Millions of indigenous people have migrated from small towns and communities to the big cities of Mexico, and around half a million Mexican indigenous people now live in the United States. It began when people had to look for work to support their families during the severe economic crisis of the 1980s, which still has not ended.
The Mexican government has repeatedly said that Mexico is strong and will be able to resist the global economic crisis and especially the U.S. crisis, which began two years ago. However, Mexico has been in economic crisis for the last 28 years. No government has been able to resolve this, partly because we Mexicans are by now used to living in crisis.
The number of Mexican migrants to the United States in these 28 years now reaches 26 million, and it’s not true that many are returning to their communities due to the recent critical situation in the United States. Migration has helped us to feel the crisis a little less, due to the large amounts of money we send to our families that also has supported regional, state, and national economies in Mexico.
Now, faced with the serious economic crisis in the United States, the Mexican government is more worried about shrinking remittances than about implementing true economic development across the country and particularly in regions of high out-migration. The government has even asked migrants not to stop sending money to our families, as though supporting families were the responsibility of migrants while the Mexican government washes its hands of its responsibility.
Indigenous Migration Within the Frame of Migration and Human Rights
Migrants from every country suffer very serious human rights violations, not only in the United States but also in all of Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Mexico, the rights of South and Central American migrants and others on their way to the United States are violated. For this reason, the current government does not have the moral authority to ask anything of other governments on behalf of its people when it does not set an example of respecting the human rights of migrants in transit or the rights of Mexicans who participate in social and indigenous organizations.
All migrants suffer violations of our human rights, such as the right to work freely; suitable living conditions; access to healthcare, education, free movement, legal assistance; no language barriers; literacy rights; and the right to civic participation in the country in which we live. On top of this, we suffer discrimination and police and military persecution.
However, it’s important to differentiate these rights when talking about indigenous people, because the problem is tripled: first for being indigenous, second for being migrants, and third for being Mexican. A large percentage of indigenous people are monolingual, speaking only a mother tongue. Another percentage is bilingual with indigenous and Spanish languages, but this helps little for those of us who live in the United States where English is spoken.
The simple fact of not being able to speak the language of the place in which we live means that we are exposed to many violations of our labor, cultural, political, and human rights. But this has not impeded our ability to organize and defend ourselves. And the new generation of indigenous people that arrived as children to the United States or who were born there are trilingual—they speak some indigenous language as well as Spanish and English.
It is important to recognize the great strengths of our indigenous population. The principle of collectivity among our native peoples taught us to do things together. We continue practicing this in the United States, organizing together to defend ourselves, and maintaining teqiuo—mutual help—as well as our culture, language, and thousand-year-old identity.
Challenges for Indigenous Migrants in the United States
Indigenous Mexicans have been forced to leave our countries in search of survival on the economic, educational, healthcare, cultural, and human levels. This has been mostly positive in the economic area, but not in the area of human rights. As migrants, Mexicans, and indigenous people, we face huge challenges:
- Being part of Mexico where we learned to speak Spanish, and living in the United States where the dominant language is English. Moreover, discrimination in both countries against those of us who maintain our own languages is contributing to the quick disappearance of indigenous languages. The role of indigenous migrant organizations has been vital in trying to overcome this.
- Living in a xenophobic country, unsure of itself, where the dominant culture is a white vision that totally ignores the rich, multicultural composition it contains. They tell us about assimilation, adapting to their way of thinking and living. We have to hold on to our millenarian identity while learning Spanish and English.
- We are managing to hold on to our tequio, our good customs and habits, our cultural festivals, traditional medicinal practices, medicinal and edible plants—which we have primarily in the state of California—and to our organizations.
- Remittances will no longer arrive in Oaxaca in the same large quantities as they used to, not because of the economic crisis in the United States, but because many families are establishing themselves in their own homes. This is not good because it will reduce the amount of money in circulation, and worse still, there will no longer be communitarian development within indigenous groups.
- Authentic and fair development must come from indigenous communities, and must be planned, implemented, and directed by indigenous people, as in the role developed by the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB).
- We must keep our organizations independent and autonomous from the government, political parties, and religions, and reject the corporatism that holds back the development of indigenous peoples and communities.
The Historic U.S. Election
Before moving on to the historic federal elections, I must mention the historic migrants’ mobilizations that began on Mar. 6, 2006 in Washington, DC and spread to Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities. They were repeated in April and May with hundreds, thousands, and millions of migrants in the streets of small and large cities.
The mobilizations had two main objectives: firstly, to bring down by these means the antihuman proposal of the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437), which would criminalize all migrants and families, whether their migratory status was in order or not. Secondly, we demanded comprehensive integral legalization based on family unity and a path to citizenship.
We managed to bring HR 4437 down and we obliged federal senators and members of Congress to work on various proposals of migratory reform that had been debated and rejected by many migrants’ organizations and that never became law. These were the most important achievements of these migrants’ actions, which strengthened our organizations and forged a new generation of leadership.
After that, in cities across the United States, the chant was strong and clear: "Today we march, tomorrow we vote," looking ahead to this year’s federal election. We shifted strategy and began to call on permanent residents who could become citizens to do so quickly and register to vote.
To ignore or forget these actions is to completely reject the contribution of migrants and our organizations to social and political change in this country. The victory of the Democrats in the presidential elections is due in part to these marches, citizen status, the registering of voters, and the Latino mass vote. We were able to help end the disastrous continuum of the last eight years.
This is how Obama won the presidency of the United States, a man who represents the Afro-American community, who has suffered discrimination because of the color of his skin, as have indigenous people and all the Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean migrants among others. Obama is a multiethnic and multicultural figure; he represents all of us so-called "minorities."
Most of the dominant media heralds the victory of an Afro-American as president of the most powerful country in the world as the end of discrimination. I do not share these opinions. It is enough to glance at the videos of the night of Nov. 4, when Senator John McCain gave a concession speech and Obama celebrated victory. That night I saw the contrast. In Arizona, the people who accompanied McCain were white and blonde, and in Chicago the crowd had Afro-American, Latin American, Asian, and white faces.
These facts contradict those who say that discrimination has ended and they confirm that it is alive and well in everyday life. I have heard many white people lament the failure of their candidate, crying the discriminatory words that "that black Obama and his black community won, but they won’t get anywhere." These words are signs that discrimination will continue.
Obama won an unquestionable vote, both in the so-called vote of the "electoral college," which from my point of view is not democratic and should be eliminated—and he also won the popular vote by a fairly large margin. This is the opposite of what happened in 2000 and 2004, where there were serious doubts around the victory of the previous Republican president.
However, we can’t claim victory yet. Obama being Afro-American, charismatic, and a good speaker does not mean that he will respond to our needs immediately. He will govern somewhat differently, but nevertheless from within the club of the political class, facing the enormous pressures and challenges of the economy, the two wars, healthcare, education, immigration, etc.
Now that the Democrats have the government in their hands, migrants and our organizations must lobby federal senators and congressmen. We must take to the streets again and organize forums. We must remind them that their victory is in part thanks to the significant number of Latinos who voted for them and that undocumented migrants also influenced their win.
For Obama to really fulfill his campaign promises, he will have to continue pushing until he achieves integral legalization with citizenship possibilities for the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants who live in the country, whose human rights are violated every day.
We should not trust or believe that the Democrats are inherently better with immigrants, as many of them are as bad as or worse than the Republicans. Faced with this we have to initiate our own activities and use all peaceful means of struggle to reach the hoped-for integral legalization of all of us who live in the United States—a solution that will integrally benefit all of society, from the civil to the governmental level.
The Democrats’ victory was achieved in part by the reaction against the anti-immigration policies of the Republicans, their constant verbal attacks against Latino immigrants, and their pseudo-legal actions in some cities and at the federal level, such as Law HR 4437. If the Democrats do not demonstrate the opposite in their governance, they will lose in the next election, which would not be good for anyone.
In this situation, migrants and our organizations have great challenges and hopes that should be taken advantage of to achieve what we want as a community:
- To work and coordinate as far as possible with all migrants’ organizations, small and large, so as to continue peaceful street demonstrations, public forums, and conferences to demand integral legalization with a path to citizenship and based on family reunification.
- Our struggle should not lose sight of itself by focusing on the demand that Latinos be included in Obama’s cabinet, because this is not the most important thing. Often, there are Latinos who think more like Anglos than the Anglos and who in reality do not respond to the needs of the migrant community.
- To demand that the new U.S. government recognize, ratify, and sign all of the international conventions it has not yet recognized, such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Although the United States has various native communities and although hundreds of thousands of indigenous people have arrived from Latin America, the government has not been willing to sign this convention.
- The other instrument that has not been recognized, ratified, and signed is the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. And this despite the fact that the United States is the number-one country in the world in terms of numbers of immigrants. Many other international instruments have not been passed, such as the International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
- To form and consolidate one or several national migrants’ organizations for the new generation in order to meet the necessities of our communities at this time, and to replace several existing ones that often do not defend migrants’ interests.
These are the challenges we face as indigenous people and as migrants in the United States. Our organizations need to continue to collaborate with other organizations, working together on these issues to achieve measures that fully benefit our community.