Bob Nichols/US Department of Agriculture
Migrant workers harvest corn on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, California.

Indigenous Mexicans in California: A Tale of Struggle, Organizing and Survival

Mark R. Day

Indigenous migrants from Mexico and Guatamala have been arriving since the 1980s not only in California, but also in cities and rural areas throughout the United States.

U.S. census figures err on the low side, says sociologist Gaspar Rivera of the UCLA Labor Center, since these immigrants are difficult to locate and have produced a new generation that has yet to be accurately counted. He believes there are now more than 250,000 indigenous immigrants in California.

Census figures indicate that since 1990 these indigenous people have also settled in Texas (90,000), New York (53,000), Arizona (39,000), Colorado and Illinois, each with a population of about 25,000.

In California, indigenous farmworkers from Oaxaca and Guerrero occupy the lowest level of the farm labor market. Their entry-level conditions are used to control the labor costs of the state’s 700,000-person farm labor market, according to the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS), funded by the California Endowment.

The largest concentration of these workers is California’s Central Coast area (46 percent), followed by the state’s central valley (30 percent), San Diego (16 percent) and the North Coast (five percent). The IFS found that 23 indigenous languages are spoken in California from 13 Mexican states. Social workers and educators have discovered that indigenous migrants speak less in their native languages and more in Spanish and English as their children become educated in the school systems.

Conquest and Migration

The Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Triquis of Oaxaca were conquered three times: by the Aztecs, by the Spaniards, and later by the Mexican republic when it won its independence from Spain in 1810.

Spanish colonialism was devastating to the indigenous population and to the physical environment. Furthermore, European diseases caused a rapid population decline. Between 1808 and 1921 the indigenous population in Mexico decreased from 60 percent to 21 percent of overall population.

Under the republic, communal lands were transferred to private haciendas, and Indians were reduced to peonage.  The IFS states that to this day, anti-indigenous prejudice and discrimination is widespread in Mexico, especially against Oaxaqueños.

In the mid 1900s, with the restructuring of the Mexican economy, peso devaluations and later with the North American Free Trade Agreement, conditions worsened among the indigenous in Oaxaca. Thousands migrated north to Veracruz, Sinaloa, Sonora, Baja California and eventually to the United States.

Wages and Working Conditions

IFS found that wages, working and living conditions in California are much better for Mexican mestizos, or mixed-race, than for those who are indigenous. The average farmworker wage in 2008 for mestizo families, the IFS indicates, was $22,500, but only $13,750 for the indigenous families. This makes sense in light of the later arrival of indigenous families, their fear of making wage claims, and the language barriers they face.

The most common grievance of these farmworkers is nonpayment or underpayment of wages. Other complaints are with farm foremen and labor contractors, including verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment and the denial of basic necessities such as fresh water and bathroom facilities.

The vast majority of these workers are not unionized. The United Farm Workers Union made great strides in the 1960s and 70s, but went into decline in the 1980s and now represents only a tiny minority of California farmworkers.

Health Care

Indigenous farmworkers in California are at the bottom rung in receiving adequate health care, according to the IFS. Only nine percent have any insurance, as opposed to 31 percent among mestizos. Cultural barriers are also problematic, since male workers often shun health professionals, self-medicate or seek care from traditional healers. Other adverse factors are lack of transportation, long waits in clinics, rude treatment from health professionals, lack of translators, and fear of immigration authorities.


Despite these barriers, indigenous workers and their families remain relatively well organized, due to the grassroots organizing of such groups of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (F.I.O.B.) on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border.

RELATED: Indigenous Organizer Defends His Mixteco People on Both Sides of the Border

The IFS points out that these migrants have a strong loyalty to their hometowns, language and customs that provide them with assistance when they are in need. Migrants in the U.S. retain positions or cargos in their hometowns and participate in community projects, called tequios.

Jobs are done without compensation to the office holder. In some cases, people can be fined or serve jail time for not serving in their communities when they return home. But tighter controls on the U.S. border have mitigated these penalties. Fewer undocumented immigrants are entering the U.S, but fewer still are leaving, given the current anti-immigrant climate in the United States.

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