Native Peoples, without a Place in the Mexican Cultural and Political System

Gabriela Coutiño

Los pueblos originarios, sin cabida en el sistema cultural y político mexicano

The Zapatista movement broke the State’s discourse of modernization and a progressive future, as it exposed the semi-colonial and pre-capitalist condition in which the native peoples lived, says sociologist Raúl Romero.

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Chiapas. (Proceso). Neither Mexico nor the world can be explained without pausing at what 1994 meant. “Any serious history book, whether for school or historical analysis, must have a special section for what it begins (in 1994)”, reflects Raúl Romero Gallardo, sociologist at UNAM.

Disciple of the former rector of the UNAM Pablo González Casanova, recognized by the EZLN as “Commander Pablo Contreras” for his closeness and contributions to the knowledge and study of the movement, Romero Gallardo affirms that the Zapatista movement “has also managed to be a reference, an icon and a factor of exchange with a good part of the world’s popular movements.”

And he recalls the global context of the beginning of the armed irruption of the EZLN:

“We were coming from the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the narrative of the end of history, from the thought that the only possibility of development was within capitalism and liberal democracy.”

As regards the national context before the explosion of January 1st, 1994, he maintains that we must remember that “the official narrative was of the modernization of the Mexican State, heading towards a promise of a modern and developed future that was made from the neoliberal leadership.”

Then the Zapatista movement “comes to break this and prove that this narrative is not only false, but that there are regions in the country that live in completely colonial conditions. Chiapas is one of its examples,” declares the academic.


He also recalls that Chiapas did not experience a Mexican Revolution as it was experienced in other regions of the country, and in the state there was “a semi-colonial and pre-capitalist structure in the mid-nineties”, so the Zapatista movement came to break the narrative of the modernization of the Mexican State and capitalism as the only option, it made indigenous peoples visible and was a flag against neoliberalism.

Romero Gallardo has toured the area of Zapatista influence several times. With this knowledge, he states that several elements converge in the EZLN. It is especially necessary to recognize as one of them the indigenous insurgency that was occurring throughout Latin America since 1992, which permeated the 500 years of colonization, “of black, indigenous and popular resistance.”

Figures of the Latin American indigenous movement of those years were Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rigoberta Menchú in Guatemala and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), among other personalities and organizations. Romero adds that “they find in the Zapatista movement a voice, a face that gives power to the continent and to the subaltern subjects of the indigenous peoples.”

After the Zapatista uprising came the mobilizations of Seattle, Porto Alegre, Genoa and the entire alter-globalization movement that questioned the neoliberal model and also questioned the discourse that the only way out was within the capitalist system. The indigenous movement and the movement against neoliberalism find in the EZLN a face and a flag. It is then that the struggle of the EZLN and the indigenous peoples connected with international movements, the academic maintains.

These connections – the academic reflects – make others emerge, “such as the struggle of women that connects with the new feminist waves.” The Zapatistas, recalls Romero Gallardo, organized in the first decade of this century what they called the first meeting of Zapatista women with the people of the world, and the EZLN also connects with sexual diversity movements.

To this trajectory we must add the commitment of the EZLN with the mothers of the victims of the Dirty War and then the commitment of the Zapatista peoples with the searching mothers, as well as their solidarity with the parents of the student teachers from Ayotzinapa, affirms Romero Gallardo.

This configuration “goes from the Dirty War or state terrorism and today with the war against organized crime, or the war on disorganized crime, as they say.”

To verify this, you only have to see the statements of the Chiapas armed group, and you must also add the diagnosis that the Zapatista movement is building around the global ecological crisis, the problem of ecocide and the problem of the destruction of life.

Building autonomy

Internally, the Zapatistas have managed to guarantee their communities education, health and housing and have even been able to save their culture. This can be seen because theater is performed in the communities, they have community radio and that “is an artistic cultural policy that has been built with national artists,” he says.

Romero Gallardo regrets that these cultural experiences have not been replicated in other rural and impoverished indigenous communities in Mexico “because there is a lack of interest in the arts on the part of the state and federal municipal governments.”

But in turn he points out that today parties and governments try to appropriate the Zapatista narrative.

According to the sociologist, it is common to find candidates “who tell you that they are talking about ruling by obeying” or who tell you that they will solve problems in fifteen minutes. “That is, they try to appropriate the Zapatista discourse and symbolism to turn it into a brand or campaign slogan.”

In this reflection that he shares with Proceso, Romero asserts that more than talking about a change in the Mexican political system, the Zapatista caused a change in Mexican political culture, “because it helped to think about the complexities, contradictions and miseries of the Mexican political system itself.”

It also served to see that indigenous peoples do not fit into the Mexican system. “María de Jesús Patricio Martínez’s own experience as spokesperson for the Indigenous Council is an example of the structural racism that exists in the Mexican political system, which prevents indigenous communities from being part of that system.”

And that is because, although there are candidates from indigenous backgrounds, the government structure of indigenous peoples is not being recognized. Instead, what is being done is co-opting certain figures of the indigenous movement to make them part of political parties and governments, but the knowledge, forms and characteristics of indigenous peoples are not being recognized.

That is why he regrets that the ratification of the San Andrés Agreements has not been achieved. Because it meant the recognition of their autonomy and their capacity for territorial self-determination.

In the interview, Romero Gallardo says that if the right to territorial self-determination had been recognized for the indigenous peoples, “neoliberalism would not have advanced so much with those characteristics of dispossession and with those characteristics of dispossession within the indigenous peoples, because the “Peoples would have had legal tools to be able to defend themselves and to be able to contain what came next.”

Old and new conflicts

For the UNAM sociologist, the San Andrés agreements are a fundamental issue. “If you travel through the national territory you will find that a large part of the social conflict or socio-environmental conflict” are old problems of indigenous peoples that are being renewed.

He lists some of these struggles: the Yaqui peoples fight against the gas pipelines, the indigenous peoples of the Isthmus fight against the Interoceanic Corridor and the Mayan peoples against the train.

He regrets that the current government, “with a progressive and nationalist discourse, revives these same projects and promotes them,” while the people do not have much capacity for resistance, since “a large part of the national social movement thinks that it is okay to extract or strip the people of their territories for the wealth of the nation.”

Original article published in Proceso at
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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