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[Notice: All images in this section are (c) Copyright Saundra Sturdevant, 2006]


Saundra Sturdevant---Images & Text



Migration is an economic issue. North American agribusiness has always demanded and obtained cheap labor. Migrants from China, Japan, India, Laos, Vietnam, Euro-Americans from the South and the Midwest of North America, indigenous of North America and Mexicans have worked in the fields, one ethnic group after another, always at the cheapest wages and most exploitative working conditions possible. Some modicum of change is affected when significant numbers organize and protest.

And then, only when able to gain the attention and support of those outside the migrant world, is there success at minor changes. Systemic changes are not up for discussion. The UWF movement of the 1960s and 1970s is a classic example of how this works in North America.

Numbering twelve million in 2005, half without papers, migrants from Mexico were 30% of the total number of migrants working and living in North America. Since the 1950s, Mexican migrants have accounted for the largest number of laborers in agriculture in North America. Up until the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994, Mexican migrants came from three major sender states, Michoacan heading this list. Beginning with NAFTA, indigenous Mixtecos from Oaxaca began to migrate in considerable numbers. At present, approximately 200,000 Mixtecos work in agriculture in North America. Exact figures are hard to come by due to fact that very few speak Spanish and those having papers are even fewer. Agribusiness' new, cheap labor source is Mixtecos from Oaxaca.

Agribusiness profits have increased enormously during the 28 years of production from 1974 to 2002, years for which I have figures. In 1974, cash receipts from vegetables, fruits, and horticultural specialty crops were 17% of U.S. farm value. By 2002, they were 40%. The growth was due to the absolute increase in production volume, with production of vegetables and fruits increasing by 55%. California was the leader with a production increase of 97%. Increase in production volume reflects the increased work capacity of field labor. Increase in wages has not been the incentive; it's fear of not being able to provide for the family and losing the job.

Despite claims made for mechanization of agriculture replacing the need for field labor, the fact is that the demand for field labor is up. This is explained by the growth of such crops as lettuce, strawberries and grapes. Each of these requires an enormous amount of hand labor of transplanting, pruning, weeding, hand hoeing and harvesting. Moreover, the norm is for both strawberries and lettuce, as other crops, to be packaged in the fields, thus necessitating more field labor. The blurred distinction between field and post-harvest labor also means less worker protection, as workers engaged in hand harvest tasks are excluded from collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.


Much has been written about NAFTA being the prime force in generating more migrants from Mexico and how NAFTA serves the interests of the North Americans. All part truths of the whole. Creation and implementation of NAFTA mirror an earlier period in North American-Mexican relations when Profirio Diaz (1876-1910) was president. Backed by Mexico's large landowners, Diaz welcomed large-scale investment capital of Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, Daniel Guggenheim, and others. Using cheap Mexican labor, they developed Mexico's railroads, mines, petroleum and other natural resources. Mexico was opened up; profits were enormous, and the money men on both sides of the border benefited. The levantamiento that became the 1910 Mexican Revolution had its roots in the great misery and loss of national sovereignty that before the levantamiento was considered a sidebar.

The 1910 Revolution changed a number of things, but it did not seriously hinder established relationships of wealth and power among the North Americans and Mexicans. In the current time of neo-liberalism, we see a virtual replay of the earlier duet. Beginning in 1982, the issue was again opening up Mexico. The U.S. Treasury seriously pressured the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to pursue neo-liberal restructuring of Mexico in order to bring Mexico into full participation in the global market economy.

Until 1982 and the presidency of Miguel la Madrid Hurtado (1982-1988), Mexico had pursued a development strategy of Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). This changed when Mexico joined GATT and eliminated restrictions on foreign business ownership, privatized state enterprises, lowered tariffs, and downsized the state bureaucracy. Seeking to ensure the immutability of these policy changes, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) incorporated them into NAFTA, and adding a few more in the process. Any changes subsequent administrations in Mexico might desire to make in NAFTA would have to deal with the political and economic retaliation of the wealthy and powerful of both countries. By 2003, Mexico had more millionaires than France.

The northern and central states of Mexico had benefited from the development policies of Diaz, the wealthy landowners, and the North American investors. With GATT and then NAFTA, these are the regions that continue to rise in the economic indicators. In the contemporary era, profits are from agribusiness and manufacturing dependent on labor-intensive products. As before, the already wealthy and powerful on both sides of the border benefit most from neo-liberal policies. Necessary to full participation in the global economy are transportation and communication systems facilitating the shipment of exports abroad and produce to industrial urban workers in the northern and central parts of Mexico. The elite of Mexico have attended to these necessities.

Mexico's southern states were not considered potentially profitable regions for this kind of development. Tourism is the development niche for areas in the world like Oaxaca. Pre-Columbian ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, impressive Spanish colonial architecture, narrow quaint streets, moderate year round climate, and excellent cuisine presented in most agreeable restaurants fit the recipe. Most of all, Oaxaca had indigenous to sell. Gorgeous weaving, pottery, painting, sculpture created within the accomplished cultures and by hands of indigenous. These hands, sweet smiles, and quiet demeanor greeted and served tourists in the restaurants, cleaned the rooms, and disposed of the garbage. Most tourists were from Europe or North America and Oaxaca presented a kind of Southern Comfort quality. It was life as it should be. Oaxaca was a superb tourist designation point.

NAFTA and the change of Article 17 of the Mexican Constitution laid the groundwork to transform Oaxaca from south of south to just south, serving the energy, mineral and natural resource needs of Mexican and international conglomerates. If the impact of these policies on Oaxacanos resulted in increased misery and resistance, it was again, as prior to 1910, seen and treated as a side-bar. And when owners of tourist hotels and restaurants complained bitterly to URO (Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) during the Levantamiento that they were loosing business, going broke due to APPO and he'd better do something, they were dismissed. Tourist dollars were small potatoes.


The combination of NAFTA and the change in Article 17 are at the base of the levantamiento in Oaxaca. Under NAFTA commodities are imported and sold at prices below the local sale price. Within two hours after the signing of NAFTA, huge truckloads of corn from the mid-west of North America crossed the border into Mexico. Locally produced corn could not compete.

In Mexico, 3.2 million people cultivated corn on 8 million hectares in 1992. About 92% of the corn farmers had less than 5 hectares, amounting in total to two-thirds of corn acreage. Production costs in the late 1980s were $230 to $300 per hectare. In North America, productions costs were $95 per hectare. In Oaxaca yields are highly variable due to the paucity of rainfall and the lack of irrigation infrastructure. In Mexico, monies for irrigation have gone to the northern and central states. 50% of 3.3 million hectares of irrigated lands are in the north; 38% in the central states. The same is true of subsidies for electricity, for pumping of water into the fields and to the cities. In 1999 this subsidy was about twice that allocated for rural development in all of Mexico.

Corn is at the center of Oaxacan culture; it is where the world's first corn was propagated. Cultivating very marginal land and without the protection of tariffs, small Oaxacano farmers grew traditional heirloom varieties that fed themselves and their pueblos. They could not compete in price with the genetically modified, imported North American grown corn. The whole economy of many pueblos collapsed. People didn't have money to buy products or services. Competing with cheaper coffee from Vietnam, small Oaxacano coffee producers soon found themselves in a similar situation. Thus, we have in the fields of agribusiness of North America indigenous Mixtecos from the fields of Oaxaca and those who had owned small shops and provided services to people in the pueblos.

Article 17 stated that indigenous had the right to work communally owned ejido land in a cooperative, traditional way and that ejido land could not be sold or rented. The southern states are those with the highest indigenous populations. Oaxaca is 60% indigenous. In all of Mexico, in 1990 there were 28,000 ejidos with 3 million registered members. This is about half of the total agricultural land of Mexico. It's marginal agricultural land without water and soil amendments. The land is rich in sub-soil minerals, mountain water with hydroelectric potential, and forests. In 1992 Article 17 was changed to allow communal ejido land to be rented and sold.

Changing Article 17 to allow alienation of land meant that investors and developers now had the right to purchase and rent large tracks of land necessary for agribusiness, industrialized animal production, development of mines, exploitation of vast tracks of forests, natural watersheds, and large industrial and commercial ventures such as the Puebla Panama scheme. Prior to this constitutional change, it was impossible for development and exploitation on this scale to take place. The vast majority of land use rights had been divided among ejido households. With Usos y Costumbres, consensus of ejido members is necessary before any change, such as renting or selling land, can be made. Consensual agreement on this scale was impossible. Thus, the necessity to change the constitution.


Within these parameters, indigenous in the countryside have three basic choices: endure, migrate, or organize and struggle. Generational and gender issues inform each of these possibilities.


The choice of enduring has become less and less tenable. Little to eat, too frequent burial of babies and young children, no work, and increased migration of youth leaving shells of pueblos are rapidly closing down this option.


Migration is a choice of desperation and despair clothed in hope.

To leave one's home, pueblo, culture, language, friends, relatives, and one's dead is a wrenching experience. Historically, aside from more affluent pueblos in the central valley of Oaxaca, few indigenous migrate and even fewer emigrate. This is changing. In recent years, as many as 150,000 Mixtecos leave Oaxaca each year. Many of these are internal migrants, going to northern Mexico and Baja seeking work in agribusiness. It is exceedingly difficult to find work in the maquilladora factories, where a secondary education requirement is becoming the norm. It's not that maquila work requires a secondary level education to produce the product, for the work itself is easy to learn and highly repetitive. It's that there are so many people with secondary level educations looking for steady work that the maquilas can make this demand. Mixtecos, as other indigenous peoples, are quite fortunate to receive a primary education.

Approximately 200,000 Mixtecos have crossed the border into North America seeking employment, primarily in agribusiness. Most are without papers. Mixtecos currently account for one-fourth of all agricultural labor in California and are the latest in the historical line of cheap, expendable labor agribusiness demands. The majority are single males, a mobile labor force that goes north up the coast to Washington State and into the interior of California looking for work. Housing with a roof is a one-room motel room holding 8 or 10 men, a garage space for 3 or 4. Many sleep at least part of the time on the road with the body half way under the vehicle or curled up in the fields or ravines, in the tradition of "Casas de Carton," (Houses of Cardboard).

If the male is married, one pattern is for the nuclear family to migrate to the Baja for work. The husband may soon cross the border seeking higher wages and constant work. The woman and her children remain in Baja, where both can work in the fields; and the mother does not have to deal with the problem of childcare. Crossing the border for women is a much more dangerous experience than for men. If children are involved, that brings its own extra hazard and vulnerability.

A highly workable situation for the whole family is when the woman is able to cross the border and find work in the same field as her husband or in a nearby field. The very best situation is when it is possible to assemble two or three generations of women family members under one roof. Here, the younger and middle-aged women work in the fields, as do the men. The grandmother takes care of the home and the children, and serves the men when they return from the fields. Women returning from the fields help the elder woman with her work while the men have a beer and watch TV. The gender responsibilities are no different from being at home in Oaxaca, except there's paid work in the fields of agribusiness. And that's a big exception.

Work in the fields is hard, exhausting, dirty and dangerous. Although, there is a legal minimum wage law, in practice, migrants work under a piece rate system. Of all North American workers, migrant field labor is the group most at risk in the work environment. Accidents are commonplace and the company referred doctor is not satisfactory, even if one is fortunate enough to see him. Labor is expendable. Become injured, keep working or leave and don't come back tomorrow. There are plenty ready to take one's place. This is true for all field labor, not specific to Mixtecos or strawberries.

The images accompanying this essay are of Mixtecas working in the strawberry fields of the Santa Maria Valley where strawberries are the number one cash crop. Their value was $1.2 billion in 2004, after a 79% production increase during the period 1988 to 2004. Field labor wages do not reflect a corresponding increase. Each picker received $2.00 per flat box containing 8 pints of grocery ready strawberries. Average weekly wage was $280. per person, with each day beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 3 or 4 p.m.

The first Mixteco I saw working in the strawberry fields was running. The right arm, palm up balanced an eight-pint flat of premium-sized strawberries. The other hand quickly and skillfully placed a cane in the narrow irrigation furrow separating the rows, on top of which grow the strawberries. At first I thought the worker had been injured but continued working in the fields. When I got close, I saw the cane was a safety tool allowing for rapid movement from the field to the counting station and the boss. Sides of the furrows were covered in wet slippery plastic; the bottoms mud. The cane was an excellent balancing tool. It was 6:15 in the morning; cold, damp fog had come in from the Pacific, inundating the fields and one's bones. There were perhaps 40 people in the field.

Physical accidents are one thing. Pesticides that field labor breathe in the air, that saturate produce harvested, that soak the white cloth field gloves and clothes are much more dangerous. It is no exaggeration to say that every field worker's health, as well as that of their children, is seriously compromised. When parents return from the fields, pesticides are in and on their clothing and body. Children rush to the parent, hold on, are swept up in their arms, kissed and loved. Dwellings of field labor are always in or near the fields. Moreover, pesticide drift inundates the inside as well as the outside of the home. The same is true of schools and their playgrounds.

Pesticides are everywhere. The drinking water is acknowledged by each county water agency in the agricultural areas of California to be highly toxic due to decades of pesticide application. Migrant families spend on the average $50 each month buying purified water for drinking. The women will cook using contaminated tap water, even when it comes foaming out of the tap, which it will. The belief is that if you boil it for 10 or 15 minutes, the impurities will be killed. True in Mexico, not true of petrochemically produced pesticides. Only concentrates them.

While photographing Mixteca field labor in the Santa Maria Valley, I was invited by one migrant family to attend the high school graduation. It was a June day, bright and sunny. The ceremony was in the high school football stadium. Military honor guard, flags, national anthem, speeches, and above all exceedingly proud migrant families. Upwards of 25% of students don't complete high school...drugs, prison, teen pregnancy, discouragement, lack of English language skills to complete the required exit exam. The usual.

When it came time in the ceremony for student leaders to give their short speeches, each of the four came to the podium and told the story of the person they most admired in their class or during their time in high school. Each told the story of four different students who had cancer and how each managed, continued to study, had hope. I remember especially one young woman being described as wearing different style beanies during the siege of chemotherapy. When the first young person told about the cancer of a friend, people around me began to listen. By the time the third story was reported to a frighteningly quiet stadium, I could feel the depth of anguish.

Not infrequently Mistecos are paid below minimum wage. Perhaps not paid at all. Their lack of Spanish speaking ability as well as the lack of papers makes them vulnerable. Field and contract bosses are from Jalisco or Michoacan and commonly speak of Mixtecos in a disparaging way that has to do with race, physical size and cultural identity. This is not a class issue. One frequently encounters formally educated Mexican adults who speak in the same terms.

Indigenous are on the receiving end of racist and culturist attitudes and practices in Mexico. This is intensified during their time in North America. All migrants have indigenous ancestors, as does most everyone in Mexico; however, the internalized racism of Hispanic-identified Mexicans renders that shameful, primitive. Education is a tool that could address this situation, but is used instead to further deepen or legitimize racist attitudes and behavior. In Mexico, educational policies and subject content authorized by the state preach national unity with a homogenized assimilated population.

In North America, state approved educational content stereotypes Mexicans as backward, inferior, lazy and in need of Anglo-Saxon cultural instruction and values. This content dates from material generated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and reflects reality as seen by writers during the early days of European and American empire building. In the late 1960s, North America, scholars began publishing excellent work challenging these stereotypes. Education outside specialized departments of study in the academy has yet to incorporate their findings and analysis in educational curriculum.

With migration, each year away means the chances of returning to Oaxaca grow slimmer. The hope of earning a living, saving monies, and returning are dimmed by the realities of work. A freeze, rampaging fires, chronic unemployment in the double digits, illness due to pesticides, accidents and no medical care, ICE raids, women facing sexual harassment from multiple directions, and dishonest gang bosses who pocket wages each play their part in turning hopes into a quiet desperation. Migrant peoples keep on keeping on within a national security state that has targeted migrants, especially those from Mexico, even to the point of disallowing health care for American-born children of migrants, if their parents have no papers and were born in Mexico.

Mixtecos find loss of community for oneself and the fact that one's children will not grow up Mixteco to be a kind of death within. Unless organized and provided with a cultural context in which to live, Mixteco migrants will no longer be a part of Usos y Costumbres. Mixteco males in North America are finding it increasingly difficult to return to their pueblos to fulfill tequio requirements. Crossing the border is both exceedingly dangerous and costly. And how to ensure the stability of the family during the absence when two employed field workers still do not make enough to reach the income poverty level set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

It is unclear how influencial Usos y Costumbres can be in sustaining indigenous values and practices in North America. Childrren grow up not experiencing the pueblo of origin, not speaking Mixtec well, and having little identity with the core beliefs and way of life that formed the culture for the last 3,000 or more years. Their formal education in public schools throughout North America is a colonial-style system infused with negative images, practices and expectations of behavior and abilities of all peoples of Mexican origin. There is the pervasive violence of poverty and an infinite variety of violence in the dominant culture, whether in the streets, or in the media. Mixteco parents articulate fears that their children will come to maturity in the alien culture, feel more comfortable and accepted communicating in the language of that culture, and become estranged from the culture of their parents.

The loss of one's children is the ultimate tragedy of all migrant life, exceedingly hard to bear. It may be especially hard for Mixtecos, who fear the culture that had survived 400 years of Spanish is to be destroyed with their own decision to migrate. On the other hand, having this cultural identity may be strength from which to go forward and the ways of surviving in the past may continue to serve in the present. It certainly was a central factor in Dellania's success. She was the only youth in Santa Maria from her Oaxacan pueblo to finish high school, and she received a full scholarship to San Diego State University. Dalla was fortunate to have the tutoring, the caring, and the constant support of C.C. Todd throughout the high school years. Its unlikely she would have succeeded without it. Usos y Costumbres by itself is not enough for cultural and personal survival in another country. A support system that facilitates navigation of the new culture and its demands is absolutely necessary.


The third choice open to indigenous Oaxacanos is resistance and struggle. This is an option not undertaken lightly. The wealthy and powerful have long relied on the paramilitary to maintain their brand of law and order in indigenous lands. For the last 72 years of PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) control in Oaxaca, this has been one of their strongest tools. With NAFTA and the change in Article 17, the use of the paramilitary has increased. Upwards of 40 assasinations occur in indigenous lands each year. These are assasinations of community leaders, social justice organizers, and young males who do not readily comply with orders. Women live in fear, expending considerable energy trying to protect their husbands, sons and daughters from paramilitary violence. Paramilitary use sexual harassment, threaten and assault women to gain their compliance.

One can say that indigenous have always faced incredibly difficult times and have found ways to survive. 400 years of occupation bear witness to this truism. But the situation is more intense now. The structure is in place for vast amounts of international capital to invade, secure, and develop in their fashion indigenous lands heretofore considered of no monetary value. The use of violence in its rawest forms are at the service of those wielding the power. Before NAFTA and the change in Article 17, indigenous could retire to extremely marginal areas and maintain their families and culture. This is no longer possible.

The strong indigenous presence in the levantamineto of APPO reflects two basic processes at work. One is clarity on the question of land-based cultural survival and a determination not to be liquidated or to be sequestered in reservation-style bantus. Communication, alliance building and support elements embodied within APPO's structure are absolutely essential before any form of collective resistance can take place. And collective resistance is a must.

The second process is encapsulated in the statement voiced by indigenous: "Never again, a Mexico without us." The dominant sentiment and practice of the past was one of keeping to one's own, taking care of one's familial, pueblo, and cultural integrity. This is no longer possible. The only viable option promising cultural and community survival with integrity is to control development that will most surely occur on ejido lands. At present, APPO offers that possibility.

Issues surrounding alienation of land have become more and more conflicted. Land was at the center of some 750 cases of agrarian conflict in Oaxaca in 2004. It is not clear how many of these represented conflicts involving issues solely within families and within the pueblo, and how many of them that appear to be family and pueblo land issues are in actuality related to the efforts of government and international corporations to purchase or seize land.

Increasingly, government and international corporations have seized land for their own use without obtaining permission of local ejiado owners. Armed with the destructive powers of NAFTA and the changed Article 17, investors and developers with state backing and resources of PFP (Federal Preventative Police) continue to encounter indigenous resistance to schemes to which indigenous did not give consent and where their vision of what is sustainable local development was not considered.

Huge infrastructural energy and transportation projects necessary for the opening up of ejido lands for development are now being put in place. The Federal Electric Commission's (CFE) wind-generating electric park in the Isthmus of Tehuanteopec is one such effort. CFE claims over 100 million hectares of Zapotec ejido land belonging to at least seven communities. Assemblies of these communities either have not been able to arrive at a consensus to allow this construction or have accepted pitiful economic recompense for use of their land. Since May 2006, members of these edjidos have been encamped in opposition. Assemblies of another seventy-seven indigenous communities have voiced their support of the encampment. In early March 2007, some 300 PFP occupied one of the ejidos involved in the encampment.

The CFE is also spearheading a project to build a dam to generate electric energy on the Rio Verde. This project will flood vast acreages of Mixteco and Chatino's lands, which are some of the most economically, improvised areas of Oaxaca. A Spanish multinational has the contract. People of the Rio Verde are also resisting and gaining support from assemblies allied with APPO.

These CFE projects are two of the better publicized points of indigenous resistance. There are many more and will be even more in the future. Indigenous and their supporters can meet the expected intimidation; harassment and violence that will most certainly increase in the future. More difficult is dealing satisfactorily with the potential or actual fracturing of families, pueblos, and assemblies that often accompanies resistance. One can anticipate further conflict as outside pressures mount.

To choose the option of remaining on the land entails being an active and supportive participant in maintaining one's heritage and building for the future. It demands great courage. The world, at present, has innumerable struggles of this kind. Hopefully, bonds of international support will be fashioned to help preserve the dignity of diversity that is the heritage of all.



Company Brand

Strawberry Workers

Between the Rows

Going to Work


The Vast Fields

Three Generations

Traditional Way

Community Organizer
& Daughters

Oil & Berries




Kitchen of Three Generations

Dellania & Family

Hurry to be Counted

Palm Up


Card Punch

Electronic Read

Account: Woman
Keeps Track

Home After Work