Flying over Southern Arizona, I watch the perfectly paved and seemingly brand new suburbs on the outskirts of Phoenix give way to endless fields that are divided with laser precision, each massive plot the exact same size. This kind of techno-human landscape stretches to the horizon. Every time I look out the window, every time, I see the land bent perfectly into this massive system. Then, I look down. Rugged valleys, no fields. Something has changed. I look closer, and I realize little towns and farmer’s crops are woven into the landscape. The farms I see are all tangled up with the landscape around them, and the houses I see are colorful and crumbling. Mostly, I see land without human construction. Then we are flying over Mexico City. I see buildings of all colors piled against each other, I see dirty, chaotic streets full of minibuses and pickups and cars weaving their way through twisting crowds of people. Mexico City’s massiveness makes me dizzy. As we make the journey from D.F. to Oaxaca City, I realize how normal the laser-cut machine society in the North has become, with its spotless roads and parceling of every mile of land to the horizon. In Oaxaca, murals whose colors scream LA LUCHA SIGUE jump from cracked walls, trash and dirt occupy corners and crevices, the smells of sizzling meat and exhaust fumes waft through the streets where flowers crawl up walls and children play tag or sell little packets of gum. I am trained, by media decrying crime and poverty in places like Oaxaca, by the exceptionalist attitude we have in the U.S. toward “normality” (safe, wealthy, white suburbs). I am trained to focus on the beggars in the streets, the cracks in the walls, the dirt on the floor in the buses. And I think, purposefully, many of us in the United States have an idea of “Mexico” that is choking us with ignorance and arrogance. We are only here for 10 abrupt days, so my observations and judgments are grounded in the shallowest of experiences, but I think it is still important to share some of what I see.
We have come to Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, México. The Nahuatl name for the valley here is Huaxyacac, but was appropriated by conquistadors whom Spanish-ized the name to “Oaxaca” as part of the process of cultural assimilation of indigenous people, according to our tour guide and friend Oliver. This was our introduction to the 500-year occupation of this land and de-legitimization of its original peoples whom still live here. We have come here to speak with friends and partners of the Border Studies Program, people resisting capitalist domination in a myriad of ways, from holding political offices, to dismantling the official political system and sustaining alternative and traditional politics, from screaming in the streets to throwing huge parties.
If anything, many of the individuals and groups that we interacted with held in common that they sourced sustenance and knowledge from indigeneity. The word “indigenous” is often an imposed category rather than an identity people claim, said Tolo, an organizer and alternative media activist that graciously talked to our group of raggled students on a rainy Monday morning. He explained that most people just identify as the tribe or group that their community is part of, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Ixcatec among dozens of others. In these communities, upwards of 70% of men have been forced by the implementation of free trade policies to leave their families and look for work in the cities or on the other side of one of the most militarized and dangerous borderlands of the world (a statistic from residents of Teotitlan). Despite a history of genocide and humiliation, despite schools built for cultural assimilation and policies written for exploitation, these communities continue the live the resistance and celebration of everyday life by continuing their traditional practices.
We visited the community of Teotitlan del Valle, in the foothills of the Sierra Juarez Mountains, where we were given the gift of living life for a day with some friends of the program. The friends were a group of women who, having been subject all their lives to a monopoly market of their crafts, organized themselves into a weaving cooperative. They worked with other women in Oaxaca City to get their feet on the ground as an economic entity and quickly became a cultural and political epicenter of the community, with women demanding to participate in the village assemblies and in turn carrying out various ecological projects in the community. One night I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking with a young man named Antonio. “Like our grandparents”, he told me, “We people of Teotitlan del Valle organize ourselves to do everything. We take turns being police, we take turns doing the office work, we take turns throwing huge parties! We spend all of our money on parties because they bring us together, they equal everything out, they give us life.” But, he explained, the women’s cooperative, the volunteering tradition and town assembly and parties, are all being affected by migration. Almost all of the young men are gone. The work of raising children, growing food and maintaining the home is left to daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. This means women often can’t commit themselves to the women’s cooperative. The men (and women) that do return to the village, or that send remittances, bring with them material traditions that aren’t practical for most people. They come with Christmas lights and big speakers and throw huge parties. “Then people feel, you know, they have to do better, so they go all the way to the city to buy lights like that….” Antonio works twelve-hour days on the construction crew. At night, he comes home to eat, then leaves to fulfill his duty as a volunteer police on night shift. “It’s tough, it’s really hard… And, and it is important to me, and it is better than dealing with the bad government, and I’m really proud of what we’re doing here.” (All quotes are from memory, and translation is always an interpretation).
One reason we went to Teotitlan was to meet people that were sustaining and thriving through their ancestral traditions. We learned, however, that neither Teotitlan del Valle, nor the farming communities we visited North of Oaxaca, nor the urban farm we toured in the city, nor the brilliantly creative and hard working activists we got to talk to, are “free” from capitalism and the dominant political system. Houses in Teotitlan del Valle were stamped by the governmental seal. A new museum was being built by the government to attract even more tourists and integrate the village into the dominant (global) economy. Communities north of Oaxaca were finding economic ground to stand on by using greenhouses to grow household vegetables, greenhouses and irrigation hoses funded by a government whose interest, according to locals, was in the end making people dependent on an unfair capitalist market and getting votes. Over and over we heard how the government had given promises of agricultural support and political representation, only to not follow through or give token political power. We listened to story after story of how the government’s solutions, solutions like schools and economic integration, only ended up keeping their children out of the community, de-legitimizing non-capitalist ways of life, and forcing people to survive in the capitalist market. We saw that no one is completely autonomous from the globalisation of neoliberalism.
But Oaxaca is a place where people are presently, and have been for centuries, make creative and vibrant resistance and alternatives to the capitalist police state. When police fired on non-violent teacher’s union strikers in 2006, city residents responded with a massive occupation, taking over radio stations and universities and creating a police-free zone for several months. In our few days in Oaxaca, I saw an Ayotzinapa solidarity march of hundreds and hundreds of shouting youth. I saw a billboard on a main street with the image of a blindfolded person and the words “THE POLITICAL PARTIES HAVE US BLINDFOLDED IN POVERTY!” People were having debates on the radio, occupying land as squatter settlements in the heart of the city, and planting ancient corn seeds everywhere from mountainous valleys to city alleys. As one mural put it, “You can crush the flowers, but you cannot stop the Spring.”
Because I didn’t really get to know these people I can’t talk about them in a very holistic way at all. But I can say that our media in the United States portrays México as a failing political system full of violent people, and nothing more. By visiting Oaxaca I saw that the picture is much wider and deeper, and that there is light shining through the cracks of a crumbling wall. I think the experience was a gift, but I’m not sure if it was given to us or if we took it. Maybe the extent to which we honor that gift is the extent to which it was appropriate for us to pass through so abruptly, or go at all. So I take this different vision of México, of the people we met, of a society both broken and fertile, I take that conocimiento into my life. The creative struggles of the people we met in Oaxaca guide and challenge us in finding creative ways to organize in our own communities and resist a system which privileges a few by exploiting all the Others, both people and earth. I hope these words honor these people’s’ experiences more than they exploit them.
¡YA BASTA EL CAPITALISMO!
¡LA LUCHA SIGUE!