This piece originally appeared in David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home, which combines incisive reporting on the resistance of Mexican communities to the economic policies that drive migration with the voices of activists themselves as they reflect on their experiences, analyze the complexities of their realities, and affirm their vision for a better world. The Right to Stay Home is now available in paperback.
In Guelatao, the town in the Sierra Juarez where I live, our main crop is corn. It’s a very healthy life. We get up early and have coffee to get ready to work. Your machete has to be sharpened, and then you walk to your field. It can be twenty minutes or two hours away. There’s no machinery for our farms, and the hillsides are very steep. When we need help, we ask for it from our neighbors, and when they need it, we give it to them. When we finish work in the field, we gather wood on the way home for cooking.
Our main problem is that the prices of agricultural products have fallen dramatically. The price for corn doesn’t cover the costs of growing it anymore, so many people have chosen to leave to get the money they need to buy food. The prices for coffee have also fallen, and people have migrated for that reason too. [In May of 2011 coffee sold for about $2.90 per pound, and a year later, in June 2012, it had dropped to $1.55 per pound—almost in half.]
While 11 percent of the population of Mexico lives north of
the US border, the decision to migrate is rarely voluntary. Free trade
agreements and economic policies that exacerbate and reinforce wealth disparity
make it impossible for Mexicans to make a living at home. And yet when they
migrate to the United States, they must grapple with criminalization, low
wages, and exploitation. In The Right to Stay Home, David
shows how these immigrant communities are fighting back—envisioning a world in which migration isn't forced and people are guaranteed the "right to stay
Seven hundred workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005, the most recent being the 112 who burned or jumped to their deaths at the Tazreen factory on November 24th. Now hundreds more bodies are being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, in an industrial district 18 miles from Dhaka.
At Tazreen the owners didn’t build fire escapes. They’d locked the doors on the upper floors “to prevent theft,” trapping workers in the flames. At Rana Plaza, factory owners refused to evacuate the building after huge cracks appeared in the walls, even after safety engineers told them not to let workers inside.
Workers told IndustriALL union federation representatives they’d be docked three days pay for each day of an absence, and so went inside despite their worries. As a result, the death toll is already over 250 and more are still trapped under debris.
Perhaps the building codes at Rana Plaza were not enforced, and permits never even obtained, because Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, is reportedly active in Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. At Tazreen the company was cited by fire inspectors, but never forced to install safety equipment.
But Bangladesh’s development policy is based on attracting garment production by keeping costs among the world’s lowest. Safe buildings that don’t collapse or trap workers in fires raise those costs. So do wages that might rise above Bangladesh’s 21¢/hour—not a livable wage there or anywhere else.
The beneficiaries of those costs are the big brands whose clothes are sewn by the women in those factories. They give production contracts to the factories that make the lowest bids. Factories then compete to cut costs any way they can.
Tazreen made clothes for Wal-Mart, among other big brands. The Rana Plaza building held several factories where 2500 women churned out garments. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, “one of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed Walmart-Canada as a buyer on their website.” Labor activists found other documents in the rubble listing cutting orders from Benetton and other labels.
Workers have been trying for years to organize militant unions to raise wages and enforce safety codes. If they’d been successful, they would have had the power to make the factories safe. The morning after the Rana collapse, 20,000 poured out of neighboring factories in protest—other factory owners had ordered them to keep working as though nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, the giant companies controlling the industry insulate themselves from responsibility for the conditions they create. And their most important accomplice is the corporate social responsibility industry.
According to a report just released by the AFL-CIO, Responsibility Outsourced, just before a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed 262 workers in 2012, clothing manufacturers hired an auditing firm, Social Accountability International, to certify it was safe. SAI then subcontracted inspection to an Italian firm, RINA, which subcontracted it yet again to a local firm RI&CA. Ali Enterprises was certified that August. “Nearly 300 workers died in a fire two weeks after,” the report charges.
Certifying factories that kill workers has become an $80 billion industry that “helped keep wages low and working conditions poor, [while] it provided public relations cover for producers,” Responsibility Outsourced says. “Manufacturing work has left countries in which there were laws, collective bargaining and other systems in place to reduce workplace dangers,” it says, while “jobs instead have gone to countries with inadequate laws, weak enforcement and precarious employment relationships.”
This transfer was enabled by corporate-friendly trade agreements guaranteeing the products of these factories unfettered access to U.S. and European markets. They simultaneously put pressure on developing countries to guarantee the rights of foreign corporate investors and an environment of low wages, lax enforcement of worker protections, and attacks on unions.
In Bangladesh, after the Tazreen fire, a binding agreement was developed by IndustriALL, the ILRC and other labor NGOs, that seeks to prevent fires and increase safety by guaranteeing workers’ right to organize and enforce better conditions. Some companies, including PVH and Tchibo have signed on. Wal-Mart and Sears, however, not only refused, but would not even pay compensation to the Tazreen fire victims.
As Bangladesh workers pull the bodies of their friends from ruin of Rana Plaza, people half a world away wearing the clothes they sew should not turn their faces away. They need real knowledge about how their shirts and blouses are produced, and who produces them. Rather than the image manipulation of Social Accountability International and its competitor, the Fair Labor Association, they should demand the truth, and then use their power as consumers.
They should drive companies guilty of industrial homicide out of the world’s markets.
A scene from the million-person march in Los Angeles in 2006. (Photo: David Bacon)
need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labor rights, which looks
at the reasons why people come to the U.S., and how we can end the
criminalization of their status and work. While proposals from Congress and the
administration have started the debate over the need for change in our
immigration policy, they are not only too limited and ignore the global nature
of migration, but they will actually make the problem of criminalization much
worse. We need a better alternative.
alternative should start by looking at the roots of migration - the reasons why
people come to the U.S. in the first place. Movement and migration is a human
right. But we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn’t voluntary, but
is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms.
Our trade policy, and the economic
measures we impose on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines
make poverty worse. When people get poorer and their wages go down, it creates
opportunities for U.S. corporate investment. This is what drives our trade
policy. But the human cost is very high.
In El Salvador today, the U.S. Embassy
is telling the government to sell off its water, hospitals, schools and
highways to give U.S. investors a chance to make money. This policy is enabled
by the Central American Free Trade Agreement, whose purpose was increasing
opportunities in El Salvador for U.S. investors. It was imposed on the people
of that country in the face of fierce popular opposition.
Alex Gomez, a leader of Salvadoran
public sector unions, came to San Francisco in February to explain what the
consequences of this latest free trade initiative will be. He says if these
public resources are privatized, tens of thousands of workers will lose their
jobs, and their unions will be destroyed. They will then have to leave the
country to survive.
According to Gomez, four million have
already left El Salvador. Two million have come to the US, not because they
love it here, but because they can’t survive any longer at home. These migrants
come without papers, because there are no visas for two million people from
this small country.
The North American Free Trade Agreement
did even more damage than CAFTA. It let U.S. corporations dump corn in Mexico,
to take over the market there with imports from the U.S. Today one company,
Smithfield Foods, sells almost a third of all the pork consumed by Mexicans. Because
of this dumping and the market takeover, prices dropped so low that millions of
Mexican farmers couldn’t survive. They too had to leave home.
Mexico used to be self-sufficient in
corn and meat production. Corn cultivation started there in Oaxaca many
centuries ago. Now Mexico is a net corn and meat importer from the U.S.
During the years NAFTA has been in
effect, the number of people in the U.S. born in Mexico went from 4.5 million
to 12.67 million. Today about 11% of all Mexicans live in the U.S. About 5.7
million of those who came were able to get some kind of visa, but another 7
million couldn’t. There just aren’t that many visas. But they came anyway
because they had very little choice, if they wanted to survive or their
families to prosper.
Our immigration laws turn these people
into criminals. They say that if migrants without papers work here it’s a
crime. But how can people survive here if they don’t work? We need a different
kind of immigration policy - that stops putting such pressure on people to
leave, and that doesn’t treat them as criminals if they do.
What would it look like?
First, we should tell the truth, as the
labor-supported TRADE Act would have us do, which was introduced into Congress
by Mike Michaud from Maine. We should hold hearings as the bill says, about the
effects of NAFTA and CAFTA, and collect evidence about the way those agreements
have displaced people in the U.S. and other countries as well.
Then we need to renegotiate those
existing agreements to eliminate the causes of displacement. If we provide
compensation to communities that have suffered the effects of free trade and
corporate economic reforms, that were intended to benefit U.S. investors, it
would be more than simple justice. It might give people more resources and more
of a future at home.
It makes no sense to negotiate new
trade agreements that displace even more people or lower living standards. This
administration has negotiated three so far, with Peru, Panama and South Korea. It
is now negotiating a new one -- the Trans Pacific Partnership. These are all
pro-corporate, people-displacing agreements. We should prohibit these and any
new ones like them. Instead, we need to make sure all future trade treaties
require adequate farm prices and income in farming communities, promote unions
and high wages, and don’t require the privatization of public services.
Increasingly these international
agreements, like Mode 4 of the World Trade Organization, treat displaced
migrants as a cheap and vulnerable labor force. Our trade negotiators call for
regulating their flow with guest worker programs. This is exactly the wrong
direction. We should ban the inclusion of guest workers in any future trade agreement
or treaty instead.
When diplomacy doesn’t work, U.S.
military intervention and aid programs are to support trade agreements,
structural adjustment policies or market economic reforms. This has been U.S.
policy in Honduras and Haiti, for instance. This also must stop. If the U.S.
Embassy is putting pressure on countries like El Salvador to adopt measures
that benefit corporate investors at the expense of workers and farmers, the
Ambassador should be recalled and the interference halted.
Finally, we should ratify the UN
Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. This
international agreement would give us an alternative framework for recognizing
the rights of displaced migrants, and the responsibility of both sending and receiving
countries for their protection.
The failure of successive U.S.
administrations to even present this agreement to Congress for ratification
highlights the unpleasant truth about the real effect of our immigration
policy. When millions of migrants arrive here, they are criminalized because
they lack immigration status, especially when they go to work.
Labor and civil rights advocates often
fondly remember the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act because of it had
an amnesty, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which gave legal status
relatively quickly to almost four million people. But the law also contained
employer sanctions for the first time, which we often forget. That provision
says that employers will be fined and punished if they hire undocumented
This provision was promoted by those
who said that if work became illegal, then undocumented migration would end. This
clearly failed, since the number increased many-fold in the years that
followed. Compared to the pressure to leave home, criminalizing work was not a
deterrent to those who sought work here so that their families at home would
This provision sounded like a law
against employers, but it was not. It became an anti-worker law. No boss ever
went to jail for violating it. The fines were not great. When the government
agents seek to enforce it, employers who cooperate with them are forgiven. But
over the last four years alone, tens of thousands of workers have been fired
for not having papers. The true objects of punishment under this law have
always been workers, not employers.
Now Congress is talking about a new
reform, and we have to use this opportunity to push to repeal this law. Some
think that since a new legalization will hopefully give many undocumented
workers legal status, sanction won’t really affect anyone anymore.
But even the most positive predictions
about a new legalization still assume that millions of people will not quality
because of stringent qualifications, high fees and decades-long waiting
periods. Those people will still be subject to the sanctions law. And the day
after a new reform passes millions more people will come to the U.S. because of
the same pressures that caused past waves of migration. This is especially true
if a new immigration reform ignores the need to renegotiate trade agreements
and eliminate the huge displacement of people.
These future migrants are not
strangers. They are the husbands and wives, parents, and cousins of people
already here - people who are already part of our communities. They come from
the same towns, and are linked to neighborhoods here in the U.S. by the ties
that have been created by migration, work and family. They will work in our
workplaces, participate in our organizing drives, and belong to our unions. We
need to keep the sanctions law from being applied to them, making it a crime
for them to work. Unfortunately, however, Congress members aren’t talking about
getting rid of sanctions. In fact, they and the administration want to make the
current application even worse.
So let’s do a reality check. Let’s tell
the truth about how has this law been used.
One method for enforcing sanctions
happens when an employer uses it to screen people it is going to hire, using an
error-filled government database called E-verify. Congress and the
administration are calling for making it mandatory for all employers to use
this database, and refuse to hire anyone who it flags as undocumented.
For people who are currently working
now and have no papers, what it means is that if they lose their jobs, it will
be much hard to find others. That will make people fear taking any action that
offends their boss, like joining a union or complaining about illegal
conditions. That’s good for the boss, but bad for the workers.
Employers today not only use this
database to screen new hires - they also use it to reverify the immigration
status of people who are already working. This is a violation of the law. Once
it accepts the form filled out by a job seeker (called the I-9), along with
their ID, the employer can’t reverify it all over again at some point in the
future. But they do. Sometimes it’s convenient to get rid of workers who have
accumulated benefits and raises over years of service, and replace them with
new hires at lower wages.
Reverification just happened, for
instance, to three workers who belong to the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union at Waste Management, Inc. in San Leandro, California. The union
has gone to the Oakland City Council to protest these illegal firings, because
WMI operates under a city garbage contract.
Employers sometimes announce they
intend to begin using the E-Verify database when their workers start to
organize. That’s what managers announced at the Mi Pueblo supermarkets in
northern California. There E-Verify checks are being used to terrorize workers
to keep them from supporting a union, Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial
Another method for enforcing sanctions
against workers is even more widespread. Immigration agents, working for the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), go into the personnel records of an
employer. They then compare the information given by workers on the I-9 form to
the E-Verify database, looking for workers who don’t have legal immigration
status. ICE then makes a list of those workers and sends it to the company,
telling the employer to fire them.
This is what happened at Pacific Steel
Castings in Berkeley, California, last year. Two hundred and fourteen workers
were fired as a result. Some had worked in the foundry for over 20 years. Many
lost their homes, and their children’s dreams of going to college were
Over last four years, hundreds of
thousands of workers have lost their jobs in these enforcement actions, called
I-9 audits. Almost five hundred janitors in San Francisco, and over a thousand
in Minneapolis. Thousands of workers doing some of the hardest work imaginable
in meatpacking plants around the country. Farm workers. Construction workers. But
the employers all given reduced fines, and many immunity from punishment
entirely, if they cooperated in firing their own workers.
If unions and communities mount a fight
that exposes the terrible human cost of these firings, it is possible to stop
them. The young Dreamers showed that this is possible. These courageous young
people convinced the administration to stop deporting students brought to the
U.S. without papers as children. They forced the administration to change the
way it enforces immigration law. It can be done for workers too, if there’s a
But we must also change the sanctions
law. Otherwise, our experience over the 25 years since it passed shows that
immigration authorities will simply find another method for making working a
crime for people who don’t have papers.
The other unpleasant truth about
sanctions is that they are linked to the growth of guest worker programs. One
of the main purposes of making it a crime to work without papers is to force
people to come to the U.S. with visas that tie them to their employers and
recruiters. These workers are often more vulnerable than the undocumented,
since they get deported if they lose their jobs or get fired. Guest worker
programs have been called Close to Slavery by the Southern Poverty Law Center
and others who have documented their extreme exploitation. The sanctions law
functions as a way to pressure people into choosing that path to come to the
U.S. to work.
When employer sanctions are used to
make workers vulnerable to pressure, to break unions or to force people into
guest worker programs, their real effect is to force people into low wage jobs
with no rights. This is a subsidy for employers, and brings down wages for
everyone. The sanctions law makes it harder for all workers to organize to
improve conditions. This doesn’t just affect the workers who have no papers
themselves. When it becomes harder for one group to organize, other workers
have a harder time organizing too.
Some Washington lobbyists accept as a
fact of life that the sanctions law will continue, or even worse, that E-Verify
will become a mandatory national program for all employers. But for unions and
workers who have had to deal with its effects , it would be much better to
immediately repeal it, and dismantle the E-Verify database.
The use of the sanctions law against
workers and unions is what led the California Labor Federation to call for its
repeal as early as 1994, a position it continued to adopt in successive
conventions. Other unions joined it including the garment unions and service
employees. Finally labor councils in California and then around the country
passed resolutions making the same call, and sent them to the historic AFL-CIO
convention in Los Angeles in 1999. This led to an historic debate and the
adoption of a new, pro-immigrant policy. Delegates at that convention believed
that we have to stop enforcing immigration law in the workplace, because its
real effect is to make workers vulnerable to employers, and to make it harder
for all workers to organize to improve conditions.
In addition to repealing the national
sanctions law, we should also prohibit states from enacting copycat measures. These
laws have passed not just in Arizona or Alabama or Mississippi. California
passed a state employer sanctions law before the federal law took effect in
What would really help workers to raise
wages and improve conditions is much stricter enforcement of worker protection
and anti-discrimination laws, for everyone. Funding used for immigration
enforcement on the job should be given instead to the Department of Labor, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations
Board and other labor law enforcement agencies. It will be a good day for all
workers when ICE agents instead become wage and hour inspectors.
Threats by employers who use
immigration status to keep workers from organizing unions or protesting illegal
conditions should be a crime. That makes it necessary to overturn two Supreme
Court decisions, Hoffman and Sure-Tan. In these cases the court said that if
workers are fired for union activity and have no papers, the boss doesn’t have
to rehire them or pay them lost wages, because the sanctions law makes it
illegal to employ them to begin with. But when there’s no punishment for
violating labor rights, workers have no rights. This also hurts other workers
in the same workplace who want to organize a union, since it makes the
undocumented so vulnerable. Instead, we should increase workplace rights by
prohibiting immigration enforcement during labor disputes or against workers
who complain about illegal conditions.
To ensure that in the workplace we all
have the same rights we also have to eliminate the way undocumented people get
ripped off by funds like Social Security and unemployment. All workers
contribute to the Social Security fund, but because undocumented people are
working under bad numbers, they pay in but can never collect the benefits. This
will come back to haunt us when those workers need disability payments or get
too old to work - something that happens to us all. This is the reason we set
up the Social Security system to begin with - because we don’t want old people
eating dog food, regardless of where they were born.
Instead today the Social Security
number has become much more a means to check immigration status, harming
workers instead of providing them the benefits that were its original and true
purpose. There is a simple solution to this problem as well. Social Security
numbers should be made available for everyone, regardless of immigration
status. Everyone should pay into the system and everyone has a right to the
benefits those payments create. By the same token all workers should be able to
receive unemployment benefits regardless of status, since they and their
employers pay into the funds.
In the end, we need an immigration
policy that brings people together, instead of pitting workers against each
other, as our current system does. During a time of economic crisis especially
we need to reduce job competition, rather than stoking fears. In 2005
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston made an innovative proposal that
would have set up job creation and training programs for unemployed workers at
the same time that it would have given legal status to workers without papers. This
proposal put unemployed workers and immigrants on the same side, giving them
both something to fight for whether they were out of work, or working without
This proposal, and the others made
here, are part of the Dignity Campaign, a plan for immigration reform based on
human, civil and labor rights. In the last three years, local unions and labor
councils in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Alameda County adopted
resolutions supporting the Dignity Campaign, arguing that trade policy is
linked to the increasing vulnerability of immigrant workers because of the
sanctions law and guest worker progrsms. The Labor Council for Latin American
Advancement adopted a similar resolution.
An immigration policy that benefits
migrants, their home communities, and working people here in the U.S. has to
have a long term perspective. Instead of just trying to please interest groups
well-represented in Congress, we need to ask, where are we going? What will
actually solve the problems that we experience on our jobs and in our homes
with current laws and policies?
We need a system that produces
security, not insecurity. We need a commitment to equality and equal status -
getting rid of color and national lines instead of making them deeper. We need
to make it easier for workers to organize, by getting rid of what makes people
vulnerable -- to end job competition we need full employment, and to gain
organizing rights we need labor law enforcement together with eliminating
sanctions and firings. It’s not likely that many corporations will support such
a program, so the politicians who represent us have to choose whose side they’re
Working people in Mexico, El Salvador,
the Philippines, the US and other countries need the same things. Secure jobs
at a living wage. Rights in our workplaces and communities. The freedom to
travel and seek a future for our families, and the ability to stay home and
have a decent future there too. The borders between our countries, then, should
be common grounds that unite us, not lines that divide us.
Bacon writes about labor, immigration, and international politics for The Nation, In These Times, American Prospect, TruthOut, among other publications, and he regularly appears on KPFA and KQED radio. The East Bay Express described his work: "As the US labor movement has come under near constant attack in recent years, the Oakland journalist is one of the last of his breed in the country."
For Labor Day, we've collected some of Bacon's stories about labor as a snapshot of a year in workers' rights.
All photos copyright David Bacon, used by permission of the author.
"Migrant rights activists, artisans and public officials spoke about the important role migration continues to play in Oaxaca's economic, social, political and family life. The state in southern Mexico is the source of one of the largest waves of migration from Mexico to the United States." "Oaxaca's New Government Calls for Migrant Rights," TruthOut, January 5.
"A bruising 16-year battle, the fight brought together African American, white, and Mexican immigrant workers, who were able to find common ground despite the company’s attempts to use racial division and immigration enforcement to try to defeat them." "Common Ground on the Kill Floor: Organizing Smithfield,"Labor Notes, April 20.
Today's post is from David Bacon, a former union organizer and a fellow at the Oakland Institute. Bacon is the author of Illegal Peopleand the forthcoming The Right to Not Migrate. This post originally appeared at New American Media.
OAXACA, MEXICO -- Just before Christmas, the women and children who'd spent 17 months living on the sidewalk outside the governor's palace in Oaxaca announced they were going home. In the spring of 2010, these refugees abandoned their homes in San Juan Copala, the ceremonial center of the Triqui people. Many houses were burned after they left.
Stringing tarps and ropes across the palacio's outdoor colonnade, they set up their planton, an impromptu community of sleeping and cooking areas across the sidewalk from the zocalo, the plaza at Oaxaca's heart. It looked hauntingly similar to the settlements of the Occupy protesters that spread across the United States last fall, but rather than fighting to remain in their tents, the Triqui families in the planton were fighting for the right not to live there, for the right to go home.
Finally, this December, they announced an agreement with representatives of Gabino Cue, elected governor last July, who promised to protect the families if they returned to San Juan Copala. Still, many question whether they can really go back safely. Even more importantly, they ask what can bring an end to the violence that has claimed the lives of at least 500 people over the last two decades.
This question is not just debated on the sidewalk by the zocalo, or only in Oaxaca. It is asked, albeit in whispers, by migrant farm workers in Baja California and Sinaloa, in northern Mexico, and in Hollister and Greenfield, in California's Salinas Valley.
Indigenous Triqui children march through the streets of Oaxaca on December 19, 2011, to protest a wave of killihngs in their home community of San Juan Copala.
Mixtecos have been leaving Oaxaca for decades, driven mostly by the endemic poverty of the Mexican countryside, says Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a Mixteco professor at UCLA and past coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. Yet for many years the Triquis, who were equally poor and live in the same region, stayed put. Their migration only began when the violence in their communities made life unbearable.
Once displaced, they began to migrate within the Mixteca region, then within Oaxaca, and then within Mexico. They traveled north, following other Oaxacans to San Quintin in the 1980s, and then in the 1990s, to California.
Triqui migrants might have escaped the violence, but not the political presence of the groups they were fleeing. Wherever they went, the Movement for the Unification of the Triqui Struggle (MULT) and the Social Welfare Group of the Triqui Region (UBISORT) sent agents, requiring people to pay monetary quotas and participate in mobilizations.
In the 1980s, Triqui activists organized MULT. "It was a grassroots organization to fight the caciques (rural political bosses) over control of land, forests and other natural resources," says Rivera Salgado. "The caciques were so violent that MULT members had to arm themselves. Eventually, those armed men became a paramilitary group. The caciques were overcome, but what began as a grassroots organization became something different. There was no transition to a civil society form of organization."
A Triqui boy carries a sign that says, "We want justice for the widows, the orphans and our injured.
Eventually MULT itself fractured into factions. One faction became UBISORT, which began fighting MULT for political control of Triqui communities. Oaxaca's repressive state government used the conflict to enhance its own control.
UBISORT was organized with the support of then-governor Jose Murat, and became a political support base for Oaxaca's old governing party, the PRI (Party of the Institutionalized Revolution). MULT organized its own political party, the Popular Unity Party. But behind the parties were the guns.
"A civil war went on between them," Rivera Salgado says. In 2006, Raul Marcial Perez, a leader of UBISORT, was assassinated. Then in October, 2010, Heriberto Pazos, the founder of MULT, was gunned down in the streets of Oaxaca city.
In the only municipio that remained in Triqui hand, San Martin Itunyoso, Antonio Jacinto López Martínez, a MULT leader, was elected president in 2004, but then couldn't take office because of threats, and fled to the nearby city of Tlaxiaco. Last October, as he was crossing the street there with two members of his family, a gunman shot him in the head. Many others were killed in years of violence and retribution.
The Triquis attempted to create an autonomous town in San Juan Copala, and were expelled by paramilitary gangs. They carried crosses with the names of people who were killed.
The High Cost of Migration
For Triquies, migration has had a high cost - they've had to fight for survival wherever they went. "They faced tremendous racism and prejudice," Rivera Salgado charges. "They're always the outsiders, treated like savages."
Over the course of some 25 years, so many have fled the political murders plaguing their homeland that they've formed towns like Nueva Colonia Triqui, or New Triqui Town, in Baja's San Quintin Valley. In that colonia, or in California's Triqui neighborhoods, people ask whether peace is possible, and if it were, would they go home too?
"People left looking for a better future, but they worry about the safety of their families at home," says activist Elvira Santos (whose name has been changed), pointing to the fear that many Triquis share of reprisals for speaking publicly not only against themselves, but also against their families in Oaxaca. "They'll think twice before going back because the conflicts and the same armed groups are still there."
In north Mexico, migrants found farm labor camps with dirt floors and no electricity. When they wanted homes for children and families, Triquis and other indigenous migrants had to mount land invasions, building houses on Federal land, and then awaiting the police sent to evict them.
The march called on the governor, Gabino Cue, to guarantee their safety when they try to return to the town and to arrest those responsible for the killings.
In one of the most celebrated cases, Julio Sandoval, a Triqui leader from Yosoyuxi, was imprisoned for two years in the penitentiary in Ensenada for helping families settle in Cañon Buenavista.
When Triqui migrant farm workers arrived in Greenfield, the local police and legal system condemned them for cultural practices like home births or early marriages, or for drinking in public, a normal activity at home. Eventually they reached agreement with the local police chief, who even set up a desk in the police station for a Triqui leader to provide translation.
Then town residents, who saw the migrants as unwelcome invaders, tried to fire the chief. The Triqui community by then numbered at least 3,000 people. Helped by the United Farm Workers, migrants marched through town to assert their right to live there.
Roots of the Violence
Adelfo Regino Montes, a Mixe indigenous leader and writer for Mexico's leftwing daily, La Jornada, traces the violence in the Triqui region to "political submission, territorial disintegration, economic exploitation, racial discrimination and exclusion in every aspect of daily life."
Triqui men joined the women and children in the march.
After Mexico won its independence, Triquis controlled three municipios, or counties, where they were the majority. That gave them some degree of political power. After the Mexican Revolution, however, two of the municipios were dissolved, and much of the community's autonomy was lost.
"San Juan Copala itself was no longer a municipio," Santos explains. "Many mestizos [people of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry] didn't want Triquis to have power. They introduced alcohol and arms in order to gain control of the land and resources." Those caciques ruled Triqui towns using repression and violence.
"[Triqui municipios] were dispersed into districts where non-indigenous people are the majority," Regino Montes said in a 2010 Jornada column. "The big majority of Triqui communities have been excluded from any decisions that affect their lives and destinies, undermining their autonomy and freedom to make their own choices. Those decision remained in the hands of the caciques, the state and federal governments, and the party leaders of the PRI."
In the only municipio that remained in Triqui hands, San Martin Itunyoso, Antonio Jacinto López Martínez, a MULT leader, was elected president in 2004, but then couldn't take office because of threats, and fled to the nearby city of Tlaxiaco. Last October, as he was crossing the street there with two members of his family, a gunman shot him in the head.
The women carry a banner that says, "Neither forgive nor forget, punishment to the assassins. Autonomous town of San Juan Copala."
"The violence is created by a lack of the assertion of the rule of law. But the government has excused its failure to stop it with such racist ideas as 'Triquis are savages and uncivilized,'" Rivera Salgado charges.
Looking for a way out themselves, in 2007 Triqui activists created the autonomous municipio of San Juan Copala, inspired by the experiences of the Zapatistas in nearby Chiapas. "They recreated the system of indigenous self-government," Regino Montes wrote, "the only real possibility for peace in the region."
"They were looking for a political alternative," adds Rivera Salgado, "and they used the political process. They weren't armed. And they won in a clean election."
Those activists had roots in another splinter from MULT, called MULT Independiente, or MULT-I. UBISORT and MULT united against them, and eventually laid siege to the town, which went on for months. A number of residents were killed.
A Triqui girl carries a sign that says, "Long live the autonomy of the native people of the planet earth."
On April 27, 2010, a caravan of Mexican and European human rights activists set out for San Juan Copala. They were stopped at a roadblock, and gunmen began shooting. Beatriz Alberta Cariño Trujillo, a Mexican human rights activist, and a Finnish supporter Tyri Antero Jaakkola, were murdered. The others fled into the hills.
Human rights lawyer Gabriela Jimenez Rodriguez said she was captured by hooded men who told her they were from UBISORT and MULT. "They told us than no one could pass here, that it was their territory." Finally she and others were released. Police recovered the two bodies, but never tried to enter the town.
On August 22, three more people were killed and two wounded, as they drove to nearby Santa Cruz Tilapia, where residents were also trying to establish an autonomous municipio. One was the town leader, Antonio Ramirez Lopez, 78 years old.
Then in September, 500 paramilitaries surrounded San Juan Copala and told supporters of the autonomous municipio they had 24 hours to leave. "That wasn't just a threat," Reyna Martinez, one of the town's leaders, told La Jornada. "They did the same thing in San Miguel Copala, where they killed twelve of our colleagues in the city hall. Neither state nor Federal authorities dare even to come into San Juan Copala.
Women and children walked past the street vendors selling toys in the city's main plaza, with the star and masked figure on their banner showing their connection to the Zapatista movement.
No need for protective measures?
Oaxaca's governor at the time, Ulisses Ruiz, notorious for his violent suppression of the teachers' strike of 2006, said there were no gunmen, deaths or disappearances in the Triqui region, and no need for protective measures for residents. By that time, families who'd fled were already living in the planton outside his office, and some had gone to Mexico City to set up a similar planton there. "They got us to leave," said another leader, Marcos Albino Ortiz, "but that doesn't mean we've given up."
Last July, however, Gabino Cue, who Ruiz defeated in the election of 2004, beat the PRI candidate for governor. UBISORT campaigned for the PRI. MULT's PUP ran its own candidate, viewed largely as an attempt to draw votes from Cue. After the election, Cue put Region Montes in charge of the state Secretariat of Indigenous Affairs. Rufino Dominguez, former coordinator for the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, was appointed director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants.
The women in the planton didn't stop demonstrating against the government, however, and the violence continued. In August three MULTI members were killed in Agua Fria. Their bodies were brought to the planton for a public funeral. In October, Reyna Martinez was arrested with two dozen others for occupying a piece of land near the airport, in an act of civil disobedience. They demanded that the new state government provide protection to allow their return to San Juan Copala, pay for the destruction of peoples' homes there, and arrest those responsible for the killings. And in December women and children in bright red huipils marched through Oaxaca city, demanding the government accept the conditions.
In response to the pressure, Rufino Juarez, a UBISORT leader, was arrested in May for killing MULTI activist Celestino Hernandez Cruz a year earlier. Cue's administration then issued arrest orders for a number of others, but so far none have been detained, with one exception. Authorities did arrest a MULTI founder and retired teacher, Miguel Angel Velasco, accusing him of arranging the disappearance of two young women from MULT in 2007.
The planton in front of the governor's palace on the main square in Oaxaca.
Nevertheless, Marcos Albino Ortiz, says that the state government "has fulfilled about half of what it agreed to. We're going back to San Juan Copala, and we're talking with the communities there to ensure they support our decision. Our objective is to pacify the region." He predicts that the state and federal police will provide an escort, along with representatives of the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights, which has issued orders of protection for many of the activists. Some 135 families have received some restitution for their burned homes, he says.
Can Triquis go home?
To ensure peace in San Juan Copala, however, some police presence there is unavoidable, at least in the short run, Rivera Salgado believes. "The litmus test is whether the government will create the conditions in which people can go home," he says. "You can't change overnight a situation that's existed for 30 years. In the short term they have to disarm the armed people. This can create political space. But military occupation is not a long-term solution. People need to become a force for change themselves."
Following the ambush of the caravan, Regino Montes asserted, "The solution must be the recognition and respect, in law and in action, for the process of Triqui autonomy." Now he is a responsible official in a government that has the power to implement that recommendation.
Peace in Oaxaca may encourage Triqui migrants to return, but going home won't be easy. No one can afford to go back to Oaxaca, just to take a look.
A child sleeps in a planton set up by the Triquis in Mexico City's zocalo, or main square.
Triqui migration hit the U.S. after the amnesty of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, so most people have no legal immigration status. They can cross the border into Mexico, but coming back to the U.S. is a much bigger problem. It's expensive -- $2500 for a coyote for the crossing is two months wages for a farm worker. Plus, it's more dangerous every year, as people get pushed by increased enforcement into the most remote sections of the border to cross.
Going back home is a permanent decision, not a temporary visit. Nor has the fear of violence there diminished. In the last few years, five Triqui families even won political asylum, helped by San Francisco's Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Nevertheless, "most migrants get much harsher treatment now," according to Rivera Salgado. "The current enforcement policy is based on excluding them, through violence and jail at the border, and isolation and fear in their community. The idea is to make life so hard for them in the U.S. they'll have to leave. But where are they supposed to go?"
"I think a lot of people would go home if they could," Santos believes. "Our land is very productive, and as farm workers here we've seen new crops that we could grow in Oaxaca. But we need jobs and schools there, and especially security. Right now, we don't know if we can even hope for that. Some of us have lost hope. Our governments have made these promises before. It would be good if it were true this time, but we have to see if their actions match their words.""
"And where is home?" asks Rivera Salgado. "Lots of Triquis have grown up in San Quintin or Greenfield by now. Yet the first generation still yearns for connection to San Juan Copala. It is part of their identity and sense of belonging. Everybody needs that."
In California cities like San Jose, voters this election passed ballot measures to weaken the retirement system for public workers. These are the same kind of measures that have brought workers into the streets of France for weeks in protest.
Beyond the ballot initiatives, the election season of 2010 was filled with rhetoric blaming public workers for the economic woes of cities and states. It's hard to understand, in an era of foreclosures by banks that pay their executives bonuses of millions of dollars, while getting bailouts from the Federal government, why public workers should be held responsible for the current economic crisis. Who contributes more to the welfare of our communities - a teacher or a hedge fund manager?
But perhaps the most important thing to remember is what these workers do. These photographs are meant to inspire some obvious questions. Can people do this work, if they're then cast adrift once they're too old? What would happen to all of us if they didn't do these jobs?
In San Francisco and Oakland, immigrants and community activists protested Arizona's SB 1070, which would require police and local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people they suspect might be undocumented, on the day the law took effect. A day earlier Federal Judge Susan Bolton invalidated much of the law, but demonstrations involving thousands of people took place against the law around the country nevertheless.
In San Francisco demonstrators also protested cooperation between police and immigration agents in arresting people for deportation, in front of the office of California Attorney General Jerry Brown. Brown, a candidate for governor, ruled that San Francisco could not opt out of the Secure Communities program, which mandates such cooperation and would invalidate San Francisco's sanctuary city ordinance. Protestors then went into Brown's office and told one of his assistants about their objections to his action.
Renee Saucedo, an attorney with La Raza Centro Legal and a leader of the protestors, said: "It's no coincidence that Arizona has this outrageous law, because all the proposals from Washington on immigration reform encourage the same criminalization, racial profiling and discrimination. Immigrant communities are demanding an end to these policies and laws, including "Secure Communities" and "E-Verify." We deserve a new direction from Washington, with real change, including legalization and workers' rights."
Beginning around 1980, the World Bank and the IMF began imposing a one-size-fits-all formula for development, called structural adjustment programs. These required borrowing countries to adopt a package of economic reforms, such as privatization, ending subsidies and price controls, trade liberalization, and reduced worker protections. After more than two decades, there is no strong evidence that this approach has achieved its stated goal of stimulating growth, while the toll on working people has been staggering. The IRCA commission report acknowledged the potential for harm by noting that "efforts should be made to ease transitional costs in human suffering."
The North American Free Trade Agreement, however, was not intended to relieve human suffering.
Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham announced Thursday their plan for immigration reform. Unfortunately, it is a retread, recycling the same bad ideas that led to the defeat of reform efforts over the last five years. In some ways, their proposal is even worse.
Schumer and Graham dramatize the lack of new ideas among Washington powerbrokers. Real immigration reform requires a real alternative. We need a different framework that embodies the goals of immigrants and working people, not the political calculations of a reluctant Congress.
OAKLAND, CA -- Cesar Cota was the first in his family to attend college. "Now it's hard to achieve my dream," he says, "because the state put higher fees on us, and cut services and classes." Cota, a student at LA City College, was encouraged by the internship program of the LA College Faculty Guild to describe the human cost of budget cuts in he community college system.
David Robinson, who's worked since he was 14, hoped he'd get automotive mechanic training, and a good job at the end of it. "But by cutting these programs and raising fees," he says, "you're cutting opportunity for a lot of people who need it."
Another endangered student is Tina Vinaja, a mother of three teenagers whose husband took a weekend job to help pay her tuition hikes. Monica Mejia, a single mom, wants to get out of the low-wage trap. "Without community college," she says, "I'll end up getting paid minimum wage. I can't afford the fee hikes. I can barely make ends meet now."
LA City College even suspended its sports programs for a year. The school had a legendary basketball program that gave low-income students a pathway out of poverty. JaQay Carlyle says City College basketball sent him to UC Davis and on to law school.
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.
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.
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.
Just 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).