Go to: Indigenous Peoples' Literature Index





Indigenous Peoples' Literature


Carlos Fuentes on Chiapas


One of Mexico's most prominent novelists and a member of the official Mexican Commission for Human Rights, Carlos Fuentes is author, most recently, of:

Return to Mexico: Journeys Behind the Mask.

Commandante Marcos, the spokesman of the Chiapas rebels, has said that Fuentes is his favorite writer.


The Chiapas revolt has revealed the deep multicultural rifts that had been masked by official glorification of Mexico's pre- Hispanic past. In the United States, there are civil rights laws for dealing with racial conflict in a multicultural society.

We have always congratulated ourselves in Mexico on our extraordinary Indian culture which we display in museums and through imposing monuments along our boulevards. We say we are proud of being the descendants of that culture.

The Mexican Revolution made an attempt to respect the identity of the Indian communities of Mexico, recognizing and protecting them and their languages in the constitution.

In actual practice, however, we have treated the Indians with more cruelty, perhaps, than Cortez.

In Chiapas, in particular, there was a tradition of self- government among the several Indian peoples that endured up until the last 20 or 30 years. A succession of rapacious governors allied to equally rapacious land owners and cattle barons has since destroyed the autonomy of the Indian people, taking their land and driving them to desperation and poverty.

The events of Chiapas have reminded us that Mexico is a multiethnic, multicultural country. Mexico has the desire to be, and regards itself, as a mestizo, or mixed race, country.

But this does not mean that we can simply put aside the fact that there are 10 million Indians in Mexico who speak 42 languages and have alternative cultures and values. They are not barbarians or uncivilized people. They are simply people with another culture.

The challenge for mestizo Mexico after Chiapas is to come to grips with this multicultural and multiethnic reality with stricter laws and protections for the indigenous cultures.

The draft settlement between the Mexican government and the Chiapas rebels calls for new anti-discrimination laws, like those in the U.S., for the Indians. But will such laws mean anything more than the empty guarantees in the Mexican constitution?

Certainly the existence of such laws will mean that the country as a whole will become more sensitized to the issue of discrimination.

But this is how the question of the alternative culture of the Indians is intimately linked to the question of democracy in Chiapas: If the people of Chiapas, for the first time, have the right to elect their own leaders -- people they have confidence in -- then there will be an end to discrimination.

Without democracy, a law against discrimination would be meaningless. Law and its practice cannot be separated from effective democracy in Chiapas. ]

Another element of the draft settlement would guarantee that the Indians of Chiapas would be able to teach and speak their own language in their local schools and in local media.

In this respect we have to rethink what modernity means. If modernity is seen to be homogeneous and exclusive of alternative cultures then it is not really modernity at all. If we want only a modernity as defined in our large cosmopolitan cities, it is a false modernity.

Modernity must be inclusive of plurality. Especially in a world that tends toward uniformity, it is healthy to remember that there are other people that have alternative values, alternative ways of life, alternative languages.

Recently in Los Angeles I inaugurated the National Conference on Bilingual Education in the United States. How can I defend bilingualism in Spanish and English as something that enriches the U.S. and not defend multilingualism that enriches my own country, Mexico?

In Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico) a couple of years ago I saw how that state's government allowed the indigenous Indians to speak in their own language on TV. That allowed a wealth of myths, memories and aspirations to come through that would have otherwise remained lost in silence. This should be done for the nation as a whole.

The problem for the U.S., for Mexico or for Spain -- for any multicultural country -- is to accept that multiculturalism is enriching as long as everyone's rights are equally protected under the law.

Where there is intercultural conflict in a society, there is usually an economic overlay. Chiapas is situated, one might say, between backward Central America and the North American Free Trade zone.Mexico today has one foot in Central America and the other foot in North America.

The Chiapas revolt, lest we forget, was launched on January 1, the day the NAFTA agreement took effect. But maybe fruit from the Mexican tropics and winter vegetables can compete in U.S. markets? I believe the two economies can be complementary in many respects; trade after all is not a zero-sum exercise.

In any event, there is a deeper point to be drawn from Chiapas: People who have been traditionally exploited would rather go on being exploited than become marginalized. They will not be left out altogether and become non-persons in a non-economy.

This is what would happen if the global market-type technocrats were to take over the Chiapas economy. The world economy simply cannot be organized in an enduring way if it only incorporates 30 percent of the world's inhabitants, leaving the remaining 70 percent -- some have called them the "lumpenplanet" -- to dwell or die in destitution.

The demand of the Chiapas rebels for more democracy in all of Mexico has had great resonance through the whole country. Many people with cloudy minds in Mexico responded to what happened in Chiapas by saying, "Here we go again, these rebels are part of the old Sandinista-Castroite-Marxist-Leninist legacy. Is this what we want for Mexico?"

The rebels proved exactly the contrary: Rather than the last rebellion of that type, this was the first post-communist rebellion in Latin America. For the rebels, the demand for democracy was central. They understood that all their other demands having to do with economic reform and laws against discrimination will not be realized if the people of Chiapas do not have the right to elect their own leaders.

Now, you cannot have this kind of democracy in Chiapas when you have the undemocratic system we have in Mexico today. And you cannot have a democratic system in Mexico if you don't have local democracy in a poor and backward place like Chiapas. The two are inseparable.

Everyone was sure that, after the massacre of protesting students in the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics, Mexico would have to move toward democracy. It didn't. 1968 provoked a succession of Mexican governments to at least try to save the system from collapsing into a South American-type dictatorship.

Now the issue is no longer to save the system, but to save the country. And that can only happen through full scale democratization, including in Chiapas.

The effect of Chiapas has been to show us as a nation that our problems can be solved through negotiation rather than force. This, it has to be said, is to the credit of Carlos Salinas, Mexico's president.

He could have taken the trigger-happy path of repression that is the usual temptation of authoritarian governments. But he didn't. It must be understood that it would suffice for the rebel leader from Chiapas, Subcommandante Marcos, to give the signal and there would be two, three, many Chiapas-like revolts across Mexico -- in Chihuahua, in Michoacan, in Oaxaca, in Puebla, Hidalgo and Guerrero. Yet, The Mexican army is barely capable of handling a revolt in Chiapas, no less five or six throughout the country.

So, the government had to take a different tack, and the rebels know this. And now the government has to deliver on its promises or it could face a much wider spread revolt.

Finally, the Chiapas revolt forced all the political parties contending in the presidential elections coming up in August -- including the ruling PRI and the main opposition parties of the right and left -- the PAN (National Action Party) and the PRD (Party of Democratic Revolution headed by Cuahtemoc Cardenas) to agree on a series of measures that promise to make the 1994 elections the most open in Mexican history. The aim, mainly, is to make the electoral authorities independent of the ruling PRI and government, penalize electoral fraud and make sure the media access is fair.

This electoral pact has prepared the way for President Salinas to campaign for democratic reform in Mexico the way he campaigned for NAFTA. If he takes up the challenge, he will go down in history not as the man who negotiated a trade agreement or was badly tainted by Chiapas, but as the man who brought democracy to Mexico.

Mexico in its own way, as much as Russia, today encapsulates the central issues of the post-Cold War era. It is a country struggling to establish democracy while coping with two contradictory pulls -- cultural self-determination demanded by the likes of the Chiapas Indians on the one hand, and integration into the world market, exemplified by NAFTA, on the other. We have all become mirrors of the struggle between the global village and the local village, between economic integration on the world scale and loyalty to community, memory, tradition. For all the material appeal of free worldwide commerce, the fact is that no one lives in the macroeconomy.

We live our actual daily existence, in our own way, in the local village. Because Mexico has such a powerful Indian past and present, the contradictory pulls will be more dramatized. But in other places, if it is not Indians that will dramatize this conflict, it will be immigrants who are the bearers of different cultures entering Germany, France and Britain; it will be the large Third World underclass in the U.S. that is shut out of the global village every bit as much as the Indians of Chiapas.

There art 10 commandments for Mexican democracy.

First is electoral reform. This includes the consecration of alternation in power, an independent electoral organism and clear rules on party access to funding and the media. Mexico cannot go on bleeding itself in post-electoral conflict.

Four more articles of democracy in Mexico: a working federalism, a true division of powers, an electoral statute for Mexico City, and the rule of law through reform of the corrupt judiciary.

The media are the sixth. The comedy of errors will never end if television - and Televisa, in particular - neither informs nor criticizes, limiting itself toparroting the presidential line.

The next three are human rights, respect for civil society and its organizations, and reform of security agencies to assure safety at the individual, public and national levels.

Finally, a market economy with a social dimension and balance between the public and private sectors through developing the social sector.

If political reform is at the start of Mexico's solutions, at the end we are back in economics. The contract for Mexico must lead to a greater balance between healthy finances, growing production and higher salaries. We will achieve none of this if the principles of accountability and checks and balancesare not forcefully set in place. But we also will not gain anything if the present climate of vengeance against Mr. Salinas is allowed to get out of hand.

Mexico should now devote itself to finding laws, rules of coexistence and tolerance, freedoms and agreements, so that our present troubles shall never come back to haunt us.


Not So Sudden, Not So New


Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico's leading writers and often its "voice of political consciousness" recently spoke about the political problems in Chiapas.

"With a state that could be prosperous, with fertile land, abundances for the majority of men and women, it is only because of the local government and its collusion with the powers of exploitation, and the indifference of the federal government that we see such poverty. Cocoa, coffee, wheat corn, virgin forests, and abundant pastures -- only a minority enjoy the rent of these products and if someone protests this situation they are grabbed, imprisoned, violated, killed and the situation continues."


One cannot imagine a situation more primed for social explosion. It was with little surprise, that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Zapatistas), stormed the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas and officially proclaimed its armed insurrection. The Zapatistas have taken their name from the recognized Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata, who led a successful insurrection and eventual revolution in the 1910's and serves as a solid reminder of the years of injustice and repression.

The rebels in Chiapas did not have to wait long for others to join their call to arms on the first day of the new year. The next night two bombs exploded--one in a shopping plaza in Mexico City, and the other in Acapulco's municipal plaza. This rash of bombings and subsequent bomb threats throughout the country bore the markings of the Revolutionary Worker Campesino Union (Party of the Poor), which has been operating underground for the last few decades. In a letter to Amnesty International, representatives wrote, "For more than 40 years we have asked for agricultural reform, without getting a solution. For that reason, we have formed an independent organization to defend the interests of our people."

The Campesino Union, which is considered the "patriarch" of the country's various rebel groups, descended directly from a schoolmaster turned underground hero--Lucio Cabanas, who fought the Mexican Army in the jungle mountains of Guerrero (southwestern part of Mexico) for seven years until he was caught and killed in 1974.

Reports of armed groups have increased in eastern parts of the country such as Veracruz and Hidalgo and in the other southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Many of these organizations are believed to have been originally formed as defense groups that indigenous communities and campesinos created to defend themselves against "goon squads" hired by local ranchers. These rural bands have demonstrated the ability to switch from defensive to offensive tactics. It is believed that the Zapatistas where originally a self-defense group, turning to organized aggression when their peaceful protests went in vain.

The Zapatistas are fighting attitudes which are typical of those expressed by the cattlemen and other large landholders such as Bartolomeo Dominguez who argues that the Zapatistas "...are not simply impoverished Indians. People who have no money to buy food have no money to buy machine guns!" Dominguez, who used an alias to protect his real identity and to avoid repercussions, added, "The Indians don't deserve the land because they don't know how to make the land produce what it should."

In perfect contrast to this, the leader of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, was quoted "Our form of armed struggle is just and true. If we had not raised our rifles for the Chiapas poor, the government would never have been concerned about the Indians and campesinos in our land."

The uprising in Chiapas sheds light on a problem which is not new. It has its origins as much in a constant political dichotomy as in the economic differences which have long existed. It has also confirmed a national suspicion that without political reform, any economic reform is fragile and even deceitful.




Begin Your journey, learn the Steps to
Your Indian Ancestry
Beginners Lesson in Genealogy




American Indian Heritage Foundation
Indians.org Home | Indigenous Peoples' Literature Index Page

The Tribal Directory



The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.


Birth, Marriage & Death Collection