The Zapotecs, Then and Now

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 3.51.33 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Once upon a time, the Cloud People lived in a great city on a hill that overlooked a fertile, Y-shaped valley in the cradle of high mountains. No one quite knows when or why the Cloud People came to be in the valley, but they built the great city when two groups came together, possibly for mutual protection. Legend says they called themselves the Cloud People because they were created by gods who lived in the clouds. There were also those who believed that humans sprang from jaguars, trees, or rocks. As time went on, they called themselves, in Nahuatl, tzapotēcah, the people who live where the sapote trees grow.

Who were the tzapotēcah?

Once upon a time was over 2,500 years ago, and these were the ancestors of Oaxaca’s major indigenous group, the Zapotecs. Maybe a thousand years earlier, they were living a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence high up in the mountains, but gradually came down, settled in the valley, and built Monte Alban, firmly established by 500 BC. Depending on which archaeologist is counting, the Monte Alban civilization went through at least five phases, in which they created a logosyllabic writing system (one character per syllable), formed a state, created a distinctive style of art and design, became powerful commercial traders, set up a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day religious calendar, increased trade and contact with other groups, fought (in padded-cotton armor), developed agricultural/irrigation systems, and perfected both adobe and stone-and-mortar construction techniques, not necessarily in that order.

Monte Alban lasted as the largest city (30,000 people at its height) in the southern Mexican highlands until about 700 AD, when the power center shifted eastward to Mitla in the Tlacolula arm of the Central Valleys. Again, why that happened is not known for sure, but there are indications the cause might have been environmental deterioration. Mitla was more of a religious center than Monte Alban, so it suffered greatly when the Spanish arrived and started extirpating all vestiges of “paganism.”

The Zapotecs of today

Oaxaca (58%) is one of two Mexican states with majority indigenous populations (the Yucatan is 62.7% Mayan); the Zapotecs constitute about a third of Oaxaca’s indigenas. Today, there are four major Zapotec groups, characterized mainly by differences in language (linguists differentiate nearly 60 varieties of Zapotec): those who live in the Monte Alban/Mitla area of the Valles Centrales, the serranos who live in the Sierra de Ixtlán (part of the Sierra Madre del Norte), a third group that lives in the Sierra de Miahuatlán (part of the S.M. del Sur), and the istmeños, who live to the east where the Sierra Madres thin out in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

While the indigenous people of Mexico were subjected to some of the same disastrous strategies of exploitation, forcible inclusion, forcible exclusion, and downright murder as were the indigenas of the United States and Canada—a discussion worth several books in itself—they have emerged better off in many ways. The Mexican constitution recognizes the country as “pluricultural,” indigenous people have the right to govern themselves by their traditional “uses and customs,” indigenous settlements own their land in common, they can determine how their lands can be developed, they have access to government assistance of their choice, they can preserve their language and set up their own communication media.

A statistical portrait of today’s southern Zapotecs

The southern group of Zapotecs live in isolated villages in the mountains that tumble down around Bahias de Huatulco. To get a flavor of life in one of these villages, let’s take a trip to Santiago Xanica, both a municipality and a “head town” (cabecera) in the Miahuatlán District of the Sierra Sur region. Nearly 3,000 people live in the municipio; over half of them are considered to live in “extreme poverty” (muy alto marginalización). In Mexico, the official definition of marginalization includes “lack of access to education, living in inadequate housing, the ‘perception’ of insufficient income, and the relationship of these factors to residence in very small towns”—how they measure the latter is unclear.

In 2010, life expectancy was just over age 75, but infant mortality was about 32%. Nearly 30% of residents were illiterate. In 2005, about 68% of the residents experienced food scarcity (an improvement over the 78% in 2000), and 76% lacked employability skills (again an improvement over the 83% in 2000).

The majority of people living in the municipio made a subsistence living in 2010—that is, they raised their own food and bartered for their basic needs. About 27% had paying jobs, and most of those people (61%) worked in the primary sector (agriculture, livestock, forestry, hunting/fishing); 16% worked in the secondary sector (mining, manufacturing, construction, utilities), and 22% in the tertiary sector (management, commerce, services). Of those working for pay, 67% made less than the minimum wage per day ($4.30US in smaller towns in 2010), 12% made between $4.30 and $8.60US a day, and 17% made more than $8.60US a day.

The Town of Santiago Xanica

The town of Santiago Xanica is located more than 4,500 feet above sea level, with a temperate climate and a summer rainy season with hotter temperatures. Although it’s only 30-odd kilometers as the crow flies from Huatulco to Xanica, it takes between three and four hours, and a four-wheel drive vehicle, to get there; in the rainy season and afterwards, until washouts have been repaired, it is difficult or impossible to reach the town in a vehicle.

According to 2015 estimates by INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadístic y Geographía), Xanica has 810 people. The Xanicans are about half men, half women; women have between 2 and 3 children each. Nearly three-quarters of the adults speak Zapotec, but most of those also speak Spanish. Although the town has four schools that cover all levels up to university, the average schooling attained is between 4 and 5 years. About 16% of adults are illiterate.

There are 210 houses, all but 17 of which have running water. Only 8 houses have no electricity, 7 lack drainage to a septic tank, and 27 still have dirt floors. While INEGI counts no computers in homes, the government has a couple, computers are included in the municipal development plans, and cell phones are common.

Although this official information might lead you to conclude that Santiago Xanica isn’t worth much attention, think again. And as tourists and snowbirds in Oaxaca, you might think the most politically active people are folks from Local 22 of the national teachers’ union—again, think again.

Santiago Xanica, at the heart of international indigenous politics

Xanica participates fully in Mexico’s national political system. They write periodic municipal development plans that identify infrastructure and communication needs; they seek and accept federal and state level assistance in the form of social, health, and education programs and funding. However, the Mexican constitution provides for indigenous self-government; with changes in Oaxacan electoral laws in 1998, it became possible for municipalities to choose to govern themselves by tradition (usos y costumbres)—free of the presence of political parties.

Santiago Xanica is one of over 400 municipalities (out of 571) in Oaxaca that govern by usos y costumbres (see The Eye, “Governing Oaxaca,” May-June 2014).

At the same time municipalities started opting for government by usos y costumbres, organizations began to form to defend indigenous rights; Xanica’s group, CODEDI (Committee in Defense of Indigenous Rights in Xanica, Comité de Defensa de los Derechos Indigenas de Santiago Xanica), is a leading organization in the movement. CODEDI works with an alphabet soup of comparable organizations, including the state-level CODEP (Committee to Defend the Peoples’ Rights, Comité de Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo); APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca); AMZ (The Magonista/Zapatista Alliance, Alianza Magonista Zapatista—the Magon brothers were pre-Revolutionary social activists and anarchists); the coalition OIDHO (Indigenous Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights in Oaxaca, Organizaciones Indias por los Derechos Humanos en OaxacaI), among others. Indigenous action in Mexico is watched carefully around the world, and Xanica regularly appears in the social media platforms of international activist groups.

Government by usos y costumbres got off to a rough start across Oaxaca, with accusations of cronyism and corruption; about a quarter of the municipalities questioned the 2001 results. In 1999, a PRI municipal president was installed in Xanica with a minority of votes; most of Xanica’s Zapotecs simply ran their usus y costumbres administration in parallel. This situation continued through the 2004 election of PRI candidate Ulises Ruíz Ortiz as governor of Oaxaca under contested circumstances; his administration was marked by protests and strikes, which he returned with general government interference in indigenous issues across the state, and a PRI president in Xanica.

The Ruíz government sent twelve police patrols to encourage more cooperation in Xanica. On January 15, 2005, gunfire broke out when the police attempted to go through on a road then blocked by building materials for a house being constructed by techio (a community assignment). The police claimed that CODEDI leader Abraham Ramírez Vázquez killed a policeman (no body was ever produced), and arrested Ramírez and two others, Noel and Juvento García Cruz, on a variety of charges. Ramírez, despite being moved among three or four prisons, protested the injustice of his arrest; in 2011, after six years in jail, he was released, cleared of any crimes whatsoever. (The Cruzes were released before Ramírez.)

The imprisonment was seen at the time as repression of indigenous rights, if not of CODEDI itself. On February 5, 2006, CODEDI member Sergio Ramírez Vázquez was distributing literature in front the Xanica market. The literature explained “The Other Campaign,” a second Zapatista movement that supports indigenous rights and was opposing windfarms and corporate development in the Isthmus. Police patrols beat Ramírez senseless with rifle butts, destroyed the literature, and carted him off to jail. Two other CODEDI members interceded, and were also badly beaten. On June 18, 2007, the police, accompanied by a commando unit, burst into the home of César Reynaldo Luis Díaz, a member of CODEDI, APPO, and the AMZ (which supports la Otra Campaña) and arrested him without a warrant, on charges stemming from the events in 2005; again, all except misdemeanor charges were dismissed.

CODEDI, on its own and in collaboration with other indigenous organizations, has continued to oppose incursions on indigenous rights: corporate development of indigenous lands, international megaprojects, privatization of community natural resources for the benefit of tourism. With demonstrations large and small, they have been there—on Thursday and Friday, July 6 – 7, 2013, 600 CODEDI members organized a blockade of Highway 200 at the junction to Santa María Huatulco to protest government indifference to indigenous issues. Luis Díaz declared, “We will stand to fight any failure to act.” The government agreed to meet and negotiate on the next day.

In many ways, things have calmed down. Luis Díaz is now Xanica’s Municipal President, and has said “Xanica has left violence behind.” Xanica can now proceed on such tangible goals as building roads and bringing potable water and electricity to remote villages. Luis Díaz’s intangible themes are to build on Xanica’s indigenous foundations to “reconstruct the social fabric” and to achieve a plural and inclusive environment for the “indigenous brotherhood.” Xanica hopes for an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous future.

This is not to say, however, that indigenous activism will take a backseat to community development. On April 14, 2014, the Zapotecs of San Miguel del Puerto, supported by CODEDI, occupied the park in La Crucecita to demand the return of the lands FONATUR expropriated in 1984 for the Bahias de Huatulco resort. Legally speaking, the lands no longer belong to San Miguel del Puerto, so the protest was no doubt designed to pressure the government to respond to other priorities. With no results by November 19, the protesters marched on the zocalo in Oaxaca City. CODEDI banners abounded.

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