[lg policy] California: Markets Evoke Memories of Mexico

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 3 12:54:29 UTC 2011

August 2, 2011
Markets Evoke Memories of Mexico


MADERA, Calif. — Every Sunday, Juan Enriquez, a former farmworker from
Mexico, shows off his culinary art, sculpturing sweet white meat from
young coconuts with a knife and briskly sprinkling it with salt and
lime. “It is better than working in the fields,” Mr. Enriquez said of
his new job as a vendor at the Madera Flea Market. “Here at least
there is shade.”

In the Latino communities along Highway 99, the artery of the San
Joaquin Valley, the grand tradition of the Sunday flea market — fly
swatters, car parts, plastic Betty Boop purses and all — has been
transformed into the famed open-air bazaar or tianguis that is a
fixture of daily life throughout Mexico.

Madera is a mecca for the state’s estimated 120,000 indigenous
Mexican-Indian farmworkers, many of whom are from Oaxaca and speak a
pre-Columbian language called Mixtec. And its Sunday flea market is a
colorful world-within-a-Latino-world, recreating the weekly gatherings
around hundreds of village plazas. Upwards of 6,000 marketgoers banter
over cucumbers laced with fiery pico de gallo, buy CDs of Mixtec bands
and scout the best prices for pápalo, an aromatic green that grows
wild in the mountains of Mexico. Music shifts like living radio from
vendor to vendor, from the Beatles to Chilenas con violin, lilting
traditional sounds. It is a backdrop to the array of sombreros,
tomatillos, copal incense for Mass and simulated ostrich ranchero

For a linguistically and socially marginalized population grasping the
bottom rung of the labor ladder, “it is a place to remind yourself who
you are,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a project director for the
Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of
California, Los Angeles.

The Mixtec farmworkers are recent arrivals, having migrated first
within Mexico where they picked cotton or cut sugar cane. Many hail
from home villages that are specks on the map, like San Martin Peras,
an impoverished community of fewer than 1,500 people.

For Antonio Barrera, originally from the state of Guerrero, who rises
long before dawn to pick onions, the market is “an entertainment” that
reminds him of home. Many farmworkers have come from remote villages
without electricity, down tortuous gravel roads, hours from a
semblance of a supermarket. Arriving in the Central Valley, they might
earn $8 an hour if they are lucky, and often what amounts to $3 an
hour for a piece rate.

Speaking in 16 indigenous Oaxacan languages, the laborers trade
recipes, discuss politics back home and exchange intelligence on who
is hiring around the valley and what the job pays. They argue over
whether it is better to buy nopales, the fleshy pads of edible prickly
pear cactuses, cut up or whole.

There are roughly 7,000 Mixtec people in greater Madera, said Edward
Kissam, a farm labor researcher and consultant. The Madera School
District had a Mixtec interpreter until last year, when the position
was eliminated because of budget cuts.

In California, indigenous Mexican farmworkers are the poorest of the
poor, with a median family income of $13,750 compared with $22,500 for
their mestizo — the Spanish term for people of mixed European and
Indian heritage — counterparts, according to a 2007-9 Indigenous
Farmworker study done in conjunction with California Rural Legal
Assistance Inc.

Language is a pressing issue: Farmworkers from Oaxaca speak neither
Spanish nor English, making it difficult to follow a doctor’s
prescription or respond to a criminal charge. It also makes indigenous
migrants vulnerable to exploitation, like getting short-changed on
hours or piece-rates, said Irma Luna, a community worker for
California Rural Legal Assistance.

“It’s very difficult to get by, and because of language barriers,
people don’t complain,” Ms. Luna said.

Within the material culture of the market, the subtleties of everyday
life are revealed: washboards instead of washing machines, for
instance, or bicycle parts for the many shoppers who do not own cars.

Rey Rodriguez, the 36-year-old son of Zapotec farmworkers, grew up in
Oceanside, Calif., and has a thriving business selling Mixtecs $10 DVD
videos from annual village fiestas.

“They want to see who is dancing with whom,” observed Hugo Morales, a
former MacArthur fellow and founder of Radio Bilingüe, the country’s
largest Spanish-language public radio network.

“The women often dance together because the men are absent,” said Mr.
Morales, who is Mixtec. “We Mixtecos yearn to be back in our villages,
but many of us don’t have the legal papers or the money to go back, so
the Madera market is a space for comfort — despite the over 100-degree

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of clinical internal medicine and
director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the School
of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, said that in
addition to supporting the traditional diet, the market had a
mental-health dimension. “It counteracts a host of stressors, such as
social exclusion,” he said.

At the market, the stress is often disguised with beauty. Sitting
beside a mountain of chiles, Socorro Guiterrez was selling crepe-paper
flowers that she fashions by hand. Her deepest sadness, a serious
injury and the death of nine companions in a van accident while coming
home from the fields, was not readily apparent — invisible in colorful
crepe-paper petals, as delicate as life.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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