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In Oaxaca, Indigenous People Are the Vanguard

A. S. Dillingham

The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for its tradition of left political militancy. And its indigenous people have often been at the vanguard of that struggle.

Members of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) take part in a demonstration against then governor Ulises Ruiz in November 2006. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Jonah Walters

In 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca became an object of international attention when a mass movement emerged in support of a statewide teachers’ strike. Responding to violent repression, a broad-based coalition of social movements soon took control of Oaxaca City and demanded the governor’s resignation.

In a new book, historian A. S. Dillingham narrates the prehistory of that explosive moment, focusing on the role of bilingual indigenous teachers in the Oaxacan teachers’ union throughout the twentieth century. Oaxaca Resurgent: Indigeneity, Development, and Inequality in Twentieth Century Mexico reveals the rich tradition of indigenous militancy and trade union struggle in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Resurgent is the culmination of more than a decade of research, and Dillingham’s sources range from oral histories shared by trade union militants to secret documents produced by the Mexican security state. Against commonplace narratives of political acquiescence in Oaxaca, it reveals “a different history, a history in which questions of cultural liberation and social transformation were intimately linked,” as Dillingham writes in the book’s introduction.

In this conversation with Jacobin’s Jonah Walters, Dillingham describes the rich history of indigenous and trade union militancy in Oaxaca — including the 2006 movement, which some compared to the Paris Commune.


JW

When you set out to write Oaxaca Resurgent, did you think of it as a labor history or a history of indigenous political movements in Oaxaca?

ASD

I thought of it as a prehistory of a particular strike.

In 2006, I enrolled in a graduate seminar that took place annually in Oaxaca City. The seminar was interrupted by a massive teachers’ strike. It began as a traditional May Day strike, something Oaxacan teachers had engaged in since 1980. But that year, Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz chose to brutally repress it.

A large social movement blossomed in support of the teachers. Walking around Oaxaca City in 2006, when activists controlled much of the city center, it became clear to me that I was witnessing a vibrant and historic social movement. Some people have even compared it to the Paris Commune of 1871. How did it emerge? The book began as an attempt to answer that question.

The teachers’ union in Oaxaca is the largest trade union in the state, with roughly seventy thousand members in 2006 and a range of political currents contained within it. As I talked to Oaxacan activists and intellectuals, a number of people encouraged me to look at the role of Indigenous bilingual teachers in the union, even arguing that they acted as a kind of militant vanguard for the movement as a whole.

Because I came to focus on those bilingual teachers — who are bilingual in Spanish and one (or more) Indigenous languages — I had to think deeply about the history of indigeneity in Oaxaca. This led me to examine a broader ideological project in Mexico called indigenismo, or “indiginism,” which became another key focus of the book.

JW

What is indigenismo?

ASD

In the nineteenth century, Mexican elites succeeded in liberating themselves from Spanish control. And after independence, one of the ways they tried to distinguish themselves from their former European colonizers was by invoking the pre-Hispanic past. This was also true well beyond Mexico: romantic invocations of a pre-Hispanic Indigenous past characterized elite discourse in nearly all the former Iberian colonies in the Americas.

The Mexican Revolution was one of the great social revolutions of the twentieth century, taking place roughly contemporaneously with the Russian Revolution of 1917. And because the revolution involved the mass participation of ordinary people, it brought Mexico’s Indigenous population, which is quite large and diverse, into the public light. This prompted a shift in elite ideology.

In the postrevolutionary period, a new state discourse coalesced that celebrated the Indigenous past while frequently marking living Indigenous people as barriers to modernization or progress. Even some left-wing intellectuals participated in a version of this discourse, identifying Indigenous people as barriers to the kind of class politics represented by peasant federations and trade unions.

But the official discourse of indigenismo never went without a response by people marked as Indigenous. There was a contradictory dynamic within indigenista politics, which in the book I call “the double bind of indigenismo.” Indigenismo rhetorically celebrated Indigenous people, but it also cast them as a problem to be overcome. For that reason, and perhaps counterintuitively, it sometimes proved valuable for Indigenous social movements, because they could use its vocabulary to make various demands on the state.

JW

What kind of place is Oaxaca?

ASD

Oaxaca, which is in southern Mexico, is today one of the poorest states in the country. But in the colonial period, when Mexico was New Spain, Oaxaca was a center of commerce and wealth. It was the center of an Indigenous population that maintained its own hierarchies and leaders, and which was able to negotiate with Spanish intermediaries to sustain several very successful industries, including silk and cochineal (a bug that creates a red dye).

Oaxaca became a center of colonial prosperity because of its varied topography — multiple mountain ridges, high-altitude valleys, a Pacific coastal plain. Microclimates in Oaxaca allowed for self-sufficient regional economies that could together buoy a large population. But with the increasing nationalization of the Mexican economy in the twentieth century, those same advantages became disadvantages.

The mid-twentieth century saw the rise of commercial agriculture, and Oaxaca’s topography did not fit with that model of capitalist development. Oaxaca did become increasingly integrated into the national economy, but that integration took the form of mass migration out of the state, as Oaxacans sought seasonal wage labor in other parts of Mexico and beyond. Today there’s a veritable Oaxacan diaspora that spans the continent.

JW

As you point out, at the very moment that economic modernization was devastating Oaxaca, there was a wave of academic interest in the supposedly backward or primitive ways of indigenous people there. How has that kind of elite attention contributed to the politics of the place?

ASD

I begin Oaxaca Resurgent with a story about a group of people in a Triqui community on the western edge of the state. In 1899, this community encountered an early anthropologist named Frederick Starr, who was traveling throughout Central America and southern Mexico attempting to photograph and measure the heads of various Indigenous peoples.

In Starr’s travel journals, I discovered the story of a group of Triqui women and girls who refused to be measured or photographed. They fled the town market where they had been selling their wares and were chased down by Starr and his assistants. Starr’s team eventually captured the women and forcibly measured them; I found their photographs in a research library in Oaxaca.

This story is a reminder that to chart the trajectory of a politics of representation for Indigenous people in Mexico, you must also consider the ways Indigenous peoples have refused representation, whether by the state or anthropologists.

By the mid-twentieth century, Mexico saw the rise of development thinking — what people sometimes call modernization theory. Applied anthropologists working on development programs tried to solve the “problem” of bringing Indigenous regions into the national economy and the nation-building project it represented. Predictably, in Mexico, Oaxaca was a site of much academic and government interest in thinking these questions through.

Some of those anthropologists and development workers were well-meaning left intellectuals. But even when they wanted to uplift these regions marked as unintegrated or impoverished, they often ended up equating poverty with indigeneity. Rather than confronting more structural issues, they ended up talking about the supposed need to change the behaviors of the poor. They thought these populations were poor because they didn’t speak the national language (Spanish), or because they were too tied to cultures and customs and traditions, or that they spent too much money on saints’ day festivals (which are essentially annual block parties).

At the same time, while there was that top-down dynamic, many of these development projects required local brokers to implement them successfully. Development agencies had to contract local “extensionists” who were fluent in Indigenous languages to serve as bridges between federal policies and local communities.

In the book, I follow how those local development workers, those bilingual “promoters,” became politicized and radicalized, oftentimes through their own frustrations with government efforts, which led them to develop alternative proposals for Indigenous development.

JW

What is the history of teachers’ unionism in Oaxaca?

ASD

As I mentioned before, Mexico created a new state in the aftermath of the revolution. In 1917, it ratified one of the most radical constitutions in the world, which guaranteed labor rights, including the right to join a trade union, as well as other social rights that far exceeded those enumerated in the eighteenth-century constitution of the United States.

The revolution was followed by a civil war that lasted ten years. The postrevolutionary state built itself, or rather reconstituted itself, through mass organizations, such as peasant federations and trade unions. For most of the twentieth century, the teachers’ union in Mexico — the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) — was an instrument of state policy. It was also often a way for individuals to move up the political ladder of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

One of the guarantees of the 1917 constitution was free secular education for all Mexicans. This meant that state actors eventually had to start reckoning with the diversity of the country itself — especially in terms of education policy. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Ministry of Education accomplished this by contracting auxiliary teachers — or bilingual “promoters” — to help facilitate Spanish language acquisition in the classroom. By the 1960s, many of the people who had been contracted as auxiliary teachers or bilingual promoters started to make demands to become fully trained federal teachers.

They wanted to be designated as federal teachers because then they would have access to the union, and through the union receive better pay and benefits. But this was also an anti-racist struggle to respect and value Indigenous educators as equal to the traditional federal teacher, who had prestige. They eventually won by the mid-1970s, and at that point those bilingual teachers were incorporated into the teachers’ union in Mexico.

Bilingual teachers brought with them an experience of political mobilization and radical politics, and allied with other reformers who wanted to democratize the union by taking control away from PRI leaders. Indigenous bilingual teachers ended up playing a crucial role in the fight to democratize the teachers’ union and the fight against austerity, which was on the rise in Mexico.

By the late 1970s, Mexico was participating in the US-led “war on drugs.” The Mexican government was conducting anti-narcotics raids in which they fumigated marijuana and poppy fields throughout southern Mexico. I found declassified state records that documented a counter-narcotic raid in Oaxaca in 1977 — in this case, the Mexican army and judicial police landed in a rural town and ended up detaining a principal and two teachers from a local primary school. This was because dissident teachers in Oaxaca were increasingly speaking out against the PRI. It was clear to me that security agents were more concerned about dissident teachers than drug production or trafficking.

Santiago Salazar, a Oaxacan teacher, leading an occupation of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City in 1978. (Courtesy of A. S. Dillingham)

State repression in Oaxaca connected to the drug war was a major contributor to the general dissatisfaction that, much later, found expression in the teachers’ strike and related social movement in 2006.

In 2006, Oaxacans established a mass social movement organization called Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). This was basically an umbrella coalition that included representatives of the teachers’ union, but also members of other social movements, progressive Catholic organizations, radical urban youth, and nonprofits active in progressive causes. The APPO brought all these people together in a movement not just to address the education question but to transform politics in Oaxaca writ large.

It was the combination of national political calculations and brutal repression that put an end to the Oaxacan movement in 2006. Federal police, which are basically a militarized police force, were brought in. Some came on a highway from Mexico City and others arrived on planes, and they launched a siege to take control of Oaxaca City.

We know now that the Oaxacan governor also used escuadrones de la muerte, “death squads.” Unmarked vehicles full of ununiformed, armed men seized activists off the road to torture or disappear them. Many ended up in federal jails across the country. And in that movement’s wake, there was a massive escalation of violence and militarization all around Mexico.

JW

You consulted a wide range of archives in your research. But I understand you looked at Mexican state security archives in particular. What did you learn from those sources?

ASD

Mexico had its own equivalent of the United States’ FBI, which was the Federal Security Directorate (DFS). This was a state espionage agency, which during the second half of the twentieth century spied on everyone from dissident teachers to peasants to anthropologists who worked for government agencies, even high-ranking political officials and federal functionaries.

The records of the DFS were classified until the presidency of Vicente Fox in the early 2000s. Around 2008 or so, together with other historians, I began opening those boxes. The files are held in the national archives in Mexico City — a converted Porfirian prison called Lecumberri.

These security files ended up being an important source base for me, because state officials were keeping tabs on dissident teachers and anthropologists and others involved in Indigenous politics.

Obviously, one has to read files like that with a critical eye, because security agents often overstate threats. I compared what I learned in those files to the conversations I was having with retired teachers and government bureaucrats. In that way, I could cross-reference the security files with oral history. It was also nice to turn government spying around and use it to critique the state and tell a story of grassroots activism.

Unfortunately, during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto [2012–2018], access to those files was effectively closed. Now there’s an uphill battle for people who are interested in studying twentieth-century Mexico, especially topics related to the dirty war or the Cold War. The state has highly restricted the public’s ability to look at those files.

JW

How do you understand the relationship between indigeneity, neoliberalism, and multiculturalism?

ASD

The multicultural turn at the end of the twentieth century was a moment of historical contingency that I think we’ve failed to fully appreciate. When I look at the rise of multiculturalism, I don’t just view it as a top-down project — elites and their savvy technocrats duping us all. Instead, I locate its origins historically, from the bottom up. I think this is a history we should try to keep in mind as we imagine a better future.

On the Left, people have long had a healthy skepticism of neoliberalism and the rise of multicultural frameworks. That’s why many left and Indigenous activists have denounced these multicultural gestures as superficial and hollow — a way for powerful actors and institutions to superficially celebrate cultural difference without considering ongoing inequalities.

I sympathize with that position deeply, but I think it gives a bit too much power to the idea that neoliberalism has successfully defeated all forms of resistance. People sometimes argue that multiculturalism is the cultural logic of late capitalism without acknowledging that many multicultural policies — such as bilingual education in Mexico or ethnic studies in the United States — resulted from the demands activists were making, in the 1970s in particular.

The New Left in the late 1960s, and even more so in the 1970s, produced its own forms of cultural pluralism. New Left activists in Mexico and beyond tried to think about how to connect a politics of liberation, a politics of revolution, with the particular experiences of the marginalized communities they found themselves in. For many of these activists, the struggle against material inequality was linked to struggles around racism and cultural liberation.

Neoliberalism has effectively delinked those struggles. But that’s not because they’re inherently contradictory. Unfortunately, on the Left, you sometimes encounter people who tacitly accept that delinking, and say that to recognize the political value of cultural pluralism is to somehow not take class inequality seriously. But this is a poor form of revolutionary politics we need to move beyond.

How might we imagine more egalitarian and reciprocal forms of articulating our politics — and ultimately reorganizing society? I think there are lessons the international left can learn from the kind of political radicalism that emerged in Oaxaca in the 1970s.

To understand the global history of the Left, it’s worth looking closely at how Indigenous activists engaged with and transformed Marxism. In places like Oaxaca, radicals strove to understand how Marxism as a theory of emancipation could inform the experiences of their own communities, which oftentimes operated (and still do, to this day) under communal structures (usos y costumbres) through which people have both rights and obligations to the broader community.

Oaxacan intellectuals and activists developed a particular kind of theory in response to these questions — comunalidad, or “communality.” There are different versions of comunalidad, but it is generally concerned with transposing the mutual-aid dynamics of Indigenous communities onto a national or global scale. Rather than a society based on individuals and personal profit, comunalidad posits a society based on community, reciprocity, and mutual aid. It’s a tradition that has been overlooked that I think speaks to many of the pressing concerns of our world today.