Friday, May 30, 2008

Mexico Expresses Concern after Girl Dies in CA Fields


María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez was 17 years old when she died. She was also pregnant. Until just a few days ago, she worked on farms and vineyards around Lodi, CA, near the city of Sacramento. It was while she was working in the vineyards that she fell ill and passed away. The cause of her death - severe dehydration. She would have lived, if she'd had access to timely medical attention. She did not.

Yesterday, in the wake of María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez's death, the Mexican government expressed deep concern about the working conditions of Mexican laborers in the United States. In a written statement, Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Policy explained that initial reports indicate possible criminal neglect on the part of Vásquez Jiménez's employers, who failed to provide her with the timely medical care she needed. Mexican officials have ordered an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death, and the Secretary of Foreign Policy is calling on the U.S. government to guarantee safe and ethical working conditions for Mexican workers. "Toda vez que esta lamentable muerte pudo haberse evitado si los empleadores hubieran acatado las leyes aplicables," the Secretary insists - this tragic death could have been avoided had the employers acted within the applicable laws.

It is truly chilling to realize that the problems that faced María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez are anything but rare. We have created a society that takes advantage of the people who come to our nation to work. We offer immigrants job opportunities while simultaneously threatening them not only with neglect and deportation, but also with incarceration. We give them reasons to fear seeking medical help. We even threaten their children in schools. If we fail to act to remedy the situation, if we fail to enact and enforce laws that accept the realities of immigration and protect the rights of immigrants, more tragedies will follow.

You can read more about María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez and Mexico's response in Spanish in this El País article. Meanwhile, I will continue to look for news agencies covering the story in English.

UPDATE: The Sacramento Bee has picked up the story, and confirms most of the facts mentioned in the El País article. What the Sacramento Bee adds are some details of the conditions in which María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez was working:

During eight hours of work beginning at 6 a.m. in heat that topped 95 degrees, Bautista [her fiancé] said that workers were given only one water break, at 10:30 a.m. And the water was a 10-minute walk away – too far, he said, to keep up with the crew and avoid being scolded.

Vasquez Jimenez collapsed at 3:30 p.m., Bautista said, and for at least five minutes, the foreman did nothing but stare at the couple while Bautista cradled her.

Bautista said the foreman told him to place the teenager in the back seat of a van, which was hot inside, and put a wet cloth on her.

Later, Bautista said, the foreman told a driver to take the pair to a store to buy rubbing alcohol and apply it to see if it would revive Vasquez Jimenez. When that failed, the driver took the couple to a clinic in Lodi, Bautista said, where her body temperature had reached more than 108 degrees.

UPDATE II: I would like to join TomP of Daily Kos in encouraging readers to honor María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez by giving to the United Farm Workers, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of those who labor in our country with so few protections. If you find you cannot give money, please consider spreading the word about this tragedy, and about the horrible conditions faced by so many good people who come to this country so full of hope.

10 comments:

Casmall said...

The fear and insecurity in these communities must be terrible. Also, it always amazes me that more energy isn't being put into regulating employers that hire immigrants. Most of the time they aren't being held into account for poor working conditions.

Amelia said...

Right, Casmall, they aren't being held accountable, but why is that? America has this extremely negative attitude toward immigrants (or anyone who looks like they might be an immigrant) from Mexico. There is no cultural sensitivity whatsoever for these people from what I know.

It's so easy to hate. Perhaps it makes people feel better when they have someone else to spit upon, to look down at. I can't imagine it (my dad's family is from Mexico), but maybe there is some truth in it. Otherwise we'd be more ethical, right?

I hope so at least...

LynnAlexander said...

The people with power benefit from our willingness to engage in lateral hatred- workers hating and resenting other workers instead of the exploiters and abusers.

What we need is a global labor movement- these corporations do not have geographical boundaries and national ties anymore and neither should we!

These stories are so tragic and remind us of far we have to go. This is a human rights issue.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Yes, it very much is a human rights issue. Well said, Lynn.

Maggie said...

You may call me racist for saying this (or, maybe worse, a chatty oversimplifier), but in my opinion it's just...slavery.

By now, so many generations have participated in the slavery, on both sides (exploited and exploitee, I mean) that the slavery mentality for both is like mile-thick concrete. More than that.

It's fucked up, and in my opinion any reversal's gonna have to start with the Mexicans.

But by now they're nearly blighted by slavery mentality. In my opinion this includes alcoholism; it includes the distracting tragedy of family separation; it also includes antiquated male-female socialization that largely doesn't, and generally won't, apply in the current century -- minus tools to bring that socialization current.

Given all this (and more), I don't know how the reversal will happen. But something's got to give. And miracles do occur. I pray.

Habladora said...

Maggie, I'm confused about some of your comment, and I hope you'll explain.

That the way we treat workers who come from Mexico and Central America is akin to slavery is in some ways true - these workers have few protections and often face harsh working conditions. Yet, an outright comparison to what slavery was in the US seems to forget just how horrendous the institution really was. Of course, that does not lessen the tragedy of María's death - through neglect of her needs, she was, in fact, murdered.

What confused me most, though, was your statement that 'any reversal's gonna have to start with the Mexicans.' It seems odd to call on politically powerless people to instigate political changes. They can't vote for changes that would protect them, nor can they go to the police when they are abused. How would they start a reversal of a system in which they hold none of the power?

As for a 'blighted by slavery mentality' that 'includes alcoholism; it includes the distracting tragedy of family separation; it also includes antiquated male-female socialization that largely doesn't, and generally won't, apply in the current century,' I believe this view to be largely based on stereotypes propagated by those with an anti-immigration agenda. I have had the good fortune to know a number of families who came to this country from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to work, and none were alcoholics or anti-feminists in the way you describe. I'm sure that alcoholism and sexism exists within these communities, but they exist in every community - so I don't see symptoms of a 'slave mentality.' If anything, the people I've had the honor of knowing showed a courage and a will to take control their own destinies that I've rarely seen in people who's opportunities have come with less work.

I believe that racism and oversimplification are often related - but racism is worse. Like you, I hope that conditions improve for those who immigrate to this country as workers, though believe that it will come through political action - and through the teaching compassion to those who seek to label this community as 'others' in order to ignore the abuses they face.

Maggie said...

Yes, your response is full of misunderstanding. I'll try to clarify both my statement, and your response.

Your response, first.

A. You said, "That the way we treat workers who come from Mexico and Central America is akin to slavery is in some ways true - these workers have few protections and often face harsh working conditions. Yet, an outright comparison to what slavery was in the US seems to forget just how horrendous the institution really was."

1. I didn't limit my comparison of the current status of undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S. to "what slavery was in the US" -- why do you? Since you bring it up, though, I challenge you to show that the effective differences between the two groups outweigh their effective similarities.

2. When I said that change will have to start with the Mexicans, I didn't mean "with undocumented-Mexican-workers-in-the-U.S.-only." I meant "Mexicans" to include all Mexicans (meaning Mexicans in Mexico, as well as those working in the U.S. with documentation).

B. You said, "They can't vote for changes that would protect them, nor can they go to the police when they are abused. How would they start a reversal of a system in which they hold none of the power?"

1. By calling these adult laborers politically powerless and saying they have no right to physical safety in the U.S., you grant them a slave's environment.

2. In response to your question, please look at how oppressed groups in the U.S. have usually gotten their rights: by their own efforts. For example, look at the suffrage movement, the movement among African Americans for civil rights, and the United Farm Workers.

3. Your post said, "We have created a society that takes advantage of the people who come to our nation to work." And you invoked/appealed to a general "we," in that same paragraph, at least six times. So I believe the "political" changes you referred to in the passage above could more aptly be given the umbrella term "social" changes (since the political arena arguably exists within the social arena, and not vice versa -- hence undocumented workers are inextricable from our society, while largely absent -- at least in a self-propelling sense -- from our politics). If you agree with this, then this is where you and I see eye to eye. I, too, believe that social change is needed. I just think social change (most critically, among those exploited) needs to come first, before political change can be expected.

C. You said, "As for a 'blighted by slavery mentality' that 'includes alcoholism; it includes the distracting tragedy of family separation; it also includes antiquated male-female socialization that largely doesn't, and generally won't, apply in the current century,' I believe this view to be largely based on stereotypes propagated by those with an anti-immigration agenda. I have had the good fortune to know a number of families who came to this country from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to work, and none were alcoholics or anti-feminists in the way you describe."

1. Knowing a number of families who aren't alcoholics is irrelevant to the effects of alcohol on an entire population (including those in the population who are nonalcoholics; addiction hurts everyone).

2. Knowing a number of families who host no anti-feminists doesn't address my statement; I didn't call undocumented Mexican workers anti-feminist.

3. Knowing a number of families doesn't indicate an intimate relationship with a member of the population we're talking about. (I assume you would've mentioned having a more intimate relationship with a member of this population, but if not please say so.) I find it hard to trust analysis of a population from someone who hasn't formed any intimate relationships with them.

Those are the misunderstandings that first jump out at me, from your reply; I hope I've lent them some clarity.

Now to clarify my original comment.

A. Please take a look at this link: http://www.tookie.com/letter_to_jailed_youth.no.2.htm.

It has a fairly useful definition of slavery mentality by Tookie Williams, a founder of the Crips, written from jail to incarcerated youth. His is the definition I rely on whenever I think/talk about slavery mentality.

B. A little about myself. I grew up white (of mostly Irish descent), middle class, liberal Democrat, of feminist, first-generation-intellectual/artists (though a few generations more in U.S. citizenship), in the middle of L.A. (Koreatown). I grew up aware of undocumented Mexican laborers in a benign, distant way. As an official Uptight Liberal White Chick (still call myself this ;-), if called upon I might've clucked ignorantly about the plight of the undocumented Mexican worker -- without having ever formed a single intimate relationship with one. Not intimately knowing any Mexicans, I had to stereotype them (although I did this with a "positive" slant: I assigned the entire population the role of pinnacle-example-of-the-American-Dream. This dehumanized them, though; my stereotype didn't allow them weaknesses. It also stereotyped all elements of their lives, including their oppression, which made the oppression impossible to see clearly.)

My life changed a lot a year ago, though. I began a relationship with an undocumented Mexican (who was deported once -- so getting married won't help!) We're still together and I'm pregnant with his child (my first, due next January).

I'm sort of a loner-writer type (MFA in creative writing, UCI, 1993), whose friends are similar to me in this lonerish way. I don't have a party to go to every weekend; I'm used to spending entire weekends alone, reading, writing, and/or wandering around, alone or with a friend (meaning one friend, not a group).

My boyfriend, though, lives what seemed to me, at least at first, an extremely social life. He has at least two parties to go to every weekend, but assures me this is the norm for his population. By now I believe it; he's introduced me to a huge social network of undocumented Mexicans, reaching from here in the OC as far north as Seattle and east to New York City. In the past year I've foregone my shoegazer weekends and become pretty much immersed in undocumented Mexican culture (if such a thing can be said to exist). We now live together, in an apartment complex 90% of whose tenants are undocumented Mexicans.

With this experience, I can no longer stereotype Mexicans in the way I did before (and have never been able to stereotype them negatively, my whole life).

My boyfriend is 38 and has not seen his four sisters in Mexico City for 15 years. This is tragic, but not uncommon among the people I've met through him. In fact, everything I listed in my comment is what I've met with -- in real people -- and had confirmed by my boyfriend and/or other real-life Mexicans. (I take offense to the idea that I merely listed stereotypes propagated by anti-immigrationists; my stereotype's always been in the other direction.)

C. As I said, I mentioned alcoholism because it's what I've encountered. I bow out, now, of gatherings when the drinking gets too heavy for me (it usually does). Watching "parties" turn into tragic checkings-out-from-life-through-alcohol just shames and pains me too much; there's a point at which I have to run. I'm not a drinker, so that's part of it. But I also can't stand suspecting that American oppression may contribute to this population's need to check out. The pervasive Mexican cultural support for alcoholism that I've seen -- and the culture's relation of it to masculinity -- also mystify me painfully; alcohol was a significant part of the political neutralization of north American natives in the 18-1900s, and I can't help but see a connection to that, here.

D. My statement that the slavery mentality I see "also includes antiquated male-female socialization that largely doesn't, and generally won't, apply in the current century -- minus tools to bring that socialization current" seemed to bother you. That's fine, it can bother you. But it does not say that Mexicans are anti-feminist. It just...doesn't. It says that the male-female socialization most of the Mexicans I've encountered bring to the table here in the States generally doesn't apply to the current reality most of them are in, here in the States. It also says this socialization definitely will not apply to the world their children are growing up into, here.

I see this socialization as oppressive to both genders, so if you insist I call it anti-feminist, also allow that I call it anti-male. Oppressive to both genders (and largely self-enforced, by now), it works perfectly for any economic power needing to maintain a slavery mentality in a population.

Navigating this mire isn't easy; from what I've seen it's nearly exhausting. I don't envy this first generation of Mexicans in the States that job, at all.

E. You said, "it seems odd to call on politically powerless people to instigate political changes. They can't vote for changes that would protect them, nor can they go to the police when they are abused. How would they start a reversal of a system in which they hold none of the power?"

1. I can't reconcile your mentioning the United Farm Workers at the bottom of your post, with your questions above. It seems to me you've answered your own questions for yourself, there. Please, can you reconcile these things for me?

2. If you take offense to my term "slavery mentality," that's fine. I want you to understand, though, that I don't use it accusatorily. I don't think anyone chooses this for themselves or their children; it seems to me to happen more subtly than that. Its only benefit is economic, though never to the one in its grip.

3. I don't want to beat a dead horse -- maybe you understand where I'm coming from, by now. But in case not, yes, I call the situation of undocumented Mexican laborers in the U.S. slavery. It may seem a dramatic term, but I think it's accurate, and challenge you to demonstrate it's not.

I also think it may helpful to call the situation slavery. Some people may only see its intrinsic evil by being woken up by this (accurate) term.

4. Assuming some form of slavery to be in place, and that it benefits large economic powers, I cannot expect those powers to start its reversal. It's just not logical, and seems to me a waste of time to wring one's hands waiting for that to happen. (A miracle could happen in this arena, which is why I pray -- but that would be a miracle, not anything borne out by logic or history.)

If even a small part of what maintains the slavery here is psychological -- given that slavery's reversal cannot be expected from those who benefit from it -- the psychology of the enslaved seems to me the best place to hope for any beginning of the reversal to happen.

5. Taking the UFW as a sort of model, here are its core values:

Integrity: Doing the right thing even when no one is looking

Si Se Puede Attitude: The embodiment of a personal and organizational spirit that promotes confidence, courage and risk taking

Innovation: The active pursuit of new ideas

Non-Violence: Engaging in disciplined action

Empowerment: A fundamental belief in and respect for people

These are all self-focused; they're about the worker's choices, not the boss's. (Documented, I can call these laborers "workers"; undocumented, given their circumstances today, I reluctantly have to call them slaves. I assume Senor Guevara would have something to say about that, but we might differ on that point. Maybe he could convince me otherwise, but that hasn't happened yet.)

Anyway, they do not seem, to me, to reflect expectation of political change without effort on labor's part -- although you yourself seem to expect this. (If the UFW does express this and I am unaware, please point me to evidence for it.)

6. I have a stake in the situation, and don't theorize from an armchair. In a few months I'll begin raising a bicultural child, my first. As a privileged and educated feminist, I want to honor the work my ancestors did to get me here. I simply don't intend to raise a slave; they worked too hard to go backwards now. But I've been very close to this slavery and its mentality for the last 15 months, and have committed to a life in proximity to it, from here on, by having a child with an undocumented Mexican worker. I don't just want, but actually need a reversal of the situation. I'm using every tool I've ever been given, to see and talk about this as accurately as possible; this is how I do that, right now.

Habladora said...

Maggie, thanks for the clarification. It is clear from your extended response that you bring up the 'slave mentality' not to excuse those in power for their abuses (you would not, for example, blame Maria or her fiance for this tragedy), but to address the problem from multiple angles.

Since you asked, I worked for two years with several families from exactly the background we're discussing, and did form very close friendships - which I must point to as my excuse for any defensiveness I showed at your initial portrayal. You are right, of course, that knowing several families in one environment is not the same as statical data on the instances of alcoholism across multiple populations and ethnicities, so we are both simply speaking about our own personal observations.

I believe we both share a dedication to improving the situation for those here without papers, and are both going about doing our part in our own ways - me in the public schools and you with your family. Of course, one way that the situation of Mexican/ Central American workers is different from that of slaves is that they can, thankfully, march and hold rallies and join together to demand their empowerment. I also believe that it is important for members of other communities - like ourselves - to stand in solidarity with those who can't yet vote for a legal solution to what you rightly indicate is a multifaceted problem.

Oh, and thanks for pointing to the article - it promises to be informative.

Maggie said...

There's little statistical data about undocumented workers' social lives (including alcoholism and its impacts), obviously because of the legitimate fear of coming forward as undocumented to anyone perceived as being in authority. So it's a given that experience is what we point to, right now.

I'm not "right" that "knowing several families in one environment is not the same as statical data on the instances of alcoholism across multiple populations and ethnicities." I never said that!

I did say that knowing a number of families in a population is not the same thing as forming an intimate relationship with a member of that population.

I also respectfully disagree that undocumented workers have freedom to protest as a group here; in fact I see this lack as another similarity between their situation and slavery.

For example, the last "Day Without A Mexican" here in the OC, the hospital I work at threatened its undocumented workers with dismissal if they observed the day. This effectively neutralized the event's impact there. But the hospital's stance wasn't unique; it only reflected the reality of the larger power structure in the States.

For more evidence of this lack, I'd also point, disappointingly, to the fact that none of the highly publicized immigrant marches of the past few years (organized, I believe, by radio stations) have demanded or focused on anything substantive, rightswise. Given all that people-power and publicity, I can only think of one reason: they didn't have the right to.

I'm sorry if this sounds like mere pessimism or disagreeableness. It's a deeply offensive situation, to me, though, and I think even the slightest airbrushing only slows down any future solution.

Habladora said...

"...the last "Day Without A Mexican" here in the OC, the hospital I work at threatened its undocumented workers with dismissal if they observed the day. This effectively neutralized the event's impact there. But the hospital's stance wasn't unique; it only reflected the reality of the larger power structure in the States."

That is disturbing. If you ever decide you'd like to do a guest post about this, send me an email.

"It's a deeply offensive situation, to me, though, and I think even the slightest airbrushing only slows down any future solution."

I agree. Certainly, if you believe that the use of the word 'slavery' alerts people to realities we'd rather not see, then use it at will.