Toward an Indigenous Dignity
by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez

After seven years of the Zapatistas being ensconced in the ancient Lancondon jungle, the historic caravan for indigenous rights finally arrived recently in the navel of Mexico: Mexico City-Tenochtitlan.

The 23 indigenous rebel commanders plus poet revolutionary subcomandante Marcos may find that it's easier to pass a bill in national Congress than it is to eradicate 509 years of hatred against those who are the "color of the earth."

The bill calls for collective native rights nationwide, primarily relating to issues of land. Self-determination, autonomy and sovereignty are the broader objective of the Zapatistas.

Peace negotiations, however, are not possible until the army closes its bases in Chiapas and all Zapatista prisoners are released, noted Rosalia Gonzalez, who accompanied the Zapatistas to the capital and as a delegate to the recent national indigenous congress in Michoacan.

The hatred against Mexico's red-brown peoples--which of course can't be legislated against--is not simply racially based, but also theologically inspired. This society was founded upon the demonization of native peoples and of all things indigenous.

The truth is, unless the church publicly confronts its legacy, those who harbor that "deep-seeded" prejudice will continue to feel justified in their despisement and dehumanization of Mexico's original inhabitants, In many cases, this amounts to subliminal self-hatred as most of the population descends from the original peoples of the continent, though many deny their indigenous heritage.

An indigenous rights bill should pass soon as the Zapatistas have vowed they will not leave the city until this is done. Tens of thousands of "restless Indians" in the capital are bound to make President Fox (and the ruling light-skinned European minority) a bit uneasy.

That minority still runs all of society's institutions, including an omnipresent mass media that shape and distort the national culture--with all things European still venerated. That distortion involves both the censorship of red-brown voices and their literal invisibility.

Mexican society views indigenous peoples as backward. In fact, the term "Indio" is considered an extreme insult. The nation is officially mestizo, though it's actually pseudo European, a sad caricature, where blondes predominate in all forms of media. It's a place where a red-brown person can still be turned away at restaurants and hotels in cities, and chased down and executed in the countryside for having the audacity to speak up.

What's amazing is not so much the public racism but the lack of public reaction to it.

Historic indigenous legislation would be akin to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill in the United States in the sense that when Jim Crow discrimination became illegal there, the hatreds did not go away. However, on a larger scale, indigenous autonomy in Mexico will reverberate through indigenous movements around the continent.

Halfway around the globe, the world looks on in horror as the Taliban have taken to destroying the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, yet that is precisely what happened in Mexico 500 years ago, though on a much broader and grander scale when the whole continent became an Inquisition. Until the Vatican steps forward and says "we were wrong" about the peoples of the Americas being demonic--law or no law--little will change. This is very different from simply siding with the human rights and the right of indigenous peoples to join the church.

Fortunately, the indigenous peoples are not waiting around for that day. After seven years of political organizing, something more historic occurred several days earlier in nearby Michoacan as a national indigenous congress met regarding not simply the indigenous rights bill, but the future of the nation.

An infrastructure now exists that ensures that the rights of indigenous peoples will be fought for in every state of the republic. As comandante David recently declared, "The government must choose between peace with justice and dignity or war with the indigenous peoples."

Because a huge percentage of the Mexican population now lives in the United States, many of them coming directly from indigenous communities, the challenge will be to organize a national indigenous congress here, said Gonzalez of New York. "The struggle of indigenous peoples is the same one being waged around the world."

The native congress also recognized another indigenous Xicana delegate, Jennie Luna, a Columbia University student from San Jose, Calif. She stated that it was important for the indigenous congress to have recognized Chicanos as indigenous peoples and for her to have "witnessed the beginning of a revolution, a revolution that has wide popular support." Gonzalez concluded that Zapatismo has already had a powerful effect: "Zapatismo is hope. It's transforming people."

copyright 2001 Universal Press Syndicate. Permission to reprint granted by the authors, who say "We can be reached at PO Box 100726, San Antonio, TX 78201-8726, or Our Column of the Americas is archived here. from News from Indian Country, Mid April 2001.