Guest Column

Mexican Immigrant Coalition Looks to Cactus Export for Economic Relief

NCM, News Feature, Compiled and Translated by Peter Micek, Jan 24, 2005
A group of Mexican immigrants in San Diego is focusing on slowing down the exodus to the
U.S. by reviving the economy in their native Oaxaca. Their plan is to promote the export of home grown prickly pear cactus -- a celebrated Mexican delicacy.

NCM, News Feature,
Compiled and Translated by Peter Micek,

SAN FRANCISCO - Jan 24, 2005 - The fleshy, desert-bred prickly pear cactus graces the signs of restaurants and taco stands across California. More Mexican eateries carry its Spanish name, "nopal", than the delicacy itself, which is mixed into scrambled eggs, burritos and exotic desserts in Mexico. Herbal health websites claim it fights diabetes and cholesterol. Culturally, the nopal flies on Mexico’s flag, lives in its folklore, and peppers its slang.

She found the freshly-cut cactus leaves in San Diego flea markets, said Norma de la Vega, a reporter for the San Diego Spanish-language weekly, Enlace. De la Vega reported recently on a group of Mexican immigrants in San Diego hoping to import the cactus from their native Oaxaca to the United States.

“They are talking about an enormous investment,” de la Vega said in a telephone interview about the Coalition of Indigenous Communities from Oaxaca, or COCIO. The San Diego group hopes the plant will help energize the economy back home by creating jobs in Oaxaca and in California. The group met with an organization of Mexican women -- wives of men who have immigrated to the United States -- interested in selling the nopales they harvest in Oaxaca.

The Mexican government and various non-profits plan to invest in the project, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The group hopes to build a factory, then bottle and sell the cactus leaves -- once the large spines are taken out.

Made up of some 300 Oaxacan immigrants of the close to 25,000 that reside in San Diego, the Coalition is one piece of a puzzle hoping to create an industry around the cactus. The effort is part of a broader attempt to promote Mexican tradition and perk up the country's export economy.

Founded in 1994 in San Diego, “when two or three Oaxacans met in a church room,” the fledgling coalition began with the objective to spread its traditions and create a fund for Oaxacans. They dreamed of creating “productive projects in Mexico to end the eternal exodus to the United States,” said de la Vega in Enlace.

After an effort to import flowers from Oaxaca failed because of inadequate investment and low flower yields, the group sought other options. They contacted a Mexico City non-profit foundation that eventually put them in touch with the Oaxacan women harvesting nopales.

The most sustainable program the Coalition has backed is Guelaguetza, an indigenous celebration in San Diego
County each summer. Some five thousand people attended last year’s festival, de la Vega said, and most of the thousands of dollars raised were sent to Oaxaca. The money was used to repair churches and schools, and to provide care for the elderly. The event also contributed to a fund for crop cultivation.

These works differ from the usual remesas, or remittances, that Mexicans in the United States send back to their native country, de la Vega said. “[Remesas] are not productive,” de la Vega said. “They do not create jobs.” Remittances to Mexico grew 25 percent last year, according to a Dallas
, Tex., Spanish-language newspaper, Diario la Estrella, and exceeded $15 billion.

Whether the Coalition’s latest idea will create jobs is yet to be seen, de la Vega said. What is certain, though, is that the group is ready to move in a new direction.

When the Coalition was born in San Diego, many members believed they would one day return to Oaxaca, founding member Algimiro Morales, 51, told Enlace. Today, however, the group has “its roots firmly planted in this region,” de la Vega said. And it wants to fight for the wellbeing of Oaxacans in California, as well as Mexico.

Along with the plan to produce nopales, the Coalition is considering becoming a non-profit group to open up new sources of funding. It recently held a workshop on immigrant health with the non-profit California-Mexico Health Initiative, according to Enlace.

There are hundreds of groups in Los Angeles with ties to their native communities in Mexico, said de la Vega. “Generally, what they are doing is getting political rights,” she said. “But organizations for economic efforts,” like the San Diego group, “I have not seen.” The Coalition is the only one made up of Oaxacan natives in San Diego
County, she said.

For the first time, the group elected a woman as coordinator. Alejandra Ricardez knows her Coalition’s members are no longer “immigrants,” de la Vega said. “We say that we are going to return to
Oaxaca, but the truth is that we are not going to do it, so we have to fight here,” said Ricardez in de la Vega’s article. The fight in San Diego will now involve a partnership back home, where the wives of men who have gone north hope to generate income of their own.