HAMPTONS ONLINE: What Drives Migration? Surprise, It's Corn
February 1st, 2010
This January, a delegation of 15 Long Islanders traveled to Oaxaca,
Mexico, to explore the roots of migration from Mexico to the United
States, meeting with Mexican migration experts, interviewing migrants,
and visiting communities affected by migration.
During the trip, the delegation - which included educators,
university students, and government appointees from both Nassau and
Suffolk counties - made a surprising discovery - they learned that
Mexican migration patterns are inextricably linked to the global price
As a result of free trade deals between the U.S. and Mexico, the
quantity of cheap imported corn in Mexico has exploded in recent years,
undercutting the locally grown product and driving small farmers out of
business, a heady blow in a country where 10 million people - a quarter
of the workforce - live off the land. Since the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in 1994, roughly 1.8 million people
have been displaced from the Mexican agricultural sector while the
rural poverty rate has climbed to 76 percent, the delegation learned.
At the same time, nearly 600,000 Mexican farmers have been forced
to migrate to the U.S., where they've formed communities like the one
in Riverhead, which includes 200 to 300 members of the indigenous
"It's been truly eye-opening to learn about the economic conditions
that are forcing so many families to come here," says Christine Finn,
the assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Patchogue-Medford
school district and a delegate on the trip. "Understanding the root
causes of migration should encourage us all to be more sensitive in our
treatment of other people, including children in our schools and their
families who make up our communities."
One particularly memorable part of the delegation, which lasted
from January 9 through January 16, was a visit to San Juan Sosola, a
tiny Mexican farming village nestled in the mountains near Oaxaca. The
village - beautiful and welcoming despite endemic poverty - became a
living lesson about the impact of imbalanced global trade.
In San Juan Sosola, the indigenous Mixteca residents cultivate
corn, following a tradition that has endured for thousands of years.
All meals include some variety of the grain, whether it surfaces in
tortillas or pozole, a hominy stew with a recipe that predates the
arrival of the Spanish in that area.
But despite the long history of corn cultivation in this area, San
Juan Sosola, like many other Mexican farming towns, has a bleak future.
Since the implementation of NAFTA, local farmers and their families
have been forced to migrate, and according to residents of San Juan
Sosola, the village's population has been cut by half, with only 100 or
so people remaining. Of those left, very few are between 25 to 40 years
old. Only three children attend the village pre-school, and five attend
the elementary school.
Deborah Little, a sociology professor at Adelphi University, took
meals with a local family in San Juan Sosola and heard some of their
"I see the grief in Doña Graciela's face as she tells me of the
brother and sister she will probably never see again," Little says.
"There is no work in her community, one that formerly survived through
agriculture. Her siblings went to the U.S. for work. The week after we
met Graciela, her youngest son left also, seeking work in another
place. Here in the U.S., we must work to end these devastating trade
policies so that Mexican communities will thrive rather than die."
The extreme population downshift has even affected recreation in the village.
"In my conversations with a couple of young men in San Juan Sosola,
I learned that soccer is no longer the favorite pastime because there
are not enough young people to make two teams," says Sergio Argueta, a
member of the delegation who directs S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, a gang
prevention and intervention agency based in Hempstead. "There just
aren't enough bodies to play anymore."
As important as the experience itself is the coalition of Long
Island professionals that were brought together. After learning about
the relationship between NAFTA and forced migration, members of the
delegation are mobilizing to share their stories with community leaders
and organizations across Long Island throughout 2010.
The trip was funded by the Port Washington-based Hagedorn
Foundation through a grant to Witness for Peace, an organization that
sponsors educational delegations to Latin America. During the trip,
Long Island Wins online editor Ted Hesson blogged about his experiences and posted photos online.
Delegation Members From Suffolk County
• Bill Zimmerman is a journalism professor at SUNY Stony
Brook University. He was one of CNN's first news anchors and a founder
of Long Island's News 12.
• Darlene Troge is the director of Workplace Policy and Compliance for the Town of Southampton.
• Christine Finn is the assistant superintendent of curriculum for the Patchogue-Medford school district.
• Gary Mar is a philosophy professor at SUNY Stony Brook
University and started the Asian-American studies program there. He
also sits on the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.
• América Marcos studies psychology and sociology at SUNY Stony Brook. She's in her junior year.
• Sandra Dunn is the immigration program officer at the Hagedorn Foundation, which provided the grant to fund the delegation.
• Deborah Little is a sociology professor at Adelphi University.
Established in 2005, the Hagedorn Foundation works nationally and
locally to promote social equity in the areas of Families, Children and
Youth, and Immigration. Through its local Immigration Program, the
Foundation supports organizations working to ease tensions arising from
the meeting of established residents and newly arrived immigrants in
Nassau and Suffolk counties.
For more information go to www.hagedornfoundation.org.