The Environmental Injustices of Forced Migration

San Miguel Cuevas

In March 1993, my family and I migrated to and settled permanently in California. In previous years, my father had migrated back and forth between Mexico and the United States since the late 1970s. Such migrations were (and still are) full of uncertainty since unauthorized migration is never really permanent due to changing immigration policies. While in the US, he followed the harvest throughout California, Oregon, and Washington as a migrant farm worker. This migration was to keep our family fed, clothed, and with shelter. Similar to my family, hundreds of Mixtec have migrated out of their land of La Mixteca to other areas in Mexico (e.g. Mexico City, Sinaloa, Baja California) and eventually to the US. As an Indigenous group, the Mixtec have been denied political and civil rights in Mexico. Rather than relying on the government for resources, Mixtec communities live as communes. These communes (mostly agricultural-based) rely on each other for financial support, but in recent years this has been negatively impacted with the rise of trade and corporations. In fact, my family migrated to Navolato, Sinaloa (central Mexico) in the mid-1980s and lived there for almost 10 years before migrating to the US. 

A map of the the Coixtlahuaca Valley in Mesoamerica

The Coixtlahuaca Valley. Map from Elizabeth Hill Boone.

This migration fueled by economic necessity has been the result of deforestation, land erosion, marginalization, as well as colonial and capitalist exploitation that have made La Mixteca an almost uninhabitable land. Additionally, policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have negatively impacted farming practices and economic growth in La Mixteca and forced the migration of hundreds of Mixtec who have been cut off from resources and denied political and human rights by the government. These forced migrations raise not only economic and social issues, but also issues of environmental (in)justice since such displacement disrupts the relationship between Mixtec communities and their land, which is seen as both living and sacred. The Mixtec burial practice along with the collective effort of sending bodies back home practiced by my community of San Miguel Cuevas, a pueblo in La Mixteca, Santiago Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca demonstrates the living’s last effort to return to their land. This is the story of my grandparents, the Remigio Luna and Ortega Galindo households. This is the story of my parents, Pablo Remigio and Josefina Ortega. This is my story, given that my Indigenous roots, along with language and culture, have been displaced from our native land. This is the story of el pueblo de San Miguel Cuevas.

Colonialism and Capitalist Exploitation

Like most Mixtec, my parents’ experience growing up in La Mixteca was marked by poverty, marginalization, and lack of resources including education. While growing up in San Miguel Cuevas, my father had no formal schooling. With changing agricultural practices and no jobs back home, Mixtecs are called out of their land, oftentimes encouraged by friends and family who have made the migrant journey to el Norte. As David Bacon writes in The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration, some of the conditions that encourage migration include “high levels of poverty and marginalization, decline in the rural economy affecting more than half the economically active population, the lack of well-paying jobs made worse by lack of skills and illiteracy, and family and social networks that link community residents with migrants who have already left.”

Photograph of a man standing on a ladder picking fruit.

My father picking cherries. Oregon, Summer 1988. Photo courtesy of author.

After my Abuelito Eutiquio passed away when my father was seven years old, he had to work alongside my Abuelita Adelaida to cut sugar cane and harvest the milpa. Eventually, when he was 15 years old, he made his first migrant journey out of La Mixteca to the state of Morelos for better job opportunities. As my father describes life in La Mixteca: “Tenía menos de 7 años cuando se murio mi papa. Cuando tenía la edad para entrar a la escuela ya no pude porque tenía que trabajar” (I was not yet 7 when my father passed away. When I was old enough to start school, I was not able to because I had to work). “Quería llegar a ser presidente de la república Mexicana” (I wanted to become president of the Mexican republic),  he jokes although he’s aware education would have made a difference in his life. 

My mother’s family was driven out of La Mixteca much earlier. As migrant workers, they lived in Morelos and Sinaloa before returning to Manzanal in La Mixteca. My mother obtained a third-grade education. When asked about life as migrants, she shares: “Vivimos en un corral de vacas. En la esquina había un techo y piso pequeño. Ahí dormíamos. Mi papá conseguía plástico para tender en el suelo para dormir en la noche.” (We lived in a cattle corral. In the corner there was a roof and a small piece of floor. We slept there. My father would find plastic to lay there so we could sleep at night).

I first visited La Mixteca in 1997 when I was six years old. We stayed with my Abuelita for several months. The tiny wooden home where my Abuelita lived her whole life is the same home where my father was born and the same home where my Abuelito passed away in 1960. Eventually, my father bought some land and built a tiny wooden home of our own in San Miguel Cuevas. Inside, we folded our petates and laid them against the wall. We only set these down when it was time to sleep. My parents, siblings, and I shared two of these petates. In the corner, my father built storage for the mazorca. My most vivid memories during the time I spent in el pueblo are of the beauty of the land, visible every morning we stepped out of our tiny home. Because we were located on a higher elevation, we could see farmers working their land as well as cattle and horses. This image is in fact what La Mixteca once was. Even during our visit in 1997, some of this was still visible. But, unfortunately, in recent years forced migration has increased as La Mixteca becomes more and more desolate. Only the souls of our abuelitos and abuelitas are present, possibly longing for their children to return and give life to what was once living.

Like my parents and grandparents, most Mixtecs are agricultural workers. Between land erosion (a result of deforestation) and capitalist exploitation (agricultural practices that have caused low agricultural yields), the land no longer produces as it should, leaving families like my father’s in poverty. A primary cause of these low agricultural yields is NAFTA, which changed Mexican national economic policy, eliminated programs for finding markets for farming families, reduced food sovereignty, favored large landholders exporting their produce for national markets, and hurt small landholders, particularly Indigenous communities. The role of NAFTA, along with a lack of political and human rights, is another factor that ties in forced migrations with environmental justice. As Rufino Dominguez, a Mixtec activist from San Miguel Cuevas and director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, explains: “There are no jobs here, and NAFTA made the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the US to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.” When small Mixtec farmers are no longer able to get a price for their corn, they are left with no alternative but to leave their pueblos, migrate to northern Mexican states and eventually to the US. These forced migrations are part of a global story of environmental injustice which has lasting consequences for families and communities spread across countries and borders. Families become separated, dying away from their land, as is the case for my community of San Miguel Cuevas. 

El Pueblo de San Miguel Cuevas

Here in the US, when referring to folks from San Miguel Cuevas we refer to each other as being “gente del pueblo” or simply “del pueblo” which translates to “people of the village” or most accurately “people from our village.” San Miguel Cuevas has established a comite in Fresno, California which is where most of us (del pueblo) reside. This established leadership and a collective committee has compiled a list of all San Miguel Cuevas families along with names and birthdates with one goal: providing financial aid to send bodies back to their ancestral homeland after death. This community assistance is much like an insurance program, one of the goals desired by many Indigenous groups from La Mixteca. As Dominguez describes it:  “One idea, for instance, is an insurance program that can pay the cost of bringing home the remains of someone who dies in the US. Many migrants in the US, Sinaloa, and Baja California don’t have birth certificates.” For the past four years I have provided a $15 donation upon the death of someone from el pueblo. In fact, I gave my most recent $15 donation last week. In our comite, men begin to donate when they turn 18 and women when they turn 25. Every year, at least one or two people who are part of the San Miguel Cuevas comite die, most often adults between the ages of 40-60. With every comite member donating, we gather a collection of $10,000-$15,000 which is used to safely transport the body back home to el pueblo as well as to carry out burial rites. 

A grandmother standing outside next to a building.

My Abuelita in traditional Mixtec attire. She was laid to rest in La Mixteca May 2015. Photo courtesy of author.

A death is marked by week-long gatherings and rituals used to commemorate the life and death of the individual and ends with the descent of the body into the physical and spiritual land back home. Older pueblo generations are set on being buried in el pueblo, while the desire of younger folks is less certain. Along with the physical distance from the land, there is also a cultural divide happening over the years. Many of the younger generations, my siblings and I included, do not speak Mixteco, the language of our parents and grandparents. We are born, raised, and now raising our own children in the US far from the land that gave birth to our ancestors. In many ways, La Mixteca is a mystery to us. We only come to know of it during brief visits or mostly from stories our parents share, whereas my father’s generation was previously returning to La Mixteca. Current political tension on the border has resulted in “permanent” migration to the US which means children born and raised in the US are beginning to see the US as their home. They are losing (others redefining) their Mixtec identity and see no reason to be buried there.

On the other hand, the older folks’ primary reason for being buried back home is simple: es nuestra tierra. Somos de San Miguel Cuevas. It’s their land where they were born and raised. It’s also the land where their ancestors were born, raised, passed away, and essentially where they were laid to rest. While their physical bodies rest on the earth, their spirits continue to live. In becoming one with the land, they continue to live and occasionally visit us through nature, just like my Abuelito Eutiquio visited us as a butterfly (on more than one occasion) when we visited San Miguel Cuevas in 1997. 

Expanding Our Views on Environmental Justice

Mixtec migration to the US began decades ago. For my family, it began with my Abuelito Eutiquio Remigio who migrated to the US as a Bracero during WWII. It continued with my father who migrated to California, Oregon, and Washington following the berry harvest in the late 1970s. My Tata Benito Ortega would make this trip as well in the late 1980s, but after experiencing hardship and trauma without being able to find work, eating from homeless shelters, and begging for money to return home, he decided to stay in Sinaloa. Unfortunately, this is the case for many Mixtecs since the hardship of making the migrant journey means once here they choose to stay despite their longing to be back home. They work for less than minimum wage in the San Joaquin Valley and throughout the Western states. They live in migrant labor camps, many times with two or three families in one unit. Yet the poverty here is still better than the poverty back home, so eventually they age and die in a land where they are not wanted. 

As many Indigenous folks from La Mixteca have argued, we want derecho de no migrar, the right to not migrate. 

Mixtec forced migration needs to be recognized as an issue of environmental (in)justice since physical borders make it difficult for them to return home and faithfully carry out spiritual practices honoring their relationship with La Mixteca. These interrupted relationships between humans and nonhumans call for a more expansive view on environmental justice as well as understanding the Mixtec as environmental refugees. As many Indigenous folks from La Mixteca have argued, we want derecho de no migrar, the right to not migrate. 

Returning a human body to the land that gave birth to it is a spiritual act and a significant moment that every human being should have the right to experience. Yet, with forced migration, today it has become an economic hardship that continues to separate families long after one passes from this earth. Many Mixtec migrants are being forced to choose closeness with family over closeness to the land. In cases of forced migration and displacement, migrants are forced to establish a community away from home, grounded instead by family relationships.           

Today, only my Abuelita and Abuelito are buried in La Mixteca. My Tata, on the other hand, was laid to rest in Villa Juarez, a colonia in Navolato, Sinaloa, Mexico where his family has lived for over 40 years. This is the same place where my Nana has decided to be laid to rest after she passes from this earth. With the passing of time, the distance between one’s place of burial and el pueblo grows further and further apart. Both my mother and father have decided to be buried in Fresno, California, because they want to be close to their children. 

Featured image: San Miguel Cuevas, Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca. Photo from San Miguel Cuevas-Nuu Yuku

Guadalupe Remigio Ortega is a second year Ph.D. student in the Composition and Rhetoric program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. As a child of migrant farmworkers, Guadalupe knows the importance of creating space for marginalized voices in the writing classroom. Her research interests include Mexican Indigenous literacies, mobility and access in migrant labor camps, and the impact of migration on Mixtec communities in the United States. Contact.