Two Decades of Struggle: Mexico’s Indigenous Congress, In Images

First published by New Internationalist.

Hundreds of indigenous representatives from across Mexico gathered in mid-October in San Cristobal Chiapas for the 5th meeting of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). However, this year’s CNI wasn’t business as usual. As the 20th anniversary of the founding of the congress, this year’s gathering became both a celebration, and a moment of soul searching for Mexico’s indigenous movement.

The CNI opening ceremony was held at CIDECI, an autonomous indigenous university in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Around 500 representatives from indigenous ethnic groups from across Mexico attended. Organizers said attendees came from as far afield as neighbouring Guatemala.

The CNI was founded by the indigenous, left wing Zapatista rebels (EZLN) in 1996. During the opening ceremony of this year’s congress, EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Insurgente Moises said the 20th anniversary of the CNI’s founding was an opportunity to reflect on the last two decades of indigenous struggle.

‘Throughout these 20 years of struggle against the bad capitalist system and its rulers, we have been met only with disrespect, repression, dispossession, exploitation, imprisonment, murder, disappearance, deceit, and manipulation,’ he said.

Moises continued, ‘As we said 20 years ago: nothing new, nothing for the good of the original peoples of Mexico and the world will come from or be born of this capitalist system.’

The host of the opening ceremony invites congress goers to discuss the program of the coming days. Decisions on how to organize the conference were made by consensus. All 500 representatives were invited to speak on issues ranging from which sessions would be open to the public, to how the media would be allowed to record discussions. Not all decisions were made quickly, though everyone was heard.

The struggle for indigenous rights in Mexico is by nature anti capitalist, according to Filo Zitlalxochitzin, a Mixtec from central Mexico.

‘We can change the name, but they’re both the same – they’re both the West,’ he said, arguing privatization of land and public services has caused major problems in his own community, Huitziltepec.

‘There’s so much privatization, the people are divided and it’s all just a total disaster. But, it’s the same in all of Mexico,’ he said.

On the second day of the CNI, attendees were invited to visit the EZLN enclave of Oventic, located in the highlands about an hour from San Cristobal. Visitors were treated to performances from Zapatista communities.

In this play, performers re-enacted a traditional dance, peppered with slogans promoting women’s rights.

‘Women have the right to decide how many children they want to have,’ one dancer shouted.

‘Women have the right to hold ranks in the revolutionary army,’ another declared.

Masked EZLN volunteers provided security for the event in Oventic.

A play in Oventic depicting an EZLN supporter being beaten and robbed. In the play, EZLN militants put out a call to nearby villages, warning them of the thieves. The moral of the play was to show how community organizing can be used to tackle crime without needing state security forces, according to a narrator.

A male performer is depicted doing household chores in another play on women’s rights.

In this play, actors dressed as EZLN militants who drove criminals from an indigenous village.

On the final day of the congress, the public was invited to observe discussions between CNIrepresentatives. Reflecting on the talks, Wirarriki man Ramon Gonzalez Lopez said the CNI had become a crucial forum for indigenous peoples to learn from each other’s experiences of struggle.

‘The CNI is an interchange of ideas, and of work. We’ve been resisting for so much time, and we’ll only continue,’ he said.

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