The Right to Stay Home
THE RIGHT TO STAY HOME
By David Bacon
New America Media
JUXTLAHUACA, OAXACA, MEXICO (7/9/08) - For almost half a century, migration
has been the main fact of social life in hundreds of indigenous towns spread
through the hills of Oaxaca, one of Mexico's poorest states. That's made
the conditions and rights of migrants central concerns for communities like
Santiago de Juxtlahuaca.
Today the right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival. But this
June in Juxtlahuaca, in the heart of Oaxaca's Mixteca region, dozens of
farmers left their fields, and women weavers their looms, to talk about
another right, the right to stay home.
In the town's community center two hundred Mixtec, Zapotec and Triqui
farmers, and a handful of their relatives working in the U.S., made
impassioned speeches asserting this right at the triannual assembly of the
Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB). Hot debates ended in
numerous votes. The voices of mothers and fathers arguing over the future
of their children, echoed from the cinderblock walls of the cavernous hall.
In Spanish, Mixteco and Triqui, people repeated one phrase over and over:
the derecho de no migrar - the right to not migrate. Asserting this right
challenges not just inequality and exploitation facing migrants, but the
very reasons why people have to migrate to begin with. Indigenous
communities are pointing to the need for social change.
About 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca live in the US, 300,000 in
California alone, according to Rufino Dominguez, one of FIOB's founders.
These men and women come from communities whose economies are totally
dependent on migration. The ability to send a son or daughter across the
border to the north, to work and send back money, makes the difference
between eating chicken or eating salt and tortillas. Migration means not
having to manhandle a wooden plough behind an ox, cutting furrows in dry
soil for a corn crop that can't be sold for what it cost to plant it. It
means that dollars arrive in the mail when kids need shoes to go to school,
or when a grandparent needs a doctor.
In Oaxaca the category of extreme poverty encompasses 75 percent of its 3.4
million residents, according to EDUCA, an education and development
organization. For more than two decades, under pressure from the World Bank
and U.S. loan conditions, the Mexican government has cut spending intended
to raise rural incomes. Prices have risen dramatically since price controls
and subsidies were eliminated for necessities like gasoline, electricity,
bus fares, tortillas, and milk.
Raquel Cruz Manzano, principal of the Formal Primary School in San Pablo
Macuiltianguis, a town in the indigenous Zapotec region, says only 900,000
Oaxacans receive organized healthcare, and the illiteracy rate is 21.8%.
"The educational level in Oaxaca is 5.8 years," Cruz notes, "against a
national average of 7.3 years. The average monthly wage for
non-governmental employees is less than 2,000 pesos [about $200] per family
[per month], the lowest in the nation. Around 75,000 children have to work
in order to survive or to help their families."
"But there are no jobs here, and NAFTA [the North American Free Trade
Agreement] made the price of corn so low that it's not economically possible
to plant a crop anymore," Dominguez asserts. "We come to the U.S. to work
because we can't get a price for our product at home. There's no
Without large scale political change most local communities won't have the
resources for productive projects and economic development that could
provide a decent living. Towns like Juxtlahuaca, don't even have waste
water treatment. Rural communities rely on the same rivers for drinking
water that are also used to carry away sewage. "A typical teacher earns
about 2200 pesos every two weeks [about $220]," says Jaime Medina, a
reporter for Oaxaca's daily Noticias. "From that they have to purchase
chalk, pencils and other school supplies for the children,"
Because of its indigenous membership, FIOB campaigns for the rights of
migrants in the U.S. who come from those communities. It calls for
immigration amnesty and legalization for undocumented migrants. FIOB has
also condemned the proposals for guest worker programs. Migrants need the
right to work, but "these workers don't have labor rights or benefits,"
Dominguez charges. "It's like slavery."
At the same time, "we need development that makes migration a choice rather
than a necessity -- the right to not migrate," explains Gaspar Rivera
Salgado, a professor at UCLA. "Both rights are part of the same solution.
We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a
problem to a debate over rights. The real problem is exploitation." But
the right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to
be poor, the right to go hungry and homeless. Choosing whether to stay home
or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future.
In Juxtlahuaca Gaspar Rivera Salgado was elected FIOB's new binational
coordinator. His father and mother still live on a ranch half an hour up a
dirt road from the main highway, in the tiny town of Santa Cruz Rancho
Viejo. There his father Sidronio planted three hundred avocado trees a few
years ago, in the hope that someday their fruit would take the place of the
corn and beans that were once his staple crop. He's fortunate -- his
relatives have water, and a pipe from their spring has kept most of his
trees, and those hopes, alive. Fernando, Gaspar's brother, has started
growing mushrooms in a FIOB-sponsored project, and even put up a greenhouse
for tomatoes. Those projects, they hope, will produce enough money that
Fernando won't have to go back to Seattle, where he worked for seven years.
This family perhaps has come close to achieving the derecho de no migrar.
For the millions of farmers throughout the indigenous countryside, not
migrating means doing something like it. But finding the necessary
resources, even for a small number of families and communities, presents
FIOB with its biggest challenge. This was the source of the debate at its
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado says, "we will find the answer to migration in our
communities of origin. To make the right to not migrate concrete, we need
to organize the forces in our communities, and combine them with the
resources and experiences we've accumulated in 16 years of cross-border
organizing." Fernando, the greenhouse builder and mushroom farmer, agrees
that FIOB has the ability to organize people. "But now we have to take the
next step," he urges, "and make concrete changes in peoples' lives."
Organizing FIOB's support base in Oaxaca means more than just making
speeches, however. As Fernando Rivera Salgado points out, communities want
projects that help raise their income. Over the years FIOB has organized
women weavers in Juxtlahuaca, helping them sell their textiles and garments
through its chapters in California. It set up a union for rural taxis, both
to help farming famiies get from Juxtlahuaca to the tiny towns in the
surrounding hills, and to provide jobs for drivers. Artisan co-ops make
traditional products, helped by a co-operative loan fund.
The government does have some money for loans to start similar projects, but
it usually goes to officials who often just pocket it, supporters of the
Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Oaxaca since it was
formed in the 1940s. One objective debated at the FIOB assembly was
organizing community pressure to win some of these resources. But any
government subsidy is viewed with suspicion by activists who know the
strings tied to it.
Another concern is the effect of the funding on communities themselves.
"Part of our political culture is the use of regalos, or government favors,
to buy votes," Gaspar Rivera Salgado explains. "People want regalos, and
think an organization is strong because of what it can give. But now people
are demanding these results from FIOB, so do we help them or not? And if we
do, how can we change the way people think? It's critical that our members
see organization as the answer to problems, not a gift from the government
or a political party. FIOB members need political education."
Political abstention isn't an option, however, warns Juan Romualdo Gutierrez
Cortez. "We aren't the only organization in Oaxaca - there are 600 others.
If we don't do it, they will." But for the 16 years of its existence, FIOB
has been a crucial part of the political opposition to Oaxaca's PRI
government. Gutierrez, a school teacher in Tecomaxtlahuaca, was FIOB's
Oaxaca coordinator until he stepped down at the Juxtlahuaca assembly. He is
also a leader of Oaxaca's teachers union, Section 22 of the National
Education Workers Union, and of the Popular Association of the People of
In June of 2006 a strike by Section 22 led to a months-long uprising, led by
APPO, which sought to remove the state's governor, Ulises Ruiz, and make a
basic change in development and economic policy. The uprising was crushed
by Federal armed intervention, and dozens of activists were arrested.
According to Leoncio Vasquez, an FIOB activist in Fresno, "the lack of human
rights itself is a factor contributing to migration from Oaxaca and Mexico,
since it closes off our ability to call for any change." This spring
teachers again occupied the central plaza, or zocalo, of the state capital,
protesting the same conditions that sparked the uprising two years ago.
Gutierrez himself was not jailed during the uprising, although the state
issued an order for his detention. But he's been arrested before. In the
late 1990s he was elected to the Oaxaca Chamber of Deputies, in an alliance
between FIOB and Mexico's leftwing Democratic Revolutionary Party.
Following his term in office, Gutierrez was imprisoned by Ruiz' predecessor,
Jose Murat, until a binational campaign won his release. His crime, and
that of many others filling Oaxaca's jails, was insisting on a new path of
economic development that would raise rural living standards, and make
migration just an option, rather than an indispensable means of survival.
Despite the fact that APPO wasn't successful in getting rid of Ruiz and the
PRI, Gaspar Rivera-Salgado believes that "in Mexico we're very close to
getting power in our communities on a local and state level." He points to
Gutierrez' election as state deputy, and later as mayor of his hometown San
Miguel Tlacotepec. Other municipal presidents, allied with FIOB, have also
won office, and activists are beginning to plan a FIOB campaign to elect a
FIOB delegates agreed that the organization would continue its alliance with
the PRD. Nevertheless, that alliance is controversial, partly because of
the party's internal disarray. "We know the PRD is caught up in an internal
crisis, and there's no real alternative vision on the left," Rivera Salgado
says. "But there are no other choices if we want to participate in
electoral politics, so we're trying to put forward positive proposals. We're
asking people in the PRD to stop fighting over positions, and instead use
the resources of the party to organize the community. We can't change things
by ourselves. First, we have to reorganize our own base. But then we have
to find strategic allies.
"Migration is part of globalization," he emphasizes, "an aspect of state
policies that expel people. Creating an alternative to that requires
political power. There's no way to avoid that."
Coming in September, 2008, from Beacon Press:
Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes
See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)
See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border
(University of California, 2004)
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories