When Rufino Dominguez Santos came to the United States as a migrant farm worker at the age of sixteen, he was already a veteran organizer on behalf of Mixteco farm workers in his native San Miguel Cuevas, Oaxaca. After he was threatened by local land owners for his organizing work, he moved north, first to Baja California, and then on to the Central Valley in California. His migratory journey is common for many indigenous workers from Southern Mexico. In both places, Mr. Dominguez-Santos began organizing his countrymen to improve their working conditions.
Native peoples in Mexico historically have experienced discrimination at the hands of the mainstream culture in Mexico. As the balance of migration to the west coast began to shift from states like Michuacan to the more indigenous south, newly arriving indigenous workers found that most of the labor contractors and farm foremen did not come from indigenous communities, and were very abusive. Often not speaking Spanish, except perhaps as a crude market language, indigenous workers found life in Northern Mexico and the United States to be brutal and grueling. A Mixteco, Rufino learned that Oaxacan workers were organized only based upon village identity and tribal affiliation. But even among Mixtecos, inter-village rivalries were often deep and bitter, based upon centuries of competition for local resources. Primary identity was to a municipality, not to tribal affiliation.
Rufino became the first organizer to try to forge a Mixteco identity, and to organize across villages. After significant success at this, his organization began to reach out to other Oaxacan indigenous workers in the United States, particularly organizing Zapatecos, Triques and Mijes. (After centuries of abuse at the hands of Spanish colonizers and their descendents, indigenous groups are traditionally suspicious of working with those outside of their tradition.) Eventually, in 1991 they formed the current Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), which provides a basis for access to work, services, communication and respect among the seventeen Oaxacan indigenous language groups and beyond. Although FIOB’s work is centered in Fresno, it reaches well into migrant streams in Oregon and Washington.
In 2010 Dominguez-Santos was named director of the Institute for Migrant Affairs Abroad for the state of Oaxaca, a post that he held from January 2011 to August 2016. But working for the government in the face of so much corruption and political division proved to be extremely challenging. When violent confrontations between state and federal law enforcement left several teachers dead and many injured, Rufino decided to quit his post. He returned to the United States to continue working here on behalf of indigenous people.
Sadly, Rufino died of complications with brain cancer on Nov. 11 at the premature age of 52. His brilliant leadership will be missed. We are honored and proud that Rufino joined other leaders, including Ramon Ramirez and Arturo Rodriguez, in NWJP’s original Advisory Board.
¿Rufino Dominguez? !Presente!