November 27, 2007 – Nate Kleinman writes: Something beautiful is happening in Oaxaca.
Not the poverty, human smuggling, drug gangs, or rising violence.
Not the continued corporatization of agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce, leading inexorably to the disappearances of languages and cultures.
Not the Mexican Supreme Court declining to investigate the well-known illegal detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings in response to last year’s uprising.
No, the broader trends don’t look good for Oaxaca, but in Huautla de Jimenez, tucked into the Sierra Mazateca in the far north of the state, things are finally starting to look up. Something truly beautiful is happening.
With a population of 25,000, Huautla is the main city of the Mazatec people and the regional hub for the Mazatec highlands. Earlier this month, the people of Huautla elected a new mayor (presidente) and governing council to three-year terms.
The election results were historic, sweeping the activist Agustín Sosa Ortega into power. He takes office on January 1st, but he’s already proven himself to be a revolutionary figure in the history of Huautla, the Mazatec people, Oaxaca, and possibly Mexico itself.
Huautla de Jimenez became famous throughout the world as the mushroom-mecca of Maria Sabina, the first Mazatec curandera (healer) to let outsiders in on the secret of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the 1950s. The then-village became a counter-culture hotspot through the sixties and seventies, until Mexican federales arrived at the behest of the local government and kicked out the squatting jipis. Since then a trickle of drug-tourists, new-agey wanderers, anthropologists, and curious celebrities have found their way to Huautla, but mostly it has returned to quiet Oaxacan obscuriy (notwithstanding its newfound fame as the birthplace of the increasingly famous legal drug Salvia divinorum, AKA Diviner’s Sage, AKA Ska Maria Pastora, also a traditional Mazatec medicine).
Huautla remained in the shadows even as its citizens mirrored the protesters in Oaxaca City last year, taking control of the City Hall for four months, from September 2006 until January of this year. Huautla managed to stay out of the news even as a bus crash killed three dozen people on their way out of town, just days after the Oaxacan state police re-took City Hall. And now its historic election has been ignored by all but local Mexican media.
But, make no mistake, something special is happening in Huautla.
Agustín Sosa Ortega became relatively famous in Mexico three years ago as the first political prisoner of the corrupt Oaxaca Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. During the gubernatorial campaign, Sosa Ortega (as leader of the Frente Único Huautleco, or Lone Huautlan Front) organized a road-block to prevent then-candidate Ruiz Ortiz from entering Huautla. The city is perched on the side of a mountain in the dense forest of the Sierra Mazateca, with but one road entering from the west and one from the east (with anywhere from five to ten hours of travel to get around, should a traveler encounter a blockage). So Ruiz Ortiz’s local allies engaged Sosa Ortega’s FUH protesters in street fight, during which a member of the FUH—Professor Serafín García Contreras—was killed by police. In December 2004, five months after Contreras’ death, Sosa Ortega was arrested and charged with his friend’s murder.
In January 2005, after the start of Ruiz Ortiz’s term as governor (a post he is widely believed to have stolen) citizens from Huautla marched on the Oaxacan capital, and Sosa Ortega briefly became a cause celebre throughout Mexico. He remained imprisoned for six months, until finally a judge threw out the charges due to lack of evidence. Sosa Ortega returned to Huautla to continue his activism, later joining his FUH with APPO, the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca, which was formed in response to police attacks on striking teachers in the capital during the summer of 2006.
I met Agustín Sosa Ortega one afternoon in January 2007, in Huautla. That morning, the combined forces of APPO, the FUH, and the teacher’s union had just been kicked out of Huautla’s City Hall (which they had controlled since September) by the police. I was led by an ally of Sosa Ortega’s to the protesters’ new headquarters, a school, past young men brandishing molotov-cocktails on the rooftop. I was told that Señor Sosa was the leader of APPO in the Mazateca, and thus he was a wanted man.
Sosa Ortega, the teachers, and other activists, were all eager to tell their story and let the world know of their struggle. They compared it in importance to the Mexican Revolution. Yet Sosa Ortega himself was distracted during our meeting, no doubt eager to begin planning his next battle (my presence, as a gringo with a video camera, may have also made him nervous). Perhaps he was already planning for his next campaign, in the electoral arena.
Last week, roughly a year after police massacred protestors (including many Mazatecs) in Oaxaca City, Mayor-elect Sosa Ortega convened Huautla’s unprecedented Social Forum (Foro Social), a meeting of teachers, students, professionals, housewives, workers, neighborhood representatives, and returning Mazatecs from far and wide to discuss the grave issues facing Huautla. The immediate goal was to begin creation of a Plan de Desarrollo Democrático Municipal, or Democratic Municipal Development Plan, for his three year term (January 1st, 2008 to December 31st, 2010).
Sosa Ortega knows that for any plan to be successful, it must have the support of the people. He was elected mayor to do their work, and he knows he cannot do it without their help. Whereas the past government, which actually represented the same PRD party, was seen as corrupt and incompetent (building an expensive, seldom-used soccer field, while tap water is still dirty; paving streets without considering proper drainage; dumping municipal garbage into a ravine leading to a river; dragging their feet on construction of the Mazateca’s first university), Sosa Ortega proposes to create a local government that actually works.
The citizens at the Social Forum discussed every issue of municipal importance: health and ecology, judicial order, security and civil protection, economy and public finance, highways, infrastructure, education, culture, recreation, family, and social development. They plan to be able to start working productively on January 1st, the day Sosa Ortega is to be sworn into office.
It will take hard work, for the problems of Huautla are myriad (poverty, unemployment, crime, environmental degradation, poor healthcare, shoddy infrastructure, and a deeply divided populace), but it also has great potential. Huautleco culture is strong. Pride in their Mazatec heritage runs deep. Their ancient language is still spoken (and indeed still whistled) in the streets and through the hills. Huautla is at the epicenter of culture for the 300,000 Mazatec speakers in northern Oaxaca and parts of Puebla and Veracruz.
But, most importantly, Huautla has a strong tradition of political and social activism, personified most recently by Agustín Sosa Ortega. The Mazatec people understand that their future is finally in their own hands.
The city of Huautla de Jimenez is embarking on an experiment in true democracy. They probably don’t need our help—in fact, we could probably learn a thing or two from them—but to the extent we can find ways to help, we must.
I’ll do my best to find (or create) ways to support true democracy in Oaxaca.
If you have any ideas, please let me know.
Viva APPO! Viva Agustín Sosa Ortega! Viva Oaxaca!