Made in Baja: The Lives of Farmworkers and Growers behind Mexico's Transnational Agricultural Boom

Made in Baja: The Lives of Farmworkers and Growers behind Mexico's Transnational Agricultural Boom

by Christian Zlolniski

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Much of the produce that Americans eat is grown in the Mexican state of Baja California, the site of a multibillion-dollar export agricultural boom that has generated jobs and purportedly reduced poverty and labor migration to the United States. But how has this growth affected those living in Baja? Based on a decade of ethnographic fieldwork, Made in Baja examines the unforeseen consequences for residents in the region of San Quintín. The ramifications include the tripling of the region’s population, mushrooming precarious colonia communities lacking basic infrastructure and services, and turbulent struggles for labor, civic, and political rights. Anthropologist Christian Zlolniski reveals the outcomes of growers structuring the industry around an insatiable demand for fresh fruits and vegetables. He also investigates the ecological damage—"watercide”—and the social side effects of exploiting natural resources for agricultural production. Weaving together stories from both farmworkers and growers, Made in Baja provides an eye-opening look at the dynamic economy developing south of the border.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300620
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Christian Zlolniski is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the author of Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley.

Read an Excerpt


The Birth and Development of Export Agriculture in the San Quintín Valley

All our financing came from the United States. ... This company [Del Monte] financed the Canelos brothers both in Culiacán and in San Quintín, as well as many other growers in Sinaloa. All the capital came from companies in the United States, and these companies would send their own accounting teams to San Quintín to check the financial reports generated by our own accountants.


The recent transformation of the San Quintín Valley into one of the most productive and technologically advanced agroexport regions in Mexico poses an environmental conundrum. Since the valley's early history, access to water was the most important factor limiting the development of agriculture and settlements. During Baja California's mission period, from 1679 to 1849, for example, the aridity of the territory prevented the establishment of permanent settlements (Wehncke and López-Medellín 2015, 145). Dominican friars established a mission in 1775 at the base of the San Pedro Mártir Sierra, but they abandoned it only twenty years later because water was too scarce to support human life (López 2017, 191). More than 150 years later, in the 1930s, the Mexican government launched a colonization plan for the San Quintín Valley providing ejidos to develop agriculture and populate the territory with a group of Mexican workers who had been deported from the United States during the Great Depression. The arid climate and water scarcity, along with the roughness of the terrain and little government support, however, presented enormous challenges the newcomers could not overcome. Despite the emergence of the first ranches that produced commercial crops and the renewed efforts by the Mexican government to attract settlers, by the 1960s the San Quintín Valley was still sparsely populated, with only four thousand inhabitants (Velasco, Zlolniski, and Coubes 2014, 69).

How then did this formerly isolated valley become one of the most important export horticultural enclaves in Mexico at the turn of the twenty-first century? What turned an arid region with no irrigation infrastructure into a highly productive and profitable agricultural hub? And who were the people who finally came to live in this valley? In this chapter, I address these questions, discussing the economic development of the San Quintín Valley and the forces that propelled its transformation into an agroexport powerhouse based on the use of a migrant-origin labor force from southern Mexico. From a political economy perspective, I analyze the articulation between regional, national, and international economic actors and policies that implanted a model of capital- and labor-intensive commercial agriculture in this arid region along the Mexico-U.S. border. As I show, technological fetishism — the investment in capital-intensive production technologies to increase economic profit at the expense of environmental and social consequences — has been the underlying logic for economic and population growth in the region. The result is an "agro-dystopia," a production system deeply enmeshed in environmental contradictions and social tensions that raise important questions about the long-term ecological and social sustainability of this model of economic and regional development.

First I describe the early history of the San Quintín Valley, including several failed attempts to develop commercial agriculture and populate the land. Then I focus on the modern history of the region from the 1970s on, explaining its metamorphosis from an inward-looking isolated valley to an outward-oriented transnational agricultural enclave. From an ethnohistorical approach, I detail the rise and fall of A.B.C. Farm, which in the early 1980s became the first company that implemented a system of large-scale agriculture. With close financial and commercial ties to U.S. corporations, as its former representative Julio Mendoza acknowledged, A.B.C. Farm transformed agricultural production and marked a watershed in the history of labor recruitment in the region. I also discuss the technological innovations that since the early 2000s have allowed transnational companies to continue mining the region's aquifer for the production of high-value export-market crops. My critical analysis of San Quintín's model of export agriculture is informed by David Harvey's (2005) interpretation of the role of technology in modern capitalist development, according to which the logic of accumulation provides an incentive to design, develop, and implement technological devices to ensure economic profitability decoupled from their environmental, material, or social consequences.


The prehistory of Baja California reveals the harsh environmental conditions native peoples faced to survive in the region. According to archaeological evidence, human occupation of the San Quintín–El Rosario region began prior to 5000 B.C. (Moore 2006, 188). Local peoples practiced a form of "desert adaptation to coastal resources" that consisted of collecting shellfish, harvesting agave, manufacturing stone tools, and living in temporary camps near key ecological resources (Moore 2006, 189). Environmental constraints made agriculture an unappealing option for the local population (Laylander 2006, 13), and foraging groups maintained a simple form of social organization with a few hierarchies based on gender, age, and personal skills (Moore 2006, 192). The arid climate and scarce water kept human settlements small and highly mobile, with small multifamily groups scattered along the Pacific coastal zone (Moore 2006, 192). Dry intervals associated with severe droughts prompted competition for water and terrestrial resources, leading native peoples to rely on the maritime food supplies of the rich beach habitats, a situation that persisted for many centuries (Moore 2006, 184).

The arrival of European settlers in the sixteenth century had a major impact on the region's population and way of life. The first recorded contact between indigenous peoples and Europeans took place in 1542 at the time of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's voyage, followed by a short expedition in 1602 by Sebastián Vizcaíno (Moore 2006, 12). It was not until 1769, however, that Franciscans set up missions along the Baja peninsula. In 1774, they passed on the task to the Dominicans, who founded Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario and Santo Domingo, beginning systematic interaction between native Californians and Europeans. The missions introduced agriculture in the region based on the forced labor of the native population. The Santo Domingo mission, for example, was built near a creek, allowing the production of wheat and, to a lesser extent, corn, figs, pears, and olives, among other crops, covering about 48 hectares (Rangel and Riemann 2015, 39). This disrupted the foraging mode of socioeconomic organization of the native Kiliwa and Cochomí population, dealing them a major blow. Soon after the establishment of Spanish missions, native populations suffered a sharp demographic decline due to infectious diseases, violence, and persecution. In Santo Domingo de la Frontera, for example, the population decreased from 300 inhabitants in 1798 to only 73 by 1829 (Rodríguez Tomp 2002, 215). Because of these early colonization programs and environmental constraints, especially water scarcity, the local population remained small and scattered, preventing the formation of large settlements.

A second major attempt to colonize and populate the San Quintín Valley took place in the late nineteenth century, this time under the guidance of the Mexican government. In 1883, President Porfirio Díaz embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize the economy of the country, launching the Ley de Colonización (Colonization Law) to attract foreign investment, especially in commercial agriculture. In 1887, the first U.S. company — the International Company of Mexico — was granted a license to develop agricultural production in the San Quintín Valley, setting an early precedent for American agribusiness in the region (Velasco, Zlolniski, and Coubes 2014, 66). A few years later, the British Mexican Land and Colonization Company, known at the time as the "British Company," took over and invested in a plan to grow wheat to export to the United States and other international markets. The company realized that despite its arid climate, the Mediterranean-type region was fertile ground for agricultural production using water wells for irrigation. To overcome the lack of transportation infrastructure, it set up maritime routes linking the ports of San Diego, Ensenada, and San Quintín. It also built a pier in 1890 and a flour mill that at the time was the most technologically advanced in Latin America. To house its workers, British colonizers built the first colonia, consisting of about one hundred homes, one of the earliest settlements in the valley. Envisioning San Quintín as a major wheat exporting region, the British also began building a railroad from San Quintín to Tijuana to ship crops north of the border and connect to the U.S. railroad system.

The British development plans were halted when the Mexican Revolution of 1910 triumphed and Porfirio Díaz was ousted from government. The new Mexican government canceled the contracts with foreign companies, and in 1915 President Venustiano Carranza embarked on agrarian reforms, taking lands from foreign investors to transform them into communal ejidos, including those that had been granted to American and British companies in Baja California. The decision to curtail foreign investment in northern Mexico was driven by the fear that opening up to foreign companies could enhance U.S. expansionist ambitions and make it even more difficult to keep its far northern territories under the control of Mexico City (Velasco, Zlolniski, and Coubes 2014, 67). The British Company stopped the construction of the railroad and even dismantled the sections it had built. Afterward the San Quintín Valley entered a long period of slow economic and population growth but remained isolated because of the lack of transportation infrastructure.

A renewed push to develop the region began in the 1930s, when the Mexican government embarked on a new colonization project to develop agriculture and populate the land. This time the project was a response to the deportation campaign by the U.S. government during the Great Depression that expelled hundreds of thousands Mexican workers south of the border. To cope with the massive flow of people back to the country, the central government granted ejido lands to the repatriates to start a new life in the region. Three ranches that had been abandoned by the British Company were given to Mexican families who returned from the United States (Velasco, Zlolniski, and Coubes 2014, 68). In addition, a group of about thirty farmers from Santa Cruz, Michoacán, many of whom had been deported from the United States, formed an agrarian cooperative to receive ejidos in the region. The Mexican government continued this colonization project through the 1940s by allocating additional ejidos to farmers from Michoacán, Guanajuato, and other regions in western Mexico who had been displaced by the Mexican agrarian reforms.

Despite the state-led colonization plans, the San Quintín Valley experienced little economic and demographic growth due to a combination of paltry investment and environmental constraints. Unlike the Mexicali Valley, where the Mexican government heavily invested in irrigation infrastructure to foster commercial agriculture in the 1940s, especially cotton (Walsh 2009), in San Quintín the amount of land converted into ejidos was comparatively small and there was no investment in irrigation equipment and infrastructure. Only a few farmers set up ranches, which were scattered and far apart, and agricultural production consisted of subsistence crops such as corn, beans, and squash and a few commercial crops including barley, chili, and potatoes, mostly for local and regional markets. Without paved roads, travel from San Quintín to the city of Ensenada, about 112 miles, took about seventeen hours (Velasco, Zlolniski, and Coubes 2014, 69). Many of the early farmers who had migrated to Baja from western Mexico developed a frontier mentality as "self-made" growers, pioneers on rough lands they had tamed on their own to develop agriculture despite the limited interest and support from the federal and state governments. Because agricultural production was limited, the demand for labor was scarce, and most farmers relied on family labor and a few local contracted workers.


While in the field, I met some of the early pioneers who grew up in San Quintín in the 1950s, before it evolved into a modern horticultural enclave. Given the rather thin historiographic record, I was eager to talk to old-timers who could speak about growing up in San Quintín when commercial agriculture was still in its infancy. One such person was Miguel Pérez Vaca, an immigrant from Guanajuato who arrived in the region in the 1950s and whose experience reflects the challenges early ejido farmers confronted. Born in 1915, Don Miguel was ninety-three years old when I interviewed him in 2009, living in a humble house with his daughter's family. At age thirteen, he migrated from Guanajuato to the Mexicali Valley in Baja to work as a peon — landless agricultural worker — in commercial crops that included cotton, beans, and wheat, which at the time attracted thousands of migratory workers. In 1954, along with a group of field workers in Mexicali, he organized a trip to the San Quintín Valley after learning that Braulio Maldonado, the first elected governor of Baja California (1953–59), was distributing land parcels to landless peasants to populate the region. "The governor told us to go and look for vacant land, and if we could find it, he will grant it to us," Miguel recalled. With a group of 102 men, he joined the cooperative Nuevo Baja California, which was originally founded in 1942 in Mexicali. Remembering how he got his first piece of land, he explained, "First a group of fourteen of us came to explore the region, [then] we submitted our petition to the governor for the lands we liked through Via Agraria." Shortly after, by presidential decree, Braulio Maldonado issued Miguel and his group lots of 20 hectares each as ejidos and additional communal land in the interior of the valley. This was not an isolated case but part of a larger project to populate the region. Thus by late 1950, the state government in Baja had granted about 3,000 hectares of ejido lands in San Quintín.

For Miguel, the change from peon picking cotton in Mexicali to farmer cultivating his own land and crops seemed a dream come true. A few years after he moved with his wife and children to San Quintín to start a new life, however, he realized that earning a living as a farmer in this region was a more complicated endeavor than he had anticipated. With the help of his family and other ejidatarios (ejido holders), he had to clear and prepare the land for cultivation, which took considerable time and labor. As Miguel put it, "It was virgin and untamed land full of snakes, hares, wild rabbits, and other animals." He began cultivating rain-fed crops, including beans, barley, and wheat, but because of insufficient water he had to rent much of his land to growers who had their own wells and were producing higher-value irrigated vegetable crops like tomatoes and Brussel sprouts. Unable to make an independent living as a farmer, he also worked as a wage laborer for farmers who had access to water to produce commercial crops. "They paid us only 17 [Mexican] pesos for ten hours of work!" Miguel recalled. To maintain his family, he engaged in other subsistence activities such as catching small fish and collecting clams and other types of shellfish at the beach, a reminder of the rich maritime resources that historically had been used by local peoples in the region.

In the end, however, the arid climate and insufficient access to water became insurmountable constraints for Miguel. A few years later, in light of the limited water resources that prevented them from developing their farms, Miguel and many other ejidatarios of the Nuevo Baja California cooperative petitioned the state government to divide the land into lots to sell. "I asked the government to allow me to divide at least part of my land into lots for sale so I could feed my family. ... I requested authorization to start selling lots because there was no water I could use for agriculture," he told me. In the mid-1960s, when the population in the region began to grow, although still at a slow pace, the Baja state government granted his petition and reclassified his land from ejido to poblado (urban settlement), which allowed him to sell lots. Over time, he would become the founder of Colonia Arbolitos, a rural settlement for indigenous Zapotec farm laborers from Oaxaca who, as I explain later, settled in the valley in the early 1990s when the region was experiencing a dramatic economic and demographic boom.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The Birth and Development of Export Agriculture in the San Quintín Valley
2. Transnational Agribusiness, Local Growers, and Discontents
3. Labor Recruitment: From Local to Transnational Labor Contractors
4. “They Want First-Class Workers with Third World Wages”: The Workplace Regime of Transnational Agriculture
5. Resisting the Carrilla in the Workplace: Forms of Labor Protests
6. Colonizing and Establishing Roots in Arid Lands
7. Watercide: Export Agriculture, Water Insecurity, and Social Unrest

Appendix: Policy Recommendations

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