The following is the first essay in a compilation of three essays and two declarations by Indians of the northern Sierra of Oaxaca, which can be found here: Communality and Autonomy
Autonomy and self-determination: The past and future of and for our peoples.
by Jaime Martínez Luna
translation by George Salzman and Nancie Davies
Note:. Where a term may be unclear, I included, in italics, a numbered explanatory note, as e.g.  followed by the note.
Perhaps at no moment of our history have the indigenous peoples been at such a historic juncture, in which the analysis of our self-determination was the most certain window to guarantee our survival as peoples, as society. Self-determination has been an eternal dream of our communities. Some, because of geography, and also organizational structure, have succeeded in maintaining a certain margin of this self-determination, which has always resulted in a tense relation with the nation-state. The large majority of indigenous communities have endured subjugation: territorial and physical extermination, and even worse, cultural genocide.
We think this is a very important moment to describe and thereby, from the practice, to understand what is or was our self-determination, as well as to sketch the self-determination that we desire, the self-determination to which we aspire. It is not easy for me to generalize, owing to the many events, actions and consequences we have endured for the sake of self-determination. Nevertheless, we can start from our immediate experience to speak of what we have faced in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca, and from that experience distill some observations that may be useful for understanding what happened in other regions.
Our existing self-determination
We encounter this self-determination more clearly in political matters. Our communities have been organized in such a manner that they rely on very precise and crystal-clear forms of participation. The assembly is the supreme authority in the community. It is the meeting of all heads of families, in which the women also take part. Silent members participate in the assembly the same as those who speak, field workers equally with artisans and professionals. In the assembly they always work for consensus, although in many cases and for practical matters they use decision by majority. Election of official leaders
 The phrase La elección de las autoridades, although translated as Election of official leaders, does not mean election by counting ballots for competing candidates as in elections according to formal democratic norms. Election here is ideally by consensus — but not always — of the assembly. Also, las autoridades, translated as official leaders, means people who are vested with official status but who do not have the kind of executive power, i.e. coercive power backed up by police, sheriffs, etc. normal in non-indigenous cultures. The task of las autoridades is to obey and be leaders in carrying out the directives of the assembly. Their responsibilities are called their cargos, their burdens of responsibility.
does not reflect any campaign promises or political party alignments. It is based on prestige, and prestige is defined by performance. What counts is work and ability in the tequio
 Tequio is an indigenous term for voluntary (i.e. unpaid) labor in which all members of the community are expected to participate, in one way or another, on various community projects. Repairing community buildings, cleaning the community clinic, studying law and subsequently providing unpaid legal work for the community are examples of the variety of work different community members may undertake to fulfill their tequio as they ascend the ladder of increasing responsibility assigned them by the community.
in the field, in collaboration, in obedience, in sensitivity in thought; in other words, in all aspects of work. Official leaders, in their assigned capacities, respond to a plan of participation which at the same time effectively encourages and pressures them. This is especially noteworthy if one takes into account that fulfillment of their assigned duties does not insure an income. Indeed, the norm is that the post be unpaid work and for the permanent benefit of the community. Some compañeros
 A compañero is someone with whom a bond exists, with whom one is involved in some project, whether it be as a fellow villager, a partner of a couple, a fellow soldier, etc.
have pointed out that if these positions were remunerated by the state, it would not be possible, on a cost basis, to get as much valuable work for the community as by tequio.
Political representation in a community is the result of directly living together day-to-day. It is based on the profound knowledge of each citizen, on the abilities each shows since childhood. The elders who have shown their dedication and ability are consulted in order to indirectly steer, or serve as advisors for each official leader during his term. Many books have been written about our communal organization, but few people have been able to read about and comprehend it as a political organization that, without being able to explain itself as democracy, permeates the daily life of our peoples.
This political organization has been pressured to adapt itself to the nation-state. How? Through pacts or agreements. The community allows for the officials who were elected to appear on the slate of the party in power, provided they respect the community’s internal decisions. In other words, the community forgoes its formal presence in a realm external to the community, provided its internal integrity is respected. In that way our communities, which do not exceed seven thousand inhabitants, and most of which average two thousand, guarantee their political self-determination. Political self-determination is what we observe in our region in a more obvious way, although as you understand, it is limited to its regional expression.
 Since this essay was written, the state law of Oaxaca was changed so that official leaders of indigenous communities chosen in the traditional way (see  above) are now recognized by the state.
That is to say, the community cannot participate at higher political levels. The government powers take advantage of these higher levels to name leaders who are more convenient for their interests. Thus we are speaking of political self-determination limited to the communal realm. For now we leave this point to examine what happens in other domains, such as territorial, economic, educational, legal, and cultural.
The territorial base of self-determination
Winning territorial self-determination has been the struggle that has drained the most blood. This is the effort that has taken the most lives, and this fact has a nodal explanation. It is the land that is the basis of physical and social reproduction of each community. This is now much clearer to us because of what our brothers in Chiapas have endured, and because of their action and response in the face of this situation.
Without land there is no community. Before the arrival of the Spaniards on our continent, it’s possible that there may not have been as much pressure on the land as in our times. It’s possible that our ancestors may have been more nomadic, although one cannot think exclusively along this line because it’s possible that the territories were specified, clearly according to other rules, but nevertheless determined. The fact that a war exists in Chiapas shows the necessity for land. The argument is as old as Zapata’s own dream, but also as contemporary as the dream of the new Zapatistas with whom, generally speaking, all of us, the indigenous peoples, identify.
In our region the struggle for land has confronted entire communities, not so much individual proprietors. Perhaps that is because of its ruggedness or its low commercial value. The fact is that 90% of the land is communal, that is to say it is protected and used in conformity with communal designations and plans. This gives our region a very special character, which allows it to reproduce its political self-determination with greater assertiveness and assurance. Here conflicts have taken place, as we already said, between communities. Consequently, from this perspective, we think it follows that territorial self-determination is also part and parcel of our social essence. Within each community family land usage of traditional character, i.e. tenancy, always exists. Each community respects it with all the force of law, however, communal law. In the last fifty years the intrusive presence of the state has had the consequence that each family, so as to guarantee the security of its property, i.e. its right of tenancy, undertook to have it registered, despite the legal statute assuring its tenancy. However, this is no more than another game that the community performs in confronting the traps of the state, or if they are not traps, at least a tortuous maze, in order to feel secure about what it has. The fights among communities are those that have robbed us of most sleep. Entire families of neighbors have suffered confrontations. Time has healed and calmed many of these conflicts, however in fifteen per cent of our communities, we still see this kind of attitude and bitterness. Each family decides what to do with its parcel. Of course the family can sell it, but the use of the land will always be scrutinized by the whole community, which will be antagonistic to an influx of outsiders or to their buying property that belongs exclusively to the community. However the freedom to sell it is there, clear and sharp, and that’s not due to Article 27 of the constitution, but to the community’s own internal laws. The communal lands, look out!, those indeed are sacred and those not even the devil can touch, because their use must be approved by the membership of the community, and besides, there has to be a profound respect for this land. Communal land is in fact sacred. And this points us to a fundamental aspect of communal life which unfortunately our Chiapan brothers do not now have, the security of Mother Earth.
From this perspective territorial self-determination has two, or rather three fundamental aspects. The first is that property belongs to the community; the second is that it can be used only in customary ways; and the third is that everything can be arranged internally, within the community. Precisely for that reason self-determination is possible provided that you have the consensus of the community and that you yourself participate in decisions about work. This self-determination does not put to one side the danger heralded by Article 27 of the constitution. The land can in principle be sold, but if the community is united and does not give its prior permission, the margin of danger is considerably reduced.
With all this, what we begin to affirm is that territorial self-determination can be possible without the meddling of the Mexican state, and as such can be a new relationship confronting the nation-state and a new mode for the self-determination of the life of our peoples. And a demanding way in which we remake ourselves!
Will economic self-determination be possible?
We Zapotecos, Chinantecos and Mixes can resolve land disputes among ourselves, provided there is no intervention by a governmental authority with which each community seeks to affiliate so as to gain advantage in realizing its interests. But is self-determination possible within our own economy? Is it possible in the real world of our day-to-day interests? In the daily effort we must make to survive each day?
Here is where the problems begin, yes, because it would be preferable if we worked the land in accord with our natural needs. However, the fact that we belong to a larger economic system makes our life more complex. To begin with, corn is our main source of food, or at least it continues to be, despite the problems that we will point out here. Our lands, truly rugged, were worked with the sweat of our grandfathers and, as late as the sixties, kept us on our feet. We were even able to make our clothes in the traditional way, our huaraches (sandals), our huipiles (blouses), our mecapales (porter’s cord, cloth or leather harnesses that go around the forehead and support the load on the back) in our simple, easy way. The market arrived with cheaper things. We began to replace wheat with milled wheat flour from the city; the same happened with clothing, with footwear; we began to import vegetables. Our elders saw it was easier to go abroad than to remain in the village and suffer what was already too much. Our production of corn dropped irreversibly, and along the way a government store
 MASECA, CONASUPO . . .
came that began to sell a much cheaper variety of corn than we produce. Everything fell apart.
But the biggest problem came earlier. They trained us to cultivate coffee, and as a consequence, we saw that in some communities the sale of coffee allowed us to build larger houses. Some villagers even began to exploit others of our own community. Thus towns grew, individuals and families enriched themselves; but the problem came at that moment when the price of coffee dropped irreversibly, simply because we had no role in setting the price, and at that point, right there, everything was screwed up. Our dreams of building roads to take out our coffee remained locked up, and so it was that we began to understand that the economy was not in our hands. The mining industry was an example; and later forestry. Let’s talk a little about this.
Three centuries ago, the Spaniards thought that our region was rich in mineral resources; they were not mistaken. From that wealth lived some tens of families, and fundamentally from our sacrifice. Even in the present century the community of Natividad came to hire more than five hundred workers, and thus to replicate the exploitation of a natural resource of ours, which was always in their hands.
Way back in the forties “green gold” began to attract small businessmen, who assembled sawmills in Ixtlán, and I don’t remember where else. In 1955 the Mexican government declared our forest a concession for 25 years, initially to a Canadian company, later state-owned. We had the timber, but we could sell it only to the Fábricas de Papel Tuxtepec (Tuxtepec Paper Manufacturing Company). This is a long story about which many, especially in our region, know much more than I. The fact is that at the end of the 25 years, the communities succeeded in halting the voracity of the state, which wanted to continue benefitting businesses in which politicians had interests. Then a new struggle began, more focussed within the community, and for this reason more unifying. New internal problems arose, we don’t deny it, but at least they were our own.
Returning to our theme, we think that undoubtedly there are rough obstacles on the road to economic self-determination. Let’s list some: the production of essentials is not appreciated by anyone. Children don’t want to do it because their own parents believe that it doesn’t help much; grains other than corn, such as wheat and beans faced the challenges of lower prices that weakened or undermined the incentive for producing them.
On the other hand, the mining industry did not solve the great need for work. This needs a little more thought because according to information we have, mineral resources are plentiful. On the other hand forestry faces the problems of the worldwide recession. Prices of timber do not encourage production, and furthermore, up to now the logic of existing communal enterprises does not allow this sector to mature and improve production. Well, we have to recognize the factors responsible; that we ourselves are also to blame, as well as the market on which we depend. However, forestry, well organized, could carry us to new and more fruitful horizons.
In order to end, or rather to begin to end this section, which deserves much reflection, what I think is that more intelligent self-determination requires participation of all the people of the Sierra Juárez; that the more difficult part of self-determination, but also the most definitive, is the economy. I am certain that an organized Sierra Juárez can succeed, but this has to be the conviction of everyone, and be based on the needs and security of all. Economic self-determination is vital and is what most deserves to be nurtured, if indeed it can be a self-determination that guarantees the unending survival of our future generations. But to achieve this the participation of everyone will be needed.
the remaining part translated by Nancy Davies nmsdavies @yahoo.com
In the decades of the twenties and thirties, a strong community educational system existed. Municipal teachers existed, and the community had the freedom to choose them, it even contributed part of their wages. The teachers, in the absence of pedagogic materials, drew from the community experience, that is to say, the student was closer to his culture. The use of their language, more than a line of work, was a necessity before the apabuyante pedagogic monolingualism. The lessons reflected an intense relationship with work and play. Many of the main or characteristic people of the communities, who at the present time guide the life of our towns, were educated under this system; moreover, most of the communal lands were determined in that time under the leadership of those old teachers.
At the beginning of the decade of the fifties and then well into the sixties, the central control of education began to undermine and to damage this educational system, full of accomplishments.
The bureaucracy was fully present in the sixties and seventies, Many educational models were being linked to without reason or any consultation. This situation began to generate in the teachers an autonomy, that is to say, a lawless process. They began to not respect the (community) principles, but worse was the fact that there was no compass. The work of the educators began to be a simple response to central planning. The reality of all this process was that it transformed the educational process into a road without direction; within the teaching profession a sequence of bad habits were converted to demands of a personal nature and never to an educational nature. There were always the exceptions, but the reality was definitive; education no longer reflected the personality of the community. This has been written about many times; it suffices that we remember it.
Autonomy in educational matters is usually understood in a practical way in a turn to the past. Nevertheless we don’t think so; the turn to the past means to evaluate the achieved and so design a more free, community educational future. But here the problem begins.
At this time, all initiatives for community education affect in a direct way the teaching profession. In the first place, because it goes against their union interests, basically because the teachers fought for a very important democratic recovery in the decade of the eighties. This has made them statues, inert to the possibility of understanding that they have lost sensibility, or that they have lost the concerns of their occupation.
All this has passed so recently that it is very difficult to affirm the pros and the cons of their own process. Other have done it. It was left to us to analyze what we have been expecting from them and what we have not still found.
Starting from all this, we think that self-determination in educational matters relates to the fact that the community takes charge of education in a direct way. This seems easy, for some, but also very difficult for others. The case is that the teachers can be selected as a function of our community practices; that is to say, with loyalty to the work and a commitment that the prepared individuals and not in fact the lawyers determine the education of our children, provided they respond to the necessity of relating the values and the principles of our culture with the information in a global way, as our children should receive it.
This breaks with the old schooled methodology of power, it also breaks with the rhythms of cloistered scholarship, it also breaks with the sage’s power in front of the ignorant, and it also breaks with the authority of hierarchy, up to down. We should break it all. But to do it we must pass through many openings. The same number of openings that exist in our region and in others.
It is time to understand that the community should carry intellectual responsibilities, that we are societies which have a past and a future, that we are humans together, that we are sensitive to progress. The world should know that we are not people virtually chained to being cheap manpower and sacrifice so that others may live more comfortably.
Educational self-determination is in the doorway, of outlook, of language, and of thought. We believe in it and we know that we can have it. What we need is simply trust. In what we want, in what points to our future. In what we dream, which after all is memory, and what we decide, which is in the certain truth that the current educational system has come to its end.
Our rights and juridical and cultural self-determination
This last part, on first reflection, takes us to the roughest aspect of our reality, the question that refers to human rights, or to our elementary rights as humans.
Maybe since the arrival of the Aztecs to the Valley of Oaxaca, human rights have been truly violated. However, it is not until the arrival of the Spaniards that this concept begins to emerge from our rage as an overwhelming necessity. They practically exterminated us. They were completely able to, and so we are now chatting with them about our misfortunes and our hopes; but indeed they demonstrated to us that barbarism doesn’t have limits in those cultures that want to be hegemonic. Our current reality is that the mestizo culture also wants to be hegemonic. Our current reality is that the mestizo culture also wants to be hegemonic and that Mexico sells the role of mestizo culture.
As always, we were people who received the worst offenses, murders, violations, etc. It hurts us, but we resist the punishment because we don’t deserve it. The compañeros of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation affirm: “We don’t ask for alms or gifts, we request the right to live with the dignity of human beings, with equality and justice like our ancient parents and grandparents.” This declaration had been understood as sensible or at least informed three centuries ago. The situation is that this declaration is made in this century, in this year and in this month.
The people of the Sierras, Zapotecos, Chinantecos and Mixes, we can ask ourselves many things. Where is justice? Why is jail the only alternative? Why does all punishment have to be understand as prison? How many people have commented that when somebody kills another leaving a widow, in our towns the murderer can be punished by filling the obligation to feed the widow. The law imprisons the murderer and what is achieved is to leave destitute not one widow but two, and the children of both.
With all this, what we want to say is that justice is, and should be, an opportunity for our knowledge. Justice is not a simple legal agreement that is always a matter of bargaining between discourse and form. The legitimate law is instead the popular answer to what should be done and how, which all accept and which all respect. It is not advisable to follow the parameters that the general society has inculcated in us because it has a strong identity of authoritarianism and negotiation. Shady deals and corruption; it’s necessary to understand that men can decide justice, and not only lawyers because they live off it, but also those beings that from their social practice begin to distill findings of great importance.
The traditional law has always exercised it. However, we think that it is not possible to continue depending on decisions of regulations and laws that don’t recapture our experience. The jails for us have never been a solution, on the contrary, they are a new problem. The same can be said of government bureaucracy that considers its knowledge as the center of power, not from reflection but from shady deals and for the same corruption. Our law is there parked in the same place, taken advantage of when our old ones consider it convenient and so it doesn’t affect the general rhythm of our daily life. The rest always will be dirtied by the precepts of a justice that has formality, but never social fulfillment.
Can there be juridical self-determination among our towns? I say yes. The important thing is an agreement and a pact with the state. First, for the disappearance of prisons, that is to say of these institutions called Centers of Social Re-adaptation; then, that the agencies of the Public Ministry and the tribunals cease to exist. Their existence has reproduced as after-effects the corruption of those subjected to them throughout centuries.
Self-determination is finally how much we trust ourselves. It is the possibility to govern ourselves. They are the desires of making a different and more harmonious society.
From this perspective, self-determination has to be understood as everyone’s daily work, and a new way of understanding the future.
From what we have written, self-determination is a reality and also a hope. We have relative political autonomy, because we enjoy it in community terms. We have territorial autonomy and this is the responsibility of the communal forces. We have serious questions about economic self-determination, but up to now we don’t understand this problem; it will be reflection or daily work.
In fact, we had never wondered about the future of our self-determination. This historical moment grabs us the same as the new Zapatistas, since we had been seeking it, but never had we thought of it as a general project. This is the dilemma; however what these comments seek is to begin to understand what an effective way is, and can it be self-determination.
Take these reflections as a proposal, not always sure, but yes, with desires of advancing in what we have been thinking in this Sierra corner for many years.
Jaime Martínez Luna
Guelatao de Juárez, C.P. 68770, Oax., México
Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.