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the art of rebellion, part 2, Chiapas

the art of rebellion, part 2, Chiapas

Posted by on Dec 30, 2012 in all posts, Mexico | 0 comments

Zapatista school mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The relationship of art and political culture I wrote about in my previous post can be even more clearly seen in Chiapas. The city of San Cristobal de las Casas, capital of the state of Chiapas, does not have the same overt display of the art of rebellion on its walls as Oaxaca. But this outward lack of visible signs and the seeming normality of this picturesque town with indigenous craft sellers and wandering tourists covers an intense uprising and violent conflict which emerged here in 1994. Here the figure of the Indian, the indigenous person, is even more present than in the art we found on the streets of Oaxaca.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

The Exercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) were often referred to in many of the conversations we had throughout our time in Mexico. The EZLN uprising in Chiapas in January 1st 1994, the same day as the signing of NAFTA (see Kelly´s posts on Maize for more information on NAFTA), also created an effervescence of visual imagery. Indeed the key figure in this struggle, Subcomandante Marcos, appears very aware of the power of imagery and symbolism for a political movement, using the balaclava, amongst other images and symbolic events, as a devices through which to communicate a new way of sharing power or doing politics. In this case the anonymity of the mask declares that the struggle of the indigenous Maya is also the struggle of peoples across the world. Artists and craftspeople from Chiapas and beyond have tapped into the imagery and stories of this revolutionary struggle and their work can be seen in shops and galleries across San Cristobal and on murals in the autonomous Zapatista towns in the state. Proceeds from the sales of these products, here in Mexico and abroad, often go to support Zapatista communities.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

Postcards, posters, t-shirts, wallets, bags, mugs, shot-glasses, Marcos dolls and key rings populate this visual world. This world overlaps with an older iconographic tradition of revolutionary imagery in Latin America with the ubiquitous pictures of Che Guevara and here in Mexico Emiliano Zapata, key figure in the revolution of 1910, and from whom the current day Zapatistas draw inspiration.

zapatista dolls in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

zapatista postcards in shop, San Cristobal, photo by Udi

The present day revolutionary imagery of the Zapatistas also has important innovations which say something about the novelty of their politics and their visions of hope for the future they are trying to build. We already mentioned the mask as a symbol of the dispersed nature of power and leadership amongst the Zapatistas, we also see recurring images that represent the struggle of women for equality in the figures of the ‘mujeres dignas e rebeldes’ and in the other icon of  the revolution Comandante Ramona. In these images we also see the centrality of indigeneity as a key category of the struggle, as well as expressions related to the importance of land and subsistence. The images also serve as pictures of hopeful futures, we see communities living in harmony with each other and with nature. We see the importance of education, of working the land. In some of these images we also see the more subtle spiritual dimension of Mayan culture, the cycles of nature, the stars and moon.

Zapatista clinic mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We visited Oventic, a Zapatista autonomous community, or caracol – snail – as they are called, an hour away by car from San Cristobal. The governing principles of the caracol are meant to embody the Zapatista approach to power which is the practice of leading by obeying.  This approach to leadership means that no one person holds power.  Rather, every person (men and women in the community) learns how to exercise power, what it is to govern their village. The leadership positions frequently rotate (every couple of weeks).  Arriving at the gates of the village we were greeted by masked women who were standing guard at the gate to the main street of the community by the side of the main road the coletivo driver had dropped us off at. Two other masked men approached us and asked questions whilst filling in the mandatory form; who we were, where we were from, why we were there. They went inside one of the houses with our answers before returning a short while later, asking us to follow them.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

We were assigned a guide to show us around, a local Mayan Tzoztil, one of many Mayan groups and the most widespread in the region. Our guide was quiet (Spanish was not his first language), reserved and naturally wary considering the continuing state (military) oppression and paramilitary violence his community faces, but he beneath his mask he was friendly and provided brief answers, often just a ‘yes’ to my questions. What we, and most visitors who come here see, and what our guide appeared to have been most keen to show, are the murals which cover every building along the main street of Oventic. These have been painted by various artists over the years, many by outsiders, who have come in support of the Zapatista struggle.

Zapatista mural, Oventic, photo by Udi

The murals are beautiful. Their imagery and colors are intense and heartfelt as is the hopefulness and strength they convey, more so for their being found in this place, a community struggling against the odds and the state to be autonomous, to have their own school and clinic, their own cooperatives for their food production, their crafts and transportation. That the Zapatistas are actually practicing, with the various challenges this brings, this new way of living together in another world that they have created – makes the art we saw here, which promote these values, all the more alive. From all the murals we saw I think my favourite ones were the first one I added to this post, on the walls of a Zapatista primary school, I love the notion of an Escuela Primaria Rebelde, where from an early age children are prepared to be creative and autonomous. The image just above, outside the Oficina del Consejo Autonomo, the village assembly, is also very strong, merging the symbol of the mask with that of corn (see Kelly´s posts on Maize). But I also really enjoyed the image below, a playful use of Matisse´s work to show a group of dancing Zapatistas. This playfulness is often missed when people speak about the Zapatistas – see for instance the last few pages of the 6th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Though engaged in a serious struggle that emerges in a context of 500 hundreds of years of continued oppression against Mayan communities of the region, their statements, comuniques, poetry and art, and the symbolism embodied in their repertoire of contention (see for instance their recent silent march across a number of towns in Chipas) we see a constant subversion of usual ways of understanding and doing politics.

Dancing Zapatistas mural, Oventic, photo by Kelly

So what does all this have to do with our journey into enlivened ways of learning? For me this has been about reconnecting to art as another source we can learn with or from. In Alberta we began to discover how we could learn from place, from the land and from sites which were sacred for the Blackfoot. In British Columbia we began to understand how the art of the Northwest Coast carried within it stories, cultural practice and identities that have been important in processes of cultural rejuvenation. Here in Mexico we also began to see how art reflects and carries forth the political culture in which it is made, the way that relations of power (who is oppressed, by whom and how) is expressed and how images of possible futures are constructed. This has allowed us to enliven our experience of the art we see, hear and touch and suggested ways by which these other ways of expressing (see our post on literacies too) could become incorporated into how we communicate with others.

Zapatista mural, mujeres por la dignidad, Oventic, photo by Kelly

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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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