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Mexico profundo

by Peter Rashkin
In October 1996, I traveled to Mexico, first as part of a delegation from the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange and then on to Chiapas with a friend to tape some segments of my public access TV show, Todos Somos Marsos. I have been following the extremely volatile situation in Mexico for almost three years, since the EZLN rose up in Chiapas (regular Dagger readers will have seen some of the reports published here), and I hoped that some first-hand experience would deepen my understanding of the situation.

I spent three weeks in Guerrero, Hidalgo and Chiapas, areas consistently described as among the most conflicted, most impoverished, most neglected, mostly indigenous areas of the country, and I had occasion to meet with activists, campesinos priests, human rights workers, governors and mayors, local party leaders and Zapatista comandantes. I will be putting a lot of material from the trip on my web page, and I hope you will get a chance to check it out, but for now I want to share a few observations.

In the first part of the trip, we joined members of Alianza Civica, a Mexican organization that promotes free and fair elections in a country with a tradition of one-party rule, to observe state elections in Guerrero (one of the most impoverished, neglected, etc.). To observe the elections, I was sent to Tlacotepec, a beautiful 5-hour bus ride from the state capital (some of it on unpaved mountain roads). It is a town of about 4500 people, the county seat in a remote mountainous region whose people live by subsistence agriculture supplemented by occasional timber or marijuana production.

On the afternoon before election day, several of us from AC wandered about town calling on officials and party leaders. Burros laden with hay, wood or corn shared the streets with cars and trucks; children carried buckets of soaked corn to be ground for masa; pigs and dogs wandered unsupervised. There was an air of tranquillity and satisfaction that seemed familiar; it reminded me of Xico in the mountains of Veracruz, or other mountain towns, off the beaten path, that I have visited. As I stopped to take a photo, one of the election observers, a man named Diego, said to me: This is "Mexico profundo." Deep Mexico.

After the election, we joined a delegation from another Mexican NGO, Movimiento Ciudadano por la Democracia, to the mountain region called la Huasteca (one of the most impoverished, neglected, etc.). For several days we met with officials and opposition leaders, priests and bishops, prisoners and peasants. But what stands out most is a meeting that several of us had with a group of women in a community of invasarios--invaders, who had taken over the land about 12 years ago, claiming ancient inherited title and the universal right that "the land belongs to the people who work it."

When we got to the village, most of the men were away; about 15 women were clearing weeds in a fenced schoolyard. Our guide, a man from a neighboring village, spoke to them, and they agreed to meet with us. We all set under a huge tree.

At first the women spoke only Nahuatl, the ancient language of central Mexico. We would speak Spanish, and our guide would translate for the women. As they warmed up to the interview, however, many spoke Spanish. And once they warmed up, each woman wanted to tell her story of the terrible morning in May 1995 when 1500 state police arrived at their village at 5 am to drive them off. Many were beaten with guns and clubs, bones were broken, miscarriages induced, all kinds of stuff stolen. The people fled into the hills, but they returned, because if they didn't plant their corn and beans, they could not live. Talk about a marginalized community! These people are living on disputed land, cut off from support, harassed by the government. They grow their food, but to get money for tools, clothing and other necessities, they work in nearby ranches for 10 pesos (a little more than a dollar at today's exchange rate) per day. (A couple of days before, we asked a bishop what he saw as the cause of poverty in the region. "It's hot," he told us, "and the Indians are lazy!)

But here's the contradiction: these people did not look miserable or desperate. Just the opposite. They radiated a beauty and grace that seemed to spring from a deep well of tradition, a life in which the individual is tied to the soil and the community. They seemed to be living a good life.

Later, I talked to several other members of the delegation who had visited other communities. They agreed that in spite of the obvious poverty of the region, they had not observed the kind of suffering that we expect to see in such an impoverished region, and that in fact there was something ancient and valuable that still exists here but that has all but disappeared from life in the post-industrial world. Mexico profundo.

Later, in Chiapas, I interviewed Claudia, a young pediatric dentist who has given up her practice to work full time with the indigenous communities, primarily training workers to promote dental hygiene, but also treating the most severe problems. She divides her time between the CONPAZ office in San Cristóbal de las Casas and the indigenous communities where she works with some of the most impoverished, most neglected, etc. people of Mexico. Claudia has done volunteer work with the poor in Mazatlan. She says the people in Chiapas are much, much poorer...there's no comparison. Yet she feels that every time she goes to the communities, she receives more than she gives. She says that these people have a wisdom and spirituality they can share with us.

SO HERE'S a fundamental contradiction about Mexico and the world: on the one hand, it is intolerable that such dire poverty exist side-by-side with tremendous opulence in the same society. This fundamental concept of human rights goes back at least to Aristotle and the Old Testament, if not to man's biological nature. Every human has the right to a minimum level of life, enough to eat, a place to live, access to medical care, not to be beaten and tortured by jack-booted thugs, the freedom and opportunity to participate in the life of the extended community. So our hearts go out to these marginal communities, and we ask that in the name of fairness, justice and compassion, their poverty be alleviated. But on the other hand, their is something vital in these communities that is threatened by modern society.

In Chiapas, 30,000 people a year die of preventable diseases. There is only one doctor for every 1500 people, a priest at the cathedral in San Cristóbal told us. Or was it for every 15,000? Whatever. Not right. So we bring in doctors and medicine, as we should. Alleviate suffering, as we should. And more people survive, and they need more land to live on. To a certain extent, that can be addressed by fair land reform, but there is a limit because there is not unlimited land.

Chiapas produces a large percentage of Mexico's electricity, yet many of its communities are still in the dark. People told us, this is wrong, and we have to agree. Everyone should have access to electricity, for a better and fuller life. But that also gives them TV, that great modern evil filled with soap operas and other forms of propaganda.

Paved roads help the local people in many ways, but they also open them up to the ravages of modernity.

SO I CAME BACK from my Mexico adventure with no clear solutions, but with these hopes:

First for Mexico, that that depth still lived by 30% of Mexicans, be respected and preserved. Ancient values, ways of being, whatever...indescribable cultural wealth, developed over thousands of years...so much of it paved over or chopped down by the juggernaut of progress. Like ancient forests, ancient ways of life are chopped into "more productive" forms, and these cultural treasurers--the different ways that people have found to live--are lost forever. So the government has to step in and stop the juggernaut from swallowing the people, instead of serving up the people on a platter to business interests, to generate good economic reports, to become first world. A fair government that protects the people and, through taxes and public programs, provides for the protection of all its people, including the poorest. This is basic. This doesn't seem like to much to ask.

And for the US, well we have our ancient forests and ancient cultures, too. And it's not only a matter of indigenous people. All people, all cultures have rights and deserve respect. That means we protect redwoods even if it means we miss a chance to boost the gross national product. And we protect people's rights to live in many different ways. The business-driven model of the good life--the long-time job with retirement, the hefty level of consumption, all the trappings of what is considered "success"--is very powerful and leaves ever less room for those who can't or won't conform to it. If you can't have a good life as a poor person in this country, we are in trouble. Again, the government has to set a minimum standard and help people who fall below it.

And for the people of the world who are clinging precariously to pre-industrial ways, and who know that there is a value in their lives that must be preserved, I hope for success, for justice, for peace. And that they can take what they need from the so-called modern world without sacrificing what is vital in their own.

(from: Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 14, 1997)

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