The first time I was in a “real” autonomy was in 1983, in an autonomous demarcation in the province of Yunnan, in the People’s Republic of China. That experience made me aware of the possibility that non-dominant peoples – ethnic minorities as they used to say – could make their own decisions, develop their collective lives in accordance with their cultures and languages and be legally recognized with specific rights. That experience led me to study autonomies in depth, which is why I chose, years later, to specialize in nationalism at the London School of Economics, University of London. China’s experience with autonomies and minority nationalities led me to write a research notebook, Ethnic Autonomy in China (1998), among other publications on autonomy issues until today. Likewise, academic contact led me to learn about other autonomy experiences in the world – autonomous communities of Catalonia and Galicia. And most significantly, to study with academic rigor the meaning and transcendence of autonomy and self-determination, with the understanding that free-determination is not independence and is not interchangeable with self-determination. This is the most obvious problem, since it is not a question of the emergence of more States, but rather of how these States should include, on equal terms and on a level playing field, the historically excluded and unrepresented populations of indigenous origin. I make this preamble that permeates my sociological vision because it helps me to strengthen the narrative that I want to present here of some very recent events on indigenous peoples related to the right to autonomy and free-determination, as well as the construction of interculturality in México.
Vícam pueblo – Yaqui territory (27-29, September 2021)
The Yaqui territory in the Sonoran Desert is the epicentre of two innovations of profound social, political and cultural significance where for the first time the protagonists are the indigenous peoples. The first exhaustive and courageous innovation is the Proposal for a Constitutional Reform Initiative on the Rights of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples, which was delivered to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on September 28th in Vícam, Sonora. The second innovation for its solid intercultural backbone is the announcement of the Yaqui Justice Plan, in the same place. These innovations, in the sense that they are unprecedented and involve great creativity in their scope, are components of the project to build a pluricultural, intercultural nation with legal pluralism that the current administration has carried out with determination. It is demonstrated that the political will emanating from the centre of power is indispensable to generate inclusion and recognition, and it is confirmed that these peoples are on the threshold of deciding for themselves, and for putting their own ideas of future or destiny first.
The proposed amendment to the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States reforms and adds various provisions in favour of the rights of indigenous and, for the first time, Afro-Mexican peoples. If the first article is a guarantor of human rights, it is enriched with the provision that indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples are free and equal and will be protected against all types of discrimination and racism. The second article is central to the reform; its design leaves no room for ambiguity of interpretation, moreover, it shows that the nation has reached a stage in which it calls for all peoples to reach their fullness. Thus, the Mexican nation is a unity in its diversity, and to this end, indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples have the right to free-determination to be exercised within a constitutional framework of autonomy. The national unity encouraged by this reform is built on respect for diversity and its freedom. Because the reform truly seeks to achieve the aspirations of equality and diversity, and because this requires that the peoples carry out their own proposals for organization, government, control of lands and territories, as well as natural resources, it is recognized that the indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities be recognized as subjects of public law with legal personality and their own patrimony. Another aspect that is highly innovative are the provisions to guarantee the participation of indigenous and Afro-Mexican women in development, education, ownership and possession of land and natural resources under equal conditions. In truth, there is no issue of interest and benefit to the peoples and communities that has been left out of this reform.
What must have happened for the federal government to put so much effort into this reform work? On the one hand, the recognition that there is a historical debt to settle with the indigenous peoples that refers to their due inclusion in a nation nurtured by the diversity of its peoples and communities; on the other hand, that there can be no progress, welfare, happiness, if a generous portion of indigenous and Afro-Mexican populations is kept in situations of colonial domination. It is an act of congruence and righteousness to commit ourselves to join profound efforts to begin with that which is the most important: to provide a legal framework that guarantees the well-being of the peoples in accordance with the forms and under the circumstances that the peoples decide. It is the political maturity that autonomy and free-determination are instruments to promote internal transformations without those fears that the practice of these freedoms undermines the States and scourges their unity.
The procedure, discipline and rigor with which the compilation and analysis of the reform initiative was carried out, which began in June 2019, has attracted my attention. More than two years were invested, hundreds of forums and assemblies were held throughout the republic in which traditional authorities and other representatives participated, forums were held with migrant communities in the United States; more than thirteen thousand people took part in consultations and discussions; a group of 29 women and men trained in different disciplines and with different high-level professional experiences intervened. It was an exemplary, multidisciplinary exercise that managed to make the scenario flow from below, that is to say, the voices of women and men, and from above, the impact or transcendence was evaluated according to an impeccable legal technique. Every word, every line, every paragraph, every article was carefully reviewed, and care was taken to ensure that any provision was accepted or rejected by consensus. Great care was taken to reflect the demands and aspirations of the peoples and communities regarding their normative and historical forms of government and justice, as well as to encourage freedom of association between municipalities. Nothing was left out or considered of secondary importance. I have been part of that Committee of Experts and have admired the coordination and discipline, the devotion of the leadership, the full knowledge of constitutionalism and the most advanced currents of legal pluralism; this clarity of goals characterized the coordinating and intellectual work of the head of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, the Mixe lawyer, Adelfo Regino, and his very professional work teams.
Being part of that Committee, I felt that admiration again when I witnessed in the Tórim community, in the Casa de la Niñez Indígena de Pótam, in Vícam pueblo, the close collaboration between the Mixe and Yaqui peoples who were able to materialize the Yaqui Justice Plan. In broad terms, it is a plan to return to the Yaqui people their fragmented territory, the rehabilitation of their river, and the integral well-being of the people. I have no doubt that this is a case of intercultural collaborative work that begins with a participatory methodology in which experience, knowledge and indigenous knowledge flow, are exchanged, are learned, and are applied among indigenous people for indigenous people. It is, therefore, another example of profound innovation. This land, water and welfare reconstitution plan could have been one more product of an old-fashioned indigenist public policy, elaborated by non-indigenous technicians and professionals from their desks and cubicles in the city. The linear indigenism of past administrations which, due to its rigid verticality, was concentrated in the only institution designed to attend to indigenous peoples, that is to say, a policy in favour of indigenous peoples that was transversal and involved the heads of sectors, the heads of the different secretariats, the institutional decision-makers, could not be conceived. So, in order to restore the lands, the head of the Secretariat of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development was summoned, so that the river with its complexities -derived from the constructed aqueducts that distribute water in an advantageous way to the cities of Sonora- could flow and flow again, the National Water Commission intervened, to plan and build the hospital, the university, the multi-purpose hall, the heads of health, education and culture had to be directly involved, as Hugo Aguilar, one of the Mixe intellectuals of this project, said, the entire “federal civil service” came and went through here. To build the desert roads that link some of the Yaqui communities, they learned from the peasants and artisans, coming from the Mixe highlands, to organize the work according to their historical community practices that have given very good results in the construction of infrastructure both in their native Oaxaca and in other entities of the federation. This is the only way to achieve a transversal policy committed to the development of indigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, for me it represents an example of the construction of a new kind of public policy that I am beginning to share with my university students and that I will be following up on in the near future. The Yaqui flag and the Mixe flag are waved by the same wind that also makes the brass instruments of the Tlahuitoltepec band sound, its young musicians led by maestro Aristeo, share side by side, the instruments that accompany the dance of the deer, the flute, the drum, the scrapers, the water bats, the bule rattles.
Another experience caused me admiration and emotion. Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to the study of nations and indigenous peoples know that we will always find numerous symbolisms and references to the past. It is the source of pride and belonging where identity is forged, the past, the ancestors, the continuity, the land, the water, the landscape; it also includes the present experience of knowing they are excluded and rejected, many struggles undertaken, few results obtained. The authorities of the 8 Yaqui peoples, gathered in the community of Tórim, to install the Presidential Commission for Justice for the Yaqui People, recalled the collective history of grievances, injustices and violence to dispossess them of their lands and waters. A traditional authority, the youngest of them, took the floor and reflected, asking himself: “How much would I give for my ancestors to know that there is a government that respects the lands, the waters, the culture, when there were only plans of extermination and deportation for us, how many doors were not knocked for our tireless struggle, since we were facing bitter and tragic processes? It is up to us by mandate to carry this struggle with love and responsibility…”. These are some samples of the current discourse imbued with conscience for the defence of their lands because it is a historical, ancestral and identity issue reflected in the attachment to symbolism and culture. In this event the Yaqui Justice Plan was approved with the traditional authorities and high-ranking officials at the table of honour.
I began this ethnographic and informative contribution by referring to my first experience of the autonomies that I came to know in China 38 years ago as novel forms of interrelation and articulation of the original peoples with the States. I began in this way because I want to emphasize that I had never imagined that, in Mexico, the possibility of the peoples building their autonomies and having the conditions to give themselves their own forms of government could be a reality without imagining utopias or bulging desires. I emphasize: I had not seen so much creativity and professionalism to address the indigenous and Afro-Mexican reality, making the routes to follow and the solutions to consider under the logic of an exchange of wisdom and reciprocity, without imitations, nor dogmas, nor recipes. What the indigenous peoples have been achieving benefits Mexico because it emanates from here. Two centuries have passed of an excluding and ambiguous State with respect to the administration and respect for its diversities, of governments that have preferred to benefit and encourage everything that moves away from its Mesoamerican originality. And a century of a nation that no longer resists being solely mestizo -mixed race -. This truly means a different direction, unknown to many, and therefore, the cause of fears and apprehensions, but also the opportunity for the emancipation of the original peoples and the revitalization of that which is intrinsically human: the renewal and strength of all cultures and all languages. And for this to be possible, indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples require access to power through the routes of autonomy. What pleases me most is that it is indigenous intelligence that has thought of and guided these profound innovations in the spheres of government and culture that will usher in kinder times of inclusion, respect and equality in the transforming dynamics of the 21st century nation-state.
Natividad Gutiérrez Chong is Research Professor at Institute of Social Research and Coordinator of the College of Intercultural Development, National University of Mexico – UNAM.