In the cool, morning fog that hangs low and thick over the Salinas Valley, Grisel Garcia and 22 other farm workers are among the few still at work in the vegetable fields, where the harvest wrapped up in November. Under hooded sweatshirts, they plant cauliflower from a tractor bed on 10 acres outside Chualar, feeding the 3-inch seedlings into a machine that plugs them into the soft soil.
Her father and brother are not so lucky. As recent arrivals from San Sebastián de Monte, a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, neither can find winter work in the vineyards or warehouses now that most of the field work is done. They have a major strike against them, Garcia says, because they are Mixtec, indigenous Mexicans isolated by language, customs and culture even from their own mixed-race or “mestizo” countrymen working and supervising the winter jobs.
“If you don't know anyone or if you don't know how to prune (grapes), it's hard to get a job,” says Garcia, 22, who speaks Spanish and has worked in the fields for nearly seven years. “I think it can also be because of discrimination and because many of us don't speak Spanish.”
Indigenous immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico's second-poorest state, have flooded farm labor ranks in Monterey County in the last decade, settling at the bottom of a workforce that traditionally has been among the most exploited in the United States. Mixtecs (pronounced MEESH-tecs) and Triquis (pronounced TREE-keys) make up nearly half of the 70,000 farm workers in the greater valley area, including parts of San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, according to Paul Johnston, a visiting lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations.They left small farms in the remote hillsides near Putla Villa de Guerrero and nearby San José de Las Flores in western Oaxaca and from other areas throughout the state because of depleted soil and rock-bottom corn and coffee prices. Their arrival – speaking indigenous languages, little Spanish and no English in these majority Latino towns – has created tensions similar to those in white communities experiencing influxes of immigrants around the Bay Area and nationally. Law enforcement, schools and social services such as health care strain to serve the new population, and long-time residents meet them with suspicion or scorn.
“They're just invading us,” said Maria Gonzales, a 21-year-old loan officer from Soledad whose parents immigrated from Michoacán in 1980. “They're taking over.”
Some say the indigenous face a familiar plight as newcomers lacking skills and connections. In time they will move up to stable work on tractors, irrigation and in warehouses much like the mestizo Mexicans, who came before them from the states of Michoacán, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Zacatecas – and who traveled the well-worn path of immigrant upward mobility dating back more than 150 years to when the Irish and Chinese occupied the bottom rungs.
But others say indigenous Mexican workers suffer unique obstacles. As a group, they are especially plagued by illiteracy and lack of integration into the modern economy. And they have to deal with prejudice from the larger American society, as well as from other Mexicans, who use the word “Indian” as an insult meaning dirty, stupid or backward.
“They suffer prejudice back in Mexico and that same prejudice carries over into the fields here,” said Jeff Ponting, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. “You will see that carried out by mestizo labor contractors and mestizo farm workers. They'll take advantage of them because of their different language and because of their cultural isolation. They are by far the most vulnerable farm workers.”
Historically, indigenous Oaxacans were enslaved by their Spanish conquerors and escaped by retreating into the remote, mountainous regions, where they have lived for centuries farming difficult terrain. Because of the isolation, they have only started to migrate in the last 20 years, first to work in agribusiness in northern Mexican states and then to farming regions of California.
“The push factors are very strong,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center. “Literally there’s no industry besides subsistence farming.”
This winter, at least half of the estimated 30,000 indigenous farm workers in the greater Salinas Valley area will be unemployed, according to estimates by employers and union representatives.
In Greenfield, a farming town of more than 12,000 south of Salinas, many have begun their wait, gathering on street corners or passing time in cramped apartments shared with a dozen others.
“Being Oaxacan qualifies us to work in the fields and nothing more,” said Bersalit Ramos, a 25-year-old Triqui who came to the United States seven years ago and is out of work since the pea harvest finished in November. “It's like a wall, like we're enclosed behind a wall and we can't get to those jobs.”
In his white 2005 GMC Sierra pickup, Juan Hernandez rumbles along dirt roads to check on workers harvesting the area's 80 vegetable crops. This time of year, the number of 30-person crews he supervises for Azcona Harvesting drops from 22 to three. Sixty percent of the field workers are indigenous Oaxacans.
Leaning an arm out the driver's window and looking out onto the fields through thick glasses, Hernandez jokes with his foreman, Artemio Calderon, about the stories a reporter has heard about discrimination against indigenous workers.
“Esta chingada gente de Oaxaca,” he says, using profanity in Spanish. “There's no race barrier in the farm labor community here. They have the same opportunities as everyone else. The work is out there.”
Yet not one of the more than 20 foremen for Azcona Harvesting – one of the largest labor contractors in the valley – is Oaxacan, and only four of the company's 30 vineyard foremen are.
Foreman jobs require legal residency and an ability to read and write, both of which most indigenous Oaxacans lack, Hernandez said, citing other reasons as well. “They're very particular about the work. If they don't like it, they take off. They don't like the irrigator jobs. They say it's too hard. They want to earn the money, but they want to choose which jobs they do,” Hernandez said. “They're also united, like the blacks. You fire one, they'll all take off. Don't hire one, they'll take off. They also want to work 10 hours a day, no less. Give them eight, they'll take off.”
Indigenous workers in Greenfield say not having their own as supervisors is a problem, especially at this time of the year, because crew leaders tend to hire people from their home states in Mexico.“If there's a foreman who has many years here, who's known by the farmer or the contractor, he will select a number of his relatives to work,” said Juan Martinez Vasquez, a 34-year-old Triqui who was laid off a week before the end of the pea harvest last month.
So far, indigenous workers haven't brought discriminatory hiring complaints to the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission, said Freddie Capuyan, regional director of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
But Mixtecs and Triquis say it affects them all the same. Jesus Lopez, a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance in the Salinas Valley, said he always has at least two to three cases brought by indigenous Oaxacans ripped off by employers on overtime or with fake checks.
Five years ago, Lopez’s office settled a complaint with a local labor contractor whose mestizo foreman was calling the indigenous workers mojones del perro:
“Little pieces of dog shit.”
©2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism