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.
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.“
With more workers settling in San Quintin, the pressure for housing in the valley‘s small towns escalated, as families tried to escape the miserable conditions in the camps.
In San Quintin, as in Ensenada and other peninsula towns, the local PAN government has its own program for selling land for new homes. But farm laborers say they can’t afford the price and the interest rates. So a grassroots group called the Independent Confederation of Farm Workers and Peasants (CIOAC) helped workers pool their money. The confederation, whose leaders include the Garcias, found an older woman in the community who still had some land of her own, and the workers bought it a year ago.
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.”
Even so, Garcia almost certainly won a majority of votes in some San Quintin polling places; he finished third overall. Garcia sees clear progress. In San Quintin, farm workers made up 18 percent of the vote recorded in the previous election, according to research by the Independent Confederation. This time, Garcia says, the number almost doubled to 32 percent, according to their own informal count.
“They thought putting me and Benito in jail would stop us,” says Celerino Garcia, “but the opposite happened. People got angry and our movement got bigger.”