Odilia Romero Hernández
Tales from the trenches: Developing and defending indigenous identities, rights and cultural practices through community organizing.
Odilia Romero Hernández is a member of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) and is based in Los Angeles, CA. She served two terms as Binational Women’s Issues Coordinator of the FIOB and for more than a decade has worked with indigenous Mexican and binational organizations in the areas of human rights and cultural and political education.
CUSLAR and the Latin American Studies Program of Cornell University hosted Ms. Romero in Central New York on April 1-4, 2012. She gave presentations at Cornell University, Elmira College and SUNY Cortland, presenting “Tales from the trenches: Developing and defending indigenous identities, rights and cultural practices through community organizing.”
The following is a paraphrased compilation of Ms. Romero’s presentations published on cuslar.org with her permission. Below she addresses a wide range of issues, including reclaiming indigenous identity, forced migration, indigenous people’s challenges in the U.S., binational political organizing and repression, women’s rights and women’s organizing.
I’m an indigenous Zapotec from the village of Zoogocho, in the northern mountains of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a town of 2,000 people that has dwindled to a population of 88, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s. It’s a ghost town. Most people have had to migrate to Oaxaca City, Mexico City or Los Angeles.
My parents settled in Pico Union, in Los Angeles, in the 1970s. They left with many others from our village during the big devaluation of the peso in Mexico. Some of us children stayed behind with our grandparents until our parents sent for us.
In Zoogocho my grandmother used to tell me, “Behind those mountains there are bad things — there are white people.” It wasn’t that she disliked white people specifically, but rather she was giving me a political message about opposing the colonization of our indigenous lands and customs. She would also warn me, “Don’t go to church — it’s bad for you.” We couldn’t understand Latin, of course, so we didn’t get anything out of mass.
I came to the U.S. in 1981 at the age of 11. Migration of indigenous people from Mexico has continued to intensify because of policies made at the White House and Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential palace. We come for a reason — it’s not like we wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to go cross a desert and play with snakes.’
So why do we immigrate to the United States? After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, farmers in Mexico started to be bombarded by subsidized, transgenic U.S. products. Small farmers of course aren’t able to compete in the market with large companies, so the local organic products are being undersold and people can’t make a living. Now in addition to foreign corn, beans and coffee in the markets, you’ll see Washington apples being sold in Oaxaca.
The Mérida Initiative has been in effect for several years as well. It’s an agreement in which the U.S. gives money to the Mexican government ($1.4 billion in military aid and training since 2007) supposedly to combat drug cartels. Why, then, is the military presence so high in the south of Mexico where there are no drug cartels? We’re seeing that the militarization of Oaxaca has had devastating consequences for our communities. For example, there are many cases of soldiers raping indigenous women.
Recently, on March 15, one of the indigenous leaders in Oaxaca was assassinated for his leadership in opposing a Canadian mining operation in his town of Ocotlán. This is a tragedy, that foreign companies are resorting to such extreme violence to make a profit. This is another example of why we have to leave our homes and migrate — we’re being forced out. I’m guessing in the coming months and years, we’ll see a lot more migrants from Ocotlán coming to the United States.
The Frente: Political work and organizing
I’m part of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales — FIOB. In English it’s called the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. I started working with the Frente because of all of the discrimination and racism my family and community faced. The FIOB is a political organization that works for the development and self-determination of indigenous migrants and non-migrants in Mexico and the United States. We want people to know that we’re social and political actors. Indigenous people are thinkers, we’re intellectuals, and we participate in decisions that affect our lives. We aren’t just here to pick your strawberries.
The Frente was instrumental in getting the right-wing political party, the PRI, out of office in Oaxaca. The PRI had held power for 80 years and we carried out extensive educational campaigns throughout California to tell people to tell their families to vote them out. The PRI governor, Ulises Ruiz, was responsible for the violent repression of the teachers’ strikes in Oaxaca in 2006 as well as a laundry list of other things. Many of our 5,000 members are part of the teachers’ union and we were able to support them from Los Angeles by forming our own APPO there. The APPO was a broad, popular assembly that channeled the people’s demands.
We’re very involved in the issue of migration. As migrants ourselves, we think that if we’re going to demand respect in the U.S., we need to support the rights of any migrants passing through Mexico as well. We run a Casa del Migrante, which is in its beginning stages and at this point provides basic services to people on their way north.
Part of our educational work is called “Decolonizing our indigenous minds.” There we learn about our past as indigenous people, and learn the different levels of oppression that exist that put us at a historical disadvantage. The younger generation wants to learn about our people’s past, but the older folks, the first-generation migrants, don’t want us to. They’ve tried to help us blend in and speak Spanish and English. Partly, it’s understandable. They don’t want us to go through the discrimination they faced from Americans and Mexicans. My mother never wanted us to speak Zapoteco or wear our traditional clothing. It still happens that if I call her and speak to her in Zapoteco, she’ll respond in Spanish.
MIEL: Women’s rights
In 1993 the FIOB formed a non-profit organization in California, called the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, or CBDIO. This group deals particularly with women’s rights and migrant rights.
The women formed MIEL, Mujeres Indígenas en Liderazgo, or Indigenous Women in Leadership, to address issues of discrimination and exclusion of indigenous women. We all migrate with our racism and our machismo — we don’t leave that behind at the border. That means that even in our social and political organizations, we women face discrimination. Women have often not been allowed a voice or participation in decisions that affect us in the community. Women are often obligated to pay hometown association dues without having a say in how the funds are used. In the U.S., this caused a revolution! It was called “Taxation without Representation.”
MIEL has a two-year education program for women to learn self-empowerment and knowledge about our ancestral history. In precolonial times, women were governors, doctors, you name it. So ‘women’s rights’ aren’t our ‘crazy feminist ideas’ as some people would like to think. Women’s equal participation in leadership comes from our community’s history. Since I served two terms as Women’s Issues Coordinator of FIOB, I have moved on to the Consejo de Ancianos, the Elders Council. I’m the youngest member of this Council and the first woman. The men respect me because I’ve always fought for what is right and made my voice heard, both in the community and internally in the organization.
MIEL has just published a book of recipes and stories, called “El sabor de nuestras raíces,” or the taste of our roots. It highlights a lot of the foods that we’re in danger of losing as a culture. These recipes use only five ingredients that indigenous people use: corn, beans, squash, cacao and chile. Its pages contain stories about how women have come to new consciousness and have worked to change the patriarchal ‘usos y costumbres’ in our communities.
When we first started doing these women’s trainings, one of the men told me, ‘Odilia, you’re going to cause divorces!’ I told him, ‘No hay revolución sin sangre’ — there’s no revolution without blood! Just the other day one of our members called me up and said she was leaving her husband. I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going to blame me for this.’ I asked the woman if it was because of MIEL trainings that she was getting a divorce. She said, ‘No, but I have realized that the conditions I was having to live with just weren’t right.’
FIOB Oaxaca has a program called ‘el Derecho a no migrar,’ or the right NOT to migrate. A lot of the parents we work with in Oaxaca are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to leave for the United States, but how can I keep them here? There’s nothing for them here.’ We have to have an economic development plan that can keep families together, so they can be where they want to be. We’re focusing on agricultural products, like growing tomatoes and raising chickens, as well as producing arts and crafts. We also analyze the economic plans in both the U.S. and Mexico that cause us to migrate.
We have another program called ‘el Derecho a saber,’ which are like know-your-rights trainings. Some of the Mixteca migrant workers in California are living under the trees. They work in the fields and their children play in the irrigation ditches and have to drink water contaminated with pesticides. There are also many indigenous children performing child labor. Part of our work is teaching people what their rights are in these situations, and the dangers they’re facing.
We also have a team of trained indigenous interpreters who are available nationwide for translation into several indigenous languages. Having an interpreter who speaks your language is a recognized right in the United States for court proceedings. We’ve dealt with unbelievably unjust cases because people didn’t realize the person was of indigenous origin and didn’t speak Spanish or English.
One gentleman had to spend three years in a mental institution because he spoke only an indigenous language and no one could understand him. They thought he was crazy. Finally we learned about his case, got him an interpreter and were able to get him out of the institution. He said, ‘You Americans are the ones who are crazy,’ and he went back to Mexico. He didn’t want to press charges for the wrongdoing — he just wanted to go home.
Another woman, Cirila, was branded as an ‘unfit mother’ because of other people’s ignorance of indigenous customs. When Cirila went in for a checkup before having her baby, they were worried that she hadn’t bought bottles or a crib. Well, in our communities, we breastfeed. We don’t use bottles. And the babies sleep with us in our beds, because in our culture, leaving a baby alone leaves it vulnerable to evil spirits. Because they didn’t understand her culture, at the hospital they suspected Cirila was a prostitute and they took her baby away from her when Ruby was born. Then Cirila was put into deportation proceedings. These are the kinds of cases we see, because many people in the U.S. are ignorant of our way of doing things, our worldview. So part of our work is educating service providers about our cultural norms.
Take the issue of breastfeeding, for example. Indigenous women breastfeed their babies in public without covering their breasts or the baby’s face. To us, it’s very uncomfortable to eat with your face covered. Why do people get so upset about seeing a breast? We believe this is one of the most sacred connections there is, between mother and infant — a mother’s milk is life. People don’t mind if Pamela Anderson’s breasts are popping out all over the place, so why should they care about an indigenous woman breastfeeding?
Cultural work as political work
All of the cultural work we do with indigenous people, whether it’s through the Frente, the CBDIO, or MIEL, is political work. Claiming our identities as indigenous people are important because it’s a way of contradicting what the Mexican and American governments say about indigenous people. They say we’re stupid and backward. In celebrating our identities as Zapotec or Mixteca, we’re saying, ‘We’re proud of who we are. And there are ways of living and interacting that aren’t destructive to others or to the earth.’
I say you have to love being brown. You have to love being Indian, or whatever color and shape you are. When I die, I want to be buried in Zoogocho where my belly button [umbilical cord] is buried. That’s very important to me that that tradition be honored in my case. For me, all of the things I do to claim who I am and where I come from, like wearing traditional clothing and speaking Zapoteco, are acts of resistance, acts of love.