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Argimiro Morales, champion for the Mixtecos:
"We must preserve our culture"
by Jan Spence

A discussion of the conditions surrounding Mexico's Mixtec Indians' search for jobs in southern California while preserving their pre-Columbian culture, and the US organizations which have come to their aid.  

There is a new wave of human migration occurring throughout the world, refugees seeking political safety or economic survival. Spanish-speaking Mexicans have worked in the fertile fields of California since World War II. But, recently, they have been coming from further south in Mexico, and in very large numbers. The newest arrivals looking for farm jobs are the Mixtec Indians, or Mixtecos, from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero. I traveled to the border towns of Southern California to meet the Mixteco immigrants.

The California/Mexico border — 130 miles long — has been called the busiest land border in the world. It includes the Tijuana-San Diego entry point where it is estimated that 6 million people legally cross northbound each month. They enter the United States to commute to work, or for pleasure, to visit relatives, to shop.

Due to Mexico’s poor economy, the lack of work, and the expectation that life is better in el norte, many thousands illegally enter California on a mission to survive. In reality, the Mixtecos, and other immigrants, are bitterly disappointed in Southern California. They don’t find enough work, and face greater hardships than they endured in their homeland. They face injustices, too, and exploitation.

Agriculture is one of the largest industries in the state. But there are many more job seekers than jobs. Today the minimum wage is $4.25 an hour, unchanged since 1988. Sometimes the men are paid less money than they have actually earned. If they complain, they lose their jobs. There is no grievance procedure. The Mixtecos will work for any amount of money and under almost any conditions. They are discriminated against by the other Mexicans who are attempting to establish a guaranteed minimum wage and improved working conditions.

Clustered shanties

The Mixtecos must also endure a lack of decent housing. The canyons of San Diego County are dotted with clustered shanties. The farm workers and their families are crowded in these cardboard or wooden shacks without running water and electricity. There are many health hazards. The immigrants sometimes drink irrigation water, which is impure. Some of the fields are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Women have complained of sexual harassment.

Another disadvantage is the language barrier. The Mixteco Indians don’t speak English, and only a few speak Spanish. They speak in their pre-Columbian native tongue. They are not hired by owners, but by contractors — or middlemen — in an informal manner. The immigrants often don’t know who they are working for and are confused as to who is responsible for an unjust act. They are paid in cash and there are no workers’ benefits, such as sick pay, or paid vacations.

Argimiro Morales left Oaxaca in 1982 and found work on a farm in San Diego County. He lived in a cardboard shack, worked hard and long hours, and saved his money. By 1989, he had saved enough to send for his wife and four children.

Today, Morales works for a national sporting-goods manufacturer. He is the North San Diego County Coordinator of the Mixteco-Zapoteco Binational Front and the editor of La Pulla, a publication advocating for the Mixtecos. He is a champion for his countrymen. He spoke of their hardships with deep concern. And he spoke of the Mixtec culture with even more concern, and with pride. "We must preserve our culture," he said. " We don’t want to join other cultures. We are unique. We want to remain unique." Morales estimates that 50,000 Mixtecs have left their native states and are seeking work in California and Baja California.

Utter poverty

His story is one of success, but there are countless immigrants living in utter poverty. He led me through the San Diego County canyons, near the town of Vista. We walked on planks of wood to cross a stream and climbed a very steep, dusty hillside, using smooth boulders, partly embedded in the earth, for stepping stones. The women wash clothes in the small stream. Everything has to be carried up this steep hillside — wet clothes, bottled drinking water, buckets of bathing water, firewood, and food.

The shacks are made of recycled materials — remnants of plywood, heavy cardboard, pieces of metal and assorted fabrics. The kitchens are open and the women cook over open fire-pits. The men live separately in a cluster of shanties, about 50 feet from their families, because sometimes they drink and become abusive.

Some of the children go to school, but not all, and not every day. They have to walk a couple of miles to the highway for transportation, and they don’t bring any books or papers home to study. They don’t participate in our society — no sports, music lessons, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. They live in isolation. Their playground is a hot, dusty hillside. There is little shade from the glaring sun.

Maria Louisa Vascas, 55, left Oaxaca three years ago with her husband and youngest daughter, Melanie. They crossed the border into San Diego County in search of work and expected to earn enough money for themselves and to send some back to Oaxaca to the four children and grandmother they left behind. But her husband doesn’t work every day, and has sent very little money back home.

"He earned only $5.00 today," Maria Louisa told me. "It’s back-breaking work — to work in the fields — bending over the tomato plants, and the lettuce and cilantro." She moved toward her husband and began to massage his upper back. "We see many people with houses and automobiles, but we have this," she said, pointing toward her meager kitchen and the dirt floor.

"Life is more difficult here in el norte. We carry our water and wood, everything, up the hill. In Oaxaca, we had a burro to carry our water and wood, everywhere."

Melanie, age five, had not been to school for several days because she had no shoes to wear. It’s a rule at her school — no shoes, no school.

We talked about the hardships of the farm workers. And we talked about the coming of Lord Maitreya. Maria Louisa asked, "Cuando? (When?)" several times.

Help for the immigrants

In addition to the small support groups which are organizing to come to the aid of the Mixtec farm workers, there are large organizations, too, serving low-income Spanish-speaking people. California Rural Legal Assistance is a non-profit law firm, providing free legal services and legislative representation for poor, rural Californians. Executive Director Jose Padilla has stated that poverty is the product of a political and economic compromise where some people end up advantaged and millions of others are deprived of their basic needs.

Renée Saucedo is an attorney for La Raza Centro Legal, which provides free legal services in immigration, housing and employment for Spanish-speaking people in central California. She said that farming is not the only industry in which immigrant workers are exploited in the United States. Restaurant, janitorial and domestic workers have also suffered injustices. Employers require maids to take care of children and the elderly, paying them less than the minimum wage. Sometimes the maids work up to 18 hours a day, are permitted to eat only leftovers, and are not given days off.

One of Renée’s clients, a Salvadoran woman in her 40s, was hired as a maid and care-giver for two children. She was required to sleep on the floor between the beds of the two children — for years. She developed an eye problem and was not permitted to go to the doctor during work hours. Saucedo has won this case for her, and they are negotiating a settlement with her employer.

Most of Saucedo’s cases are urban, but she filed a lawsuit with the State Labor Commissioner on behalf of two immigrant farm workers. They had worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, earning an average of $6.00 a day, for about two years. They lived with their wives, the four of them, on the ranch in a small trailer. Sometimes the employers said that they didn’t have any money and they paid the workers with food instead of money. She won the case for them — one man was awarded $17,000 and the other, $14,000. However, the employers fled the state, and the immigrants are still waiting for their money.

Saucedo said: "It is good when the clients have the courage to come forward and file complaints. Some of them are fearful. Employers tell them they will be deported if they report their grievances to an attorney. It’s important that immigrants know they have legal rights, whether they are documented or not."

We could recall the recent message of Dr Oscar Arias, former President of Costa Rica, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: "If we don’t solve the problems in the South, the boomerang for the industrialized nations will be more illegal migrants, more terrorism, more drugs, more conflicts. You can pass new laws on legal immigration, you can strengthen your police protection at your borders, you can build walls to keep the poor from entering this country. But let us never forget — poverty needs no passport to travel. As long as there is increasing poverty in the developing world, poverty will be a permanent threat to the industrialized world."

From the December 1994 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005