The following entry is composed by Lindsay Etheredge, student at the University of Puget Sound and current intern with WFP in Oaxaca.
Growing up in the state of Washington, I have come in contact with many immigrants from Mexico and Central America. This past weekend however, I saw immigration from the other side when I travelled to a small community called Rancho Viejo in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
I travelled to Rancho Viejo with 20 other students from the Pacific Lutheran University/University of Puget Sound study abroad program in Oaxaca City. The trip was organized with Witness for Peace and focused on learning more about the root causes of immigration in the U.S. The first day was spent in the town of Santiago Juxtlahuaca in the Mixteca Baja region where we met with leaders of the WFP partner organization, Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales. FIOB is a bi-national organization working directly with the causes and consequences of migration in the state of Oaxaca. In addition to Oaxaca, FIOB also has a presence in the border region (Baja California) and is very active in the U.S. (with offices in California). Here in Oaxaca, they support the development of local community groups as a means of providing an alternative to leaving home. In the U.S., they offer support for immigrants in the form of providing translators and legal aid as well as fighting for labor rights for indigenous immigrants. During our meeting with FIOB the Juxtlahuaca District Coordinator, Centolia Maldonado, explained the push factors behind the overwhelming degree of emigration from southern Mexico, and in particular Oaxaca. The driving force is a lack of work and inability to compete in local markets, which is in large part a result of neo-liberal economic policies and trade agreements such as NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement).
Upon arriving to Rancho Viejo we were welcomed by the Rivera family; Sidronio, his brother Ramiro, and his son Fernando. Rancho Viejo is an indigenous Mixtec community made up of about 200 families, although the number has greatly diminished as a result of people leaving home. The center of the community consists of a church, school, small health center and field for playing Pelota Mixteca, an ancient Mixtec ball game. The houses are widely dispersed, although every house seems to be connected to each other by some small trail winding down the side of the mountain. Next door to each house are large plots of land where the milpa is planted: corn, beans and squash planted together in one field. On our first day we climbed to the top of a mountain and looked out over the whole community and Ramiro pointed out all the abandoned houses that have been left by families who migrated to the U.S.
Towards the beginning of our stay we introduced ourselves, and Ramiro asked that we share where we live, our studies, what we are passionate about and how we want to change the world. These last questions took me by surprise but as we began our introductions, I realized it was an incredibly thought-provoking and relevant question. It also portrayed the genuine interest Ramiro and his family had in our lives and in our visit to their communities. When Ramiro and Sidronio introduced themselves, I was deeply affected by their personal stories of leaving home, experiences on the border, explanation of the migration situation in Rancho Viejo, and their very conscious and informed view of political, economic and social issues. Their knowledge of world issues, juxtaposed with their rustic and traditional lives, forced me to think of the paradox of the conflicting cultures they have experienced; life in Rancho Viejo as farmers working their own land and then as undocumented immigrants working under unfair labor conditions in the crowded cities of California.
(Ramiro Rivera explains the Mixtec ball game to the PLU/UPS group. Photo by Lindsay Etheredge.)
The Riveras explained that while living in Santa Cruz, California, they felt the constant threat of being discovered as undocumented workers. The Riveras are just one example of many immigrant families that have had to sacrifice their traditional lives and working their own agricultural fields to move to cities where they are treated as second-class citizens. They must work for low wages, lack health and safety protections, and are denied basic human rights. I could only imagine the culture shock that families like the Riveras had to face when comparing their lives in the magnificent natural beauty of Rancho Viejo to a modern, crowded and overwhelming U.S. city.
Throughout the weekend, we were shown several of the projects this family and community have started with the aid of FIOB, including growing hongo-setas (a type of mushroom), building a greenhouse for tomatoes, and creating a water reservoir shared by families to irrigate their crops. They profit from the crops that are grown by selling their harvested produce at the local markets. Finding profitable products and a way to utilize their land and community resources are important as alternatives to leaving home. Seeing the progress of their projects demonstrated the dedication and intense physical labor required to simply survive off their land. The projects in Rancho Viejo have been relatively successful as a result of aid from FIOB and the cooperation of the community.
The last morning spent in Rancho Viejo was an incredibly emotional one. It was a common sentiment among our group members that we felt more welcomed, close and emotionally connected to this family after two days together than any of us had felt after a month of living with host families in Oaxaca City. We were touched by the openness and willingness of Ramiro, Sidronio, Fernando, and their families to share their lives with us and show genuine interest in our own very different lives. On our last morning, they shared their thoughts on migration in relation to development and I was struck by many of their comments. A very clear and confronting statement they shared is that their family is only one example of thousands and thousands of similar families affected by migration. They discussed the image of immigrants in the US and the generalization that all are criminals carrying drugs across the border. Fernando described how they emigrate for the sole purpose of making money to send home as a means of survival for their families.
In terms of development and solutions to mass migration from Oaxaca, Fernando explained that even if the US were to open up its borders to all immigrants, this would not be a solution. What they need, he said, is development in their own communities, development initiated by community members and not by outside agencies. Local development, however, is a near impossible obstacle to overcome if U.S. economic policy remains unchanged. These policies, which include the provision of heavy subsidies to industrialized U.S. farms, have lead to the dumping of cheap corn products on the Mexican market and require the reduction of tariffs and the cutting of Mexican support programs. This makes competition impossible for small, local farmers in Mexico like Ramiro and his family. Since 1992, U.S. corn exports to Mexico have increased by 240-percent and the artificially low price of this corn has forced Mexico out of the market.* This affects some 18 million people who depend on corn for their livelihood.** These are the people who are left with no other choice than to abandon their land in an attempt to survive in the U.S. A majority of this population lives in extreme poverty or in isolated, rural areas of Mexico like Rancho Viejo, areas that receive zero economic profit from free trade.
Before visiting the Mixteca region, I had some prior knowledge of the immigration issue, however after meeting the Rivera family and putting faces to the phenomenon, I was made even more aware of the harsh reality. I realized the irony that as the U.S. attempts to tighten its borders, it is our economic policies that are the root cause and major push factor of Latin American migration to the U.S. Indigenous communities like that of Rancho Viejo are up against an enormous challenge. They are faced with trying to maintain their unique traditions and culture while at the same time struggling to find a place in the unjust modern global market. As a citizen of the country that manipulated many of these economic policies, I feel more compelled than ever to inspire some kind of change when I return home.
For more information on FIOB, see www.fiob.org
* Kupfer, Patty, David Waskow, Kasey Butler. “Reaping the Seeds We Sow: U.S. Farm Policy and the Immigration Dilemma,” p. 3.