‘Pessimism,’ says Raúl Gatica, ‘is something I buried along with my umbilical cord.’
Raúl’s small, stocky frame contains a humourful and expansive optimist. As an indigenous Mexican activist from the southern state of Oaxaca, his optimism is a form of defiance. A third of the state’s population is indigenous, many of them malnourished and living on less than a dollar a day. Oaxaca has the highest infant-mortality rate in the country.
But it also has many people like Raúl. The Indigenous Peoples’ Council of Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (CIPO-RFM) has 2,000 indigenous activists. ‘Although the majority of us do not know how to read or write,’ they declare, ‘we have two hands and a heart with which to fight.’
Raúl explains how it began back in 1997: ‘Our demands to the authorities for roads, education, health, weren’t being met. And a lot of people around the communities were being punished by the police and the army for resisting. That’s when we started getting together.’
Since then they’ve evolved some unique variations on the standard tactics of demonstrating and occupying public buildings. When many of their members were imprisoned in May 1998 no-one in power would speak to the indigenous organization. Raúl reports what happened when they demanded a meeting with the Governor of Oaxaca:
‘Our delegation arrived but the gates were shut in our faces. So we opened the bags we had brought with us from the countryside in which we had big countryside rats and frog-eating snakes. We let them loose through the railings and into the offices. Suddenly all the doors were flung open and everyone rushed out. The big fat Secretary of Political Development fainted. Then we said: “Are you letting us in to talk or shall we release more?”
‘“Yes! Yes! We’ll let you in!” they said, “but please come and get your animals!”
‘That’s how we started the process of dialogue to ask for the release of 106 who’d been imprisoned. We were asking for a commission to look into it because there wasn’t a case against the prisoners.’
But the CIPO-RFM is also about creating alternatives. They broke a local cartel’s monopoly on transport by running their own buses and taxis (‘though no airline yet,’ jokes Raúl), have set up co-operatives and are growing better food to fight malnutrition.
Such activities have won Raúl death threats and imprison-ment. ‘We do all this without permission and so we set a bad example,’ he explains. ‘We’ve been living autonomy, but we’ve only just discovered there’s a word for it.’
They take inspiration from the Zapatistas, and call them-selves ‘Magonistas’ after Ricardo Flores Magón, an indigenous Oaxacan and a key figure of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Magonistas, says Raúl, are ‘about autonomy and self-organization. Indigenous culture is non-hierarchical – very much so. Magón just wrote down the things that already existed in indigenous culture.’
‘We are non-violent, and we don’t believe in individual direct action but in community action.’ Decisions are taken through assemblies and they work towards consensus. ‘Quite often, consensus is a form of resistance,’ says Raúl. It means that neither companies nor political parties can divide and rule the community.
Theirs is a heady mix of direct action and cultural tradition, with music, festivals, the women bearing flowers to defuse police violence. Their piñatas (papier-mâché dolls that are ritually smashed according to Mexican custom) are in the shape of President Vicente Fox with a US flag – when children hit them they burst open to scatter messages of peace.
Using folk traditions as a form of resistance is a powerful tactic, as indigenous culture is under attack from so many sides. The most recent such assault may be the most serious, not just for indigenous people but for the world.
Indigenous Mexicans believe that God created humanity from an ear of corn and call themselves ‘people of maize’. Now, Raúl tells me, ‘our ancient varieties are being destroyed by GM corn coming in from the US, cheaper than we can produce. But it doesn’t taste as nice. They’re creating dependency on foods we don’t grow. That endangers our own farming.’
Recently university researchers discovered an explosive fact: between 20 and 60 per cent of traditional maize varieties of CIPO-RFM’s community crops are now contaminated with modified genes from imported US corn. It’s not clear yet how the indigenous plan to respond – Raúl will only say that for now they are ‘keeping their plans in their knickers’.*
For Raúl, armed only with his optimism, is one of those who refuses to lie down. ‘You know, our culture and our forms of organizing have survived a number of empires. I’m sure we’ll survive this one.’
Thanks to Marcela López Levy and the Latin America Bureau *Read more about the GM corn-contamination story in the Jan/Feb 2003 issue of the NI on Food and Farming.
Raúl Gatica talked with Katharine Ainger