On Saturday, November 11, 2017, activist and organizer Rufino Dominguez Santos, 52, died in Fresno, California. He was the father of six children, Lenin, Ivan, Ruben, Esteban, Tonyndeye and Numayi, after two marriages.
Rufino was the co-founder of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB, by its initials in Spanish), which develops a profound political work on behalf of the welfare and interests of immigrant farmworkers, particularly those of indigenous origin.
Between 2011 y 2016, Rufino was the director of the office for the welfare of migrant workers of the Oaxaca State, Mexico, called Instituto Oaxaqueño de Atención al Migrante (IOAM). He resigned from his position before the completion of his six-year tenure, due to accusations of corruption and the repression of rural teachers on strike in Oaxaca by the government of Gabino Cue Monteagudo. Rufino was invited to be part of Cue Monteagudo’s cabinet because of the FIOB electoral alliance that got him elected as governor.
After his resignation, Rufino decided to go back to Fresno with the intention of activism for immigrant’s rights and getting involved in organizing projects when he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor that ultimately took his life.
“To attend middle school, Rufino left his hometown, San Miguel Cuevas, and moved to Juxtlahuaca, still in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, where he will be educated by Marists Brothers, a religious order influenced by the Theology of Liberation,” explains Gaspar Rivera Salgado, PhD, of the UCLA’s Labor Center, a friend of Rufino and another co-founder of the FIOB. “This way, Rufino was influenced by a leftist thinking.”
Around this time, and being only 16-years old, Rufino lead a struggle against a local town boss. Even though he succeeded, he had to leave his hometown under pressure.
“He became a migrant and took the so called ‘Oaxacan road’ that took him to Sinaloa state and later to the San Quintin Valley, in Baja California,” said Rivera Salgado. “There there was an intense farmworkers’ struggle to get organized so Rufino learnt first hand the ideology and organizing techniques of leftists unions.”
The living conditions of Mexican fields were deplorable. Rufino then got involved with the Independent Union of Farmworkers and Peasants (CIOAC).
“I just joined them, I was motivated by looking for better living and working conditions for farmworkers,” explained Rufino in a long interview in May-June 2017. “We achieved a few things… This work was based on the political conscience I developed with the Marists Brothers, it’s an important compromise for me, it has to be social justice for workers.”
By the mid-80s, Rufino came to California’s San Joaquin Valley and he settled in Livingston. After leading a protest in the fields against low wages, he founded the Organization of the Exploited and Oppressed People (OPEO), which instead of getting organized by the town and charities —as most immigrant groups are— OPEO had a political agenda on behalf of the indigenous people working in the fields.
He then joined the Mixtec Popular Civic Committee (CCPM), an organization integrated by rural teachers who later were influentials of the foundation of the first Oaxacan teachers’ union, later called “Section 22,” known for its radical point of views. Rufino’s goal is to fight against the oppression that poor and marginalized people are subjected to.
He wanted to widen this fight by incorporating other communities and groups. Therefore, in 1991, the Binational Mixtec-Zapotec Front (FM-ZB) is created, which later will become the FIOB.
“Its a front, an alliance, and its ethnic,” said Rivera Salgado. “The FIOB emerges in California and its originality is that it ‘goes back’ to Oaxaca to organize indigenous people.” However the FIOB doesn’t stop its political work in the USA and later starts working in Baja California. By then, Rufino settled in Fresno.
Rufino’s energy and vision are crucial for the development of this movement, that later will include indigenous people from other Mexican states living in California, such as those from Guerrero y Michoacan.
Nevertheless, Rufino was very clear that this struggle was part of a bigger picture: the organizations and struggle of all workers, for which solidarity, education, alliances and, most importantly, a strong organization was necessary.
This working methodology is different from the very popular one used in USA and developed by Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), based on organizing people around an event or a defined situation.
Rufino was passionate about his political work. In several opportunities he had strong confrontations with other people and organizations. When he came back to Fresno in 2016, one of his intentions was to settle most of these issues. He partially succeeded before his passing.
Between 1993 and 2001, Rufino lead the Indigenous People Project of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). In mid-2017, CRLA named this project “Rufino Dominguez.”
In 2001 the Binational Center for the Indigenous Development (CBDIO) is created in Fresno, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing services to the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley. Rufino was its first director until 2010. The idea was in part to give Rufino a job connected with his FIOB-related activities.
In 1994 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) emerges in Chiapas, Mexico. The FIOB adheres to the principles of the EZLN, establishing good communication ties and cooperation.
Later, with the construction of the border wall in 1996 during Bill Clinton’s administration, the well known mobility of immigrants’ farmworkers started to fade out, which forced FIOB to change it’s organizing methodology. This added to the emerging of a new generation of indigenous leaders on both sides of the border.
“Rufino was very aware of this situation and he wanted to go back to Oaxaca to be part of these changes,” explained Rivera Salgado. “That’s the main reason for him accepting the offer of becoming the new governor in 2011.”
Rufino was the engine behind the vindication of indigenous pride. “It was very important that such vindication emerged here, in California, away from Mexico’s racist environment,” said Rivera Salgado. “The US tradition to fight for ethnic dignity was a big help!”
Rufino wasn’t a tall person, fit, always well-groomed. Sober when talking, but firm at the same time. He always greets others in Mixtec. He lived with pride for his indigenous heritage as well as his political work, which he performed guided by a collective feeling, never individualistic. He lived and died modestly.
The FIOB already compromised to continue Rufino’s profound legacy. His body was buried in his beloved Oaxaca.
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