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May 6, 2001

At Home, Mexico Mistreats Its Migrant Farmhands

By Ginger Thompson
New York Times

Villa Juarez, Mexico - If Patricio Gómez had left his country to work illegally on farms in the United States, Mexico's new president would call him a national hero and insist that he enjoy decent working conditions. But instead Mr. Gómez provides food for American grocery shelves from this side of the border, and the Mexican government has not paid the same attention to his plight.

"No one defends us," Mr. Gómez, 33, said while hauling wooden stakes taller than himself to a field of sweet red peppers on a farm near here in the western state of Sinaloa. "They do not pay us what they promised. And if we are sick, they do not give us the medicine we need."

By noon on a recent day, Mr. Gómez, as haggard as a scarecrow, had been at work seven hours. He expected to work until sunset for a little more than $5 for the day. His barefoot children - ages 8, 10 and 11 - worked at his side.

Asked whether they attended school, Mr. Gómez lowered his eyes and shook his head to signify no. Each one was an important breadwinner, he said. And the $1,500 the Gómez family hoped to take home at the end of the harvest was just about all the money the family would have for the year. "If the whole family does not work," Mr. Gómez lamented, "we all starve."

Like birds that follow migratory patterns set by the seasons, Mr. Gómez and his family are among the one million Mexicans who abandon their homes for part of the year to move north with the harvests.

President Vicente Fox has been an outspoken advocate of Mexican laborers in the United States, pressing Washington to improve their working conditions. But in his five months in office, he has not devoted a speech to the cares of migrant workers at home. And after his election it was discovered that children as young as 11 worked at the Fox family's own plants packing vegetables.

From November until May, tens of thousands of migrants circle the Gulf Coast states to cut sugar cane and pick oranges and cotton. Others fan out across Mexico's heartland to pack cauliflower and broccoli and tobacco. And in the nation's largest migrations, hundreds of thousands migrate along routes that cut a long figure eight along Mexico's Pacific northwest to harvest millions of boxes of fruit and vegetables, most of it for export to the United States.

About 200,000 people settle in nearly 150 work camps across Sinaloa, arriving on fleets of buses sent by the growers. The migrants - the poorest of Mexico's 40 million poor - are called jornaleros (hor-nah-LAY- ros), a name derived from the Spanish word for a day's wage. And their lives look like a twisted reflection in a carnival mirror of the experiences of unskilled Mexican workers in the United States.

They do not leave their homes because they are looking for better wages; they leave because they are looking for any wages. Many of these internal migrants earn nothing at all at home - there are no paying jobs around - and survive only on the beans and corn that they manage to grow on little plots outside their tumbledown houses.

They do not travel in gangs of single men, but mostly as families or entire communities. Almost 40 percent are Indians who do not speak Spanish well.

And although their work has made Sinaloa the largest producer of vegetables in the nation, for the months that they are here they live as outcasts in ramshackle work camps made from tin. Half are women and girls, farm worker advocates report, and at least 30 percent are children under 15.

President Fox has created a new cabinet-level agency to work on issues of Mexicans abroad. He has pressed President Bush to open the border to a freer flow of Mexican workers. Members of Mr. Fox's cabinet are involved in negotiations with Washington over the creation of programs to give the Mexican workers more power to demand fair wages and decent living conditions.

And in a May Day celebration last Tuesday, Mr. Fox honored as "heroes" those Mexicans who had been forced by economic hardships to pursue a better way of life north of the border and who send nearly $8 billion of earnings back to their homeland.

But Mr. Fox, the son of ranchers, has not devoted any significant political capital to the abuses against migrants who labor on Mexican soil. And when Mexican reporters discovered that children had been employed in packing plants owned by his family, a violation of Mexican law, the president sought first to distance himself from the matter, saying: "This is not an issue for me. It is an issue for others whose names are Fox." Later, Mr. Fox's family dismissed more than 20 minors from the operations and the president acknowledged the violations as a sad reality of Mexican life.

"This is an issue for all of Mexico," he said. "It is an issue we want to resolve."

Without his usual fanfare, Mr. Fox went on to increase spending for the single federal program aimed at building housing, schools and day- care centers for migrant farm workers by 25 percent. But five months after his budget was approved by Congress, officials said, money for the project is still being held up as officials decide how it should be used.

Mexico's minister of social development, Josefina Vásquez Mota, said that the Fox administration had increased spending on migrant farm worker programs more than on any other of the agency's programs. And when asked about labor violations, especially the use of child workers, she said corruption continued in all sectors of Mexican society. She added, "The lack of respect for the law in the countryside hurts the most vulnerable people in our country."

"We not only recognize the grave inequalities that are endured by the jornaleros, we are worried about them," she said. "And we are determined to make improvements."

Ms. Vásquez said that in an effort to create jobs in the south, President Fox had promised to lure border plants away from the industrial north and to offer micro-loans so that peasant farmers could start small businesses at home.

The government has also spent $52 million in the last five years to improve worker camps. In Sinaloa, officials said, some 20 percent of them are in "decent condition."

But all sides agree - government officials, growers and farm worker advocates - that the overwhelming majority of Mexican farm workers endure dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

"I know that conditions for Mexican workers in the United States are bad," said Hubert C. de Grammont, a sociologist who has studied Mexican agriculture and the plight of migrant farm workers for more than 20 years. "But it is difficult to try to defend the human rights of migrants in the United States when migrants are ignored and disrespected in our own country."

Camp Caimanes near this town seems a microcosm of Mexico's dark side, a shantytown of 2,000 people at the edge of a field of tomatoes where residents take relief from the heat in the brown-green water of a canal; where children, exhausted after a day at work in the fields, never protest bedtime; and where drug abuse has increasingly become the most popular form of recreation.

The workers live in long, flat barracks with primitive cement hearths out front for cooking. Each family gets one room, about the size of a garage, and many families come with a dozen relatives each.

Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Viviana Parra Flores is one of two social workers assigned to worker problems. But during a walk around the camp with her and a colleague, they made clear that the camp often escaped their control. After leaving the fly-infested day-care center, the counselors said that four children had died during the harvest.

Only the night before, a fire had destroyed some hovels at the camp. No one was injured, the social workers said. But most of the workers who had lived there, about 20 families, lost everything, down to every cent they had earned for the season.

Ruperta Tolentino Fernández, her long braids matted with mud, said her family lost about $1,000. She and her husband have five children, ranging in age from 3 to 14. All but the 3-year-old work, she said.

"Now we will be beggars when we go home," she said.

Sinaloa's governor, Juan S. Millán, said: "Just a couple of years ago, there were only a few camps where I could take visitors without feeling ashamed. Today, there are a few more decent camps. But there is so much more that needs to be done."

In Sinaloa, agriculture is a $600 million industry controlled by an elite group of fewer than 20 families, said María Teresa Guerra, a human rights lawyer who has written a book about the state's farm workers. Sinaloa is the largest producer of vegetables in the nation thanks to its 11 rivers and a sprawling system of government-built dams and canals.

One grower, Roberto Gotsis, took a visitor on a tour of a camp he had just built for 200 of his company's 1,000 workers. His family, he said, had been growing cucumbers, tomatoes and red peppers in Sinaloa since the 1920's.

Mr. Gotsis, who has a degree from the University of Arizona, estimated that the company sold tomatoes in the United States for almost $7 a box. Peppers, he said, fetch about $15 a box. As for his workers, he added, they earn about a nickel for each box they filled.

On a tour of the day-care center he had built in the new camp, the 36- year-old Mr. Gotsis proclaimed the arrival to power of a "new generation" of growers who "understand that our workers must live better."

Lorenzo Pérez, who spent the season at another camp, Penjamo, was pretty happy with life one recent Saturday. He had made about $7 that day, a couple of dollars more than usual. But what was most exciting, he said, was that he had finally picked more tomatoes than his father. "Now I am the fastest cutter in my family," he gloated.

Diana Ramírez, 14, was washing jeans in the canal below. She smiled as Lorenzo bragged and vowed that he would stop picking tomatoes one day and drive a tractor.

When asked about her own hopes, Diana's mind cast forward as far as tomorrow. "Women do not drive tractors," she said with a shrug. "I will work in the fields."


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