We make the road by walking: Part II – Autonomy

“A los compañeros del CNI y La Otra: Unir y no dividirnos. ¡Hoy es el tiempo de luchar! ¡No estan solos! De San Juan Copala, lo hacemos desde donde estemos.”

–Josefina, Triqui Elder, San Juan Copala, Oaxaca

Seattle, WA — I first had the privilege of listening to a Triqui elder as a witness to The First Forum in Defense of Water and Territory, in Vicam, Sonora, Mexico on November 20-21 2010.

Her words were filled with a deep hurt, she had been part of the group of Triqui women who had been forced off of their land in San Juan Copala, Oaxaca because of the rich mining deposits underneath the soil that they toiled for subsistence. A paramilitary group was responsible for their removal through extreme violence and force.

Even still, with that immediate pain in her voice, her words above were for unity and struggle, they were for life and against death.

Over the last month I have had the privilege to witness in my own territory, where I grew up, a similar act of self-lessness on behalf of a community of mostly Triqui and Mixteco migrant farmworkers.

This struggle for life in the face of death has profoundly moved me and the team from Community to Community Development that has followed their lead because we saw in them, the future in the present. We saw ourselves in them. And because they asked us to walk with them.

The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle was another moment where an indigenous group from the south asked the world to walk with them. To do so is to go beyond charity, even to go beyond solidarity: it is to truly see and value each other, and to see ones own liberation tied to that of another group of beings.

The Zapatistas explain that capitalism is death, that the Fourth World War is about the complete destruction of the fabric of the community.

In Vicam, Sonora, Tata Juan Chavez Alonso a Purhepecha elder from Michoacan and a founder of the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico, who has since passed away, said the following about this problem, “Los proyectos de mal gobierno se trata de privatizar todo. Son proyectos de muerte. Va contra todo./ The projects of the bad government are invested in privatizing everything. They are projects of death. It goes against everything in the natural world.”

Tata Juan in this strategy session encouraged us to, “retomar los proyectos de vida, es el trabajo que hacer./ To take up once again the projects that give life, that is the work ahead of us.”

He explained that these projects for life and against death were linked to our heritage as indigenous people: “Modas de vida, organización, cultura./lifestyles, organization, culture.” He continued, “A defender y apoyar esos proyectos de vida./We must defend and nurture those projects that give life.” These include Autonomia/Autonomy, which he defined as, “cuando un pueblo toma su derecho de cuidar su territorio./when a community exercises its ability to be stewards of the territory in which they live.”

He linked the concept of Autonomy with self-determination, saying that the road ahead are our own communities defending ourselves, no matter what unjust laws or bad governments rule.

In many ways, the struggle that is being forged by the indigenous migrant community of over 300 in Burlington, WA is exercising their autonomy in an attempt to deal directly with their employer.

U.S. journalists scoffed at their demand that they wanted to have overtime pay during the harvest, which during peak season can be as long as eleven hours. But the farmworkers made their demands based on what they needed for self-determination, to spend time with their families and recuperate after working so hard for their employer. They do not want to stop at compliance, that is not enough, they want justice and the ability to determine for themselves what justice is.

In Vicam, Sonora another Purhepecha elder, Tata Francisco, explained that we should not limit ourselves to a struggle over the wage in our struggle against death. He didn’t deny its importance, but emphasized a larger view that resonates with the current struggle of the Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers in Burlington, WA.

Tata Francisco said, “ahora los demandas no son por sueldos altos, sino autobasto. Es una ganancia./ Today our demands are not for higher wages, but for self-sustainability. This is a victory in and of itself.” He explained that the ongoing struggles in Michoacan have been fought on two arenas, the first was legal battles and the second was community struggles to exercise their own autonomy and self-defense.

He explained that bio-tech was having a major impact upon the communities ability to exercise their autonomy because the introduction of modified seed made many farmers dependent upon the corporations that produce them.

Tata Francisco urged the other indigenous farmers to exercise and invest in traditional agricultural practices, even in the face of Monsanto and biopiracy.

He said, “our communal knowledge is being privatized and we need to take it back! We need to recover our old ways and reject corporate agriculture,” that “en ves de pedir salarios altos, debemos pelear por control sobre la forma de producción!/ instead of asking only for higher wages, we should fight for control over the modes of production!”

A struggle over the modes of production (and reproduction) on a vertically integrated berry farm is exactly what is happening with Familias Unidas por la Justicia at Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. a 1,500 acre, $6.1 million earning firm just north of Seattle, WA. The firm has desparately tried to come into compliance, not because of the law, but because of three distinct farmworker strikes this summer. But even with those strikes, farmworkers were not able to secure beyond what the law already says is the bare minimum for the industry.

That is why they have organized themselves as families, as an organization Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice) to struggle for life and not death, and that is why the most important work that they have been busy doing over the last month has been to rebuild the fabric of their communities, the result is that unity in struggle that Tata Josefina said in the epigraph of this essay.

As the farmworkers take the next step in their struggle for dignity and the ability to live off of their labor, they recently asked, Will you walk with Familias Unidas por la Justicia? They have taken the first step, inviting you as a consumer to join a struggle against an unfair food system, knowing that their liberation is bound with everyone elses in a food system that is no longer sustainable in the United States or the rest of the World.


We are what is at stake.


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