• Edición impresa de Septiembre 1, 2015


bacon29A burned-out concrete blockhouse  - the former police station - squats on one side of the only divided street in Vicente Guerrero, half a mile from Baja California’s transpeninsular highway.  Just across the street lies the barrio of Nuevo (New) San Juan Copala, one of the first settlements of migrant farm workers here in the San Quintin Valley, named after their hometown in Oaxaca. 

Behind the charred stationhouse another road leads into the desert, to a newer barrio, Lomas de San Ramon.  Here, on May 9, the cops descended in force, allegedly because a group of strikers were blocking a gate at a local farm.  A brutal branch of the Mexican police did more than lift the blockade, though.  Shooting rubber bullets at people fleeing down the dirt streets, they stormed into homes and beat residents.

Two years ago Triqui and Mixtec workers struck strawberry fields in Skagit County in Washington State.  Two years before that, Triqui workers picking peas in the Salinas Valley rebelled against an inhuman work quota, and immigration raids in the town of Greenfield.

bacon47The strawberries, blackberries and blueberries sold everyday in U.S. supermarkets are largely picked by these indigenous families.  Their communities are very closely connected, all along the agricultural valleys that line the Pacific Coast.  These migrants come from the same region of southern Mexico, often from the same towns.  They speak the same languages - ones that were thousands of years old when Europeans first landed on this continent.  Increasingly they talk back and forth across the border, sharing tactics and developing a common strategy.

Indigenous farm workers labor for a small number of large growers and distributors who dominate the market.  One of the largest distributors is Driscoll’s.  Driscoll’s contracts with growers in five countries, and even exports berries from Mexico to China.

Driscoll’s and its Baja partners BerryMex and MoraMex have a large share of Mexico’s berry harvest, worth $550 million annually.  Last year Mexico shipped 25 million flats of strawberries to the U.S.  Mexican shipments of 16 million flats of raspberries and 22 million flats of blackberries were larger than U.S. domestic production.  The company, with headquarters in Watsonville, California, is a partner with growers all along the U.S. Pacific Coast as well.

bacon54According to Bonifacio Martinez, an Alianza leader, “For years we’ve been hoping for some kind of change but it never happened.”  Before starting the strike on March 16, activists went from one colonia to another, meeting with families after work.  “We asked them, ‘Are you willing to continue living like this?’” he remembers.  “What’s behind this movement is hunger and need. To the powerful people here we’re just machines to do the work. They have to see us as full human beings, and respect our rights and indigenous culture.” 

The picking season is only six months long, so workers have to survive during the months when there’s no work. San Quintin’s Mixtec and Triqui laborers originally came as yearly migrants, returning to Oaxaca after picking ended.  Today, however, most live in the valley permanently.  BerryMex’s labor camp houses 550 temporary migrants, but the rest of its 4-5000 pickers live in the towns along the highway.  The Mexican government subsidizes some living costs in the off-season, through an income-based subsidy called IMSS-Oportunidades (recently renamed IMSS-Prospera).  But most families have to get what work they can or borrow from friends.

Sakuma pickers walked out a third time on July 24.  Then on August 8 a strike broke out at another company, Valley Pride Sales.  Thirty-five workers left the fields and joined FUJ, asking for a 50¢ increase per box of blackberries.  They complained there were often no bathrooms or drinking water in the field, and according to Ramon Torres, they were told to use the restroom at a nearby gas station.  After refusing to pick for at the company’s piecerate, strikers were told to leave its labor camp.

Rosalia Martinez, a Triqui picker in Greenfield, added; “The piecerate is physically destructive, You have to work on your knees, and it hurts.  Sometimes your knees break down.  That’s happened to a lot of people.  Their knees go out permanently and they can’t work anymore.”

If companies like Driscoll’s are international now, we the workers must also become international,” Bonifacio Martinez insists.  “I want to say to our brothers in the U.S. - we are crying out for you on our side of the border too.  Just like in the United States, here in San Quintin we’ve decided to come out of the shadows into the light of the world.” 

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