Indigenous Migrant Workers 
Struggle Against Pesticides

by Rufino Domínguez Santos 

Rufino Domínguez belongs to the Mixtec indigenous group of Oaxaca. Coming from one of the poorest states in Mexico, the Mixtecs have been forced to engage in a large-scale migration to the Tijuana/San Diego borderland and beyond. Domínguez is Vice Coordinator General of the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional - FIOB), an organization with offices in Oaxaca and California that works for the rights of indigenous immigrant workers. You can reach the FIOB at Their web site is

In this article, Domínguez passionately denounces the hazardous uses of pesticides in the fields where migrants work, as well as the widespread environmental racism practiced at the border. He focuses on indigenous migrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, who represent a recent trend in immigration: that of indigenous Mexican and Central Americans who do not exactly belong to the cultural, ethnic and linguistic world of their mestizo counterparts. A version of this paper was presented at the Second Annual Meeting on the Border Environment (Tijuana, April of 1999). 

Thousands of indigenous Oaxacans migrate each year to Sinaloa, Sonora, Baja California, and the United States in search of a better life. Poverty, marginalization, insufficient jobs, and erosion of the semidesertic land brought on by the deforestation are all factors leading up to this migration. Although immigration is a manner of surviving as a family and as a community, and allows for some economic improvement, there are very important disadvantages as well. I will focus on those impacting the health of the migrants working in the places mentioned above.

The migrant Oaxacans work on the big farms picking tomatoes, vegetables, fruit and cotton. They are not aware that the poisons srpayed on the plants to kill the various types of insects, worms, and blights, affect also the health of human beings and can even kill them. We don't have an exact percentage of people affected, or killed by pesticides. However, in almost every community where there is a strong migration, someone has died at an early age due to problems with pesticides. In 1988, for example, an entire family of five from Santa Catarina Noltepec died in Baja California. They were poisoned by the pesticides sprayed on the fields where they worked.

During the planting and harvesting season in the Culiacán Valley, 20-30,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca, the majority traveling as families of men, women and children, work in the fields picking tomatoes. I worked there in 1984 and witnessed many things. For example, the people applying the pesticides didn't use safety equipment to protect themselves from danger or death. 
When I was about 7 years old I knew a young man called Arcadio Gil González, whose job it was to apply the pesticides on tomato plants. One day, we were told of his sudden death. He was a tall, strong 18-year-old at the time, so everyone from San Miguel Cuevas, my hometown, was talking about how the cause of his death had to do with the "medicines" used on the plants. Supposedly, Arcadio overlooked his health because this job paid slightly higher wages. 

When I worked picking tomatoes in Culiacán Valley, it was common to see planes spraying pesticides on the field right next to us without any concern for our health. Runoff from the pesticides seeps into the irrigation canals, and the empty pesticide containers are dumped in ditches, contaminating the water and the environment. In the evenings, and on Sundays, people swim in these poisoned canals, and even drink water from them. In their kitchens they reuse the containers and buckets found in the canals. The children often eat the tomatoes in the fields without washing them, and with dirty hands. All these factors have brought new illnesses such as cancer to our communities of origin.

The landowners have never been interested in protecting the workers. The produce has always come first. The workers do not receive training on preventive measures they could take to protect their health, as well as an orientation prioritizing human life above the produce they are harvesting. The same situation exists in Sonora, on a smaller scale, since fewer people go there. However, in Baja California about 30-40,000 indigenous migrants arrive for the growing season. The majority work in the San Quintín Valley, and just south of Ensenada. The same thing that happens in Sinaloa happens there: innumerable intoxications due to pesticide poisoning. 

People often don't realize that one of the main problems is that the majority of pesticides banned for use in the U.S. are applied indiscriminately in Mexico. Why should this concern consumers in the U.S.? Well, they are directly affected because they are eating produce sprayed with these illegal pesticides in Mexico. Tomatoes, strawberries and other produce are exported to consumers in the U.S. What this shows is that a national orientation is not enough. It must be international if the workers and the consumers are really going to be protected.

Despite tougher regulations, the U.S. is no exception when it comes to endangering workers' lives with pesticide use. Over one billion pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used in the U.S. each year, 80% of which are used in agriculture, and another billion pounds in the treatment of lumber. 80% of the indigenous people that live in this country work in the fields where pesticides are sprayed. Despite protective legislation, there have been cases of collective intoxication involving over 30 workers in the cotton, grape and strawberry fields,. Although there is even a state agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), symptoms of pesticide poisoning occur every season in the U.S. Some symptoms regularly suffered by farmworkers are: dizziness, headaches, weakness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive perspiration, blurry vision, chest pains, breathing difficulties, watery eyes, nose and mouth, muscle pains and cramps. It is very clear that these symptoms are the result of the pesticides. 

Although signs are posted everywhere in English, and sometimes in Spanish, warning people not to enter the fields, many workers that do not know how to read, so they remain unaware of the dangers. They see some of the plants that we eat in Oaxaca growing among the produce, and they take them home to use as food. Later, they become sick to their stomach. Their children are born with these poisons in their system, since their mothers worked in the fields. Although very nicely written laws exist to protect the workers, farmers often don't obey them. In fact, some farmers won't even take a worker suffering from pesticide intoxication to the doctor, since the farmer could be fined for having violated the law! Since the passage of Proposition 187, the situation has become even worse for the undocumented workers. Cases of pesticide intoxication have occurred in San Diego County, Ventura, San Joaquin Valley, and the Salinas Valley, among other places. 

Thus far I have only spoken of the impact of pesticides on human beings. However, the situation is even more alarming. Pesticides poison everything they touch: the harvest, the land, the air and the water, regardless of the way in which they are applied. They are carried by the wind many miles from where they are sprayed. They end up in the rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, air, clouds, rain and snow on the highest mountains of the world, as well as the groundwater. Pesticide residue has been found in the bodies of fish, birds, wild animals, cattle, chicken, pigs, and pets. Some have died from pesticide poisoning. The entire environment has been polluted causing irreparable damage to Mother Earth. This has occurred without respect to boundaries and without preventive measures designed to protect all living things. The blame for this situation can be placed on the multi-million dollar companies producing these poisons, most of which are manufactured in the U.S.

Environmental Racism

I would like to speak now of environmental racism. One case occurring at this moment is that of a community of 100 Mixtec families, including children, in the city of Fresno, California. In addition to risks involved with working in the fields, these families live on a site contaminated by oil residues. They bought inexpensive mobile homes to put on the land, without knowing that it was contaminated. Now several people in these families have cancer, which might be linked to the contamination of the land. They have been living there for about ten years and only recently found out about this hazard because it was never discussed in the language they understood, Mixtec. The EPA has stated that the residents were informed of this problem several years ago. One of the wealthiest oil companies in the world, Chevron, is directly responsible for selling this contaminated land. Now they want to cover it with cement and consider it safe, putting an end to the case. Nevertheless, experience has shown that if Anglo-Americans were living on this land, they would take measures to detoxify it, as should be the case. At present, there is a struggle going on to have these families moved to a new place, with either the government or private agencies paying the cost; which would be the decent, responsible thing to do. 

In Lamont, a town in the south of the Valley, they are trying to build a stable for 25,000 cows. There are many migrant workers, some of them indigenous people, who live in the surrounding community, and whose health would be impacted by this project. Dairies pollute the environment for miles around because of the toxic substances they use. These substances generate noxious smells and draw flies. People in this area are very poor, so the creation of jobs was given priority over the peoples' health. Moreover, since pollution control measures would cut into the owners' profits, these dairies were created without regard the communities' health needs. We are struggling with all our resources to halt the construction of this diary.

FIOB's Achievements

In spite of these enormous problems, we have been able to provide some solutions, especially with regard to organizing the communities. Small organizations created around labor issues began forming in communities of Oaxaca and other Mexican states in the early 1980's. They sought to address problems such as the uses of pesticides in the fields of Sinaloa, Baja California and the U.S. This set the stage for a unique project: the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (Frente Indígena Oaquaqueño Binacional FIOB), which we created in spite of the many difficulties arising in defending indigenous people in binational issues. 

FIOB's program for action states: "We struggle to turn back the economic and ecological damage to our places of origin in Oaxaca by promoting projects which develop autonomy and sustainability based on indigenous practices, combined with modern technology appropriately applied in the places we reside in as migrants."

The following are examples of some important achievements obtained in cross-border organizing.

1) In 1993, we made an agreement to collaborate with the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), which provides legal advice to low income people free of charge. We have jointly started the Project of Indigenous Peoples (Proyecto de Pueblos Indígenas), in order to give orientation to the Mixtec-speaking farmworkers of their legal rights. We calculate that some 60,000 Oaxacans work in California, and we strive to make them aware of their right to demand safe and fair working conditions. We have recently been working on legal procedures in Fresno so that our people be relocated to a pollution-free area, at the expense of the city and the government. We have even made available a toll-free number: 1-800-MIXTECO.

2) In September of 1993, we signed an agreement to collaborate with the United Farmworkers of America (UFW). As is known, the Union has campaigned against the use of pesticides in the fields, boycotting products such as grapes, which are cultivated with hazardous pesticides.

3) In the summer of 1997 we hired two Mixtec-speaking women to work as community advisors to farmworkers on the hazards of pesticides. This was done in collaboration with Pomona's Organización de Líderes Campesinos. The project is critical, since women are especially prone to pesticide-induced sickness, and often suffer from complications during pregnancy.

Much has yet to be done in terms of binational education, but so far our people are moving between Mexico and the U.S., carrying with them educational materials in our language such as videos and announcements that can be circulated in the mass media. These materials are an essential tool, given that many Mixtecs cannot read nor write. 

All of these efforts have been made possible with the financial backing of U.S. foundations, especially Oxfam America, which has financed our work for the past two years. We have also received support from other indigenous migrant communities in this country. 

We have succeeded in raising awareness on health care and on the environment through training and education. It's imperative that we keep on teaching both farmworkers and landowners that we are all affected by actions taken against the Earth, and that we need to stop this ongoing self-destruction. The challenge is to continue this struggle so that people know how to care for their health, and to free Mother Earth from toxic poisoning.

Translated and edited by ISLA.


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