The autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala (Oaxaca)
“An indigenous people’s non-violent efforts to find a space for political participation and representation...”
By Francisco López Bárcenas
January 10, 2007
On January 1, of this year, Oaxaca woke up with one more municipality, that of San Juan Copala, created by Triqui communities who officially belong to the Mixtec municipalities of Juxtlahuaca, Putla y Constancia del Rosario, in the western part of the state; municipalities controlled by mestizos. But this isn’t just one more municipality out of the 570 in the state. This one is autonomous, like those that indigenous peoples are constructing in different parts of the country as a way of defending their rights and building their own future.
The same state government that has been contested by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) and an important part of Oaxacan civil society, responded by claiming that the creation of this municipality has no legal grounds, and that it isn’t feasible because it doesn’t have the economic resources to function. Along the same lines, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) calls it a spectacle that does not contribute to the strengthening of state institutions. But the panorama is more complex than the state’s vision. It is a convergence of various factors: the failure of local institutions and their inability to address social demands; the concrete political situation in which the Triquis of San Juan Copala live; the historic and contemporary political processes in the region; and the government’s corrupt, anti-democratic, discriminatory, and exclusionary policies.
Just as in other parts of the country, the creation of the autonomous municipality San Juan Copala represents an indigenous people’s non-violent efforts to find a space for political participation and representation, and to address their concrete economic, political, and cultural conditions. In order to do so, they create or re-invent old institutions, adapting them according to their own needs. Each time that they do this, they appeal to their right to self-determination within their version of autonomy and they manifest this in the municipal figure, the foundation of political organization in the country. They do it without taking up arms, as is the case in some European countries.
For anyone familiar with the region, it’s no surprise that San Juan Copala and the communities of which it is made up, have been isolated for centuries, left to fend for themselves by the municipalities to which they have belonged since 1948, when the 60th state legislature threw out the category of “free municipality” that had existed since 1826. At the same time, the brutal exploitation of the Triqui as a labor force, and the irrational plundering of their natural resources continue. For that reason, the exercising of their right to autonomy represents a possibility for overcoming the political and economic domination under which they live; a possibility for equal participation in the political, economic, and social life of the state, and the country, without the loss of their own socio-cultural identity.
Through another lens, the creation of the autonomous municipality can be seen as a significant advance in the Triqui’s historic struggle for their rights. Few realize that the Triqui of Copala were the first indigenous peoples to rebel against the independent Mexican government. The creoles, who had been helped to power by the Triqui, turned around and stripped them of their territory and their governments. The first rebellion was in 1832, but was later weakened when its leaders were taken prisoner and overwhelmed by firepower. Eleven years later, they rose up again, with much more strength, in a rebellion that spread to other communities in Oaxaca and Guerrero, until it was militarily suppressed.
More recently, their struggle has roots in the seventies, when the communities formed an organization know as The Club, which years later gave birth to the Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle (MULT) which fought for a democratization of power in the region, political freedom, and the defense of their land and natural resources. Over the years, this organization changed its objectives, putting more emphasis on production projects, and growing closer to the institutions and state politicians, until in 2003 they became a political party.
Many of the MULT’s members were not in agreement with the organization’s new direction, and they broke off, forming the Independent Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle (MULTI), an organization that has had an important participation in the APPO. It appears that it was in this space that the idea for creating the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala emerged and matured.
It is necessary to understand these processes, so as not to fall prey to simplistic explanations that don’t help us understand the situation and that certainly don’t help in finding true political solutions. For the government, this is a situation that really demonstrates the magnitude of the State reform that is needed. The Triqui have the opportunity, and the challenge, to find the best path for this process, overcoming past errors and demonstrating their political ability in order to construct a new way of relating with everyone else.
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