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Mexico's Forgotten Find Cause for New Hope

Reforms are afoot that could give the nation's indigenous peoples more rights than they've had in centuries. That, some say, could change the country itself.


Vicente Lara, who works at the Academy of the Hnahnu Culture in nearby Remedios, said he spoke only Otomi until he was 15. When he went to high school in a neighboring town, "there was terrible discrimination against those of us who wore huaraches [sandals], there was terrible racism. But the people there were also Otomi; it was just that they had left behind their language and culture. We were punished for speaking our language."

At the culture academy's modest office in a converted schoolroom, director Hermenogildo Lozano and a few other staff members try to promote the Hnahnu culture. But the academy staff mostly graduated from a short-lived university program in ethno-linguistics, offered in Michoacan state in the 1980s.

"No new talent is being developed. There are no funds to pass down what we've learned," Lozano said.

Although the use of indigenous language textbooks broadened in the 1990s, many, he said, contain errors and need revision. If teachers speak the language, Lozano said, they don't use it to address students--the native language is relegated to one class period a day.

Radio is one force for preserving native culture. The Voice of Hnahnu plays regional music, transmits community messages and reinforces the language. One recent day, the station was advising a mountain village that a local migrant had been arrested trying to cross into the United States but that he was fine.

The station is one of 16 funded by the indigenous institute that broadcast in the major indigenous languages as well as Spanish. Roberto Garrido, the institute's regional director, said Voice of Hnahnu counts 600,000 listeners.

Facing poverty, migration and cultural erosion, Mexico's indigenous people are turning back to their traditional strengths: collective support and community service systems.

The legislation stemming from the San Andres Accord, as the 1996 Chiapas agreement is known, would allow autonomy over issues including local rule, justice and culture.

The previous government argued that such autonomy could undermine national sovereignty and create conflicts between existing and new indigenous structures.

But on his fifth day in office last December, Fox submitted the package to Congress.

"It goes beyond [Chiapas] to the question of how do we rethink the relationship of indigenous peoples with the state and what is the new conception of the Mexican state. This change will for the first time include the Indian peoples in the conception of a new citizenship," said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a prominent sociologist.

Some members of Fox's own party have worried that autonomy could lead to the balkanization of Mexico. For example, the Nahua people live in 10 central Mexican states; the fear is that regional autonomy could lead to conflicts with state governments.

Stavenhagen, a professor at the Colegio de Mexico and now a visiting professor at Harvard, said such fears are misguided. "They want to be included, as their own peoples with their distinct identity. This means taking over the capacity to decide what is best for themselves."

Galvez, the presidential advisor, said in her policy speech that the self-rule of towns like San Pablo Guelatao will be central to Fox's approach.

"If you travel through this country, you are going to find the same demands in all the indigenous communities: recognition of their autonomy, recognition of their usage and customs, respect for their traditions and, most of all, the power to benefit from the soil where they live."

The San Andres Accord would enact a series of collective rights for Mexico's indigenous peoples.

They could "decide their own forms of social, economic, political and cultural coexistence"; resolve internal disputes; elect authorities according to traditional norms; control collectively the natural resources in their territories (except those, like petroleum, that belong to the nation); and control financial resources to be allotted to them by the states.

The Oaxaca model could be an example. The state has 15 ethnic groups, dominated by Zapotecs and Mixtecs, and has the highest proportion of indigenous people--nearly 70%--of any Mexican state.

Municipalities may choose whether to elect their officials through "usage and customs" or through political parties. No fewer than 412 of the 570 towns in Oaxaca have chosen the traditional route, using a town assembly. Electoral conflicts have declined sharply.

Although some activists criticize the reforms as insufficient, most acknowledge progress.

"The local autonomy system has allowed hundreds of communities to maintain traditional systems of landownership and traditional forms of organization," said Eduardo Torres, head of the CAMPO nongovernmental development group. "This has achieved stability and respect for 'governability' in Oaxaca, where communities are allowed to make their own decisions."

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