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La Otra Campaña Transfronteriza:
De-nationalizing Trans-border
Grassroots Organizing

by Sirena Pellarolo
Tempe, Arizona

The following speech by Sirena Pellarolo was given at the American Indian Studies Association annual convention at Arizona State University, Tempe. Works cited are linked to a new browser window for easy viewing.

Sirena Pellarolo.
Sirena Pellarolo. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
“We want that border to disappear, so that once again the O’odham, Navajo and Cherokee nations exist, as well as our peoples, because they [the bad governments] already demonstrated that they cannot conduct this world and take it to a good end. We have to do it, not just for Indian peoples, but for all humanity. Therefore, we say that our struggle is for humanity and against neoliberalism.”
-- Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos

These words were addressed to the Tohono O’odham, Navajo and Cherokee peoples in Magdalena de Kino on October 21, 2006 by Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson of the EZLN (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) during his visit to the border states of Northern Mexico. The Zapatistas--a group of Mayan rebels from Chiapas who have been working towards indigenous autonomy and self-determination for the past two decades -- initiated a parallel political campaign in Mexico to the one staged by the electoral circus, that they named “La Otra Campaña” (the other campaign), referencing its alternative way of doing politics.

Following extensive consultation with Zapatista communities and a series of preliminary talks that included not only the Congreso Nacional Indígena (the Indigenous National Congress), but many other organizations, collectives and individuals that subscribed to the mission stated in the “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” --the document that called for this anti-capitalist, grassroots and networked way of doing politics-- the Other Campaign was launched on January 1st 2006 in the Southern state of Chiapas. Since then, the Sixth Commission of the EZLN and its spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos or Delegate Zero, have been crisscrossing the Mexican territory North-bound in order to listen to the plight of so many grassroots organizations, both indigenous and other, to network the struggles from below and to the left, create a plan of struggle and eventually write a new Constitution for a just and dignified Mexico.

The Other Campaign is an example of the spirit that is sweeping the Americas where very active indigenous movements are blazing new trails in the construction of an alternative world where participatory democracy, justice and dignity prevail. I would like to give an overview of some of these movements, their call to American Indian nations to join and participate and the need to de-nationalize trans-border grassroots organizing in an era of transnational anti-globalization politics.

It is no secret that, as a result of dire economic conditions resulting from the fierce globalization of capital, millions of people (many of them indigenous) have been displaced from their original lands, presenting in this way a new reality of the migrant experience: the creation of transnational communities. A good example of this, which was noticed by the Sixth Commission as they traveled along the North of Mexico, are the Mixtec and Triqui peoples from Oaxaca, who migrated to Baja California Sur to work as day laborers in the fields. Furthermore, many of these migrants were able to cross the US/Mexico border to El Norte, creating in this way bi-national communities with close ties to their communities of origin.

The organizational impetus of Oaxaqueños/as in Los Angeles, whose home-town associations have been very active for many years, led them to create the FIOB (Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional, Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front), that changed its name when it needed to include Indigenous communities from other states: Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations). These bi-national grassroots networks are so tight, that last summer, when due to the social uprising and dissolution of state power in Oaxaca the APPO (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) was created as a horizontal and decentralized governing body, the ripple effect was felt in Los Angeles right away. The FIOB consequently united with other bi-national grassroots organizations to form the Los Angeles branch of the APPO (APPO LA) to support the struggle of their sister communities in the South.

This transnational situation and the reactionary response from the US government was addressed by the Indigenous Border Summit of the Americas, held from September 29 to October 1, 2006 in Tohono O’odham Nation land, organized by the International Indian Treaty Council and the American Indian Movement. With participants representing communities from both sides of the border, a “new vision of indigenous border solidarity” (Norrell) came to fore. After listening to testimonies of affected communities whose lands have been artificially divided by the border, the Summit drafted and passed the Declaration of San Xavier, that called for the recognition of “indigenous peoples following traditional routes of migration since time immemorial in search of a better quality of life and economic security,” and requested to “establish policies to put an end to the deaths of all indigenous peoples and immigrant populations crossing their lands.” In addition to other demands, they also opposed the Secure Fence Act, approved recently by the US Senate, which calls for the building of a wall that will divide the ancestral lands of many Indian Nations. At present at least eight tribes/nations on the U.S./Mexico border between California and Texas are directly affected by migrations across their reservation lands; the Kumeyaay, Cocopah, Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, Gila River, Pima, Yavapai, Ysleta del Sur (Tigua) and Kickapoo nations. The Declaration ends with a call for an up-coming Border Summit in April of 2007 on the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation on the Mexican side of the border.

Another example of indigenous transnational solidarity, and in a hemispheric context, is the III Continental Summit of Indigenous Nations and Pueblos of Abya Yala that will take place in the Municipality of Tecpan, Guatemala, from March 26 thru the 30th to “participate,” as the text of the convocation declares, “in this historic undertaking at which we shall strengthen our organizational relationships but above all, construct the grand continental alliance among Indigenous Pueblos and Nations.” Themes that will be covered in the gathering include: land, territory and natural resources; autonomy and self-determination; diversity, pluri-nationality and integral development; strategic alliances; democracy, nation-states and indigenous government. Signatories to this call come from indigenous organizations from Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, the US, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela. This momentous gathering is another effort towards the organization of a transnational indigenous movement in the Americas.

It is important to situate the work of the Other Campaign spearheaded by the Zapatistas within this context of vibrant indigenous transnational mobilizations. As the Sixth Commission and Delegate Zero visited the US/Mexico border-states in the final destination of this first stage of the Other Campaign, designed to “know each other and listen to each others’ struggles,” the reality of divided indigenous communities became fore- grounded. On October 17, in San José de la Zorra, Baja California, Delegado Zero delivered a message from the indigenous Zapatista communities. It was a call for a Continental Indigenous Encuentro to deepen the struggle for indigenous autonomy and sovereignty, that will be held on October 2007 in Baja California, to proclaim that “after 515 years” the indigenous peoples of the Americas, from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, have not been conquered nor discovered. In that occasion he said,

Let’s invite the indigenous people of Canada and the United States… and let’s invite the indigenous people of South America and Central America, and let’s come from all parts of the continent to this indigenous zone in the Northwest to say that we are here, and let’s tell our story. And it doesn’t matter if they pay attention to us or not, because we’re going to pay attention to each other (quoted in Bricker).

The strategic location of this Continental Encuentro near the contested US/Mexico border cannot be overlooked. Delegado Zero clearly stated his view vis-a-vis this artificial line with a rebellious gesture: when he toured around the Tijuana/ San Ysidro border he was captured urinating on the fence, a photo reproduced and disseminated by the independent media. This symbolic act that deconstructs the artificiality of “national” borders that divide and separate First Nation peoples also alludes to the constructed nature of the “nation-states” that enforce them. Indeed, it is important to remember that the political organization of the Americas in the mid XIXth century was based on the artificial setting of national boundaries and the imposition, by the Europeanized elite, of capitalist nation-states modeled from the European territorial reorganization in republics after the demise of monarchical systems. The thrust towards “nation building” was designed to subsume the diversity and autonomy of indigenous nations in hegemonic and homogenizing projects of “national unity.” The hegemonic push of a Mestizo/ Ladino national identity resulted in the invisibility of the indigenous peoples who resisted assimilation, and their consequent marginalization, neglect, exploitation and scorn.

A case of indigenous invisibility was witnessed by the Sixth Commission and Delegate Zero when they arrived in the Indigenous Community of El Mayor, home to the Cucapá, an indigenous group native to the Mexicali region of Baja California, situated at only 45 minutes from the border. Cucapá means “people of the water,” and they have lived in the Delta of the Colorado River for several centuries -- although their ancestors go back tens of thousands of years. Due to the construction of dams in the US side of the border, the river has been drying up, as has the culture of the Cucapá. In addition to this, they have been stripped of their ancestral rights to fish, one of their last traditions and the only way of sustenance they still hold, because the Mexican government has declared the land where they live as a federal protected zone: the Reserve of the Biosphere of the High Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River. (Another neo-liberal excuse to strip away land from indigenous communities by paying lip service to environmental preservation.)

In addition to the cooptation of the Cucapá indigenous leaders by the state and federal governments--a clear case of “caciquismo” rampant in Mexico--who own the fishing permits, the fishing gear and who are the ones with the power to decide who receives “indigenous certificates,” the biggest insult of all is that the state government claims there are no indigenous communities in Baja California.

After witnessing the neglect, abuse, mistreatment and systematic isolation of First Nation peoples in the border-states, the Sixth Commission announced that something had to be done to stop the overall extermination of indigenous communities at the hands of the Mexican Government. Delegado Zero, then, along with the Cucapá Community of El Mayor, decided to invite adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle to set up a peace camp during the fishing season to assure that the community is not harassed by law enforcement agents when they go out and practice their ancestral customs of fishing. This camp will also serve to preserve and revitalize traditions that are almost extinct within the Cucapá and others. In fact, the neighboring Kiliwa--with which the Cucapá traditionally intermarry--recently announced a "death pact" by refusing to bear children as their culture and people have been exploited and neglected to the brink of extinction. Consequently the camp will serve as a safe space in which humanitarian brigades will accompany the Cucapá with the clear understanding that it is the community who sets the terms and conditions of decision making processes and other practices of self-determination. This experience will be an opportunity to reach out to other indigenous communities and activate the establishment of ways and means for self-sufficiency, autonomy and dignity.

It is evident that this peace encampment at the US/ Mexico border will attract abundant attention from activists from around the world and will help give visibility to the living situation of First Nation peoples who have been crossed by the border. This gathering of oppositional and rebellious energy at this contested line will mark the kick-off of the second stage of The Other Campaign and will also build momentum towards the Continental Indigenous Encuentro set for October of this year.

Finally, I would like to address our participation in La otra campaña transfronteriza (the trans-border Other Campaign) and the organization of the Cucapá encampment.

The publication of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in June 2005, that exposed the plan of action for the first stage of the Other Campaign, was preceded by a Red Alert of the EZLN, and the closing down of their support communities in Chiapas. As long-time activists and community organizers doing Zapatista-inspired work in East Los Angeles, the autonomous space I work with, the Eastside Café of El Sereno and the Autonomous Peoples’ Collective of which it is part, hosted meetings to stay abreast of the emergency situation declared by the Zapatistas. When the Sixth Declaration was issued, we signed up as adherents and started to work towards the plan of action proposed by the EZLN. In addition to continuing with our local work, we organized a delegation to participate in the Preliminary Meetings called for by the Zapatistas to plan the launching of The Other Campaign, in an effort to collectivize the process. In that delegation our representatives -- honoring long-lasting ties of Chican@s with the communities in rebellion in Chiapas-- stressed the importance of including Chican@s and Mexican@s from this side of the border in the “national plan of struggle” proposed by the Zapatistas. Furthermore, they insisted that our reality in this “México ocupado” of the US Southwest is a pluri-ethnic one: that our struggles overlap and are in connection with those of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and other so called “minorities.” This important foregrounding of the necessity to expand the scope of the struggle to include non-Mexican communities again begs for the de-nationalization of this grassroots network-building from below and to the left.

Additionally, and to deepen the local and regional networks, the Autonomous Peoples’ Collective participated in and organized three state-wide Encuentros with Zapatista-inspired groups and collectives from California in Oakland, Los Angeles and Oxnard. After the launching of La Otra Campaña in Chiapas, a group of young activists and artists starting meeting at the Eastside Café to continue to organize and educate about this new project and to help with the logistics of the passing of the Sixth Commission by the border-states, specifically, the meetings in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, that had been specifically designated to meet with Chican@s and Mexican@s of this side. This group, that was later called Banda Martes, because it meets on Tuesday nights, sends representatives to a network that was formed to organize the stop of La Otra Campaña in Tijuana and to establish working relations across borders. This trans-border network, La Otra Transfronteriza, meets monthly, usually, on Mexican territory. It is formed by adherents from both Baja and Southern California, it functions in a horizontal, decentralized way, and it has created different commissions to deal with the various aspects of this type of organizing. La otra transfronteriza is the body responsible for the organization of the encampment at the Cucapá community, that is scheduled to start on February 28 and last until mid May. Recently, meetings have been held in El Mayor in order to strengthen the bonds among members and with the indigenous community.

As a participant of Banda Martes, the Eastside Café and the Autonomous Peoples Collective, and on behalf of La otra transfronteriza, I would like to extend the invitation to become informed about this important encampment and what it stands for: the linking up of indigenous struggles transnationally. As Delegado Zero put it when he called for the revitalization of forgotten indigenous communities in Northern Mexico: “We were already dead and we were called upon to become warriors, according to our legend. And as we were dead, we became what we are: shadows. And in a strict sense we are that: shadows’ warriors or warriors of the shadows.”

The call-out to participate in the Cucapá camp written collectively by members of Banda Marts ends with an admonition, as does this paper,

You are no longer being asked to stand in solidarity with the indigenous people of Mexico. Now you are being asked to play an integral role in a bi-national effort that will no longer consist of only resisting but also help these communities exist and live as they have for thousand of years. To help reestablish the networks and relations that existed before borders separated families and communities, and to help expose these atrocities to a world that has avoided looking at the price of its excess, comfort and luxury.

About the author: Sirena Pellarolo is a cultural critic, educator, and activist born in Argentina. She lives in Los Angeles, California. She is Associate Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at California State University, Northridge and works with the Eastside Cafe, El Sereno, an autonomous space in Northeast Los Angeles. She is the author of Sainete criollo/ democracia/ representación. El caso de Nemesio Trejo, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1997, a study of the popular and ethnic theater of Buenos Aires at the turn of the XX century. She is currently working on an experiential and theoretical study of the aesthetics and politics of resistance in Latin American autonomous movements (namely Chiapas and Argentina).

Works Cited:

Bacon, David. Communities Without Borders. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Banda martes. “Cucapá Camp.”

Bricker, Kristin. “Marcos Announces Continental Indigenous Encounter for October 2007.” The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Baja California.

--- “Marcos: The Zapatistas Will Defend the Cucapa and Kiliwa Peoples of Baja California.” The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Baja California.

León Portilla, Miguel. “Nación y estado.” La jornada, jueves 6 de octubre de 2005.

Norrell, Brenda. “Indigenous Border Summit Opposes Border Wall and Militarization.” Americas Program, International Relations Center (IRC).

Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas. The Other Campaign/ La otra campaña. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 25, 2007.

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