Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Voices of the Migrant Experience

By Lindsey Shilleh


(Photo: David Bacon, Truthout)

Scrolling through my daily news updates, I came across an article on migration and the efforts of The Bi-national Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), a member-run community organization, established in 1991, that brings together indigenous people, communities and organizations based here in Oaxaca, with those in California. As an organization drawing members from both sides of the border, FIOB aims to tell a fuller story. Looking beyond the isolated experience of individual migrant, FIOB includes migrants living in the US and those still living in their respective hometowns.

This unique set-up is what struck me, and drew me in- how often do we hear the other side of the story, of those still at home, let alone in a forum together? To really understand what it means to migrate, we need to look at the experience holistically.

This structure provides a voice, say a forum, to those who traditionally, are not heard from, and links their stories with the stories of those who have migrated. With 18% of Oaxaca’s population migrating to the United States or northern Mexico, the absence of a key family or community member is nothing new. As of 2008, roughly 500,000 indigenous Oaxacans were living in the United States, and 300,000 had migrated within Mexico[1]. What were the factors that led them to make that choice? Was it a choice?

It is that choice that defines so many futures. Without it, your future becomes one that is fixed and pre-determined by economic factors and their subsequent social patterns. But for so many, the right to not migrate just isn’t an option. By incorporating both populations, it seems that FIOB is fighting for that choice.

Can FIOB help us begin to change the conversation around migration in North America? They have a chance to highlight the patterns of oppression be they social, economic or psychological taking place on both sides of the border. For example, the more esoteric pressure, to migrate, to leave your family and culture behind because opportunities exist elsewhere and it is the right thing to do, contrasted with the literal, more tangible oppression of indigenous communities and economies that are forced into migration and then come to rely on remittances, financial contributions sent home by Mexicans living abroad. Some studies suggest that remittances in Mexico are responsible for a range of 27% to 40% of the capital invested in microenterprises throughout urban Mexico. Others say 80% of the money received is used for basic household expenses-food, clothing, and health care. [2]

Mexico’s close economic ties to the U.S., doesn’t help- remittances, for example, have taken a hit in the past few years, as the global financial crisis and the slowdown in the U.S. economy took hold. Or take projects such as the “Meso-America Project” or NAFTA. “The Meso-America Project” has paved the way for large corporations’ plundering of land and natural resources. The installation of wind farms in La Ventosa has impacted hundreds of indigenous and farming communities on the coast of Oaxaca. Here, land traditionally used for corn or crop production is now being used to serve the needs of companies without the consent of those who own the land.  At the same time NAFTA, which floods rural communities with cheap agricultural products, serves more as a mechanism for displacement than an economic one. Farmers are displaced, and migration then increases, because producing your own crops is no longer a viable, nor sustainable option.

With so many cards stacked against you, working to make migration a choice, rather than one made out of necessity is tough. And at a recent two-day conference celebrating the FIOB’s 20 years of establishment, the conversation centered around this question. How can this become a realistic option rather than one forced by poverty and desperation? Back home, many FIOB members have begun to focus their efforts around alterative economic development such as preserving corn indigenous to Oaxaca, fighting deforestation and beginning to concentrate on organic crop production and fight against genetic modification. It’s also working to set up social service organizations along the Isthmus to protect refugees and migrants. Across the border, efforts are aimed at influencing immigration reform, and fighting against proposed guest-worker programs and stop the exploitation of migrants. 

The influence of FIOB remains to be seen. Nonetheless, this question of how to make migration voluntary strikes a chord with what I have observed here in Oaxaca. Living here in Oaxaca and working in communities outside the city, the impact of migration is perceptible. Migration is woven into the social fabric of so many communities and cities, a singular thread that is perhaps not brilliant in color, or visible in size, but runs deep throughout. And with this comes a reverb effect that lingers in the collective consciousness of communities and the country alike.

No easy fight, FIOB is striving to build a forum to hear a wider range of voices, creating an open space where those who experience this movement across the border, sometimes back and forth, can debate what should be done. Migrating is not a solitary experience, and I hope FIOB can explore it in its totality. With many members that have returned to their communities from U.S, there is the potential to paint an in-depth picture, of the daily social, psychological and economic impact of thier experience, as well as the long-term consequences.

As we at En Vîa have heard speaking with our borrowers and the community, there is so much more to the migrant experience than the perilous journey across the border. The experience changes the shape of a community, of the family and of course, of the individual. To change the conversation, this needs to be brought to the forefront. Learning about the FIOB, I’ve realized the importance in understanding this cycle of dependency that migration perpetuates. There is a dramatic impact of leaving your own world behind and the palpable after-effects, that ripple their way outward; from the individual to the family, from the community to the town or city, and ultimately, to the national level. Asking the tougher questions, FIOB members are helping to widen the discussion on a bi-national front. 

[1] Bacon, David. “The Right to Stay Home”. http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=66a8eccf43428bfe3542bfc7ddfb19ff. (New American Media, 2008). 


[2] U.S.- Mexico Economic Relations: Trends, Issues and Implications. (Congressional Research Service, 2009.)


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