Marcelino Diaz de Jesus is a Nahua from the southern province of Guerrero in Mexico. He is one of the eight or nine million Aboriginal people who represent 9 per cent of the Mexican population: 59 ethnic groups who speak 92 languages.
Diaz’s life has been tightly linked to the Native-rights movement for many years, in particular since 1992, five centuries after the so-called “Encounter of Two Worlds.” “That wasn’t an encounter, nor a conquest, and we would not celebrate on our people’s spilled blood,” he says.
Guerroro’s Council of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance was created to make their voice loud and clear. Its first action was to join the movement opposed to the building of a dam in San Juan Tetelcingo on the Balsas River, a project that would have resulted in the flooding of a valley where the Nahuas have lived for thousands of years. There were blockades and marches. A hundred intellectuals and environmental activists added their voices to the protest. The project was suspended.
Then the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) made its appearance in January 1994. The Mayan rebellion grew from within the Native communities of Chiapas. After a few days of combat, the Zapatistas silenced their guns and turned to the media and the Internet to spread their message inside and outside the country.
Since the EZLN’s uprising, Diaz has seen the growth of a broad, plural and representative Mexican Aboriginal movement. The National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was created in 1996 and is gaining strength. Diaz is a spokesperson for this organization, and also one of the few Natives to be a member of the Mexican Congress (“diputado federal”). He ran as an independent candidate for the PRD (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica), a strong opposition party that questions the government from a left-wing perspective.
The ruling party is the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), holding power uninterruptedly for 70 years.
One of the most important contributions of the Zapatista movement is to have put the debate on Native rights back into the national agenda. Since 1994, the Zapatistas have established a direct dialogue with indigenous organizations and Mexican society. The recognition of their demands by the people of Mexico and the world helped convince the government to meet with Zapatista leaders and search for a solution to the dramatic problems of Mexican indigenous populations. Talks started in March 1995 near San Cristobal de las Casas, involving the EZLN, government and mediating entities. The process resulted in the signing of the San Andres Agreements on Indigenous Culture and Rights in February 1996. However, the government did not move forward on the agreements, and soon the dialogue broke down.
In a context of growing militarization and violence, the agreements seemed far from coming true. The government argued that if they were enshrined in the Constitution, Native self-government – or as they say in Spanish, “autonomia” – would put into jeopardy the “integrality” of the country. Instead, the government focused on the need to “establish the rule of law” by sending even more troops to Chiapas and literally creating a state of siege.
Marcelino Diaz and many other Native leaders criticize the government for not keeping its word.
“The Mexican government contradicts itself,” he says. “It uses the agreements to speak about peace, but at the same time it steps up militarization. They follow the proverb: Repeat a lie 1,000 times and it will become the truth.” Diaz asks:
“Who has not fulfilled its promise in Mexico? The government, not the people. The government had given its word and had signed, but it does not respect its own commitment.”
He explains, “I’m sure that Aboriginal people in Canada know how important the issue of land, of territory, is for us. The government here does not want to recognize our right to a territory, our right to be recognized as citizens who can decide for themselves, our right to practice our own traditional systems of justice in our territories, our right to speak our own language, our right to control our own media.
“All these rights are also written into Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, signed by the Mexican government in 1991. As you can see, when I speak in my own language – Nahuatl – there is no translator here in Congress. I have to translate my own words after saying them. They tell me I’m not allowed to wear my hat, which is part of my traditional wear. Do I ask them to get rid of their ties?
“All Native lands are being militarized these days. I benefit of a special tatute as a member of Congress, but this does not prevent police and soldiers from rifling through my car when I come across a blockade: Is it because I’m a Native? On the other hand, authorities did nothing to prevent the growth of paramilitary groups, linked to the ruling party, who keep attacking entire communities that sympathize with the EZLN.”
Marcelino Diaz thinks that the massacre at Acteal, that left 45 dead in December 1997 – mostly women and children – is the result of the Federal Army’s counter-insurgency strategy. However, it is almost impossible to convince judicial authorities to search for evidence that army members have been training civilians to use weapons against other civilians.
The San Andres Agreements that Diaz defends are the fruit of a unique experience in Mexican political history, pioneering a new form of participation and direct debate between Aboriginal organizations and with other citizens. While talks were being held between the EZLN and the government, the Zapatistas invited Native leaders from all over the country to discuss in a parallel forum the main issues addressed in San Andres. This process gave the final agreements a yet-unseen sense of legitimacy. It also gave birth to the National Indigenous Congress, mentioned earlier.
Today, the agreements still need to be translated into specific changes to the Constitutions of Mexico and the State of Chiapas. The government has written its own law reform proposal. The Zapatistas and their advisors have rejected it, arguing that it does not reflect the spirit of San Andres. After a long silence, the EZLN called Mexican society to participate in a “National Consultation for the Recognition of the Indigenous People’s Rights and for the End of the Extermination War,” which was held on Sunday, March 21. This day was also declared “International Day of the Excluded.”
The “Consulta Nacional” was organized by 1,700 brigades involving 19,000 citizens in all of Mexico’s 32 states.
Months ago, the EZLN called on Mexican citizens to organize the citizen-run referendum in an effort to help put an end to the war and gain recognition for the Native peoples’ rights.
The Zapatistas hoped Mexicans would vote in support of the Agreements of San Andres and the law reform proposal drawn up by COCOPA, a mediation group formed by members of Congress of various parties. Ballot boxes were installed all over the country to ask Mexicans about their opinion about the future of Native rights, about the need for demilitarization and democracy. Five thousand Zapatistas traveled to municipalities to promote dialogue in the spirit of peace. Marcelino Diaz de Jesus was one of the many Mexicans working on this important event, hoping that it will result in “peace with justice and dignity in Chiapas.”
“As Native peoples,” he said in Congress in 1998, “we are not bending down in front of history, we are not begging for our rights, and we are not requesting special privileges. We are only demanding what is legitimate: the full recognition of our rights as Native peoples, rights that have been denied for so many centuries.”
Photographer Carlos Martinez Suarez’s 53-minute documentary video, “Cases of Violence Against Native Communities in Chiapas,” with English subtitles, is available through Productions B’alba, tel or fax: (514) 270-7983 ( firstname.lastname@example.org )