Crisis and Creation in Oaxaca

Oaxaca’s reputation as a unique center of the arts, prehispanic ruins, colonial architecture and indigenous culture gathered international momentum in 1987, the year the United Nations designated the city part of the “patrimony of humanity”. That proclamation, harnessed to a an aggressive and attractive tourist campaign, led to a flourishing of articles in upscale magazines of Europe and the United States touting the city’s glories: cuisine, painters and galleries, ethnic groups, artisans, archeological sites and, last but far from least, the zocalo.

It takes, however, a considerable massacre, such as that in which 26 men of Oaxaca were slaughtered in May of this year, to remind those who know the pleasures of the region that this southern Mexican state is also the site of a fierce social storm and its future is in no way secure. Northern inattention to the dark, cruel side of magical Oaxaca is, of course, understandable. There’s no tourist budget to spread word of its persistence, murder and misery being improbable attractions. In any case, who wants to hear about another crisis? Who’s looking for more trouble when the drumbeat of world news suggests only a swamped boat and drownings up ahead?

The crisis in Oaxaca is not, of course, one more problem. It is not a distinct crisis springing entirely from dynamics in southern Mexico but is part and parcel of the world crisis through which we are all, like it or not, living and trying to find our way. The earth is being destroyed, increasing numbers of the people on it are suffering in terrible poverty and everyone is affected, one way or the other. It may therefore be of no small importance to know how the people most directly under the hammer of poverty understand the crisis in which they live and what they’re doing not only to survive but to create new, productive communities together.

A useful overview of the current crisis in Oaxaca and a judgement about its probable future is provided by the Mexican historian, Anselmo Arellanes Meixueiro, in his essay, “Oaxaca in the 20th Century:Continuities and Changes”.

The harsh facts to which he calls our attention include the following:

1. Oaxacans are leaving the land in dramatically increasing numbers and emigrating to other parts of Mexico and the United States as harvests fail, poverty increases, food grows scarce, credit is unavailable and the people’s remaining, desperate hope is to make it north.

2.Indigenous communities are being scattered and destroyed as traditional water sources, streams, lakes and rivers suffer pollution and ancestral lands are reduced by the widespread destruction of forests.

3.The city of Oaxaca expands relentlessly and chaotically. Water problems, drainage problems, garbage problems, transportation problems, security problems grow and the health of residents is imperiled by severe air contamination, 80% of which is caused by motor vehicles.

4.In Oaxaca, there are four doctors for every 10,000 residents and those are concentrated in the city. The poor get little attention.

5.There’s a shortage of classrooms and teachers at every level and Oaxaca’s institutions of higher learning are not producing the men and women capable of providing the solutions need for the problems described.

6. Unemployment and crime are increasing.

Arrellanes concludes his overview with disturbing expectations, “It is painful to say so but the future of Oaxaca is not bright. Existing tendencies suggest that misery will increase, a better distribution of income will not occur, unemployment will rise, social problems will become increasingly severe, anarchic urban growth will continue unrestrained as will, probably, the destruction of nature and indigenous groups.”

There it is, there’s the future of Oaxaca and, to a great and sad extent, the future of large regions of the world unless current trends are arrested and different dynamics are established in their place. But what might those alternatives be? How are the poor of Oaxaca now working together to resist the painful same and the long, downhill slide? How are they now creating a better life for themselves? What are they now learning, doing and advocating that may be useful to others?

In July this year, some 70,000 tourists came to Oaxaca for the annual Guelaguetza festival in which indigenous groups perform traditional dances in an amphitheatre high above the city. This year, visitors and residents were also welcomed by a sudden blossoming of hundreds of posters on city walls and telephone poles displaying a photograph of campesinos and announcing the following:

“Guelaguetza for the rich is a commercial festival”

“Guelaguetza for the people demands an end to Fox’s Indigenous Law, the Plan Puebla Panama and the Privatization of Electricity and Oil”

“Solidarity to stop massacres like Agua Fria, to resist neoliberalism and the oppression of this world’s rulers.”

And at the bottom of the poster, its sponsors identified themselves in bold print as the Consejo Indigena Popular de Oaxaca, Ricardo Flores Magon or “CIPO-RFM” along with telephone numbers and an email address.

A few weeks later, I sat in CIPO’s “casa” in Santa Lucia talking with Marcial Felix Perez, a campesino of Santiago Nuyoo, a pueblo some 7 hours by bus from the city of Oaxaca. Born in 1957 of Mixteco parents, Marcial spoke only Mixteco until a school teacher insisted that he learn a new language, Spanish. Today, Spanish and Mixteco are used almost interchangeably by the younger members of the village.

When I asked about his work with CIPO, Marcial explained that he and his family had always farmed, grown corn, beans, fruit and chile for food and coffee as a cash crop but coffee prices on world markets plummeted and their lives grew desperate. He had heard about CIPO and invited a member of the organization to come to the village and discuss productive alternatives. As a result, Marcial and some 26 other compañeros of Santiago Nuyoo have created a collective which produces honey, manufactures bread and grows organic food.

He is an active member of CIPO, a member of its Council, and comes to “our house” every few months for meetings, information, workshops, and talks with the compañeros. There’s always food in the cooking pots outside and always room on the floor to sleep at night.It’s “his” home when he’s in the city of Oaxaca and a constant reference point when he’s not.

I had heard Marcial’s daughter, Reyna Perez Hernandez, speak at a press conference once and was able to meet with her soon after I talked to her father. She is the first in her Mixteco family to have a university education and has just about finished her work at Benito Juarez Universidad in Oaxaca. 25 years old, articulate, confident and outgoing, she has emerged as one of the spokespersons for CIPO at workshops, conferences and demonstrations.

Having grown up in a small, indigenous village with a strong communal consciousness, she was surprised and briefly disoriented by the extreme individualism encountered in the university where professors encouraged the pursuit of knowledge and good grades so that individual success, measured by the acquisition of cars and houses might be assured. “Buying things seems to be their idea of a good future.” Now at the far end of a struggle over her own identity as a young, educated Mixteco woman from a traditional village, she gives herself wholeheartedly to cooperative work with others in which each freely contributes as she or he can and wants to do without “jefes” or bosses ordering and controlling the process.

Much of Reyna’s work as a CIPO member and organizer is with women. La Jornada of May 14, 2002 identified her as one of the “coordinadoras” of a “Mothers’ Day” demonstration in the city of Oaxaca by more than 800 women who gathered to protest the violence against them and their families by “caciques”, political bosses, and to condemn the practices of big lumber companies which continue to destroy the precious woodlands on which the survival of indigenous communities largely depends.

During the demonstration, an invitation and challenge was extended to all women and men in Oaxaca to work together for the rights of women: the right to be treated equally at home and at work, the right to health and education, the right to occupy positions of responsibity in the community, the right not to be hurt, and the right to decide how many children to have.

Reyna and her compañeras have demonstrated their clear ability and will to organize, as necessary and useful, large and powerful demonstrations in the city but day after day the great majority of their work takes place on a smaller, face to face scale. As, for example, in the workshops she and other women of CIPO conduct in villages on women’s rights, women’s health, pregnancy and contraception for groups of adolescent girls.

Outspoken about the rights and sufferings of indigenous groups and calling those she considers to be public enemies by name, she and other CIPO activists have been subjected to public defamation, ransacked homes and threats of death. At the same time, when Reyna speaks of CIPO her emphasis falls steadily on the great, enduring satisfaction of working together with compañeras and compãneros to create a better life for herself and others.

Familiar at first hand with the poverty and suffering of Oaxacans, Reyna Perez Hernandez and Marcial Felix Perez describe CIPO as the alternative path they’ve chosen to follow and help to shape. And they do so in words and tones that match well CIPO’s own statement about its purposes which are, in part, these:

”We are an indigenous social organization, democratic and peaceful, formed by communities. Our strength lies in our capacity to help each other. We are independent of all political parties, legal or secret, and independent of all governmental organizations and institutions.”

“Those of us in CIPO participate freely and gladly without coercion of any kind, and although the great majority of us neither read nor write, all of us have two hands and a heart for the struggle.”

“Ours is the house of poor people who intend to talk together, work together, grow together and triumph together in the cause of liberty, justice and happiness.”

“We believe in the free association of people and in the importance of our differences for completing ourselves.”

“We have chosen the name of Ricardo Flores Magon because he was indigenous, a libertarian, and although born in Oaxaca, he worked for the freedom of all people. His life demonstrates that it’s possible for human beings to dream and make of their lives a ‘resistance’. He encourages us to be totally human, honorable, and committed to the cause of liberty, fraternity, mutual assistance, and truth. His path is one of struggle against all forms of domination. We believe that mutual help, solidarity, direct action, autonomy and self-direction constitute the road to liberation.”

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