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Along Party Lines

Karina Ioffee

No one had heard of Chiapas until January 1, 1994, when the EZLN seized government offices in the state capital of San Cristobal and five other surrounding towns. Now the Zapatistas are world re-known and their demands are heard by no less than the Mexican Congress. What a change seven years and a new president can make. But the Zapatistas are just the tip of the iceberg of indigenous activism in Mexico, a country where roughly ten percent of the population is of pure Indian descent. Similar movements exist and have existed for years in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Puebla, among other states, whose members have fought for more government representation, economic opportunities, and the right to retain their culture.

The town of Huehuetla, in the central state of Puebla, is one of them, where the formation of the Independent Totonac Organization (OIT) is creating waves in local politics and threatening to upset the centuries-long disequilibrium of power relations between mestizos and Indians. It is also an agricultural, political, and cultural movement that is trying to revive the centuries-old traditions of Totonac Indians while encouraging exportation of local crops such as coffee, pepper, and oranges on an international level.

This August, a French delegation visited Huehuetla in order to give advice on how to yield a better crop, in a region that is marked as "extremely high" on the marginality scale. "We want to know how to harvest to get the most from the earth and how to treat it with respect," says Pedro Rodriguez Vega, a member of the OIT and an ex-president of the municipality.

The municipality of Huehuetla, like many others around the country, has suffered from decades of horrific land-use practices, such as slash and burn, and planting the same crop year after year. Now they are paying the price, with failed harvests that have the population teetering on the brink of starvation. "The OIT was organized so that we could look for markets for our goods within the country and beyond," says Rodriguez.

But aside from pursuing contacts which would help local farmers sell their produce, OIT is fostering a new political identity in a people who have always been excluded from the decision-making process of their country. It is also improving lives, with the undertaking of massive social development projects such as the construction of new roads and the setting-up of electricity, water, and basic health services.

That's a big change from how things used to be. Twelve years ago, when the OIT managed to win control of the presidency of the municipality and put in their own president, backed by the leftist political party, PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party), the road to Huehuetla was a gravel one and passable only on horseback. Goods had to be flown in by helicopter and dispersed among the townspeople, an expensive and inconvenient procedure that had been going on for years. The only school was in the center, more than an hour's journey on foot from some of the neighboring villages.

The organization set to building schools, health clinics, and the necessary infrastructure to install utilities in the homes of Indians, who make up roughly 85% of the local population. But just as suddenly as the organization won control of the town and its outlying areas, they lost it again in 1998, back to the PRI (Institutional Party of the Revolution), which has been ruling Mexican politics for the past 70 years. The reason, says Rodriguez, who was president between 1996 and 1998, was that many people became disillusioned with the organization. "They were expecting to always reap the benefits of association," he says, "but were not prepared to work. They started thinking 'they are not doing anything for us, so why should we support them?'"

In the end, only a small percentage of the former members turned out to vote for the OIT. The rest either voted for the PRI, the PT (Workers' Party) or not at all. "There doesn't exist a strong culture of voting among the indigenas," says Rodriguez. "They don't understand the importance of it."

Now a quiet war seems to have been unleashed between the PRI and the PRD-backed organization, which, since their loss, has retreated into the shadows of local politics. The mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) minority, less than 15% of the municipality, are back in the seat of power and controlling the preciously few resources that are available. "That's always the problem," says Victor Rojas Solano, current president of Huehuetla. "You have so many projects and things you need to take care of and always much less money to do it with." As he speaks, he moves his hands together to illustrate the point. 'Huehuetla has no money,' he seems to be saying.

But many refute that opinion and claim that the distribution of money allocated by the federal government is the problem, not the lack of it. It's a widely known fact that when Rojas won the presidency, he remodeled his house and added new rooms and a fancy garage to it. Most of the teachers working at the official schools belong to the PRI and are some of the best-paid people in town. Other PRI sympathizers get cushy posts working in the presidential offices or, if they own their own business, tax cuts and support from the government. "When the elections rolled around, the local PRI offered to paint my house if I just voted for them," says Blanca Mejia, who, along with her husband, owns a hotel and one of the largest stores in town.

In comparison, OIT members get no financing from the government and the majority work as campesinos, farmers, on their own or someone else's land. They live on rancherias, (territorial divisions of the municipio), in wooden shacks scattered throughout the jungle, eight to ten people to a small house. Meals are often twice a day and water must be fetched from faraway distances. But more importantly, these people are left completely out of the decision making process in the town, despite being an overwhelming majority.

Life here seems to be divided by colors, of the face and of the party.

The educational system is another point of contention in town, an issue which, over the years, has become highly political. Official schools, headed by the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) have books, materials, and plenty of well-paid teachers. The OIT school, started in 1992 as a response to years of what they considered "cultural brainwashing" by the mestizos, has no books, volunteers for teachers, and an outhouse that more than 70 students use. The differences go on and on.

Kgyoum, which means "a place of the birds" in the Totonac dialect, is a preparatory school that teaches subjects like traditional medicine, agriculture, weaving, alongside math, science, and English. But it's riddled with problems, most of them stemming from the fact that the local government gives no aid to the project. "We went to the president and asked for help," recalls Edmundo Barrios Maraban, one of the directors of the school. "He said to us, 'Why should I help you when you are against me? It's like giving you a hammer so you could hit me harder with it.'"

This reaction is not new, say the organization's leaders. "There are some people who don't want us to open our eyes," says Pedro Rodriguez, the ex-president of the OIT who still has clout with the organization. "There's an interest in our remaining ignorant. They don't want us to learn and they don't want us to know."

So far, the school has been getting by on donations from non-governmental organizations and a series of micro-businesses run by the students to generate income. "It's been really difficult," says Barrios, "but I'm optimistic about the future. If we don't put up a fight, everything that means being a Totonac will be destroyed."

Another key player in the formation of the organization has been the Church. Even since the '80s, priests trained in liberation theology were sent to Indian villages in the hopes of educating the locals about their rights. Alongside the Bible, they also began teaching the people's history, culture, and earlier way of life, things that were slowly beginning to fade for the average Indian. "When the first priest came in 1986, he began talking to us about the Law of Guarantees and human rights," recalls Rodriguez. "He helped us understand who we were and respect the values of our ancestors."

Even though the native religion shares little in common with Catholicism, the years after the Conquest secured the European-brought religion in the lives of the local population. "The movement takes place within the context of the Church," says Jacinto Cruz, a Catholic Jesuit priest who has been working in the village for over a year. "The indigena is a religious person and there is no conflict between what the organization does and their faith, between the daily lives of these people and their religion."

Under the direction of Father Salvador Bax, workshops on traditional medicine, history, and arts and crafts began being held. Bax encouraged Indians to proudly display their heritage by wearing traditional Totonac attire-- long, flowing skirts of two or three layers, known as a nayuahats and square pieces of fabric ( quechquemils) worn over colorful blouses for women and all-white trousers and loose cotton shirt, known as calzon for men. These clothes, along with an Indigenous constitution that was being written in the process, gave the people a new identity and a new way of looking at the world. They began seeing that they were not powerless to do something about the injustices they had suffered for years, but could collectively work to change them.

But instead of applauding their newfound strength, the local government reacted with skepticism and fear. "The government is always suspicious of groups that organize and they are very concerned about what we are doing," says Cruz. "They accuse us of 'levantando' (raising) the people and wanting to start a revolution. I think they fear what they don't know and what they don't understand."

Although the possibility of a Chiapas-style uprising is slim in Huehuetla, the local authorities are on constant watch for actions that could be considered revolutionary. OIT meetings are watched for extranjeros, basically people who are not from the villages, and any new faces are reported to the government. Federal and state paratroopers loiter in the town's center, rifles in tow, just waiting for something to happen. Their actions nowadays, seem to be relegated to breaking up fights between drunks and whistling at the girls walking home from school.

The government accuses OIT of being too political, when it is economic and social changes that they are after. But its members view their gradual politicization as inevitable because to get anything they need the backing of a political party. "In many ways, our hands are tied," says Rodriguez, the former president. "We need a political party to have our interests represented on a wider scale."

Others disagree, saying that political parties don't change the lives of the people. "The PRD is just as bad as the PRI," says Cruz, the town's priest. "They are always seeking more votes...not because they are really interested in helping, but just so they can get into power themselves."

These are the exact words that the presidency uses against the organization. "The OIT started out good, but they have lost their vision over the years," says Rojas, the current president of Huehuetla. "Their goals changed and they have become too involved in politics without giving any concessions of power."

While the road ahead is uncertain and, no doubt, bumpy, the existence of organizations such as the OIT marks an important step in the fight for justice in Indian communities across Mexico. It has given the voiceless a voice and an opportunity to make demands of a government that has for years ignored them. It is living proof that in the most rural of places-- in the highest mountains and in the densest jungles, people are coming together under a similar vision of respect for the past and a better future for themselves and their children.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Karina Ioffee © 2008
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