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ALMA Reviews Blog: Kuxlejal Politics. Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities

Kuxlejal Politics. Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities.

Mariana Mora; Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS)

University of Texas Press

Available at: https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/mora-kuxlejal-politics

At first glance, Mariana Mora’s book may seem to be a conventional anthropological study of a highly popular movement: the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Southern Mexico. From 1994 onwards this movement, as an example of indigenous organising practices and their success in pressing for autonomy, has been the object of much anthropological enquiry. The Zapatista uprising occupied several towns in 1994 and later established autonomous municipalities with their own education and health services. Mora’s book differs from most, however, because of her decolonial and historicised approach.

 In this review I focus on two contributions from Mora’s feminist decolonial perspective. The first is her examination of the role of the historical hacienda economy in Chiapas well into the twentieth century. She foregrounds this role as an integral element in motivating protests, organisation and self-education on the part of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and its support communities. The continuity between the hacienda model and the neoliberalisation processes of the 1990s lies precisely in the racialisation of and subsequent suffering by indigenous communities, not only because of economic inequality. The second contribution is how she turns the relation between researcher and researched on its head. She shows how her project became possible precisely because the communities made it their own, actively decentring her, the researcher.

On the first point, Mora argues, neoliberalisation in Chiapas, and in response, the Zapatista project of demanding autonomy from the state, “could not be fully understood in its local manifestations unless read in light of intergenerational life experiences” (p. 10) on large estates and haciendas. Unless past processes of racialisation are taken into account, the ways in which the Zapatista movement tried to push back against neoliberalising policies cannot be fully understood. She shows that haciendas were more than sites of economic oppression and in fact operated “as institutions of servitude” (10), and she recounts, through testimonies by community members, the narratives of suffering and racist mistreatment that fuelled a motivation for change and rebellion in many Zapatista activists. Mora defines racialisation as social processes linked to “processes of domination that maintain certain stability across historical or spatial frames” (p. 10). Rather than simply defining what racism is, her objective is to analyse what racism does (p. 14).

How did racism on haciendas and the neoliberalisation of the 1980s and 1990s converge and prepare the grounds for the Zapatista rebellion? The politics of land is essential for understanding the material effects of racialisation, or conversely, the material interests that lie behind racist tropes such as infantilisation (p. 16), the figure of the mozo (a socially and economically inferior position) and the idea of being “biologically deficient”.

Mora disproves the frequent assumption that, in parallel with neoliberalising reforms, indigenous and Afro-Latin American communities enjoyed more rights (p. 6). She is not the first to argue that neoliberalisation in Latin America had racist effects but focuses explicitly on the limited democratisation process centred around elections and the politics of land. The state both abolished the protection that communal land had partially enjoyed since the Mexican Revolution and made an effort to certify, register and title parcels in order to privatise land.

Through bringing past and present together, Mora focuses not only on the organising practices and motivations of 1994 and the subsequent project of autonomy, but links that project to much longer trajectories of dispossession and discrimination, which the privatisation of land only aggravated.

Second, Mora’s research process is a model for ethical research. After sending her proposal back and forth to the community assemblies and making adjustments as they requested, they granted her permission to do research in 12 communities. They were the ones who pushed her to think of haciendas and stories of trauma as integral to the effects of contemporary neoliberalising policies (p. 9). 

Mora’s project is a model of collaborative research with the communities she did research in. She recounts how the research “objects”, the Zapatista communities, not only requested changes but also questioned the practical benefits an academic study had for them. Her interview partners, particularly the women, appropriated the arena and turned focus group interviews into a discussion platform for their own narratives of suffering and trauma in the past and their politicisation and organising in the present. She did not participate when the women prepared interview sessions and did not understand the whole conversation when it was held in the Tojolabal language. The women reserved parts of the discussion for themselves but also made an effort to produce written statements and to convey that these were based on lived experiences, even the silences they left (p. 59). While ultimately it is Mora’s expert interpretation that constitutes the text of the study, the communities consciously placed themselves in the centre of the story and of the research process itself.

This decentring of methods and established categories is also visible in the idea of kuxlejal, which gives the book its title. Interviewees explained the Tseltal word to Mora as an essential political idea stemming from their thinking about a project of autonomy. Mora translates lekil kuxlejal as an everyday effort to “live in a dignified manner”, or as a “politics of life” capable of transforming the status quo (pp. 18–23). The positioning of a “politics of life” against a “politics of death” is a familiar narrative to anyone who has researched social movements in Mexico. The idea of a kuxlejal politics that places “life-existence” at the centre demands a stop to both the violence and the neoliberal policies that have been damaging in Mexico in their association with dispossession and the closure of social mobility channels. Mora does not romanticise the Zapatista movement; rather, she allows her research subjects to step out of the background of data collection. In this way, her conceptualisation helps us to understand the historical roots and current practices of Zapatista communities by placing them centre stage.

Reviewed by: Alke Jenss

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