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Essays on Recent Indigenous History

By Al Giordano and Hermann Bellinghausen

Narco News 2001

¡Totopo Güero!

Juchitán Awaits EZLN

February 25th: First Night of Zapatista Caravan

Juchitán de Zaragosa, Oaxaca

By Al Giordano

The largest indigenous city in América awaits the arrival of the Zapatista Caravan on February 25th, 2001.

Juchitán (pronounced 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 1980s.

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 daughter.

The men hold important political positions 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 the region.

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 [3]. 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, he adds:

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 1988.

In response to the federal repression, hundreds 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" de Gives.

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?"

The answer:

"'¡Totopo, 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.

1997 Zapatista Caravan Arrives in Juchitán (Photo: La Jornada)

A Narco News Flashback

Translated from La Jornada, September 10, 1997...

Where Histories Meet

By Hermann Bellinghausen

Juchitán, 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 of patriotism."

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 rally….

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.

Histories that Cross, Cross Again