The social costs of export agriculture in San Quintin, Baja California–An Interview with Christian Zlolniski

Workers in the fields, San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico. Image courtesy of Christian Zlolniski.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview Christian Zlolniski about his ongoing work in Baja California, Mexico. I contacted Zlolniski in hopes of getting some more insight about the farmworker strikes in the San Quintin Valley that began this past March. Zlolniski is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research focuses on economic globalization and immigrant labor, with regional emphasis in the US Southwest and Mexico.  He is the author of the book Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (UC Press, 2006) and co-author of De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintín (COLEF, Mexico 2014).

Ryan Anderson: When did you first start doing fieldwork in San Quintin? Why San Quintin?

Christian Zlolniski: I began doing fieldwork in 2005 with two professors at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) in Tijuana, Mexico –Laura Velasco a sociologist, and Marie Laure Coubes a demographer. We wanted to study the settlement of thousands of indigenous farmworkers in the region who in the past were seasonal migratory workers. It was evident to us that San Quintin was changing fast and becoming a major agro-export enclave in Northern Mexico. It combined advanced agricultural production technologies with the massive employment of indigenous workers as a source of cheap and flexible labor. Except for a few pioneering studies, the academic literature on this region was rather thin and San Quintin was not in the radar screen of politicians, the media or scholars. We also felt that the academic literature on border studies in Mexico had an urban bias with special focus on the economic, demographic and cultural changes in large border cities (and studies on the maquila industry) while important transformations in rural society and economy, including the rapid growth of export agriculture, were largely ignored.

RA: Can you give us some insight into the lives of the jornaleros (ie migrant farmworkers) in the San Quintin Valley? Where are many of these workers from? What is it like to live and work in San Quintin?

CZ: The lives of farm laborers in San Quintin experienced significant changes since the 1990s. In the past many were migratory workers housed in labor camps who after the harvest season left the region. With the expansion of employment opportunities year-round because of the growth of commercial agriculture, many of these workers settled with their families and severed links with their home communities. To settle, they had to buy land plots and work very hard over the years to build and improve their homes and sustain their families. Often they lived in one-room shacks made of cardboard and plastic until they could save enough money to add more rooms and build a roof on their homes. Many of the jornaleros in San Quintin are indigenous peoples from poor regions in southern Mexico such as Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas among others. Thus San Quintin is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Baja and Mexico as a whole. This is quite remarkable considering this is not a big city but a rural region, which shows that like in other parts of the world agro-export enclaves are magnets for labor immigration of the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Workers and greenhouses, San Quintin. Image courtesy of Christian Zlolniski.

While San Quintin is a beautiful region along the Pacific coast that attracts some tourists from California, the lives of farmworkers remain largely invisible for outsiders passing by. They live in colonias difficulty accessible in dusty roads and lack the basic infrastructure and service we take for granted in the United States such as sewage, paved roads, water, clinics, and the like. With time and thanks to the collective mobilization of their residents who organized to press the local government to respond to their needs, the conditions in some colonias have improved. Yet San Quintin is one of the least developed regions in Baja despite having one of the most productive and affluent horticultural industry in the country. Despite the big challenges they confront, farmworkers in San Quintin have adopted this region as their own and are proud citizens of the region and committed to build a better future for their children so they don’t have to work as jornaleros like them and find employment in better-paid and less strenuous jobs.

RA: Much of your work focuses on the social costs of export agriculture. Elsewhere, you talk about the price we pay for having access to fresh produce all year long. Can you briefly outline your argument? What is the price we pay?

CZ: My argument is that we are used to expect easy access to fresh vegetables and fruits year round at reasonable prices to sustain our lifestyles without thinking about what is takes to produce these crops. One or two generations ago, our parents and grandparents did not expect access to off-season veggies unless they were willing to pay high prices in premium stores. Today things have changed and we can find tomatoes, berries, grapes, and all types of tropical fruits all year round regardless of the season with some but not dramatic price fluctuations. How is this done? To meet our demands commercial agriculture has gone through a major restructuring over the past few decades with the formation of large multinational companies that outsource and buy these produce from developing countries around the world. It has also fueled the development of the so-called counter-seasonal agriculture, which is growing crops in protected environments such as greenhouses to “liberate” agriculture form traditional nature constrains and increase productivity. The result is that in Mexico and many other regions in Latin America, agro-export enclaves have emerged as part of the global food commodity chain which are fully dedicated to export agriculture.

View of a colonia (informal settlement) where workers live, San Quintin. Image courtesy of Christian Zlolniski.

But while providing jobs for farmworkers, agro-export enclaves also generate high ecological, economic and social costs. In San Quintin which is an arid region, water-intense crops such as tomatoes and berries are irrigated with underground water. As a result the underground table has dramatically receded and farmworkers and other residents have increasing problems having access to water for their basic needs. The work in the fields and greenhouses is also very demanding, and field workers when reaching the forties or fifties are often replaced by a young cohort of indigenous workers without having access to pensions or any support after having worked in the region and the same employers. These workers cannot afford to buy the very vegetables they grow, most of which are destined to export markets alone. And because they cannot grow their own food staples any longer, their diets have deteriorated and have health problems such as diabetes they did not have before when they lived as peasants growing their own foods. The social transformation from peasants to rural wage workers employed in commercial agriculture has come with a price tag for them. I think as consumers we have to be aware of these implications and just we have become more socially sensitive about the labor conditions of the workers overseas who build our computers or make our clothes and garments, we ought to ask the same questions about the food and vegetables we consume.

RA: The migrant farmworkers have received a lot of coverage this year because of the strikes that began back in March of this year (see here and here). As an anthropologist, what’s your take on the media coverage and public response to these strikes? What are the root causes of the current strike?

CZ: The strikes that started last March took everybody by surprise, including growers, government officials and the media. There are several factors that explain the resurgence of labor unrest in the Valley which, since the late 1990s, did not experience large strikes. First, while horticultural companies have been doing very well with impressive productivity gains, workers who contribute to this wealth have barely received any benefits from their labor. On the contrary, wages have only modestly increased over the past ten years, and many farmworkers still do not receive the basic labor benefits mandated by the law, including health coverage through the Seguro Social (IMSS). Also since the early 2000s, companies implemented a new pay system based on piece-rate rather than daily wages to enhance workers’ productivity which has led to the intensification of work and, often, more labor exploitation. Labor subcontracting has also become a common practice by many growers and companies to reduce labor costs and increase labor flexibility.

A second factor is the inclusion of labor claims as part of a larger agenda of community activism by farm laborers in San Quintin. In the past when many migratory workers settled in San Quintin they concentrated their time and energies to get a land lot where to build their homes and to mobilize to press government authorities to get the basic infrastructure and services such as water, electricity, schools, and clinics for the colonias. For a while labor-related issues and demands took a back seat as farmworkers and their families were setting up roots in the region. Now after many years of community-based activism, labor issues have come back at the center of the political agenda. Many farmworkers are eager and ready to mobilize for old demands that were never met, including their registration in the Seguro Social, higher wages, and stop abuses by mayordomos (crew leaders) and labor contractors.

A final factor is the emergence of a new independent labor union to articulate workers’ demands and feelings. In San Quintin farm workers have been represented by what in Mexico are known as “sindicatos patronales” state-sanctioned yellow unions that represent more the interest of the companies than the workers. Local growers and the Mexican government have always opposed, sometimes through the use of violence, the formation of independent unions that could threaten the political status quo in the region. Yet this time a new independent organization –the Alianza de Organizaciones Nacional, Estatal y Municipal por la Justicia Social– has emerged to challenge the historical shady association between growers, “official” unions like the CTM, and government officials to demand a seat and voice in the table when labor contracts for farmworkers in the Valley are negotiated. There is also new blood in the labor leadership brought by the Alianza, including Mixtec and Triqui farmworkers with experience of labor organizing in Florida and Mexico. And while in the past when labor strikes erupted, growers and government officials tried to regionalize the conflict to control it, this time the Alianza has internationalized farmworkers’ strike to galvanize the support of sympathizers in the United States where the crops they produce are sold. These innovative strategies have paid off and the labor strike in San Quintin has captured the media attention in the U.S., especially in California, Mexico as a whole, and even reached Europe in countries like Spain. I hope the media does not forget San Quintin and keeps bringing attention to the labor conditions of farmworkers employed in this important agro-export enclave.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

3 thoughts on “The social costs of export agriculture in San Quintin, Baja California–An Interview with Christian Zlolniski

  1. Ryan, this is a strong, compelling interview. Why has it had so little response? It may be in part a seasonal issue, the usual summer slowdown in blog-related activity. It’s another possibility that concerns me. It assumes an interest in San Quintin, a place which was certainly off my radar and, I suspect, is unfamiliar to most of us here — also, there is no attempt to relate what is happening there to other related work. I immediately thought of Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Then I remembered the Goldschmidt Thesis, summarized by Wikipedia as follows,

    “In the anthropology of agriculture, the Goldschmidt Thesis is the thesis by Walter Goldschmidt that farm scale and other management characteristics (e.g., wage labor) are associated with certain community characteristics. Goldschmidt was a California anthropologist who conducted pioneering rural community research under USDA’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics on two California farming communities (Arvin and Dinuba). His 1944 research showed that largescale, especially industrial, farm structures in one community were associated with adverse community conditions. Smaller-scale, owner-operated farms in the other community, were associated with more vibrant, diverse economies and with higher standards of living.”

    Seems relevant to what is happening in San Quintin.

  2. Hey John, thanks for the comment. Hard to explain the lack of response–could be the time of year, could be that readers can’t relate, or it could be that many people “comment” in other ways. Who knows? Of course the issues discussed here are relevant to many other places and situations around the world (and, no doubt, within Mexico). Thanks for the reminder about Goldschmidt. Another anthro who did related work was Michael Kearney. You’re right though–sometimes making these kinds of connections helps draw folks in.

  3. Ryan, my pleasure. This issue is one I have been thinking a lot about. A thought that keeps nagging me is that while Boas, Malinowski, E-P, etc., wrote about the other, their topics were live issues for the us — the “us” defined as those seen as contemporaries with similar intellectual interests. Thus, since Malinowski is the case I know best, you didn’t have to be interested in Melanesia to get excited about the Trobrianders. The kula challenged accepted notions of how an economy can be organized, an alternative to both free market and communist orthodoxies. Their matrilineally and household organization challenged the assumptions of psychoanalysis. Their sex lives….well, sex is always interesting.

    Consider anthropology today, sliced and diced by topical and areal interests into mostly handfuls, rarely more than a few hundred, individuals who happen to share the same interests. Add what I have called “ethnographic involution,” a narrow focus that excludes comparative analysis, and ethnography restricted to trying to translate what the people who share their lives with us have to say about themselves. Local history is a fine hobby, but local historians don’t expect much interest from people who weren’t born or grew up in the places whose history they study.

    One of the great things about this interview is that it doesn’t fall into these traps. It reminds us that our ability to consume fresh fruit and vegetables all year round is the result of industrialized agriculture dependent on cheap labor — which means that the people who provide that labor mostly live in horrible conditions. But is that enough to grab the attention of readers who would rather not think about such issues. Where is the hook that pulls us out of our shells?

    I think of the problem the people who create advertising often confront. We work with folks who have invested large amounts of time and large amounts of money in developing new products and services. They are, naturally, fascinated, even obsessed, by what they have achieved. Getting them to step back and ask, *Why should anyone who isn’t you be interested in this?” is often difficult. I see the same problem with my anthropologist friends today.

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