By Eduardo Stanley
On Nov. 11, well-known immigrant and indigenous people’s rights activist Rufino Dominguez Santos, 52, died in Fresno. Dominguez was the co-founder of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB, by its initials in Spanish), which develops profound political work on behalf of the welfare and interests of immigrant farmworkers, particularly those of indigenous origin.
From 2011 to 2016, Dominguez 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. Dominguez 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, Dominguez returned to Fresno with the intention of activism for immigrants’ 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 would be educated by Marists Brothers, a religious order influenced by the Theology of Liberation,” explains Gaspar Rivera Salgado, Ph.D., of UCLA’s Labor Center, a friend of Dominguez and another co-founder of the FIOB. “This way, Rufino was influenced by leftist thinking.”
Around this time, and being only 16 years old, Dominguez led 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 was an intense farmworkers’ struggle to get organized, so Rufino learnt firsthand the ideology and organizing techniques of leftist unions.”
The living conditions of Mexican fields were deplorable. Dominguez 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 Dominguez 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-1980s, Dominguez came to California’s San Joaquin Valley and 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—the 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 influential in the foundation of the first Oaxacan teachers’ union, later called “Section 22,” known for its radical points of view. Dominguez’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) was created, which later would become the FIOB.
“It’s 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 did not stop its political work in the United States and later started working in Baja California. By then, Dominguez had settled in Fresno.
Dominguez’s energy and vision are crucial to the development of this movement that later would include indigenous people from other Mexican states living in California, such as those from Guerrero y Michoacan.
Nevertheless, Dominguez was clear that this struggle was part of a bigger picture—the organization and struggle of all workers, for which solidarity, education, alliances and, most important, a strong organization were necessary.
This working methodology is different from the popular one used in the United States and developed by Saul Alinsky (1909–1972), based on organizing people around an event or a defined situation.
Dominguez 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.
From 1993 to 2001, Dominguez led the Indigenous People Project of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). In mid-2017, the CRLA named this project “Rufino Dominguez.”
In 2001, the Binational Center for the Indigenous Development (CBDIO) was created in Fresno, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing services to the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley. Dominguez was its first director until 2010. The idea was in part to give Dominguez a job connected with his FIOB-related activities.
In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) emerged 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 immigrant farmworkers started to fade out, which forced the FIOB to change its 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.”
Dominguez 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 U.S. tradition to fight for ethnic dignity was a big help!”
Dominguez wasn’t a tall person, fit, always well-groomed. He was sober when talking, but firm at the same time. He always greeted 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.
After graduating from film school at the University of La Plata, Argentina, Eduardo Stanley received a scholarship for postgraduate studies in semiotics at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Then he moved to Mexico, where he taught at the University of Sinaloa. Stanley later moved to California, developing a career as a journalist and photographer—writing mainly in Spanish. Stanley also has covered stories in Argentina, Colombia, Spain and Mexico. He currently freelances for several Latino media outlets and hosts a radio show in Spanish on KFCF-FM 88.1 in Fresno.