NNTV: Mexico's Southern Peace Caravan: Lesson #1
By Al Giordano
In memory of School of Authentic Journalism professor José Mirtenbaum (1948-2011)
South of Mexico City, at 2,700 meters above sea level, is a rural town named San Miguel Topilejo. While technically part of the Federal District known as Mexico City, in its borough of Tlalpan, the 26,000 residents of Topilejo live in a forgotten town, too often abandoned by the municipal government that doesn’t provide the most basic of services (sanitation, water, education, etcetera) at the level it does for the more urban zones of this megalopolis.
Last May, Topilejo, for one night, became the campground for hundreds of participants in a march for peace and against the drug war led by poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, who, weeks earlier, had lost his son to the violence that has claimed, now, more than 50,000 Mexican lives in five years. The locals – many of whom are descendants of the Nahuatl indigenous ethnicity (known as Aztecs in the English-speaking world), some of whom still speak the ancient tongue – prepared tamales, beans, coffee and sandwiches for the walkers on their way to Mexico City from Cuernavaca, Morelos.
Towns like Topilejo don’t see many visitors, and they exist all over Mexico. They do not appear in the Lonely Planet guides for backpacking tourists. They are invisible to the mass media. So the arrival of hundreds of people from other towns and cities marks a significant moment in the daily life of residents, who then get to know their guests, and vice versa, through conversation and breaking bread and tortillas.
In towns like this throughout the country, efforts come and go to improve the life of the community, often they are led by the Catholic church when a liberation theologian is assigned to the local parish, but they are typically met with either indifference or violent repression and a fatigue sets in among the population, a sense of resignation, an apathy borne of the conclusion that nothing can be made to happen. Many men in the community, including fathers of young children, finding no work to support their families, leave like so many other millions of Mexicans to seek employment in the United States or in Mexico’s urban centers. This trend has accelerated since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lowered the value of the food crops traditionally grown on rural Mexican lands to the extreme where former farms now lay dormant.
Single mothers raise many of the children, who, if lucky, live among extended families; grandmothers, aunts, cousins and older siblings. Many others are abandoned to fate and extreme poverty, where organized crime is happy to press them into service as either providers or consumers of illegal substances.
In other words, Topilejo is a mirror for how so many tens of millions of Mexicans live, unnoticed by governments and media unless and until a bloody massacre or spectacular violence plagues their territory.
The story told in the video, above – filmed and produced impressively on the road, edited in buses and cars on a laptop, by Narco News TV director Greg Berger, in less than two days – is a different one than ever gets told about places like Topilejo. It is a story narrated by the town’s residents about their own accomplishment in recent weeks. It is the story of one of the small victories that has the tendency to inspire, empower and lead to greater triumphs and advances.
It is a story of community organizing; that is, a story about what the people of a town – any town, every town – always could have done for itself if it had only believed in the power of its people to organize and win.
In the video, the townspeople credit the May visit by Sicilia and the marchers with inspiring them to act to force the Mexico City government to comply with a promise to construct a free university in Topilejo for local youths. The promise went unanswered for many years and the locals simply shrugged their shoulders out of the belief that the promises of authorities are almost always broken and nothing can be done about it anyway.
But between May 7 – when Sicilia’s march arrived in Topilejo – and September 9 – when the poet returned, this time, with a bus Caravan of Peace on its way to the Guatemalan border – the townspeople had already achieved that the university will now be constructed, and they invited Sicilia to cut the ribbon at the inaugural ceremony for classrooms that had already been constructed and equipped with desks and chairs and such.
Truth is, neither Sicilia nor the May marchers nor the September caravanistas did anything directly, to our knowledge, to make the university possible. Yet the townspeople in the video credit the movement with a victory that is, properly, their own.
Some might say that this is because the appearance of Mexico’s first walk for peace last May gave them hope. I would correct that, rather, it removed enough of their despair and immobilizing pain to create a space for the people to do for themselves what they – what every town and neighborhood – can do for itself when motivated to do so.
This story, to our knowledge – ten days after it happened – still has not been reported by any other media, not the official press, nor the “alternative media,” many of which had correspondents on the three press buses that attended this September 9 event in this previously forgotten town. See, it’s not a “sexy” story. It doesn’t suggest higher television ratings nor does it fit into the turgid discourse of the “activist press” with its own ideological axes to grind. Rural, indigenous, Mexico is invisible to everyone, it seems, if it does not don a ski-mask. Not even if that corner of rural Mexico is part of Mexico City, where so many of the aforementioned players live only a short trek from it.
What is interesting about this story to us, and the reason we report it to you, is that it suggests what can be made to happen in every Mexican town and neighborhood when the punishing despair wrought by violence is even briefly wiped away. And this is one of the “secret histories” of these caravans by Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims, as they pass through Topilejo and so many other towns and neighborhoods like it. It is the alchemical, contagious, power of a different way to fight. Some call it nonviolence. Others call it civil resistance. Whatever one calls this strategy, it is very different than that which previous movements in this vast country have deployed.
(Narco News correspondent Marta Molina has just published a story about similar alchemical dynamics when the caravan passed last week through another region: Nonviolent Struggle Arrives in the Lands of Guerrero, Mexico: 20,000 March in Acapulco with Javier Sicilia and Drug War Victims, September 14, 2011, Narco News.)
Unlike the long history of aspiring “vanguard” movements – electoral and non-electoral alike – including of the Mexican left, that too often have treated rank-and-file Mexicans as pieces on a chess board to be “mobilized” according to a centralized plan, Sicilia and the movement he inspired seek to treat the peoples of communities like Topilejo as equals with the same capacity to think and do for themselves as the drug war victims and he are, in recent months, trying to do for themselves. It is enough to show up and simply listen, share a meal, exchange ideas (and to the horror of some doctrinaire “activists,” a hug or, gasp, a kiss!) and create a space where everyone can more easily think for themselves – outside the screeching noise machines of media and ideology alike – about their community’s problems and possible solutions. (It was during the May march’s pass through Topilejo that I quoted a friend who said, while there, “It was like watching what we all hoped the Other Campaign of 2006 would become.” Those words now seem prophetic.)
Another truth is that not even everybody who boards the buses on these caravans understands this process of community organizing and how it can be made to happen. Many are learning, some more rapidly than others, or “get” that something different is happening that they want to learn. Still others resist the process of listening, choosing instead to tag along on these ventures because they are the protest du jour or the only circus in town (I’ll be writing more about this phenomenon later in a story about the caravan’s cross through the state of Oaxaca). Some come along to inflict their tired old chants and slogans or the banners with the names of their political organizations into the news photo and video of the caravans. Others see their activism in alternative media as a career move toward gaining the attention of grant-givers, documentary festival prize-givers, or freelance gigs publishing in the national and international media. But they’re the sideshow, so much so they don’t even see the bigger story happening right underneath their noses, not even in communities where impoverished peoples share what little food they have with the traveling visitors who pass through for a night, or an afternoon, or an hour.
One of the emergent roles of Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims who have been trekking through Mexican territory in recent months is that of catalyst; an ingredient that is added to another collection of ingredients that changes the chemical make-up of their union and then moves on, leaving behind something different than it first encountered.
This – according to the testimony of the local residents in this video – is what happened in Topilejo. The visit by a movement four months ago inspired them to do something for themselves, something called community organizing. And while some might view the mere construction of a free university in an abandoned town as insufficient a victory in a land that many observe needs a full-scale revolution or transformation on a national scale, it is a victory nonetheless. And no larger victory ever happened without small triumphs along the path that inspired and built momentum toward even greater change. That’s what community organizing is and does. And now, via Narco News TV, in San Miguel Topilejo, that forgotten rural appendage to the gigantic city of Mexico… you are there.