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The Self-Ruling Indigenous People of Cherán, Mexico, Celebrate Their First Government Transition

Cheran yoco reyes-30

Hundreds of people from Cheran joined with their new traditional authorities and applauded those who had left office. Around their necks, they wore pandakuas to which they attach bread rolls; it signifies recognition. Photo: Yoco Reyes del Movimiento Juvenil Huizizilapan, courtesy of Más de 131

Three years after the indigenous community in Cherán began to govern themselves according to their own customs and traditions, the first autonomous government passed the ceremonial baton to the winners of last May's election, marking Cherán's first transition of power under self-rule.

On 2 September 2015, hundreds of people from Cherán attended the event to meet their new traditional authorities and applaud those who had left office.

Cherán, which is located in the Mexican state of Michoacán, runs a government independent from the rest of the country's political system and based on the P’urhépecha's people own customary law (usos y costumbres in Spanish). The movement for political autonomy began in earnest in April 2011 when locals, frustrated over authorities’ failure to stop organised crime from clearing their forests of trees, blocked the passage of many logging vehicles. Later that same year, the Superior Court of Mexico's Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary cancelled municipal elections, allowing the community to organize its own elections and government. In 2014, the country's Supreme Court officially recognized their right to self-rule.

That land has since been reforested by the local Council Commons Department of Construction, an achievement that received applause during the government transition ceremony. The department's other works such as a nursery and a rainwater capture facility were featured in a video shown in each district.

Two days before, Cherán’s governing council submitted its report on the past year directly to the town’s four districts and received the comments and criticisms of its people. In contrast, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto requested behind closed doors that the report on his third year of government be submitted, a year that was plagued by unspeakable violence.

‘United in our defence of nature, security, dignity, and animals’

From behind a banner carrying the message “strengthening our right to free decision”, the new authorities marched with a pandakua around their necks. A member of Radio Fogata, the community radio station that was set up after the 2011 movement, explained that the pandakua, to which bread is attached and worn around the neck, is a form of recognition that serves to make the wearer stand out. Behind them were boys and girls, members of support groups, and members of the Mexican Electricians’ Union.

Members of the town's four districts then came together and entered the town square. Each group carried banners and performed different dances. In the centre of the main square there was an enormous offering of corn, Agave leaves, stones and incense that marked the four cardinal points. Residents released commemorative floating lanterns. The square's kiosk was decorated with seeds and seedlings from the nursery by the Commons Council.

The master of ceremonies said:

Aquí estamos en reconocimiento de esta gran aventura que hemos decidido emprender. Hoy es la toma de protesta de muchos municipios, ninguno como el de nosotros. Este pueblo seguirá unido en defensa de la naturaleza, de la seguridad, de la dignidad, de los animales. Porque somos un pueblo culto y ancestral que ha habitado este territorio. Ante el rumbo de la crisis política del mundo -crisis ecológica, social y económica- el pueblo de Cherán va a demostrar que tenemos la capacidad de reivindicar lo perdido”.

We are here to recognise the great journey we have decided to undertake. Today is the day oaths are taken in many places, places very different to our own. Our people will continue on, united in our defence of nature, security, dignity, and animals, because we are an ancestral and learned people who have lived on these lands. Facing the course of the global political crisis — environmental, social, and economical crisis — the people of Cherán will show that we have the power reclaim what has been lost.

Various guests attended the occasion: the lawyers who took the case before federal court, representatives of the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (a national teachers’ union), various state schools, indigenous people, and the magistrate Juan Carlos Silva Adaya, president of the Toluca Courtroom of the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary, who swore in the 12 members of the new elder council.

“They have made the words of the constitution and treaties into a reality. We have a lot to learn from the P’urhépecha community”, Silva Adaya admitted. He also emphasised: “Their experience must be made known to other groups of people in Mexico and Latin America so they can follow their example.”

‘We are part of the earth, the fight is for life’

The people continued the ritual, asking Tatá Jurhiata (Father Sun), Naná Echeri (Mother Earth) and the beings who in the indigenous P’urhépecha's belief inhabit the four cardinal points to give “strength to the authorities for their new roles […] let them embrace humility.”

The old and new kericha (elder in the P’urhépecha language) were blessed by the traditional healers. Trinidad Ramírez, a member of the previous Elder Council, handed the baton to new member Mario López and told him:

Este es un símbolo de sabiduría, honestidad y respeto, cuando se veía oscuro el corazón p’urhépecha, se encendió y resonó fuerte su voz. Es la voz de todos contra la falta de explotación y falta de respeto a raíces, territorio y esencia.

This is a symbol of wisdom, honesty and respect, when the P’urhépecha heart appears dark, it lights up and its voice resounds. It is the voice of all those against the crime of exploitation and the lack of respect for roots, lands and spirit.

He then shouted, “Juchari Uinápikua!” (Our strength!), which was echoed by the other authorities. Finally, he went off dancing with the other kericha around the offering.

Pedro Chávez, another of the 12 new members of the Elder Council, read the first declaration of the new council on duty:

Somos parte de la tierra, la lucha es por la vida. Comuneras, comuneros, colectivos que nos brindan su apoyo, nos toca una página más de la historia de la lucha de la comunidad. Ratificamos nuestra lucha en defensa de madre naturaleza y vida; tomar protesta como segundo consejo es ratificar el ejercicio de recuperar nuestra cosmovisión que surge como respuesta a la problemática de la nación y mundo entero.

We are part of the earth, the fight is for life. Men and women of our community, and the groups who offer us support, give us another page in the story of our community's fight. We confirm our fight in defence of Mother Nature and life; to take oath as the second council is to confirm our task of recovering our world view that comes as an answer to the problems of our nation and the whole world.

He urged residents to “not participate in a system of pillage and death” and mentioned the violence in Ostula, Ayotzinapa, Apatzingan and Tanhuato, in which Mexican authorities played a part. He thanked the outgoing councils and the community circle and condemned the political party system. He also asked the community not to become distant from their traditional government: “the journey requires the participation of all.”

An outgoing keri, an incoming keri

Outgoing Elder Council member Trinidad Ramírez recognized that their communal government had unfinished business, but for this reason two new councils emerged: the council for the young, and the council for women.

Nunca tuvimos tiempo de amarrarnos una corbata porque teníamos que salir a levantar una piedra, ayudar a alguien. Nos ven ayudar a los vecinos, estar en contacto con el pueblo. Ahí te platican sus cosas. Las faenas es el momento para platicar sus necesidades, cosas íntimas. Yo digo que ahí está la clave, el día que nos alejemos del pueblo, perdemos.

We never had time to put on a tie because we always had to go out and help people. They see us helping our neighbours, being in contact with the people. That is where they chat with you about their things. Doing chores is a time to talk about their needs, their intimate things. I say that this is the key, the day that we distance ourselves from the people is the day we lose.

He mentioned that the most difficult thing for the Elder Council was to meet residents’ expectations for the new form of government, and how community authorities had to make arrangements with government authorities, in which, he said, they almost always faced obstacles.

Lo más difícil es convencer a la gente que hacemos todo lo posible. ¿Cómo resolverlo? Hablándoles con la verdad, siendo honesto y decirles: está es mi capacidad, hasta aquí puedo. Si alguien me orienta, háganlo.

The most difficult thing to do is to convince the people that we are doing everything possible. How can we do this? By speaking the truth, by being honest and telling them: this is my ability, this is as far as I can go. If someone can guide me, then please do so.

Lingering mistrust of Mexican authorities

Ramírez denounced the members of the 72nd term of the state Michoacán Congress trying to promote three laws (the Law of Linguistic Rights in Michoacán, the Law of Indigenous Culture, and the Law of Citizen Participation Mechanisms of the State of Michoacán) without prior consultation of the communities.

He stated that after the 2011 uprising for self-rule, the people of Cherán question the decisions of the government. He considers this to be the reason why the Michoacán government does not want to initially consult the people on these laws in a free and informed manner, as indicated in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, signed by Mexico.

Members of the Liaison Committee of the outgoing and incoming community governments have already submitted a document to  the state congress in an attempt to get it to inform the districts of Cherán about its intentions in enacting the aforementioned laws. Due to a lack of response, the traditional authority was ultimately the one to inform the people of Cherán about these laws.

Victor Hugo Campanur Sixtos, a member of the new Elder Council, revealed that the members of the new government structure have already visited the bonfires (a gathering spot reserved for dialogue that emerged during the 2011 movement) to request information about the people's most urgent needs. With this information they will create a plan of work to be consulted. The priority will be security. They will also continue on with infrastructure works and will focus on the “reconstruction of the social fabric”, especially among youth.

Regarding the laws that the state government wants to enact, it was revealed that President of Michoacán Congress Raymundo Arreola Ortega had not initially received them in the correct form, but now has said that they are working so that the laws “turn out in favour of the communities.”

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