by Joan Fumetti
It has been said that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Our trip to Oaxaca provided a unique opportunity for us to see our lives, our information base, and our government policies through the eyes of indigenous people whose daily lives are impacted by our own.
Our goal was to listen, reflect and learn what it might mean to live in solidarity with people who are immersed in traditions and cultures that, though challenged and often disrespected, have remained a vibrant source of shared strength and vision.
It was apt that a group of Iowans venture to the place where corn was domesticated. “The most impressive aspect of the maize story is what it tells us about the capabilities of agriculturalists 9,000 years ago,” (New York Times: Remarkable Creatures: Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years). Listening to the descendants of these ‘pioneer geneticists’ we began to see corn with a bit of the reverence they accord it; corn is life in Oaxaca, not just commodity. We heard of their concern for the purity and biodiversity of the native seed they seek to protect from contamination by the transgenic (GMO) corn that is grown here. Whatever our take on the U.S. food system, it became clear that the voices we heard need to be part of an ongoing conversation. ‘One size fits all’ is not good agricultural policy in a world with so many different cultural, geographic and climatic contexts. We need to broaden the conversation so that U.S. corporate and government interests become increasingly sensitive to these human realities.
Our study of the roots of immigration revealed the devastating effects of NAFTA on the Mexican agricultural sector and Oaxacan farmers in particular. The large majority of Oaxacan farmers grow corn for local consumption and demand has always been high for their produce. When cheap U.S. corn flooded the Mexican market following NAFTA, local farmers were no longer able to compete for a share of the market. Communities fragmented as men in particular felt their only option for sustainable income was migration. Many of them come to the United States where they work in our agricultural sector as tirelessly as they’d worked at home.
The soul-warming hospitality offered to us when we stayed in the homes of women who are part of a weaving cooperative was poignant, for men were conspicuously absent. They are a strong and resilient bunch of women with whom we fell in love. We now feel compelled to tell the story that migration breaks the hearts of communities. People, by and large, want to stay home with their families and make a living through work that accords dignity. As we share their stories with our friends and communities, we hope the connections we’ve observed and experienced will help others understand the importance of dealing with immigration in ways that make compassionate sense.