It was my first time in Mexico, and something felt off. I was sitting outside the faded colonial church in Teotitlan del Valle, a village in the beautiful, proudly indigenous state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I surveyed the scene, trying to decipher the source of my uneasiness. In the town square facing the church, people were going about their day: haggling over the price of beans, weaving rugs, enjoying a taste of the region's famous black mole sauce.
And then it hit me: They were all women. OK, a few girls and abuelitas were running around, but the only man besides me was the guy inside the church hanging on a cross.
"Where are all the men?" I asked Carla Moreno, my tour guide and the unofficial town historian of Teotitlan. I had met Carla a week earlier at a writers' conference in Oaxaca city, and over a drink of mescal she had offered to show me around her hometown.
"Fueron al Norte," Carla said with a sad smile. "They went north. To the U.S."
I couldn't believe it. Migration seemed to have hit Teotitlan like a plague, wiping out the town's sons and fathers in one generational swoop. How was this possible?
"This is how," Carla said. She pulled out two ears of corn, already shucked.
One corn was yellow, the kind I've devoured at many a Labor Day barbecue. The other corn, however, was a color my gringo eyes had never seen before: It was blue. A royal, purplish blue, with the occasional red or yellow kernel thrown in like abstract art.
"This," Carla said, holding up the blue species, "is one of our native corns we grow here in Oaxaca."
"And this one," she continued, now holding the yellow corn, "is from Iowa. American corn, subsidized by the American government, that has made it impossible for Mexican farmers to make a living. Farmers like my brother Luis."
Carla glanced around the village, like she was searching for a ghost.
"You want to know why Mexicans are taking over America?" she said. "Because American corn is taking over Mexico."
* * *
Corn is everywhere in Oaxaca, in every shape and size imaginable. Oaxaca is home to 85,000 unique varieties of corn, possibly the greatest diversity of any crop in the world. 85,000 types of corn! Think of all the different colors and flavors that could produce. Purple popcorn! Spicy red cornflakes!
My mind raced with the culinary possibilities, but for Carla, corn is more than a meal. Indeed, for the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, corn is central to their culture. The Zapotec people of Oaxaca pray for the blessings of Pitao Cozobi, the god of maize. In Chiapas, one state south, the Mayan holy book teaches that God created man himself from an ear of corn.
Corn may be a spiritual matter only for some Mexicans, but it is an economic issue for many more. Approximately 20 percent of Mexico's 110 million citizens depend directly on corn farming and related businesses for their livelihood. And for the last two decades, that way of life has been under attack by a simple acronym with a nasty, neoliberal bite: NAFTA.
When the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, it removed nearly all corporate trade barriers between the United States and Mexico. Among the industries affected was agriculture, forcing small Mexican farmers into direct competition with big American agribusiness. Cheap American corn -- heavily subsidized, mechanized, and oh, yes, genetically modified -- soon flooded the Mexican market, undercutting local farmers' prices.
In the last eighteen years, the share of American corn in Mexico has jumped at least 500 percent. And just as millions of industrial workers in the United States lost their jobs in the free-trade outsourcing bonanza, rural Mexicans suffered a parallel fate. Even by cautious estimates, NAFTA is directly responsible for the loss of two million farm jobs in Mexico.
One of those farmers was Luis Moreno, Carla's brother.
"How could he compete with something like Cargill?" Carla asked, speaking the name of the U.S. agricultural giant like it was a mythical dragon.
"He couldn't, but he still had a wife and three kids," Carla continued. "So Luis left to find work. First to Mexico City. Then to Kansas City. He's been there for nine years now, cleaning office buildings. His kids only know him on the phone."
Luis was nearly caught and deported a few years ago, Carla told me. That was November 2008. The same month, I realized, that Barack Obama was elected President.
* * *
In his first term, President Obama deported over 1.5 million men, women, and children to their countries of origin, primarily Mexico. The son of a Kenyan foreign exchange student, Obama now holds the dubious distinction of deporting foreign-born residents at a higher rate than any President in U.S. history.
Recently, though, Obama has taken steps towards a more humane immigration policy. Last June, he announced a new policy that temporarily stopped the threat of deportation for certain undocumented youth. And after winning reelection with a whopping 71 percent of the Latino vote, Obama has made immigration reform a top legislative priority.
Not to be outdone, and facing the electoral reality of a browning America, even some Republicans are changing their tone on immigration. (Think less Jan Brewer, more Marco Rubio.)
Yet with all the talk about "comprehensive immigration reform," no one in Washington is asking the most basic question: Why are millions of people leaving their homes to come here? Why did Luis Moreno leave his family, pay his life savings to a backstabbing coyote, cross a desert where he nearly starved, risk jail and death and a thousand other dangers -- all to work as a janitor in Kansas City?
No immigration reform can be called comprehensive if it doesn't address NAFTA. Or CAFTA, its Central American counterpart. Or the legacy of U.S. corporate-military interventions throughout the Western Hemisphere, from Chile to Guatemala to the human rights disaster known as the War on Drugs. Immigration is about both the push and the pull, and the American Dream looks way better when the CIA has made your own country feel like a nightmare.
Making those connections -- between immigration and labor, food justice and foreign policy -- isn't easy, but it's the only path to real justice on both sides of the border. This larger vision won't come from Washington. It can only come from the grassroots, a true globalization from below.
Where is this movement happening?
Look no further than groups like the DREAMers, the courageous immigrant youth who come out as "undocumented and unafraid."
It's happening in the Dignity Campaign, which fights for immigrant rights and fair trade as one and the same.
And it's happening among the millions of immigrant families -- and among their friends, teachers, and co-workers of every legal status -- who refuse to allow human beings to be criminalized for trying to survive.
The movement is getting stronger, and as I saw at a recent protest, it's growing in beautifully unexpected ways.
* * *
It was a foggy San Francisco day in December. I joined 200 protesters outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement regional headquarters. We were there to rally against the deportation of Jesus Ruiz Diego, twenty-six, who had lived in the United States since he was brought over from Mexico by his parents at the age of four.
The crowd was young, mainly under thirty. Mostly Latino, but I spotted a good number of Asians, whites, and black folks in the crowd. This was the new face of America, I thought, the new face of activism. And then, near the back, an older woman caught my eye.
She was little more than five feet tall, with broad hips and a broader smile. With each loud, Spanish chant, she threw up her fist -- and when she did, I noticed what she was holding in her hand. There in downtown San Francisco, this woman was clutching a small, but unmistakable, piece of blue corn.
Could it be? Was blue corn some sort of new symbol for the movement, like the red star or black mask? Back in Oaxaca, I could imagine Carla smiling wide.
But before I could ask the woman if she had another ear I could raise in solidarity, she put the corn to her mouth -- and took a big, satisfying bite. This was no symbol, I realized. This was lunch. And no border wall, no free trade pact, can ever stop people trying to survive.
Josh Healey is a writer, performer, and proud member of Gringos for Immigrant Rights. Based in Oakland, he tweets political jokes and revolutionary haiku at @mrjoshhealey.