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“Without Maize there is no country” (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

“Without Maize there is no country”  (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

As we began to explore in the recent post on autonomy, the cultivation of food as a source and practice of autonomy is core to Unitierra.  There are food-orientated workshops at least twice per week, sometimes 3 or 4 times per week, either on the roof of Unitierra, using their urban roof garden area, or within a range of different pueblos (villages – primarily indigenous) or suburb areas that tend to be characterized by material poverty and families that have emigrated from different part of Oaxaca state and Mexico.  We attended (and filmed) one of the workshops that happened to be on tree grafting.  There were 13 people in attendance – men, women, young and old.  The workshop was informal and very engaging with demonstrations and different people helping to plant and manipulate the papaya tree to be grafted and propagated to form new roots and another tree.  At the end of the workshop, juice and cake were passed around that one of the learners had prepared.  This aspect of learning – cooking and eating together (sometimes through the form of community fiesta) is integral to all learning situations at Unitierra.  The purpose is to enjoy the process of learning together, to build hospitable relationships and to build a strength around the cultural importance of foods – particularly those grown on milpa.

Unitierra, fruit tree grafting workshop, still from footage by Udi

Maize is to Mexico (to all Meso-American civilizations actually), what buffalo are to the Blackfoot (see previous post, ‘The Land, the Blackfoot and the Buffalo’).  In Mexico alone there are over 60 breeds of maize and thousands of local varieties – white, yellow, red, blue, purple, black… Mexico is home to the most diverse range of maize seeds and varieties in the world.  Maize, as a core food grown within the milpa, is central to all Meso-American cultural cosmovisions.

Viva la Milpa! poster representing Meso-American cosmovision of maize, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

As Bonfil explains in Mexico Profundo:

Maize is, in effect, a human creation, a child of Meso-American parents.  Its parents, in turn are children of corn, as poetically related in the Popul Vuh, the ancient ‘Book of Events’ of the Quiche Maya:  Thus they found food and it was what they employed to make the bodies of the people who were made, who were formed; the blood was liquid, the blood of the people; … of yellow corn and white corn they made the bodies, of food were made the arms and legs of the people, of our first parents.  Four people were created, of pure foodstuffs were their bodies (p. 5 – quoted originally from Chavez 1979: 65a)

Stencil sketch of maize/humans, Maize and Maguey Art Exhibit, Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

The domestication of maize began anywhere between 5,000 – 7,500 years ago, the oldest archaeological remains were discovered in Oaxaca.  What is significant about this is that maize can only grow with human intervention as the corncob can only spread its seeds with the help of humans.  Maize grows best when it is accompanied with beans, squash, chilies, tomatillos, avocadoes, gourds (in many circles this is known as the ‘three sisters’ – corn, beans and squash) – in a small and manageable area that is nourished by its use during two continuous years (followed by 8 years lying fallow).   The nourishment of these cultivated areas can be understood as a milpa.

Maize and beans growing together in a milpa, photo by Kelly

Maize is the essence of food, of fiesta, of cultural representation, and for thousands of years, of milpa, of cultural sustenance, self-sufficiency and nourishment enabling a sacred and intimate connection with the Earth.  Meso-American civilizations, although vastly different in languages, religious beliefs and cultural practices, are similar in their cosmovision as orientated to learning and obeying the principles of the natural world.  Human being are seen as part of, as deeply connected to the natural world and the entire cosmos – rather than as superior to, trying to obtain a mastery over.  Thus, in sharp contrast to the Spanish conquistadores, agricultural ‘work’ to milpa Meso-American cosmovision is about developing this learning, such as through the design and ritualized cultivation of milpa that incorporates optimum utilization of land and local resources, adapting to local conditions, starting with systems of knowledge and technology already in place – and social organization of work and the preferences and value of the particular group.  Milpas bring together multiple varietes of foods that are grown in small plots that are adjacent to homes.  John Canby, in his brilliant article ‘Retreat to Subsistence’ (The Nation 2010) explains this in the brief dialogue between he and an indigenous Mixtec man:

I asked Jesús León about the ways milpa agriculture seemed to be about improving on nature, on natural processes.  He stopped—with the whole vulnerable world of traditional human agriculture around his feet. “No,” he said, and seemed to care deeply that I follow precisely what he was saying. “It’s not a way of improving nature—it’s a way of getting closer to the processes of nature, getting as close as possible to what nature does.”

Mural of Zapatista woman wearing a balaclava mask made of maize, Oventic, Zapatista Caracole, photo by Kelly

In Spanish translation, milpa essentially means ‘field’ (in English). The term milpa comes from Nahuatl (the widespread Aztec-based language that tied hundreds of indigenous communities together through some form of a common language) which originally meant ‘to the field’ – the term ‘mil’ meaning ‘field’ and ‘pa’ meaning ‘going to’. This difference, though subtle, is profound.  ‘Field’ is a noun, a thing, an object.  ‘To the field’ denotes action, a verb, an intention.  As we wrote in previous postings on Blackfoot knowledges at Red Crow Community College, many indigenous languages are primarily verb-based (rather than noun-based as typical to English and Spanish languages).  The actions ‘to the field’ were based on spiritual and physical nourishment, not only to each human being, but to the broader community, the soil, the local plants and animals and the entire Universe.  A milpa is designed as a miniature version of the entire cosmos, the universe.  Hence, ‘to the field’ indicates intention that is not just to the growing of a crop, but to the tending and nurturing of the entire cosmovision of the community.  For example, the practice of rotating 2 years on, 8 years lying fallow – was so that the soil had a chance to fully recuperate itself naturally, drawing in wildlife that assisted in this recuperation process. Milpa is part of the surrounding ecosystem, not separate from it.  There is an automatic ‘we’ and commons mentality through the language and the practice of nourishing different foods cultivated traditionally with the milpa.

The cosmovision of milpa is first and foremost about self-sufficiency (autonomy) that enables a close relationship with the Earth and the nourishment of community. The role of economic growth and agricultural development plays a much less important role, if not often times being obsolete.  The destruction of milpa as cosmovision and as a highly technical food production process has been sought after for the past 500 years – by the Spanish crown, by the Church, by the state after Independence and currently by MNCs such as Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta.  The reason behind the survival of milpa is because how central they are (and have been) to all aspects of cultural life:

…the persistence of those technologies is related to a body of knowledge that represents the accumulated, systematized experience of centuries.  This knowledge and experience are consistent with particular ways of understanding the natural world, and with profoundly rooted systems of values, forms of social organization, and ways of organizing daily life.  Batalla-Bonfil, p. 13

I first encountered the rhetoric and politics of food sovereignty during my time living and working in Pakistan (2004), amongst different social movements – the People’s Rights Movement and the Fisherfolk Forum (both of whom had significant impacts on my life through the political awareness I gained spending brief periods of time with them).   The People’s Rights Movement support landless peasants in their continual struggle for land rights (and continue to face violent conflicts with the military).  The Fisherfolk Forum supports fishermen along the Indus River that crosses Pakistan from North to South and the Arabian Sea along the southern border.  Due to unsustainable and industrial fishing (trawling) by companies that were supported directly by the military (Pakistani government), traditional fishing practices have become increasingly obsolete, forcing many families further into dire economic poverty.  Both of these movements essentially support communities that have and continue to be deeply marginalized because of their lack of access to land, to water, to plants and animals that typically would sustain themselves, their families and their communities through a ‘commons’ – a communal and self-sufficiency orientation toward agriculture and food cultivation.

Zapatista community in their milpa, poster at Unitierra Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Five years after time I spent in Pakistan, I attended the World Social Forum in Belem (Brazil) in 2009.  As the World Social Forum gathers together such a large number of activists and civil society organizations, individuals and groups committed to food sovereignty (Via Campesina – peasant movement – being the largest social movement in the world) I attended as many food sovereignty workshops as I could, to learn more.  I remember, in Belem, engaging in many conversations with people from Latin America about the ‘food crisis’ that many of them were experiencing – the prices of corn, rice, sugar having risen dramatically over recent years, due, in great part, to food speculation in the financial market.  In Mexico, in 2008, because of the hike in maize prices, the country went through a ‘tortilla crisis’.  The Mexican government acknowledges that this has led to at least 28 million people in Mexico to be under-nourished and under-fed – 20 million of these are rural-dwelling and indigenous peoples.

Maiz and tortilla festival advert, Oaxaca, photo by Kelly

The ‘retreat to subsistence’ that Canby writes about is essentially what Unitierra is aiming to strengthen – as identity and as practice. The point is to move beyond the need of having to buy food –  of having to depend completely on the market to access an adequate and healthy food supply.  Unitierra is helping many communities in and around Oaxaca (Gustavo told us at least 25) to re-learn and strengthen milpa cultural and technical practice.  The orientation of food is further supported by learning about autonomy and self-sufficiency as associated with waste, water, architecture and political action, all the while celebrating community through fiesta.

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“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Viva la Milpa! Exhibit and media awareness campaign, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

This is the first of two related posts on maize, milpa and agricultural practice that is completely intertwined with a cosmovision (way of seeing and being in the Universe) orientated toward bringing humans and community closer with the Earth.  As the struggle to continue the cultural production of food (as connected to cosmovision) is so central to each context we are visiting, I have no doubts that we will return to food many times throughout our journey.  In the Americas (North, Central and South), there is a primary cultural and economic importance of corn, of maize.  Due to the length of this topic, this post has been divided into two parts (1 and 2).  The complexity of this topic is deep and exhaustive.  I have added in many links toward further reading for those of you who are interested…

Alfredo Aceda tells us in his recent article – The Fight for Corn – the Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz once said that ‘the invention of corn by Mexico is only comparable to the invention of fire by early humans.’  This is due to the incredible cultural and economic role that maize has played and continues to play within the majority of countries around the world.  Maize is the most efficient producer of any grain in the world – for example, the yield per hectare of maize doubles that of wheat.

During our time in Mexico, my senses and emotions endured a steep learning curve about maize (corn).  I tasted maize in many forms everyday – tortillas – with cheese, nopal (cactus), frijoles, in soups… chips (the nacho kind of chips), enchiladas, tamales… How I love tamales.  Hector and Margarita, the warm and generous couple we stayed with in Oaxaca, made tamales several times during our stay with them.  Each time I was lucky enough to have a vegetarian tamale on a plate in front of me, I was suddenly a little girl again, eating tamales with my babysitter, Mrs. Bravo, who had come from Mexico.  It was like coming home… what a contrast to the bland industrialized and ubiquitous manifestation of corn across virtually all US-processed foods in the form of corn syrup (which by the way, is directly related the tremendous rise in obesity).  Yet, aside from these delectable delights, I also found myself becoming angry.  Frustrated. Enormously.  Again and again.  Learning more about Monsanto, the multi-national corporation (MNC) that controls the majority of the international maize market – and the terrible ways they continue to extend their sharp claws into all aspects of the production of food in Mexico, from seed to consumption, manipulating not only economic security, but strangling cultural and ecological longevity as well.  The tight grip of Monsanto’s claws further destroys any promise of equality – deepening poverty, constraining autonomy and self-sufficiency, darkening spiritual illumination that glows from communal agricultural practices in milpas within which, technological knowledge still continues to marvel new learners (such as myself), 7,000 years after the domestication of maize first began.  In essence, Monsanto is poisoning the land, the water, the food and thousands of years of cultural history.

Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico – Maiz and Maguey art exhibit, photo by Kelly

It seemed that every time I turned around in Oaxaca and Chiapas, on a bus, in a colectivo taxi (car shares that cram as many people as possible inside to save money and petrol), in a café, in a museum, on a street corner… I came face to face with some formation of maize.  From the front seat of the colectivo taxi as we drove from the city of Oaxaca to the village of Guelatao to visit with Jaime Luna Martinez, I appreciated field after field of golden maize growing tall and proud up the sides of steep hills.

Milpa field of maize, road from Oaxaca to Guelatao, photo by Kelly

On various street corners of Oaxaca city I encountered graffiti art of all kinds – many with an image of a corncob or field of maize, my absolute favorite being the image of the indigenous woman pointing a gun at GMO culprits, sneakily trying to plant trans-genically modified maize (see Udi’s post on Art of Rebellion).

In  Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca (the botanical gardens in Oaxaca) I visited an art exhibit celebrating the cultural significance of maize and damning the intrusion of Monsanto in paintings, sculptures, paper cut-outs and stencils.

An organic café and cultural center we discovered in San Cristobal (Chiapas) was holding a month-long Viva la Milpa! exhibit and series of events to spread awareness of the necessity of blocking the plantation of trans-genetically (GMO) bred maize.

Maiz Nuestro Corazon, exposition against GMO trans-genic maize, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Within this exhibit was a poster showing at least 20 different native types of maize, endemic to Chiapas, multiple black/white posters celebrating cultural nuances and histories of milpa and others again condemning Monsanto through informative and violent imagery.

Viva la Milpa! exhibit at organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, poster of 16 different types of Maize in Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Viva la Milpa! Tierra O Muerto poster, Organic Cafe and Cultural Center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

I was repeatedly surprised to have to request tortillas specifically during many meals out and about in Oaxaca and Chiapas.  The majority of times white bread would automatically arrive at our table in a basket.  Hector and Margarita informed us that tortillas had become too expensive because Mexico was importing so much of its corn (approximately 1/3) — and that 20 years ago 99% of Mexico’s corn was grown inside the country, thus maintaining autonomy of its cultivation and consumption of maize within its own borders.  Aside from the dramatic increase in imports, many rural Mexican families are producing maize for their own subsistence.  The availability of Mexican maize entering the Mexican market is decreasing every year.

Resiste poster, Viva la Milpa! exhibit, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The direct impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was beginning to become more clear.  I have read many accounts of the profoundly unjust impacts of NAFTA on Latin American countries (primarily rural and indigenous peoples) and this was just one example.

So where did this dramatic change towards a relationship of dependency and  return to subsistence come from?  The answer is very complicated – an entanglement of historical forms of colonialism, elite power, unforgiving regulations and legislation that are all orientated toward the generation of profit (before and above anything else) through the industrialized expansion of the free market and the erosion of self-sufficiency, where people have lived off the land, nourishing its cultivation, over thousands of years. Trying to write about this entanglement has led me through several drafts of this post – stops and starts… overly strong statements within which I have veered toward the safety of academic-style writing where I notice myself becoming distanced from what I am really trying to say.  Especially when I try to articulate (in a brief and simple way) the details and impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the majority of people living and working in Mexico.  Rather than provide a long, complex explanation of the devastating effects and supposing promises of NAFTA, I mention a few of the related issues and problems.

The decision to throw Mexico wide open to free trade was due to the government’s belief that the geographical and climatic conditions in Mexico favored increase exports in fruits and vegetables to the United States.  Although Mexico is the original producer of maize (there are 60 ‘landraces’ and thousands of native varieties in Mexico which have evolved over thousands of years), the US has a stronger market advantage because of the genetically modified versions of corn they cultivate, which produce greater yields and are greatly supported by government subsidies (and are also completely dependent on huge amounts of fertilizers and pesticides which is poisoning water and land particularly in the Mid-western part of the US and increasing rates of cancer).  Tariffs on corn entering Mexico were also eliminated through NAFTA which has devastated the Mexican market aside from the strength of rural farmers.  In the book, Sin Maiz, no Hay Pais (without maize there is no country) a book on Mexico’s maize crisis published in 2003, from which this post is named, there were statements provided from the government saying that they hoped to remove half of the population of Mexico’s rural areas within five years.

Poster comparing Native and GMO maize, Museo de Maya Medicinal, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Since coming into being in 1994, NAFTA regulations essentially force food to be cultivated for profit-making purposes to enable ‘free’ trading to occur between countries in the Americas.  Yet, as I learned many years ago through visits with social movements in Pakistan, participating in the World Social Forum (2009) and friends of mine in Oregon who are farmers — the ‘free trade’ aspect is prohibited in multiple ways.  For example, farmers from the United States receive vast subsidies from the US government every year which enables them to sell their foods more cheaply on the international market, thus creating a dependency for southern American countries to import foods as they cannot compete with prices (such as maize) that has historically grown very readily on their lands.  This has made it exceedingly difficult for small farmers from Mexico to sell and export their maize and to cultivate native landraces of maize that are endemic to Mexico as they are not as productive (large yields) – and are thus priced higher than American GMO-bred corn.  In addition, the intrusion of trans-genic seeds contaminates native varieites in Mexico.  Although there was a moratorium placed on GMO seeds  entering in Mexico until 2009, contamination was found in remote parts of Oaxaca as early as 2001.  With the moratorium now ended, trans-genic maize seeds are freely circulating, although full planation is still resisted (though barely – legislation allowing Monsanto to plant 2.5 million hectares in Mexico this month almost passed).

The financial constraints that have ensued as a result of NAFTA has forced many Mexican farmers to produce very small amounts of food for their own family subsistence (which more and more are doing).  Many others (hundreds of thousands) migrate to urban areas (where there are often no jobs to be found – or very low-waged jobs) or attempt to cross the dangerous border illegally only to serve as wage labourers on farms (often picking fruits and vegetables in often-times hazardous conditions) in North America.  Whilst the subsistence approach reclaims cultural and agricultural approaches to food cultivation (building food sovereignty), it also puts these farmers into a more vulnerable situation of economic insecurity which makes it that much harder to resist the intrusion of MNCs taking over and producing foods on their lands.  The commitment of Unitierra is exactly about supporting the strength of rural families to produce their own foods on their milpa, building strength of identity and community solidarity, working together to resist government and multi-national corporation pressure.

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Reflections on Literacies, Part 1 Oaxaca

Reflections on Literacies, Part 1 Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 23, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

Painting on the walls of Mcmenamins Kennedy School in Portland, Oregon (no name – but we refer to it as ‘Banking Style Education’), photo by Kelly

I am sitting at a kitchen table with my back to the sun and the view below of endless tiled roofs until green mountains rise abruptly behind them.  In spite of this captivating view, I am once again absorbed in my computer screen. Every day we feel a constant tug of war to ‘catch up’ and ‘enliven’ our ‘enlivened learning’ blog and write what can often seem as an endless stream of emails to connect with friends, family, colleagues, places to visit, people yet to meet.  We are reminded how much computers suck away energy – draining colour from our faces and brightness in our eyes – quite a far cry from an enlivened state of learning!  Yet, using these machines is essential as part of our learning and communication – to connect with and relate to so many different people from different parts of the world, building perhaps new communities, new relationships.

Today I am writing up my notes and Kelly’s notes that were jotted down previously sitting by another window overlooking a different view. These notes were registers of my memories of our time in Unitierra and in particular our exchanges with Gustavo around the topic of literacy, orality and the screen culture or society that seems to be emerging in all corners of the world.

On the first day visiting Unitierra, we attended the Wednesday weekly afternoon seminar.  When we walked into the front room, at least 10 people were busy peering into their computer, typing furiously.  Side conversations occurred intermittently without much eye contact.

It was a curious thing to see the wall of computers encircling the large table that is actually 10 tables pushed together.  The computer screens nearly blocked the faces and bodies behind them, looking as if it is a meeting of computers rather than of bodies.  I wondered how different this scene would have been 10 years ago.  Would there have been books and notebooks as the center of focus instead?  How does our reliance on computers play a part in community, and in comunalidad (see previous post)?  How does it strip away the atmosphere of comunalidad?  And, how does it offer another type of comunalidad?

Ivan Illich seminar at Unitierra – Oaxaca (teleconferencing with people from Spain, Colombia and Argentina), photo still from film footage, by Udi

The writer Bennedict Anderson used the term Imagined Communities (title of his 1983 book) to refer to how nationalism emerges as a historical phenomenon in which large groups of people come to envisage themselves as part of a community with shared attributes and a common identity. These communities, acquired a social consciousness as being part of a larger group in parallel to processes of self-organisation around the institutions of a state. For Anderson one of the key catalysts in this is the emergence of what he called ‘print-capitalism’, that is, the wide availability of printed books published in the vernacular, through a newly established print industry that included literary productions, pamphlets, newspapers and so on. Anderson’s influential work then brought together these technologies of communication with new forms of political organisations, imaginations and identities.

Photo taken by Udi of students’ morning practice art at the Freda Diesing school

Killer Whale, by Latham Mack

Peering at the screens before us in the front room of Unitierra that afternoon, and reflecting on our own experiences with computers we also wondered about the role and effects of communication and information technologies like computers and the Internet in transforming our societies, forms of organising, our identities and imaginations. But beyond these questions, which Bennedict addressed in his work in relation to the printed press, we wondered how these mediating technologies changed our interactions with the world and each other. How do these technologies alienate us from immediate experience and each other whilst at the sane time bring us together in new ways, allowing for novel forms of organising, creating, communicating? How do these technologies make our lives easier and more enjoyable — and how have they made us more anxious, obsessively needing to ‘stay in touch’ and consume an overwhelming amount of random information? How have these machines liberated or enslaved us?

We guessed the answers would be obvious and subtle. These technologies have made it possible that we can publish our experiences and ideas, across the world, unmediated by publishers or other gatekeepers of the printed press. But they have also tied us to hours of typing and tinkering in front of screens, as Kelly notes describe above, away from the world unmediated by screens. Much has been written on the transformations at different times and places of mediating technologies, whether the computer or book, on societies and cultural practice. More subtle are the impacts of these technologies on the ways we experience and relate to the world and each other.

This had also been the topic of a long running seminar in Unitierra, using some of Ivan Illich’s work on the theme of literacy – he wrote two books on this topic, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988, co-written with Barry Sanders), and In the Vineyard of the Text (1993). The seminar met weekly over a period of several months discussing these and other texts and bringing diverse experiences and ideas. A story Gustavo told from this seminar stuck with me. This involved a young man who, excited about these discussions on literacy and orality, returned to his village outside Oaxaca to interview his indigenous grandfather with a recording device over a period of several days. When he explained to his grandfather what he was doing with the machine, recording every statement, the elderly man laughed uncontrollably for a while. He then told his grandson the stories and experiences he was telling him changed depending on what he was feeling, what day it was, what he ate. So all he was recording was his mood.

The story chimed with us and speaks to the working practice of every researcher, how the seeming permanence of registering words, in recording devices or text, solidifies the transient and changing flux of lived experience. How does growing up in a ‘society of the book’ and increasingly ‘of the screen’ affect our experiences? What kinds of experiences, relationships and ways of communicating do those forms of literacy foreclose or render more difficult as they replace other ways of being? Is it even possible to remember what is forgotten through the introduction of these new mediating technologies and the practices of relating, reading and writing the world they introduce? Can these deeply ingrained sensibilities be unlearned?

Photo taken by Udi – Petroglyphs inside Writing-On-Stone

Whilst learning with the Blackfoot, from Blackfoot ways of knowing and from the sites that were important to them we had a taste of what it might be like to learn from and listen to place, to plants and animals, to the sky, the mountains, the weather – to gain new forms of literacy with the land – reading and relating to the land.  This required a legitimising of these aspects of the natural world as sources of knowledge, as things we can also ‘read’ and learn from on par with that which we might acquire from books. Cynthia Chambers, Narcisse Blood, Ryan Heavy Head, whom we spent some time with in Alberta, helped us become more sensitive to these ways of being in place. Cynthia has also worked with Inuit Aboriginal communities in the Arctic on mapping their ’embodied memoryscapes’ or literacies of the land, stories that developed through centuries about different land formations that guided their migration patterns annually without any printed text.

Photo taken by Udi during our conversation with Ryan and Adrienne at the pond near Lethbridge, Alberta (Canada)

What we consider ‘literacy’ or legitimize as being ‘literate’ is completely embedded within relationships of power. What this means is that any definitions and forms of measurement about what ‘literacy’ or ‘being literate’ is, is about including some forms of knowing that automatically excludes others.  These acts of inclusion and exclusion exercise power, that often many people, primarily those being excluded, have no control over.  In the international development and education worlds, UNESCO (United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization) provides the global definition of what ‘being literate’ means.  This definition has changed significantly over the past 50 years because of being inadequate and hotly debated.  Currently, wider definitions and understandings of literacy do exist because of these debates, although the focus on textual literacy (as reading and writing) tends to consistently predominate because of its fundamental importance in the global economy.

Munir Fasheh, the Palestinian activist and scholar, often gives the example of his own mother who was conventionally ‘illiterate’ but was a gifted seamstress who not just functioned, but excelled at her craft without literacy or numeracy skills as typically ascribed. Kelly met Munir in 2004, when she was living in Karachi and found him deeply inspiring – intellectually and spiritually.  His critiques of education and international development were centred first on ourselves – how we need to reflect critically and spiritually on our own practices before changing the world around us.  Munir gave a Tedx Talk in Ramallah in April (2012) which is well-worth watching (spoken in Arabic but with English subtitles).  Other noted scholars and authors, particularly Brian Street (Kelly’s former PhD supervisor whose work has really inspired her thinking), Tim Ingold (see his collection of essays in The Perception of the Environment amongst many others)  and David Abram (see Spell of the Sensuous) have also expressed in their work a similar sensibility to considering different interpretations and analyses of what literacy/ies are and in particular, how these relate to learning from our particular environment.  That, in different contexts, being ‘literate’ can and should mean far more than a simplified and abstract definition.

Winter Count, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, photo by Udi

A further re/un-learning around textual literacies that we both had been experiencing in this journey also came up in our conversation with Gustavo. This has to do with the importance of the conversation as a more embodied, interactive and present way of being together and communicating. In academia there is a fetishising of publications; the article, book, ‘publish or perish’, number of citations, journal ranking. Texts are the currency of exchange and the way of quantifying people’s productive capacity, reach and worth. Unfortunately, rare are the spaces created purposively for good conversations. The formulaic nature of most conferences and seminars do not make fertile ground for this beautiful interpersonal flowering of the good conversation to flourish. Academic departments are often too busy discussing the latest bureaucratic procedures or increasing hardships of academic day to day life for people to really talk about the passions and ideas that drive their work.

Here on this journey, in the open plains of southern Alberta, the forests of northern British Columbia, or in the bustling cities of Vancouver, Mexico City or Oaxaca we are rediscovering the enlivening joy of conversations and its importance for mutual learning. We have spent hundreds of hours over the last three months talking to people, those involved in the initiatives we are visiting, new and old friends we have stayed with or met along the way and others with whom we crossed paths. Conversations are the pulsing beat of our journey.

Kelly reminded me of the conversation we had with Cynthia when she told us how visiting is fundamental to her work and learning with Aboriginal communities and how this is not often appreciated within academic circles.  The importance of visiting, of engaging in conversations is primary to the ways in which we are learning with and from the organizations and people that we are encountering on this journey.  This ‘approach’ is in stark contrast to social research methods that we have both been educated about and have followed within our academic work (we will write more about this later). We have loved returning to the spoken word and storytelling as a medium through which to engage with others and share our experiences, questions and hopes. We have also loved the conversation as a present moment, immediate and embodied medium of exchange.

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Learning Autonomy, Oaxaca

Learning Autonomy, Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 21, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 1 comment

For this post and hopefully many others, we want to experiment with different forms and styles of writing – especially as inspired by friends such as Jonathan Wyatt and others who have been practicing more collective and collaborative forms of writing.  As this particular post begins to explore ways that we have been learning and thinking about autonomy, particularly as it is linked with a sense of connection (rather than individual independence), we thought to write this post as a form of dialogue.

Udi: One of the deepest learnings for me in Mexico has been around the concept and practice of autonomy. From the example of the Zapatistas and the 2006 teachers’ uprising in Oaxaca, to the day to day practices and experiments associated with Unitierra, from the critiques of industrialization, capitalism, colonialism and modernity found in the works of Gustavo Esteva, John Holloway and before them Ivan Illich and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, autonomia appears as a running theme through the most exciting social, cultural, intellectual and political initiatives happening in the country. Many of us ask ourselves how we reproduce and perpetuate the systems and institutions that govern our lives or to which we feel dependent on. Through many of the practices and ideas we experienced and learned from in Mexico we had a sense of how such questions are being or can be answered in action. What is this idea and practice of autonomy for you Kelly and what did you learn about this in Mexico?

Kelly: From what I am beginning to understand more holistically, being autonomous is not just to feel free to do whatever we each want without any sense of responsibility to the impacts and effects on the rest of the world.  Rather, it is to begin by rooting ourselves to where we are – the place – and critically reflecting on all aspects of our lives and the relationships that we impact and depend on, the ways in which we affect others (human and otherwise) around us, as well as the relationships through which we might feel constrained by in some form or another.  It is to critically explore what we are dependent on and how these dependencies are realized in our everyday lives – from where (and how) our various dependencies are met.  These range from basic necessities of food, water, shelter and sanitation to where and what knowledge I am relying on and from what sources.  How am I bound to different institutions and how are they constraining my own creativity and sense of community and culture?  It is to consider and explore different ways we might perceive and act on our dependencies – for instance, how might I grow some of my own food or buy food that is produced locally and in accordance to seasonal patterns?  How might I harvest and capture water that comes naturally from the sky?  How is my waste polluting various sources and how might I and the community I live in do something so that we can be dependent on ourselves and each other and therefore enable a more reciprocal relationship with the land within which we live?  These are some of the types of enquiries (and many others) that Unitierra have and continue to explore.  With an emphasis on creativity and absorbing yourself in the type of learning that you feel passionate for, these different questions are explored through many inventive, inspiring and unexpected ways.  The really important question that Unitierra keeps coming back to is how autonomy or freedom of our ‘self’ is inseparable from community, including humans and non-humans.  How are you making sense of this Udi?

Unitierra, fruit tree grafting workshop, still from footage by Udi

Udi: There is a more habitual understanding we are used to where autonomy is often associated with individual freedom from constraint or freedom to pursue some course of action. I think the practice of autonomy we have been seeing and hearing about here in Mexico in these initiatives goes beyond this sense of individual or ‘self’ freedom because there is a clear awareness that autonomy happens in a community together with others, human and non-human living beings.  Two overlapping key terms and practices that come together with autonomy here are ‘comunalidad‘ and the commons. Comunalidad is the expression of an indigenous ‘cosmovision’, a way of seeing and being in the world, which Jaime Luna Martinez, a Zapotec activist and anthropologist, explained to us in an interview we did with him. Comunalidad involves developing a relationship with the territory or land you grow in, a relationship to the work you need to do in that place to sustain life, including your own, a relation to others so as to organize that work, and finally a celebration of that work and of life through the fiesta, through celebrations of community and life!

Jaime Luna Martinez, by pond in Guelatao during our interview, still from footage by Udi

In this sense autonomy revolves around the self-reliance and generation of all aspects that sustain the life of a community. So it is clearly not just about individual freedom but instead the creation of a commons that supports life. The commons here is an incompatible notion and practice to capitalism as it is something that cannot be bought or sold or owned by individuals, instead it is that which is cared for by a collective of people and the ties that bind people to the commons are not those of the market but rather often come from shared values or identities. Kelly, do you want to say something about these values or qualities related to autonomy and the commons which we learnt about in Oaxaca?

Kelly:  The notion of ‘we’ and ‘commons’ came up a lot with Gustavo, as well as this wonderful concept and practice of comunalidad.  The meanings of each of these are strongly related to each other as they each remove the central focus being on the individual, the self, or ‘me’.  I remember being told that in many indigenous languages in Oaxaca (and beyond) there is no word for ‘I’ or ‘me’.  Every time a person talks about a need or desire in these indigenous languages, it is articulated through a perspective of ‘we’.  This to me is profound.  I noticed after learning this how often I only refer to myself… ‘I this….’ and ‘I that….’.  When referring to myself, if I was to automatically refer simultaneously to ‘we’ and/or to a much broader commons, I would have to be immediately more thoughtful to the much wider world of which I am a part.  This perspective brings with it a completely different sense of responsibility and existence in the world.  It does not erase the sense of self – in speaking for, or representing others, rather it is a constant reminder that there is no ‘I’ without ‘we’.  Any part of ‘me’ is a part of a much greater ‘we’ – nurturing commons is about thinking and doing through this ‘we’ perspective.  The notion of ‘commons’ in environmentalist sort of discourse is typically related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which is about the over-use and exploitation of resources (until they are depleted) specifically because of this inability to think and do through a ‘we’ and ‘commons’ perspective.  As you mention, living in accordance to a ‘we’ or ‘commons’ perspective is pretty much in complete opposition to beliefs and values inherent within our deeply capitalistic society.

Cezar Añorve leads a ‘cacaravan’ workshop on dry toilets at Unitierra, still from footage by Udi

At Uniterra, autonomy as part of ‘commons’ is all-encompassing.  There is an ethic of ‘we’ and a hospitable way of being that permeates the way that everyone interacts with each other.  To begin with, anyone can enter the building that houses Unitierra in Oaxaca city, anyone can attend a workshop or seminar, engage in conversation, developing ideas with others.  There is no superiority of one person over anyone else – regardless of age, gender, ethnic background, educational background.  At Unitierra, we are all just human beings exploring what it is to be in the world in ways that critically engage with currently struggles of all kinds.  This way of interacting, or learning together is really rare from my experience.  Although this ethic was influenced quite significantly from Gustavo, it comes before this, from Gustavo’s relationship with Ivan Illich, and the many thinkers and activists that came together  (with Ivan) to explore these different perspectives and ways of being in the world starting in the 1970s in Mexico until Ivan’s death in 2002.

Ivan Illich is a major source of inspiration at Unitierra. This is not just because of Gustavo’s close friendship with Ivan that he developed over the many years that Ivan lived on and off in Mexico, but it is because of the way that Ivan engaged and built hospitably relationships and ultimately deep friendships.  Ivan Illich was a person of many identities – a philosopher, radical social critic, former Roman Catholic priest  – but to many who knew him, he was just a beautiful, hospitable and humble soul.  Ivan’s text, Deschooling Society, is probably his most famous publication – as well as his most mis-understood.  The book is not against education per se, but rather the institutionalization of learning as a form of cultural colonization.  There are many critical and creative insights and threads woven through the book, Deschooling Society, but two are particularly worth mentioning.  The strongest thread is for me to do with institutions – what they are, where they are, how they come to be, how they constrain us, solidifying us into positions that are impose upon us that are often abstracted from what we really want to be in our lives with ourselves, our families and the Earth.  All the while, Illich argues, we are made to believe that we need to learn from others, to rely on accepting knowledge as it is passed down from others and then to others, primarily from teachers in schools – and often in pursuit of obtaining a certificate or diploma to verify that our knowledge, or what knowledge we have successfully consumed is sufficient. Illich and others have called this process of following the achievement of diplomas as ‘the diploma disease’ upon which the system of education not only rests, but legitimizes itself through.  This is exactly what Unitierra counters through its openness, hospitality and attention to practice – its focus on self and community-driven learning that is theoretical as much as it is practical.

Photo taken by Kelly – bicycle water pump

Udi: In my limited understanding, Illich’s originality was to give a contribution to Marx’s critiques of capitalism which focused on labour and production, by addressing not only industry but also services. Illich saw service industries, especially around education and health, as also being part of an alienating and bureaucratic logic of industrializing modernity, something contemporary university workers seem to be increasingly aware of and vocal about. Illich’s work and living example explores ways of ‘escaping’ this logic and instead creating more autonomous spaces of learning or service that are based instead on principles of hospitality, generosity and friendship. In this way his views and practice, his cosmovision you could say, tapped into a deep aspect of human experience and qualities, those of friendship, hospitality and generosity, as orienting values, through which to create new spaces to be and learn together and potentially to organise communities. This is in the opposite direction to much economic and social science thinking around ‘human nature’ as comprised of selfish and profit-maximising individuals, very much in line with the ‘I’ – ‘we’ continuum you describe above. It is interesting to note, as Gustavo mentioned in our conversations, that Illich learnt a great deal from the indigenous communities in Mexico whilst he was here and that his work does show the influence of practices such as that of communalidad.

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The Universidad de la Tierra – arriving…

The Universidad de la Tierra –   arriving…

Posted by on Dec 14, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments


Photo by Udi – Unitierra outdoor sign

We’ve been in the Universidad de la Tierra, better known as Unitierra, for a couple of hours.  It’s our first visit.  We walked 10 minutes from the homestay we are staying in to arrive there.  We waited in the front room for 30 minutes or so before Gustavo arrived for our first face-to-face conversation with him.  During these 30 minutes, we explored the books and banners on display in the front room and spoke with one of the learners at Unitierra in the front side room.

Upon entering Unitierra, there is a table with tee-shirts saying ‘Todo para Todos’ (Everything for Everyone) and a variety of books for sale, mainly in Spanish that engage with topics relevant to the principles and practices of Unitierra. I notice one book that has been published in English and wonder about the connection between Unitierra (especially Gustavo) and the Zapatistas — Beyond Resistance:  Everything (An interview with Subcomandante Marcos).

Photo taken by Udi of Unitierra front room

There is also a beautiful hand-woven banner on the wall with the Unitierra logo.  I notice a portrait of the famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapato and a Zapatista poster which reads  ya se mira el horizonte orto Mexico nace abajo y ala izquierda (You can see the horizon: another Mexico comes down and left).

We wander into the adjoining room, exploring the books housed on a large book shelf against one wall and begin talking to Edi (short for Edgardo), a current learner-collaborator (the term ‘student’ is not really used in Unitierra) who came to spend time with Unitierra after he accidentally discovered it during his Sociology course at a Oaxacan University when he had to do go out and ‘do service work’.  His ‘service’ work became much more reciprocal as he shifted to learn with and from Unitierra rather than providing some sort of ‘service’ to them.  In this room, some book titles stand out that immediately catches my eye:  Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization; Oaxaca Rebellion; The ABCs of dry compostable toilets; Women Writing Resistance; The complete works of Ivan Illich.  I have just come across the term ‘Mexico Profundo’ a couple of days before in another (quite wonderful) book I found called The New World of Indigenous Resistance in an English bookstore in the center of Oaxaca, very near to the Santo Domingo.  I wonder how all of these different books (amongst the hundreds of others) relate to what Unitierra is as a community, who is connected to Unitierra, what Unitierra has done in the past and what is currently occurring in the present.

From both front rooms there is a clear view of the large meeting room that can fit at least 40 people comfortably.  The room is warm, with many plants, posters and the walls warmly coloured.  Trees are growing literally through the roof in the back of the room.  There is sunlight filtering through the bamboo ceiling as well.

Photo taken by Kelly – main meeting room at Unitierra

I am feeing really excited about being in Oaxaca, particularly here in the Unitierra building.  I had a similar feeling when visiting Shikshantar the first time, in Udaipur, India and meeting Manish Jain – and also when Udi and I visited Red Crow and met Narcisse Blood and Cynthia Chambers.  Before visiting Red Crow, Shikshantar and now Unitierra, I had imagined many times what these places were like.  I had read about them, watched films about them (the few that I could find online).  I had incorporated these places into talks, discussions and images used in my teaching in Bath – in several of the classes I taught.  I had also spoken about them at a major international conference all-the-while feeling a strong awkwardness about my inability to be embedded in these places and speaking about them in an abstracted sense.  Yet, I had spoken many times about these places anyway, with passion for their importance in the world.  The responses tended to be the same – a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism.  Students often were very intrigued and I heard several times comments about their imaginations being inspired.  Colleagues at the international conference I spoke at were enthusiastic to learn more, but a few also patronized these places as ‘adult literacy projects’ or a ‘guru cult’ (my personal favorite).  I’ve replied to these sorts of patronizing statements with — ‘Well okay… maybe we need to pull back and critically consider — ‘What is a university – and who says?’  ‘What should a university be for (and who should it be for) in our current world?’  ‘What other ways can we imagine and create a university – or any context of so-called higher education?’

Switching back to my presence in these first few minutes at Unitierra, I consider all of the various things I’d like to talk with Gustavo about and I wonder what this initial conversation will be like.  I’ve been inspired by Gustavo Esteva’s ideas, his writing and his influence on friends of mine for a long time, well over a decade.  From the moment I entered into the ‘critical education’ and ‘post-development’ world that strongly critiques ideas and practices of progress, modernity and formal education – thanks to Ana Maria Duque-Artistizabal, a fellow post-graduate student I was blessed to meet at King’s College London – I saw Gustavo Esteva’s name (the first publication of his I encountered was his chapter ‘Development’ in The Development Dictionary where he critically deconstructs the term ‘development’ and outlines historically the moment the ‘idea’ came into being through Truman’s post-WWII speech identifying the majority of the world as ‘underdevelopment’ and in need of help and progress, modernity).  And 12 years later, here I am, a different decade and phase of my life – learning, travelling, visiting – finally able to embed myself in this actual place.  What has inspired me the most about Gustavo, is hearing of his commitment to practice –and the way he lives his life that is in complete accordance to his beliefs and values.

Gustavo walks in – slightly flustered – a bit later than planned.  We are all apologetic – he for being late – and us for not wanting to be in the way, especially as he is needed in so many places at the same time.  He leads us into another room and we all sit down around a large table.  There is another wall of books and wall with black/white photos of what I am guessing are indigenous people from Oaxaca.

My inability to speak Spanish (hopefully not a permanent disability!) and Gustavo’s fluency in English made English the language of choice.  Udi and I spent some time introducing ourselves – who we are, what we’ve been doing, why we are here, what we want to do whilst in Mexico… Udi did the majority of speaking on behalf of our journey(?) project(?) pilgrimage(?) — I interjected and we both struggled to find an appropriately descriptive word. Gustavo listened intensively, patiently.  And then Gustavo began to speak.  But as suddenly as he began, he stood and walked us out of the room, through another room (again with walls of books) and then through a door outside.

Photo taken by Kelly – room that leads out to the roof garden

Just outside the door, Gustavo pointed us to the bamboo-walled compostable toilet on the right of the door leading outside – and then a custom-built bicycle that pumps water up to a large water container on top of the roof.

Photo taken by Udi – dry compostable eco-toilet on the way to the roof garden at Unitierra

Photo taken by Kelly – bicycle water pump

We headed up some stairs to an urban roof garden.  There are plants on either side of the path that leads to the far end of the roof.  Along this wall of plants are vegetables, herbs, trees growing fruits, a small greenhouse and a large cactus.  I notice that on the left side, there are the ends of trees emerging from the main meeting room on the floor below.  Many of the plants are kept in up-cycled plastic containers – water bottles of various sizes, soda bottles, wooden containers.

The far end of this wonderful urban roof garden is covered with another open-roofed area and there is a table with chairs to seat at least 15 people comfortably.  There are posters along one of the walls and the opposite wall has another table that houses containers of dirt, tools, smaller plants.

Unitierra began in the late 1990s – a creative response to a 1997 Congress during which there was the first public declaration of the destructive impact of education to indigenous communities – by indigenous people themselves.  Gustavo refers to this destruction as ‘culture-icide’ (I am reminded of Wade Davis’s reference to ‘ethno-cide’ for similar reasons).  After this public declaration and with the influence of the teachings of (and Gustavo’s friendship with) Ivan Illich, Gustavo thought to create an ‘experimental’ university-type learning context – Unitierra – as a direct response to these critiques of education.  Anyone over the age of 18 was invited to join Unitierra as long as they could read and write.  The doors are currently and have always been open to anyone curious to learn within the Unitierra community.

Gustavo explains that the ‘campus’ of Unitierra has become nomadic –like a spreading web.  Although this is the main building for Unitierra, it is no longer the centre of the University, of Unitierra. There is greater emphasis on creating and enacting work with communities (primarily indigenous communities) outside of the centre of Oaxaca city.  The campus of Unitierra was originally all in this location – learners came here to stay, to organize what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn before going to stay and learn as apprentices with different mentors as people and/or organizations in different parts of Mexico (although primarily Oaxaca).  The learning process within the walls of Unitierra involved time spent reading (texts of their choice), discussing but also reflecting on their experiences as apprentices until they felt satisfied with their learning.  Some learners would change their focus area after exploring more of what they felt they were most interested in.  The key issue, Gustavo explained is that they were doing what they love.  Gustavo’s eyes brightened and he explained that love is the most important thing — love as a term is purposefully left out of typical academic contexts.  This nurturing learning environment is devoid of any formal examinations or structural formalities on attendance or following through on any reading lists, etc.  As Unitierra sees it, to nurture learning is to be free, to be autonomous – but within a context that is hospitable and nurturing toward all those involved.  The conceptualizations and practices of autonomy alongside the practices and concepts of friendship and hospitality make up the pulsing heart of Unitierra within all of its creative and critical seminars, workshops and activities.

Photo still from our video recorded interview with Gustavo Esteva

Funding has been a constant issue however, and in the early days of Unitierra when learners came to Oaxaca city to learn, discuss and create, many were unable to sustain their day-to-day living.  There are no fees for learning at and being a part of the community at Unitierra. This pushed Unitierra to focus more externally, particularly with so much emphasis being on communities outside of Oaxaca city.

On this roof garden, Unitierra holds urban agricultural workshops (we are attending one on tree grafting) on a range of practices to do with food – cultivating, propagating, cooking…  Unitierra is also working with many communities outside of Oaxaca city on issues pertaining to food, water, sanitation and construction (architecture).  All of these workshops engage with learning how to make, cultivate, shape, design… in other words, how to do things (practice).  The theoretical conversations occur routinely once per week (usually Wednesdays) although there are often other seminars on other days as well.  And, importantly, there are always further discussions that critically reflect on how these theories can be put into practice.

Photo by Kelly – taken of a board showing different activities that Unitierra is currently involved in

Gustavo explained that the key priority for Unitierra is to resurrect knowledges that have been suppressed through colonialism (‘culture-icide’) processes and to create new forms of knowledge that are focused on creating autonomy (much more on autonomy in future posts…).  Unitierra is linking with people that have technical expertise – but this expertise is about being self and community-reliant, up-cycling used materials and natural resources, capturing and storing water, managing sanitation.  Food is an easy way to connect and there is ‘profundo’ knowledge with food that communities are sharing with Unitierra as well.  Thus, there is reciprocity in learning and exchanging – fiesta and eating.

Our initial conversation with Gustavo during this first visit was fragmented, interruptions from other meetings and shortened time.  However, Gustavo generously presented us with a variety of events, activities and seminars that are occurring over the next 10 days.  The first of which would be later that day – an open seminar to discuss the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the adjacent state to Oaxaca – What is Zapatismo today?

Photo by Kelly – of the seminar on Zapatismo advertized in Unitierra

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the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

the art of rebellion, part 1 – Oaxaca

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

gm corn wall stencil, downtown Oaxaca, photo by Udi

From our very first day walking around we noticed there was something distinctly rebellious and innovative in the political culture in the state and city of Oaxaca. There seemed to be an energy present – in the air… on the political posters and painted on the walls… Also, since quashing the rebellion in 2007, which Kelly wrote a bit about in the previous post, the Mexican state has a constant and menacing military police presence patrolling the city, its officers always in black uniform and bullet-proof jackets and sometimes also in black ski masks, circulating through the city streets in pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns.

Oaxaca Rebelde, t-shirts, photo by Udi

The city is home to a diverse plurality of experiments in living, organizing and creating that have been going on for at least for the last decade. Indigenous identity, forms of organizing, learning and relating to each other and nature are important in these Oaxacan experiments in living and resisting. Indigenous ways of knowing and key concepts and practices such as ‘comunalidad’ and ‘interculturalidad’ (which we write about elsewhere) have become important in this changing political culture, slowly finding their way into schools and universities across the region, pushed for by indigenous activists and intellectuals.

During our time in Oaxaca we encountered different kinds of social, political, artistic and ecological experimentations taking place across the city. We were very lucky to spend time with one experiment that is equally social, ecological, artistic and political in its creative and critical ways of being.  This ‘experiment’ is the Universidad de la Tierra, or Unitierra as it is more commonly called.  Unitierra has been, since its beginning in the 1990s, an important hub in this fermentation of new forms of living in and around the city.  We will be posting about our various experiences, encounters and learning(s) as related to Unitierra.

What I wanted to describe here is the most expressive sense we had of this culture of rebellion, both here in Oaxaca as well as in Chiapas where we also spent some time.

zapata mural, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of Oaxaca are covered in murals, graffiti, stencil and political posters. The city is also home to a number of artists’ collectives and creative spaces that produce this rich collection of images. Kelly and I both felt how these images speak about present concerns, key ideas and hopes of this surrounding political environment: the corporate take-over of land and resources and the imposition of genetically modified corn; continuing state oppression and abuse of people’s rights; indigeneity; communities attempting to live differently in balance with each other and with nature.

Twins graffiti, Oaxaca, Photo by Udi

Early one morning we walked around the downtown area and found what became our favorite stenciled piece painted on the wall in a small street, next to a collective art space, a few minutes from the bus station. The simple but elegant image shows a woman pointing a shotgun at a group of figures dressed in radiation or contamination suits who appear to be either planting a new species or stealing her planted corn. The woman is wearing a local indigenous headscarf and shirt whilst the other figures represent external ‘alien’ forces allied to corporations who are pressuring the state and local farmers to adopt genetically modified corn (see a separate post on this). This work (the first image at the top of the page) though simple in appearance shows an important topic touching on many campesino (peasant) and indigenous communities across the country and provides an imagery of resistance that inverts the normal power relations.

Graffiti Artist’s Poster for event, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

This art of political murals stretches back almost one hundred years in Mexico. Dating from the period after the Mexican revolution of 1910, which overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and was started and propelled by peasants, indigenous and generally people displaced the land. Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, who coined the term Mexico profundo to refer to the Meso-American culture that continues to deeply influence Mexican national culture, has been a hugely influential figure around debates concerning the past and recent conditions of the country’s indigenous populations.

siqueiros ‘the revolution gives back culture’ 1958, Modern Art Museum, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The notion of Mexico profundo (or ‘deep’ Mexico) is in sharp contrast to the distinction Batalla makes with the ‘imaginary’ Mexico, or the Mexico that has tried to imagine its way into a domineering existence and has largely failed because of the continuing strength of the millions of people who comprise deep (profundo) Mexico.

His name has also been recurring in the conversations we have had with a number of people in Mexico. Batalla, wrote the following about the prevalence of such murals in the post-revolution period:

Hundreds of square metres of murals adorn every type of public building in many cities of the republic. Murals are in seats of government and public offices, in markets and hospitals, in schools and libraries, in factories and workplaces. In these murals, the image of the Indian is practically indispensable. Rarely is there missing some allegory about the precolonial world that frequently lays the foundation for or presides over the scenes of the world today or tomorrow.

Mural-Diego-Rivera- photo by Mirairi Erdoza – from http://fr.fotopedia.com/items/anboto-2umoIxo9DBo

In the first half of the twentieth century the most internationally famous generation of Mexican artists (Frida Kahlo, Diego Riveira, Gabriel Orozco and Siqueiros) were also deeply immersed in the politics of the time and in the post-revolution period of constructing a national identity. The latter three were themselves involved in largescale mural projects which was supported by the Mexican state in its nationalist aspirations. As Batalla argues, this search for identity often went back to Mexico’s indigenous roots using aspects from it that were easily appreciated:

the bucolic life of the campesino, popular handicrafts and folklore. In music, dance, literature, and the plastic arts, the theme of the Indian provided the basic elements for shaping a vast nationalistic current under government patronage.

For Batalla museums also played a key role in this process of ‘exalting the Indian roots of Mexico’ something clearly seen in one of the Mexico City’s most famous attraction, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Chapultpec Park, a wealthier part of the city. We spent many hours in the museum but managed to see only a small fraction of it, exhausted by the overwhelming number, diversity and amazing quality of the objects displayed.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City, photo by Udi

The museum is divided into Mexico’s various geographic regions each with a number of ethnic groups. Each section has two floors the lower ground showing the treasures of the ‘past civilizations’ whereas the top floors demonstrate the present life of these ethnic groups. We happened to go on a Sunday, I think, a day when museums are free for Mexicans and the sheer numbers of people, especially parents and their children was simultaneously overwhelming and heartening. Many children also seemed to be doing some kind of homework, going from room to room with notebooks and writing things down. The rooms upstairs, on the ‘living’ second floor, in contrast, were deadly quiet and the exhibits of the living cultures were anything but enlivened. This contrast of the exalted past as a part in shaping Mexican national identity and the lack of attention to the present conditions of indigenous people is a key theme in Batalla’s work:

The Indian presence as depicted in murals, museums, sculptures, and archaeological sites, all open to the public, is treated essentially as a dead world. It is a unique world, extraordinary in many of its achievements, but still a dead world. Official discourse, translated in the language of the plastic arts or of museography, exalts that dead world as the seed of origin that gave rise to today’s Mexico. It is the glorious past of which we should feel proud, which assures us of a lofty historical destiny as a nation, even though the logic of that assertion is not entirely clear. The living Indian and all that is Indian are relegated to the second floor, when they are not ignored or denied. As in the National Museum of Anthropology, the contemporary Indian occupies a segregated space, disconnected from the glorious past as well as from the present, which does not belong to him: an expendable space. Through an adroit ideological alchemy, that past became our past, a simple reference to what existed as a kind of premonition of what Mexico is today and will be in the future. It has no real connection with our contemporary reality and our collective future.

The art objects and visual expressions we have seen in Mexico from the inexhaustible museum of anthropology, the temples, the work of twentieth century artists like Kahlo, Riveiro and Siqueiros, the murals and street art in Oaxaca and Chiapas, have made me reflect more on these connections between art, politics and the construction of identity. Our brief but deep immersion into the art of the Northwest Coast of Canada taught us much about the languages and grammar speaking through these forms, the deep relationship to place, stories carved into living beings sacred to these communities and the importance in their role to preserve cultural practices and identities (see posts on Freda Diesing School). How did this experience of art here in Mexico relate to that in Canada? What is the place that this art emerges from, what language and forms and stories does it draw from? How does it preserve cultural practices and imagine new futures and identities?

Votiv Painting from Freda Kalho’s collection, Freda Kahlo house, Mexico City, Photo by Udi

Kahlo, Riveira, Siqueiros and many other artists of this generation were involved in a broader post-Mexican revolution period of crafting a new national identity, as Batalla explained. As artists they were creating a new imaginary for the country by drawing on various local and avant-garde pictorial traditions, such as votiv paintings and surrealism in the case of Kahlo or mural painting and social realism for Riveira. These were artists who were also deeply engaged in the broader political and ideological struggles of their day, both Kahlo and Riveira as well as concerned with questions of national identity were also committed communists.

Photo taken by Udi of the space between the Templo Mayor and the Mexico City Cathedral

With these thoughts in mind the images we saw on the walls of Oaxaca and in the city’s art collectives started to make more sense. These images were also connected to place, stories and cultural practice: protest culture, an iconography of rebellion and struggle against the state, the support of indigenous culture. These were attempts at crafting a new imaginary of solidarity and struggle against various forms of oppression using the language of stencils, graffiti, political posters and so on. The wonderful book Teaching Rebellion, which is a compilation of personal testimonies of those present in the teachers’ rebellion in Oaxaca also has something to say about this visual expression of this political culture. In the editors’ introduction they describe how graffiti artists played a crucial role in challenging the government dominated media by appropriating other spaces of communication across the walls of the city:

These artists used their creativity and imagination to visually represent the marginalized, exploited and oppressed, as well as to promote anti-capitalist counter culture in Oaxaca.

The movement showed its capacity not only to organize political acts, but to create artistic and culture events to recover a history of Oaxaca unmediated by the sheen of tourism.

multinacionales stencil, oaxaca, photo by Udi

The walls of the street and the artists’ collectives then provided other images and imaginaries.

‘the greatest triumph’ graffiti, oaxaca – photo by Udi

In some of this art the Indian which in Batalla’s argument had only served to represent a fossil of past glory and as such an innocuous ingredient contributing to national identity surfaces as a living subject, as someone talking back or resisting the current situation. Such is strength of resistance in the indigenous woman from Mexico profundo pointing a gun at the genetically modified corn pushers furthering their imposition of an alien cosomivision.

Indigenous woman with gun stencil, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

These street artists then exemplified something we came to learn more deeply during our time in Oaxaca, the importance of autonomy in the face of various state or corporate institutions that we have grown dependent and as such subservient to regarding our education, health, food, communication and even sanitation (more on this soon). In their case the walls of the city were a means of taking back the spaces for communication and visual expression.

Printers Collective, Oaxaca, photo by Udi

solidaridad zapatista poster in graffiti artist’s studio, oaxaca – photo by Udi

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