A Pueblo, a World

What from outside seems an extraordinary feat of organization is nothing more than the everyday forms of collective life

The following text is a chapter from In the Name of the People, a collectively written text that develops shared perspectives on the populist backlash currently unfolding on a planetary scale. Friends from France, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Quebec, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Ukraine, and the United States respond to the question: How is populism embodied in our worlds, and how do those of us who fight relate to it? This chapter puts into perspective the often misunderstood significance of the presidential candidacy launched by Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress in anticipation of the election López Obrador finally won. Rejecting any hope in electoral politics, the National Indigenous Congress’s 2016 call was for autonomous organization, taking the indigenous forms of self-government as a prime example. In doing so, this call attested to a particular meaning of the word pueblo, dislocating the usual manner in which the question of populism is posed. A pueblo designates a people, but also a town or a village, and emphasizes an irreducible relationship between a territory and those who inhabit it. In this way, the text elucidates the territorial dimension of the fight against capital and the state that, from the defense of Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to the battles against extraction across Latin America, has played an increasingly prominent role in the struggles of our time.

On March 11, 1911, Otilio Montaño, a combatant in the Liberation Army of the South, took the main square of the Mexican town of Villa de Ayala with the cry “¡Arriba pueblos, abajo haciendas!” (“Up with the pueblos, down with haciendas!”). This proclamation, the heart of the Zapatista war of liberation, still resounds in each one of the pueblos that organize themselves to defend their territory.

What at first seems an irrelevant detail is useful for understanding the declaration’s potential: Zapatismo didn’t rise up against hacienda owners, or hacendados, but against the structure they managed. Then, as now, those who confronted each other weren’t simply two classes or two groups of the Mexican population, nor even two ethnically homogeneous groups. The war of the pueblos against the haciendas was the clash of two radically distinct forms of occupying space: two forms of relating to the earth, to its fruits, and to its history. Two worlds.

1. The milpa, which involves a complex system based around maize, or corn, is the basic agricultural unit of Mesoamerica. It is a collective form that lies at the heart of agricultural life, with a very specific cycle and rituals and labors that revolve around it.
Since the middle of the 17th century, the pueblos of Morelos, the state to the south of Mexico City that was also the site of Zapata’s first stronghold, had been forced to retreat almost to the point of disappearance due to the expansion of sugar haciendas. The same space where collective life had been organized around milpas1 and waters was now converted into a succession of agricultural farms, where the Nahua pueblo lived and died enchained by debt to their bosses.

Varying with local nuances, this confrontation consisted of a clash that was repeated throughout the country’s geography. The history of the Mexican territory is none other than the history of how pueblos have organized to defend their collective life against those who want to convert their lands into a desert: against the haciendas and farms of the 19th century, but also against the open-air mines, wind farms, and tourism of today.

2. Ejido is the term the Mexican state used to legalize the agrarian reform in the 1917 constitution following the Mexican Revolution. The ejido is a “concession” of the state to a group of land applicants who didn’t have ownership but only the use of the land. The highest ejidal authority is the assembly of ejidatarios. Because of their collective nature, ejidos were used by many Indigenous communities to legalize their communal lands. Even though the ejido still exists, in 1992 a law was passed to legalize the conversion of ejidatarios into individual owners, hence legalizing the sale of collective lands.
This is why it is no coincidence that Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, the military leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), offers the apparently simple diagnosis, “The capitalist world is a walled plantation.” This is also why comrades from the National Indigenous Congress repeat over and over that their struggle consists of defending life—that which is simplest, but also most intimate and potent. Because a pueblo—a community, an ejido2, a piece of land—is always a form of collectively living a territory, a form of inhabiting it, caring for it, and protecting it as if the body itself were its extension.

As in many other languages, the Spanish word pueblo ambiguously refers to a demographic unit, a group of residents, a multitude of dispossessed individuals, or a solid political body. In Mexican Spanish, however, there is no such confusion. “Pueblo” was the word that attempted to translate the form in which the Nahuas named the places they inhabited: altépetl, a kind of simplification of a double metaphor: in atl, in tepetl. In the mountains, in the waters.

It doesn’t matter if there is a town square or just a group of scattered lands covering a fragment of the sierra. A pueblo is the mountains, the valleys, the waters, and the caves. Yet it is also, and most of all, the complex fabric of relationships taking place on this terrain: languages, work, assemblies, celebrations, conflicts, and deaths. There is no pueblo without territory, nor land without inhabitants.

Although they share a geographical position, a pueblo and a hacienda are never situated on the same territory. A mine or a highway occupies a point on a map in order to completely depopulate it. In contrast, a milpa, a spring, a path, or a river are places where the earth lets itself be inhabited, places where stories are created and circulated as well. This is why, for the pueblos, “the earth isn’t for sale.” Not only because it is the basic source of sustenance but also because with its departure would go memory and all of life as well.

Topography, geography, and engineering are the only forms of territorial knowledge that the machinery of dispossession needs to operate. On the other hand, the wisdom of the pueblos is very much more complex. In the rainforest of the Chimalapas, in Oaxaca, the Zoque have resisted invading ranchers for decades. They know to perfection the rainforest’s landmarks and limits, and maintain all the legal records pertaining to Chimalapas topography that sustain their struggle. Yet their knowledge goes much further. They still proudly tell how, in 1986, they captured an invading farmer within their territory. He was the brother of the governor of Chiapas. Immediately, the state’s forces blocked all the routes leading out of the region. Meanwhile, the comuneros (communal land holders) made their prisoner walk through the clearings of the rainforest only they knew. After walking all night, they turned him over to the municipal chief while the army still waited, watching him come out of the forest on to the highway.

This extremely precise and intimate territorial knowledge is impossible to understand from the city, the colonial artifact par excellence. What from outside seems an extraordinary feat of organization is nothing more than the everyday forms of collective life. When one asks a comrade of what the Indigenous Governing Council, a body proposed by the National Indigenous Congress, consists, it is not rare to hear that “it is just the way we organize, only now throughout the whole country.” Condensed in this little “just” are centuries of learning. After all, a pueblo—geographically, demographically, and ethnically—is not a static unit but a space where life unfolds, and with life the creativity of resistance.

Contrary to what the indigenismo of the state supposed, indigenous communities aren’t “regions of refuge.” The war of dispossession and extermination has, of course, displaced the pueblos toward rocky slopes and inhospitable zones, far from the fertile lands where they lived before. Yet the pueblos aren’t simply a product of domination over an inert and passive group of people.

They are, on the contrary, “regions of defense.” They are places where, in the face of war, a long-term resistance has been organized. Although anthropology (old or new, liberal or Marxist) finds it fascinating to imagine these communities as closed, conservative places, in the pueblos’ forms of organization it is possible to witness the capacity to advance at the right moment, prepare a rebellion in silence, or transform their interior and ingeniously manipulate tools from outside.

In October of 2017, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, known as Marichuy, the Nahua woman the Indigenous Governing Council elected as its spokeswoman, began her tour of the country. “We are going to walk as the pueblos walk,” she said, “like when we have a celebration.” In effect, struggle and resistance and patron-saint festivals have always been organized in the same way. Days before they begin, so there is no lack of food, the families each bring their contribution. The entire pueblo is divided into rotating groups, so as to allow for participation in community work without neglecting one’s own responsibilities. In a chosen place, somewhere well known to everyone, intertwined branches supporting strung hammocks are raised, as well as temporary kitchens functioning day and night. Around the fire, people meet and share news. This is how the festivals of the community’s saint are organized, but also how a highway blockade, land seizure, and self-defense during days of tense moments are organized as well. In struggle and fiesta, all the knowledges and abilities of a pueblo are clearly revealed.

The pueblos, then, are territories where collective life and struggle take place. Or, more precisely, places where life and struggle coincide and end up being almost synonymous. Territories where existence, in the face of a war of extermination, is already a form of resistance against the invasion of farmers, hacendados, miners, and, of course, the state.

This is because the pueblos’ forms of collective decision-making not only prevent the formation of small states in their interior but also keep the official institutions far from their dynamics and territories. Organization and self-government help prolong the absence of the state, not alleviate it. This is why discussions about inclusion/exclusion and state “recognition”—for example, the impulse of certain anarchist positions to repeat over and over that the EZLN “sought state recognition in the San Andrés Accords”—are so fruitless.

In fact, perhaps one of the most brilliant and complex forms of the pueblos’ strategy has been the way they have occupied and repurposed “official” institutions in order to prevent the entrance of the state. Before the entrance of the political-party system became one of the most severe obstacles to the organization of the pueblos, the autogobiernos (forms of self-government) had taken the form of religious brotherhoods and civil councils in the colonial period, agrarian authorities and municipalities in modern Mexico, or leaders’ councils throughout all of history. Reclaiming the right to autonomy is nothing other than obliging the state to recognize the way in which the pueblos have been able to deceive it.

Santa María Ostula is the only Nahua pueblo on the coast of Michoacán that has been able to completely maintain its lands and autonomy. In 2009, the town’s Communal Guard was reconstituted to recuperate 900 hectares that had been invaded by ranchers since the sixties. In 2014, the same Guard united with other self-defense groups from other regions of Michoacán, mainly composed of small landowners and ranchers, in order to throw the Knights Templar Cartel out of their community. Since then, the assembly has not only elected its agrarian authorities but also selected members of the community for civil positions usually elected by way of vote or direct appointment. In 2015, for example, Ostula and its allies promoted the person who has been the municipal president, a position of local state office, ever since. The commander of the Communal Guard of Ostula is the president’s head of security, a “public functionary” whose principal task since then has been to confront the army, the marines, and drug traffickers.

Not only is the existence of pueblos itself a form of resistance, their collective organization is also one of the finest and most complex forms of combating the state apparatus. Official spaces are always infiltrated to be deactivated from inside. Neither a hacienda nor a state share space with a pueblo. The latter’s existence and organization is always, and necessarily, destitutive. This is why it’s not a contradiction that the Indigenous Governing Council had its spokeswoman register as an independent candidate for the Mexican presidential election in 2018. Only those who confide in democracy and its institutions can believe it’s absurd to not want to win.

In October of 2016, the General Command of the EZLN presented a wild proposal during the assembly of the twentieth anniversary of the National Indigenous Congress. They proposed the Mexican pueblos convene an Indigenous Governing Council, a national collective organ that would elect an Indigenous woman as spokesperson to register as an independent candidate in the presidential elections of 2018. The assembly took place behind closed doors, and around the auditorium there was nothing more than conjecture, rumor, and misunderstanding.

Some days later, the doors opened and the General Command repeated the proposal in front of those of us who were there as listeners. From the beginning, it was clear that the electoral battle was practically irrelevant. At the heart of “the proposal,” as it has been called since then, there was a phrase that was repeated over and over again: take the offensive. Confusion and surprise were assumed even as a kind of attraction. “The idea is so absurd it makes you laugh and cry . . . but when you think about it, doesn’t it make you want to do it just to fuck with them?” This almost playful challenge became one of the slogans of the Indigenous Governing Council: “We’re going to fuck up their festival of death.” In exchange, there would be another celebration, another rebellion. “When July 2018 comes, the candidate won’t even be the most important thing. You’ll see we have the force to put this country back on its feet.”

The proposal seemed to be a perfect diversionary maneuver (maniobra diversiva): Distract the cities and the media with a grandiloquent advance to allow for the organization and silent offensive of all the country’s pueblos. From the beginning, all the force was directed toward the process itself. It consisted of consulting the pueblos in order to reconstitute the assemblies that had lost strength and have a campaign so that the pueblos could meet. Here the central point is clearing the path of an organization thought to be permanent. “This is, perhaps, the last opportunity we have to save the country.”

In effect, for at least the last decade, the worlds that are the pueblos have confronted a level of violence that perhaps no one had ever before lived in the history of this country. The entire territory became a wasteland of graves, assassinations, disappearances, and torture, but also extractivism, highway projects, mines, fracking, and extensive forestry. As never before, the state and drug trafficking have come together to break the earth.

The proposal meant a counteroffensive response in the face of this war. And, as in 1992, in the Lacandon Jungle, the uprising consulted for months with the pueblos that compose the National Indigenous Congress. It was there, in the assemblies’ complex discussions, that the proposal found its place. Even the conflicts were a sign of force. A comrade, for example, started the process with suspicions. She didn’t find the electoral scheme at all convincing, and so she went to explain this and consult in her own region. She came back unconvinced, but confident in the force that had been created. Asking questions, discussing, and meeting together had generated a potential she hadn’t seen in years.

The pueblos heard the proposal and discussed it, transformed it, and made it theirs. Meanwhile, in the cities, the announcement arrived in a different form, typical of the urban world, where it was heard there would be a presidential candidate and not an organization of pueblos, that it would be a “symbolic” candidature and not a proposal for struggle. Even in its most progressive version, reception of the proposal was at times ridiculous and frankly racist. Marichuy appears as a “moral referent,” a “figure” whose only function is to be there, in silence, showing the political class it shouldn’t rob or lie. What is resistance and even survival in the pueblos, in the city is a lesson in good manners.

In this way, the proposal traveled in two divergent directions, two different worlds. The diversionary maneuver seemed to have fooled even those who support it from the cities. In the country’s urban areas, efforts concentrated on gathering the signatures required by the electoral authority to validate the candidature. Few collectives have organized themselves for anything more. In this way, the proposal adopted the form of the city: Organization coincides with collective life under the form of absence.

The city is not the superlative of the pueblo but its antonym. In the same way that a pueblo is a collective form of inhabiting a territory, a city is nothing more than the administration of its depopulation. This is why, since the 19th century, citizenship has been the theoretical weapon with which liberalism has attacked the pueblos. In 1822, after a decree ended the “Repúblicas de Indios”—the juridical regime that recognized the existence of the pueblos during the colonial period—the liberal state wanted only one thing: to disintegrate every form of collective life and convert all of us into Mexican citizens. Thirty-five years later, the government of Benito Juárez enacted a law that ordered the disappearance of communal lands, giving way to the “golden age” of haciendas, when the pueblos were transformed into masses of landless workers. One of the most enjoyable symptoms of the historic schizophrenia of Mexico was the 2018 national elections, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who campaigned under the banner of Juárez and defended the arrival of Canadian mining, was accused by his technocratic adversaries of being a “left populist.” Apparently, in Mexico, populism is the superior phase of liberalism.
In the pueblos, the impact of the proposal has been radically distinct. In December, Marichuy visited the Ejido de Tila, a pueblo north of Chiapas that has lived autonomously for two years. The presence of the “spokeswoman” convened communities from the whole region. The streets were bursting with people, and the pueblos organized in small groups to register and occupy their places. The communities in which political parties and chiefs had already put an end to assemblies and communal lands drew close to observe how a pueblo is autonomous and free. They listened in Ch’ol, their language, to councilors of the Indigenous Governing Council.

The organization acquires its full meaning in the pueblos most besieged by the violence of the extractivism administered by the political parties. Far from constituted power, there the proposal of the Indigenous Governing Council loses its symbolic aura that the city finds so fascinating in order to touch the earth and become real. The presidential election becomes irrelevant when it is instead an urgent matter of throwing out the local government, or recovering lands, or organizing a communal guard. There, the proposal isn’t a moral issue. It is simply the possibility of living with dignity without giving up one’s land, life, and memory.

On September 19, 2017, an earthquake hit Mexico City—the country’s crown of power, dispossession, and racism. Two days later, the army and the marines were ready to put an end to the excavation of buildings, although there were still living people and bodies trapped inside. People organized to prevent their entry and to require the most minimal thing—to protect the life that was still present and recover the bodies of their dead. Their organization allowed the search to continue to its end. For a few hours, the city lived like the rest of the country, collectively defending the dignity of life and death against the machinery of the state. A week later, things returned to normal. Organizing oneself in the city means knowing both that even among the ruins exists a possibility of life and being able to make this visible even in the midst of catastrophe.

On more than one occasion, the comrades of the National Indigenous Congress have said that “only the pueblos can save this world.” Understanding this seemingly grandiloquent affirmation is the most important of the tasks their organization has given us. It is only necessary to understand that where there is a mine, a highway, a political party, or a city, there can’t be a world, which is to say, a territory and a certain way of inhabiting it.

In this sense, hearing that the Indigenous Governing Council wants to “govern the world” doesn’t sound so far-fetched and instead becomes a proposal of an endless simplicity. Governing the world doesn’t mean anything besides saving it, besides defending the life that takes place in the pueblos and ensuring that something of what is there multiplies and proliferates. It means making the cities, dispossession, and death turn back in order to know whether it is possible that, right there, a collective life can still happen. A pueblo, a world.