It is a great pleasure for the members of the Binational Central Committee of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB in Spanish) spread across Oaxaca, Baja California and California, to present readers with the life history of one of the founders of our organization in this piece, entitled “The people went walking: How Rufino Dominguez revolutionized the way we think about migration,” written by independent journalist David Bacon, a longtime ally of the FIOB. This editorial effort is a collaboration between FIOB and the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First.
Rufino’s Birth as an Activist in Oaxaca and Baja California
In 1980, in the midst of this political effervescence, Rufino Dominguez entered the preparatoria, a school in Tlaxiaco that funneled students into Oaxaca’s “normales,” or teacher training schools. According to Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a Mixtec professor at UCLA who worked with him for many years, “Rufino found a traditional left environment in this prepa run by the normales. He was only there for six months, because the school went out on strike and the students shut it down. He used to joke that otherwise he would have become a teacher. But even then he was elected president of the student body.”
Laura Velasco at Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte interviewed Rufino several times for her books on the Oaxacan diaspora. “Rufino told me that he was a militante in the PCM when he was 16,” she recalls. “It’s where he got his vision of class, that indigenous people and migrants are people who are exploited economically.” Some of that ideological training Rufino also got from Ernestino Sixto Chávez, a radical teacher who owned a small shop fixing radios and televisions in Juxtlahuaca.
In 1980 the PCM won its first election victories - the municipal presidencies of the small towns of Alcozauca de Guerrero in Guerrero state, and Tlacolulita and Magdalena Ocotlan in Oaxaca. The following year the Coalition of Workers, Farmers and Students of the Isthmus (COCEI) won control of the municipal government of Juchitan de Zaragoza, one of Oaxaca’s most important cities. By then, the PCM had organizationally merged with its partners in the Coalition of the Left, and formed a new party, the United Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM). In the new Juchitan city council, the PSUM held two of the seats.
COCEI’s victory electrified
Mexico’s left. The new government ran literacy programs for a town in which 80% of the people couldn’t read, purged corrupt police, fixed roads and the municipal market, and built new health clinics. “In those years COCEI was very strong in Oaxaca,” Rivera Salgado recalls. “Here Rufino began trying to adapt the traditional radical ideas of the Mexican left, including the ideas of Marx, to the struggles of indigenous people.
“COCEI itself held its meetings in Zapoteco, although they didn’t yet have a word in Zapoteco for class struggle. People were so proud of who they were. At this time PSUM was becoming a legal party, and Rufino was part of that. But because of the strike he’d lost his fellowship and couldn’t survive without it. He went back to his community, and began to fight to get rid of the cacique [town boss].”
That cacique was Gregorio Platon, the Deputy for Communal Property in San Miguel Cuevas. That position gave him control over communal town lands, and enabled him to fine town residents who’d had to leave to look for work elsewhere - as much as 15,000 pesos. “Those who didn’t pay were put in jail or were threatened with being kicked out of the town,” Rufino remembered. “He burned five homes, and killed three people, including a friend. That’s why I did something, because it hurt me. After two years we were able to get him out of there.”
On October 30, 1983, Rufino and his fellow activists organized an occupation of the town hall, but were then confronted by Platon and his supporters, carrying guns. They were forced into the building, where they were tortured for four hours. Rufino’s father gathered the town’s residents and they marched on the town hall. “We were rescued by the town - otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today,” Rufino recalled. “That’s where my struggle really began.”
Living in Oaxaca was still dangerous, however, and Rufino had just gotten married. With his new wife he took the road north, first to Sinaloa, where thousands of Oaxacan migrants made up the workforce on giant plantations growing tomatoes and strawberries for the U.S. market. The PSUM and CIOAC had already sent organizers there to fight to change the worst conditions in Mexican agriculture.
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