In 1982 Guatemalan army troops filled the roads through the highlands above Huehuetenango. As part of the country’s civil war, soldiers, carrying Armalite rifles supplied by US President Ronald Reagan, swept into the small indigenous villages of Santa Eulalia and San Miguel Acatán. Accusing the towns of using church youth groups to recruit guerrillas, they began killing political activists. Finally, after the army shot down San Miguel teenagers in front of the church, many families fled. Helicopters chased and bombed them through the mountains, all the way to the Mexican border. For those who stayed behind, there was no work–just devastation.
That same year indigenous farm workers from Oaxaca, living in Sinaloa’s migrant labor camps in northern Mexico, began to rise up against filthy living conditions and backbreaking labor. Radical young Mixtec organizers launched strikes and, together with left-wing students from the local university in Culiacán, faced down growers, police, armed guards and, ultimately, Mexican troops.
Oaxaca’s Mixtec, Zapotec and Triqui laborers were recent arrivals in Sinaloa, but they had already been migrating within Mexico for two decades. Starting in the late 1950s, when Mexican policies of rural development and credit began to fail, the inhabitants of small Oaxacan villages traveled first to nearby Veracruz. There they found work unavailable in their home state, cutting sugar cane and picking coffee for the rich planters of the coast.
Then Sinaloa’s new factory farms a thousand miles north, growing tomatoes and strawberries for US supermarkets, needed workers too. Soon growers began recruiting the south’s indigenous migrants, and before long, trains were packed with Oaxacan families every spring.
Over the next twenty years Guatemala’s Qanjobal and Mam refugees, and Oaxaca’s indigenous farm workers, moved north through Mexico. Eventually they began crossing the border into the United States. Today, both of these migrant streams have developed well-established communities thousands of miles from their hometowns. In Nebraska, Los Angeles and Florida, Huehuetenango highlanders affectionately call their neighborhoods Little San Miguel. Triquis living just below the border in Baja California named their settlements Nuevo San Juan Copala in honor of their Oaxacan hometown. In Fresno and Madera, California, the Mixtec community is so large that signs in grocery stores list sale items not just in Spanish but in a tongue that predates the Spaniards’ arrival by centuries.
Indigenous migrant streams have created communities all along the northern road. Their experience defies common US preconceptions about immigrants.
In Washington, DC, discussions of immigration are filled with false assumptions. US policy treats migrants as individual workers, ignoring the social pressures that force whole communities to move, and the networks of families and hometowns that sustain migrants on their journeys. Government policy often requires the deportation of parents caught without papers, who have to leave behind their children born in the United States. Sometimes, in this through-the-looking-glass world, the opposite happens, and undocumented youth find themselves forced to move back to a place they don’t even remember.
Policy-makers see migration simply as a journey from point A to point B. They assume that people make decisions about when to leave home, where to go and how to live based simply on economics–the need for a job. There is no denying the importance of the universal human need for work. But the worldwide dislocation of communities forced to migrate in search of it has never been a voluntary process. In Washington dislocation is a dirty, unmentionable secret of the global economy.