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LAS AMERICAS Whose Indians? The battle for the hearts and minds of Mexico’s indigenous nations BY JOHN ROSS SANTA CRUZ TANACO, MICHOACAN n the white morning mist hang ing 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, Dona Teresa Garcia, a great grandmother who still tends her cornfields, was equally puzzled. Although several truckloads of neighbors had gone off to see the fabled rebels, Dona 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 4nd valleys southwest, in a Purepecha town named Nurio, the National Indigenous includes representatives of most of Mexico’s Indian peoples, was preparing to receive the comandancia of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation 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 standarda 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 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 them never boded well for their community, they were skeptical that the new law would change much. Indeed, Tanaco enjoys a species of autonomy alreadythe 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 disputesas 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 douAlthough 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 labels the proposed law “autonomylite.” “We are nations and nations have the right to control their own natural resources.” argues Tojolabal Mayan 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/30/01