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Farm Workers Endure Abysmal Conditions : Proud Mixtec Indians Face Exploitation

January 05, 1987|JOHN HURST | Times Staff Writer

TEQUIXTEPEC, Mexico — As the moon rises in the pale mountain sky behind the new clock in the Town Hall tower, an old man makes his way across the plaza below, his fingers in constant motion, weaving a sombrero from strands of fiber.

The clock and the old man tell much about the ties that bind the Mixtec Indians of southern Mexico to the growing thousands of their people who toil in the fields of faraway California.

The Mixtecs--The Cloud People--are descended from a race that created a great civilization centered in what is now the state of Oaxaca. The Spanish conquest, disease, widespread erosion of farmland, droughts, a high birthrate and an economy that is moribund even by Mexican standards have left La Mixteca, as the homeland is called, in desolation.

Today, the proud Mixtecs, builders of ancient city states, have been reduced to weaving and selling sombreros to wholesalers for about 25 cents each. There is little other work. Most of their food is imported. Their children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

So, in steadily increasing numbers, those who can are leaving their native villages in desperate search of work in other parts of Mexico and the United States--especially California where Mixtecs have become an important and widely exploited element in the agricultural work force, according to those familiar with the migration.

In the last 10 years, growing thousands of Mixtecs--no one knows with any precision how many--have been crossing illegally into California, where they work in grueling farm jobs and live under abysmal conditions. The Mixtecs, naive about the ways of the industrialized world and sometimes speaking only their native Indian language rather than English or Spanish, are commonly cheated of wages and required or driven by desperation to live in shells of vehicles, barns, filthy labor camps or even in holes in the ground.

But even though they are at the bottom of a labor force that is notoriously underpaid and poorly treated, some of them manage to send enough money home to help keep alive not only families but whole towns in La Mixteca.

Almost all of the $1,500 cost of the new clock for the Town Hall in Tequixtepec came from Mixtec farm workers in California's Sonoma County, where field hands live in camps under bridges during harvest time.

"We Mixtecos who live far from La Mixteca, I think this (buying the clock) was a test to see how much we could do," said Rafael Morales, a foreman on a Sonoma County vineyard and one of the first of his people to settle in California. "We don't want the people to forget about the town."

Money for Families

In addition to funds for the clock, the farm workers from Tequixtepec send money home for their families and for school and bridge construction in the town of 2,800.

Fidel Ruiz Osorio, mayor of Tequixtepec, said the town is dependent for its very existence on funds sent home by the migrant workers.

The town takes pride in the new clock, he said, and it helps the children get to school on time.

Mixtec villages are strongly communal in nature, explained Michael Kearney, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, who has studied the Mixtec culture for the last eight years.

"It's very important," he said, "to send these contributions back to the town to confirm your membership in the community."

Several years ago, Kearney met a group of Mixtec farm workers whom a labor contractor had housed in a dilapidated abandoned apartment building in Riverside. At night they were terrorized by a street gang that shot one of the workers to death and badly wounded another. Despite their own deep and ongoing troubles, the migrants sent $500 home to their town of Jeronimo Progreso to buy lights for the church, Kearney recalled.

Migrants in California from Tindu, a mountain village so remote that a car going through the hamlet is an event, send money home to help with construction work on the Town Hall, said Rosa Hernandez, a storekeeper in the village.

Sometimes the migrants are fortunate enough to save enough money to help build houses for their families.

Raul Montera, 19, a native of Tindu, managed to send $2,000 home this year from California to help his mother and father build a house.

Crossed Border 5 Times

It was the fifth time that Montera had crossed the border to make his way to Madera in Northern California to work in the fields. The first time was nearly five years ago when he was barely 15, and he worked nine hours a day for seven months.

He said he expects to be going back and forth to the fields of California and home again for the rest of his life.

But many others have not been as fortunate as Montera. Problems in migrating from Mexico are compounded for the Mixtecs, whose culture and Indian language set them apart from other Mexicans even before they cross into the United States.

"Many of them," Kearney said, "are real foreigners as soon as they come out of the Mixteca into Mexico at large."

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