Mexican Peasants Take Back Their Land

The peasant class is using violence to take back their land. The rich landowners say they are being barbaric.


Have I ever told you about the time we drove all the rich landowners out of Pantelhó?” Don Pablo asked me as we sat in the parked pick-up truck. We were on the highway that snakes up into the mountains from San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. The truck’s motor idled as we watched a woman move her flock of sheep across the road.

“It must have been about 30 years ago or so. The ladinos (non-indigenous people) had taken over most of the land around the mountain town of Pantelhó, and they were setting up fincas and haciendas: plantation-style farms where the native Mayan people were left to work as serfs. They had amassed all the land for miles around, and lived in luxurious colonial-style homes while the indigenous people lived in shabby huts and slaved away on the ladinos’ farms…”

We were now driving up the mountainside, passing through various tranquil mountain towns. Men sat around in plastic chairs watching television sets in front of the wood slat houses as women tended their fires in tin-roofed kitchens. Don Pablo continued his story, shouting over the rain that had started to pour.

“The people were tired of working like dogs, living as strangers on the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

“I mean, this was what the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had been all about: ‘The land should belong to those who work it’, as Emiliano Zapata said.

“Eventually we decided to do something about it. I was a member of one of the Socialist political parties that existed at the time, and we got together with a few other organizations and started organizing the peasants.

“We set a date for the land takeover, and showed up at the landowners’ haciendas in the middle of the night…” The sun was beginning to set beneath the mountain ranges to the west of us, tingeing the rain clouds with pink hues. Chickens scattered before us as we drove past banana trees. Mayan women and girls in brightly-colored woven blouses walked along the roadside, carrying firewood for the evening.

“We showed up on the doorstep of the rich ladinos’ haciendas, armed with machetes, pistols and shotguns.

“We stood there with torches blazing and told them it was time to get out.

“ ‘You have ten minutes to collect your things and leave,’ we told the men who had brought the whip down on our backs hundreds of times. ‘Get your family together and hit the road.’

“We pulled out a stopwatch.

“If the landowner took more than ten minutes, we walked into the house to get him, dragging him into the street by his hair. And that, David, is why the farmers of the highlands now own their own land.”

I watched the rain pour down the window, thinking of all the people I knew who would probably be horrified by Don Pablo’s story. I didn’t tell Don Pablo at the time, but I knew plenty of friends who would be more outraged about the Mayan farmers taking their land back than they would about the terrors suffered by those farmers for centuries.

One acquaintance of mine in Mexico City once told me how unfair she found this sort of “peasant justice” to be. Ivette, a well-to-do urbanite who descended from the first Spaniards to land in Mexico, had told me she didn’t think such land takeovers were justified.

“I mean, it’s too bad that there are all these poor people out there,” she said years ago as we drove past a political demonstration, “but they can’t just go playing Robin Hood. They need to follow the rules. We live in a society of order, of the rule of law.”

Don Pablo and I drove through the Zapatista town of Polhó, passing by a mural of Emiliano Zapata. I didn’t tell him of my friends in Mexico and the US who insisted that the poor must follow the rules of the current world order; that these rules were set in stone. Instead, I told him of a similar event that took place at the opposite end of the Republic of Mexico, also inspired by Zapata’s words.

I told Don Pablo that my close friends in Ensenada, Baja California, had taken part in a land takeover years ago. In the mid-1980s, a wealthy Spanish rancher lived on the edge of town. Hundreds of poor men, women and children decided that it was time to enforce the Mexican Constitution, which prohibits foreigners from owning land. “How is it that this foreign citizen has acres of land that he isn’t using, while we don’t even have a place to sleep at night?” they asked each other. So they planned an invasión: the families snuck onto the ranch under the cover of darkness, carrying shovels, tarps, sticks, boards and blankets, and set up crude tents and structures. And they stayed there — unfazed by the threats of police and soldiers, the families stuck it out, each holding tightly to a small plot of land in hopes that it would someday become theirs. And it did — the rancher and the government eventually acquiesced. My friends live on that plot of land to this day.

Don Pablo could appreciate the heroism of this story. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about my friends who couldn’t. I didn’t tell Don Pablo about the Orange County housewife who found it to be barbaric — “I feel for them,” she had said, “but these people need to respect the rule of law.” The funny thing is, people like my Orange County friend and my Mexico City friend know what’s written in the history books. They know about the violence that put them into a place of privilege to begin with — the genocide of the Native Americans, the broken treaties, the brutal conquest of Mexico by colonial Spain, the inquisitions, invasions, wars and pillaging that accompanied the paved the way for their ancestors.

But a peculiar thing happens when it comes to historical violence that favors people like us: we like to forget about it. We like to apply a policy of “forgive and forget” to it. “That’s all in the past, let’s move on, stop whining about it” is the mantra.

But when anyone challenges the unbalanced, lopsided order of this world, let the whining begin — how dare those poor people. A magical line is drawn in the sand, bisecting history into the “sins of the past” which must be forgotten, and the current “law and order” which must be set in stone. And this line is conveniently placed right at the moment that our position was cemented.

Don Pablo and I pulled up at the warehouse of the worker-owned coffee coop where he works.

Readers may be comforted to learn that he has largely abandoned the idea of armed struggle, opting for peaceful change through the Fair Trade movement. Still, he believes that sooner or later, the privileged sectors of our world will need to get used to the idea of relinquishing some of these privileges.

“After all,” he told me. “They can do it the easy way…or the hard way.”

David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, Calif. He works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2011

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