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Interview with
Melquiades Cruz

A Zapoteco Community in Sierra Norte
Webs of Flowers

Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico

Melquiades Cruz. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Melquiades Cruz. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Corn and mountains near Oaxaca City.
Corn and mountains near Oaxaca City.
Daniel Perera.
This interview with Melquiades Cruz was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on September 7, 2005 at la Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico. Daniel Perera provided interpretation between Spanish and English.

A participant at the Universidad de la Tierra, “My name is Melquiades Cruz. Most people know me as Kiado. I don’t belong to a specific organization. I am from a community in the Sierra Norte called Santa Cruz de Yagavila in the lower Sierra.”

Santa Cruz de Yagavila

In Motion Magazine: Could you please describe your community?

Melquiades Cruz: It is not a big community like others. It’s roughly a thousand people. One quarter of the people in the community are outside the community either as migrant workers in other cities or in the North (the U.S.). Some have come as cheap labor to surrounding areas of Oaxaca City, others, also, are students who have left to go to other communities or towns to study.

It is a very nice, beautiful community. I like it a lot because there is a wide range of temperature and climate in this small community. In the highest part of the community, in the mountains, it is very cold and in the lowest part it is very warm and humid. We have an abundance of plants from jamaica and hibiscus flowers at the bottom, all the way to the top where we have pears and apples. Coffee is the main crop that we produce; it generates our primary source of income.

We speak Zapoteco. Everybody speaks Zapoteco even though in school the children learn Spanish. There is a kind of rupture that goes on with that but the children still speak Zapoteco in their homes. Even the people who leave the community and then come back, or the people that have left, speak among themselves in Zapoteco. It is a community that still preserves our local traditional institutions which you could say is autonomous because we still practice our own ways of trade, economics, our own ways of doing justice, our own ways of doing politics.

The community is in a very strategic location. It is a place where a lot of cultures have intermingled in the past. It is a place that retains a lot of biodiversity.

Products for exchange

I mentioned coffee as our main source of income because for over fifty years it has been the one crop that we have commercialized and which still remains a primary source of income. Originally, when the first merchants came into the community, in the early ’80s, when the first big road came into our town, that was the crop that we were using to exchange -- in order to purchase items that were produced on the outside. It is still the primary product for exchange. There are other crops that we have sold, though, including corn and beans and cacao. Within the community, these are the crops that people raise, cultivate and exchange. Some people, for example, exchange corn for something else. This is the way that the community economy is maintained.

But, this form of exchange within the community has changed through the past twenty years, ever since the road came in which brought electricity and other things. There are some people who see money as a means of exchange for certain items, while there’s others who are starting to want to work for the sake of earning money.

Lastly, the main struggle in our community has been to preserve the territory of the community and to protect it from the municipality so that we don’t lose our communal lands, to protect our ways of holding the land in the community. It is not a struggle that has been easy and it is not one that we have won in some cases. We have lost pieces of land to the head of the municipality.

Accords: the assembly, cargos, tequio

In Motion Magazine: Can you describe some of the traditional institutions that are functioning?

Melquiades Cruz: The assembly is one of these traditional institutions. It is the maximum authority in the community. It is where the people have the power to govern themselves. We elect representatives but these aren’t representatives that function as authorities, rather they function as representatives for specific purposes; representatives before certain institutions; or representatives of the community towards the outside, or the state.

I say that people govern themselves but I don’t really believe that is the case. What really happens is that we make accords with each other and the assembly is the place in which we can reach these accords. In the assembly we say that we live my making accords. It is through these accords that we can keep working and keep living and set up the norms for the community.

My grandfather likes to say that people are like flowers and the assembly is what brings all these flowers and webs of flowers together. It is the coming together of all these webs of relations that makes community through the assembly.

Through the assembly we elect representatives and we choose “cargos”, delegate cargos to specific members of the community. (
Read about cargos in interview with Gustavo Esteva.)

Through the system of cargos we grant to people, specific members of the community, certain authority to carry out something for which they have a talent or special ability. They have a responsibility to carry out these functions, which are limited in the scope of action by the same assembly. A certain freedom and also limitations.
Tequio is another institution that is important. Sometimes the assembly calls for a tequio (collective or communal work). The representatives can call for a tequio and the assembly can approve or disapprove of calling tequio together.

These are some of the “formal” institutions. There are some that are less formal like the system of direct exchange. There are ways of healing and doing medicine, and lots of others that are interwoven to form what is community.

Oaxaca and Chiapas / Comunalidad

In Motion Magazine: What do you think of the ideas of the Zapatistas?

Melquiades Cruz: In the past five years, I have become acquainted with Zapatismo, the ideas and proposals that the Zapatistas are making. There are many parallels between what they are calling for and what we have always been doing. One of the important mottos of the Zapatistas “to lead by obeying” is something that can easily express our way of governing ourselves in my community. We have been doing and are doing some of the things that the Zapatistas call for but never on a scale that goes beyond our own community, never on a nationwide scale like what they are calling for.

When the Zapatistas rose up in ’94, it flew over our community and surrounding communities. Nobody knew about it. In one way, this was because we didn’t have access to this kind of information. But even when we watched national TV like Televisa or read the paper there was no mention of the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas gather together a lot of ideas about the ways our community and other communities do things. There is a parallel in what they express and what I see happening in our community. What I have mostly found inspiration in, what has shaped me the most, are Marcos’s short stories, the way they use traditional myths.

Scenarios, contexts are very different in Chiapas and in Oaxaca. We have never faced big landowners here like they do in Chiapas but we have faced national corporations such as the big lumber company in the ’80s, FAPATUX (Fabrica Papelera Tuxtepec), whose actions were protected by the government.

What Fapatux did in this region has happened elsewhere. They buy large concessions for twenty years to extract all the wood that they can in that period. But in the ’80s, there were communities in this area who organized and stopped recognizing the concessions ordered by the government. They managed to push FAPATUX out. One of the guiding ideas behind the movement was the idea of comunalidad, which is recapturing and regenerating what is ours, and making what is ours ours.

The two main exponents of this idea of comunalidad, who coined the term and used it to explain what the communities were doing, were Jaime Luna and Floriberto Díaz, two anthropologists who are widely known. Their work is readily available and, as I said, is an attempt to express what they saw happening in the communities. Their function has always been towards the outside, to explain in Spanish to the outsiders what it is that happens in Zapateco communities in the Sierra Norte. The work emerges as a way of resistance and that is how it is used -- as a way of active resistance.

On the other hand, you have actual autonomy in the communities and the struggle for autonomy in these communities.

Maiz y Comunalidad

In Motion Magazine: What is your relationship with the Universidad de la Tierra (Unitierra)?

Melquiades Cruz: It started because I saw here what I see back home which is the idea that you learn by listening. That is something we have always learned from our grandfathers. You learn by listening to their stories. I saw this idea embraced in Unitierra.

I was involved in pursuing a project and saw that through Unitierra I could carry out this project. The project was called Maiz y Comunalidad, joining the two together, corn being something very important for our community, especially in recent years in our struggle to defend our local corn in the face of transgenic corn coming from the outside, aligning that with the idea of comunalidad which is this idea of what is ours, a political idea. Many things have followed after that. I have come in and out. Since then I have become involved in many other things.

So, I wrote a little piece called Maiz y Comunalidad and Gustavo
(Gustavo Esteva) read it. He liked it and he invited me to come to Unitierra to keep working on this idea. In the same week this happened, there was the Commission for Environmental Cooperation meeting which was a very good moment to bring up this paper that I wrote. I had the opportunity to publish it. I published it and then came to Unitierra and met some people here and made friends and kept working.

I am still here and I don’t know how much longer I will be here.

Keeping alive what is ours

In Motion Magazine: Can you go into some detail on that project, why it is particularly significant for you?

Melquiades Cruz: It is particularly important for me because among the range of things or paths that I could have taken, like pursuing anthropology or anything else I felt was important, I felt that this idea resonated with what my grandfather has always told me about giving importance to what is ours, protecting what is ours, and keeping alive what is ours.

So, since I didn’t go to a conventional university I was looking for a methodology or just an approach that I could take to pursue this idea, the project investigation.

The guiding idea for me was that tools can be used in an appropriate way that is beneficial and so doing this project and finding a way to carry it out is a tool that lead me to pursue this idea that is important to us. It was the main motivation for leaving my village in the first place, this intention of learning from the outside what tools can be useful for us -- in which ways can we use them and have them brought back to our community to use them on our own terms.

This was a way to bring together grandfathers and children and other people in the community to talk about what this idea of comunalidad is and how it relates to what we do and how we do things, while also considering corn the foundation of our ways of doing things. Corn is something that is important for our community, in terms of how we live, how we do things, how it’s at the core of our community.

It walks very slowly

It is always difficult to do a project like this that obviously is big, that walks very slowly. But I am still involved in doing it and I now have the opportunity to spend more time in the community. I will be gathering and organizing people in groups to discuss all these ideas, given that there are some processes in the community for things coming in from the outside. This opens up for discussion how to use these tools and how to keep regenerating what is ours.

A very good example of this appropriating and using a tool from the outside to defend what is ours is when we tried to explain to the children how the legal concept of the statute of autonomy was used in the community. It was used to protect the integrity of the community; to put it on paper only so that we could talk to the outside, reach the outside, have an impact on the outside in order to protect the community.

The idea around this discussion was to produce knowledge for ourselves and for the community. Usually when people sit down to write and reflect it is in order to talk to somebody on the outside. But this exercise of reflection was for ourselves. It was to be used internally.

One important motivation behind this approach is to re-enchant the ways of the community, the way of life of the community; to not only see what is outside as something enchanting, but to re-enchant our own ways, to appreciate our own ways. Of course this is a complex process. It is something that will walk slowly and continue.

The way to express maiz y comunalidad was as a source of life and also as a “por venir”, a hope, that is ours.

This intimacy that we have with corn

In Motion Magazine: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Melquiades Cruz: Perhaps just to talk a little more about corn and say that corn is not just a thing, a useful item. It doesn’t only have utilitarian purposes. It is something that is much deeper and has spiritual meaning for us. It is a part of us. What makes this vision unique or different from the common perception of corn is that it can be used to represent how we see nature and our place in it. Corn is not just a thing, it is something that is alive. And, like everything else that is alive, when we die we go back to this nature that we are all a part of. Corn is a way to express this idea that is ours and is very different from other ways of seeing.

To recognize that everything is alive is to say that we are all even but we are all different.

Something that we often discuss when we talk about corn is that sometimes certain spokespeople have an urge to become the “specialist” of the corn topic. I don’t talk about corn as an expert but as a person who has a direct relationship with it. I can only talk about my own experience with corn. I think that is curious how the media picks out certain figures to represent this idea, for example corn and spirituality, which is something that is part of our culture.

You can say that there is a very intimate relationship with corn in our community. It is like there is an intimate relationship with the guajolote, the turkey. These are things that are hard to explain but it is something that is very much a part of our culture, this intimacy that we have with the corn.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 24, 2006

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