on Recent Indigenous History
By Al Giordano
and Hermann Bellinghausen
Narco News 2001
25th: First Night of Zapatista Caravan
de Zaragosa, Oaxaca
By Al Giordano
The largest indigenous
city in América
awaits the arrival of the Zapatista Caravan on February 25th,
hoo-chee-tahn), Oaxaca, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,
was the site of the first resistance to the PRI crown in México
in modern decades. The Zapotecas of Juchitán and other
communities of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec also resisted the Aztecs,
the Spaniards, the French, the Gringos and the PRI - and it is
still standing as an autonomous municipality since the early
The city of 150,000 residents
(the 1990 census claimed only 70,000: the center of Juchitán,
in fact, contains twice that manipulated number), with another
50,000 farmers in the rural outskirts of the municipality, counts
with a majority of indigenous Zapotecas; that is to say, people
who still speak the Zapoteca language and adhere to its customs.
It also counts with strong populations of other indigenous ethnicities:
Zoque, Huave, Chontal and Mixe.
The Zapotecas, after constructing
Monte Alban and other advanced ceremonial centers, were driven
from their central Oaxaca highlands by the Aztecs and took root
on the Isthmus, on the main trading route between North and South
America. Many of the co-existing Huave ethnicity descend from
sailors, and have brought considerable influence to the istmeño
culture. Juchitán is, finally, a cosmopolitan city, deeply
rooted in its arts and culture, including the culture of resistance.
The residents beat back the Aztecs, they beat back the Spanish
crown, they won a key battle against the French invasion, they
confounded the US Ambassador in 1911 (as important documents
note) and, later, they beat back the PRI and established Mexico's
first autonomous municipality in 1983.
The entire state of Oaxaca
- with 55% of its residents indigenous, the only majority indigenous
state among 31 plus the federal district in Mexico - eventually
adhered to the cause of local autonomy and has the most progressive
laws in the nation guaranteeing some degree of home rule to its
towns and cities.
From the legendary times
of General José Che Gomez, who led the revolt of 1911 in the region - allied
with Zapata and Villa - Juchitán has been of considerable
worry to the US State Department in Washington. A series of communiqués
from the US Ambassador of those times - archived in the local
House of Culture (Lidxi Guendabaani, in the Zapoteca tongue)
- document the ambassador's worry over the Juchitecos, particularly
over the women. One of his memos led to the Mexican federal government
order banning the colors green and red on their blouses, as the
Juchitecas learned to fight with culture, and with language.
Or, as Juchiteco Andrés Henestrosa once wrote, "Language
is a trench!"
Anthropologists have descended
upon Juchitán for decades to study the unique economic
and family role of the Juchiteca women. Many have used the word
"matriarchy" to describe the local economic system.
A better word might be "matrilineal" - the homes and
businesses are owned by women, and passed on through the eldest
The men hold important
and none feel worse off for the different economic system that
- so contrary to the neoliberal model - places alimentation,
care for children and elders, and communal feasts at front and
center. Nobody - repeat, nobody - goes hungry in Juchitán.
How many cities of 150,000 people in the United States or the
developed world can make that claim?
Juchitán has also
brought honor upon itself through its respect for gays and lesbians.
A great many transsexuals - known locally as muxes (pronounced
moo-shays)- live openly and without fear in Juchiteca
culture. A mother is proud to have a muxe as a son. At community
festivals, known as velas, where some of the richest foods in
the hemisphere are served along with plentiful drink, the muxes
come as decked out and bold as any drag queen of New York or
London. Still others are at the forefront of Mexico's nationwide
activism against homophobia and the HIV virus.
The rebel spirit of Juchitán
permeates so many aspects of life. From the social ferment of
the sixties and seventies rose the COCEI - the Coalition of Workers,
Farmers and Students - that continues to dominate politics in
National Autonomous University
(UNAM) scholar Vladimir Escalante Ramírez, writes:
The first time in recent
history that the PRI was defeated by the vote of the people was
in Juchitan, Oaxaca, in 1980 by a grassroots peasant-student
organization called COCEI (Coordinadora Obrera Campesina Estudiantil
del Istmo). COCEI had been patiently organizing the peasants
in the Tehuantepec Isthmus for many years. No need for voter
id cards with photo, no need of international observers. It was
plain hard political work what did the trick . In fact the
vote percentages obtained by the PRD in August 21, 1994, are
not too far from those that the Communist Party got the first
time it was allowed to participate in elections after 35 years
in the underground. That was the year of 1979 when fraudulent
elections were normal.
As a footnote to his study,
The Communist Party allowed
candidates of COCEI to ride on its recently acquired legal status
to run for office in the city of Juchitan in Oaxaca in 1980.
A traditional electoral fraud was attempted by the PRI, but it
was nullified when the highly politicized and militant people
took over the city hall, and forced a second election that was
won by COCEI. The COCEI government of Juchitan was accused of
abuses of power by the PRI state government, and the army was
sent to dislodge COCEI members from the government and reinstate
a PRI government in this city of Oaxaca in 1982. You may be tempted
to say: ''So, they lost after all''. Not quite. The PRI imposed
government had to pour money over Juchitan to build schools,
hospitals, streets, sewage, and other social developments, and
also agreed to form a coalition government with COCEI in order
to regain peace and order in the city.
The story of Juchitan,
as the first city in which the PRI had lost in recent times,
and the way the PRI recovered the city government, was so embarrassing
to the PRI, that American ambassador (and new Bush nominee for
UN Ambassador John) Negroponte decided not to approve the visit
of a Harvard Fulbright scholar to Mexico to study the case in
In response to the federal
of students in Mexico City, natives of Juchitán and the
Isthmus, occupied foreign embassies in the capital, internationalizing
the conflict. Many became political prisoners, among them the
current congressman for the region, Carlos Sánchez, a
labor rights lawyer, and the current mayor Leopoldo "Polo"
Also in those times, the
general commands of the Frente Sandinista of Nicaragua and the
FMLN in El Salvador held clandestine meetings in Juchitán
without being detected or captured.
Perhaps the most important
food in Juchitán is the totopo - a hard, tortilla-like
disk made of corn, baked in special ovens, with small holes dotting
its surface - that is known for its durability. Many a guerrilla
with Che Gomez hid out in the hills for days on end with nothing
but the indestructible totopo to eat. In the 1970s, the community
sent scores of tractor-trailers of totopos to the Nicaraguan
and Salvadoran revolutions.
Juchiteca culture is filled
with laughter and political humor: while its politics are more
serious than those of other Mexican regions in general, its daily
life is loose and light, more filled with laughter and acknowledged
irony. One famous local joke, translated to English, is:
"What were the first
words that astronaut Alan Shepherd heard on the moon?"
Güero!' as a Juchiteca came running to welcome him."
There are, today, bumper
stickers on cars that proclaim nothing more than "¡Totopo
Güero!" In Juchitán there are cars, and pick-up
trucks, and local Internet service, alongside mules and oxen
and horse-drawn carriages that still occupy the streets of Juchitán.
Those who come with preconceptions of what indigenous culture
is or is not may be surprised at how a city can be cosmopolitan
without losing its identity - in this case, indigenous - to globalization.
During the night of the
1,111 masked Zapatistas - September 9, 1997, during the first
Zapatista Caravan to Mexico City - 40,000 assembled Istmeños
chanted "You are not alone!", and, "Long live
the EZLN!", and "Zapata Lives!" And then they
chanted, "Long live the artists! Long live the intellectuals!"
And I looked at these fishermen, these merchant women, these
political activists, the muxes, daily-life feminists and working
people, and thought, for the first time in years, there is hope
for us artists and intellectuals, even now, in this world.
Juchitán is place
where artists like the late Ruffino Tamayo, and the living Francisco
Toledo, Andrés Henestrosa, the current poet laureate of
Juchitan Dionisio Hernández (greeted "maestro!"
on the streets and in the market, respected for being a full-time,
usually broke, but prolific and profound poet), the scholar Victor
de la Cruz, the photographer Martha Toledo, and many others,
have fought alongside the people: thus, there is not the apartheid
between workers and artists that exists in my native New York.
Maybe, in a strange way, that night taught me some of the most
important lessons: that creativity exists only in solidarity
with the people, and never apart from it.
One of the traditional
local foods on the Isthmus is iguana. (Hint: if you end up eating
it at the insistence of your hosts, but have not yet acquired
the taste for it, proclaim "parece como pollo," it
tastes like chicken!) Also armadillo. But also fresh red
snapper, shrimp, lobster, crab, tamales, chicken in black mole,
chicken with pineapple, and a thousand foods more, including
totopos. And, between the fishing culture and the ahead-of-its-time
irrigation system that surrounds this city near the Pacific coast,
there is constant bounty.
The local cultural-political
magazine is named for the spirit of the Juchiteco: Guchachi
Reza, which is Zapoteca for, "cracked iguana,"
or, "crazy iguana." It has never accepted advertising.
What appears on these computer screens today owes something to
that lesson, too.
Caravan Arrives in Juchitán (Photo: La Jornada)
La Jornada, September 10, 1997...
Oaxaca, September 9, 1997
The moment is historic and also, it is a meeting of various
histories. A COCEI organization, already a veteran, receives
the still new EZLN in the plaza of "Sushitán,"
as the Zapatista Carlos pronounced the name of this city.
Leopoldo de Gyvas speaks,
23 years later, to the 1,111 Zapatistas that fill the colors
of the Juchitán central square. The Tzotzil sashes, the
Tzeltal embroidery, the red kerchiefs and the black ski-masks
give new life to a central square that has already lived struggles,
tragedies and triumphs.
"We share with you
the dream of rebuilding the Mexican nation on the basis of democracy
and justice," said the historic leader of the COCEI. "The
San Andrés Accords must be the foundation of the constitutional
reforms in the current session of Congress."
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec
is a threatened region. "It is in the sights of the large
economic interests," de Gyves added. "We will not accept
a progress that leaves us out. To defend the Isthmus is an act
To the representatives
of organizations in resistance, the COCEI is one that has triumphed,
one that participates in power and governs. In spite of their
differences, they are histories that are found flowering in the
the corners of a deep Mexico that has already learned to leave
the superficial one.
In the central plaza of
Juchitán, half of it filled, are found also organizations
and leaders of the region. According to Adelfo Regino, of the
Indigenous National Congress, the act is "historic."
The march of the 1,111 Zapatistas has achieved an exceptional
meeting "of the Huave, Chontal, Popoluca, Mixe, Nahua, Zapoteco,
Zoque, Chinanteco and Mixteco peoples." Also present are
Chontales from Tabasco, that is to say, all the indigenous peoples
of the Isthmus
Nothing is totally normal. Suddenly, all the organizations
present are in a agreement. This must make the federal spies
nervous that a peaceful act is so full. In spite of the participation
of the mayor of the COCEI, Roberto López Rosado, the City
Hall that is host to the Zapatistas, since 8:30 p.m. the public
telephones of Juchitán have ceased to work. As if a force
of power, that is to say, "federal," is meddling in
bad faith against a free City Hall. For the Juchitecos, it's
not good news.
The custom of resistence
is not given up after the victories and retreats.
A night had to be waited
for the Zapatistas to arrive. The heat is killing. But when the
darkness refreshes, the march travels the streets of Juchitán.
The 1,111 chant: "Mother misery/Father the void/today the
people sleeping/woke up."
An urbanized Juchitán, already without the mud-clogged
streets, greets the veteran journalists of 1977 and 1983. A small
city, strongly Zapoteca, that receives, "the great Chiapas
fighters that today lead, with dignity, the struggle of the indigenous
peoples," according to the EmCee of the COCEI sponsored
From the reception of
the Zapatistas this afternoon, the recurrent theme of the chants
has been "to remind the federal government that the Zapatistas
are not alone."
At the end of the rally,
after 10 p.m., those who are Zapatistas are already tired. It's
been a long trip below ski-masks. But they continue solidly,
filling the street in front of the municipal palace.
Before spending the night
in the Juchitán Cultural Center, Hugo reeds the main message
of the EZLN: "The evil government continues dividing us
and causing us to fight between ourselves. What we have to do
is to see who are our enemies and give them a fight without surrender
until their defeat. If we demand that the solve things for the
good, they just laugh and kick us. In all cases, they use their
bureaucratic offices to change their stance again and again in
order to divide us and leave us without hope."
There, speaking to the
organizations of the Isthmus in the house of the COCEI, Hugo
says: "Only united can we advance to construct between us
all a great Mexico where the riches will be shared between all
the Mexican people and not only a handful of millionaires, a
handful of powerful men and parasites."
More histories cross.
More histories meet each other.
Cross, Cross Again