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12.10.08

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Phaedra

NOWHERE TO GO: The Purepecha family in Huancito, a once-thriving community that has lost much of its population to emigration

Land of the Abandoned

By Ann Aurelia Lopez

T he farm-to-farm research summarized in The Farmworkers' Journey derives from almost ten years of collecting data at each end of the migrant circuit between west-central Mexico and central California. The data collection consisted of extensive interviews with thirty-three farmworkers and their family members. I also studied twenty-two subsistence and small producer farms and farm families at the other end of the migrant circuit in west-central Mexico. There, during summer and winter research trips, I learned about the central California farm labor force's farms and families as well as the post-NAFTA effects on the rural Mexican countryside. Not since the Spanish conquest have so many farmers been driven off their land.

I found that many once-vital centers of community activity and commerce have become ghost towns. The majority are home to the elderly and their grandchildren; the working adults are in the United States. Abandoned and depressed women are a norm in the countryside, and everywhere the impact of environmental destruction in its many forms mars the once-pristine countryside.

Fractured families and farming communities no longer function as stewards of Mexico's rich and genetically diverse corn. Without the necessary labor force to carry them out, sustainable intercrop farming practices have been abandoned, resulting in genetic erosion throughout the Mexican countryside. Concomitantly, high-yielding hybrid varieties and genetically modified corn imported from the United States are replacing traditional strains of corn, further exacerbating the loss of genetic diversity.

Prior to the introduction of the Green Revolution, technology and corporate penetration into the countryside, rural campesinos enjoyed a diet of comparatively simple, healthy foods grown on their own land, purchased at the local market, or collected from the surrounding countryside. A scarcity of these foods along with Monsanto, Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and Marlboro's aggressive campaigns to sell their health-compromising products to the rural poor of Mexico adversely impacts their health.

The replacement of traditional maíz criollo with hybrid corn has not only contributed to genetic erosion and potential intellectual deficits in the developing brains of children but also created indignation among many campesinos who claim that the hybrid corn is so lacking in both nutrients and fat that their animals don't grow or gain weight on a diet of hybrid corn.

As cultural and environmental disintegration and death slip through the Mexican countryside, primarily U.S.-originating transnational corporations are enjoying an economic boom and soaring profits by promoting deadly environment-, health-, and culture-destroying foods, drugs, chemicals, and agricultural products.

The ubiquitous poverty in the region combined with compromised sanitation standards has created a paradigm of familiar hunger and illness in the west-central Mexico countryside. Along with the many viral and bacterial species that plague farm families, serious illnesses also mar the countryside: cholera, dengue fever, malaria, and even several strains of hepatitis.

Farmland in west-central Mexico is subject to unregulated agrochemical spraying in the summer. Avoiding agrochemical exposure and toxic vehicle emissions in some regions is nearly impossible. In spite of exercising extreme caution in food and beverage choices and preparation, my research assistants and I found it nearly impossible to complete an entire trip without becoming ill.

 

Hitting Home

I was also not prepared for the heavy emotional load I would have to bear as I listened to often tragic, almost inconceivable stories and witnessed equally tragic life circumstances. Almost from the moment this study began, interactions with farmworkers have often left me awash in an ocean of contrasting emotions, ranging from joy at life successes to deep sadness and anger at the nearly inescapable vicelike grip of poverty most Mexican subsistence farmers and California farmworkers are caught in.

The Farmworkers' Journey is organized in such a way that readers can follow and experience the real-life circumstances, including human rights abuses, that individuals face all along the binational migrant circuit. I explore many binational practices, institutions and laws that promote and maintain the media objectification and subjugation of Mexican farmworkers. Farmworkers are caught up in this binational framework of social, political, and economic institutions and practices, and escape is nearly impossible.

While engaged in this research, I was able to initiate a variety of community projects to bridge the chasm between the lives of those who live in "mainstream" U.S. society and those who live as farmworkers or farmers in Mexico. I am now working with a group of equally passionate, interested people and formed a non-profit Center for Farmworker Families. We have established a website, www.farmworkerfamily.org, and will provide interested individuals with opportunities to participate in projects and make donations designed to improve working and living conditions as well as educational opportunities for binational farm families.

 

I continue to visit farm families in Mexico every six months and to maintain contact with farmworker family participants in both Watsonville and Salinas. It is my desire and hope that the perspective and information garnered from this project serve to enlighten future immigration and agricultural labor policymakers and to dispel many of the nativist myths and folktales about Mexican immigrants currently in vogue in California and the rest of the nation. In addition, I feel that a "farm to farm" understanding of the human side of migration from west-central Mexico can ultimately serve as a nexus for the development of more enlightened international immigration and trade policy.  

Excerpt from 'The Farmworkers' Journey,' by Dr. Ann Aurelia López, University of California Press, 2007, 362 pages, $22.95 paperback. López is a professor at UC–Santa Cruz, and a professor emeritus at San Jose City College, where she still teaches environmental sciences.


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