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The Revolution of the New Commons

Beyond Development, Beyond Economy,
Beyond the Individual Self, Beyond the Nation State

A lecture (extracts) by Gustavo Esteva
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico

Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Gustavo Esteva at the Universidad de la Tierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke and, where indicated, by Danny Turner-Lloveras.
Inside the National Palace in Mexico City. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Inside the National Palace in Mexico City. To see a larger version of this image click here.
Military police, in the Zocalo, outside the National Palace in Mexico City.
Military police, in the Zocalo, outside the National Palace in Mexico City.
Zapatista leadership speaking outside the National Palace
Zapatista leadership speaking outside the National Palace, March 11, 2001. On that day, over 250,000 people gathered to celebrate the arrival of the Zapatista (EZLN) Caravan. The Zapatistas were in Mexico City to promote the passage of the Indigenous Bill of Rights. Photo by Danny Turner-Lloveras. To see more photos of this event click here.
A field of young corn plants grows in Oaxaca.
A field of young corn plants grows in Oaxaca.
Gustavo Esteva is an author, a local and international “grassroots activist and de-professionalized intellectual”, and a founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is also a former corporate executive, a former guerrilla, a former high-ranking official in the government of President Echeverría, and an advisor with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas for the negotiations with the government. This lecture was given, September 6, 2005 by Professor Esteva to a group of university students visiting Oaxaca from the United States.

This lecture accompanies an interview (The Society of the Different / In 3 parts) conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on September 6 and 7, 2005 in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico. 1 | 2 | 3

Of the 21st century

What is happening in Mexico?

We are suffering all the impacts of globalization through NAFTA. We are having every kind of restriction. We are in the middle of very severe crises of different kinds. We are suffering very different miseries. But what defines our situation? What I am smelling at the grassroots in the country, what I am seeing time and again in the villages, in the barrios, is that people feel, we feel, that we are in the middle of the first social revolution of the 21st century. That is what we are calling the revolution of the new commons.

Putting this in my words, I would say that in this revolution, through this revolution, we are going beyond development. That means beyond any universal definition of the good life. We are going beyond economy. That means, we, the so-called marginals, we are marginalizing the economy from our lives. We are putting it in a margin. It is not ignoring the economy, we have interactions with that specific sphere of the reality, but we are marginalizing it. In a very concrete sense we are escaping from the economic society.

And something that is very important -- and perhaps we will have the opportunity to discuss a little more when you go to my house -- it is, what is it to escape, to go beyond the individual self. When we are saying that we are re-claiming our commons, it is not just re-claiming a specific form of social organization but re-claiming a way of being that is in the nature of our being. We are no longer individuals. We don’t behave as individuals. We are thinking and being in a different way. And we are trying to go beyond the nation state. Meaning that we are adopting a different kind of political horizon.

Three aspects of globalization

We see globalization as an economic project that is trying to transform every man and woman on earth into a homo economicus, the possessive individual born in the West with capitalism, of course. But this economic project has now two attractive masks, two faces. One is the ethical face, that of human rights, and the other is the political face that is democracy. Globalization means, yes, the economic project meaning free trade, etcetera, etcetera, but also universal human rights, and also democratic regimes all over the planet.

I think that this revolution, in which we are involved, challenges the three aspects of the project. We are challenging the economic nature of the project. We are challenging explicitly the whole idea of putting the economy at the center of our lives. We are challenging human rights, saying that for us human rights is the Trojan horse for economic globalization. And we are challenging the very idea of democracy because we see the democratic structure as a structure of domination, of oppression. We don’t see it as a hope or a promise or a possibility.

In a very real sense, this program in which you are involved is an exploration of these kinds of issues. This will be discussed in different ways during your stay in Mexico. And perhaps to understand the current situation, we need to step back.

Privileged club of rich countries

First, to go to 1993. The dominant view in 1993 was that nothing could stop Mexico from entering into the first world. That was the feeling, that Mexico was presented universally as a model by the World Bank, by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), as the model of policy, as the model of orientation and conditions (on which) we were accepted in the club of the rich countries. We now were part of that specific very privileged club of rich countries and we were accepted in that condition.

To give you an idea about the opinion of the people, I heard many times in those years among the middle classes or upper classes, an expression, a very cynical expression, saying, “We will not live like the Americans. We will live better than the Americans because we will have everything they have, all the goodies, all the malls, all the services, all the hospitals, etcetera, the health centers, etcetera -- plus servants.”

In the U.S., you need to be very, very rich to have a servant. Of course, Mr. Gates and Mr. Rockefeller have servants, but not every family. Not the university professor. Not students. They don’t have servants. They don’t have a maid at home or a chauffeur to drive the cars.

In Mexico, perhaps in some of the home-stays in which you are now living, you can see that there are maids. There are servants. And it is normal that a person in the middle class can have a servant. In Mexico City, there are 800,000 maids, servants. Some people are coming from Oaxaca and being servants in some houses.

This is very cynical, of course, because they don’t consider the point of view of the servants. What is the prospect of being a servant as a profession for your life? But this cynical view reflected an attitude that was, “We are advancing and we are having a MacDonald’s, and Wal-Mart, and new bridges, and new roads, and all the services, and everything great. We will have all these goodies, even a Disneyland perhaps, and then also servants.” That described for them a kind of paradise.

Our president then, President Salinas, was perceived as a great global leader who discovered the direction of the winds now running the world and was bringing his country out of underdevelopment. He was the candidate, not one candidate, but the candidate to become the first director of the World Trade Organization, the institution quintessentially defining the conditions of globalization. He was getting a kind of prize, an award implying universal recognition of his policies. He was acclaimed and accepted and presented everywhere in a great light.

In December 1993, these people were celebrating their success. The neoliberal orientation was clearly established. All the parties were offering only variants of the Salinas model. On the left or the right it was basically the same thing without any fundamental change. To illustrate this, a high-level commission of the Japanese government came to Mexico at that time. They were talking with Salinas and his team and they were told, “You can negotiate with us anything because we will be in power for the next twenty-five years.”

Salinas, in that very month December, declared, “I did not commit the mistake of Gorbachev. We are implementing the economic reform and, once we conclude our work implementing the economic reform, we will start the political reform.” It was a cynical way of saying, “I am using all the authoritarian tools of the old regime to implement economic reform. Then, once I have everything in place, all the neoliberal republic in place, then we will have the political reform. We will open the society to political changes.”

January 1, 1994

But, as you know, on January 1, 1994, a small group of poor Indians, poorly armed, occupied four towns of Chiapas and declared the word to the Mexican government. They introduced themselves as the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) and they are known as the Zapatistas.

In 1995, the next year, Mexico suffered the worst economic crisis of the century. In fact, the director of the IMF said, “This is the first financial crisis of the 21st century.” It was a big, big crisis. Mexico suddenly became an example of disaster. It was presented by the World Bank and the IMF as an example of the wrong policy, the wrong orientation, and the wrong implementation of policies. Salinas was forced to live in a kind of exile in Ireland. His brother went to jail and the whole picture changed in a very short period of time. After that crisis, we are now building on ruins. Mexicans are very used to building on ruins left by any kind of regime.

I would like to pose to you a rhetorical question that is not so rhetorical, and perhaps you will have your answer at the end of your stay in Mexico. How could this small group of people, poorly armed -- they never posed a military threat to the Mexican government -- how could this group radically change a country of 100 million in a matter of months? How is this possible?

Some people will react saying, “This is not the right question because the people have not changed so much.” But you can see immediately, you can demonstrate, you can put a lot of facts on the table and demonstrate that, yes, the country has changed completely. The old regime is dead. Then, the people say, “OK, yes it changed, but not because of the Zapatistas. There are many other factors. It is not because of the Zapatistas.” I would like to explore with you this possibility, this kind of question. Perhaps Mexico in the future will be studied considering that it is a magnificent laboratory to discover the nature of modern power.

The “Ah-ha!” Effect

To begin our conversation, I want to say that words have been the main weapon of the Zapatistas. First of all, they dared say that the emperor has no clothes. This is very, very important in considering the whole impact of the Zapatistas. The general situation up to 1993 was: “You have seen all the media, all the leaders, and all the intellectuals describe the brilliant situation of the economy in Mexico;” how we were advancing a lot; how we were very, very good. So, when the people were suffering every kind of hardship, every kind of problem, they were assuming that it was their personal problem. “It is because I am stupid.” “It is because I have no luck.” “This is my personal problem because everything is OK.” “If I am in trouble, this is my problem. It is not the social problem.”

But with the Zapatistas the people started to see everywhere the real Mexico. It was not just the problem of some individuals but it was a general problem and it was the problem with this regime. The Zapatistas produced the Ah-ha effect. When the Zapatistas started to present the denunciation, the people started to say, “Yes, ah-ha, ah-ha, you are right. That is exactly it. It is not my fault. It is a problem of the society and the regime.”

The real Mexico on TV

One very important point, though, is a question of luck. In the first week of 1994, nothing happened in the world. Not a plane crashed. No tsunami came. No princess died. No president had any sexual escapade. Nothing happened on earth. The media was empty. They had nothing to present us. So, on January 2, we had a thousand journalists in San Cristobal. CNN was projecting Zapatistas. We had beautiful images with the ski masks and all the emotion. It was perfect for the news. Six hours a day, CNN was presenting Zapatistas.

But you know the journalists, they come to a place and they don’t stop just in one place with Subcomandante Marcos. They went around to the villages and you started to see on TV the real Mexico. Not just the aberration of the skyscraper, not a new bridge or a new road. Not the brilliant news about the Mexico reality but the real reality. The reality of our villages, of our places. Suddenly we saw everything. The people saw this. And the people shouted immediately with the Zapatistas “Ya Basta”, “Enough is enough. We don’t want more of this.” That started the very radical change.

Just to mention in passing, three weeks after the uprising, January 24 of 1994, the political opposition, all the political parties in the opposition, got from the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), from the dominant party, more political concessions than in the previous 50 years. Meaning, just in a few weeks the whole balance of forces changed in Mexico.

The commodity of power

But to understand this, we need to have some reflection about what is power. What are we talking about when we talk about political power here? The dominant notion, the perception that most people have about power is that it is something up there that some people have and some others don’t. Some people have economic or political power and some other people don’t have that power. That is why they are talking now all the time about empowering the people. That is, we will have that kind of commodity, power, and then we will organize a better distribution of power and then more people will have power. Sharing that power with many people because power is something up there.

We need to remember that centuries ago power came from heaven. From time to time, the Pope came and the Pope told the people, “This guy is your king because that is the will of God.” It is not only because he had this specific blue blood, or these kinds of things, it is just the will of God. He is your king because God wants that he be your king. The idea was power comes from heaven. It is from the top down.

Then, two hundred years ago, with the French and American revolutions, apparently we changed the whole idea and, “No, power does not come from heaven. It comes from the people. It is the citizens electing the president.” But we kept the same imagery of power “up there”. The same idea that power is at the top. The same construction of power as a kind of a pyramid -- coming from the top.

The Wizard of Oz

Perhaps we can use as a parable about what is happening with modern power a story that I am sure you heard when you were children. Do you remember the Wizard of Oz? That story? You have the film with Judy Garland, Dorothy going to visit the powerful Wizard of Oz. You have all the paraphernalia of power, the noise and these constructions, and suddenly the little dog of Dorothy discovers this shy man, very afraid, full of fear.

Well, the important point is not only this fact that there is no power there, it is just illusion and paraphernalia, but it is the conversation after that. The wizard asks, “Why are you coming?” “What do you want?” he asks the lion. And the lion answers, “Oh, I come here for you to give me courage.” “Oh God, but you have been very courageous. You are a very courageous lion. Why are you saying that?” Then he asks the Tin Man, and he wants a heart. And the wizard says, “But you are a very compassionate guy. You have shown a lot of love to everyone. Why are you asking for a heart?” Then, for the Scarecrow that wants a brain, “But you are a very smart guy. You have been very, very intelligent. Why are you asking for that?”

That means, the parable is this, the people are asking to the powerful for what they already have. Of course, the politicians don’t react like the wizard. If you ask something of the politicians, they will say, “Of course, you will have everything. Just vote for me and you will have whatever you want. I need your vote, then you will have everything.”

An alternative political theory: like the shade of a tree

There is an alternate version of power and there is an alternative name for power that we call dignity. I love to tell a story that happened here eighteen years ago. Oaxaca is the only state in Mexico in which the indigenous people represent a majority of the people in the state, but for a hundred years we did not have an Indian as a governor of the state. Then, eighteen years ago, we had an Indian, a Mixtec, as a candidate to become the governor of the state.

The first day of his political campaign, he called the indigenous people, real representatives of the indigenous people, and asked them, “Please organize a meeting. I want to hear whatever you want to tell me for to include it in my political program. I am here, I am ready to listen to all of you.” And they organized a meeting in a big, big hall.

In Oaxaca, there are many people that speak two, three, four, five indigenous languages but no one speaks the fifteen indigenous languages that we have in Oaxaca. They are very, very different languages. They don’t belong to the same family. They are very, very different. Well, they spoke for ten hours in their own languages without interpretation. No one was translating for anyone and they were speaking long speeches -- one and the other and the other, in their own languages. Then, at the end of this presentation, after these ten very boring hours, in which we were not understanding anything, a very old guy, a Mixtec, crossed the hall, very slowly, because he was very, very old, very, very slowly, and when he was near the candidate, he told him, “We want you to be for us like the shade of a tree.” That was it. The end of the ceremony. That was all.

I didn’t understand a thing. I rushed with my friends and I said, “What are you doing? What is this ritual, this ceremony? What is the meaning? What kind of message are you are trying to convey?” They were very surprised with my surprise. They said, “Well, it’s very clear. The first part, these ten hours of speaking, we were telling him a very simple message. You cannot understand us, our language, which is the supreme expression of our culture. To speak with us you need to use Spanish, the language of the colonizers. So you cannot really pretend to govern us, you cannot even understand us. You cannot speak with us. You can not really govern us.”

“The second part was also very simple,” they said. “This is not a rebellion. We want a governor, and better if the governor is one of us, but a governor of a different kind of government. We don’t want a government governing us even against our own will, twenty-four hours a day. We want a government in one place where everybody can see it, rooted in the people. Then, if we have a calamity, we have an earthquake or a flood or something, or we are fighting between two communities, we can come to that government and that government will offer us protection like the protection of the shade of a tree.”

I am using this specific story that was important in Oaxaca that has a lot of symbolic power for the people, to express an alternative political theory. What I am trying to say is that in that specific way they expressed a specific notion of power that is completely different from our notion of power. They were not interested in real government in the hands of Heladio Ramirez (Lopez) or any government.

The contrast can be expressed in the following way. The fundamental premise of the modern nation state and the notion of power were brilliantly expressed by Hegel in 1820. He said, “People cannot govern themselves. Someone needs to govern them.”

The word “government”

You can have a very intense political debate about how you can have the selection of the people that will govern the nation, the state. You will have a revolution and you will have Fidel Castro in power because he was the hero of the revolution. Or you will have Mao Zedong, or Lenin, or whoever, through a violent revolution. Or you may have democratic elections, different kinds of elections. You may discuss the procedures. But both liberals and Marxists and all the political theories and practices recognize that people need someone up there governing everyone.

What we want to say is that there is an alternative vision. There are alternative convictions. There is the conviction that people can govern themselves. That they don’t need someone upstairs governing them. This is a different notion of power. In fact, we cannot use the same words.

In the villages that you will visit, you will see that when they are talking about how they govern themselves, and they really govern their lives by themselves, they don’t use the word “government”. The word “government” is used for that external oppressive structure out there. That is the “government”. What they have governing themselves, they don’t call that “government”.

When you use the word “government”, you have those governing and those governed. Two classes of people. Here in the communities they are the same people. They are not two classes of people. They are governing themselves. All the structures are they themselves governing themselves. Perhaps the word “government” is not the right word to describe that kind of situation.

There is one important point here. In that kind of thing, governing our own lives, we have a very old tradition in Mexico. We are accustomed to that kind of thing. We know how to govern ourselves. We don’t know about democracy, about democratic procedures. This is a novelty for us. We were not used to voting, and counting the number of votes, and all these things. This is very new. We don’t know exactly what is and how to handle that kind of thing.

To govern ourselves, of course, we need the pertinent political bodies -- different kinds of political bodies -- but not those in a democratic structure. What we have now is a transition from a conventional power structure to another conventional power structure, or to a different kind of organization of the society, a radically new organization of the society. For this, for the second option, what we need to do is basically conclude the dismantling of the old regime, and, second, reorganize the society from the bottom up.

The neo-liberal phase

What kind of regime have we had for seventy years? Perhaps just a few elements can give you the picture.

We had a kind of hybrid. There was no doubt that we had capitalism in Mexico. We were nothing like socialism. But the size of the public sector in Mexico implied 64% of the economy was in the hands of the state and we had a very closed economy. Meaning that the bureaucrats, the government was taking decisions about anything coming into the country or going out. All exports and imports, investments, etcetera was a bureaucratic decision. The state was in real control of this very closed economy with two thirds of the economy in its hands. This was the situation in 1982 when President Miguel de la Madrid took office and was the beginning of the neoliberal phase in Mexico. When he took office that was the size of the public sector and that was the situation.

For President Fox, when he took office in the year 2000, the size of the public sector after privatization was only 18%. It went from 64% to 18%. The Mexican economy was one of the most open economies in the whole world. Meaning, that no Mexican government can now define the situation of the economy in Mexico. The international forces define what happens here and the government can no longer handle the economy as they handled it for seventy years.

The axis of the whole political structure

The second element was the political structure. Apparently, the president was at the top of this pyramid. In fact, he was not at the top, he was the axis of the whole political structure. The last local boss in the country needed a connection with the president because the president could make the decision about if they will cut off his head or not. The president was in absolute control of his own government, controlling every minister, all the high offices in the government.

He controlled, of course, the party that was very, very vertically structured from the top down. In fact, they say that what two presidents, Salinas and Zedillo, did with the PRI was issue instructions. “Use a pistol. Put it to your head. You are ready?” “Yes sir. Yes, Mr. President.” “Now shoot.” It was the PRI itself, the people of the PRI dismantling the structure, the political structure following the instructions of the president. It was a very vertical structure.

The president was in control of the PRI and he was in control of the Congress because the PRI has the majority in the Congress and the president was giving instructions, all the time, to the Congress. Just to give you an idea. From 1917 to today, we have had four hundred and ninety important constitutional amendments, very important reforms in the constitution in Mexico. Well, all 490 reforms were instructions of successive presidents. It was the president’s will to change the fundamental legal regime in Mexico. It was the decision of the president and the Congress immediately obeyed and respected the will of the president.

Also, the president was in control of the judiciary system. He was designating all the ministers in the Supreme Court without approval or consent of the Congress, the whole structure of the judiciary, giving them the money, etc. The president, that specific person, was in control of all the constituted powers in Mexico without any kind of formal checks and balances.

President Fox

President Fox, though, is not in control of his own government. Some of the ministers belong to other parties and follow a different policy, not exactly the instructions of President Fox.

He is not in control of his own party. In fact, he is not an insider of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional). He came late to the PAN. He used the PAN to become president. He is not in control of the party.

Similarly, he is not in control of the Congress. No one is in control of the Congress. He can no longer control the judiciary. He cannot even control the president’s house -- his wife. His wife is following a different alternative, a political career, and creating a lot of problems for the poor President Fox.

He was lame duck very soon but he is now desperately trying to tell us that he is still there. He is not governing the country. He is just there performing some very marginal functions in the country. This is a very radical change.

A renewable monarchy

Perhaps a comparison. We had something like a kind of renewable monarchy. What we had as presidents were real kings, absolute kings, like in the French monarchy. The only difference was that we changed the king every six years. He did not die, but every six years we had a new king. The expression used in Mexico was, “The new king should be a member of the so-called revolutionary family.” It was not the “blue blood” but the “revolutionary blood”, the tradition of the small group, the small elite controlling the power in Mexico for 70 years.

Perhaps the best analogy that we can have of our situation is what happened after the French revolution with a very important difference. Many leaders of the French revolution knew more or less what kind of regime they wanted. Here we don’t know exactly what kind of regime we want. That is perhaps the challenge.

The system, of course, has had a long agony. It started with the implementation of the neoliberal policies, but what I want to underline, against the opinion of many people, is that the system is really dead. We have not been able to organize a good funeral for the unburied corpse and thus every kind of pest is emanating from it, but we have an absolutely dead regime. We cannot have a restoration, like in the past. Even if the horrible possibility of the PRI winning the elections next year happens, we will not have a restoration. We are not going back to the situation before the year 2000. We will have something else.

A political option

What happened in 1994 is that the Zapatistas created a political option that was rapidly adopted by millions of discontented people. The Zapatistas from the very beginning saw the limitations of formal democracy. They see formal democracy, what we have in Mexico, these elections and all this, only as a good umbrella for a transition. It is better to have this kind of umbrella than to have a dictatorship, but we don’t see this as our system and we don’t want to still live in that kind of system. The Zapatistas denounced the nation state as a structure of domination and control, a kind of straitjacket that prevents diversity and homogenizes everything. It can, though, be adopted as a framework for the transition to a different kind of society, a different kind of state.

The idea that people can govern themselves is very old and Mexico has a very old tradition of this. We have a lot of experience. Also, we have been trying to look for precedents and we have found many interesting precedents. By the way, some of the interesting readings for us have been in our looking for precedents, for some ideas for the creation of a new regime.

The Federalist Papers

One of the interesting debates, documents that we discovered was the Federalist Papers. You know them? The discussion between Hamilton and Madison and others? We discovered, for example, that they were discussing what kind of system you need to have in the American union. The discussion asks, “Should we have a republic or should we have a democracy?” Democracy means to put all the power in the hands of the people. A republic will keep the power in the hands of a few and we will have elections, etcetera but the power will be controlled by a small group at the top.

After a lot of discussion, they said, “We cannot create a democracy for the American union because if we let the people have the power we will not have a union. In every state, different groups will go in different directions.” They were, all the time, full of fear of the threats by the empires, the British empire and the French empire. They assumed that they (the empires) could co-opt some people in some states and then dismantle the American union. So, they said, to create the American union, to really create a new nation, we need to create a republic that has the power in the hands of a few. A power controlled by a minority, an elite at the top. And the funny thing was that they created a republic but they call it a democracy. Now, the name of the system is democracy and you find many textbooks, not only in the U.S., but everywhere, in which you have the definition of democracy as “the regime now existing in the United States”. But your founding fathers assumed it was not a democracy but a republic. You cannot have a democracy if you need to have only a few people in control of the power.

Something radically new is feasible

At the end of the First Intercontinental Encounter in the Selva Lacandona, the Zapatistas said at one point, “We are not here to change the world, something that is very difficult, next to impossible. We are here to create a whole new world.” This looks very idealistic, romantic, not real, not pragmatic. Thinking time again with them about this, we have discovered that they are absolutely right and that this position is very realistic. To change the reality, it is very difficult, next to impossible. To create something radically new is feasible. You can do that tomorrow.

Please just think for a minute, let’s change the educational system in Mexico or in the United States. You can change the educational system? You can dedicate your whole life and the lives of your friends and your families and you will be a footnote in a textbook and nothing more. You cannot change that monster. But if you want to create a radically new thing, to learn whatever you want to learn beyond the system, you can create that tomorrow morning. You can immediately create something else, a different kind of situation.

This is the kind of thing about which we are thinking, “Yes, what we are trying to do is to create a whole new world and for this we need imagination. We need to invent that new world.”

Here I will also remember, this has been very useful for us, the expression of a brilliant American that we admire a lot, Paul Goodman. Paul Goodman, at one point said, “Just imagine that your side of the revolution won. Now you are in power. You have the new society. It is implemented. There are no longer political limitations. You have everything changed in the ideal society. This is the society of your dreams.”

Now, Paul Goodman asks a most difficult question, “Please try to imagine what it is that you personally, you will be doing in that ideal society. It is no longer struggling against this president or that institution, against this Wal-Mart, or against this problem. You are in the perfect society already. What is it that you want to do? You are not forced to have any stupid salary or to be a waiter in MacDonald’s. You don’t need any of these things. You are free to do whatever you want.” That is challenging also.

And then Goodman says, “Once you have this idea, try to do that tomorrow morning. Don’t wait a minute.” Of course you will find a lot of obstacles, every kind of obstacle. And you need to remove those obstacles or go around or over, or below, whatever. But your political activities will have a very real and practical orientation because they will be associated with your own decision, with your own will, with your own orientation -- creating something new for you and for the people around you.

This is the kind of challenge that we are having.

Mexico Profundo

Lastly, we need to put this in the context of what we are calling the Mexico Profundo. It is the best book written about Mexico (“Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization” by Guillermo Bonfil Batalla). The main observation in it is that the main conflict, the main contradiction is the contradiction between two Mexicos.

On the one hand, is the Mexico of the elite, that is the Mexico obsessed with bringing Mexico to the West, that is imposing in Mexico the so-called Western Project. In Mexico, that means to impose on Mexico the model of the United States of America.

This is not a rhetorical observation. When our founding fathers wrote our constitution, they said to the new Mexicans, they said in the official speech, “In this, as in every other aspect of our activities, we have been following step by step the example of the happy republic of the United States of America.” And, to our terrible shame, a few years later in the late ’20s, in our Congress, a brand new Congress, democratic Congress in Mexico, there was a discussion by a group of senators, saying, “We are trying to follow the United States. Our main problem, Mexico’s problem, is indigenous people. There are too many.” In fact, two thirds of the country is constituted of indigenous people. “If it were not because of these Indians, Mexico would be as great as France or the United States.” Then they said, “Why we don’t we follow the example of the United States. They are exterminating them. Let’s do that and we then we will get rid of the problem of these indigenous people.”

Of course, there were many enlightened liberals in the Mexican Congress and they said, “We cannot commit genocide. First of all, they are too many. In the North they are only a few but here they are the majority of the people.”

They did not consider them seriously. Two thirds of the population are indigenous people. In the constitution, indigenous people are mentioned only once when they said, “We authorize Congress to negotiate trade treaties with foreign countries and Indian tribes.” Meaning two thirds of the people are considered like foreigners. Not really considered in the picture.

But then these enlightened liberals said, “We cannot kill them,” and this was the official decision, “Let’s educate them into extinction.” Meaning not a genocide but a cultural-icide. “Let’s destroy them as Indians to transform them into regular Mexicans.” This has been the obsession, the obsession to follow the model of the United States.

A journalist asked President Salinas about his project. “What you are trying to do is to incorporate Mexico into North America?” “Exactly,” said President Salinas. And you can find in President Fox and many other people in Mexico that they are trying to follow, if not exactly, the model of the United States.

To regenerate their own culture, their own lives

So, according to Bonfil, (on the other hand) what we have is the Mexico Profundo, the deep areas of Mexican society -- basically the indigenous people, but also many other people that are not indigenous -- who have in the mind and in the heart something alternative to the Western project, something radically different. This is the Mexico Profundo and this is clearly illustrated by the Zapatistas. This is the kind of conflict that we are trying to process. What we are seeing today in our reality is this Mexico Profundo affirming itself. Presenting itself in a different view.

Fifteen years ago, if you were in Oaxaca, you would see if you had a public event and an indigenous leader was coming to the podium, he would try desperately to speak good Spanish and to hide the fact that he speaks a different language. If you go today to a public event you will see that if some indigenous leaders are speaking they are first of all speaking in their own indigenous language, Zapotec, or Mixtec, or Triqui, or whatever. Then, after two or three minutes in their own language, they translate to Spanish for the ignorant audience. They first affirm themselves in their own way. Then, they also show that they can make contact with us, they can have interaction with us.

They are saying, taking a very old image, they are saying, “They wrenched off our fruits. They ripped off our branches. They burnt our trunk. But they could not kill our roots.” Yes, the cultural roots of these people are well, healthy, and flourishing, and nourishing again the trees where they are trying to regenerate their own culture, their own lives.

The Zapatistas are a source of inspiration for all of us but Zapatismo is now everywhere. In communities in Oaxaca you will find many, many examples of how the people are affirming themselves in their autonomous dreams and realities. Trying to conduct their own lives in a different direction.

This is the general picture of the country in which you will be staying during the following months.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 8, 2006

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