Communication Strategies for Binational Defense of Indigenous Communities

By  |  16 / February / 2009

This post is also available in: Spanish

The immigration of thousands of Oaxacans to the United States beginning in the 1970s and the lack of government attention given to their native communities has led the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, FIOB) to develop communication strategies that serve as tools to further the binational defense of the participating indigenous communities’ rights.

Poverty and governmental authoritarianism (along with its subsequent control over the media and restrictions of freedom of speech) are the main problems affecting the population of Oaxaca, a state predominately populated by indigenous communities in Southern Mexico.

Oaxaca’s total population is estimated to be around 3.5 million, 500,000 of which are immigrants living outside of Oaxaca in different parts of the United States as well as Mexico, including Mexico City, Mexico State, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California.

Founded 17 years ago by indigenous immigrants, FIOB has approximately 5,000 accredited members in both Mexico and the United States. FIOB members come from various ethnic groups including Mixtecs from Oaxaca and Guerrero, Zapotecs, Triquis, Mixes, Chatinos, Zoques from Oaxaca, and Purépechas from Michoacán. The members are organized into community committees in the Mixteca, Central Valleys, and Isthmus regions of Oaxaca as well as in Mexico City, Mexico State and Baja California.

FIOB is also present in Los Angeles, Fresno, Santa Maria, Greenfield, Hollister, San Diego, Santa Rosa, and Merced, California. Support groups can be found in the states of Oregon, New York, Arizona, and Washington as well.

FIOB was founded in 1991 in response to the needs of the immigrant communities in the United States and the native communities in Oaxaca. The organization has gone through various stages and is currently working at the binational level to defend indigenous communities.

Social Activist Strategies

The activist strategies of FIOB are aligned with the values of justice, democracy, and equality for indigenous nations. It also works to defend the indigenous communities’ right to political autonomy, to improve their living standards, and to respect human rights related to their land, natural resources, and culture.

The organization fights for the rights of indigenous peoples both within and outside of Mexican territory and in addition, autonomously organizes the defense, rescue, spread, and consolidation of their traditional customs, languages, and cultures.

FIOB opposes any type of oppression, injustice, discrimination, abuse, or blatant exploitation of indigenous labor.

In agreement with FIOB’s core documents, the organization fights for the unity and solidarity of immigrant and non-immigrant workers and respects their own means of organization.

FIOB seeks to maintain respectful relationships with all socio-political, cultural, and religious organizations that uphold values of justice, freedom, and human dignity. It works in solidarity with other minority groups in the United States and other communities in the world working to free themselves from hunger, injustice, poverty, discrimination, marginalization, political oppression, and all kinds of human rights violations.

Objectives:

  • Facilitate internal communication in order to strengthen the organization’s binational work.
  • Create bonds between the Oaxacan communities abroad and the communities that remain in Oaxaca.
  • Strengthen links between FIOB and its allies at the local and binational level across the continent.
  • Inform and influence public opinion with regard to key issues such as immigrant rights and indigenous rights in Oaxaca.
  • Have a greater impact at different levels of the Mexican and U.S. governments.

Organizing Immigration

Immigration from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca to Northern Mexico, California, and other parts of the United States grew dramatically during the 1970s. As a result, it became necessary for the immigrants to organize in order to defend against their employers’ constant abuse of their rights.

In 1984, the Exploited and Oppressed People’s Organization (Organización del Pueblo Explotado y Oprimido, OPEO) was formed in Culiacán, Sinaloa, in response to difficult working conditions of day laborers tending crops. Organizations striving to support Oaxacan immigrants also formed across the border in California.

Various immigrant organizations in the United States met over a 5-year period (1986-91) and eventually decided to form a single organization. On October 5, 1991, the Binational Mixteco-Zapoteco Front (Frente Mixteco-Zapoteco Binacional, FMZB) was formed in Los Angeles and three years later became known as the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional, FIOB).

During FIOB’s 5th General Binational Assembly held in March 2005, in Oaxaca, various indigenous groups from Guerrero and Michoacán asked to become part of FIOB. The members of the organization decided to keep the acronym FIOB but change the organization’s name to “Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations” (Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales).

Achievements of FIOB

  • Publication of La Puya Mixteca newspaper (1991), El Tequio bulletin, and the binational tri-annual El Tequio (2006-present).
  • Production of the radio program “La Hora Mixteca” broadcast in the mixteco language in the San Joaquín Valley, California (1995-present).
  • Production of the television program El Despertar Indígena, broadcast by KNXT in Fresno since 2000.
  • Co-production of the radio program Nuestro Foro, which broadcasts on the community radio station KFCF 88.1. The program touches on subjects such as immigration, civic participation, social development, and the economy.
  • In 1997, FIOB established a website that publicizes information related to the communities that remain in Oaxaca and the immigrant communities (http://www.fiob.org).
  • From 2003 to 2005 FIOB collaborated with the Chatina filmmaker Yolanda Cruz in the making of two documentaries, “Mujeres que se organizan avanzan” and “Sueños Binacionales,” that demonstrate the organizing force of FIOB in both the origin communities and the immigrant communities.
  • Due to the social conflict in the state of Oaxaca, FIOB in California organized protests and received media attention (including radio, television, and newspapers) for the announcement of the activities they would be organizing.

The continued sense of belonging that the indigenous immigrants feel toward their origin communities has been one of the factors that has created a need for constant communication between those who remain in Oaxaca and their fellow community members that reside elsewhere. When the immigrant communities were first coordinating the formation of their social organizations, they communicated via mail; at times the letters would not arrive for up two weeks. Telephone communications were also maintained. The organizations that came together to form FIOB continued to consolidate and create their own forms of communication on a wide level.

This was the situation in 1991 when members of the Popular Mixtec Civic Committee (Comité Cívico Popular Mixteco, CCPM), one of the founding organizations of the FMZB, began to publish La Puya Mixteca, later changed into El Tequio bulletin and printed by stencil.

As of 2006, El Tequio has been transformed into a trimester magazine with binational circulation, which reports on current FIOB projects, its communities, and other subjects of interest in the United States and Mexico.

Starting in 1995 in the San Joaquin Valley area, Mixtec and Zapotec immigrants could listen to the radio in their own languages through a program called La Hora Mixteca, a weekly 4-hour show that continues today and is hosted by Filemón López, a Mixteco.

At the end of the 90s, FIOB produced a television program, El Despertar Indígena, broadcast by Channel KNXT 49, which is owned by the Fresno archdiocese. The program was hosted by the former general coordinator of FIOB, another Mixteco, Rufino Domínguez, up until 2000.

FIOB was also a co-producer of the radio program Nuestro Foro, which was broadcast on the community radio station KFCF 88.1, and dealt with themes such as immigration, civic participation, social development, and economy.

In 1997, FIOB established a website that publicized information related to both the origin communities and immigrant communities (http://www.fiob.org).

In 2003, the Chatina filmmaker Yolanda Cruz, finished the documentary “Mujeres que se organizan avanzan,” which reflects on the organization of Mixteca women, members of FIOB in the municipality of Juxtlahuaca, who organized community savings accounts to help them confront the economic crisis and as an alternative to immigration.

Yolanda Castro finished another documentary in 2005, “Sueños Binacionales,” which recounts the organizational force of Mixteco immigrants who work in the agricultural sectors of California. The first section of the documentary features Rufino Domínguez (binational coordinator of FIOB for 8 years) who speaks about the campaign against Chevron, the company responsible for the contamination of several Mixteco immigrant homes.

With the passing of time, the immigrants found other forms of communication such as the Internet, Skype, and webcams, among others.

Due to the different communication resources that FIOB has had at its disposal at various points of its existence, it has been able to develop strategies at a range of levels: internal communication within the organization and links to communities of origin, other organizations, or allied groups, public opinion, and public policy generators, that is, different levels of government both in Mexico and the United States.

Making a Difference

In California in 2006, FIOB lobbied the state legislators in favor of proposition HB 255 CS, an initiative that would order ranchers to provide secure transportation for their workers (including seat belts for each passenger) as several accidents had claimed the lives of day laborers in the past.

In the city of Greenfield, in early 2000, indigenous immigrants were frequently victims of assaults and other physical aggression, which were not reported due to fear of reprisal from the police.

The current chief of police in Greenfield, John Grebmeier, admitted that the immigrant community was more afraid of the police than of criminals. After more than five years as chief of police, Grebmeier has taken a step forward, demanding that his officers engage in respectful conduct and establishing a requisite in which new hires must speak a minimum of basic Spanish. Grebmeier maintains that before the changes were made, the immigrants were part of an “invisible community which was vulnerable to robberies, rapes, and homicide …”  He points out that his department made a conscious decision to apply the law while conserving respect for individuals.

This process of change in which the police are not viewed in terror, has played an important role in the collaboration between indigenous immigrants, members of FIOB in Fresno, other immigrants that form part of the United Farm Workers (UFW), and the police and council members of Greenfield.

Intersecting Projects

In the midst of the difficult conditions lived by immigrants, among them labor exploitation, a lack of basic services, and a hostile attitude toward the communities, it has been necessary to bring visibility to the issues and to organize and mobilize.

In this context, the U.S. human rights movement promoted by these communities parallels the immigrant communities’ rights movement within Mexico and that of movements in the immigrants’ origin communities.

The FIOB communication strategies have encouraged the use of community meetings, media campaigns to denounce or bring attention to specific issues, and press conferences–always with well-defined parameters for who will direct those actions. The communication aspect is really a complimentary strategy to other forms of struggle such as mobilizations and protests, among others.

The Situation in Origin Communities

The principle feature of the Oaxacan government—headed by governor Ulises Ruíz Ortiz, who in June of 2006 confronted a social movement that led to the creation of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos Oaxaqueños, APPO)—is an economic, political, and social control that attempts to dominate the local communities. Ruíz’s election was questioned and the anti-democratic nature of his administration has been publicly criticized since he took office in December of 2004.

Among the tactics utilized by the Oaxacan government to control the local communities is the implementation of social development programs. The distribution of both state and federal resources, which should serve to help the development of the communities, has been used to pressure those same communities into accepting specific conditions determined by the state. In many cases, the state government has maintained a policy of intransigence and closed doors toward the communities, who have in turn protested against these policies.

Oaxaca has 570 municipalities, of which some 418 elect their own authorities through a system known as Usos y Costumbres (a traditional form of governance based on indigenous customs), while 152 of them participate in elections based on established political parties. Of those 152 municipalities, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) governs in 90.

Although the majority of municipalities do not experience direct interference from political parties, the state government does place conditions on public funds and resources and often employs clientele policies, using development programs created to improve basic living conditions such as housing (“Piso Firme,” a project to install cement flooring in rural homes), education (literacy), health (mobile clinics), and other programs such as “Oportunidades” (a project created to support women and their children in extreme poverty), and “Adultos Mayores” (a project aimed at senior citizens), among other state and federal government programs.

Faced with government control strategies, the communities have developed their own strategies to defend their rights. In the context of the larger social conflict led by the APPO since 2006, Oaxacan immigrants have been able to extract their local issues from their geographic demarcation. As such, the control that the local and state governments have exercised in the past has been rendered less effective, leaving the immigrants to move within a different social context.

It is important to mention that the economic, political, and social problems that Oaxaca faces are the product of the inequality and social injustice generated by successive governments, heirs to the European invaders and colonialism. It is a question of age-old problems that have been generated over centuries and are not exclusively products of this particular government. The accumulation of abuses derived from land conflicts, poverty, a lack of agricultural support, and government corruption, among other factors, aggravates the crisis within this administration.

The Oaxaca state government has ignored or has not taken into consideration the communities’ opinion before implementing mega-projects like the building of super highways (such as those that are part of the Plan Puebla Panama, now called the Mesoamerican Project), or introducing infrastructure that affects population like those in the Tehuantepec Isthmus (examples being the super highway planned for the Oaxaca-Isthmus-Huatulco corridor and the installation of wind generators in La Ventosa). This failure to carry out consultations and permit citizen participation forms part of the generalized discontent found in Oaxaca.

The lack of democracy exhibited during the elections, in which PRI authorities at the local and state levels were imposed through anti-democratic practices such as buying votes or violent methods, was the tipping point for the conflict in Oaxaca.

Main Obstacles:

  • The state of Oaxaca has high levels of poverty, corruption, and democratic obstacles. Since 2006 it has been the site of a social conflict to which the state has responded with repression and intransigence.
  • The Oaxaca media only reproduces the government’s version of the facts.
  • There exists intense repression of independent media, including attacks on journalists.
  • The communication and radio laws at the federal level attempt to prohibit community radio stations from operating.
  • There remains a great lack of resources in the state.

Repression of the Media

Within this context, the control of the media has been strategic for the Oaxaca government. Several of the media moguls in the state are businessmen with ties to the government. As such, the media simply reproduces the government’s version and does not criticize powerful politicians or policies. Meanwhile, the independent media and journalists have met with government repression, as was the case with the daily Noticias, “The Voices and Images of Oaxaca,” whose offices were shot at on Aug. 9, 2006, leaving 3 wounded.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Oaxaca, the citizenry has clearly understood the role of the media. On Aug. 1, 2006, more than 20,000 women from all sectors of society participated in “the march of the pots” where they protested in the streets banging pots and pans. At the end of the demonstration, the women took over the Oaxaca Radio and Television Corporation studios and broadcast their own message via the Channel 9 television station.

They also took over several commercial radio stations that were later retaken by the state through police force.

During the intense days of the popular revolt and in just one week, seven journalists were injured while covering the events. On Oct. 27, Brad Will, a 36-year-old journalist who was uploading video of the revolt on the Indymedia New York website, was shot and killed while taping an attack on members of the APPO made by armed groups while they took shelter at one of the barricades in the neighborhood of Santa Lucía del Camino.

Among those singled out as the perpetrators of the killing are Abel Santiago Zárate (alias “El Chino”), Manuel Aguilar (alias “El Comandante”), Juan Carlos Soriano (alias “El Chapulin”) Juan Sumano and Pedro Carmona. None of them has been charged, and in fact the judicial authorities have instead charged Juan Manuel Martínez Moreno, a member of the APPO.

On Nov. 2, during a federal police operation to take back the city, the journalists Jorge David Jaramillo Velásquez (photographer for the Mexican daily El Universal), Miguel Dimayuga, Germán Canseco (both photographers for the magazine Proceso), and Jorge Brindis (from Channel 9 Television) were injured.

Later, three other journalists were attacked: Mario Mosqueda Hernández, of the Center for Independent Media in Mexico City (Centro de Medios Independientes de la Ciudad de México); Gilardo Mota, of the Mexican weekly paper Opinión; and Alberto López Cruz, photographer for the local daily Extra. Juan de Dios Gómez, editor of the magazine Binigulazaa was also brutally beaten and jailed during the repression.

On April 7, 2008, Teresa Bautista Merino and Felícitas Martínez Sánchez, two indigenous presenters from the community radio station Radio Triqui, “The Voice that Breaks the Silence,” were killed by opposition groups to the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala.

Some time later several community radio stations were closed including “Zaachila Radio” (June) and the Community Radio “La Rabiosa” (Aug.). The latter station broadcasted from Huajuapan de León in the Mixteca region.

On Oct. 25, 2008, Pedro Matías, a correspondent for the magazine Proceso, was brutally attacked after having been abducted by unknown individuals as a reprisal for his work as an independent journalist.

Despite the iron-fisted control of the mass media, there are a growing number of community radio stations operated by indigenous organizations.

FIOB Communications Strategies: Two Concrete Cases

Faced with the manipulation of information during the 2006 conflict, FIOB, as a participant of the APPO movement, took advantage of new technologies to generate its own communication network through the use of the Internet, cellular phones, and Internet-based video.

Immediately after the repression of June 14, 2006, FIOB members in Los Angeles and Oaxacans from communities throughout Southern California took part in marches and protests that ended at the Mexican consulate there.

Incensed by the violence perpetrated by the State against the Oaxaca people, the immigrants raised their voices and were joined by other progressive organizations in the Los Angeles area. The mobilizations started with just a few people. However, FIOB began bringing media attention to the protests which were soon after covered in newspapers, radio, and local television stations. One of the largest marches included more than 500 people who walked from the St. Thomas church in Koreatown, Los Angeles to the Mexican consulate.

The participation of the immigrant community grew to the point that in one assembly they decided to create APPO-Los Angeles. As part of the strategy, they had phone contact with the leaders of the APPO, who kept them updated on the situation in Oaxaca. The Oaxacan immigrants demonstrated their solidarity through these communications by joining in chanting slogans of solidarity. Some of those present shouted the slogans through tears. Eventually, the different communities that joined in re-adopted their particular identities so that the activities were taken over once again by FIOB.

The demonstrations were accompanied by bands from the Oaxacan towns that played well-known traditional Oaxacan songs such as the Mixteca Song, which, for many, is the official hymn of Oaxacan immigrants. In Dec. 2006 a sit-in was undertaken in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles as well as an APPOsada (from “posada,” a December holiday celebrated in Mexico, APPO style) at the St. Cecilia church in Santa Monica. The celebration included many popular culture activities and demonstrations protesting the deaths (around 26) caused by the repression in Oaxaca.

In this case, as in many others, FIOB employed a strategy directed at both the mass media and the alternative media. The organization issued communiqués, held press conferences, monitored the information published on the events in Oaxaca by the media to compare it with what was actually happening on the ground, and continued to keep the media informed. These strategies reinforced and complemented the general strategies of the organization such as mobilizations.

In addition to the media campaigns, FIOB held community assemblies at the local level, parallel to assemblies held as part of the APPO movement. Centolia Maldonado, coordinator of FIOB in the Mixteca region, explained that due to the distortion and manipulation of the facts and the blatant misinformation that occurred at the local level, they were compelled to visit each community to inform the people of the truth of what was happening throughout the state.

Organized Force

Over the last two years, the Ulises Ruíz government has maintained a hard line against the organizations that participated in the APPO movement and against those that continue to struggle for their rights.

Faced with this situation, FIOB planned and carried out a binational day of mobilizations on Nov. 11, 2008. In Oaxaca, some 400 representatives of community committees from the Mixteca Region, the Central Valleys, and the Isthmus traveled to the state capital in caravans. There they held a march on the offices of the government obliging the governmental representatives, headed by the Secretary of Interior, Manuel García Corpus, to open a round of discussions in order to attend to the needs of the communities. This march was reinforced by simultaneous protests at the Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, Oxnard, and Fresno, California.

As a result of this binational mobilization, FIOB agreed held a meeting with the Oaxacan government on Feb. 20, 2009, in addition to the numerous preparatory meetings with different governmental departments. FIOB signed a letter of agreement to follow up on the demands put forth. FIOB also called for compliance with accords signed in 2008 and presented its demands for 2009, most related to reforming social programs such as “Piso Firme.”

FIOB also demanded accountability on the part of the municipality of Santo Domingo Zanatepec located in the Tehuantepec Isthmus region. Several communities there had taken over the municipal offices in protest of the refusal to release funds from branch 28 (funds allocated to cover the cost of infrastructure such and community buildings, streets, electricity, potable water, etc.) and branch 33 (support for schools and health centers, among other things).

On a tour of various immigrant communities in the United States in April 2008, the state coordinator of FIOB, Bernardo Ramírez, and the Mixteca Region coordinator, Centolia Maldonado, noted that among the issues that immigrants needed resolved were a lack of birth certificates or identification documentation.

Many immigrants had children born in Mexico but emigrated to the United States without first registering them in the communities of origin. They consequently lacked documentation, which meant the children were not recognized as citizens of either country. This became especially problematic when parents tried to register their children in schools.

As a result, FIOB is trying to persuade the Civil Registry Office of Oaxaca to send representatives to areas where a large of number of immigrants with similar issues are located, to allow them the opportunity to register without having to return to their origin communities.

Impact of the U.S. Recession

Another of the FIOB demands of the government is to put into practice sustainable economic development programs in response to the poverty experienced in communities of origin, which has worsened as a result of the return of immigrants who were deported as part of the massive round-ups that have taken in place in the United States.

Although there is no record of the individuals that have returned to their communities of origin, lately there is evidence of a phenomenon in which deported immigrants are neglected and forced to look for work as farm laborers in San Quintín, Baja California, or return to their communities only to attempt the border crossing again, despite the risk of returning as an undocumented immigrant.

The economic impact of the recession in the United States has hit hard in regional markets due to the fact that up until recently these people were dependent on remittances for things as basic as food. In addition, the amount of basic foodstuffs produced at the local level has diminished, which could result in a food crisis. There is a need for productive projects that allow immigrants to remain in their communities when they return.

While the government has yet to produce a concrete response to the situation, FIOB has been able to place the issue on the public agenda, demonstrating once again its ability to expose the core issues of the communities which for decades have been the underpinning of the Mexican economy.

An important part of this activist strategy is the range of access that FIOB attains through their media campaign, from the local to the international levels. Minutes after releasing one of their communiqués, it was posted by Ukhampacha, a news website that covers the indigenous movement in Bolivia (http://ubnoticias.org).

These are just a few examples of the way in which immigrant migrant members of FIOB who were just a few years before living in isolated communities in the most remote mountains of Oaxaca, have been able to utilize communications and media strategies (from the most simple to the most sophisticated) to bring visibility to their struggle for economic, political, and human rights.

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