Indigenous Youth Find Opportunity at Home

They cross borders to survive.

Young people, like Ponciano Perez, 19, left, take the long north-bound journey from Mexico, seeking an opportunity in the United States. The trip can take several weeks or months. Without money to pay bus fare, some travel on foot to the border. Too often, the journey does not go as planned – meet the wrong people and they strip you from anything you have.

Back home, family members do not hear from their loved ones for months. They just hope for the better: a call or information that everything is okay and some money will arrive soon. In the best-case scenario, some money will arrive but at the cost of not seeing their children for years.

Until he heard about another opportunity at home, Ponciano wanted to cross the border like his friends did because, in his mind, the opportunities outweighed the risks. He dreamed of a life in a nice home with tap water and electricity and paved roads. He dreamed of sending money home to his family in San Felix, an isolated farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Ponciano’s future in San Feliz was bleak. Ponciano is from a Zapotec indigenous family who, season after season, worked hard to scrape together a living where land and water are scarce. Every year, farmers with minimal resources cultivate the same plots to feed their families and earn some money to pay for medicine and other needs. With market prices falling, Ponciano’s parents struggle to make ends meet.

His parents owned no land to share with him to continue being a farmer on his own after he gets married. They expected Ponciano to leave. Ponciano’s mother suffered in silence, tormented with thoughts of his departure. She imagined the day her son would leave the house and, through her prayers, she cultivated endless hope of him staying.

Panciano’s dreams and his mother’s fears all changed one day, when two teachers visited their house. They looked thirsty. Maria offered them water. One of them was an old acquaintance of the family. They had news to share with Ponciano. His school had a partnership with the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) that would provide a technical course about sustainable agriculture.

The teachers’ explanation was brief, but powerful enough to make Ponciano change his mind about leaving. His mother was delighted with the possibility to have him around. She and Ponciano were curious about the program and the organization.

“At that time, I was about to join some friends to find work [in the U.S.], but I am grateful that I had this incentive go to school and not leave home.”

UNOSJO, a Grassroots International partner, is an organization that advocates for the social, cultural and economic rights of Zapotec communities. As an advocate, UNOSJO plays a key role in internationally known cases such as the impacts of genetically modified corn plantations in the local agriculture and the mapping of indigenous communities’ resources by U.S. scholars for unknown proposes.

At the community the level, UNOSJO organizes different educational activities primarily in Zapotec language about farming, women’s rights and indigenous rights. Through the project with Ponciano and his high school colleagues, UNOSJO wants to provide youth with technical training and leadership development opportunity. The students and UNOSJO’s agro-ecological production team organized workshops on sustainable practices of soil conservation and use of local resources. Through the encouragement of UNOSJO, the group of 15 students took the project above and beyond everyone’s expectations.

The diligent work of the students paid off with an abundant harvest of corn, cucumbers and beans, which supplied their school’s kitchen and families. The group then decided to take the project to a higher level by organizing the first local farmers’ market in the history of the village of Gualetao. (Gualetao is the birthplace of Mexico’s ex-president and political icon Benito Juarez.) They contacted several local farmers, artisans and consumers to participate in the weekly market. In the first month alone, the market had 40 people who were selling and bartering their products. Ponciano’s community was also pleased with the idea of fresh foods and local products available at their convenience.

Piece by piece, the students built a local sustainable food system in their community. These Zapotec youth applied sustainable agriculture techniques and tools to their families’ farming plots. They also took the responsibility of helping local farmers to increase their profits and establishing a community space of fair trade. With little help, Ponciano and the youth of Gualetao decided to build an alternative approach to the global free trade markets and cease the forces that have forced many to leave their families for work in the North.

Youth like Ponciano are at the center of the global movement for food sovereignty. Last month in Quito, Ecuador, the 2nd Youth Assembly of the Latin American Confederation of Peasants Organizations brought together over 200 indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant youth. Representatives from more than 15 countries shared information about their organizing efforts. Together they represent a powerful step in the movement to defend their right to stay on their lands, to create a sustainable food system and to nourish their dreams and way of life as rural youth.