By Noe Lopez
This Article was first Published in the September-December Issue of Critique Magazine at Delhi University, India. Do not cite without the author’s consent.
As I write this piece for an audience in India I cannot stop thinking of the history of colonisation and imperialism I share with this audience. I cannot neglect to mention a certain explorer who arrived to the American continent thinking he had discovered a route to India and, thus, erroneously called my people 'Indians'. This explorer, Christopher Columbus, changed the routes of the history of my people for centuries. I personally don't appreciate the word 'Indian' for its colonial legacy and, although others claim it with pride, I cannot forget its role in history. It has impacted indigenous racism and classism in Mexico, influenced migration and indigenous labor, and defined our place in Mexican society. In fact, this history and its consequences still affects me and angers me.
First and foremost, let me explain this anger.
Anger, Coraje, a feeling of antagonism, the feeling of burning heat in the heart and attitude demonstrated by through embodied movements such as the frown of my eyebrows. It is what the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) calls 'digna rabia', or dignified rage, a humanised rage of oppressed peoples. I speak now not as an academic but as an indigenous migrant living in the United States, in displacement, and as the son of indigenous farm workers.
I am angry and I will not apologise for it.
It is with this anger, coraje, that I think of the strikes in San Quintin valley, a region in northern Mexico that serves as a hub for agricultural industries catering to world markets in the production of different varieties of berries and vegetables. Many impoverished people around Mexico, especially indigenous people from the southern part of the country, migrate to this region to work in this industry. Earlier last year, on 17 March 2015, farm workers in San Quintin made headlines in Mexico as they struck work, engaging in peaceful protest by ceasing to pick crops in the agricultural fields in protest of the inhuman work conditions the industry subjected them to. This included sexual abuse, 17 hours of work per day, with no basic necessaries (i.e. water, bathrooms, medical services) and the use of child labour. The protests turned violent when policemen raided the protests with gum bullets and gases, as well as showed up in people’s homes, looking to detain organisers and protesters, thereby criminalising them. The protests prolonged as farmworkers attempted to negotiate for better working conditions with agro-industry companies and growers, and defend themselves against police violence. As a result of the strike, many crops went rotten due to the absence of labourers for weeks and even months. In May 2015, many growers accepted the demands of the protesters by promising to end child labor and increasing wages to $200 pesos ($15 U.S. dollars) a day instead of the $300 pesos demanded by protestors. Until today, the implications of the negotiations are part of the dialogues of the protesters because state institutions have not responded effectively to demands of healthcare and other social services. Also, many companies have begun to terminate employment of those who participated in the protests.
San Quintin: Media and Neo-Liberalism
As the strikers and residents of San Quintin protested they have posted videos of police shooting gum bullets at protesters though Youtube and Facebook. National media in Mexico turned their attention to these migrant workers using terms such as 'jornalero' (daily wage labourers), 'migrantes' (migrants) and 'trabajadores de campo' (farmworkers), often neglecting their indigenous identity. International media such as CNN and Los Angeles Times began writing reflective pieces on how these workers pick up food to feed the United States population for less than 10 dollars a day, when minimum wage workers in the U.S. earn the same amount in an hour.
In videos posted on the Internet, we saw women yelling at their friends and family to protect themselves from the shootings. Articles focus on the treatment of women in the agricultural fields. Women are often sexually abused in the workplace. Child labour has been another important issue in this region. Children from ages thirteen to eighteen assist their parents in the fields, in violation of international human rights and state laws.
The abysmal working conditions in San Quintin are closely related to the growth of Mexican neoliberal economic state policies. Allowing for the entry of foreign capital with the promise of providing employment to Mexicans, U.S.-based companies like Driscoll’s, that are dedicated to growing and marketing berries, are amongst those that are responsible for the exploitation of workers in San Quintin, and who simultaneously benefit from their exploitation. These corporations work through ejidos, communal agrarian holdings, and ranchos, plantations owned by certain families and private proprietors. These ejidos and ranchos hire primarily indigenous labourers to work in their fields, who hail from southern Mexico and migrate north, leaving behind their communities, in order to flee poverty and political conflicts. Thus a capitalist chain of labour and profit is created; indigenous people work for the ranchos/ejidos and these make contracts with transnational corporations such as Driscoll.
San Quintin and Mexico’s Dominant Society
The San Quintin protests have historical roots and demonstrate the Mexican state’s contempt towards its indigenous population. Often, media reporting on these issues fail to analyse the historical inequality of indigenous people. Based on its colonial legacy, the Mexican nation state is founded on and dependent upon patriarchal-racist systems of oppression that have historically relegated indigenous people to poverty and political conflicts, thus making them 'exploitable' and forcing them to migrate.
In Mexico, there is a phrase that justifies the exploitation of indigenous people: 'trabajo de indio', or Indian work, a phrase that is based on the racialisation of bodies and that justifies the exploitation of indigenous peoples as agricultural workers. A YouTube video goes on to exemplify the ideologies of employers. In this video, it states that the life of an indigenous person working in agricultural fields is worth less than a slave because Indian work is easily found and easily exploited, as they are ignorant and worthless. What could possibly justify the broadcast of such a narrative? These violent ideologies demonstrate the normalisation and racialisation of the exploitation of indigenous bodies in Mexico.
What do I mean by normalisation? I mean that Mexico’s national culture breeds images of the subordinate indigenous labourer. We see Mexican 'telenovelas', soap operas, where light-skin-rich families have workers portrayed by actors that 'behave' and 'look' indigenous—characters with dark skin, broken Spanish, and submissive personalities.
The Mexican media portrays indigenous women who are domestic workers as docile, vulnerable, and hopeless. The domestic labour of the indigenous, is therefore, gendered and racialised. A perfect example of this is the Mexican caricature of La India Maria, the Indian Maria, a popular indigenous character in Mexico reproduced in a series of films portraying the image of the 'Indian woman' as submissive and hopeless, often dehumanising her agency. These ideas are founded on paternalism, a form of exertion of power that is often masked by a discourse of care. Such discourses are also found in the academia. In one such instance, an academic in my graduate school coined the phrase, 'racismo de amor', or racism of love, in to order to refer to this form of paternalism, acted on domestic indigenous workers. On hearing such a formulation, however, I was angered, as I do not believe any form of racism is based on love, but is always based on oppression. In yet another instance of the normalisation of this form of paternalism, La India Maria was described by a professor in class as being 'part of Mexican culture'. Mexican society has, similarly, been blind or reluctant in recognising indigenous communities' identity, power, and autonomy (unless of course, if it involves neoliberal tourism).
It is until our anger is performed; until our people speak up, stand up, protest, and rise to arms (such as San Quintin and EZLN) that we get national and international attention. It is when we disturb the bourgeois-upper-class-white-mestizo-Mexican society; it is when we go against the colonial social norm that we get acknowledgements. Acknowledgments that often negate our identities. They call us 'daily wage workers', 'migrants', peasants', but not Ñuu Savi, Triqui, , Tarahumara, or Purepecha.
San Quintin and Colonial History
The exploitation of indigenous workers in San Quintin is part of a longer history of exploitation beginning in the colonial period. During the colonial period, for instance, the strategic development of the haciendas, or large-scale plantations, was based on the basic principle of the dispossession of land and the use of indigenous bodies for labour. The development of haciendas in Mexico during the 16th century marked the beginning of displacement of indigenous people from their lands converting them into labourers.
During the Porfirian period, between the 1870s and 1910 under the rule of Porfirio Diaz, foreign investment and land appropriation became exaggerated, also leading to a growth of industrial production geared toward export products. Many indigenous people were forced to give up their land and work for the production of agricultural and mining commodities. According to various historians, people were often hired when they were drunk and basically kidnapped. People worked as peons, domestic servants (especially women), many of which were dominated by paternalism on the one hand and physical violence on the other. In addition, the agrarian reform of 1915 after the Mexican Revolution failed to compensate indigenous peoples for their stolen land, creating land conflicts that have lasted until this day, causing people to leave their homes.
Article 27 of the Mexican constitution of 1917 nationalised (state-controlled) land and reinforced the distribution of land to rural communities. Land distribution, however, only impacted communal lands of northern Mexico, such as San Quintin, where vast irrigation systems were located, and farms were introduced to industrialisation and capitalist agriculture, focusing on national and international production of commodities, that required cheap vulnerable labour. By 1992, Article 27 was revoked, permitting massive foreign capital investment in Mexico, which increased the price of domestic crops and ruined local rural markets. Many rural indigenous people in the south, therefore, were left with no choice but to migrate to work in northern Mexico and the United States. Together these historical processes account for creating the conditions for sharp inequalities, undergirded by racism, in the valley of San Quintin, bringing us back to the subject of anger.
San Quintin and Anger
Anger is important because we are tired of historical oppression. We have been the backbone of the Mexican economic structure. We have been displaced from our land. Yet here we are making our presence noticed.
Why does the media not talk about this anger we have held for generations? Why not mention this anger that we hold within the depths of our memories? I remember my grandparents telling me about their work in Sinaloa and Veracruz during the 1940s and 1950s, how they were told 'dirty indios' by their employers to make them feel ashamed of who they were. My father once told me he was physically punished in elementary school when he spoke our language in the classroom. His teacher took his pants off and sat him on an anthill of red ants. I remember how I was told by my family to aspire to be civilised, to become a man of reason and a man of letters. I was told to reject the 'Indian' in me so that I do not suffer like my parents and grandparents did. I grew up learning that to be an Indian meant to be the lowest race, class, and human in Mexico. Let’s not forget, the anger one must feel as a woman.
San Quintin is that anger we hold; anger growing and developing through history; an anger that must not be forgotten.
Are we just exploited labourers claiming for a fair salary, as the media portray us, or are we also oppressed people striving for dignity by denouncing the oppressor?
San Quintin is anger. We, the indigenous people of Mexico, are angry. We are angry at Mexican neoliberalism. We are angry at racism in Mexico. We are angry at patriarchy in Mexico. We are angry at Mexican internal colonialism.
We are angry at history: a history of exploitation and oppression.
So I say it, with all the anger that I feel righteous to: Mexico has a colonial racist patriarchal state and oppressive society. It is for this reason that many of us live in constant oppression and exploitation; we live in displacement away from our communities. It is also for that reason we speak up, we stand up, and we create our own future. We speak up because that anger is the foundation of our own definition of justice. San Quintin is part of the anger we hold.
About the author:
Noe Lopez is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Sandy Young says…
Excellent piece, Noe. Stay angry, my friend!
on May 14, 2016
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