José González is driving his GMC pickup to Tijuana, Mexico, for an indigenous cultural event. As he approaches the border, he describes how he entered the U.S. the first time illegally at age 14 with his cousin Olegario.
“We crossed right over there,” he says, pointing a pedestrian bridge a few hundred feet north of the official border checkpoint at San Ysidro.
González, 49, is a Mixteco Indian from the village of Santa Rosa Caxlahuaca, Oaxaca. According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, he is part of a migration of more than 150,000 indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans who have come to California in search of work since the 1980s. But others estimate that number to be as high as 250,000.
González lives with his family in Oceanside, California, where he manages a Rite Aid drug store. His cultural ties to the Mixtecos, combined with a passion for justice and knowledge of English, make him perfectly suited for his life’s work: organizing indigenous workers on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border.
“José is not just a member of the Mixteco community. He collaborates with several communities,” said Gaspar Rivera of the University of California Los Angeles’s (UCLA) Center for Labor Research and Education. “He knows what it’s like to be undocumented, to live under the trees. He is part of the generation of farm workers who had to retool themselves and look toward the future.”
It all started 25 years ago with an argument González had with his father. The younger González wanted an education, but the nearest school was too far from his village. His father couldn’t afford it. Besides, his father said, “Pa’ pendejo no se estudia.” (To be a jerk you don’t need to study.)
What his father meant, said González, was that the better-educated Oaxacans were corrupt and exploited their countrymen, and that he feared José would end up the same way.
“He felt it was best for me to get to work and forget about school,” said González. Instead he turned to his cousin Olegario, who was in his 30s and had already worked in the U.S. “I pleaded with him to take me, but he told me it would be hard for me to get a job. ‘Stay with your parents,’ he told me.”
Crossing the Border
When Gonzales said he was going anyway, Olegario relented. They took a bus to Tijuana and paid a coyote (smuggler) $150 to guide them across the border. They got work picking tomatoes near Del Mar, a tony beach city.
“We slept outdoors in the canyons,” González said. “The Border Patrol would come around 2 a.m. and pick us up. We didn’t call it deportation—it was ‘voluntary departure.’ I don’t remember how many times this happened. But eventually we found our way and returned without a coyote.”
González said he and his companions had to live in hiding. If they were sighted on city streets, or went to a swap meet, they would be picked up. For the most part, he said, didn’t face abuse.
“But one time I tried to run away, and I got beat up pretty bad,“ he said.
The Border Patrol officers took him to their station.
“One of them called me a cholo [gang banger],” he said. “I told him I wasn’t a cholo, and he put me in a chokehold and yelled, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ The next morning they took me to Tijuana.”
González worked in the fields for three more years, then switched to landscaping and occasional jobs as a day laborer. He took night classes in English and other subjects at an adult education center. Other Mixteco workers began asking him for help.
Organizing in the Fields
“There were several workers from my village, and we met in the fields in North County San Diego to discuss ways to help back home,” said González. “Ever since we were youngsters we planted the communal lands to finance the municipality. So we took collections here and sent the money back to Santa Rosa.”
In the mid ’80s, when the U.S. government offered amnesty to undocumented workers, many began complaining that they were being exploited and robbed by a local income tax preparer.
“The guy was stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said González. “The workers asked me to interpret because they had nobody to speak both Mixteco and English. The IRS took him to court and won. He went to jail and had to pay heavy fines. The workers got their money back.”
González got his U.S. residency in 1988. In 1990, he returned to his village and met Irma Rojas. They married and have two children, Maria and Sergio. Both now attend local colleges.
The Indigenous Front (Frente Indigena)
In the late 1990s the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) noticed González’s activism and recruited him as an organizer. He has since served as a local, state and bi-national coordinator for the organization.
González was trained as an interpreter at the Monterey Language Institute in California and has traveled as far as New Jersey to assist Mixteco migrants in court cases. He has also represented indigenous migrants at conferences of the International Migrants Alliance in Manila, Athens and Hong Kong.
“The Frente Indigena educates people and develops leadership,” said González. “We believe that everyone is a potential leader, not just one person. Women, too, play a big role. My wife is a strong person, very demanding. When you have two strong people, the kids turn out good.”
Benito Juarez’s Birthday
González parks his pickup at Benito Juárez Park near Tijuana City Hall and unloads dancers’ costumes and props. Today he will serve as master of ceremonies to honor President Benito Juárez (1806–1872), a Zapotec Indian born in Oaxaca. Juárez was famous for the liberal reforms he brought about during his five terms as president.
While “Peace is respect for the rights of others” is his best-known quote, Gonzales favors another, applying it to today’s Mexican politicians: “Cursed by those who with their words defend the people, but with their actions betray them.”
Today’s ceremony is significant because it celebrates the preservation of Parque Juárez. Developers had tried to take it over in recent years and began laying foundations for a hotel, restaurants and casino. Tijuana citizens reacted by pitching tents and occupying the site for six years, the longest such occupation in North American history. They recently won a landmark federal lawsuit, stopping all construction and preserving the historic site in perpetuity.
Standing next to a portrait of Juárez, González urges his fellow Oaxacans to retain their cultural roots and communal responsibilities. As the event concludes with Mixteco dancers and music, González discusses his next project: to aid striking Mixteco farm workers in San Quintin, four hours south of Tijuana.
The elders play banda music and want to teach it to their children, who are vulnerable to local gangs and organized crime.
“We are reaching out to our friends to get these instruments,” says González. “Then we will go down to San Quintin and have a real fiesta.”