “If you go, you aren’t going to come back – it is forever. That is what he said,” she remembered. “I don’t call or even talk with him, because if I do, it will make him sad. He’ll ask, ‘When will you return?’ What can I say? It is very expensive to cross the border. It is easy to leave the US, but difficult to cross back.”
The echoes of San Quintin were heard as well in California’s Salinas Valley – epicenter of the US lettuce and strawberry agro-industry – where for years worker frustration has been building over economic exploitation. Miguel Lopez, a Triqui man who lives in Greenfield, came north for the same reasons that brought the Venturas to the US. When he arrived in the US 20 years ago, things were even harder. With no money he couldn’t rent an apartment. “I lived under a tree with five others, next to a ranch,” he recalled of his first years here, traveling between farms across the West Coast. “It rains a lot in Oregon, and there we were under a tree.”
Eventually he found work, and after some years, brought his family to the US. That was a mixed blessing, however, because he and his wife had to work so hard. “My children didn’t even know me because I would go to sleep as soon as I got home,” he said. “It was hard to care for them properly.” He didn’t meet with a warm welcome in Greenfield. “Indigenous people face discrimination at school and around town in general. Many people speak badly of Triqui, or Indigenous people.”
Bernardo Ramirez, former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations went to Sakuma Farms to help with the 2013 strike, and came away angry over such discrimination. “Foremen insult workers and call them burros,” he charged. “When you compare people to animals, this is racism. We’re human beings.” But, he cautioned, discrimination involves more than language. “Low wages are a form of racism, too, because they minimize the work of migrants.”
Of course, the big agribusiness corporations that market the strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries dispute such charges. Sakuma Farms says it guarantees its workers $10/hour with a piece-rate bonus, and workers have to meet a production quota. But the companies should start paying attention to these voices, and their building anger and frustration at the continued poverty among Oaxaca’s Indigenous migrants. Perhaps something is getting lost in translation. If the agribusiness companies want to understand the workers who produce their profits, maybe they should learn Triqui and Mixteco, so they can hear what’s being said.
David Bacon is a California journalist and photographer. His latest book is The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013).