Usos, Costumbres — and Violence

Marimba players move from restaurant to restaurant in the Oaxaca, Mexico’s newly repaved Zócalo, the sharp notes of their percussion vibrating off museum walls as they strive to be heard about the shouts of “Assassin” and “Tyrant” a young woman projects from the patio of the city’s sixteenth century cathedral. Ambulantes in indigena dress dangle beads and shawls in front of couples playing with their children and men perusing the latest arrests, assaults and fatal crashes in the evening Nota Roja. Clowns slapstick comedy routines, a battered top hat in front of them to receive donated coins. And ever present police walk in pairs, more interested in teenaged women’s swaying hips than in political denouncements or cultural offerings.

Though there is laughter there’s also poverty, for one sees only the tip of the iceberg in the Zócalo. No one has any money or, as a scruffy looking artist with a loud voice and thatched gray hair proclaimed: “No one that is, except the governor! And he’s so corrupt the Devil won’t have him in Hell!” How close in contact the artist is with the Devil, I don’t know, but one doesn’t have to have lived a long time in Oaxaca to know that cell phones, women’s slacks and Internet are merely twentieth century window dressing on a colonial cacique system of hacendero and impoverished, dependent sharecroppers.

Oaxaca’s government is one of most corrupt in a country noted for corrupt state governments. All the power is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few and very little money trickles down to the unprivileged. Oaxaca journalist Pedro Matias ruefully explains that Oaxaca does not require that a governor give an exact accounting of the billions of dollars available to him. Oaxaca’s ex-governors are among the wealthiest landholders in the state.

But the state is one of Mexico’s poorest. The central valley, where nearly half of the inhabitants live and where its capital, the city of Oaxaca, is located, is ringed by a series of mountains intersected by deep canyons that isolate many rural communities. Nearly 45 percent of the state’s more than three million 500 thousand residents are indigena; 40 percent of them speak one or more of the fifteen different native languages and 76 percent of them earn less than seventy pesos—a little more than $6 U.S. dollars—a day. The main source of revenue for the majority of rural families is money sent to them from relatives working in the United States.

“At first only the men went and they returned every winter. Then they started staying longer,” rural schoolteacher Thelma Leger explained to me. “Now the women are migrating too. Often a twelve- or thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl is left to take care of the younger children. Instead of going to school they work. It is sad. It is very, very sad.”

So great is the expectancy that young people will go to the United States to seek work that another teacher told me that parents of some of her indigena students asked that she teach them English instead of Spanish “so they would do better when they got to the ‘Other Side.’”

While officially Oaxaca governor Ulisés Ruiz and his predecessors in office voiced consternation over the massive migration out of Oaxaca they quietly shifted government funding away from social programs. Oaxacans receive over $1 billion dollars a year in remittances of $50 to $500 sent from the United States, over 95 percent of which goes for food, housing, clothing and medical expenses that the state government no longer funds. Instead it has invested in marinas, new administrative offices, airplanes, helicopters and around-the-world visits by Ruiz and select Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI for its initials in Spanish) members.

Attempts to break what many Oaxacans call “the tyrannical power” of the privileged elite have driven governors out of office and triggered a century-long push-pull of violence, protest and repression but the elite not only controls most of the material wealth but has had the backing of the federal government—also a power elite of a select privileged few—who since they came to power through revolution early in the twentieth century fear popular uprisings and act immediately and often brutally to detain them.

How brutal and how violent was evident in October and November of 2006 when a force of nearly 5,000 federal police and military and that many or more state and municipal police swept through the city of Oaxaca, arresting, beating and torturing innocents and protesters without consideration of their ages, occupations or political affiliations. For nearly five months the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, led by the 70,000-strong Oaxaca branch of the national teachers union striking for better salaries and working conditions, had taken over the governing palaces of the city of Oaxaca and several other cities throwing the state into convulsions that forced the closing of thousands of small businesses. Tourism sank to its lowest level in sixty years nightly barricades throughout the state impeded the passing of police and paramilitary death squadrons and airlines and surface transportation severely cut back their services.

The Popular Assembly burst into being after Ruiz ordered state police backed by helicopters spewing tear gas to break up a sit-in by the teachers’ union in May 2006. Women’s committees, priests, students, indigena organizations and human rights groups rallied to support the mauled strikers. Within two weeks the Popular Assembly not only had active spokespersons and a plan of action but tens of thousands of supporters.

“That day was the parting of waters for Oaxaca,” Pedro Matias told a Rights Action emergency human rights delegation. “There was only going forward, no going back.”

Although the Popular Assembly seemed to have come together by magic, Miguel Vázquez, co-founder of Oaxaca’s Services for Alternative Education, insists that the attack on the teachers encampment provided a catalyst for uniting groups that had been organizing for over twenty years. Once organized, and with a center of control in the capital city’s historical district, the Assembly voted to restore the traditional “usos y costumbres” (uses and customs) participatory way of community government and social responsibility that had been the Oaxacan way of life before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

“Under usos y costumbres,” Miguel Vázquez explains, “every community member participates in every aspect of government. There are no caciques, no leaders or chiefs. Everything is decided by assembly. Whether the community is tiny — a few dozen members — or huge, with thousands of members, those within the community assemble and make their decisions. Whatever the majority decides, that is what the community does.”

Not only are policy decisions made during the assemblies but those involved also decide what cargo (charge, or office) each community member will hold. Under usos y costumbres each male member of the community serves in a designated capacity for a predetermined length of time, usually a year. To fulfill these communal obligations an individual may serve as a policeman one year, be responsible for arranging traditional fiestas the next, be the street sweeper the year after that. (Migration has so decimated most rural communities adhering to usos y costumbres that many women now serve in their husbands’ places.)

In addition to the assigned cargos all community members practice tequio — unremunerated community service. Much like in early U.S. pioneer communities, tequio involves everything from house and fence building to road construction and childcare services. Like all other community matters projects are determined by assembly vote.

The third salient aspect of usos y costumbres is the guelaguetza: “giving.” To those whom God has been generous, and who have profited financially during the year, guelaguetza becomes a way of returning to the community some of the individual’s good fortune. The giver may build a community cistern, sponsor a fiesta or provide scholarships for high school students. And he does not expect anything but sharing in return.

Over the past 450 years most Oaxacan communities have become Roman Catholic although evangelical Protestant congregations have multiplied throughout the state. Padre Manuel Arias, the spokesperson for Oaxaca’s Catholic presbytery, sees no contradiction between either branch of Christianity and usos y costumbres.

Usos y costumbres,” he explains, “is a way of social organization. It is horizontal, rather than vertical. It is very similar to social conformations established by the early Christians. Many priests are, in fact, usos y costumbres advocates.”

Oaxaca law currently authorizes community self-government by means of usos y costumbres. By vote communities elect either usos y costumbres or the partido (political party) system. But no matter which they choose their independence is very constricted.

“Ruiz controls the finances. He controls the police. Communities can organize their tequios and have their fiestas but they really have very little authority,” Pedro Matias sighed.

Although the teachers union abided by Popular Assembly decisions (many of which they instigated) both the leadership and the majority of members regarded the Popular Assembly as a support organization built around the union. Whereas the Popular Assembly advocated a “horizontal” governing structure (which in many cases resulted in no structure at all), the union maintained its traditional “vertical” organization with elected leaders who directed activities and assigned teachers to schools throughout the state. The union continued to act on its own apart from the Popular Assembly, coordinating with other sections of the National Workers in Education Union (SNTE) to protest the privatization of Mexican social security and to urge the deposing of federal education czar Elba Gordillo. The various regional indigena organizations also focused on their own activities while vocally supporting the Popular Assembly and sending participants to the assemblies and protest marches. The same was true for the smaller NGOs.

The Popular Assembly’s primary goal was getting rid of Governor Ruiz. Elevated into office in 2004 after elections widely criticized as fraudulent, Ruiz controlled not only executive functions but also the legislature, law enforcement and the judiciary. Past governors, including Ruiz’ predecessor José Murat, successfully quashed potential uprisings but none had to deal with a force as large or as organized as the APPO.

For five months the teachers’ encampments covered over fifty square blocks in the center of the city. They barricaded hundreds of streets and highways to prevent Ruiz-paid death squads from circulating at night. Even so, snipers gunned down José Jiménez while he was participating in a Popular Assembly march. Others waylaid and killed eighteen protesters before non-uniformed police stormed a barricade in Santa María del Camino, a city of Oaxaca suburb, and shot U.S. video photographer Bradley Will.

The news of Will’s murder flashing around the world prompted Mexico’s federal government to demonstrate that it wouldn’t tolerate non-conformance. Outgoing president Vicente Fox sent over 4,000 soldiers and federal preventive police (PFP), along with dozens of armored vehicles and helicopters, to Oaxaca. Two days after their arrival they launched an all-out assault, destroying the barricades and occupying the center of the city. Four weeks later they caught the fleeing remnants of a protest march in a pincer movement and indiscriminately beat and apprehended everyone they could lay hands on, including many men and women who had not participated in the march. As Governor Ruiz proclaimed, “Oaxaca is again safe for tourists,” federal and state police and paramilitaries continued to intimidate and jail Popular Assembly leaders and participants. Others went into hiding. Thanks to brutal federal support Ruiz, the cacique, was in charge again.

But despite the arrests, imprisonments and media control of reporting the events, the Popular Assembly remained a symbol throughout Mexico of the possibility for political change. Julio Hernández of the Mexico City daily La Jornada told a March 2008 Día de Mujer forum in the city of Oaxaca, “What happened here is an example, an example of action… that gave hope to the entire pueblo of Mexico.” He affirmed that the Popular Assembly awakened “a sleeping giant.”

Like the student rebellions of 1968 in Mexico City and the anti-Vietnam and integration movements during the same period in the United States, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca ruptured traditional mores, which is a grand precursor for permanent change. Women throughout Oaxaca began challenging the old order, even in indigena strongholds of machismo. The successes of the barricades, if temporary, convinced people who never had participated in any kinds of political act that they have rights and can exercise those rights. They exposed the PRI’s weaknesses and corruption and the teacher’s union, reorganized under new aggressive leadership in 2009, is challenging federalization of teacher placement and many indigena communities are expelling corrupt caciques and forcing multi-national corporations to curtail hydroelectric and mining projects.

Marcos Leyva, one of the Popular Assembly founders, explained the movement’s sudden formation as “combustive” — Oaxaca had been a dry brush land waiting for a spark to ignite it and Ulisés Ruiz provided that spark when he ordered state and municipal police to break up the protesting teachers’ sit-in and drive them out of the city center. For nearly six months the conflagration raged and abated only when federal militarized police and army tanketas and troops overpowered the pacifist protesters by brute force.

They crushed the outward manifestations — the symptoms — but they didn’t stamp out the disease. Oaxaca continues to be a crackling dry tinderland. When will the next spark set off a conflagration? And what will the consequences be?

They will burn more than just Oaxaca. The entire country will feel the flames.

Robert Joe Stout has written about Mexico for a variety of publications, including America, The American Scholar and Notre Dame Magazine. He was a member of two Rights Action emergency human rights delegations to Oaxaca and witnessed many of the events described. His most recent book, Why Immigrants Come to America: Braceros, Indocumentados and the Migra came out in 2008 from Praeger. Read other articles by Robert.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. liz burbank said on September 4th, 2009 at 10:14am #

    Why does this article fails to even mention the crucial reality of u.s. political-economic domination of Mexico?
    Hector Carreon, La Voz de Aztlan will help with this sordid history.
    George Salzman and Nancy Davies, longtime Oaxaca residents and activists: .

  2. Jorge said on October 17th, 2009 at 11:30am #

    Re: Why does this article fails to even mention the crucial reality of u.s. political-economic domination of Mexico?

    Because nothing of the sort would be possible without the complicity of the Mexican comprador elites–Fox is a prime example; CEO’s of foreign corporations are prime examples; Calderon is a prime example. Where you see privatization in favor of vast corporations, there is a prime example. These are the ones who betray their people for money and power. People don’t interest them in the least. Power and wealth are what interest them. Mexico has no monopoly on the breed, to be sure, but Mexico is a profoundly corrupt country. Profoundly corrupt. Of course, the US is as well. But this article is about Mexico. American expats in Mexico too often have an unintelligent and sentimentalist view of Mexico.