One common theme runs through the stories told by migrant farm workers who have come from Oaxaca in Mexico to Ventura County: They heard others from the region were making more money doing farm labor in the United States, often running into other Oaxacans who had been there, and returned with the trappings of wealth to prove it.

“The first thing I saw that motivated me (to come to the U.S.) was that people were coming back wearing elegant clothes. They were pretty,” says Alberta Salazar, who came to the U.S. with family members in 1985.

“My parents were always looking for work, following the crops. In Mexico, if you don’t have money you die of hunger; there’s no welfare, no Social Security, no health care,” recalls Rosalia Ramirez, who was working as a maid in a Mexico City home in 1990 when she learned from an uncle already in the U.S. that more money could be made there. “So I said OK, let’s go.”

Salazar and Ramirez are members of the Mixteco, an indigenous Oaxacan group — in American terminology, Native Americans. It is one of 62 indigenous groups — each with its own dialect — in the Oaxaca region, where Spanish conquistadors met with more resistance than elsewhere.

But like other Oaxacan indigenous farmers, who are thought to make up about 30 percent of farm labor in California, the Mixteco were driven to leave in the 1980s by drought and the region’s remoteness from the already weak Mexican economy. There are an estimated 20,000 Mixteco in Ventura County, working primarily in Ventura County’s strawberry industry.

“It’s not like they have big fields. They just farm a little bit to live,” says Blanca (not her real name), a Mixteco who came to the U.S. in 1998. “It’s really beautiful, everything is so green. The problem is, it’s so isolated, there’s no way of generating money to support themselves.”

That remoteness prompted the Mixteco tradition of tequio, or community service. Members of whole villages work together to perform tasks that would normally be done by public agencies in other places.

“The men get together and they form these groups. They’ll fix the road when it rains, or make a well for water,” explained Blanca. “Anything that affects the community, they’ll go and help.”

That tradition carries over into the entire Mixteco culture, says Margaret Sawyer, the outreach coordinator for MICOP (Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project), an organization that helps Oaxacan immigrants find medical care and other resources.

“There’s a strong tradition of family, decisions made by consensus, elders are revered,” says Sawyer. “Usually, when people arrive here they are connected to others through their villages.”

“There, we have to work by hand and survive. It’s very beautiful to me because people support each other,” says Carmen Hernandez, a Mixteco who is one of MICOP’s outreach coordinators.

Like others from Mexico, Mixtecos celebrate El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Vigils are held at elaborate altars built to welcome home the departed spirits of loved ones, with ofrendas (offerings) such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead) or other items that were favorites of relatives.

“We’d hear my grandmother say, ‘I know you like cigars’ or ‘I know you like mescal’ and we’d look around,” recalled Salazar, adding that those things were favorites of her grandfather. “She was inviting invisible people to come and eat.”

Another Mixteco tradition is the annual celebration for each village’s town saint. “People get together in groups of 15 or 20 to make food for the whole community. They’ll use whatever they have,” says Blanca.

Photo by: Matthew Hill, (c)2012
Above and Below: Members of Danza de los Rubios, a team of dancers from the Los Angeles Mixteco community at Guelaguetza 2012 in Oxnard’s Plaza Park on June 24.

But when Blanca was 15, leaving her village in Oaxaca — where she washed clothes for other people in exchange for food to help feed her family of nine — to make the trip north to the border to find greater opportunities looked much better to her than the alternative she was faced with, an arranged marriage to an older man.

“I had heard that in the U.S. you could buy food, clothes, a car,” says Blanca. “I would see people who had been there and came back, and they had more resources.”

So she asked her mother, who disagreed with her father over the plans to arrange her to marry, to borrow the money it would take to go north.

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll find work and you can pay back what you owe,’ ” Blanca recalls telling her mother, who managed to raise enough money for Blanca and a 12-year-old sister to go to Tijuana with some of her uncles who had experience making the trip.

Photo by: Matthew Hill, (c)2012

But in Tijuana they didn’t have any luck making a contact, so they went to Sonora, where one of her uncles knew who to talk to. In Sonora they spent three days locked in a house with others waiting to cross the border.

After someone came to get them, they walked for a week through the desert, day and night, with nothing to eat but some tortillas her mother had made for her and her sister, until their four guides left them underneath a freeway overpass in Phoenix.

“It was very sad and difficult, the guides would tell us. ‘You have to walk. If you can’t walk, I’ll take a rock and just kill you right here,’ ” says Blanca, adding they spent two more days underneath the overpass while the guides brought them food found in dumpsters.

“I would try to be strong for my sister under that bridge,” says Blanca. “We found two girls who were dying — we couldn’t do anything for them.”

Finally, one of the guides returned with a car and, hiding some of them under seats and throwing trash over others, drove them to a cabin where there was food and water.

Photo by: Matthew Hill, (c)2012

After two more days, there they were taken by truck to another camp, hiding under construction materials and at one point nearly getting caught by someone who stopped and searched the truck, probing the back with a stick.

Finally after arriving at the camp, where there were others from Oaxaca waiting to be transported, they were driven to Oxnard. Of the 15 people Blanca left Sonora with, only five had made it there.

“I was so happy I made it after all I had gone through,” says Blanca. “I thought I was going to die.”

Like most Mixtecos, after arriving in California, Blanca and others followed seasonal farm work wherever it took them before either returning to Mexico or settling here to raise families.

“In my case, we stayed in cars for two or three days while looking for farmers who had work,” says Salazar, who worked with her brothers and uncles on farms from 1985 to 1997. “We bought a van that everyone slept in, it had all our clothes, and we had a small stove to cook with.”

Salazar says that wherever they worked, the threat of deportation was a fact of life they learned to adjust to.

“At each workplace, there was at least one person looking out,” recalls Salazar. “They would know, when ICE was coming, how to hide.”

The Mixteco community remains largely migrant and isolated by their language barrier, although many Mixtecos speak Spanish. They also remain largely poor, typically making well below the average income.

“Those who are champion packers and fill a lot more boxes, you see them making about $6,000 to $8,000,” from January through July, says Salazar, using strawberry packing as an example. If they are eligible for unemployment benefits, they might be able to extend that to $10,000, she adds.

The gap between the Mixteco and the mainstream community is bridged somewhat by organizations like MICOP, which was launched in 2001 to address the needs of Mixtecos who needed health care.

From that, grew a collaboration of Mixteco, English and Spanish speakers that offers the Mixteco community literacy classes as well as interpreters when needed.

“We bring information to our community about things that don’t exist in our towns, like how to reach out to local clinics to make appointments for medical exams,” explains Salazar, a MICOP volunteer for four years. “Because things like Pap smears and monograms are new to our culture.”

But many Mixteco are hesitant to attend community meetings held regularly in Oxnard’s Colonia neighborhood with officials from some agencies like the Oxnard Police Deptartment, fearing their cars will be towed because they are undocumented.

“I think they are afraid of the police,” says Salazar, who recalls the reaction when she asked Mixtecos why they didn’t attend community meetings at Cesar Chavez School. “They’d say, ‘How can you believe them? We don’t have licenses, they’ll take our cars, we don’t want to expose ourselves.’

“I didn’t want to push or they might not trust me as a community leader, so I told them I would relay that information.”

The Mixteco’s migrant lifestyle makes things difficult for their school-age children, who often arrive or are yanked out of classes in the middle of a semester with little or no English skills.

Photo by: Matthew Hill, (c)2012
The women of Flor de Pina, another dance team made up of members of a different Oaxacan group, the Tuxtepec.

“It’s unfortunate, indigenous students go through a lot of challenges within that immigrant context,” says Fernando Hernandez, who teaches a two-year English crash course to newcomers at Harrington Elementary in Oxnard. “The lack of consistency in their schooling can have bad effects, but that’s the reality.”

“We school them here and then send them back to their home school for regular English classes,” explains Hernandez, who says he strives to create a sense of community for students in his classes even though their number is always fluctuating as they come and go.

“There are second- and third-grade students who arrive interrupted,” says Hernandez, who is assisted by volunteer translators. “They can often speak a little Spanish, although it may be a year or two below their grade level.”

Meanwhile, another problem has arisen in schools for Mixteco children: Ridicule from other children who speak fluent Spanish, a legacy of discrimination toward indigenous people in Mexico, where they are widely considered an underclass.

The bullying is generally something students dish out in places staff can’t control, says Hernandez — on the playground, on the bus or when children are walking to school. But it has also been known to happen in the classroom.

“I have sometimes even seen teachers prohibit Mixteco children from speaking their language in the classroom,” says Salazar, adding that Mixteco children are made to feel ashamed of speaking their language. “They make fun of them for it. They say, ‘Stop acting like a Oaxaquita.’ ”

On May 16, Oxnard School District’s board passed a resolution in support of the No Me Llames Oaxaquita (Don’t Call Me “Little Oaxacan”) campaign launched by MICOP in collaboration with school officials.

The words Oaxaquita and indito (little Indian) are now prohibited from being used on school property and an anti-bullying committee has been formed.

“The Mixteco community has been somewhat of a secret community in that nobody knew it existed,” says Denis O’Leary, the Oxnard School District trustee who sponsored the resolution, “and once they became apparent, nobody knew there were issues of discrimination that came with them.”

The Rio School District’s board has passed a similar resolution, and O’Leary says he has been in talks with several other local school districts who are interested in doing the same.

“It’s the duty of educators to raise all students to the same level,” continued O’Leary. “This resolution will help empower the Mixteco community.”

Arcenio Lopez, MICOP’s associate director, says something he’d like to see raised is the level of awareness of why immigrants come to the United States illegally.

“I’m sometimes asked, why don’t you all get visas? That shows me that they don’t understand,” says Lopez. “If there were a law that let people get visas before coming, they’d take advantage of it.”

Immigrants in general are not here to take advantage of services at anyone else’s expense, says Lopez.

“We pay taxes,” Lopez notes, adding, “Believe me, the government has made sure that even people who are undocumented pay taxes.”