The recovery of 1,300 hectares of Nahua lands in Xayakalan, Santa María Ostula, on June 29, 2009 was one of the most amazing things that’s happened in Mexico in the last few years. How did the people do it? Last week I had a chance to find out more about that.
As soon as I got to Xayakalan with two friends last week, the head of security didn’t take long to verify that we were trustworthy and show us a palm-branch shelter where we could camp.
“How’s everything going out here?”
“Well, here we are. You can see with your own eyes. We’ve been here for a year and a half and nobody’s left. And nobody´s going to move us out of here”.
On the road from Lázaro Cárdenas we had seen one pickup after another filled with agents (police? soldiers? drug traffickers?) carrying high-power weapons ––a reflection of the war against the whole society unleashed by the Mexican government under orders from the United States. But despite the constant threats against the Xayakalan community, the atmosphere was calm. People were always on the alert, always looking out, but calm.
The first people we met were the community guard teams who walk along the beach and surrounding hills with their shotguns, machetes, sticks and AK-47s, precisely to ensure the absence of violence. They’d been told we were supportive but even so, asked us again who were and told us which areas were safe and which were the disputed areas we should avoid.
“We’re still in conflict”, said one of the young guys. “There are powerful interests that want to push us out of here. We’ve had a lot of threats.”
We met a young couple and their three daughters who are some of many people in the state of Michoacán who’ve crossed the border looking for work. But now they’re back and have a small grocery store near the beach. We asked Martina:
“What does Xayakalan mean?”
“Place of the masked dancers.”
“Do people do the traditional dances here?”
“Yeah, at the fiestas.”
We confirmed that this area was formerly known as “ La Canahuancera”. The power bosses in the town of La Placita had taken it over more than 40 years ago, but when the Nahua people recovered the territory, they gave it its original name. Xayakalan is one of 22 villages of the larger town Santa María Ostula in the Sierra Nahua in the state of Michoacán. Ostula, in turn, is part of the municipality of Aquila.
For several days we had a chance to walk on the beach, swim in the Ocean, listen to the waves and fight thirsty mosquitoes. A friend had brought a projector along, so at night we had a good time watching movies with the kids. Several people invited us to drop by their house for a cup of coffee or a taco and talk. Inevitably the conversation turned to the events of that memorable day, June 29, 2009. The details tended to vary a little, but what didn’t change were the smiles of the people who’re proud of what they’ve done and are sure they’ve done the right thing.
One evening I was sitting on a log watching the sun go down when a young guy named Iturbide stopped to talk. He had a net thrown over his shoulder.
“Where you from?”
“Mexico City. Going fishing?”
“Yeah, once the sun goes down the fishing’s good.”
“So you live here in Xayakalan?”
“Yeah, ever since June 29th.”
“Oh so you came here with everybody else that day?”
“Well what you all did doesn’t just happen any old day. It was incredible. How did you manage to do it?”
“Some people had it in mind for a number of years. I remember a lot of us got mad when the La Placita businessmen put up no trespassing signs to keep us off our own lands. We still didn’t live here yet, but I remember some people were talking about coming. The whole thing might have been brewing for around five years. I’m not sure.”
“It looks like everything was really well organized.”
“Yeah, it was, and that day some of us came in from over here, others from over there, some were on the beach, others on the hills, some were out on the highway. There were thousands of us! We came from all the different villages of Santa María Ostula. People came from the towns of Coíre and Pómaro to help. Nahuas from this whole region. And when they opened fire, our community police ran them off!”
The next day Oscar, Alex and Gabriel came by to talk and share some cocoanuts. Gabriel zoomed up the palm tree like Spider Man and hacked off about eight fresh cocoanuts with his machete. We thought he was cutting them for his family, but he said, “No, they’re all for you because we’re really grateful for your support.”
“Does everybody here learn to climb a palm tree when they’re young?”
“Well, almost everybody.”
“What’s the trick to it?”
“Strong muscles. If you’ve got a gut you won’t be able to do it.”
Gabriel confirmed that the land recovery was really well planned: “But nobody knew exactly what day it was going to be. Then we found out the invaders were dividing up the beach into lots and selling them. So that was that. On the morning of the 29th the leaders from all the villages met and then went to tell their people. Some got here pretty quick and those from the outlying communities took a little longer. That day I was right over there when they came speeding down the beach in their grey Cherokee, firing as they came. But when we returned the fire, they turned around and left. It felt kind of strange, like we weren’t really shooting to kill them. Maybe they weren’t shooting to kill us either. I don’t know. But what we wanted was for them to get out of here, and they did.”
We notice a lot of activity in the community and several important changes. Immediately after people occupied the territory, they built 20 houses out of brick and adobe. Now there are at least 40 houses, and still more under construction.
For several months there was no electricity or running water, but now there is. Their goal is to have running water in every house.
A little girl named Rosa came by to visit one day and told us about her school. Classes started right after the recovery, and now there are three schools ––one pre-school and first grade, one for grades 2, 3 and 4, and one for grades 5 and 6.
The next day, a compañero named Pedro took us to visit them. They’re in an area a little ways away from the village center. He said they’re going to enlarge them and that there’s going to be housing so students from the other villages of Ostula can come to school in Xayakalan.
Pedro also took us to see the papaya grove where four thousand plants are growing in the midst of tamarind, mango and jamaica trees. The irrigation infrastructure installed by the former property owners is useful, but even so, the community people have faced quite a few obstacles, including a broken pump that couldn’t be repaired for several months for lack of money and a grasshopper plague. For lack of a tractor all the land is cleared with machetes. As a matter of fact, a tractor is one of the community’s greatest needs.
Pedro explained a little more about the organizing process: “The thing is that this was not the first intent to get our lands back. Some people had already tried to do it through legal and political channels, but it was no use. We found out we couldn’t trust any political party or any politician. We’d have to do it ourselves. But not everyone agreed. Some said, ‘No, if I go along with you, they’ll kill me. You’re crazy”. There was a lot of fear. A whole lot of fear. It took a lot of work to convince the majority of the people. Even now there are some who don’t agree. Some have yielded to the temptation to make easy money, either in the drug trade or in mining. Some people have sold out. But most of the people are with us. To get to this point, Trompas went to each and every village in Ostula to talk to people and convince them to join us. Then the issue was taken up by the General Assembly, and the Assembly started meeting on an ongoing bases. There were constant meetings for several months. Finally, the majority was won over. When we all came here on June 29th, the supposed property owners opened fire on us, and we fired back in defense. Due to so many bullets flying, it was impossible for everybody to come in right away. Around a thousand people came in and four thousand more blocked the highway and took up other positions. Their gunmen wounded one of our people, Manuel Serrano, and we wounded around four of theirs. So they finally left, and we stayed. Here we are. After the 29th, everything changed. Before that day, our lives weren’t worth a thing. We were constantly humiliated and treated bad. But not anymore. We lost our fear. There’s still a conflict. We still haven’t won recognition. But we lost our fear and here we are, taking care of our lands.”
Compañero Trompas agreed to do an interview and asked me to go to his house at 8’oclock the next morning. He hadn’t slept all night because it was his turn to do guard duty the night before, but he was eager to talk.
C: Compañero, what led all of you to recover the lands?
T: Some of us were longing to do it for years and some had tried through the courts with the support of politicians, but it didn’t work. The political parties have used all kinds of dirty tricks. I don’t know how those things work from the inside, but I’ve seen the injustices they’ve committed.
C: What about the government?
T: The government has done things that have been impossible to set right as of now. It’s like they dirtied the water, all of it, and now they want us to clean it up. We have the primordial land title. But a hundred years ago the government gave part of our communal lands to five small property owners, and then in 1967 it gave them an ejido. We have our documents, but they’ve written over them. The small property owners are sure to have influential friends. We don’t. Our best friend is the land title. When we came here on June 29th, nobody lived here yet. We’d tried to do it, but the government is really clever. One of their agents said, “I’ll deal with everything. You should go ahead and leave. I’ll work things out”. So we left. And what did they work out? Nothing. We’re of no importance whatsoever to the government. Not the least bit. Even now we still haven’t recovered all our lands. We lack 800 meters. And we’re going to have to fight with the government about it. We don’t receive any support from them. We don’t even ask the government to come here to put in streets. No. We’re autonomous.
C: How many hectares did you recover? At first it was reported that there were 700 and then 1,300.
T: We recovered 1,300 hectares. The engineers made a mistake in the measurements. At first they said “there are 700 hectares.” But we said to the lawyer, “No, he’s wrong to say 700 hectares. There are 800 meters alone from here to there that we haven’t yet recovered. No, we recovered much more land. So they measured again and it turned out that there were 1,300 hectares. But we don’t want measurements. What we want is recognition of the land boundaries. Because the primordial title says exactly where they are. So we came here on June 29th and some people had questions about exactly where we had come to, but it was clear to us. We already knew. Our grandparents and parents had told us where the boundary is. So for us there was no doubt about it. We’ve always known.
C: What was the situation in 2009?
T: In 2009 there were a lot of land pressures. Hotel owners, drug traffickers and mining interests all wanted the lands, and they still want them. There were a lot of business interests. The politicians of different parties have fed off of these lands. They’re friends of the supposed property owners. Friends of local freeloaders. Maybe they gave them a piece of cheese. Or maybe it was 10 or 20 pesos. Or more [laughter]. In 2009 there was nowhere left for us to work around here. We had some small plots of land and a lot of people wanted more plots, but there was no more land available. All this was going on before 2009. Around 2003, the small property owners of La Placita had put up “no trespassing” banners saying that we, the indigenous of Ostula, would be dead if we set foot on their land. Then in 2009, they were dividing the land up into lots and selling the lots. That’s when we couldn’t wait any longer.
C: How did you organize the land recovery? Pedro tell us that you personally went to all the villages to convince people to join in. There are a lot of them ¿aren’t there?
T: Yes, there are 22, all part of Ostula, where around 7,000 people live. Yes, it’s true, I went to all the villages. I didn’t always go alone. It was a lot of work, but it’s been worth it. We had to talk about what was going on and what we needed to do. What did I say to them? Well, maybe I gave an example: Supposing I’m here and somebody comes from Colima or Manzanillo or Uruápan and says, “Hey comrade, you know what? I like it here. You’d better get going because I like your house. I like where you’re living.” “Oh yeah? They’re going to run me off just like that? And I’m not going to do anything about it? I’ll just leave? If they said that to you, would you just leave? No. Am I right? Well listen, the same thing is going on. We’re taking back what’s ours.”
“So when we didn’t have any more land to work, I said: ‘Let’s go over there.’ And that’s the way we did it, going from village to village. Some said: ‘Yeah, you’re right’. Others said, ‘No way. They’ll kill us’. Other said: ‘That’s what we’ll do’. So then for three months we held General Assemblies. And that’s where we decided to do it. But the whole thing took more than a year.”
“Look, this a paper dated November 16, 2008, signed by 41 people that agreed with the land recovery. Then we gradually added signatures. 60. 100. We reached an agreement on this: We’re not after a bag of money. We’re after our land. We’re going to take back what’s ours. We’re not interested in fighting, but if they want to fight, we’re not going to just sit by and do nothing. But that was the day we started organizing to come here.”
C: How did you organize the community police?
T: We planned the community police a little bit later, because we said to ourselves, “If the municipal president won’t help us, what should we do? He didn’t want to help us. So I said, “How about if we arm around fifty men to be our community police?” When we agreed to do it, we talked to a lawyer and told him, “This is what we want to do and this is the way we want to do it.” “Ah,” he said, “that’s good. The community police is a good thing.” So we armed ourselves. We had agreed on taking charge of the land and then all the villages cooperated to form the community police. We set it up and moved on ahead.
“At first we had 300 people in the community police, all of us together. Coíre was going to send 200 and Pómara was going to cooperate, too, I don’t remember with exactly how many. They’re sister indigenous communities that have supported us from the first.”
C: What kind of support have you had from other groups?
T: Well, when Comandante Marcos passed through here in 2006, his caravan stopped in Ostula and he expressed his support. I wasn’t here, but we’ve always been in contact with them. Then just before and just after the land recovery, the National Indigenous Congress met here. On June 13 and 14, we issued the Ostula Manifesto, which supports the rights of indigenous people to self-defense. Then on August 9, we issued the Xayakalan Statement, where we said that the defense of the territory is the defense of the people and that our right to self-defense is not subject to negotiation. That support was really important because it came from many indigenous peoples and communities. They were here with us.
C: What happened on the 29th?
T: On the 29th we just came in, the police and everybody ––men, women and children––there were around five or six thousand of us from Ostula. When we came in, they fired first. They wounded one of our people and several were wounded on their side. The supposed land owners from La Placita had gotten here first, right over there. Maybe they’d heard about our plans. So I said to our people, “Well, there they are.” Then everyone met and said, “Well, there they are, so let’s go.” “Well, let’s go then.” So we did. They fired. The owners themselves or their gunmen. But it didn’t turn out as they planned. So they turned their cars around and left. They got out. We all came in and took up positions. And here we are.”
“Yes, we had everything planned. Building the houses was part of the plan. We had the materials and everything. We built 20 houses in a week. At the same time, we blockaded the highway for 15 days. A lot of people came from other parts of Michoacán and Colima to help.”
C: What is life like in Xayakalan now?
T: Things are calm, but the conflict still hasn’t been resolved. We have assemblies here. We all give our opinions. This is where we decide what we’re going to do. Here nobody backs down. We’re all down for whatever. We’re not here to fight. No no no no no. But if that’s what they want, what else can we do? Right now there’s a lot of work going on. There’s a lot to do. A lot of people are cooperating. We have nothing, so if we want things to take shape, we have to work, right? We’ve been planting crops and working the land. We’re still building houses. Right now we have 50 and there are 50 more families that want to come here. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on the schools. We want to set up a community radio. I’ve been down to see the compañeros in Radio Ñomndaa in Guerrero three times and we really like what they’re doing. Maybe we’ll be able to do something here like we did in La Ticla. I lived there at the beginning of the ‘60s when the lands were virgin. Some of us didn’t have plots of land and began to work the plots that other people weren’t working. We had to argue about that and demand our right to water, but the lands finally became productive. We’ve been to see both the federal and state governments and have told them that we’re here and that there’s nobody who’s going to move us out. It looks like they got kind of sloppy, ¿don’t you think? It looks like Godoy is trying to hide, too. He hasn’t helped us a bit. But he did want our votes so he could do us more harm than ever. There were elections year before last. We didn’t vote. We’re really stubborn about not voting. What do we stand to gain? So why do it? Now we’re saying we’ll also abstain in the upcoming elections. We’re continuing to demand recognition from the government that the lands are ours and recognition of our community police.
C: What kinds of repression and harassment are you dealing with? There’ve been reports of narco-paramilitary violence against you and of a lot of murders and disappeared people.
T: In Xayakalan we haven’t had anybody killed or disappeared, although the death of Diego, one of our teachers, surely had to do with our struggle. He had all the paperwork and supported the land recovery. But that was in 2008 before the land recovery. It’s true that in Ostula there have been many deaths and several people disappeared, but most of them are not related to the struggle for the land. The Commissioner Francisco de Asis Manuel wanted to put a mine in here, but we don’t want that. Javier Martínez didn’t agree with the land recovery. He was a politician. He was the Commissioner’s secretary and an official in the municipal presidency. They disappeared him in Aquila. A teacher named Gerardo was also disappeared because he was with him. We are really sorry about the teacher’s disappearance.
C: So drug traffickers haven’t come here?
T: Drug traffickers would like to come into Xayakalan but they haven’t done it. To tell the truth, it’s hard to tell the difference between government officials and drug traffickers around here. If one guy is wearing a cap, he’s an authority, and if another guy looks just like him, who’s who? The drug traffickers wear facemasks. Government agents also wear facemasks. How can we tell one from the other?
C: Have you received threats?
T: Yes, we’ve had all kinds of threats. A lot of them. They’ll be here in a little while. They’re on their way. They’re coming tomorrow or on such-and-such day. Well no, that day hasn’t yet come. Maybe it will. I don’t know. But if that’s what they want, we’ll be here waiting for them.
C: Have any military forces come in?
T: One time naval personnel got in. They disarmed us. A few AK47s, a few shotguns, a few pistols. But all the people were here. I was in La Ticla with a few other people at an assembly there. They called us and said the government was disarming them. So we jumped in our trucks and came back. It only took a few minutes. When we got here, the people had surrounded them. We’re talking about five or six thousand people.
“Give us back our arms or you won’t get out of here”.
They didn’t want to give back the arms because they thought they would be killed.
”Why did you come here? Who asked you to come?”
“You have to give us back our arms”.
When we got here they had already returned the arms.
“What guarantee do we have that you’ll let us go?”
“I’m telling you that you’ll be able to leave.”
So they left and they haven’t come back.
C: What about the police?
T: Not long ago the federal police tried to get in. One of our people at the entrance asked, “What do you want?”
“We want to see the head of security”.
“I’ll go get him. You can’t come in. You don’t have permission to come in”.
“We’re not going to disarm anybody”.
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t have permission. But I’ll go get the head of security”.
Pedro came up.
“We’re here because they told us in La Placita that you threatened somebody and shot somebody else.”
“We did that? That’s what they told you?”
“Well, they sure do make up a lot of stories, don’t they? We’ve been accused of a lot of things we haven’t done. They want you to come after us. But we haven’t done anything. Let them prove it. Bring those people here. Let’s see if it’s true. Let them say which one of us did it. And when he did it.”
They didn’t come in.
C: So no agents have come here since then?
T: They’d like to come in. One time I was stopped by the head of the federal ministerial police from Morelia here in La Ticla. It was on April 24. I was walking along, and a patrol truck passed me by. Then another. There were eight pickups. Somebody in the first truck called to me.
“What is it that you want?”
“What’s your name?”
“Where do you live?”
He takes out his notebook.
“I used to live in La Ticla, then in Duín. Now I live in Xayakalan”.
“Oh, so you’re one of them from Xayakalan”.
He gets out of his truck. “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, and can you tell me who you are?”
“I’m a federal ministerial police agent.”
“What do you do?”
“Right now I don’t have a job. I was head of security when we came to Xayacalan”.
“How many police did you have when you came to Xayakalan on June 29th?”
“We had around 300. Now there are 400”.
“You were the head of security. Were you the head of the community police?”
“You just said so.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the Santa Cruz fiesta.”
“Can I talk to you another day?”
“You’d have to ask for me at the gate to Xayakalan. But you won’t be allowed to go in”.
“Do you have arms?”
“How else do people defend themselves in a war? With arms. So what are you asking? What’s the matter with you? If I know you’re my opponent I’m not going to be prepared? I have to be ready for what happens…”
“OK, you’re right”.
C: What’s the difference between the community police and the guard?
T: It’s really the same thing. A lot of people think we don’t have a guard, but we do. Night before last a guy came walking down the beach and they grabbed him. Maybe he didn’t express himself very well. That could be. Some people told me about it in Ostula. It was a man from Tecomán who came on foot to keep a promise to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Here in Ostula there’s an image of the Virgin almost identical to the one in the Basílica and a lot of people come here to see her. Well, this guy was on his way to keep his promise to the Virgin, but it was 2 o’clock in the morning. You think that’s really what he was doing at that time of night? So they stopped him and asked him what he was doing and why and said, “You can’t walk along here. If you keep going, you won’t be allowed to leave.” Well, I think they gave him a chance to get to the highway, and when he got to Ostula he said, “It’s really dangerous there. Ten well-armed men stopped me.”.… I checked with the people on guard and they said yes, that he came by here and said he was on his way to keep a promise to the Virgin. But when they wanted to search his bag to see what he was carrying, he refused to let them, and that’s when they put on a little more pressure. So yes, we do have a guard. Sometimes they may take it easy for a while, but they’re out there all the same.
C: What kind of support do you need?
T: What we really really need more than anything is a tractor.
C: Do you have a bank account number?
T: No. There’s no bank account number. We can respond. We have palm and mango trees. But we need somebody to come here and say, “I’ll buy your cocoanuts. I’ll buy your mangos.” There’s tamarind, too. We can’t sell things right now because there’s still a conflict. The government still hasn’t recognized us. We have a lot of corn and a lot of rice. A lot of people have supported us and helped us. Some have said they’re going to help us set up a community radio. I hope they do because we really need it. We’re really grateful for all the support we’ve received. And we thank everybody who comes to visit us. We hope they won’t forget us and that they’ll come to see us. Everyone who comes to support us is welcome.
We didn’t want to leave Xayakalan. The air you breathe is different here. It carries some hints about how to make the radical changes we all need. We’re grateful for that and also for the generosity of the community people who insisted on giving us a big bag full of cocoanuts to take back to the monster city with us. Even now we have a sweet taste in our mouths.
January 29, 2011