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[Notice: All images in this section are (c) Copyright Saundra Sturdevant, 2006]


Saundra Sturdevant---Images & Text


In the dark hours of June 14, 2006, some 30,000 citizens of Oaxaca came to support 200 teachers of Local 22 in their resistance to the 3,000 armed assault police URO (Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) had sent to dislodge teachers and supports from the zocolo encampment. This acting to protect community reflected a fundamental shift in collective consciousness. Two days later APPO (Asembla Popular de Pueblos de Oaxaca) was formally announced. APPO is an umbrella organization of some 85 constituencies. The period of Contemporary Oaxacano History begins with June 14 and the formation of APPO.

Comprising 60% of the population of Oaxaca and living in great economic poverty, indigenous are at the center of APPO. The combination of NAFTA and the change in Article 17 of the Mexican constitution have exacerbated and brought to a crisis point historic indigenous demands for justice, human rights, dignity, respect, education, health care, and community integrity. These have found expression in APPO and the levantamiento.

The multiple organizations and individuals that are a part of APPO have united to make their voice heard and to effect systemic change. Activism of Teacher's Local 22 during the last 26 years has been key in the formation of NGOs working on the issues of human rights, women's rights, indigenous rights and children and family entitlements. These are part of APPO, as are various state organizations providing needed human services similar to NGOs. Priests and members of their congregations in poor working class sections of cities and towns and in indigenous area are a part of APPO. And the political left who seek to install a people's government are a part of APPO.

Non-violence as a moral center and as a political weapon has been successful in binding together these diverse constituencies, while respecting their significant spread in ideology, faith, class, ethnicity and gender. The principle and actions of non-violence have been agreed upon and maintained through consensus. Women's presence, as in APPO, has been central to this process.

Non-violence is never easy, yet its very simplicity makes it so powerful. In Oaxaca, state, federal and paramilitary violence and the pervasive violence of poverty speak both for and against a non-violent position. APPO's Radio Universidad constantly discussed and advocated non-violence, non-provocative actions, and avoidance. Small group discussions on non-violence were constant at the encampments. And at demonstrations and rallies, when a participant advocated or made moves to act with violence, APPO people would surround the person, talk it out, and prevent violence in this way. One of the main duties of APPO security people was to help maintain a non-violence stance.

Non-violence was not limited to passive resistance. If physically attacked, people were determined to defend themselves and their families. APPO defended the communities established at the encampments and barricades, the right to demonstrate, and supported local citizens struggles already in process. When PFP, police in and out of uniform and paramilitary initiated violence by attacking physically, APPO responded with rocks, slings, Molotov cocktails, wooden poles, bazookas shooting home made balls of nails wrapped in aluminum foil. During the levantamiento, APPO did not initiate the use of violence. The figures of those killed, wounded, disappeared are all APPO people or their supporters. PFP, police and paramilitary did not suffer killings or disappearings. They did receive injuries from to rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Fundamentally, APPO represents a return to indigenous roots. The Levantamiento is not seeking a way to make the system work, to get the piece of the pie, but rejects the existing system of governance via political parties, both in Oaxaca and in Mexico. APPO constituents have agreed to direct affairs and relations through the traditional indigenous system of Usos y Costumbres (Uses and Customs).

Under Usos y Costumbres, a Council of Elders, composed of male community members, are responsible for the functions of governance. These select heads of committees to carry out projects agreed upon through consensus.Heads of committees may serve upwards of three years, are unpaid. They assign tequio (community work) to male members of the pueblo. This, too, is unpaid labor. Work projects are community defined. They may include road building, school construction, house construction, planting, weeding, harvesting, preparation of festivals and observances, funerals. At the formal structural level, there are popular assemblies in the 418 municipalities of Oaxaca, all of which employ a system of Usos y Costumbres in their affairs.

Each level of community responsibility and duty fulfillment is a matter of honor to the individual and to his family. In some pueblos, if the responsibility is not met, the person may be expelled from the community or possessions seized. If the community member is working elsewhere, he is to return to fulfill his responsibilities. In some instances, he may send monies in lieu of service. One sees tequio being honored by migrants from Oaxaca working in the fields of California agribusiness, although with the increase of various practices to ensure the North American national security state, return to honor tequio has become increasingly physically dangerous.

Women are not included in these aspects of governance traditionally. Their responsibilities are those of nurturing and caring, thus ensuring the continuity of the family and of the community. Guiding the education of children, which means manners and politeness---the ingredients of respect shown to others---is one of their central responsibilities. Women are responsible care providers of immediate and extended family members. They are godmothers to the children of others, and it is not unusual for one woman during her lifetime to be godmother to upwards of fifty children.

Women are central in the decisions and implementation of Guelaguetza, originally a Zapotec word conveying a meaning of "gift giving and mutual aid." Guelaguetza is showing support, care and kindness to families in the pueblo. Guelaguetza is shown at the time of grieving, such as a death, and to families otherwise in need. Women, for example, will organize, prepare and bring food and other necessities at the time of death in a family. They will sit with grieving family members and help with funeral celebrations.

Usos y Costumbres is the traditional system of governance of many indigenous in the Americas. Within some, as with the Zapatista Levantamiento, women's role is changing and is doing so with a great amount of struggle. In Oaxaca, the strong presence of women in APPO combines both traditional forms and an integrated approach to issues. Women activists refuse to separate the issues of rape, battering, reproductive control from demands of housing, food, land and medical care. At the same time, many women activists perform traditional women's roles of family care, cooking, and nurturing.

Usos y Costumbres are not roots that have recently been re-discovered, but are ways of living and relationships that have bound indigenous communities together before the Spanish conquest and since. The Spanish never did conquer the indigenous of Oaxaca. They pushed them up into the hills and mountains and onto the non-fertile plains. They and their mestizo successors used a great variety of harsh and manipulative tools to maintain the order they desired. Indigenous became very adept at community and cultural survival.

Usos y Costumbres developed in agricultural-based societies. Is it possible to govern a contemporary urban-based society using the same system? In the case of Oaxaca, perhaps a majority of urban dwellers are familiar with Usos y Costumbres, having grown up in pueblos where this was the practice. It is quite common to return to the pueblo of origin for the many festivals, sacred days, and special family celebrations of engagement, marriage, birth and death. It is the fabric which binds people to the community.

At a practical political level, as Luis Hernandez Navarro writes in La Jornada, the methods of resistance indigenous developed in the countryside that allowed for the community and culture to survive have now spread to Oaxacan society in general. Pedro Matias, Las Noticias journalist, notes that APPO constituencies embody these strategies in their respective organizations and communities. In sum, the Levantamiento of APPO reflects an intensity of design that is special to Oaxaca. It comes with the survival of 400 years of occupation and of being south of south.


I had the opportunity on the sixth day of my time in Oaxaca to document an all-day event in the home of a family of weavers in a pueblo outside of Oaxaca. The occasion was the groom's family brining gifts to the bride's family. The wedding was sometime in the future. This day's event was central to the joining of the two families, more important culturally than the wedding itself. It certainly showed the centrality of women on both sides of the union, for they orchestrated the whole affair, prepared food, served food, oversaw the bringing of gifts and their distribution.And the women had a fun time in the process. The day's event demonstrated the ability of the groom and his family to financially take care of the bride.It was one cultural aspect of Usos y Costumbres.