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Review

Still Standing
by Published on

Part journalistic travelogue, part political manifesto, Mexico Unconquered recounts some of the more bewildering revolts and upheavals that have roiled Southern Mexico from the turn of the 20th century through contemporary times. In the author’s view, the conquest of Mexico never ended and neither did the revolts.

Gibler, a former Austinite, is a young journalist and photographer who has covered Mexico since 2006 for various publications (New Politics, Yes! Magazine, In These Times) and radio stations (Pacifica Radio and others), traveling from remote villages to the streets of the capital. His on-the-ground observations, rich with detail, are deepened by his consideration of a larger question: Why, given how increasingly divided Mexico is, does it remain unconquered?

The book begins with a valiant attempt to summarize 2,500 years of history in the first chapter’s 30 pages, emphasizing the diversity of indigenous cultures and languages already in place by the time of the Aztecs. And while the Aztecs themselves were conquerors, in Gibler’s view, the arrival of Europeans was a “turning point in the evolution of imperialism.” Spanish imperialism prevailed through the spread of lethal new diseases and the dispossession of indigenous groups.

The dispossession continues to this day, perpetuated by what the author calls “internal colonization,” aided and abetted by U.S. designs on Mexico. Gibler argues that “colonial authority in New Spain laid the foundations for several pillars of contemporary Mexican politics: centralized power, monopoly, capitalism, corruption and cronyism, caciquismo [the domination and influence of a local political boss, or cacique], racism, class stratification, and labor exploitation.” He then sets out to delineate Mexico’s rich history of revolt, the uprisings by which Mexicans-particularly indigenous peoples-have responded to centuries of exploitation.

Seeking solutions to the “Indian problem” has been an urgent matter for Mexico’s ruling elites since the time of the Spanish Conquest. This was probably never quite so apparent as when trouble erupted in Chiapas in 1994, just as then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari was about to announce Mexico’s entrance into the 20th-century global village by signing on to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexico Unconquered

Gibler paints a sobering picture of countless abandoned towns in the Mexican heartland, byproducts of NAFTA, and the resulting mass migration to the United States. Some of this section’s most insightful comments come from one Dr. López, a 40-year-old native of Cerrito del Agua, a bare-bones village in the state of Zacatecas.

“The whole culture now is that people grow up and go to the United States: their parents, their uncles, their brothers and sisters, everyone goes,” López tells Gibler. “The kids who are strong and smart, they all go … they come back and spend their dollars on American products. It’s a nice, round business. Everyone here depends on the United States. If this isn’t a colony, then how do you define colony?”

Gibler also offers a passionate account of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, but of course this struggle has already been well documented and thoroughly discussed elsewhere. This book’s real contribution to the issue of indigenous revolt may be in providing up-to-date information about lesser-known resistance struggles in Oaxaca and Guerrero states, along with an examination of their theoretical underpinnings.

No book on contemporary Mexico would be complete without a mention of the ongoing war on drugs and the heavy toll it exacts on multiple levels of Mexican and American society, but Gibler’s approach is to discuss the conflict in the context of rule of law. Drug trafficking is Mexico’s No. 1 source of revenue, ranked above oil and immigrant remittance both. Mexican police and government officials have been involved in the drug trade for decades, but since the 1990s they’ve gone from turning a blind eye to direct participation. Gibler wonders whether it makes any sense to speak of corruption and violence as an aberration of the system: “…arbitrary detention, systematic use of torture by all levels of police and the armed forces, and total impunity for officials. Can such widespread and enduring practices be considered irregularities of the system? No. They are the system.”

It could be argued that a purely journalistic account would be incomplete without a theoretical prism through which to interpret it. While Gibler’s research is solid and well documented, the prose in which it’s couched sometimes reads like a graduate thesis crowded with too many quotations. Casual readers may want to skip the theory-heavy chapters and simply enjoy the revealing first-person accounts of the Oaxaca uprising, eyewitness observations of the now-empty Mexican towns, and the tragedy of immigrants attempting to cross the border, preyed upon by predators on both sides.

One of Gibler’s most engrossing interviews is a chapter-long conversation with imprisoned guerrillera Gloria Arenas Agis. Agis was a colonel in the Insurgent People’s Revolutionary Army in Guerrero state. Her testimony about injustices suffered by women growing up in poverty, her subsequent political awakening, and her active role in this persecuted rebel group is fascinating. Her story is reminiscent of Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin, but not as in-depth, a chapter rather than a book-length memoir.

Gibler is at his best-informative, entertaining, provocative and fluid-in his chronicle of the Oaxaca uprising, which began when a powerful teacher’s union, Section 22, went on strike. The strike developed into a citywide revolt involving all sectors of society and demanding the ouster of corrupt Governor Ulises Ruíz in 2006. Teachers, their supporters, and members of the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly took over several downtown buildings and a couple of radio stations, effectively controlling the city for about five months.

Just as the Oaxacan people removed pavestones to build barricades and erected plastic-sheet tent cities, so did the disruption and reorganization of their city allow them to break down social barriers and speak honestly neighbor-to-neighbor. By taking over radio and TV stations for a few days or weeks, they were able to tell the unfiltered truth about their circumstances, emboldening each other to action.

While Gibler clearly sympathizes with (and to some degree romanticizes) their struggle, the casualty counts (11 dead, four abducted, scores wounded) make it unclear whether anything has changed. Governor Ruíz is still in power, hundreds of children lost half a year of schooling, and many still lack shoes-one of the strikers’ initial demands. Tourism dried up, businesses went bust, and local government operates with as much impunity as ever.

And while Mexico remains a deeply divided country in terms of race and class, of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, Gibler’s book is ultimately filled with hope. As evidenced by the current multinational financial crisis, viewable as a crisis of capitalism, much may be learned from alternative and creative social movements. Perhaps, as the guerrilla fighter Agis wisely states: “…revolt has to do with building-starting now and from the grassroots-what you want the future to hold. Many say that we need to take power, but I think that we need to build power from below, and starting now.”

As long as people like Gloria Agis, courageous individuals in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, and ordinary citizens all over Mexico continue to resist the forces that would keep them impoverished and powerless, Mexico seems likely to remain unconquered, 500 years of colonial history be damned.

Poet and literary translator Liliana Valenzuela was born and raised in Mexico City. Her most recent translation is Las caras de la suerte, a novel by Cristina García. She lives in Austin.