History 4: Mexican/Mixtec Migration

Since the time of European exploration and settlement that began in the 16th century, the history of what is now the state of California has always been intertwined with its neighboring country to the south, Mexico. The Spanish names of cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara are remnants of the fact that California was once under Spanish (1697-1821) and subsequently Mexican (1821-1846) governance, until the United States declared war on Mexico and took over the territory in 1846.

Today, Mexican immigrants in the United States are popularly assumed to be an ethnically homogeneous population; however, Mexico is a multi-ethnic nation, and immigrant workers coming from Mexico to the United States reflect this diversity. In the agricultural town of Madera, CA (near Fresno,) we reported one of our accordion stories among numerous Mexican farm workers who are of indigenous origin. Their ancestry is Mixtec, one of many indigenous groups from the southern state of Oaxaca in Mexico (shaded in red on the map below). Mexico’s national indigenous population is the largest in the hemisphere; they account for a quarter of the Indians in the Americas as a whole. In fact, one tenth of the Mexican population is of indigenous origin. Currently, many of the indigenous immigrants living in the U.S. are from the state of Oaxaca.

Indigenous people from Oaxaca followed a flow of northward migration facilitated by labor contractors, first from the villages of Oaxaca to major cities in Mexico, and eventually into California. Broadly speaking, there are three historical stages of Mixtec migration: (1) the early 1900s, when people migrated largely regionally to Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz; (2) the mid-1900s, when migration focused on Mexico City, Oaxaca City, and the early migrations to northwest Mexico, especially Sinaloa when some men participated in the Bracero Program (an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico which allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the U.S.); and (3) the 1970s, when there was a rapid increase and mass flow of migration to northwest Mexico (Sonora, Sinaloa, Baja California Sur, Baja California) and a constant migration flow to the United States.

1. Early 1900′s

The general influx of Mexican immigration started in the 1880s. The majority of these migrants were from mid to northern parts of Mexico. At this time, the indigenous population from the southern region, including the Mixtec population from Oaxaca, migrated to nearby regions within Mexico, such as Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz.

2. Mid-1900′s: internal migration towards northwest

Mixtec migration is embedded within the agricultural contract labor network, which perhaps partially explains the concentration of Mixtecs in rural areas both in Mexico and in the United States. Starting in the 1940s, labor contractors, or enganchadores, were sent to Oaxaca and Sinaloa to recruit workers. Some men, who participated in the Bracero Program went to the northwestern region and especially Sinaloa, but still, most Mixtec migration remained within Mexico.

3. 1970′s-present: migration to the U.S.

The large wave of indigenous migration did not begin until the 1970s. Over time, the recruiters ventured farther into remote regions of the Mixteca. By 1970s, the migration to northwest Mexico spilled into the United States. In the mid 1990s, significant economic crisis in Mexico spurred yet another surge in migration to the United States. Mixtec migration has been steadily increasing since, and indigenous farmworkers from Oaxaca are currently the fastest growing farmworker population in California. Within California, Oaxacans have long-established communities in the San Joaquin valley, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and northern San Diego county. By the early 1990s, an estimated 45,000 to 55,000 Mixtecs worked in agriculture in California’s Central Valley.

Both in the US and in Mexico, indigenous migrants find themselves excluded – economically, socially, and politically – both as migrants and as indigenous people. Economically, they work in ethnically segmented labor markets that relegate them to the bottom rungs. In the social sphere, in addition to the well-known set of obstacles that confront cross-border migrants in the U.S., especially those without documentation, they also face entrenched racist attitudes and discrimination from other Mexicans as well as from the dominant society in the Untied States. In California, despite thirty years of presence, the Mixtecs continue to work mainly in agriculture and often in the worst jobs, though there is some movement into construction and services.

Accordion’s journey to Mexico
The accordion also traveled far in the past 150 years before Carlos Mendoza and Los Yukinos incorporated the instrument in their music-making in our story in Central Valley.

The accordion is a very important instrument in various Mexican musical genres, especially in norteño music in the northern region of Mexico. Exactly who first brought the accordion to Mexico still remains a point of contention. But it is generally agreed that German settlers in the Rio Grande Valley introduced the instrument to the region in the mid-19th century, on both sides of the river in Southern Texas and Northern Mexico. Some argue that these accordion-bearing Germans were in Mexico as miners, and some others also note that they were there for the beer-brewing industry. Together with the accordion, Germans also brought with them musical and dance forms such as waltz, polka, mazurka, and schottische—some of which have influenced the development of norteño music that we hear today. (The norteño accordion pioneer Narciso Martínez learned tunes from German and Czech brass bands.)

In our squeezebox story in the Central Valley, however, we hear the accordion played by indigenous Oaxacans, who ordinarily do not identify with the accordion or norteño music. On the accordion, they play not only norteño music, but their own regional music from Oaxaca called Chilena — an act that would have been deemed a taboo or heresy due to strong regional rivalries. You can hear how this has come to be, and what is behind this new accordion trend, on our story page.

References/suggested readings:

Borjas, George. 1997. “The Economic Impact of Mexican Immigration.” Coming Together: Mexico-United States Relations. Washington, D.C:. Brookings Institution Press.

Cornelius, Wayne A and Jorge A. Bustamante eds. 1989. Mexican Migration to the United States: Origins, Consequences and Policy Options. San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Donato, Katharine and Rebecca S. Carter. 1999. “Mexico and US Policy on Illegal Immigration: A Fifty-Year Retrospective” in David W. Haines and Karen E. Rosenblum eds. Illegal Immigration in America: A Reference Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press: 112-132

Durand, Jorge, Douglass Massey, and Fernando Charvet. 2000. “The Changing Geography of Mexican Migration to the United States 1910-1996.” Social Science Quarterly 8:1-15.

Durand, Jorge, Douglass Massey, Rene Zenteno. 2001. “Mexican Immigration to the United States: Continuites and Changes.” Latin American Research Review 36(1): 107-123.

Fox, Jonathan and Gaspr Rivera-Salgado. 2004. “Building Civil Society among Indigenous Migrants” in Indigeneous Mexican Migrants in the United States. La Jolla: Center for U.S. Mexican Studies: 1-68.

Kresge, Lisa. 2007. “Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: An Overview.” California Institute for Rural Studies.

Lopez, Felipe H. and David Runsten. 2004. “Mixtecs and Zapotecs Working in California: Rual and Urban Experiences.” Indigeneous Mexican Migrants in the United States. La Jolla: Center for U.S. Mexican Studies: 249-278.

Reyna, José R. 2001. “Tejano Music” in Ellen Koskoff ed, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada. New York: Garland Publishing: 770-779.

Rodriguez-Scott, Esmeralda. 2002. “Patterns of Mexican Migration to the United States.” Prepared for delivery at the 82nd annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association.

Scruggs, T. M. 2001. “Squeezing the Audience from Both Ends: The Conjunto Accordion and the Musical Border Crossings of Flaco Jiménez” in Musical Performance: The Accordion in All Its Guises Vol. 3 (2-4) 215-228.

Strachwitz, Chris. 1991. Liner notes in Tejano Roots: The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music. Ideal/Arhoolie CD-341.