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Mexico’s Indigenous Tribes Launch Presidential Candidate

A new kind of political movement in Mexico plans to insert itself into the 2018 presidential elections.

Indigenous tribes, organizing via grassroots assemblies throughout Mexico, have selected a female “candidate,” María de Jesus Patricio Martínez” to run on the Independent ticket for the first time.

In a Facebook Live interview with AJ Spanish, Marichuy said the movement is not interested in actually winning the election, but in “using the same tools capitalist-financed political parties use to reach more people” and organize around “building a country with a different purpose, where life is the most important thing.”

What makes the move even more of a departure is that in previous elections, the leading national indigenous organization had discouraged followers from even voting, believing that would add legitimacy to a government that had sold out their interests so many times over the years.

The emergence of a new electoral option with deeply democratic roots is also an anomaly worldwide, as right wing authoritarian populism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, and the left has suffered a “pink hangover” in recent years as the economic policies of Chavez left a dismal legacy.

But in Mexico, the movement may just catch on. It is a country where the government’s widespread corruption ties to narcotics crime syndicates and ineffectual policies have disillusioned the populace where President Nieto is almost universally disliked. A new option with legitimate claims to being more representative of the common people will appeal to many, especially the country’s youth. 

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The Indigenous movement already has deep, Democratic roots in indigenous communities with a substantial track record of creating autonomous local governments, organizing collective enterprises and providing government services via elected councils with rotating members and mandates to include women. 

Martínez, who will run on the independent ticket, is not technically considered as a candidate for their group, but rather a “spokesperson” for the council that is responsible to locally elected assemblies. The role is designed to create bottom-up representative rather than top-down party leaders beholden to external financiers. 

Born in Tuxpan, South of Jalisco, Marichuy is from the Nahua tribe and a traditional indigenous medicine woman known for fighting to maintain original customs and for basic human rights, as well as rights to land and water.

She was selected along with the members of the Indigenous Government Council (CIG) at the constitutive assembly that took place on May 27th and 28th in Cideci, Chiapas. For two days, members of the CNI gathered and worked in selecting the members, as well as the spokesperson, and in the end, the members took protest, and there was a press conference. They stated over and over that their intention was not to go on a common political campaign to win votes but to use the electoral platform to speak out about their struggles and get organized with the rest of the society.

The CNI is actually a complex organization that has evolved over 20 years from the original Zapatista movement in tiny rural villages across Chiapas to a national organization with a political platform created by the assemblies, consultations and approval from 58 indigenous communities.

The movement traces its history back to the original Zapatista uprising in January 1st, 1994. That year, Mexico was celebrating the birth of NAFTA and rise in international status, and President Salinas and his PRI party were widely popular. But amidst the celebratory atmosphere, a conflict was bubbling over in the South. 

The mostly indigenous Mexican villages of Chiapas, tired of poverty, abuse and invisibility organized the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and declared war on the Mexican Government.

The uprising took the country, still enthralled by the charisma of Salinas and his new treaty, by surprise.

To people living in cities, assured that urban unemployment, inflation and poverty would be abated by the new trade deal, the problems of rural indigenous people ─ land rights, poverty and health care ─ were incomprehensible.

But the savagery of Salinas reaction also shocked them, as not only fighters but civilians were killed. Battles in places like Ocosingo are remembered for the brutality of the attack, not only on members of the EZLN, but also on civilians. 

By the time a ceasefire was declared after 11 days of confrontation with the Mexican Army, the population had grown more sympathetic to the rebels, who also consolidated popular support among the indigenous civilians.

Deliberations took two years, but finally, the San Andres agreement was signed in which some of the basic demands were met, and the Mexican government promised additional education and health options for the southern communities. The San Andres agreement was supposed to result in a constitutional modification where indigenous rights were recognized.

During the San Andres agreement in 1996, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was formed. A different entity from the Zapatista, a place for all of the indigenous groups struggling to survive everywhere in Mexico to come together, and they are numerous: The Amuzgo, Binnizá, Chichimeca, Chinanteco, Chol, Chontal de Oaxaca, Chontal de Tabasco, Coca, Comcac, Cuicateco, Cucapá, Guarijío, Ikoots, Kumiai, Lacandón, Mam, Matlazinca, Maya, Mayo, Mazahua, Mazateco, Mixe, Mixteco, Nahua, Ñahñu/Ñajtho/Ñuhu, Náyeri, Popoluca, Purépecha, Rarámuri, ,Sayulteco, Tepehua, Tepehuano, Tlapaneco, Tohono Oódham, Tojolabal, Totonaco, Triqui, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Wixárika, Yaqui, Zoque, Afromestizo and Mestizo.


The Congress decided on 7 principles to guide their actions:  

  • To obey and not to order
  • To represent and not to suborn the people
  • To serve others not oneself
  • To convey and not defeat
  • To reach  down not up
  • To propose not impose
  • To construct not destruct

Their struggle was far from over. In the following years, Mexican presidents simply disregarded the agreement, passed laws that contradicted it, and in Chiapas, invaded the area with militias, installing paramilitary organizations which murdered dozens of the opposition.

In one city, Acteal, in spite of the proximity of the police force and a military base, a paramilitary organization murdered 45 people; 15 children, 23 women ─ 5 of them pregnant ─ and 7 men. Indians believe the paramilitary organizations worked with the Army, and to this day, distrust the military.

Then, in 2003, the movement evolved again. In Chiapas, Zapatistas decided to form a civilian government to solve their own problems; the Zapatista support base (BAZ). The EZLN remained as the military organization to protect  BAZ.

BAZ is a “bottom-up” grassroots organization: There are 38 Autonomous and Rebellious Zapatista Municipalities in Chiapas, which then combined into five districts referred to as the “Caracoles,” or Snails.

Each Caracol has a representative, Good Government Assembly, responsible for making decisions to provide services for people in their communities.

BAZ searched for an equal number of men and women who would be in the Assembly, and members rotated and were subject to revocation by vote if they failed to represent the community’s will.

The assemblies organized rural communities more as collectives who were rural people who would produce crops, such as coffee for sale and food to eat. They also organized to provided education and health services for themselves, including one hospital and one ultrasound clinic. All the members of the community participate; the young are educated in local schools where there are no teachers, but rather “education promoters.” They offer indigenous language courses for international visitors and produce their many forms of media and public images.

The core idea of the Good Government assemblies ─ to motivate representatives to work for the people they govern, rather than the other way around ─ traces back to ancient tribal customs and the inclusion of women which is also deeply rooted in Zapatista culture: They were early  pioneers in gender perspective, and laws they instated carefully acknowledged women’s historic neglect and ensured they would hold political positions because women suffered oppression twice, on one hand by poverty and lack of opportunities and on the other hand by violence from male counterparts.

Today, 14 years after the original set of principles, many girls from the early stages of the movement are now women who have grown up with ideas that are different from their mothers’. Many are commanders and serve as functionaries in the Good Government Assemblies or the National Indigenous Congress, the national group that incorporates assemblies across the country, not just in Chiapas. That is why they chose a woman as a spokesperson, a member of the CGI stated in a press conference “in our indigenous cultures men and women were equal, women even had more responsibilities, a woman is the face of our struggle for respect.”

In October 2016, when the National Indigenous Congress Assembly met, change was afoot once more: The idea of joining the national elections was taking hold. Members of all the communities were consulted, and by the end of the meeting, a proposal to launch a campaign and to select a woman was approved by 523 communities, from 43 indigenous groups and from 25 states of the country.

After the meeting, the Congress launched a call-out to people from all of the communities to participate in the formation of the Indigenous Government Council (CGI). It would include representatives from each indigenous language, preferably 1 male and 1 female, whose role is to listen and make the decisions representing and serving the people from their communities.

On May 27th, 2017, 58 communities met and worked for two days to select the 71 plus members and a spokesperson, “Marichuy,”  for the new Indigenous Government Council (CGI). It was a historical moment. After 20 years of working together, the indigenous communities of the country were taking their struggle to the Presidential level.

As spokesperson Martinez holds a new role, it’s hard for people in traditional political parties to understand. She has been chosen to be the voice of her people, the many indigenous groups in Mexico, and the elections are only a platform to speak out.

In her day-to-day life, Marichuy runs a health house, “Calli tecolhuacateca tochan,” in her community in Tuxpan. Working with the support of the University of Guadalajara, she provides both traditional medicine to the sick and preserves traditional knowledge and the usage of medicine plants grown in the health house.

In a Facebook live interview with AJ Spanish, Marichuy says the Council and the groups they represent are not interested in winning the election, but in using the same tools capitalist political parties use to reach more people; to be able to visit the whole country, talk to more people, and organize around “building a country with a different purpose, where life is the most important thing.”

The last obstacle to enrolling in the electoral system is gathering signatures required, but Marichuy and the Council are already pledged not take money from the electoral institutions, large companies or cartels like the other parties. They also believe they have enough followers with all the indigenous communities and supporters around the country to fulfill the required number of signatures.

Critics claim that launching another candidate is a bad strategy because Marichuy does not stand a chance in a country where the word “Indian” is still used as an insult, and that, as an outsider candidate, she will only rob votes from the left-wing candidate, Morena, which is high in the polls right now.

Finally, they claim it is a contradiction of the organization’s own principles since it has distrusted and spoken against government institutions, to participate in the electoral process at all.

The Indigenous Government Council maintains their struggle will not be to obtain votes but to organize the country from the bottom up around people in search of new ways to reconstruct the country along more democratic lines. And, about racism, well, “racism is in the mind of the racists. Therefore, it is not our problem; it is theirs. . .”

Their primary goal is “organization,” Marichuy told journalist Carmen Aristegui.

“We are not asking for votes; we want to go around the country building organization and relationships between the people.” When asked what she would do if she won, she answered, “I wouldn’t be in power, we are not looking for power; what we are looking for is for the people to gather and get organized, it is a matter of defending mother earth. If the Government Council won, we would need the entire population to speak out and tells us what to do.”

It remains to see if their ideas will catch hold.


Written by

Natali Herrera, born in San Luis Potosi, México, is a 30 year-old philosophy major with a passion for politics, equality, living beings and words. She currently lives in Tequisquiapan where she works as a freelance writer and translator. She enjoys practicing yoga and running. She is also trying to understand consciousness, dialogue and the nature of life. She may be reached at filogrita@gmail.com

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