Migrant farm workers perform some of the toughest jobs in the United States, but rarely complain, the author noticed. Then he visited some of their villages in Mexican coffee country.
I was riding in the back of a camioneta with 15 Mexicans, heading to remote mountain villages in the state of Oaxaca, when a thought as clear as any I’ve ever had grabbed my attention:” What in the hell am I doing here?”
I’d ended up there because I’d written about Mexican farm workers who told me stories about the grinding poverty they’d left behind. Many farm workers in western New York State, where I live, come from the rural areas of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guererro. They’ve traveled over 3,000 miles to get here, sometimes paying as much as $2,500 to be smuggled in. They work on farms doing some of the most strenuous, lowest paying jobs in the United States. I decided I wanted to see conditions in their villages first hand.
I’ve worked with homeless and poor people in a variety of ways. I’ve documented homelessness and poverty across Pennsylvania and Delaware, have worked in shelters and soup kitchens and have visited many migrant worker camps. One winter, I even spent six weeks living on the streets of Washington, DC. None of that prepared me for the poverty I would experience in the mountains of Oaxaca and Puebla.
It’s impossible to get into the mountain villages without connections and a guide. I also needed luck and persistence. A combination of all of these landed me in the offices of Coordinadora Estalal Productores Cafe Organico (CEPCO), a Oaxaca coffee cooperative.
Surprisingly, my interest was met with suspicion and a little hostility. After three days of being the only person to show up for meetings, I met with Pedro Pablo Garcia-Hernandez, CEPCO’s secretary, who put me in contact with coffee growers near San Jose Tenango. The initial suspicion was not unwarranted, given the political climate there. Paramilitary groups are active in Oaxaca, and there are weekly reports of killings of rural workers.
“In Mexico, life is cheap,” said a Oaxaca friend. “And a campesino’s life is very cheap.”
Leaving CEPCO one day, I saw a memorial notice on the coop bulletin board, commemorating a member’s murder by paramilitary forces a week earlier.
Into the Mountains
Candido would be my guide to Tenango. The first leg of the trip is a seven-hour bus ride over roads that are little more than narrow hairpin curves carved out of the mountainsides. We pulled into Huautla at 3 a.m. and sat, in the cold and damp, in the back of a truck for two hours. Camionetas are pickups that have been modified to carry passengers, which means metal benches have been welded inside the truck bed. A ride isn’t pleasant. Eight people can fit inside snugly, but there’s usually twice as many, with more people riding outside.
The roads, just wide enough for one vehicle, are layered with large rocks. People drive as fast as possible, ensuring a jarring ride. There are no guardrails, and although accidents are rare, I did see two overturned vehicles on the slopes.
Arriving in Tenango, you don’t find a quaint Mexican village with a pretty zocalo, colorful market or distinctive old church. Instead, you’re greeted by a small, poor, colorless village, of decaying buildings and a few cement streets usually awash in mud. This, I thought when I arrived, is third world poverty.
I was wrong: much worse lay ahead.
I left for San Martin the next day with another guide, Maximiano. (These “guides” aren’t paid; they’re just people who happen to be going to the same village as you.) San Martin is reached by another camioneta ride, followed by a strenuous 3 1/2 hour hike. Maximiano spoke mostly Mazateco. He knew a few words of Spanish but, unfortunately, I didn’t know the words he knew. About an hour into the hike, Maximiano stopped to eat two tortillas and a small piece of meat. He filled a Coke bottle with water from a small, muddy puddle and took a few sips. I was glad I’d brought a bottle of water.
I arrived in San Martin cold, wet and exhausted. I was taken to Abelardo and Hortencia’s house, and they quickly agreed to let me stay. Hortencia brought soup when I started shaking. Maximiano continued on to his house. I was more than a little embarrassed at my exhaustion when I learned that he was 72 years old. I was shocked at how little he ate during the hike: just those tortillas and meat. (I would be even more surprised four days later, when Abelardo and I hiked out of San Martin, after breakfasting on just a cup of coffee).
San Martin was much poorer than Tenango.
The village is a drab collection of shacks of wood, tin and palm fronds scattered along a path. The floors are packed dirt and bathrooms are outhouses that are sometimes only a hole in the ground. There is no running water or heat, and nights are cold in the mountains. Children are often barefoot and animals roam freely. The place smells of mud and manure. There are a few decaying cement buildings in what’s referred to as “el centro,” an area that includes a clinic that’s rarely staffed.
One evening I asked Abelardo what happened when someone got sick.
“When there’s no doctor and no money to leave for the city,” said, “then you die.” Candido’s wife had died 15 years ago. “She had diarrhea and vomiting for several days,” he’d said. “I don’t know what it was.”
Abelardo and Hortencia’s four children died soon after they were born. “But I am young,” Abelardo said. “There is still time to have children.”
When “Traditional” Means Impoverished
San Martin and other remote villages in these mountains have always been poor. People here live what is often called “a traditional way of life.” That means they’ve eked out a subsistence-level existence for hundreds of years, surviving on beans, tortillas and whatever they could pick or dig up from the land. Campesinos here have grown coffee for generations, and it’s pretty much the only cash crop that grows.
“The temperature and the land are good,” said Jose Garcia Lopez, who works at a Puebla coffee cooperative, “but it is too hilly. It is too difficult to cultivate and harvest anything else.”
Leonor Fernandez Allende, a regional director for CEPCO, tells me that the majority of campesinos have one to three hectares of land, or about two to eight acres, for growing.
Fifteen years ago, that coffee earned about $1.50 a pound, which Candido said was a good price. “I could live well,” he said. “At this price I could buy rice, bread, clothes, shoes.”
But when I arrived in Tenango, in 2003, coffee was selling for a little under 60 cents a pound. Candido pulled up a pant leg and continued, “Right now I cannot afford socks and do not have any. The clothes I have now were a gift. The shoes were a gift, too.”
Felipe Martinez Figueroa estimates that he grows about 1,000 pounds of coffee a year. He’ll earn about 600 pesos (about $60) a month, he said.
That’s only about a fifth of what a local peasant needs for basic sustenance, according to Fernandez Allende. “A campesino needs about 30,000 pesos ($3,000) a year to live,” she said. “To live without hunger, about 80,000 pesos ($8,000).”
Very few campesinos live without hunger. The Instituto Maya, an organization that studies rural issues, estimates that 81 percent of rural dwellers are “extremely poor,” defined as earning less than $2 a day. “People cannot afford meat, medicine or milk,” Garcia-Lopez said.
Virtually all campesinos grow the basic staples of corn and beans for home use, but often can’t produce enough to last an entire year. In previous years, when their supplies ran out, they would buy more food. It’s different now. “We can’t feed our families, our children,” said one, Francisco Martin Julian.
In spite of the poverty and the food shortage, every family I stayed with or visited insisted I eat with them. They have two meals a day, usually beans and tortillas made fresh daily (the best tortillas I’ve ever had). Breakfast was whatever was left over from dinner the night before.
While I didn’t see any large-scale starvation in the villages, I did see several elderly people who were, I’m certain, starving. They had the hollow cheeks, thin limbs and vacant eyes that until this trip I’d only seen in photographs. The children were all small for their ages, and most people I met seemed malnourished. “I have only enough to eat so I do not die,” said Candido. At one point I jokingly asked Candido if he had a car. “I do not have a car,” he replied. “I am a campesino. I have a machete.”
Most of the coffee in these villages is organic and shade-grown. Weeds are cut with a machete. The coffee ripens between November and March, and the beans are collected in small baskets that hang around a picker’s neck. During the harvest, the weather is unrelentingly hot and humid. Sweat poured down my face as I photographed, and I had to stop after every couple of shots to wipe my glasses.
Campesinos also face a number of diseases. I was feeling cocky as mosquitoes buzzed around me, because I had anti-malaria pills. My cockiness quickly faded when I saw warning posters for dengue fever (also carried by mosquitoes and sometimes fatal), cholera and tuberculosis. There were also snakes. I learned about them when one was killed under a woodpile in a woman’s house.
“Is it poisonous?” I asked apprehensively.
“Yes,” she replied. “Very.”
The room I was sleeping in had a large pile of dried corn. I made sure to keep my distance.
Once dried, coffee beans must be hauled to Tenango. Abelardo is fortunate to own a mule, worth about $300. He loads his coffee on the mule and walks with it to Tenango. Felipe isn’t so fortunate. “I do not have a mule,” he said, “I cannot afford one, so I have to carry the coffee. It is a difficult trip. It takes me six or seven hours with a load of 30 to 35 kilos (about 70 pounds). I return the same day and bring more coffee the next day.”
To supplement their income, people sell whatever else they can. “We grow some beans and corn,” said Felipe, “but mostly to eat. When there is enough, we sell it.”
Beans sell for about $1 a kilo; corn for the equivalent of 20 cents. That means that Felipe carries a 70-pound sack of corn six hours to Tenango to make about $6. Candido also sells tangerines. Once I saw him on market day and he was particularly happy.”I have sold all my tangerines,” he said. He’d carried a 40-pound sack of tangerines for 3 1/2 hours, and earned slightly less than $2.
Abandoning the Countryside
Most people work part of the year away from their homes. Felipe works two or three months a year in Puebla. “I work in grocery stores, fruit stores, selling clothes, anything,” he said. “I can earn 1,000 pesos a month there. Here, I am lucky to earn 600 pesos when there is work.”
Candido’s two sons work in Mexico City most of the year now. “We did not have enough to eat,” he said. “They sell tacos and tortas on the street, 10 hours a day, and make 40 or 50 pesos a day. In one month they will return to help with the harvest.”
Facing a combination of brutal work, extreme poverty and hunger, it’s no wonder more and more people leave. “It is difficult to survive in the countryside,” said one campesino. “This is why people are leaving for Mexico (City) and the U.S. Many young men are leaving. Some return, but if they have found work elsewhere, they do not return.”
I was told that I would find very few young men in the villages. It’s not something I’m sure I would’ve picked up on right away if I hadn’t been looking for it. There are children, women and the elderly, but very few men between 15 and 35 years old.
Most of the young men I did see were disabled or drunk. Instituto Maya says the mass outmigration from the countryside has created “an indigenous diaspora.” It contends that, since the late 1980s, Mexico has lost almost 2 million agricultural jobs, and 15 percent of its rural population.
Fair trade organizations like CEPCO try to stave off disaster. Fair trade, which pays a higher rate for rural products, can double campesino incomes. These groups also offer programs designed to lift local workers out of poverty. But campesinos still lack sufficient markets, and often face severe opposition in Mexico.
When I was interviewing Mexican farm workers in and around my home in Rochester, I saw them living under difficult conditions. The work they do–planting, weeding, picking fruits and vegetables–is virtually all done by hand, in all kinds of weather. They live in overcrowded apartments, rundown houses and sometimes in cars or under trees. By U.S. standards, they earn very little money. If they’re here illegally, they live in almost constant fear that the immigration authorities will find them. But they almost never complained.
After my three weeks in their mountain villages, I better understood why. One local farmer told me: “Their lives are so much better here. They’re glad for the work.”
Yes, their lives are so much better in the United States — but only because life back home in their villages is so much worse.
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