Bowdoin Sociologist Wins Fellowship to Write about Mexican Farmworker Movement

marcos-lopez-2014Last year when thousands of farmworkers in Mexico went on strike to protest their low wages and squalid living conditions, the Los Angeles Times called on Marcos Lopez to learn about the situation, the people involved, and the long story behind the strike.

Lopez, an assistant professor of sociology, has been studying Mexican farmworkers for years, ever since he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a graduate student, he began to focus his attention on strawberry workers in Baja California, a peninsula in northwestern Mexico that Mexican and American companies have been trying over the past 10 years to develop into a productive agricultural region.

Lopez recently won a Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship in support of his ethnographic research. He is writing articles and a book on how the farmworkers in Baja, despite facing racism, violence and powerful employers, successfully fought to improve their living and working conditions.

Just over a decade ago, when the phase-out on methyl bromide in the U.S. imposed an additional cost on strawberry growers, the industry began to shift production to Baja. Mexico had not yet banned the fumigant. Other incentives beckoned as well. “One of the reasons they shifted strawberry production to Baja was to expand production for winter markets,” Lopez explained, to ensure fresh, often organic, berries year-round for U.S. consumers. Plus companies could hire indigenous workers from southern Mexico for very low wages. Not too long ago, an 8-lb. flat box of organic strawberries that might sell for $34 would net the workers who picked the berries 10 pesos, or about 75 cents, Lopez said.

In Lopez’s travels to Baja, he made connections with people living in three squatter settlements, which are referred to locally as colonias. Despite tough conditions in the colonias, the settlers, many of them from the Mixteca region in Oaxaca, are attracted to Baja because they are desperate for work. “In Mexico, free trade has made it difficult for people to maintain a combination of subsistence and market-oriented agriculture,” Lopez said. In addition, as family members remit wages earned in the U.S., the cost of living throughout Mexico has crept up, making migration necessary to avoid poverty.

Once they landed in Baja, the workers found a system rigged against them and continued to live impoverished lives, according to Lopez. A dozen or so Mexican farm owners dominate the region, supplying produce to U.S. retailers and restaurant chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco and Safeway. These growers had banded together to set wage limits, deny government-required benefits such as healthcare, and block labor reforms. The workers lived in shoddy homes and had limited access to water and fresh food. An LA Times journalist reported on the children he saw working in the fields, de-stemming strawberries and picking tomatillos.

Despite not being able to form an official labor union, the workers managed to come together to fight for basic rights. “They saw this as a grassroots movement that relied on indigenous practices that were common to many migrants from southern Mexico,” Lopez said. Although they came from different communities, and sometimes spoke different languages, the workers shared cultural practices. One of these was their willingness to entrust an unofficial but respected leader to act on behalf of the community. Another was communal labor. While this idea back home meant people were expected to collaborate and share responsibility of caring for their autonomous communities, in Baja it meant showing up to weekly gatherings located at the end of an unpaved street, where they would discuss and take actions on issues affecting them in their new environment.

The indigenous leaders of the colonias collaborated to organize a widespread walk-out. “They held each other accountable in terms of their participation, they acted in tandem, and they agreed they would develop a valley-wide wildcat strike against not just one firm, but many,” Lopez said.

About 60,000 or so workers are employed in the agricultural industry of Baja California. A year ago in March, thousands of them went on strike. Police and the Mexican military poured into the area. Hundreds of protestors were arrested.

The Baja employers eventually agreed to bargain with the colonias leaders. About three months after the strike, and after they had lost about $80 million, the growers agreed to increase workers’ wages and to pay for healthcare. While the pay raise wasn’t as high as the strikers had demanded, the deal guaranteed workers’ rights to overtime pay, improved infrastructure, and ensured the right of workers to oversee farm inspections by labor officials, according to the LA Times.

Lopez said he plans to return to Baja to observe the aftermath of the strike and the changes it has brought to the people of the colonias — findings that will make up the epilogue of his book in progress.

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