Meetings with Rebels
November 10, 2010
We are just four days from finishing our time here in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala, Mexico. We have thus far met several times with various groups of CNUC members. CNUC is an abbreviation for the Consejo Nacional Urbana y Campesina, the National Urban and Farmworker Council. This is a community-based organization that developed around 1993 from leaders who had previously been a part of the Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores (PRT, or the Revolutionary Workers Party). This party had been in defense of communally held lands, known as ejido, but working through the party system proved to be contrary to many of the organization’s goals and principles and so CNUC was born.
The current president, Luz Rivera Martinez, is a commanding force with innumerable powerful personal connections that are very apparent when watching her interact. We’ve been at four or five meetings with her and it has been inspiring to see her oratory skills and energy. The ex-Bracero workers who we have met with have said that without her, their organizing efforts would probably not have happened. She is indeed a powerful and important leader, but we have also heard how maybe her presence inhibits the development of leadership skills among others. Either way, it has been very exciting to watch such a forceful woman in action. She makes me wonder what my grandmother, Anne Burlack, was like as an orator. But back to Tlaxcala…
We have met with both CNUC members as well as ex-Bracero workers, who make up a part of CNUC but who have some of their own very specific demand: to receive the 10% of their pay from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, which the employers – according to the Bracero Program laws – withheld and submitted to the US government, which gave the money to the Mexican government through Wells Fargo. The vast majority, if not all, of the ex-Bracero workers have not received this back pay which amounts to thousands and thousands of dollars stolen. If not known already, the Bracero Program was in place from 1942 to 1964 and was a governmental program of importing laborers by the millions from Mexico for contracted work positions. Meeting with ex-Bracero workers has allowed us the opportunity to hear testimonies of their experiences as well as discuss current obstacles to their movements and social movements in general.
CNUC is very clear to articulate that they are part of la Otra Campaña, the Zapatista’s national network of grassroots anti-capitalist organizations. CNUC’s principles are the same seven principles as the EZLN’s. These principles relate to organizational structure, process of seeking goals, and philosophical ideals. Some of these principles are:
bajar y no subir (go below and not from above)
representar y no suplantar (represent, don’t speak for)
unir y no dividir (unite, don’t divide)
servir y no servirse (serve, don’t serve yourself)
construir y no destruir (construct, don’t destruct)
Organizations that ascribe to la Otra Campaña are declaring that they find these principles crucial to their process of struggle. The Other Campaign (la Otra) is for those from below and to the left, abajo y a la izquierda. The campesinos of Tlaxcala identify with this position, as they have historically been a population that has had to sell their labor, often at great risks like the US-Mexico border. Talking with the ex-Bracero workers has been incredibly powerful. Imagine looking at hands of workers who have built our country as we know it today. Their labor was critical to agriculture, food processing, rail roads, construction, the meat industry and all kinds of service jobs. Their labor was seen by the US government as purely an input factor for employers, not in a humane way. The US government consistently placed weight and favor on the side of employers, effectively importing a second-class population of laborers to be exported when necessary. The history of Mexican migration to the United States is a long, complicated, sad story.
Our first meeting with Bracero workers was in a second floor, open air patio at the CNUC office in Tlaxcala. Dozens of white plastic chairs were set up in rows facing one direction, with four or five chairs facing the large group. We students were placed in the front three rows and the back rows were slowly filled up with elderly men and women, both ex-Bracero workers and their families. Our teacher, Tony Nelson, was pulled up to the front by one of the older men who forcefully took Tony’s upper arm and placed him in a chair facing the rest of us. This was an obviously awkward moment for Tony as we work day to day to deconstruct hierarchy within our group and now he was the sole person sent up to represent us. He was asked to introduce our group and did so quickly, describing how we were in Chiapas for seven weeks studying with Zapatistas and that we were very grateful for having been invited to their meeting. Then one of the men at the front of the group read a several page document that outlined the Bracero’s outlook, goals, and demands. Just after he finished explaining the 10% wage theft and the goal of recognition of their history, a man just behind me stood and said “Everything he said, I agree with. It is all true.” Many behind him nodded their heads after he said this. Mind you, these meetings are entirely in Spanish and overall my comprehension varies but I am usually understanding the gist of what is being said. Within our group, we have discussed how different language levels does lead to different experiences, and sometimes I wish for more fluency. Day by day, it is getting better. Regardless of understanding every single sentence, these meetings have been intense.
Our second meeting with Braceros was with a local chapter in a nearby town, whereas the meeting in Tlaxcala was with representatives of local chapters from around the region. Our meeting with the local chapter was last night in a living room where we somehow found a way to all fit inside. This meeting was with seven or eight elderly men who were ex-Braceros, an elderly woman who was married to an ex-Bracero when he travelled, and other family members. One man, the representative of that chapter, had a lot of fascinating, important things to say, yet somewhat dominated the space as well. Even when another student, Leticia Contreras, posed a question specifically to the women in the room about how they viewed their fight against machismo, especially in connection to the Zapatista’s Revolutionary Women’s Law, he spoke up as well. The ensuing scenario was unexpected and intense: his wife said “I am his fifth wife, and he beat the other four. And him over there? He hits his wife as well.” She somehow found a way to laugh about it, like “I wouldn’t let him touch me like that,” but it got really real as she described her next door neighbor running in the night to escape her husband. Tony, our teacher, shared that men the world over are working to learn about womyn’s struggles. There was a collective moment of recognition, and while I cannot speak to exactly what everyone was thinking at the time, it was a very appreciated comment and I think it resonated.
Today we are meeting with members of an organization of sex workers, here in Tlaxcala. The topic of gender equity has been fascinating given the differences in culture here, as well as the impacts of Zapatismo on the entire country. CNUC held their first workshop on womyn’s issues, for womyn, this year on Womyn’s Day in March when companer@s from Chiapas were traveling through. They have had several since then, and we attended one. Although it was conducted by a man, it was fairly decent, ending in a round of each person describing two of their qualities. I think I said I was curious and like to learn, which are almost the same things. What was really inspiring, however, was how many womyn said they are rebels. Las Mujeres: Con la dignidad rebelde!!!