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Build a House, Go to Jail 

Two Baja laborers led land invasions with their poor neighbors and brought down the wrath of a government intent on enforcing rules that protect the rich

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002
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Photos by David Bacon

MANEADERO, BAJA CALIFORNIA -- Every morning, the phone rings in the Sandoval house in Ca�on Buenavista. Julio Sandoval is making his daily call from the prison in Ensenada, 20 miles away, where he has been held since December.

His adult daughter Florentina sits at a cable-spool table talking to her dad, while Julio's toddler grandson Jonathan practices his new skill of walking on the dirt floor. Over the phone, Julio gives his daughter instructions to pass on to his lawyer, and Florentina tells him the news from home.

Meanwhile, Julio's wife, Juana, heats tortillas on a stove set up on cinder blocks, connected by a rubber hose to a big methane bottle the family has to fill twice a month. The one-room house, dim even at midday, is divided down the middle by a yellow blanket, screening off the area where the family sleeps.

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The Sandoval residence, built of plywood, is better than many in Ca�on Buenavista. "Some of us live in cardboard houses, and cook on wood fires, a very dangerous combination," Julio notes in an interview over his home phone, in a call arranged by the family. An exterior wall of his own house still shows charred marks from a fire that burned down the home next door.

These poverty-stricken residences scattered over a desert hillside hardly seem much of a threat to anyone, yet they are the reason that Julio Sandoval has been in prison for nine months, for helping migrant workers in Baja California settle in homes like these. Another housing activist, Beatriz Chavez, a well-known leader of similar efforts farther south down the Baja peninsula, has been in prison since May of 2001.

Their crime is an offense unique to Baja -- despojo agravado. Despojo, according to Tijuana attorney Jose Pe�aflor, "means using land or water belonging to someone else, without their authorization, in a furtive manner." This offense is on the books throughout Mexico. But in Baja the legislature created a new, more serious charge a few years ago -- despojo agravado -- the crime of leading or instigating others in committing despojo. Families husk tomatillos in Ca�on Buenavista, an �illegal� community created by a land invasion.

The law is directed against communities created by land invasions, and especially at the people who lead them. It's really a political offense. "The government is afraid of the poor sections of the population, especially the migrant indigenous people from Oaxaca, and wants control over them," said Beatriz Chavez, over the phone from the Cereso prison. "They think their only way to ensure control is by throwing the leaders of social movements among them into prison."

For months the two cases have wound slowly through the state's court system, and Chavez and Sandoval now await sentencing. Rumor has it that the judge is preparing to give them five years apiece. Baja California authorities wouldn't permit a reporter to enter prison facilities to talk to the jailed activists, nor would they make any public statements themselves.

THOUSANDS OF INDIGENOUS FAMILIES come north every year from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to work for Baja's large landowners. Families like the Castanedas and the Caneloses own thousands of hectares of land, and form partnerships with U.S. corporations to grow and export tomatoes, strawberries and other row crops. In the late fall and early spring, almost all the cilantro and green onions in Los Angeles supermarkets come from the Baja communities of Maneadero, San Quintin and the Mexicali Valley. Family portrait: Grandson Jonathan, wife Juana and daughter Florentina with baby in Julio Sandoval�s one- room house.

Most Oaxacan migrants remain farm workers, although some families, like Sandoval's, have taken a step up from the fields, selling goods to tourists on the street. It's easier, year-round work, with a higher income. Every day, after the morning call from prison, Sandoval's wife and daughter pack Florentina's three kids into an old pickup and leave for Ensenada. There they spend the day in front of waterfront fish-taco stands, selling tourists the wool shoulder bags Juana weaves at night, and jewelry and craftware made by neighbors. Before his imprisonment, Julio Sandoval made his living in the street as well.

Ca�on Buenavista was created in two separate land invasions by rural workers from the ranches of Maneadero, the agricultural valley just south of Ensenada. The first was led by Benito Garcia, a charismatic, controversial figure, who led agricultural strikes two decades ago, but was accused later of misusing money and power. In the 1980s, he organized farm workers in the Maneadero Valley, who were then as now living in labor camps or even sleeping by the roadside, to occupy 50 hectares on a desert hillside south of town.

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