The Mexican government’s abandonment and abuse of Indigenous communities in Mexico are historical, stretching back to the country’s colonial past. In the present day, governmental neglect is largely to blame for a host of social inequities suffered by Indigenous communities in Mexico, including lack of access to hospitals and quality health care in general. Accustomed to being outliers in a system originally designed to benefit elites, Indigenous Mexicans in one region of Mexico have taken matters into their own hands.
In the Zapotec region of Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, a network of villages called the Pueblos Mancomunados lies nestled in the Sierra Norte mountains, and is made up of eight villages which maintain their distinctions while honoring their collective identity as well. Prior to COVID-19, this network of villages had for over 20 years had an agreement amongst themselves to welcome outside tourists into their insular community to observe not only the striking natural environment but also traditions of agriculture, gastronomy, weaving, education and sacred healing.
Where Abandonment is Historical, Prevention is Key
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Claudia Schurr, owner of the ecotourism company Tierraventura, said that the tourism sector in these villages and in the region has been completely shut down since mid-March 2020 to prevent infections. Through the company, which is based in Oaxaca City, Schurr has developed close personal ties to the Pueblos Mancomunados, where, prior to COVID-19, she regularly ran tours with her husband, Yves. She said, “Most of the Indigenous communities have closed to outsiders, even people from the village who live in the city of Oaxaca. Only the village authorities are allowed to leave the community in order to buy supplies.”
Tourism in Mexico
While tourists have still been able to fly into and travel around Mexico in 2020, Indigenous communities in Mexico such as the Pueblos Mancomunados have said “no,” preferring instead to block entrances to their towns and return to their ‘milpa’ fields, where harvests have been abundant due to plentiful rains. Schurr said in an interview, “The interesting thing for me is to observe how people are handling the crisis… nobody is complaining.” Focusing on subsistence and environmental justice rather than business and profits has so far insulated the Zapotec villages from a crisis that continues to ravage the world outside. There have been only a few cases of COVID-19 in these Zapotec communities, according to Schurr. Santos Reyes Yucuná, an Indigenous Mixtec village also in Oaxaca state, remained COVID-free until July 17th, long after Mexico saw its first case in the capital city.
Other Indigenous communities in Mexico are reacting similarly, partially due to a lack of resources to fight the virus. Pavel Guzmán, an activist in the Indigenous Purepecha community of Michoacán state, said in April 2020 “If an infection arrives in the Indigenous communities, then there’s no … medical institution that can contain the problem because the clinics don’t even have basic supplies… These are historical problems, and now… they’ve become more critical.” According to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), though 21.5% of Mexicans identify as Indigenous, only 1.5% of public hospitals are located in Indigenous regions.
Community and Autonomy
But these Indigenous communities in Mexico are not merely reacting to the virus. The Zapotec communities—pandemic or not—tend to live in a way that is synonymous with their ancestral traditions of community and autonomy. Zapotec children learn early on the importance of cooperation in the community via the “tequio,” or group that cooperates to accomplish needed work in the community. Rather than one person in the community mending a fence, for example, a group of people may work on it together to make the process quick and easy. This cooperation is also visible in the model of group consensus that runs the villages.
They even made the decision to allow tourists into their villages for ecotourism in a collective process. The community is as self-sustaining as it was before the arrival of the Spanish. And while COVID-19 sent the outside world scrambling to adjust life to a crisis, Zapotec society already had the mechanism in place to take refuge.
What Indigenous Communities in Mexico Can Teach the World
While it remains true that infections or governmental neglect during an economic fallout could adversely affect these communities, the Zapotec remain uniquely sustained by their core ideals. As a result, they are in a good position to beat the virus.
The Zapotec have another tradition called “guelaguetza,” which is a tradition of mutually exchanging gifts and even favors. Schurr, not having run tours for her business since March, says that times are hard. Without an income, her family now finds itself in the position of surviving without much income. However, she has stayed in touch with the Zapotec mountain communities: “I have more the feeling that they support us now, emotionally and sending us vegetables, potatoes, flowers.”
“We always talk about creating a global community, which is a beautiful idea,” Schurr said. “…[T]his includes also [taking] responsibility for each other when times are not so great.”
– Andrea Kruger