Oaxaca, February 2007
by el pinche simon
“That’s the women that kidnapped me last time.” Says the 16 year old young women I am conducting a video documentation workshop with in San Isidro Vista Hermosa, as a green Nissan pickup truck passes us by. The women in the truck looks me straight in the face and laughs. She has several small children in the car with her, presumably her own. This is my second time in Vista Hermosa, and it won’t be my last. I am not supposed to be here as a journalist, or human rights activist as in the past, but rather as a friend, a teacher, and a student. I am here to teach video, and the power of the camera. I am here to teach the people themselves how to use this weapon, which is obviously better placed in their hands, permanently, than it ever was in mine. I am here also to learn how places like Vista Hermosa get to this point.
Today however, the intricacies and complications of San Isidro Vista Hermosa, and my partial understanding of them, make it impossible not to scream at us, in the north “What the fuck are we doing wrong?” My feeling is that Vista Hermosa exposes all of our holes of international solidarity with Mexico, the kind of holes which have consistently decided who receives our attention and support, and who doesn’t. San Isidro Vista Hermosa keeps on falling through the cracks, and challenges us all to re-evaluate what we consider resistance, struggle, community, and worthy of our attention.
I have been coming to Oaxaca for seven years now, and Vista Hermosa screams bloody murder, like so many nooks and crannies in this country do. The difference is that it doesn’t scream it in the same ways that we have become accustomed to. The Zapatista National Liberation Army brought the fight for indigenous and human rights in Mexico to the forefront of our collective consciousness; yours, as it did mine. I came to Mexico first as a Zapatourista, then as a student. Today I have the honor to come to Oaxaca as a teacher as well. Among the responsibilities bestowed upon me by the State Council of CODEP, the Committee in Defense of the People’s Rights, is not only to teach video production, but I also have been asked to go home and teach there about what I have been allowed to see and learn about here. I still am not so sure why this world chose me to be a window between here and there, and honestly it feels a lot more like a condemnation than a virtue, but still I have accepted my responsibility to do so to the best of my abilities, mistakes not withstanding. It hasn’t been easy at all, and I assure you every single gray hair on my head (they’re starting to pop up) is for every new word, I’d heard before, but learned about here: neoliberalism, paramilitarism, provocation, infiltration, disappearance, corruption, death threat, torture, mafia, genocide….. etc. etc. These words slip off my tongue all too easily these days, and into and out of young fresh American minds, every time I choose to teach them back home.
So much, and yet so little has changed in my perspective from when I first came. At the root of my decision was a situation, which I always believed could no longer be looked at objectively, simply because it is way too biased with truth. I never really was an independent journalist, or a human rights observer. Those were just catch phrases that I got along the way to doing what I have always been meant to do, teach by learning. The problem for my enemy is not that I write, or produce, or even that I teach by learning, it is the fact that what I teach and learn about, more and more, everyday is propaganda, and worse yet, counter-propaganda. Among the many weapons pointed at the head of the Oaxacan People, are a barrage of mass media devices and sub-devices, which intend to directly discredit and divide popular opinion about what is really going on. Even when well intended they have a propensity towards fatal misinterpretations and generalizations that Oaxaca simply refuses to fall under.
From the fair trade freaks that just love feeling guilt free about importing hand-crafted goods in a way that never actually contributes to the liberation, autonomy and self-determination of the people who produce them, to the activists who are convinced that Oaxaca must be put into a box labeled anarchist, or communist, or too confusing, neither ever realize that the popular in popular assembly means that this is coming from the roots and will not be put into any kind of box, no matter how many anti-globalization protests you went to, or organic fair trade lattes you drink, or how long you have been visiting Oventic. The popular in popular assembly is what makes this whole thing so unique, and yet so difficult for even the most progressive and well versed human rights activist to palette. Oaxaca asks us: “Who do you include in your revolution?” and even more poignant: “Who have you been excluding from your revolutions?” It seems that we haven’t evaded an entire world history of consistent exclusion of those who are in most need of liberation: the people themselves, those who are most affected by the things that we are supposedly resisting, organizing against, and struggling for.
What does this process of exclusion look like? Well when it comes to international solidarity with the people of Mexico, San Isidro Vista Hermosa is what it looks like. Allow me to explain. While the world (including myself), through the eyes of the Zapatistas, has become very comfortable with the ideas of indigenous struggle, communal land rights, armed resistance, and autonomy, “ugly” little places like Vista Hermosa become too complicated and dysfunctional to include in our idea of what is valid and what is not.
Let’s help one another pop that little bubble. Vista Hermosa is an indigenous Mixteco community, which is quickly loosing its traditions into what is known as mestizaje, or mixed traditions of catholic, spanish, and indigenous nature. The kids don’t learn Mixteco anymore, and what is left of this community’s culture is quickly eroded by immigration, opportunism, and deceit. Vista Hermosa’s biggest “no no” in the eyes of the international solidarity world is the fact that today, even though they struggle to retain uses and customs, the majority of Vista Hermosa’s land is privately owned, by its individual inhabitants. Vista Hermosa’s closest neighbor and enemy is Santa Cruz Nundaco. Santa Cruz Nundaco is also indigenous Mixteco, and to their advantage in the scale of worthiness and validity, retains uses and customs including communally held lands. With this limited information, and through the international lens of Zapatismo, (no fault attributed to the zaps themselves) it is easy to lump Vista Hermosa with the problem, and not the resistance.
“That’s the women that kidnapped me last time.” The women looks me straight in the face and laughs. “Is she from Nundaco?” I ask, and my friend answers, “No, she lives here in Vista Hermosa, but works with the Nundacos.” The woman in the green pickup represents about a fourth of Vista Hermosa, a fourth which has chosen in recent years to side with the Nundacos in the battle for territory. Where this battle comes from, is also where the confusion comes from, which inspires international solidarity arms to go up in the air, and heads to turn the other way. It seems the conflict between Nundaco and Vista Hermosa has lasted over 70 years, a relatively short time when you take into consideration that the strategies for dividing and conquering the indigenous peoples of the Mixteca, by one colonizer after the other have been developed over the course of the last 500 years.
Today, all that San Isidro Vista Hermosa wants is to be recognized as a municipality of its own, and within that recognition it wishes to then achieve the retention of what is left of its tradition. With this, then Vista Hermosa dreams of its own path towards autonomy and popular power. What Santa Cruz Nundaco wants is to swallow Vista Hermosa whole, “communalize” its land, and place it under the thumb of Nundaco’s leadership. This is where the propaganda sets in, and makes it impossible for even the local authorities who have witnessed atrocities committed against Vista Hermosa by the Nundaco’s to do anything about it at all; nevermind international solidarity. The idea of indigenous communal land ownership has become synonymous with popular resistance, yet here today, Nundaco is a PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) community, supported and financed by the PRI. You see, in Oaxaca the PRI has become hip to the jive and jargon, and has flipped it on its head, against itself. “You see, not all the indigenous are down with the revolution, many of them have been bought out, and their resistances co-opted by the PRI, in such a way as to make it difficult to distinguish, good from bad, right from wrong, community based from government controlled.” These are wise words spoken to me in 2001 by Jaqueline Almazan, a state council member of CODEP, who today for her participation in the APPO – Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly is in hiding, as she evades arrest for nine fabricated arrest warrants. Fact is, recent threats made against Almazan have made it clear that she… “…will never make it to jail.” Jaqueline’s words never rang truer, than they do today in reference to Santa Cruz Nundaco.
The Nundaco’s are part of an organization called FNIC, the National Indigenous Farmworker Front. FNIC is a splinter of FIOB, the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front, a US based organization which has created a space for the Oaxacan people’s struggle among indigenous immigrants in the US. When Arturo Pimentel Salas was expelled from the FIOB by a popular vote taken in Tijuana in 2001, Salas went on to create FNIC. FNIC receives PRI funding and backing, and has quickly become a paramilitary organization, which is rumored to have ties to major Oaxacan Drug cartels. Forget the rumors, what has FNIC actually done? Well FNIC has taken hold of Nundaco, and convinced its people that they are a part of a popular struggle for indigenous autonomy and communal land rights. FNIC, along with the PRI government in Nundaco, has handed out concessions to the Nundacos, including but not limited to building materials, roads, schools, a town hall, fertilizers, public transportation permits, and now, more than ever, high powered assault rifles and hand guns. The price the Nundaco’s have had to pay in exchange for these concessions, in addition to their liberty and dignity, is to strategize and implement the assimilation, occupation, and eventual displacement of Vista Hermosa. Today, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the governor of Oaxaca, has assigned and imposed an unrecognized PRI municipal president in Vista Hermosa and approximately a fourth of Vista Hermosa has given up their land deeds to FNIC and the Nundaco’s in exchange for communal ownership and the supposed benefits that come from that imposed municipal government. Problem is, that the imposed municipal president, like all PRI politicians, is pocketing all the municipal resources intended for his community. So, the people that gave up their land to “communality” have no rights to reclaim these funds, and are falling to the wayside of their own future, as the PRI takes control through FNIC and the Nundacos.
This is point and shoot gentrification at its worst. FNIC is a paramilitary organization, very much like others in Oaxaca. It has a popular indigenous resistance face, while it is only there to help divide and conquer its own people, and neighboring communities. In 2003 several community memebers from Vista Hermosa were kidnapped by FNIC Nundacos, beaten and tortured and oddly enough rescued by ministerial police from Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. The Public Magistrate almost backed out of the rescue operation out of fear for his limited officers lives, but the blatancy of the Nundacos, who perpetrated some of the kidnappings right in front of him, made it impossible to ignore. In 2005, 39 community members from Vista Hermosa were kidnapped and tortured by FNIC paramilitaries, and again the Public magistrate ordered his police to liberate the sequestered community members. In October of 2006, the part of the community I am sitting in as I write this down, came upon heavy gunfire by over 5 truck loads of FNIC paramilitaries. Fortunately no one was killed, but women, men, children, and the elderly spent the night hidden away in the mud and rain of their corn crops, as bullets wizzed overhead. It seems that FNIC hasn’t been given the OK to wipe out Vista Hermosa just yet, today terror will have to suffice until other means of displacement are granted permission. Impunity prevails however, as no FNIC member has been brought up on charges for any of these incidents. I repeat, on two separate occasions, the public magistrate from Tlaxiaco has ordered police to rescue kidnapped Vista Hermosans from the hands of FNIC Nundacos, and no one was ever brought up on charges.
As if that wasn’t enough, here is the real kicker: FNIC was able to slip into the APPO, and claim this statewide popular resistance their own as well. Not until 20+ FNIC members were arrested during APPO clashes with the police, then immediately (in relative terms) released from detention after Pimentel Salas negotiated their liberation, did APPO catch wind of the PRI fish, and expel FNIC from the APPO. Turns out many FNIC members themselves have been catching on to the trap they fell in, and now, like in the mob, they have no way out. The FNIC sellouts in Vista Hermosa take any little thing as an excuse to call for Nundaco back up, and before you know it, men brandishing AK-47s show up in the back of pickup trucks, fire away, shoot at houses, kidnap people, and harvest the one thing they know best, terror. Some FNIC members have admitted to people from Vista Hermosa that Pimentel Salas has lost his mind, and that in a cocaine haze he has become ridiculously power hungry and violent.
Today, as they do every Sunday, and have done every Sunday since he can remeber, a sixteen year old Vista Hermosan played basketball with his friends against FNIC members who live in the community. Among the slaps, punches and deliberate elbows of any rivaled street ball game, an elderly FNIC member started talking a little too much shit from the sidelines, calling the Vista Hermosans pieces of indian trash, sons of bitches and whores. It was hard for the 16 year old and his boys to hold back, but they knew that if they didn’t, they would have fallen for the provocation, and in would come the trucks with the assault rifles. Tonight, they wanted to sleep in their beds, and not the cornfields. They both know it’s a provocation, but it gets harder and harder to just stand down. They are very excited about the cameras we are leaving behind, not the weapon of choice, but one of lack of choice. Everyone around here knows that if they choose to one day defend themselves violently, then not only will the public magistrate figure out a way to lock them up, but the state and federal government will be able to classify them as a guerrilla, move in federal troops, speed up the process of displacement, and make way for progress. Down here progress has a name, and its had that name for some time. Its implementation has been slow but sure, and San Isidro Vista Hermosa is just another little spine in the shoe of Plan Puebla Panama.
Today, I have to ask myself who is the worst enemy: Nundaco? FNIC? The PRI? Plan Puebla Panama? Ulises Ruiz Ortiz? Arturo Pimentel Salas? Or is it all that international solidarity that for way too long has considered these situations much too complicated and dangerous to get involved in, and is just now… trying to play catch up. I know now that we can’t and won’t be the heroes, but I hope that we are not too late to teach and learn a little more to and from all the places in this world like San Isidro Vista Hermosa. I remind myself that there are those of you out there that are reading this now, that rather than be insulted by my critique of ourselves, may be inspired to help figure out new ways of building international solidarity with places like Vista Hermosa. I know that if we put our heads together, we can challenge our ideas about international solidarity and help make places like this, included in what we consider valid and worthy of our attention.