|English | Español||November 18, 2017 | Issue #31|
A Life of Struggle
Don Andrés: Elder of Mexico’s Indigenous National Congress
By Annalena Oeffner
Don Andrés Vasquez de Santiago beside his house in the Mexican state of Guanajuato
Photo D.R. 2003 Charles Hardy
“A lot has changed,” observes the man born in 1910, the year of the Mexican revolution against the leadership of General Díaz, led by Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Many indigenous rights supporters (including don Andrés’ grandson, Juan) gathered this summer of 2003 in Oventik, Chiapas to see the birth of the latest progress of their cause: the formation of regional, autonomous Good Government Councils, which have assumed roles in the self-management of communities formerly handled only by the State. Although many of don Andrés’ colleagues from the Indigenous National Congress were present in Oventik, seven years after its foundation the organization remains an enigma to a lot of the global and Mexican supporters of the indigenous cause. It has no office, no paid staff, and it does not receive grants. Like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the CNI has often gone for many months in silence, without making a public statement. But in Oventik, for the first time since the Zapatista march to Mexico City in 2001, it suddenly reappeared again, at center stage of the struggle, an important voice that joins 56 of Mexico’s 62 indigenous ethnicities.
The struggle of the indigenous people in Mexico has a long history and is still ongoing. Despite programs by the government and international organizations aimed at the indigenous population, their situation is far from what don Andrés, the CNI delegate, thinks it should be. Speaking with don Andrés, the long history begins to unfold for the outsider.
“His memory goes back 90 years,” a good friend of his and fellow delegate of the CNI, Miguel Alvarez, explains. “Many indigenous have good memories because of all the bad things that have happened to them. You don’t forget those things.” Alvarez, who describes himself as “mestizo con corazón” (“mestizo with heart” – mestizo meaning someone of mixed indigenous/white ancestry), portrays don Andrés as “very wise and very, very intelligent.” He is tiny, but “his real greatness is in his head.” Don Andrés went to school for only a year and has been a campesino (peasant farmer) all his life. Asking Miguel Alvarez when don Andrés started to engage in politics, he replies: “At the age of reason, when he was about nine years old.”
Don Andrés has been an elected town council leader for Apaseo el Grande, Guanajuato. “I have always been with the campesinos, with those who don’t have capital,” he says. “They respect me, they are my people. I was always in opposition to the political figures.” He also explains that he would accompany people whenever they had problems with the authorities. For the last three years, however, he has not gone. “I can’t. I don’t hear, I see very little.” Still, even in recent years, he participated in various national meetings of the CNI, the Zapatista caravan of 2001, delivered remarks at last February’s drug legalization summit in Mérida, and worked as a professor there and on Isla Mujeres with the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism.
Don Andrés is poor, in the economic sense of the word. This becomes obvious immediately when squeezing one’s way through the crooked wooden gate, crossing the bumps, holes and mud of the small strip of garden to his house with its crumbling walls. There is hardly any furniture inside. Having been a peasant farmer, don Andrés does not receive any government aid. Those people like him without family do not have any source of income. Yet, don Andrés says, a lot has improved since the time when he was little: “After the revolution [of 1910] came the hunger, we didn’t have anything to eat, all the people were hungry. We only lived of wild herbs such as nopales (cactus) and beans, well, bean soup because we didn’t have enough. It was all natural, we didn’t have mills or tortilla makers. Even when the revolution had finished, there was a lot of food shortage and illness and many people died of it. In the year 1920, when I was ten, we boys earned 18 centavos daily, so that we would not go to school, because the priests did not want us to go to school. So they paid us 18 centavos for a whole day. It was a misery. Like nowadays, those who knew how to read could escape slavery.”
“I hate the priests,” don Andrés says. “I consider them traitors to human beings. They were brought by the Spaniards and were the most powerful weapon you can imagine. And they are still being used as such. The priests came to intimidate us, talking about excommunication and hell. ‘You will condemn yourselves, my children,’ they would say at those times, ‘if you take over land. The rich have the land, because they worked for it.’”
Up to 1935, don Andrés recalls, the campesinos never wore trousers. Then the governor of Querétaro, the nearest city, decreed that he would imprison anyone who did not wear trousers. Because of this “rat”, as don Andrés calls him, many people were never able to go to the city.
Don Andrés was born to parents who spoke Otomí-Ñahñú, the language of the Otomí-indigenous. In Miguel Alvarez’ opinion, the government figures undercount the number of Otomí-speakers (about 292,000 in 2000, according to the Mexican National Institute of Geographic and Information Technology statistics, given that there are still five million people with Otomí roots in Mexico. Some of those continue to live according to old traditions in secluded communities often difficult to access. When he first met Miguel Alvarez in 1992, don Andrés “had lost contact with his people and believed that the Otomís had disappeared and their language become extinct. He lives very isolated and doesn’t speak Otomí anymore, but he understands it. His parents spoke Otomí, but the children were not allowed to speak it in school. If they did, their teachers would beat them. People thus lost the relations with their ancestors, their customs etc.” According to the Christian Science Monitor, Yolandra Lastra, a Mexican linguist, argues: “Some people think a language can die out, but the culture and the knowledge will persist. I do not. I think the language and culture die together.”
Nobody can tell me exactly how many descendants the old man has. He has eleven children and is by now great-great-grandfather. Many of his family live in his little village, San Bartolomé Aguacaliente, in the state of Guanajuato, a half-hour’s drive from the city of Querétaro, north of Mexico City. Don Andrés was born there in 1910. The number of human lives lost during the 11-yearlong revolution that began the same year varies from “official” estimates of circa six percent to about a fifth of the population (according to Robert McCaa from the University of Minnesota Population Center). That revolution, says Mexican author and La Jornada columnist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, was the beginning of the modern Mexico. Its product was the “ideal nation”: la nación mestiza. In this nation, everyone was supposed to have the same opportunities, as a popular saying illustrates: “My father was a slave on a farm, and I am a revolutionary, my children set up a store, and my grandson is a government functionary.” In the 1980s, the Mexican markets were opened to foreign competition, neoliberalism made its way to Mexico. The situation for many people worsened, as educational programs (such as grants for university education) were stopped. “The rich became richer, the public facilities started deteriorating,” says Raquel Gutiérrez.
In 1992, the U.S. Congress established a Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission for the celebration of Columbus Day on October 12. It was the year of the 500th anniversary of the “Encounter of the Two Worlds.” According to Miguel Alvarez, many indigenous did not accept the celebrations in memory of the invasion of their lands, and instead protested. He says, “the Spaniards and the other Europeans came to steal. They didn’t bring anything, they just took. They didn’t bring more than the sword and they imposed their religion by force. They didn’t know how to talk. They enslaved the people, took pure gold and brought little mirrors and beads in exchange.”
All these factors led to the rising up of the Zapatistas in 1994 in the southeastern state of Chiapas to demand indigenous autonomy over their land and ways of living. Previously, there had only been indigenous organizations of national significance that fought for their rights as peasant farmers as opposed to indigenous rights. There was a government office for indigenous people, called Instituto Nacional Indigenista. Raquel Gutiérrez describes how it assisted people in selling their handicrafts, benefiting the market. “They helped them not to be indigenous. So these people were beginning to become someone else.” In her point of view, only when the Zapatistas appeared on the scene did Mexicans truly realize that there were so many indigenous in their country. Also, “we began to feel that we were indigenous too, that they were our ancestors. It was really the Zapatistas who managed to make people aware of that.”
In 1996, the San Andrés Accords were signed but have never been implemented. They set out the restoration of autonomy to all aspects of indigenous life, such as control over local government, its form and judicial processes, the media and, most importantly, their land and its resources. The same year, leaders of the various indigenous groups met in Mexico City. Among them were the Zapatista Comandanta Ramona and don Andrés. This was the first Indigenous National Congress. Although the vast majority of its members are poor farmers, they have nevertheless managed to meet several times since then.
The CNI acts as umbrella organization for most indigenous ethnic groups. Its main goal (identical with that of the Zapatistas) is the compliance with the San Andrés Accords. The PRI government’s failure to enact the agreements was a major factor for the ending of the party’s reign after 71 years in 2000. Present president Vicente Fox, who had pledged to solve the Chiapas conflict (in effect the question of indigenous self-rule) “in fifteen minutes,” has not, however, kept his promise. The reform the Mexican government did ratify in April 2001 was rejected by the Zapatistas and the CNI, for it ignored the main demands of the indigenous peoples.
According to Raquel Gutiérrez, the CNI can be both weak and strong: “It’s an organization that’s not really an organization. Only when everyone meets, it exists. If not, well, it exists because it can exist again.” When the Zapatistas marched to Mexico City in 2001, for example, they asked the CNI to mobilize the communities outside Chiapas. “But when the Indigenous Law was introduced, the CNI didn’t appear. So it is sometimes strong and sometimes not.” The problem Gutiérrez sees is the “lack of capacity to struggle on a local level.” Each community has distinct forms of living, of producing food etc. Other ones may have a similar organization, but they are not related to each other. “At the CNI meetings are regional leaders that are very representative of their communities, who live there and talk to the people. But at the meetings, they will speak about their very specific problems and they just don’t see a little bit wider. The CNI, as compared to indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador for example, doesn’t have the capacity to work on a regional level, to link between communities.”
Concerning the indigenous population, the Fox government “is doing stupid things,” claims Raquel Gutiérrez. Policies such as continuing to open the markets to foreign competition have resulted in “huge organizations of peasant farmers to demand that frontiers be closed for agricultural products.” An example of a government aid program for indigenous people is Procampo, which has since 1996 made payments to farmers based on their historical production and to make more efficient use of their resources. Gutiérrez points out that it serves the government’s interests far more than the people at whom it is aimed. “They go to the communities, register everyone and then give the women about 200 or 300 pesos [20 to 30 US dollars] per child. These children are being weighed and measured every two months. If they don’t grow and gain the weight expected by the government, they are forced to leave the program. Instead of giving the children more, since they are lacking, they are being punished for their parents’ ‘bad use of the money’. All of a sudden, these women have become rivals and start to fight among themselves. To administer such program is stupid. They are simply handout-programs, which don’t serve the people. Instead, they create conflict within communities, making it more difficult for the people to unite and to struggle for common objectives. This form of giving money is a way of controlling people. The government doesn’t only have a perfect list of them and knows what is happening, but it has a way of causing trouble, of controlling the rebellions.”
In a report for the Canadian International Development Agency, Raymond Obomsawin mentions a study in a Mexican village which revealed that Otomí school-age children knew the names and uses of 138 plants, compared to 37 for non-Amerindian children, but were considered ‘ignorant’ and in need of an education. He quotes L. Arizpe, who said that “focusing on culture and on the preservation of people’s knowledge is central in the fight against poverty.”
From personal experience, Raquel Gutiérrez talks about the “development aid” given by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Mexico: “They impose their own political agendas, or worse, the agendas of those who support them. Instead of listening to the people about their needs, they do things that were decided in other places, with other interests. When you live with indigenous, you learn and you give. But it should be an interchanging relation. You could offer to teach them one thing, maybe how to use a computer, and they might teach you in return which plants are good for you when you have a cold. You have to build up a relation where you respect the people. I’ve seen many NGO workers who are good people, well-intentioned, but who do stupid things. If I only give to you and give to you and give to you, I end up treating you like a child, a minor, like someone who doesn’t know what’s good for him.”
Treating the indigenous like minors, calling their knowledge “ignorant” – nothing could apply less to don Andrés, by now a living embodiment of the history of the indigenous struggle in Mexico. Whoever has met don Andrés will have nothing but respect for the wisdom of this man, acquired during 93 years of surviving in a world that does not give the same rights to everyone. And they will laugh with him when he claims there is nothing in his life to tell about. After a life on the fields, don Andrés knows how to predict the weather, he knows “when it will rain.” “The air is changing,” he explains, “next year will be a good year.” Nevertheless, looking at the present situation of the indigenous people, a lot still has to be done for the next years to be “good years” for everyone in Mexico. The life-long struggle of don Andrés and many others might have led to improvements, but, as he points out: “The poor continue being poor.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism