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Living Under the Trees: Indigenous Mexican Farm Workers in California

Today’s post is from award-winning photojournalist David Bacon. Bacon spent thirty years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. His articles appear in The Nation, American Prospect, Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he hosts a weekly radio show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. The photos in this essay are from his photography project, Living Under the Trees, and are used here with the photographer’s permission.

The hands of Benito Parra, an olive worker, show the dirt and grime of a day picking olives. Photo by David Bacon. In 2006, Mexico experienced profound social turmoil. Dramatic political and economic conflicts uprooted and displaced thousands of families, forcing many to consider leaving home. Teachers struck in Oaxaca, and after their demonstrations were tear-gassed, a virtual insurrection paralyzed the state capitol for months. Economic desperation lies at the root of these political and social movements — one major basis of the pressure on people to migrate north. But repression brought to bear on those movements also leads to migration.  It's no accident that Oaxaca is one of the main starting points for the current stream of Mexican migrants coming to the U.S.

About 30 million Mexicans survive on less than 30 pesos a day — not quite $3. The minimum wage is 53 pesos a day. The federal government estimates that 37.7% of Mexico’s 106 million citizens — 40 million people — live in poverty. Some 25 million, or 23.6%, live in extreme poverty. In rural Mexico, over ten million people have a daily income of less than 12 pesos — a little over a dollar. In the southern state of Oaxaca that category of extreme poverty encompasses 75% of its 3.4 million residents, according to EDUCA, an education and development organization. That makes Oaxaca the second-poorest state in Mexico, after Chiapas.

Indigenous women and children are part of the community of farm workers from Oaxaca, living in a camp on a hillside outside Delmar. 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. Oaxacans speak 23 different languages, and among Mexican states, Oaxaca has the second-highest concentration of indigenous residents.
Thousands of indigenous people leave Oaxaca's hillside villages for the United States every year. They leave, not only for economic reasons, but also because a repressive political system thwarts the kind of economic development that could lift income in the poorest rural areas. Lack of development pushes people off the land. And as they find their way to other parts of Mexico or the United States, the money they send home becomes crucial to the survival of the towns they leave behind.

"Migration is a necessity, not a choice," explained Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, a teacher in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in Oaxaca's rural Mixteca region. "There is no work here. It is a very daunting task for a Mexican teacher to convince students to get an education and stay in the country. 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."

This is an era of indigenous migration, when the numbers of migrants from communities and cultures which long predated Columbus, have now swelled to become the majority of people working in the fields. While dispersed inside Mexico and the U.S. as a result of migration, the movement of people has created, in a sense, one larger community, located in many places simultaneously. Settlements of Triquis, Mixtecs, Chatinos and other indigenous groups are bound together by shared culture and language, and the social organizations people bring with them from place to place.

Salomon Sarita Sanchez works in a crew of strawberry pickers, made up of indigenous Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca. At first glance, they seem to be living in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. But these communities have strong cultural bonds holding people together, creating a support network that provides food and companionship for migrants just arriving from the south, with no work and no money.

Near Sebastopol, a community of Chatinos takes shelter under blue tarps, strung from tree to tree, setting mattresses on shipping pallets, to keep blankets and clothing out of the dirt. In the nearby town of Graton they stand on the sidewalk in front of little bookstores and cafes, hoping a labor contractor will pick them up for a day’s work on a neighboring farm.

Purepecha migrants from the Mexican state of Michoacan make up the majority of the hundreds of families living in two enormous trailer parks, on a US Indian reservation in the remote desert near the Salton Sea. The Coachella Valley's rich citrus, grape and date crops all depend on their work.
Migrants living near Del Mar, one of San Diego's most affluent suburbs, harvest tomatoes, strawberries, oranges and avocados, the county's principal crops. Formerly they camped under the trees on hillsides within sight of new housing developments. Last year their settlement was forcibly removed after the Minutemen destroyed an altar built by the workers for the Catholic mass. County authorities then evicted the community.

4230Just as this San Diego community was moved out of sight and out of mind, so the communities of indigenous migrant farm workers all over California have been banished from sight. Sometimes invisibility has been forced on them. But often it has been by choice or caution on the part of migrants themselves, anxious to avoid hostile neighbors, the authorities, or other threatening outsiders.       
Living Under the Trees seeks to document the experiences and conditions of indigenous farm worker communities, including: housing problems, especially for migrants and new arrivals and families struggling with lack of space, and difficult working conditions. The project's purpose is to win public support for policies supporting those communities by: putting a human face on conditions, and providing a forum in which people speak for themselves. It focuses on the social movements in indigenous communities, and the way indigenous culture helps communities survive and enjoy life.

The communities documented are locacted in San Diego, Coachella, Arvin, Oxnard and Santa Paula, Santa Maria, Fresno and Selma, Salinas and Greenfield, and Santa Rosa. They include Mixtecos, Triquis, Zapotecos, Chatinos, and Purepechas. They also include farmworkers who don’t self-identify as members of indigenous communities, but who live and work in similar conditions.

The photographs focus on the relationship between community residents and their surroundings, and their relations with each other. They document many aspects of community life, including cooking and eating, housing, working conditions, social and cultural activities. They present situations of extreme poverty, but they also present people as actors, capable of changing conditions, organizing themselves, and making critical decisions. The images seek to convey a sense of intimacy, and emotional connection.

The project is a partnership between David Bacon, documentary photographer and journalist (The Children of NAFTA, UC Press, 2004, and Communities Without Border, Cornell/ILR Press, 2006), California Rural Legal Assistance, especially its Indigenous Farm Worker Project, and the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB).