By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In addition to fighting for land, the CIOAC has tried to organize an independent union to raise wages. ”We‘ve been trying to gain a registro [government legal recognition] since 1984, but we’ve always been denied, first by the PRI, and then the PAN,“ says organizer Julio Cesar Alonzo.
San Quintin‘s big landowners were already nervous. Last fall, one of the local companies, facing financial problems, failed to pay its workers for four weeks. When its owners didn’t come up with the money, an angry crowd of pickers set fire to their packing shed.
But for the growers, the organizing efforts represent a risk greater than higher labor costs; they fear losing political control.
About 60 percent of the valley‘s population consists of migrants. In past years they never voted in local elections because they still officially resided in their hometowns in Oaxaca. By settling down in San Quintin, however, these workers could assemble an indigenous voting majority, upsetting a political structure long dominated by growers.
To head off that prospect, the police moved in. Local authorities ignored documents showing that workers had purchased the land for their homes, and instead accused the Garcias of illegally occupying it. Last October, the two were sent to jail.
Protests over the arrest of the Garcias quickly swept across the peninsula. Political allies in other Baja cities began organizing demonstrations and marches. For two days, crowds staged sit-ins at state government offices in San Quintin, Ensenada and Tijuana -- places where the struggle for land resonated among workers with similar experiences.
”For poor people -- workers, people in the barrios -- the state has refused to budget money for social services,“ says Ramiro Orea, a political organizer in Ensenada. ”We have terrible problems of lack of housing in Baja. In the colonias for workers, dirt streets turn to mud when it rains, and in many neighborhoods there are no sewers, running water or electricity. Getting any of these services requires a big fight. So that’s what we do. We fight.
“The PAN‘s policies here are the same as the PRI’s,” Orea adds. “They both rely on our low wages to provide an incentive to foreign investors in the maquiladoras [foreign-owned factories], or to keep our agricultural exports cheap. Any time we try to change that, the government sees us as a threat and intervenes to try to stop us. If people in the U.S. think that Vicente Fox is going to bring about a change of policy here in Mexico, just look at what his party does here in Baja.”
Common struggles over land and housing have created an insurgency against the PAN in Baja. Some of these fights, like that in the Tijuana barrio of Maclovio Rojas, go back ten years, and have also been marked by the imprisonment of community leaders.
In addition to the housing organizations, a new statewide network of activists includes independent unions, such as the October 6 union organized by maquiladora workers in Tijuana and a union for street sellers in Ensenada. Together they make up a group called ENFOCCA, the Power Network of Citizens, Workers and Farm Laborers. This network provides a growing popular base for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Baja California. The PRD finished a distant third in the presidential contest, but it cannot be counted out as a future player in Baja or other places where it is connected to grassroots movements for social justice.
The campaign to free the Garcias even spread north across the border, to a radio station in El Centro, in California‘s Imperial Valley. There Filemon Lopez, a Mixtec, like Celerino Garcia, hosts a radio show called The Mixtec Hour. Lopez is the coordinator of the International Network of Oaxacan Indigenous People, and he alerted thousands of Oaxacans living in the Imperial and Central valleys to the crisis in San Quintin. People responded by deluging the Baja California governor with letters and faxes, demanding freedom for the Garcia brothers.
Celerino and Benito were released after two weeks. But others were arrested for taking part in the sit-ins and released after a few days of further demonstrations.
Because of the popular support mobilized to free him, Celerino Garcia was nominated as the PRD’s candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican congress in Mexico City. But his supporters still face heavy odds in trying to ensure fair elections -- the obstacles confronting poor and indigenous voters in Baja have always been high.
“People who still have homes in Oaxaca have to vote in special places, often many kilometers from where they‘re staying, and the ballots there ran out with dozens of people still in line,” he explains. “They lose a whole day of work when they vote, and this year ranchers offered to pay them twice the day’s pay if they worked instead. When workers did vote in past elections, some were fired for that alone, because the ranchers know without asking which party they were voting for. We know they were threatened again this time. And in at least one workers‘ neighborhood here, the PRI brought in over 200 ineligible people to vote.”
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