By David Bacon
OAXACA DE JUAREZ, MEXICO—For six weeks, hundreds of teachers in the capital of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca have been living in tents.
Bonifacio Garcia, one of the protesters in the city’s main plaza, the zocalo, declares, “We will stay here until the state Chamber of Deputies agrees that our education reform will move forward in all our schools.”
Each week, teachers from one of Oaxaca’s regions take a turn at sleeping in the tents. This is the week for the schools on the coast, including the communities of people whose ancestors were slaves. Garcia comes from Santiago Tapextla, near Pinotepa Nacional, where most people trace part of their ancestry back to Africa.
“Spaniards brought slaves with them from the Caribbean and Africa,” Garcia explains. “After Mexico outlawed slavery in 1821 we became an autonomous community. But in Mexico African people aren’t considered an original people, the way indigenous people are. We’re still not really recognized, so we have to fight for our rights.”
Garcia is principal of a “telesecondaria,” a secondary school in a remote area where part of the instruction is given through a national televised curriculum. While he uses that TV program, he and his fellow teachers reject most of the other reforms Mexico’s national government has attempted to impose. Oaxacan teachers and their union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, say the federal education reforms rely too heavily on standardized testing, and punish teachers for the low scores of their students.
Instead, Section 22 formulated its own education reform plan five years ago: the Program to Transform Education in Oaxaca. It seeks to develop an intensely cooperative relationship between teachers, students, parents and the surrounding community. Lulu, a young preschool teacher from Huatulco, further south along the coast, says, “I have a much closer relationship now to the parents of my children than we did before.”
For Garcia, the central purpose of the reform plan is to help students get a better education, especially those in rural areas who speak pre-Hispanic languages like Mixteco, Zapoteco or Triqui (Oaxacans speak twenty-three indigenous tongues). But education, he believes, should also provide an alternative to the out-migration that is devastating small farming communities.
“If we want young people to stay, we have to have an alternative that is attractive to them,” he says. “That starts with education. That’s why our program to change the schools is so important, and why we’re willing to sit here in the zocalo until the government agrees.”
Oaxaca has about 3.5 million people, who began leaving the state because of intense rural poverty in the 1970s. At first people migrated to work on the industrial farms of northern Mexico. But then indigenous Oaxacan towns, dependent on growing corn and other agricultural products, were hit hard by the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1990, before the agreement was implemented, about 527,000 people had left. A decade later that number had mushroomed to 663,000.
Beginning in the 1980s, Oaxacan migrants began crossing the border, first into California, and then dispersing into states all over the U.S. By 2008, about 12.5 million Mexican migrants were living north of the border (up from 4.6 million in 1990)—9.4 percent of the population of Mexico. But even in this huge wave, Oaxacans have been overrepresented—19 percent of its people are migrants.
Rufino Dominguez, who heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, estimates that there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca in the United States, 300,000 in California alone.
California has a farm labor force of about 700,000 workers, so the day is not far off when indigenous Oaxacan migrants may make up a majority. Indigenous people constituted 7 percent of Mexican migrants in 1991-3, the years just before NAFTA. In 2006-8, they made up 29 percent—four times more. The rock-bottom wages paid to this most recent wave of migrants sets the wage floor for all the other workers in California farm labor, keeping the labor costs of California growers low, and their profits high.
It was no surprise, therefore, that anger over discrimination, displacement, migration and poverty ran through many denunciations heard last week in Oaxaca at the triennial assembly of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations.
“We are not people who were ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards, the Americans or anyone else,” thundered Juan Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez, the front’s new binational coordinator. “We are people in struggle!”
The front is a unique organization created in 1992 by both Oaxacan migrants in California, and by the communities in Oaxaca from which they come. It has chapters in four California cities, in several towns in Baja California in north Mexico where Oaxacans work as migrants, and in many indigenous towns in Oaxaca itself. Many of the group’s activists are teachers because educators play such an important role in community life.
In 2010, both the front and the union supported the candidate who defeated the PRI: Gabino Cue, the former mayor of Oaxaca’s capital city. That gave teachers enough political influence to insist that the Oaxaca Institute for Public Education, which administers the state’s schools, begin implementing their reform. It’s been a fight, however. Two years ago, Claudio Gonzalez, one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen and head of a national group backing standardized testing, warned Governor Cue that he had to “break the hijacking of education by Seccion 22”. He called the teachers “tyrants.” Under pressure from the PRI administration in Mexico City, Oaxaca’s state government is backtracking on its commitment to education reform. That’s the reason for the encampment in the zocalo.
When Cue was elected, the indigenous front met with him to ask that he appoint Dominguez, the group’s former binational coordinator, to head the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants. Cue then declared that his administration was dedicated to implementing the “right to not migrate.” This right, a centerpiece of the organization’s political program for a decade, calls for alternatives to forced migration, including better schools, higher agricultural prices, jobs, and health care in rural areas. If people have an alternative, activists argue, they can choose freely if they want to leave home or not.
The group’s outgoing binational coordinator, Bernardo Ramirez, says people in the United States don’t really understand what causes migration.
“The wage here in Oaxaca is 73 pesos ($6) a day,” he explains, “and in some of the poorest areas people are living on 30 pesos a day. They’ll eat if they produce their own corn for tortillas and beans, but they just have enough money to buy an egg. When the free trade agreement came in, they lost the market for the little they were producing. The products coming in from the U.S. had government support and subsidies. Mexicans couldn’t compete with that. People see migration as their only option to survive.”
The organization also goes into the schools, especially secondary schools where young people are already thinking of leaving, to dispel illusions that life is always better in the north.
“The people who come back just talk about the good part of migration,” Ramirez charges bitterly. “They don’t talk about how many days they had to walk through the desert. They don’t mention that seven or eight people were sleeping on the floor in the room where they were living. They don’t say they were robbed or beaten while they were traveling, and the government did nothing.”
Therefore, in addition to advocating the right to not migrate, the group also says people have the right to migrate, and to basic human and civil rights when they do. The California section of the organization has criticized for years U.S. proposals for immigration reform, because of their emphasis on enforcement and guest worker programs. It has called for a progressive alternative, based on labor and human rights, and at the Oaxaca meeting voted to join a U.S. network of organizations supporting it, the Dignity Campaign.
As part of that commitment, activists last year helped Oaxacan farmworkers organize an independent union in Washington State. During that fight, the grower employing them, Sakuma Farms, fired several workers, denied families a space to live in the company labor camp, and tried to keep wages at the level of the state’s minimum. When workers organized to protest, ranch owners tried to bring in a replacement force of guest workers from Mexico, under the H2A work visa program.
Ramirez went to Washington State at the time. His organization and the new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, then mobilized opposition that kept the U.S. Department of Labor from approving the farm’s application. “We’ve talked with 70 percent of the people recruited in Oaxaca, and there are enormous violations of the rights of workers by guestworker programs,” Ramirez says.
“That’s why we want an immigration reform in the U.S. that doesn’t have guestworker programs,” he adds. “Migrants need the right to come and work, but to work with rights.”