Poor Find Their Own Rich Voice

Luis Hernandez Navarro is a member of the Commission on the Chiapas Peace Accords and counselor of the National Coordinating Office of Organizations of Coffee Growers, a network of 70,000 small farmers

Superficially, the movement to organize grass-roots action groups in Mexico can be seen as a comic book. The main characters are superheroes disguised with cape and mask and called Superbarrio, Superecologist and Superanimal. There are also characters sprung from recent mythology, like Chupacabras, the bloodsucking creature that represents the bank system to debtors.

Their urban demonstrations, carefully staged as impromptu street theater, have overtaken the boring old-style leftist protest march. For example, El Barzon, an association of debtors to the banks, on a given day may haul a set of agricultural tools to an urban street corner and put them on fire.

Other activists have run a parade of horses through Mexico City to call attention to their plight. In another exhibit of street theater, a character wearing a mask that resembles the former president, Carlos Salinas, jumps into congested traffic and shoots a toy machine gun at astonished citizens seated in their cars waiting for the green light.

The eccentricity of these exhibitions is intended to generate media coverage, which could give these groups leverage at the negotiating table. But just as important is what they view as the value of symbols. The new activists want to reaffirm their own differentiated identities at a time when the old ideological glue that cemented the traditional grass-roots organizations has dried out.


But the clever use of imagination by the new grass-roots organizations making their presence felt in the country’s public life is nothing but the tip of the iceberg of a movement of enormous internal vitality. Well beyond the realm of the existing political parties, the social energy that has been pushing toward democratization in Mexico for the last three decades flows through the arteries and muscles of civil society. The struggle to articulate grass-roots demands and help the country transition into full-fledged democracy has created a citizenry, which never before existed in Mexico.

Historically, Mexico has nurtured loyal subjects and grateful clients, never citizens. The formal recognition of the rights of citizens and their equal treatment under the law is still in short supply. To get a job, the vast majority of the workers have to belong to a union, which must belong to the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). To own land or to establish credit, peasants must belong to their official union, also affiliated with the PRI.

Instead of rights, the Mexicans who live at the bottom of poverty, as many as 40 million people, receive favors. To ensure the right to live in public housing or to participate in a program to mitigate poverty, people must be “represented” by an official “facilitator,” and they will be expected to vote for his party when elections take place. Those who dare to challenge the rules and choose nontraditional ways to show their discontent will feel the terror of law enforcement ignorant of human rights.

The traditional relationship between the state and its people began to shift in recent years when the country plunged into crises that carried the catalysts for that change. The first came in the wake of the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. The capitalinos soon realized that the government had lost its capacity to lead in the rescue and reconstruction tasks that the disaster demanded. Instead of complaining, the people got organized and responded to the double challenge of a destroyed metropolis and paralyzed authority.

Three years later, people throughout Mexico seized on the presidential election to express the dissatisfaction they felt with the state of affairs in the country. Huge numbers went to the polls to vote for an opposition candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, shaking the established political system.

A few years later came the Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas, which inspired several peaceful rebellions in other indigenous communities demanding equal rights under the law and cultural autonomy.

Sometimes the protest movements in rural areas coincide with the protests staged at urban centers--consumers who can’t pay their debts or teachers who demand better wages--being mirrored by small coffee growers organizing to obtain credit and market their product as they see fit and also to exert an influence on public policy. In each instance, as citizens organize themselves in their barrios and farms and factories, the social fabric and democratic culture grow stronger, while most of the social organizations that are linked to the PRI are suffering the irreversible process of wearing out.

To some, the social mobilization that has taken place over three decades resembles an ant nest: many individuals making single efforts that appear pointless. Then comes an event like the July elections, which eroded the PRI’s power even further. Anyone who does not respect what ants can do is fated to be surprised again and again. The smart analysts will look closely at the grass roots.


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