Mixtecs in Ventura County

Twenty thousand indigenous Oaxacan people from southern Mexico live and work in Ventura County. Soil erosion of the ancestral farmlands of the Mixteca region and economic opportunity here have drawn Mixtecs to California in search of agricultural work. 
Mixtecs have been a vital part of the Ventura County’s economic success since the 1970s. Concentrated in labor-intensive agricultural sectors such as row crops (strawberries and raspberries) and cut flowers, Mixtecs perform an increasing amount of the backbreaking labor which makes farming profitable and fresh fruits and vegetables affordable to the public. Many of the immigrant families who arrived in the 70s and 80s raised their families here—with children now in college or successfully employed. Many have become US citizens. 
More recently-arrived Mixtec immigrants have not been as fortunate. Mixtecs in Ventura County–and throughout the state–are culturally and linguistically isolated. Many are illiterate, and most speak neither Spanish nor English, but only their native language, Mixteco. As a result, they face exploitation and discrimination in labor, housing, and everyday life. Life is extremely difficult for these young hardworking, family-oriented people with deeply rooted cultural beliefs. Most live in extreme poverty and lack basic provisions such as adequate housing, food, clothing, and other necessities of life. Central to their struggle is the fact that they cannot communicate with people beyond their own indigenous community, thus impeding their ability to obtain appropriate healthcare, educate themselves and their children, negotiate with their employers to improve their work situation, and exercise their basic civil rights. 

MICOP’s work is aiding Mixtecs to draw on their community strengths and overcome existing barriers. The communal tradition of “tequio” or community obligation promotes a spirit of mutual assistance and community building. Our celebrations of cultural traditions such as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Día del Niño (Children’s Day), Guelaguetza (regional dance festival celebrating all indigenous groups), and Fiesta Navideña (Christmas) build community strength and pride, and add to the richness and diversity of Ventura County life.
Mixtec History and Culture

                                                                      ©  David Bacon

Mixtecs are indigenous inhabitants of southern Mexico whose language and culture pre-date the Spanish conquest by hundreds of years. There are an estimated 500,000 Mixteco speakers today, almost one-fifth of whom live in the United States at least part of their lives. The Mixteca region includes much of the modern state of Oaxaca as well as parts of Guerrero and Puebla. Mixtecs (as well as other indigenous cultures such as the Zapotecs) ruled wide areas of highly developed societies in the pre-colonial period. 

These native American people have a rich cultural and linguistic history. Much of this has been recorded in the pictographs of Monte Alban and other ancient city centers, and in extensive pictograph manuscripts such as Codex Nuttall, written on fig bark or deer hide. Mixtecs’ economy was based on farming the basic triad of corn, beans, and squash with carefully designed methods appropriate to the steep, mountainous terrain.

Europeans conquered and destoyed much of the indigenous Mexican empires through disease, superior weapons, and the introduction of hooved animals and the plow, which disrupted the delicate environmental balance of the area. Today, soil erosion has left the Mixteca region one of the most geographically devastated in the world. It is estimated that current Mixtec societies in Mexico are able to grow only 20% of the food they need to sustain their populations. The only option for thousands of Mixtecs is migration to other parts of Mexico and the United States. Money sent home from this out-migration sustains remaining Mixtec communities.

Mixtec language and culture are as different from Spanish/Mestizo Mexico as Navajo is from English. Beliefs about health, religion, and family include many traditional concepts, and are often at odds with “Western” concepts. Along with other indigenous cultures such as Trique, Amuzgo, Mixe, and P’urépecha, the Mixtec’s unique language, art, and culture are in danger of being lost forever. Yet there are fewer resources devoted to preserving these cultures than to protecting bald eagles and right whales.

At the same time that Mixtecs were being forced to leave their land, the agricultural industry in the United States was searching for new cheap labor sources. The Bracero Program (started in 1942 to cover World War II labor shortages) brought the first significant number of indigenous Mexicans to the U.S. Their numbers expanded greatly in the 70’s and 80’s, when many indigenous families were able to regularize their status through the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act. Mixtecs are concentrated in the most labor-intensive agricultural areas—row crops such as berries, tomatoes and grapes; stone fruit; citrus; and cut flowers.

Readers desiring to learn more about Mixtec history are referred to:

The Death of Ramón González by Angus Wright
Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, edited by Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado