by David Bacon
As soon as Anastasia Flores’ children were old enough, she brought them with her to work in the fields. “Ever since 1994, I’ve always worked by myself, until my children could also work,” she recalls.
“In Washington, I picked cucumbers, and in Santa Maria here I worked picking strawberries and tomatoes. In Washington, they allowed people to take their children to work with them, and to leave them at the end of the row with the older children taking care of the younger ones.”
She didn’t think bringing her children to work was unusual. It’s the way she had grown up herself. Today she is in her mid-50s, getting to the age when she will no longer be able to work.
Just as she once depended on the labor of the kids for her family’s survival, she will still depend on them to survive as she gets old. Without their help, she will have nothing.
Anastasia was born in San Juan Piñas in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The small town is in the heart of the Mixteca region, where people speak an indigenous language that was centuries old long before the Spaniards arrived.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, people began migrating from Oaxaca looking for work, as Mexico’s agricultural policies failed. Anastasia, like many, wound up working first in northern Mexico, in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California.
“I picked tomatoes there for five years,” she remembers. “It was brutal. I would carry these huge buckets that were very heavy. We lived in a labor camp in Lazaro Cardenas [a town in the San Quintin Valley], called Campo Canelo. It was one room per family, in shacks made of aluminum.”
Before leaving San Juan Piñas, she’d gotten married and brought her first child, Teresa, with her to Baja. “I began to work there when I was 8 years old, picking tomatoes,” Teresa remembers.
Anastasia then decided to bring her family to California, because her husband had found work there in the fields. “I needed money and I couldn’t afford to raise my family in Baja California,” she remembers.
“There were three kids and I couldn’t manage them. It was hard to bring the children across the border since they were so young, but compared to now, it was easier in the ‘90s. It only took us one day to cross.”
“My memories of that time are very sad because I had to work out of necessity,” Teresa says. “I started working in the United States at 14, here in Santa Maria and in Washington State. My mother couldn’t support my younger siblings alone, and I’m the eldest daughter. I couldn’t go to school because my mother had many young children to support.”
Anastasia’s son Javier, who was born in Santa Maria, shares those memories. “Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out,” he recalls. “That’s pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers, during vacations.”
The Flores family was part of a big wave of migration from Oaxaca’s indigenous towns into California fields. According to Rick Mines, a demographer who created the Indigenous Farm Worker Study, by the 2000s there were 165,000 indigenous migrants in rural California, 120,000 of them working in the fields.
“At that time there were few old people coming,” Mines says. “And because almost everyone came after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, they didn’t qualify for the immigration amnesty and are undocumented.”
Indigenous migration changed the demographics of the farm labor workforce in many ways, he explains. “A third of farm workers in the ‘70s and ‘80s shuttled back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. every year. Most were migrants, living in more than one place in the course of a year. That has all changed. The average stay in the U.S. now is 14 years.”
Because indigenous workers are undocumented, going back and forth across an increasingly militarized border is practically impossible. Many are stuck in the United States. If they go back to Mexico, it’s for good. As people grow older, some return because the cost of living there is lower.
“But those who go back to Oaxaca depend on their family in the U.S. to send them money,” explains Irma Luna, a Mixtec community activist in Fresno. “They come from towns that are very poor, so they don’t have any income other than what their children can send them.”
Collecting Social Security benefits is not possible, because people with no legal immigration status (an estimated 11 million people in the United States) can’t even apply for a Social Security card. In order to work, they have to give an employer a Social Security number they’ve invented or that belongs to someone else.
Payments are deducted from their paychecks, but these workers never become eligible for the benefits the contributions are supposed to provide.
The Social Security Administration estimated in 2010 that 3.1 million undocumented people were contributing about $13 billion per year to the benefit fund. Undocumented recipients, mostly people who received Social Security numbers before the system was tightened, received only $1 billion per year in payments. Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, told VICE News in 2014 that surplus of payments versus benefits had totaled more than $100 billion over the previous decade.
Recognizing this problem, the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, part of Oaxaca’s state government, has established a fund for starting income-generating projects in communities with returning migrants, including greenhouses, craft work and carpentry. Nevertheless, most older migrants returning home still have no support other than money sent from the U.S.
Many older indigenous farm workers don’t intend to return to Mexico. “I’ve spent almost 20 years working in the fields,” Anastasia says. “A long time. I’m 56 now. I hope I will eventually stop working in the fields, but I don’t have land or a house in Mexico, so I plan on staying here. I’m used to living in Santa Maria. I have all of my kids here, so I want to stay where they are.”
Anastasia is a single mother. Her former husband Lorenzo was an alcoholic. “After they deported him in 1995 I raised my kids by myself,” she says. “It was difficult to support the children when I was a woman living on my own. It wasn’t until my children were older that I was even able to stay with my newborn daughter after she was born. By then my oldest children were 14, 15 and 16 years old, and they could go to work with me.”
Today, Anastasia’s children have problems of their own, beyond supporting their mother. Teresa can’t work. “My body can’t handle it anymore,” she explains. “It got more difficult as time went by, because picking strawberries is very painful on your hands and feet. I kept going because I had to work for my family. But then I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was just 22 years old. Arthritis is usually something the elderly suffer from — that’s my understanding.
“My doctor told me told me I didn’t take care of my body while working in the fields. I’m 32 years old and can no longer work. I try, but I just can’t. I tried to apply for Medi-Cal, but I was denied because I am not a legal resident and don’t have a Social Security number.”
Javier can work, but he has dreams of his own. “I took predominately AP [advanced placement] and honors classes in high school, and got good grades — mostly A’s and B’s. I never got any C’s,” he declares proudly. But while in high school he also asked for legal emancipation.
“My family was very conservative and strong in their Christian beliefs. I couldn’t do anything, and felt like I was trapped. I really wanted to go with my friends to dances. Plus I’m bisexual — to them that’s a sin and you’re going to hell. I couldn’t live like that. I left home and was homeless for three months.”
Despite those disagreements, he eventually reconciled with them. “I’m proud of what my mom and older siblings did in order to get the family here and survive.” He’s also proud of his mother’s indigenous roots.
“Whenever I cut my hair I always bury it,” he says. “I asked my mother why we do that, and she says it’s because we fertilize the earth. When it rains, I get a bowl and fill it with rainwater and drink it, and talk with her as our bowls fill up. I always wanted to write a book about my mother and her folktales.”
Meanwhile, Anastasia continues working, wondering how long she can last. “My hands will always ache,” she laments. “They hurt to a point where I can hardly work. Right now I have a pain in my stomach that often doesn’t let me work either. The hardest thing is mainly the weight of the boxes they ask us to carry. They’re very heavy. But using the hoe is also hard. I got sick working in the tomatoes, but once I get better I’ll go back.”
Mines’ study shows that Anastasia Flores’ situation is shared by a growing section of the indigenous farm labor workforce. “The number of people over 50 has doubled, and it’s now about nine percent. That means that 10 to 15,000 people in California are in this situation,” he reported.
According to Irma Luna, “indigenous women especially start to worry after they pass 50. They depend on the fields, but the work is hard and as we get older, it gets harder. Crew leaders won’t hire older people for many jobs. But the only other choice is to depend on your family, whether you stay in the U.S. or go back to Mexico.”
“Our immigration laws, especially, are creating a desperate situation for indigenous farm workers,” says Leoncio Vasquez, director of the Binational Center for Oaxacan Indigenous Development, a community organization among Oaxacan migrants in California.
“They contributed to Social Security, but they can’t get the benefits. If they go to Mexico, they can’t come back. They have to work, because there’s no alternative.”
David Bacon is a journalist covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers. For this article, he received a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by The Scan Foundation.