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The New Face of Politics in Mexico 

Hint: It isn’t Vicente Fox

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
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THE VALLEY OF SAN QUINTIN, BAJA CALIFORNIA -- You can hardly blame 38-year-old Celerino Garcia if he didn‘t join the celebrations marking this week’s victory of the National Action Party (PAN) over Mexico‘s long-governing ruling party. Just eight months ago, he and his older brother were sitting in a jail cell, arrested by Baja California’s PAN authorities on trumped-up charges of illegally taking land.

Those who believe PAN‘s victory represents a new era of real democracy in Mexico need look no further than Baja, says Garcia, where it has governed for 11 years. From his perspective, the PAN is hardly distinguishable from what it is displacing.

In Baja California, Garcia, not the PAN, is the new face of politics. It is a face with the angular lines and dark complexion of the native Mixtec people of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.

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This year, for the first time ever in Baja California, a Mixtec -- Garcia -- ran for the Mexican Federal Chamber of Deputies. He didn’t win, but his candidacy, on the slate of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is part of a rising from below. ”Indios,“ still widely despised by many of the wealthy in Mexico, are serving notice that they will no longer be treated as political nonentities.

This political metamorphosis is not the one chronicled this week by the mainstream press in both Mexico and the United States. Their attention has been focused on Vicente Fox, PAN‘s presidential candidate, whose victory unseated the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years.

To Garcia, ”The PAN here is no different than the PRI. If anything, it’s worse.“ The decade of PAN rule in Baja California has been an era, he says, marked by political repression, unfettered capitalism and an abdication of any responsibility for social justice toward the poor.

By contrast, Garcia‘s campaign, arising from the ranks of migrant, indigenous farm-workers, is the aboveground, visible tip of a deep-rooted struggle for political change and social justice. From Tijuana south down the peninsula, social movements are coalescing into a progressive power base that shows every sign of transforming the Baja California political landscape, and is spilling across the U.S.-Mexico border into California as well.

The village where Garcia was born, San Juan Mixtepec, sits in the heart of a hilly region that, in many ways, was never completely colonized centuries ago by the Spaniards. Both the native Mixtecs and the neighboring Zapotecs preserved their native pre-Columbian languages and many of their customs, setting them apart from the Mexican mainstream. Today many Mexicans still scornfully refer to these indigenous people as ”oaxacitas,“ or ”little Oaxacans.“ Discrimination against them is widespread.

Garcia and his older brother Benito joined the great exodus of Mixtecs and Zapotecs from their ancestral villages, forced by poverty to seek jobs as migrant farm laborers in northern Mexico. They arrived in the dusty farm town of San Quintin, three hours south of the U.S. border, where a tiny coterie of wealthy growers owns almost all the land from the ocean to the mountains. Their extensive fields are planted with tomatoes and strawberries for the U.S. market.

The brothers quickly became leaders among the farm workers, demanding an end to starvation wages and the debt-driven servitude they found in the fields. ”For the last 12 years, we’ve been trying to organize an independent union,“ says Celerino Garcia. ”But any act of protest here to win our rights is met with repression.“

The brothers‘ efforts made them well known, even before Celerino went on the air, on the town’s tiny radio station, XEQIN, telling the valley‘s farm laborers about their rights in the native Mixtec language.

Wages in San Quintin have been kept low to make the valley’s strawberries and tomatoes cheaper in New York and Los Angeles. ”Today the minimum wage here is 37.4 pesos a day [about $4],“ says Domiciano Lopez, a local community organizer. ”A kilo of meat costs 38 pesos in the local market. That means families here eat meat once a month.“

With no affordable alternative, Mixtec and Zapotec families lived for years in labor camps during the harvest season, returning to their native villages in the south when the work was done. But as time went by, many decided to stay in the valley.

”Over 20,000 of us here in San Quintin have no property,“ Garcia says. ”We‘ve always had to live in the camps. So we made a proposal to the state -- that they set aside an area of 50 hectares, which we would divide and develop for workers. But the PAN refused to do this. In their eyes, we’re strangers. They just want us to work to make the ranchers wealthy, and then go back to Oaxaca.“

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