Las Americas

Whose Indians


In the white morning mist hanging high above the wide valley where the ground was being prepared for spring planting, “Tata” Gregorio Alvarez, 101, fixed tea of the nuriti bush for an old friend with all the dexterity of a Japanese tea master. The centenarian, a Purepecha Indian farmer, was curious. The legendary Subcomandante Marcos and his ski-masked Zapatista rebels had just arrived in these distant mountains and Tata Goyo wanted to know what they wanted. Just down the hill, Doña Teresa García, a great grandmother who still tends her cornfields, was equally puzzled. Although several truckloads of neighbors had gone off to see the fabled rebels, Doña Tere could not join them. She was born into the Mexican revolution of 1910-1919, and at 90 remembers well the hard times of childhood. “These Zapatistas, do they speak cristiano?” she asked, wondering whether they spoke Spanish.

Two mountains and valleys southwest, in a Purepecha town named Nurio, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a confederation that includes representatives of most of Mexico’s Indian peoples, was preparing to receive the comandancia of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Nurio was a key stop on the 3000-kilometer odyssey of the rebels from Chiapas during their “dignity march” to pressure the Congress into passing a landmark Indian Rights law that would guarantee autonomy for Mexico’s 57 distinct indigenous nations. Played against a backdrop of pine-flecked mountains half-denuded by decades of logging, the congress seemed as much pageant as politics. Three flags unfurled upon the stage: the purple and gold of the Purepecha Nation, the EZLN’s red and black banner, and, most prominently, Mexico’s red, white, and green standard–a graphic symbol aimed at demonstrating that, despite the Indian demand for autonomy, they still considered themselves to be part of Mexico. Below the stage, 10,000 congress-goers, young Purepechas, students, anarcho-punks, foreigners, and old social warriors mingled with Huichol and Tarahumara Indians in a sea of many skin tones and brilliantly embroidered fabrics.

Given the vividly diverse turnout, it was ironic that just two mountains away, a white man had to explain to Purepecha elders and their profoundly suspicious families what the proposed law would change. The measure, written by a federal congress oversight commission (known as the COCOPA for its Spanish initials) and based on a 1996 agreement signed by representatives of then-president Ernesto Zedillo and the EZLN,would grant Indian nations limited local autonomy over their own form of government, justice system, bilingual education, exploitation of natural resources, environment, and other facets of community life. Nonetheless, the elders of Santa Cruz Tanaco were not convinced.

Buffeted by decades of authoritarian rule by the now out-of-power Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), under which laws imposed upon them never boded well for their community, they were skeptical that the new law would change much. Indeed, Tanaco enjoys a species of autonomy already–the village decides when it will plant and when it will harvest and what the price of the corn will be. Tanaco elects its Indian officials in the old way by communal assembly, and the faina, the collective maintenance of town infrastructure, remains intact. But the town is deeply divided by family and political differences and sometimes violent confrontations over exploitation of the community’s disappearing forests. In this sense, it is a microcosm of a Purepecha nation divided by land squabbles and religious and political disputes–as are many of Mexico’s Indian peoples. Moreover, Purepecha culture is under frontal attack as immigration to the United States swells–gang signs from northern California can now be seen on the walls of Cheran, one of the poorest municipalities.

With an ethnic base drawn from five Mayan sub-groups, the EZLN wages an indefatigable battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of Mexico’s 10,000,000 Indian citizens (a figure some indigenous leaders claim has doubled since the 1994 Zapatista uprising) Although the EZLN negotiated the historic agreement now before the federal legislature on behalf of all Mexico’s Indian peoples, its leadership of the country’s native peoples is challenged from the left by the National Alliance for Indian Autonomy (ANIPA), which labels the proposed law “autonomy-lite.” “We are nations and nations have the right to control their own natural resources.” argues Tojolabal Mayan organizer Margarito Ruiz, an ANIPA founder, who critiques the EZLN’s willingness to cede Chiapas petroleum wealth to the federal government. “If we do not have a way of financing the autonomous areas, they are a fiction,” offers Jenaro Domingúez, director of the National Coordinating Body of the Indian Peoples (CNPI.)

Despite their differences, all sides concur that Indian nations are endowed with territory as defined by Resolution 169 of the International Labor Organization, a document that has become the legal benchmark for indigenous people’s rights, and was approved by the Mexican Congress a decade ago. For many years, one PRI government after another claimed ownership of Mexico’s Indians, swapping funds and services provided by such agencies as the Public Education Secretariat, the Agrarian ministries, and the National Indigenist Institute (INI) for allegiance. Despite President Vicente Fox’s selection of a Nahua Indian to head the INI, the demise of the institute was overwhelmingly demanded at Nurio. Fox has also appointed an an Otomi Indian businesswoman to foment private enterprise in communally-run indigenous zones.

The PRI continues to lay claim to Mexico’s Indians and retains strong influence in many regions through the National Campesino Confederation (CNC) and a network of hard-line rural bosses. In the July 2000 presidential elections, the PRI, as usual, captured more than 50 percent of the national Indian vote. On the other hand, Fox’s conservative, middle-class, and overwhelmingly white National Action Party (PAN) counts only a tiny Indian constituency among Mayans in the state of Yucatan. Both the PAN and the PRI vehemently reject the EZLN’s pretensions to represent the Indian peoples, accusing the Zapatistas of being manipulated by white radicals who have bamboozled them into demanding an ill-conceived autonomy that will destabilize Mexico.

Accusations that white radicals are behind the EZLN were recently given a healthy boost. At a tumultuous San Cristobal de las Casas bon voyage party on the eve of the Zapatistas’ departure from Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos designated Fernando Yanez, AKA “Comandante German,” as the EZLN’s liaison to Congress. A chubby, pale-faced architect from Monterrey, Yanez was once charged by Zedillo with being the EZLN’s supreme commander and was briefly taken into custody for guns and drug possession in December 1995, in an apparent effort to torpedo government-rebel negotiations;he was quickly released. Until the march began last month, the EZLN repeatedly denied knowing of his existence. German’s sudden resurrection in the Zapatista pantheon raises legitimate questions about who actually pulls the strings. Throughout the comandantes’ 15-day, 3000-kilometer journey, Yanez appeared on stage with the EZLN’s general command, hovering like a white ghost behind Marcos, who is non-Indian, when the Subcomandante speaks of the long march as being one of “those who are the color of the earth.”

The CNI’s third national coming-together demonstrated a maturing and increasingly independent organization–3,300 delegates from 27 states and 42 Indian nations attended, along with 6,000 observers (only 250 of them non-Mexicans). The gravity of the CNI’s determination to establish indigenous autonomy may exceed that of the EZLN. Some delegates even argue that the Indian peoples should ignore the proposed federal legislation the Zapatistas seek. “We are already autonomous. We do not need the permission of the political parties to legitimize this,” declared Zapotec delegate and CNI founding member Carlos Manso.

The final declaration of the Nurio conclave called for a “peaceful national insurrection” to achieve autonomy, but Purepecha spokesman Abelardo Torres did not discount violent retaliation in the event of a Congressional “no” vote. The CNI’s call for peaceful revolt acquired additional weight because it was pronounced on a stage shared by leaders of Ecuador’s rapidly radicalizing Indian movement, who, along with the Zapatistas, have been in the vanguard of resistance to the globalization of indigenous America.

The blossoming of self-declared autonomous zones across the landscape could significantly broaden the battle- front for the Fox administration and guarantee six more years of conflict with Mexico’s embattled native peoples. Not a mile from the Nurio gathering, freshly painted wall writings in the hamlet of Ahuiran championed the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), the EZLN’s most serious rival on the armed left. As they moved through a region where at least four armed groups are thought to be operating, the Zapatista general command called for a united front of all guerrilla formations in support of Indian rights legislation that would make autonomy a reality.

John Ross’s latest book is The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000