Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Walking the Talk – Reflections from my trip to Mexico with Witness for Peace

by Ivory Taylor
          San Juan Chilateca, Oaxaca, Mexico – Our Witness for Peace Midwest delegation arrived in the small town of San Juan Chilateca on a warm day in mid-January. We were met by Román, a community member who, along with his family, runs a small farm and home using eco-friendly and traditional methods of cultivation and building. We walked from the bus up a small road where murals decorated the walls of buildings and a cone-shaped granary showed evidence of former rural development efforts. As the road changed from pavement to dirt, we came upon Espacio Cruz, the family farmstead set against a stunning backdrop of mountains and blue skies. 
photo by Ivory Taylor
   Upon arrival at the farm, we sat down to learn about the history of the place we were in. Román explained the construction of the farm, and the reason why he and his family created a space which honors the cultural history of San Juan Chilateca and embraces traditional ways of rural living. Until approximately three decades ago, adobe builds were a traditional construction method used by a wide variety of families in Oaxaca. The benefits of adobe builds are numerous. A main advantage, as Román explained, is there is no specialized knowledge necessary to build with this material, unlike other methods such as cement and timber building.  Additionally, this type of build is low-cost. The adobe clay mixture comes from the Earth, and the roof, walls, windows, and fences can all be constructed using sugar cane reeds found in local streams. Materials from daily living are recycled into building components as well, such as soda bottles used for constructing walls and the aluminum lining in milk or juice cartons acting as insulators from heat and cold between the ceiling and the one store bought material, corrugated metal roofing. A composting toilet provides fertilizer for fruit trees and flowers, and an ecological stove (brasero) uses dry wood from fields, acting as a low-impact alternative to electric and gas ranges.     

photo by Ivory Taylor
   Learning about Espacio Cruz from this perspective was very interesting, especially as our global society searches for ways to lessen our impact on the planet as we try to backtrack from decades of environmental and economical degradation. However, it was our lesson on traditional ways of living as a form of resistance that particularly made me sit up and take notice. Román explained that his family had decided to create Espacio Cruz, not just for practical reasons, but for political ones. To further explain, Oaxaca has been the site of indigenous resistance to land-theft, megaprojects, government repression, and rural development efforts for years, so there is a long history of struggle and social activism in the state. 

On the subject of this, in 2000, Román married Yasmín, and together they began organizing in their community around issues of corruption and misuse of community funds by the local government, inspired by the Zapatista resistance movements in Chiapas in the 1990’s. During this time, their efforts were supported by the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática). From 2004-2006, they separated from the PRD due to corruption, fragmentation, and disloyalty. It was also during this time that the teacher’s movement was started in Oaxaca. Román, a teacher for five years, would work in Seccion 22, a dissident teachers unions, from 2009-2013. On the topic of what subjects he taught, Román expressed that he wanted to be an English teacher, but decided against it when he realized that English was the language of the colonizers, and to teach the language would be to endorse their beliefs and actions. This was a powerful statement which brought to the forefront the importance of language preservation and cultural survival. 

photo by Ivory Taylor
From 2007-2009, the family participated in a community radio program in a neighboring town. Román was in charge of the news program, while Yasmín created a children’s program with their daughter Quetzali. Using this platform, the family spoke out against government corruption and brought international news to the community, such as the case of three Mexican students who were killed by the Colombian government in Ecuador. Unfortunately, as a result of these acts of resistance, the family began to be threatened and followed and, after consulting with someone from Comité Cerezo México, an organization in Mexico City which works to protect the rights of human rights defenders, they decided to leave the radio station. 

Since 2014, Espacio Cruz has worked on creating a process of autonomy, of constructing a space that is free from government relationships. “To build something by ourselves, organize by ourselves – this is the way to live,” says Román. The family works to continue their mission of informing communities and strengthening networks in order for people to protect themselves.  They travel to Oaxaca City every two days to collect international newspapers and publish the news on the internet with information about the goings-on of the valley region. They also print a magazine with verse, art, culture, history, news, and information about megaprojects, GMO crops, and the social and ecological repercussions  of capitalist interference (such as poverty, higher temperatures, loss of natural water filtration, and animal death). Quetzali contributes to these magazines using her great eye for graphic design and storytelling through imagery. 

At the end of our discussion, we were invited to stay for a meal of chicken mole verde, farmer’s cheese, tortillas, and horchata. The freshness of the food and the richness of its flavor was a testament to the love and hard work that the family puts into Espacio Cruz everyday. We were also able to view and purchase beautiful works of embroidery, which the family creates together as a hobby. 

           It was such an incredibly humbling experience to be invited to learn from a family who lives their values so thoroughly. The visit to the farm was, for me, one of the most meaningful experiences I had during our delegation. As I continue to engage in activism in my own way, and learn from the ways in which others participate in changing their communities, I will look back often on my trip to Espacio Cruz and hope to continue learning from Román, Yasmín, and Quetzali’s lessons in the future. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bringing the Land and People Together in Mexico

by Mickey Foley (originally published on April 18, 2016 on the Land Stewardship Project website)
On day two of our trip, we visited EDUCA (which stands for the Spanish equivalent of "Services for an Alternative Education"), an NGO located in Oaxaca City. It was housed in a two-story building, with a wall out front and a formidable door.
EDUCA was formed in 1994 to promote civil participation, indigenous rights and indigenous leadership. That year was a turning point in the history of Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect and, in response, the Zapatista uprising began and Mexican civil society emerged. EDUCA was inspired by the Zapatistas to organize indigenous communities on the local level. There are 10,000 such localities in Oaxaca.
The speaker, Miguel Angel Vásquez de la Rosa, outlined 6 Pillars of Indigenous Resistance: language (the indigenous mother tongue), territory (80 percent of Oaxacan land is communally owned), the community assembly, community work (tequio, which is unpaid), volunteer positions (cargos) and celebration (Fiesta!).
The word "democracy" has been so thoroughly discredited by its association with the Mexican (and U.S.) establishment that they've come up with a new word to describe the form of government they want to create: "communalocracy"—rule by the community. They want to replace the nexus of corporate and government power that has impoverished Oaxaca, especially its indigenous inhabitants.
The Mexican government has been supporting energy and mining mega-projects in Oaxaca, ostensibly to relieve poverty. But these projects— even the wind farms and hydroelectric dams—have ruinous environmental and economic consequences for the locals. The primary effect (and, likely, the purpose) of these projects is to dispossess indigenous people.
This has led to emigration from Oaxaca to northern Mexico and the U.S., which has caused disintegration of the social fabric, as well as poverty and violence. Even many of the Tachuatl, or "Snake People," the traditional guardians of the land, have been forced to leave. EDUCA believes these issues can best be remedied on the local level.
Thence, we took a fleet of taxis to the Pochote organic market. In my taxi, we spoke with the cabbie, whose English was decidedly better than our Spanish. He'd lived in Mexico City until the age of 4 when his dad split and his mom returned home to Oaxaca. My fellow delegate Sue said, "Qué lástima" ("How sad"). As we paid him 50 pesos and bid him adieu, I wondered if we could've done more to help him.
People in need pass through our lives all the time, and we rarely take the time to make even a token effort. The needy in Mexico were more obvious and numerous than those back home, but poverty in the Twin Cities has become more visible in the past few years. There are so many poor and so few rich wherever you go. I think spare change can help, but big change, like repealing NAFTA, is what's really needed.
The Pochote market was in a picturesque old square with a church. After picking up lunch from the stands there, we listened to two speakers. The first was a woman who wrote a book on nutritional sovereignty in 2000, featuring recipes from the Mixe region. Her mantra was: “Food is life. Food is knowledge.” They don't waste food. Even if a kernel of corn falls, they pick it up and use it. Before producing the food, and throughout the process, they ask permission from the Earth. They give thanks when they eat and when they harvest.
The Pochote organic market provides a place for campesinos
and local producers to sell their goods. 
(photo: Eric Nelson)

Food reinforces community organization. Kids participate, older folks measure out ingredients, women cook, men bring chairs and firewood. Different kinds of tamales are used in certain rituals: in the corn ceremony to give thanks for the harvest, at weddings for the parents of the bride, and for the Day of the Dead and wakes.
The second speaker was a local farmer. He told us that the market allows campesinos and local producers to sell their goods. It's difficult to create this kind of space with the transnational corporations dominating the economy. He talked about how organic agriculture tries to transform nature in ways that are benign. These farmers cure their animals homeopathically, use their manure for compost and plant their own saved seeds in double-dug beds. Through this approach, producers are spiritually, economically and socially strengthened.
That night, we wandered the square, which was full of people, mariachi bands and some dancing. A bedraggled group sat on the steps of a seemingly abandoned building with what appeared to be political banners. It looked like they’d been sitting there all day, if not longer. They’d wait until Doomsday, it seemed, until they got the change they wanted.
Land Stewardship Project member and frequent volunteer Mickey Foley was a participant in the LSP-Witness for Peace Mexico delegation. You can read more of Foley's reflections from the trip at his blog.