The Power of Transnational Organizing: Indigenous Migrant Politics in Oaxacalifornia

November 18, 2010

In July, Mexicans went to the polls to elect new governors. One of the most closely watched contests took place in the southern state of Oaxaca, where the incumbent government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was ousted from power after an uninterrupted 80-year reign. Gabino Cué, of the Peace and Progress Coalition (CUPP), defeated the PRI’s Eviel Pérez Magaña. Cué’s defeat of the incumbent PRI government, after a 56% voter turnout—unprecedented for gubernatorial elections in Oaxaca—was all the more significant since the previous governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, had overseen “a violent repression against leftist resistance groups in the city of Oaxaca in 2006 and is linked to a paramilitary organization believed responsible for recent incidents of violence in rural areas,” as the Los Angeles Times reported.1 Although the PRI won elections in other states and still maintains a significant presence within the state, Cué’s victory can be seen as the a first step in Oaxaca’s long struggle against state violence and impunity, and in favor of institutionalizing transparency and stimulating economic development.

Organized indigenous migrants in California made a powerful contribution to Cué’s electoral victory. In particular, the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), a Los Angeles–based human rights group, exerted a strong transnational influence through its efforts to promote and support Cué’s candidacy. Founded in 1991, the FIOB is one of the most prominent, political, and active indigenous migrant organizations in California, with offices in Fresno, Santa Maria, and Los Angeles, as well as in Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, according to Odilia Romero, the FIOB’s Binational Women’s Issues Coordinator. The group’s website ( lists among its objectives the defense of human rights of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, the encouragement of organizational work at both local and binational levels, the promotion of transparency in government and social practice, and the fight for justice and gender equity. Its indigenous grassroots membership, predominantly women, is estimated to number between 5,000 and 6,000, and includes Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Triquis, and Chatinos, both migrants and non-migrants. The FIOB thus represents a broad network of relationships, organizational structures, and cultural traditions, alongside other indigenous transnational migrant organizations—including the Oaxacan Federation of Indigenous Communities and Organizations (FOCOICA), the Regional Organization of Oaxaca (ORO), and the Binational Center for Indigenous Oaxacan Development (CBDIO).

In addition to their binational work, indigenous migrants in Los Angeles have participated in the movement for immigration reform, the student struggles associated with the DREAM Act, in protests against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB 1070, the indigenous count in the 2010 U.S. Census, and most recently Oaxaca State’s 2010 gubernatorial election.

In April, Cué visited Los Angeles to meet with various organizations, calling California “Oaxaca’s 571st District,” given the large number of Oaxaqueños who reside there. Mexican indigenous migration from the state of Oaxaca to the United States has steadily increased since the early 1980s, as people have been displaced by poverty and marginalization, as well as by structural factors like globalization and NAFTA, which have decreased the international price of coffee, a main Oaxacan crop, while also contributing to the erosion of agricultural lands through deforestation and an increase in subsistence agriculture. Neoliberal policies have also created unemployment and decreased salaries. By 2005, Oaxaca is the predominant indigenous migrant-sending state in Mexico; in 2000 there were about 200,000 indigenous Oaxaqueños in “Oaxacalifornia”—a transnational term that encompasses California, Baja California, and Oaxaca.2 Los Angeles—which has a long and rich history of engaging in transnational political projects and efforts—is now home to some of the largest concentrations of indigenous migrant populations from Oaxaca, particularly Zapotecs.

Although not all FIOB members agreed with Cué’s coalition with such parties as the National Action Party (PAN), the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), Convergencia, and the Workers Party (PT), the organization was unanimous is its desire to see the corrupt PRI ousted from power in Oaxaca. And so the FIOB provided its infrastructure to get out the vote in California, Baja California, and Oaxaca. The FIOB provided not only the people but also the space and phones needed to relay the political message across borders to family members, friends, and organizations. Many women members and youth in Oaxaca participated in observing the polling booths on Election Day. Romero says the women and the youth were important in promoting the vote in District 21, one of Oaxaca’s poorest regions in the Mixteca, plagued by paramilitary violence. Although the PRI won in District 21, the mobilization efforts in this area demonstrate that women and youth are influential and important political actors.

Together with other groups, the FIOB also became actively involved in setting up an interactive radio program called Migrantes con Gabino Cué on Los Angeles’s W Radio 690 AM (the radio shows can be accessed at, in which indigenous leaders, migration scholars, indigenous women, and youth discussed various issues related to the political climate in Oaxaca, including the meaning of autonomy and democracy, the role of women, domestic violence, HIV, the significance of Mexico’s 2010 elections and voting, and the importance of binational support for bringing about political change and transparency in Oaxaca. The use of radio to transmit binational messages of political support reveals the extent of mobility and outreach that indigenous migrant politics has achieved. Romero notes that the shows “were very effective in reaching broad audiences.”

Migrant women took a very active role in supporting Cué’s campaign as canvassers in Oaxaca and event organizers in Los Angeles. As Centolia Maldonado and Patricia Artia Rodríguez have noted, “Migration has permitted women to participate in new spaces.”3 Indeed, the significant role that women play in transnational migrant organizations is reflected in the FIOB’s predominantly female membership. The FIOB includes a group called Indigenous Women in Leadership (MIEL) that focuses on providing monthly empowerment workshops for indigenous women in Los Angeles. The workshops, led by FIOB women participants and members, cover issues of gender, identity, power, leadership, education, and health. By inviting indigenous women from neighboring communities in central Los Angeles, MIEL is helping to create an extensive network of indigenous women who are not only becoming politicized and educated about prominent social and political issues, but are also being empowered to play an active role in their households, their migrant communities, and their hometowns. FIOB’s women leaders and members, like Odilia Romero, Cristina López, and Maylei Blackwell, have played important roles in fortifying women indigenous leadership. As a whole, indigenous migrant women are important political actors whose presence is vividly heard, felt, and recognized.


Although Cué won the election, the FIOB remains committed to change, since the PRI still governs the Senate and Congress. As Romero put it: “We need to question the importance of the vote, especially for many women in rural Oaxaca who remain disenfranchised and subordinated to male authority and leadership in small villages.” Moreover, Cué will not be able to enact immediate change in a state that has been dominated by the PRI for the last eight decades. But his victory and governorship represent a democratic opening full of possibilities, and his administration’s performance will undoubtedly be closely monitored by the civil society actors that helped put him in power, the FIOB among them. Indeed, Cué’s relationship with the FIOB makes him more directly accountable to the binational indigenous migrant population.

The FIOB has three primary demands, which motivated the group to support Cué: first, better and more efficient services to migrants from the Instituto Oaxaqueño de Atención al Migrante (IOAM), including corpse transportation and the issuing of birth certificates. “Many rural indigenous people lack a birth certificate,” Romero says. “Not only are they undocumented in their own state, but remain so after migration—they are undocumented in both places.” Second, improved economic opportunities in the form of jobs and access to education; specifically, there is a demand for el derecho a no migrar—the right not to migrate, which is possible only if there is sufficient economic development to keep people from migrating out of necessity. Finally, the FIOB demands an end to violence in San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, a Triqui town that has been under attack from pro-government paramilitaries since it declared itself autonomous in 2007.4 The FIOB furthermore demands that the state respect indigenous autonomy and usos y costumbres (political traditions) as a form of indigenous government.5 These demands demonstrate the FIOB’s commitment to creating a participatory and democratic immigrant politics that respects human rights.

With the FIOB’s contribution to Cué’s electoral victory, we have begun to see the effects of immigrant transnational political participation. Although the extent or degree of these groups’ influence has yet to be measured, their capacity to influence the politics of their home state will increase as their organizational strength grows. On a broader level, the case of FIOB and Oaxaca’s elections demonstrates the influential political power that resides in the immigrant civil society. It is in these new transnational spaces that we have seen the powerful and influential emergence of a transnational immigrant politics that knows no boundaries. Indeed, these indigenous transnational political actors have fought for autonomy and human rights across borders—borders that have not been able to contain personal, cultural, and political sentiments. Romero notes, however, that going forward the indigenous immigrant organizations need to create alliances with immigrants from other countries and with other communities of color. As she puts it, “The FIOB will participate in the broader politics.”


Situating indigenous migrant politics within the broader Latino immigrant political framework does not come as an easy task, since indigenous migrants do not tend to conceive of themselves as “Latino.” Indigenous migrant politics and identity in the United States obliges us to rethink the category of “Latino politics” in the 21st century, broadening it to include a more diverse population of socio-political actors who have emerged. In the case of indigenous political organizations with a presence in both California and Oaxaca, for example, we need to ask: How or where do indigenous migrant issues and politics fit into the broader discourse of Latino politics, and what does this say about how politics, membership, and participation are both understood and challenged?

To rethink a more inclusive and representative “Latino” term would mean acknowledging and engaging the heterogeneity not only of the groups that the term represents but also their diverse interests, needs, and politics. We should be careful, however, since referring to or labeling indigenous people and practices “Latino” erases their specific history as indigenous peoples. Moreover, indigenous migrants’ forms of political work includes not only efforts within the electoral arena but also outside it—mobilizations, protests, transnational political efforts, and socio-cultural practices that feed political efforts and processes. Such practices demand a reconceptualization of the “the political” that goes beyond the study of Latino politics, which has traditionally focused on issues of voter mobilization, incorporation, and citizenship.

Through the socio-spatial experience of U.S.–Latin America migration, there has emerged a complex new migrant identity that can simultaneously inhabit multiple spaces and socio-political realities, but nonetheless remains anchored in its local or hometown origins. These migrants, most of whom are from Mexico and Central America—Mayas, Nahuas, Mixtecs, Purepechas, Zapotecs, Triquis, and others—have transformed, adapted, and reinvented what it means to be indigenous. Their participation in such organizations as the Oaxacan Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB) often politicizes identities in the United States, leading to what sociologist Gaspar Rivera-Salgado calls “ethno-political identities,” in reference to the important role that ethnicity plays in building indigenous collective identities.6

Such identities have gained importance and influence in the transnational political sphere. Indigenous organizations like the FIOB that act as binational political actors represent dynamic and influential spaces through which migrants are making their voices heard and their actions felt in multiple arenas, from Mexican elections to U.S. immigration policy. As Romero puts it, “To call yourself indigenous is to take a political stand.”

Marisol Raquel Gutiérrez is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

1. Daniel Hernandez, “In Mexico Elections, PRI Makes Gains but Appears to Lose 3 Key States,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2010.

2. Laura Velasco Ortiz, Mixtec Transnational Identity (University of Arizona Press, 2005), 39.

3. Maldonado Centolia and Patricia Artia Rodriguez, “Now We Are Awake: Women’s Political Participation in the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front,” in Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, eds., Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States (UC San Diego, 2004), 506.

4. María Dolores París Pombo, “Las raíces,” Proceso (Mexico City), no. 1748 (May 2, 2010).

5. See Maldonado Centolia and Patricia Artia Rodriguez, “Now We Are Awake: Women’s Political Participation in the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front,” in Fox and Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, 506.

6. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, “Cross-border Grassroots Organizations and the Indigenous Migrant Experience,” in David Brooks and Jonathan Fox, eds., Cross-border Dialogues: U.S.-Mexican Social Movement Networking (Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego; 2002), 265.


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