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Comunalidad as the Axis of Oaxacan Thought in Mexico

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Comunalidad as the Axis of Oaxacan Thought in Mexico (p4 of 17)

The following article by Jaime Martinez Luna originally appeared in
the anthology “New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and
Voices from North, South, and Central America,” edited by Lois Meyer
and BenjamÌn Maldonado and published by City Lights. The book is a
collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky and articles written in
response to those interviews by indigenous activists and scholars. For
more information on the Academia de Comunalidad or on the First
International Congress on Comunalidad- Communal Struggles and
Strategies: Horizons Beyond Capitalism visit

The Fourth Principle

The history of Oaxaca has been interwoven with principles and values
that display its deeply rooted comunalidad. For the Oaxacan people
across many centuries, this has meant integrating a process of
cultural, economic, and political resistance of great importance.
Since the Spanish conquest individualist and mercantilist as it was
Oaxaca has responded with a form and reason for being communal that
has permitted it to survive even in the face of an asphyxiating
globalizing process.

This historic and latent resistance is the basis for the achievement
today of having the concept of comunalidad written into the State
Education Act of 1995, as the fourth guiding principle of education.
For its transcendence, this principle requires that it be integrally
implemented so that in future generations, it becomes the foundational
knowledge and the basis for constructing all other knowledge. This
will guarantee its security and immediate identity within the current
intercultural education process.

We have not the slightest doubt that comunalidad is the
epistemological notion that sustains an ancestral, yet still new and
unique, civilizing process, one which holds back the decrepit
individualization of knowledge, power, and culture.

Based in the above, many of us as professionals who serve the
interests of the form of education that Oaxacan communities demand
consider it appropriate to lay out the set of criteria that undergird
an integrated treatment of the concept of comunalidad, seen as the
central concept in Oaxacan life.


The existence of a polytheism which sacralizes the natural world, the
absence of private property, an economy oriented toward immediate
satisfaction, and a political system supported by knowledge and work,
led the original peoples to create a cosmovision originating from the
us, from the self-determining and action-oriented collective, and,
along with this, to construct a communalist attitude which has been
continually consolidating itself despite cultural and economic
pressures from outside.

Meanwhile, the colonizers, who were educated in autocratic regimens
with a monotheistic and individualizing religion, a market-oriented
economy, and a concentrated, privatizing concept of nature, have
forced original peoples to develop strategies of resistance based in
the collective, in shared labor, and in respect for their community
elders or wise men (or seÒores naturales, natural gentlemen, as they
were called in colonial law).

With independence and the creation of the nation-state, the encounter
of these two visions did not erase their differences. The heirs of the
colonial system, criollos1 and mestizos,[2] set themselves up as the
central power of the nascent republic, undergirded by Western values,
such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, that were constructed in
the glow of the French Revolution. The Constitution of 1857 reflects
European and North American influences; it supports private property
and declares that ecclesiastical property, and perhaps communal
property, as well, though this is unclear, are no longer held in
perpetuity. Resistance to these actions varied across the Republic.
States with lands of interest to the market felt the effects of these
laws the most; not so much Oaxaca, where flat lands appropriate for
mercantilist agriculture are scarce, and the greatest capitalist use
of plains and plateaus included livestock in the areas where private
property today is prevalent, such as the coastal region and Tuxtepec.
The same occurred in the political sphere. The majority of Oaxacan
communities and municipalities retained their self-determination,
inherited from their cacicazcos, or prehispanic forms of governance.
These managed to maintain their authority with the strategic support
of both the colonizers and the independents.

With the Mexican Revolution, there was not much change. The
contradictions played out with greater intensity in the indigenous
regions. Oaxaca stands out in its resistance, thanks to its
topography. At present, it is the state with the greatest communal
land ownership, the greatest number of municipalities, the most
peoples with distinct languages and cultures, but at the same time,
the least important state in the nation, according to government
statistics, despite its illustrious native sons Benito Ju·rez, Flores
MagÛn,[3] and Porfirio DÌaz, in order of importance.

Presently, thanks to the ways of thinking and being of its people,
Oaxaca boasts the best preserved natural regions. It stands out in
terms of energy potential, which has made it an expansive region
coveted by private interests as lucrative terrain for development.
Globalization and privatization find in Oaxaca unlimited potential for
profit-making. It follows, then, that Oaxaca has also provided many
opportunities for resistance and a depth of knowledge to more clearly
define this process. This is demonstrated in the comunalidad which
displays itself in every dimension of life.


The world is awakening from the illusion of a universal culture shaped
by one hegemonic form of reasoning. Today it confronts the reality of
diversity, multiculturalism, and the recognition of a daily
intercultural process strengthened by increasing migration across the
planet. The individualism which was imposed on the colonies, today
nation-states, is reaching its limits in regard to the development of
equality and democracy, as it confronts the truly vibrant
epistemological proposal of comunalidad.

Comunalidad does not originate from a discourse devised in a cubicle,
a classroom, or a laboratory. It emerges as a tacit display of social
movements, which in the 1980s achieved their goal of controlling their
own development by conceptualizing their actions.

The organizing mechanisms that sustain comunalidad are not visible
outside of the social process; it is in this same social process that
they become visible. In other words, comunalidad carries on
independently of whether we conceive of it as such, or not. The
actions are a demonstration of principles and values emanating from a
historical reality, one that transcends the centuries and is being
consolidated in a concrete struggle for the liberation of peoples, as
well as their cultural reaffirmation.

Comunalidad is confronted by the individualism imposed as part of the
logic of colonialism, privatization, and mercantilism, which are
developed according to a philosophy centered in the individual as the
axis of the universe. Neither Marxism nor nineteenth-century
liberalism strays from this base. Comunalidad integrates diversity and
reproduces it within collaborative forms of work and joint
construction. In other words, we could say that predatory and now
globalized individualism is confronted by an ancient communalism
(which in the opinion of Marx, was surpassed by later modes of
production). But in reality, comunalidad is an historical experience
and a vibrant, present day set of behaviors, which is constantly
renovated in the face of the social and economic contradictions
generated by capitalist individualism.

In Oaxaca, the vitality of comunalidad as it presents itself witnesses
to the integration of four basic elements: territory, governance,
labor, and enjoyment (fiesta). The principles and values that
articulate these elements are respect and reciprocity. Comunalidad and
individualism overlap in Oaxacan thought. We are the unique result of
our own culture, but we are also colonized. Everyone displays
knowledge according to the context surrounding them; hence,
contradictions are a daily occurrence, not only of individuals, but
also of communities. This is why, due to the social processes that
Oaxaca experiences, the study and reproduction of comunalidad in all
dimensions of life is vitally necessary if we wish to transcend our
prevalent socioeconomic contradictions.


In the 1980s, thanks to indigenous, peasant, and social movements in
general, comunalidad was proposed as the explanatory concept of the
organizational modalities of Oaxacan society. The teachers insurgence,
as well as the commitments of various Oaxacan and Mexican
intellectuals, found in this concept a logical articulation of their
mobilizations and their teaching. The outcome was that Oaxacan
teachers managed to insert the concept of comunalidad as the fourth
guiding principle together with democracy, nationalism and humanism in
the State Education Act of 1995. That law was, of course, also a
response to fears generated in government officials by the Zapatista
uprising of 1994.

The communal vision of life transcends the labyrinth that presently
entraps indigenous education. Community-controlled education starkly
marks the boundaries that separate school-based, cloistered education
from that which the community in its entirety provides. Understanding
the presence of comunalidad in education means understanding very
specifically how to plant the seed of a civilizing process, one that
investigates and proposes a concrete pedagogy that guarantees not only
that the concept (and now guiding principle) of Oaxacan education is
understood, but also that continuous mobilizations are undertaken for
the liberation of knowledge. Now that comunalidad is established as a
principle in the State Education Act, spaces and opportunities must be
opened up which are dedicated to developing the necessary knowledge
and designing needed tools to make it a reality. This means
incorporating this knowledge and these tools into the centrally
planned state education which contradicts our realities and serves as
an obstacle to our being able to express our own experiences. By
expressing our experiences, we will be able to reproduce the
principles and values that support the reaffirmation of our cultural

This line of reasoning can and must result in the achievement of our
expectations. This leads us to the following conclusions: -It is
necessary to integrate specific, local, and regional content in the
education that is imparted throughout the territory of Oaxaca. -It is
important to strengthen our ancestral knowledge using pedagogical
agencies and tools appropriate to the task, in order to resist the
ruinous individualization of knowledge. -It is imperative that we
ground an epistemology in the everyday labor of society in order to
shape a new conception of the universe. Thinking must not be the
preserve or property of the academy. It must be the practice of all
the worlds inhabitants.


What needs to be taught is nothing more than sharing the sharing of
anger, enchantment, routine, misfortune, pain, tenderness, joy. For
teachers, all of these words are a familiar lingo. Paulo Freire called
this the pedagogy of the oppressed, Makarenko referred to the identity
of others, Summerhill saw it as constant hilarity; thus, everyone sees
what they want to see. Everyone depends on his or her concept, context
and text. In this sense, one cannot speak of one pedagogy, but rather
an intellectual diversity that captures the world, that is not
time-bound, but if given space, that defines character and emotion.

All pedagogical technologies depend on interests of all kinds: social
interests, because they respond to the stimuli of relationships;
acquired, and in many cases, imposed values; political interests,
because they respond to governments set up by those who want to manage
the lives of the inhabitants; and economic interests, because they
respond to needs inserted from the outside, not only to those that are

All of which leads us to understand that no one can teach anyone else,
or all of us must teach each other, and with that we reproduce
intentions and resolve needs. This is what we learn from comunalidad.

Noam Chomsky affirms that our peoples face challenges, in most cases
historical challenges. Neoliberalism is neither liberal nor new, but
it is a concentration of enormous power, and it also is collapsing.
Edgar Morin shares the same view, believing that the communal is a
very significant proposal, but it must be understood, valued and
supported. The Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro is very enamored of
this perspective and agrees with the communitarian view, though he
will not be separated from his republican passion. The European
philosopher Panikkar also agrees with communitarianism; however, his
Western orientation keeps him from developing more detailed responses
to this matter. Gonz·lez Casanova continues to be obsessed with
democracy, a topic in need of debate in light of current realities.[4]

In education, that which is communitarian is a paradigmatic vision. A
fundamental principle is to liberate the exercise of knowledge. It
must be acknowledged to be the result of everyones labor: the
so-called university-educated, bricklayers, teachers, peasants, in the
end, all of us who inhabit the natural world. I am not bothered by the
idea of knocking down schools and suppressing teachers because,
essentially, we are all teachers. Teachers are not the ones, despite
their intelligence, who should determine what we must know. They must
understand that it is each and every one of us who has to open the
door to knowledge. The collective task does not come from the outside;
it has always been within us, and also the need. Nature has obligated
us to work together, and not for the politicized notion of mass labor
embodied in the Industrial Revolution, if that is what you want to
call it, but rather for the need to survive.


As an 8-year-old boy, my mother enrolled me in a boarding school
founded due to the initiative of L·zaro C·rdenas.[5] The students came
from many communities, basically indigenous, a concept imposed on us
thanks to Manuel Gamio[6] and his collection of anthropologist and
bureaucrat followers. The tale is long but its importance centers on
the the educational organization of the experience.

There was an assembly made up of all the students. Through a committee
the students organized homework and chores; even the meting out of
justice was decided in this representative way. The teachers were
simply consultants; the students determined what was to be done.

There were workshops for agriculture, textile and shoe production,
bread and food production, carpentry, ceramics, and music. The
educational process was not centered on the teaching staff but rather
in liberation and work. This is a long story, but we can understand
and summarize it in the following manner: a. An education founded in
work. b. An education based not in organization from above, but in the
participation of all. c. An educational method founded in respect for
everyone¥s knowledge, and fundamentally, respect for that which is our


In 1856, Karl Marx wrote in his Outlines of the Critique of Political
Economy or Grundisse, about the existence of communalism, basing
himself on the experiences of the Aztecs, the Iroquois, and the
Asians, both Hindu and Chinese. He discovered in these sources
distinct values and modes of organization. Yet his reflections were in
a certain respect pessimistic. He thought that these were cultures
destined to disappear. For him, industrial development made the worker
into the subject responsible for social and economic transformation.
However, in his reflections he provides elements that are consistent
with an understanding of the communal within the relationship of human
beings with territory.

This is the first reflection that I want to share with you. Communal
beings, as BenjamÌn Maldonado affirms, make sense of themselves in
terms of their relationship with the land. An indigenous person
understands himself in relationship with the land. I want to clarify
that I am not referring to the Zapatista or Magonista maxim of Land
and Liberty, but rather to a relationship with the land that is not
mercantile, a relationship of sharing and caring. That is, humans are
linked to the land not only for organic sustenance, but also for
spiritual and symbolic sustenance. In other words, the land does not
belong to those who work it, in my way of reasoning; rather, those who
care for it, share it, and when necessary work it belong to the land,
and not the other way around.

Obviously in a world ruled by the logic of the market, it is easier to
appropriate everything from nature for ourselves rather than to grasp
an entirely reverse conception of ourselves. The need to survive
causes us to view everything from a materialistic perspective; on this
subject Marx made an abundance of reflections of great importance. But
here is where the difference from indigenous thinking springs forth.
Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with
spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is
one way of understanding that human beings are not the center, but
simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can
distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous
thought. Who is at the center only one, or all? The individual, or
everyone? The market makes everything into a product, a thing, and
with that nature is also commodified.

My second reflection is on organization. Marx respects the community
as the nucleus that integrates families, that which makes of territory
a space for social relationships appropriate for the exercise of a
necessary social organization. This necessary organization is
obligatory, not only for peaceful coexistence, but also for the
defense of territorial, spiritual, symbolic, artistic, and
intellectual values. The community is like a virtual gigantic family.
Its organization stems initially and always from respect.

Everything is done together, a practice obviously reinforced by the
policy of the Spanish colonizers of concentrating populations. Still,
it is a natural reaction, naturally linked up with the use of a common

The creation and functioning of the communal assembly perhaps was not
necessary before the arrival of the Spaniards, but for the sake of
defense it had to be developed. Once the population was concentrated,
religious societies to attend the saints (cofradÌas), and community
organizations to plan fiestas (mayordomÌas) developed, which were
cells of social organization that strengthened the ethics of the
assembly. Out of this, the communally appointed leadership roles
(cargos) originated. Someone had to represent the group, but all this
implied the need for greater consolidation for decision-making. The
Spanish governors designed the details of the colonial organizational
structure, but in one way or another over time all the new colonial
roles simply were absorbed into already-established traditional roles
and responsibilities. Centuries had to pass before the colonial cargos
that were used to control the native population were diluted and
leveled enough so that the macehuales (community members, now
comuneros) could ascend the social pyramid, and the community could
become a space of truly horizontal participation.

Today, as before, one does not receive a community cargo by empty
talk, but rather because of ones labor, attitude, and respect for the
responsibilities entrusted. Everyone knows this, having learned it
even before the age of eighteen, perhaps at ten or fourteen years of
age, when assigned the first cargo, that of community policeman
(topilillo). This gives the cargo a profound moral value that has
nothing to do with categories such as economic value, efficiency,
profitability, or punctuality, but rather with respect for the
responsibilities involved. This has created a truly complicated
political spectrum in Oaxaca. We have 570 municipalities and more than
10,000 communities. Eighty percent of these continue to govern
themselves by communal assemblies. Their representatives are named in
the assembly. For this reason, the widespread civic uprising that
occurred in 2006 in Oaxaca must be analyzed under more meticulous
parameters, a topic that will not be addressed here.

The third reflection refers to communal work. Weber, as well as Keynes
and Marx, analyzed productivity in terms of the individual. They found
in individual labor a process of value production that they explained
according to their theoretical frameworks. However, communal labor is
a different matter. To begin with, communal labor does not respond to
the drive for personal satisfaction, that is to say, it does not obey
the logic of individual survival, but rather that of satisfying common
needs, such as preparing a plot of land, repairing or building a road,
constructing a community service hall, hospital, school, etc. This
labor is voluntary, which implies that individual wages are not
received. In the urban world, everything is money-driven; you pay your
taxes and away you go. Curiously, it is said of Oaxaca that it is the
subsidized state par excellence, while what is not taken into account
is the value of communal work, which if calculated, would surpass all
the fiscal supports that we are aware of. The value of this work can
also be translated to the context of political representation. Ask
yourself how many political representatives in the city would
contribute their time if they were not paid for it!

Fifty percent of the cost involved in constructing any community
service is the cost of labor, apart from the purchase of necessary
materials. This wealth of local participation goes unnoticed by the
state and federal governments. We could say that Oaxaca lives by its
own resources without outside support, and this provides a wide degree
of self-determination. It is not a coincidence that 418 municipalities
are politically self-governed. I am referring here to what is called
usos y costumbres,[7] a concept that for me is pejorative, yet there
is no other state in the Republic of Mexico that enjoys this self
determination. If we add to this all the communal labor, then the
situation becomes even clearer.

It is important to point out a few details. Oaxaca is the state with
the greatest number of municipalities (almost a quarter of the
country’s total). Almost 70 percent of its territory is in the
category of collective ownership, and there are seventeen indigenous
languages with thirty-seven variants of these.[8] It is the state with
the two most biologically diverse areas in all of Mexico: the
Chimalapas and the Sierra Norte. And something almost imperceptible
but which marks the nature of Oaxaca it is the geographical
convergence of the two mountain ranges of Mexico: the Sierra Madre
Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental. This makes Oaxaca a wrinkled
landscape, or, as Father Gay[9] used to say, like a crumpled sheet of
paper. It does not have plains to guarantee an elevated level of
productivity, which also explains its motley pattern of communal
organization. It was easier to produce the dye-generating cochineal
insect than corn, first, because of the geography, and also partly
because of the ease with which all of the inhabitants could
participate, both adults and children. Another reflection concerns the
fiesta. In a neoliberal context, it is the market that establishes the
rules, and it demands greater production of merchandise. In the
community there is production, but it is for the fiesta. All year long
every nuclear community cultivates its products: corn, beans, squash,
fruit, chickens, pigs, turkeys, even cattle. For what? For the fiesta.
Any urban dweller would say, what fools! They could sell them instead.
But that is not how it works. Here is the root of the difference. The
community member (comunero, or comunario as a Bolivian friend says),
does not work to sell, but for the joy derived. The little money that
she or he manages to gather is used to buy some skirts, trousers,
fireworks. Many interpret this as ignorance; I call it a connection to
the land, or spirituality. I would like to share some brief
conclusions with you.

1. The year 1994 the year of the Zapatista uprising awakened new
dreams, but in reality what it achieved was to pull away the blanket
under which we were hidden. Now here we are, reclaiming our

2. The isms are aberrations that convert themselves into authorities
that impose themselves and are not naturally born. I fear communalism
because it sounds doctrinaire. And I believe that is what we least
want for our own free self-determination.

3. Marx included in his writings a fountain of knowledge by which to
understand our social longevity, but this was covered up by his focus
on industry and the protagonist role of the worker. And we all know
how that turned out.

4. We must find in the experience of our peoples the lessons necessary
to create new conceptual frameworks. And we must not be afraid to
construct new epistemological notions that will lead us to transcend
even ourselves.

Jaime MartÌnez Luna is a Zapotec anthropologist, early theorist of
Oaxacan comunalidad, community member of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca,
and veteran community activist whose work has focused on the defense
of communal forests and other natural resources, and more recently on
traditional and activist music and the development and promotion of
community radio.

NOTES 1. Persons born in Latin America of Spanish descent. 2. Persons
of mixed European and Indian descent; half-breeds. 3. Ricardo Flores
MagÛn (1873-1922) was a Oaxacan anarchist who began a revolution
against the Mexican state under the banner of Land and Liberty. Exiled
to the United States in 1904, he organized three armed uprisings
(1906, 1908, 1911). He was the only revolutionary who was inspired by
indigenous peoples, believing that their historic experience of
communal life would be the foundation for reconstructing Mexican
society after the revolutions triuph. 4. Edgar Morin is a French
essayist who has influenced education through his proposals of
transdisciplinarity and complex thought. See Los siete saberes
necesarios para la educaciÛn del futuro, available on internet at .
Luis Villoro is one of Mexicos major contemporary social philosophers
with significant contributions in the areas of epistemology and
ethical reflections on the relationship of the nation-state with
indigenous peoples. See Saber, creer, conocer (MÈxico: Siglo XXI Eds.,
2008) and Estado plural, pluralidad de culturas (MÈxico: Ed, PaidÛs,
2002). RaimÛn Panikkar is a Hindu-Catalan philosopher who reflects on
the vast distance between Western and other cultures. See: øEs
occidental el concepto de los derechos humanos? (Mexico, DiÛgenes 120,
Winter 1982) and ReligiÛn, filosofÌa y cultura (2000) on the Internet
htm. Pablo Gonzalez Casanova is a Mexican sociologist, affiliated
closely with Zapatismo, who in the 1970s proposed the idea of internal
colonization to explain the relationship of the Mexican state with
indigenous peoples. See La democracia en MÈxico (MÈxico: Ed. Era,
Serie Popular, 1978); also El colonialismo interno, (2006) on the
internet at:
colonia.pdf. 5. L·zaro C·rdenas, the Marxist-oriented president of
Mexico from 1934-1940, promoted socialist education policies and layed
the foundation for indigenous assimilation (indigenismo) as public
policy. 6. Manuel Gamio is considered to be the father of Mexican
anthropology. He carried out important interdisciplinary studies and
was a functionary in postrevolutionary governments. 7. A term used to
refer to the traditional form of governance through a communal
assembly that selects its community leaders in the form of cargos. 8.
The number of languages and their variants spoken in Oaxaca is
disputed. It is commonly reported that there are between fourteen and
seventeen languages with between thirty to fifty variants, though some
say the number of variants may be as many as ninety. A language such
as Zapotec may more accurately be considered a language family, for
its variants, such as Zapotec of the Tehuantepec Isthmus and Zapotec
of the Sierra, are as different one from another as Spanish and
Italian and Portuguese. 9. Fray Antonio Gay was an early Oaxacan
historian whose work has served as the foundation of Oaxacan history.
In reality, he pirated information from other sources and made
unsubstantiated claims, such as that the Chatino people descended from

“If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to
turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” -Eduardo Galeano Support

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