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Dismantling Power: The Zapatista Indigenous Presidential Candidate’s Vision to Transform Mexico from Below

Photo by Pedro | CC BY 2.0

The Zapatistas and National Indigenous Congress (CNI) held an assembly in May in which they chose María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, a Nahua indigenous healer, as their spokesperson and presidential candidate for the 2018 elections in Mexico.

Patricio’s candidacy and radical vision for Mexico challenges conventional politics and marks a new phase for the Zapatista and indigenous struggle in the country.

The 57-year-old traditional Nahua indigenous doctor and mother of three from western Mexico is the first indigenous woman to run for the presidency in Mexico.

Patricio joined the struggles related to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1996, when she was involved in the formation of the CNI, a network of indigenous communities in the country. She began helping out sick members of her community with herbal remedies when she was 20-years-old. Her skills as a healer were passed down to her from elders in the community, and are based on a close relationship with the local ecosystem.

“Back then, there was a shortage of doctors and medicine and the health department had no answers,” Patricio told the Guardian. “But we have so many plants and so much knowledge from our elders. My grandmother would give us special teas to cure stress, coughs or diarrhea, and they worked. So I thought: why not give herbal remedies to those who can’t afford medicine?” Her work as an herbalist has influenced her political views: “The political class only see the earth and our natural resources as means of making money, not things that benefit the community and need protecting.”

As a presidential candidate chosen by the CNI and Zapatistas, she is not interested in winning votes, but in grassroots organizing and resisting the destruction that so many communities in Mexico are facing.

“Our participation is for life,” she explained at a press conference in Chiapas. “It’s to bring together our communities that have been hit hard for years and years and that, I think, right now need to look for a way to keep on existing.” Her goal is for Mexicans to “to join forces to be able to destroy this system that is generally finishing us all off.”

A Different Way of Doing Politics

Patricio’s candidacy is based on a model of politics that is far removed from the dominant political parties in the country. Indeed, her position is part of a horizontal, communally-organized structure that relies on democratic decision-making and governance from the bottom-up.

Though seeking office, Patricio is less of a candidate and more of a spokesperson for the CNI and Zapatistas. She reflects and represents the democratic indigenous governing council, its consultations with communities, and local indigenous customs. One goal of her candidacy is to expand this network and governing model while rejecting the Mexican political system.

This grassroots political structure was described in a communique released by the Zapatistas and CNI released in October of 2016, titled “May The Earth Tremble at its Core.” The statement announced the groups’ decision to participate in the elections with an indigenous woman candidate, and described the communal organization which forms the basis of their political vision, one carried out “collectively” and “from below and to the left.”

We build rebellion from our small local assemblies that combine to form large communal assemblies, ejidal assemblies, Juntas de Buen Gobierno [Good Government Councils], and coalesce as agreements as peoples that unite us under one identity. In the process of sharing, learning, and constructing ourselves as the National Indigenous Congress, we see and feel our collective pain, discontent, and ancestral roots. In order to defend what we are, our path and learning process have been consolidated by strengthening our collective decision-making spaces, employing national and international juridical law as well as peaceful and civil resistance, and casting aside the political parties that have only brought death, corruption, and the buying off of dignity. We have made alliances with various sectors of civil society, creating our own resources in communication, community police and self-defense forces, assemblies and popular councils, and cooperatives; in the exercise and defense of traditional medicine; in the exercise and defense of traditional and ecological agriculture; in our own rituals and ceremonies to pay respect to mother earth and continue walking with and upon her, in the cultivation and defense of native seeds, and in political-cultural activities, forums, and information campaigns.

This is the power from below that has kept us alive. This is why commemorating resistance and rebellion also means ratifying our decision to continue to live, constructing hope for a future that is only possible upon the ruins of capitalism.

Considering this struggle, the CNI and Zapatistas decided to organize a process of consultation with their communities and choose an independent candidate for the presidency. “We confirm that our struggle is not for power, which we do not seek. Rather, we call on all of the originary peoples and civil society to organize to put a stop to this destruction and strengthen our resistances and rebellions, that is, the defense of the life of every person, family, collective, community, or barrio. We make a call to construct peace and justice by reweaving ourselves from below, from where we are what we are.” They concluded, “This is the time of dignified rebellion, the time to construct a new nation by and for everyone, to strengthen power below and to the anti-capitalist left…”

“We do not seek to administer power; we want to dismantle it”

After the May meeting of this year which chose Patricio as the spokesperson and candidate, the Zapatistas and CNI released a communique outlining their vision and strategy.

“We do not seek to administer power; we want to dismantle it from within the cracks from which we know we are able,” they stated in the communique, entitled “The Time Has Come.” They explained that their goal was to “deepen the cracks” that workers and activists have made in the political system and Mexican society, and to dismantle “power from above from the smallest level to the largest. We want to make so many cracks that they become our honest and anti-capitalist government.”

“The political class has dedicated itself to turning the State into a corporation that sells off the land of the originary peoples, campesinos, and city dwellers, that sells people as if they were just another commodity to kill and bury like raw material for the drug cartels, that sells people to capitalist businesses that exploit them until they are sick or dead,” the statement explained. “In the midst of this revulsion they continue to tell us to vote for them, to believe in the power from above, to let them continue to design and impose our destiny.”

They denounced the myth of democracy in Mexico and pledged to transform the country from below:

No demand of our peoples, no determination and exercise of autonomy, no hope made into reality has ever corresponded to the electoral ways and times that the powerful call ‘democracy.’ Given that, we intend not only to wrest back from them our destiny which they have stolen and spoiled, but also to dismantle the rotten power that is killing our peoples and our mother earth. For that task, the only cracks we have found that have liberated consciences and territories, giving comfort and hope, are resistance and rebellion.

Echoing this vision, Patricio spoke at a meeting this year in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas of the centrality of women in Mexico’s grassroots movements, “the woman who struggles, who organizes, who is invisible and whose voice is not heard, but who has been present during the long history of struggles that we have had, in Mexico as well as in other countries.”

She discussed the various women’s struggles across Mexico, in Acteal, Yucatan, Veracruz, Michoacan, and Oaxaca, where women are on the front lines against mining, for the liberation of political prisoners, and in search of disappeared family members.

“In spite of everything,” she continued, “women have been participating in the process of reconstruction of our communities in a struggle alongside men, alongside children. Sometimes they have been invisible and have been silenced by those in power.”

Patricio placed her role as spokesperson and candidate within this wider women’s struggle, explaining that her goal is not to win the presidency, but to win “unity below, the unity between communities and other sectors that are tired of this structure that we have, and want to build a new structure from below.”

This essay originally appeared in TowardFreedom.com.

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Benjamin Dangl teaches journalism as a Lecturer of Public Communication in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. He has worked as a journalist across Latin America and written three books on Bolivia, including The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press, 2019).

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