Filed under: Featured, IGDcast, Indigenous, Interviews, Mexico
On this episode of the It’s Going Down podcast, IGD contributor Scott Campbell interviews Yunuen Torres, a community member from the autonomous P’urhépecha municipality of Cherán, Michoacán. More than nine years ago, on April 15, 2011, the residents of Cherán rose up and removed from their community illegal loggers linked to cartels, the municipal authorities, and the police. In the time since, they created an autonomous communal government where political power rests in the hands of the community and that has been designed to meet the needs of the more than 20,000 inhabitants of Cherán.
The conversation discusses the uprising and its context, how the communal government was formed and how it functions, the changes and challenges experienced in the community as a result of nine years of autonomy, as well as how Cherán is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons and inspiration the community’s struggle may offer to other struggles and social movements in other locations.
The interview was conducted in Spanish and rerecorded in English. Many thanks to the comrade who offered their voice for this recording. The two music tracks included in this podcast are both from Cherán. The first is by Colectivo Aho and the second composed by music teacher Mario López and performed by the young musicians of the Banda Sinfónica Infantil y Juvenil Cherán K’eri. A transcript of the interview can be found below.
Scott Campbell: Hello, welcome everyone. We’re here today with Yunuen Torres, a community member from the autonomous municipality of Cherán, Michoacán, a P’urhépecha community. And today we’re going to discuss many topics, such as the community’s uprising, the creation of its communal government, successes, challenges, how it is dealing with the coronavirus, and the lessons that Cherán’s struggle may offer to other struggles and movements seeking autonomy, freedom, direct democracy, and those types of things. To begin, Yunuen, would you like to introduce yourself to us?
Yunuen Torres: Sure. Hello everyone, I’m Yunuen Torres Ascencio, a community member from the second neighborhood in Cherán, Michoacán. And we’re here, collaborating with you.
SC: And thank you so much for your time and for being here with us. It’s worth mentioning that I had the opportunity to get to know Yunuen during the process of writing an essay about Cherán for an anthology that was published this year by AK Press, an anarchist publisher in the U.S., that is called Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy. It addresses several struggles, movements, and places that are practicing or experiencing processes of autonomy, communal governments, direct democracy, from Syria, Greece, Denmark, Brazil, Mexico, Indigenous territory in so-called Canada, and other locations. Currently it’s only available in English, but Yunuen helped me tremendously in the process and I’m very grateful for all her help. Thank you very much and I’m very excited that you can be here with us today. To begin, can you tell us what happened on April 15, 2011, and what motivated the rebellion?
YT: Yes, of course. Well, Cherán, Michoacán, is a town of more than 20,000 inhabitants, located in the heart of the meseta P’urhépecha, in the P’urhépecha region. And in 2008, approximately, as the days went by, we began to notice in the community things that perhaps we had heard about in the news or other media outlets, but that weren’t happening in our community. That is to say, we felt that these things wouldn’t happen in our context. Just like the rest of Mexico, a wave of violence began and in our Indigenous community things such as kidnappings, extorsion, protection rackets, and attacks on men and women in the community by illegal loggers began to occur. We started to see the unreasonable deforestation of our forests by people who weren’t from our community but who the local authorities at that time allowed access. There was an excessive plundering of our territory, our trees, our resources.
This began to be very clear to us and was something that really worried us, but it took us several years to reach the breaking point. That happened when a group of women in the early morning of April 15, 2011, a Friday at dawn, decided to face down the first truck of loggers that was carrying wood. They decided to put themselves in front of it. They were unarmed, they had a lot of courage, and they took what little they could find in the street, such as stones and sticks. In response to this action, there was movement in the community and word began to spread to the other neighborhoods of Cherán. Cherán is made up of four neighborhoods, and where this was happening was in the third neighborhood. As the hours passed, information began to be shared with the rest of the community, and that is when action started to be taken to put an end to the situation we were living in.
In that moment, life changed in Cherán in that there was unity throughout the entire community to stop the loggers, that we now know were linked to organized crime. So, it was confronting one of the forms of organized crime in Mexico, and for all the residents of Cherán to give their efforts and solidarity toward defending the community. From there, a difficult process of defense began. The first year, all of 2011, was exhaustingly complicated, but was also a process that was not just social mobilization but also accompanied by a legal process that put in front of the state, in front of Mexico, a demand to recognize an Indigenous community capable of organizing itself and of proposing and responding to its own needs as a municipality. And from that point, there have been many changes. Political parties were expelled, recognition of the municipal authorities was withdrawn – at that point it was an ayuntamiento, the traditional model of local government in Mexico, and other forms of organization began to be proposed that were based on caring for the community itself and its inhabitants.
SC: That is very impressive. And sometimes, all over the world, including in Mexico, we see uprisings, rebellions, and all that, but what emerged from the uprising in Cherán was this autonomous communal government, and as you say, a legal process as well. And up to today, it’s already lasted nine years. What was this process like? How were you able to go from an uprising to a communal government?
YT: When everything started during those days in April 2011, we also say that within Cherán a reencounter began among the inhabitants of Cherán. A kind of union, of meeting one another as neighbors, something that we didn’t do before. And from resisting in the streets, in the bonfires that were created. The bonfire is this space created around the fire, around the burning wood, that generally in our homes has always functioned as the companion of dialog among families. But now, because Cherán is very cold and using this pretext to fend of the night’s cold, it moved to the streets. We could see the fires on nearly every block of Cherán and the people there, sharing, talking about their concerns, their fears, all that came up as a result of being in a process such as this, with a lot of fear that fortunately was transforming into this ability to dialog and to create. A space where a lot of attention was given to listening to the elders, to the grandparents, to those who had knowledge. Here we say, if the elders share something with you, it is because they have done it through trial and error, and it is something that works. So, we need to stay with this knowledge to continue advancing as a community. From there is where the examples they had lived during the trajectory of their lives began to be valued, the examples they gave of how the community organized itself before.
The regime that nearly all municipalities have in Mexico is based on political parties. And at least for Indigenous peoples, this was not something that was consulted with us or decided upon by the community to allow them to enter. Rather, it was something that was imposed. It was driven by an outsider perspective, not that of the original Indigenous peoples in Mexico, but from an understanding that was created elsewhere.
So, from there, it was said, “Well, at what moment did the forms that worked for the community change?” Such as that before there was representation through councils as the regulatory bodies of the communities, as a community government. Also, with security, at what moment did it come in the form of the police, when in the communities there were always traditional patrols, which is nothing more than volunteer men and women who decided to protect the communities and who had their own way of functioning. From there, the thought was, why not pick up again these models that had always served the communities but that at some moment were drastically changed.
From there, these concepts and models began to be taken up again, and it was decided to implement a new form and new reality that Cherán began to take on since 2011. I think from that point there was greater clarity that Cherán should function through a community government that is based on representation of the people through councils and were there wasn’t just one person responsible, like there is in the normal ayuntamiento here in Mexico, which is the municipal president. That model doesn’t fit here and now in its place is a Council of Elders, a council made up of 12 people, where responsibility falls on many shoulders, where decisions are debated among many people, and where consensus is arrived at. And it’s a model where it’s not that easy to do harm to the community, rather the contrary, with many heads thinking and directing a community government. From that point, it was thought that this possibility was something good for the community. There must be agreement among all of them and it must always be supported by the assembly – the assembly is those of us who live in Cherán, and we always have the right to use our voice in those spaces – and the council must continue doing what the people are deciding.
So, in this case, having a community government is just a representation of that which we, the residents of Cherán, decide. And that is how, little by little, it was created. It took many days, many weeks, in thinking about its construction, something that was so distinct from the reality of 2011, but thinking about what from our old ways could be applied now. So that’s what it’s been, the community government in Cherán is a reclamation of the wisdom of our peoples but also coupled with the realities that we live today.
SC: You spoke a little about it, but can you briefly describe how the community government is structured and how it functions? As well, what distinguishes it from the so-called representative democracies of the United States or Mexico or even including other Indigenous communities that practice communal forms of governance?
YT: Yes, of course. The government is organized among eight operating councils. These operating councils are the Local Administration Council, which is tasked with all the needs the community has: the public spaces, streetlights, trash collection and other services in communal spaces the community. The Neighborhood Coordinating Council, they are responsible for the relationship between the assembly – the residents of Cherán – and the communal government structure. Their work is to convene the assemblies, schedule people, and to be that direct link between the assembly and the authorities. There is the Social Programs Council. They make sure all the resources coming from state or federal funds are directed to the people who really need it. The Honor and Justice Council is in charge of the community’s security and the Community Patrol, which is our security body, is part of it, but they also take care of other things like civil protection and road management. There is the Education and Culture Council, which is called the Civic Affairs Council, and they handle the educational aspects of the community and the relationships with educational institutions of all levels inside the community. The work of the Communal Properties Council is dedicated to the community’s territory, primarily the forest. They are also in charge of the community businesses, which are the nursery, a construction materials business, the sawmill, and they handle the permits and use of the natural resources here in Cherán. There is the Women’s Council. They are completely in charge of the requirements or special programs for women. They are responsible for institutions such as the Center for Women’s Development and the Indigenous Women’s House, where they’re constantly working. And the Youth Council is responsible for all the tasks related to the youth and are also the spokespersons between the youth and the community government.
These councils in turn are supervised or connected directly with work of the Council of Elders. The Council of Elders is this: 12 people make up the Council of Elders, three representatives per neighborhood. And they are in charge of coordinating with all the operating councils. They have to follow the work being carried out by the eight operating councils and accompany them in it, as they have to represent the councils and their work to the assembly. That is how the structure functions.
As well, a central part of the movement has been the participation of the Community Patrol that is present 24 hours a day at our entrances to the community, supervising their functioning and who comes and who leaves, as a preventive measure. And that is how our government is functioning.
SC: And how are they chosen? I know there are not elections in Cherán, but the positions change every three years, right? How does that process work?
YT: Yes, the community government structure changes every three years, as decided by the community itself. It also uses the idea of cargos, or positions, similar to other places, where holding a position is based more on the idea of collaborating in some way with the community.
There is the matter of compensation. That’s what it is called here, not wages nor salaries, but a symbolic compensation for the work being done by those who participate. But it’s not considered as something like…it is something very symbolic.
Positions change through the neighborhood assemblies. As I mentioned, Cherán is made up of four neighborhoods. When assemblies are held for the nombramientos, or namings, as we call them here, it is to decide who will become part of the government structure. Simultaneous assemblies are held and each person, based on where they live, should attend their respective neighborhood assembly. In the assemblies, the proposal for who could hold some role in the government structure is publicly proposed by members of the bonfires. And the assemblies decide who will be filling which position through forming lines.
They stand you up on a chair and you have to wait for the nomination for some council, for example, who will be our representative on the Neighborhood Coordinating Council? Those who are nominated go to the front, stand on a chair, and the rest of the people in the assembly line up behind them and wait until every line is counted. The number of people supporting each nominee is noted publicly on a blackboard, and the person with the highest number is the one who will serve on the council. And that’s how the structure is formed.
It’s an event organized entirely by the community itself through volunteers with the Neighborhood Council, who at that moment have an important task in carrying out this kind of assembly. And, in effect, for example, the Michoacán Electoral Institute is present but doesn’t do anything beyond noting that the assembly is carried out as previously agreed by the community. That is to say, they are only there as observers, attentive to what is happening during the assembly, but they have no role, nor can they intervene is absolutely anything during the course of the assembly. They only come as observers and that is all they do.
In the end, when it’s been decided who will form part of the structure, there is a march from the assemblies to the center of the community, and there the entire community ratifies those who will be the new members of the communal government structure. And that’s how the process is carried out.
SC: That’s great, thanks. And you had a position or were part of the second communal government, right? Can you speak a little about your role and what the experience was like for you?
YT: Yes, of course. Well, remembering what I said about the nombramientos, I think that the experience for me began at that moment. I did not expect to be nominated by my bonfire, but I was during one of the nombramiento assemblies. And from that moment on, which was in May 2015, it was a big commitment – to see the people’s faces, who is in your line, the people from the neighborhood, your neighbors, who trust that you will do a good job inside the government structure and who have seen something in you, right? That is why they are nominating you, and you realize that people are always observing what we do and how we act.
It was very impactful for me, but also something I knew carried a lot of responsibility. To give oneself to the community for three years, from the moment they nominate you, is a lot of responsibility. You feel the pressure and a little bit of fear, but you know that the people did it for a reason. So, there is no other option but to accept, because it’s a duty coming from the people of the community and it’s not so easy to refuse it. If you are going to refuse, it has to be done with very strong arguments saying why you can’t carry out something that the assembly is placing in your hands.
In another way, it was a little strange, because Cherán spent more than three years, from 2011 to 2015, in thinking about the participation of the youth as such. That’s to say that, during the uprising, in the moments of action, the presence of the youth was very solid and strong, handling the entire matter of communication within and outside of the community – perhaps due to the familiarity with social networks or media outlets, but it was work that we, the youth, had been doing since 2011. But in the government structure that appeared in 2011, there wasn’t clear representation of the youth inside of the government. This council was proposed in 2015, and the assembly decided it was a necessary space because Cherán was claiming that all voices would be heard, but there wasn’t a definitive space for women or youth. So, in the call for the 2015 government, the Women’s Council and the Youth Council came into being.
I was tapped to be part of the Youth Council, which was new, it wasn’t like the other councils. For example, the first month that we began our positions, which was during all of August, everyone did something called a hand over-reception, where each council explains to those coming in the functioning and work that they will be responsible for. And that lasts a month. But for us, as the Youth Council, this didn’t happen because there wasn’t a council before. So, for us, it was how to create a proposal to defend the voice and space that had been given and that had been demanded for a long time by the youth from the beginning of the movement. It was a challenge, first in getting to know the other compañeros who were part of the council and from there to begin to work on how to make proposals to address the needs of the youth.
Another strange thing happened with that. When we began our work, we brought proposals to the assembly, we shared with them our working plan, the responsibilities we were asking for and so on. But to be the youth inside this government, we were the ones who had the rebellious voice, more raw and emotional. So, there was also this issue of how to create this intergenerational relationship, which wasn’t so easy. Especially as our proposals and what we wanted to carry out in Cherán weren’t so simple, it wasn’t so easy to talk about it with the older members. And sometimes there were many internal moments when we had to defend the voice of the youth and to stand firm as to what we as youth believed and what we wanted to do. So, there was that, the rebellion inside of the rebellion itself, on the part of the youth. And that was the role we were tasked to fulfill.
Also, I think we continue to carry out this task of communicating with the outside. We were given this role of having relationships with other places, with other sites, with those who visited, because they believed we didn’t have as many responsibilities, such as families or being married, so it was easier for them to entrust us with this work and we carried it out. During the period we were part of the council, from 2015 to 2018, we had the opportunity to visit many places, have a lot of experiences, to share, and to somewhat be the spokespeople for the community in these other spaces. It’s something we began in the council and each of us continues to do it to different degrees, and that’s how this work has been.
But yes, it took a lot of work to make our voice heard within the government. When there was something that we weren’t in agreement with, we had to shout it. Sometimes it was frowned upon, but I think that it always brought about dialog and, hopefully, a solution. As well, to have this conviction that since the people are giving you a task, it must be defended by those of us who make up the councils. That’s what I left with.
SC: That’s great, thanks. You spoke about how this nine-year process, from the beginning of the uprising and the discussions, talks, assemblies, all as a process of reencounter. How is daily life today – both at the community and individual levels – different now than before 2011?
YT: It’s very different. We have lived this change for more than nine years now, and I think that among all of us who live in Cherán there has been a significant change in our ways of life and of sharing with others, of making community, as we say here. For example, there was this reencounter among neighbors, among all of us who live on every street in Cherán.
Cherán had a very fissile existence prior to 2011, where there were many conflicts – including within families – as a result of belonging to one political party or another. There were differences. And these differences were of such a magnitude that there were families who didn’t speak to one another, who had very marked differences in political ideology, but an ideology that came through political parties. With differences that were so tremendous that Cherán had very intense moments, including armed clashes, with deaths, with injuries; we’re talking about a tremendously fragmented society.
Beginning with the uprising, we noticed this reconciliation among families, this change in every one of us to return to being concerned about that which we held in common, which was the life of the community, and from there, there was a tremendous change. For the youth, for example, previously we would always sincerely say, “We don’t have any interest in any political party.” Because we saw that to them, we are just statistics or numbers that they can include you in and say that if you join this or that party, for them it means one more entry for more funds for their party, their programs, or what they are promoting. As youth, we felt like we were being used, like the whole world was waiting for us to come of age so they could recruit you to one of those parties that you didn’t even like. We didn’t even care about how the ayuntamiento was organized, how it functioned. To this day, my compañeros and I say that we still don’t understand how they are organized. I don’t know, beyond the municipal president, what else there is behind it. This changed drastically with the structure that we have now. All of us who live in Cherán, no matter what age, we understand how it works, how the community government was constructed, where it begins, what the process is, what its functions are, what the councils are, the commissions, and it’s all very clear. So, to begin with, for us, that is something that has changed a lot.
Also, I believe that one of the benefits of living in Cherán is the fact that you can again walk safely in the street. That didn’t happen before. Previously, if you went out and something happened to you at eight or nine at night, it was your fault because you were out on the street at that hour. It like was assuming that you were responsible just for going out into the town, into the streets, where you didn’t even feel safe, and now it is completely the opposite. We know that nothing can to happen to us, you can go out whenever you want to go out, we know that we have a safe environment. Why? Because we all collaborate and contribute to maintain that.
I think precisely that is a bit of the answer that I didn’t give before, about the difference with this participative democracy that happens in Cherán. And what that means is that you don’t just practice democracy when you go and participate in the nombramientos process, but that you also take on the responsibility to continue collaborating with the government that we have. That is to say, when there is some big action or event in the community, you participate and you don’t assume it’s the responsibility of those who are up front and that they have to resolve it, but rather that we give our support as an assembly and we recognize that these are issues that also impact all of us. So, I think that is the big difference, that we continue to take on – regardless of if we’re part of the councils or commissions in the community government or not – we take on the tasks that also impact us as residents of Cherán. I don’t think that this is something that can be achieved everywhere and fortunately here it is practiced daily and it is part of our work. We know that we have to be part of the voluntary patrols independent of if our patrol is the one working and that you also give some of your time to continue collaborating with the tasks of the community.
SC: Yes, that’s something that made an impression on me, how the government is a more or less organic expression of an organized community, and it doesn’t just function or is encapsulated in processes like the nombramiento, but it is a daily practice and is also something that everyone participates in. That is very different from what we have here in the United States and supposedly we have a democracy, but we all know how that goes. As you mentioned, Cherán now has nine years of autonomy and looking back and looking ahead, what reflections do you have? What remains to be done?
YT: I think that these more than nine years have also meant many internal challenges, to continue communicating among ourselves, to continue dialoging and deciding, that sometimes can be exhausting, but the idea is to keep it going. Many times, people, as I’ve said, that our assemblies can last more than four hours and they continue to meet without interruption every week in every neighborhood, we say things like, “Don’t get angry.” And that is one of the tasks, of how to maintain communication and to be very alert to what the community needs in order to continue working on the challenges that we need to resolve.
There are a ton of things that continue to be worked on. For example, we now have this possibility of having our own form of organization, of proposing and deciding through these mechanisms. The cycles that mark the community are often very different from what is understood from the outside. Here, communities have their own rhythms of work, of decision making, and their own mechanisms for how to do it. So, to achieve what Cherán has achieved, for this whole process it has created to be respected and recognized, even legally, is a great inspiration. But it also forces us to look at the many challenges and what we are lacking as a community. There are still huge gaps that we haven’t worked on much and that perhaps have been given little attention.
Such as the economic issue, one could call it. Also, how to defend ourselves from all that is imposed on us by the state, finance ministry, and the all the verification measures. Or how, sometimes, there has been a struggle over who gets constructions contracts to build, for example, a street. There has been a fight for it to be local people who get the work, that it doesn’t have to be done from the outside like it was before. How do we incentivize local production? Which is what is trying to be done with the construction materials business that we have, which makes these concrete paving stones that go on the streets, and it’s a fight to ensure the materials are bought locally. So, the challenges emerge from the fact that we have our own process but we have to keep battling daily with all these forms that have already been imposed.
So, there are practices that are happening on the inside, looking for answers for all that we still have to do. Just recently, we had a situation with the Community Patrol, because that’s also something that upon suddenly having it, we believed everything was working fine because it was there. But in reality, we didn’t think about the greater implications of details such as how it equates and harmonizes with this other legal system that applies from the outside and how it will balance with what we have built or consider justice here in Cherán: How valid is it? Under what process? And these are blows that can come and shake up the community and we say, well, we haven’t finished with these matters and we have to do that. And we’re forced to deal with it again due to events that we had very recently. So, all these events and more are enough for us to continue working, dialoging, and consolidating these mechanisms to resolve them, as they continue being fundamental issues. The matter of justice remains fundamental in how it will equate, relate, and harmonize with the laws from the outside.
So, there are these big challenges, something like what happened with the creation of the Women’s Council and the Youth Council. The Plan for Cherán, which was created in 2011, also makes very clear that it is subject to changes and that there has to be adaptations to the realities that we are living. I have always said that the best example has been that, the integration of the youth and women into these decision-making spaces inside the community government. Now it’s how to rethink it, to continue maintaining it, seeking these means of participation. And those are the tasks that are underway. There are many things we live through internally and it’s a process that has a lot of complexities.
When [the Supreme Court] ruled in favor [of autonomy] for Cherán, we saw it as one of the highest achievements. But it was also the opening for a lot more challenges that have arisen throughout the years and that remain to be worked out. But I think that what we can say from here is that the organization we have allows for this to be done, through dialog and an open space where voices can express themselves. This continues to be our way of building, and I think that it is the key or the one thing that Cherán continues to do that allows for things to continue changing, to continue strengthening ourselves, even when many experts said this process wouldn’t even last a year. Fortunately, we’ve been at it for more than nine years and we hope it continues in this way.
SC: That’s great. And I don’t know if you want to talk more about this, but you mentioned some events that happened in June with the Community Patrol. Can you tell us what happened and how the community is addressing it?
YT: Yes, of course. Yes, we had an incident that, as with everything, the press misrepresented it from the beginning. We place a lot of trust in communication from alternative and community media, because I think that since the beginning of the uprising, they have been the ones putting forward the truth about what is happening here. Now, a short time ago, we had an incident in which the Community Patrol was implicated in a very harsh and abrupt way. The media portrayed them as if they were guilty of the murder of a youth from the community. They reported it in such a way that it was very impactful; people from the community began to hear about it and it was through these media reports. It was very painful in how the media delighted in it and that they accused a formation that has been crucial to this entire process in Cherán was something very difficult.
So, it was very complicated, painful to experience that. But trusting in the mechanisms in Cherán, the situation was able to be clarified in such a way as to show that’s not what happened. But we know that there were bad intentions behind blaming the patrol for an act of this magnitude. We also know perfectly well that we are human, mistakes are made, and that we’ve always said that the enemy can be in our own home. Keeping all that in mind, the patrol was brought before the assemblies, special assemblies were held daily since the event happened, and things were clarified.
In effect, there was a young man that – well, there is a process that is being followed – but the patrol went to this location because it had been reported to them that there was a person’s body there, and they went to that place. They gathered him up, brought him to the hospital, tried to help him, gave aid, and everything. But people immediately held the patrol responsible. So, there was a whole matter of clarification. The patrol said that it was there [at the assembly] to publicly state how the events occurred, and they did that. But there was also fear on the part of the patrol of returning to its work unless it was given support by the assembly, which the assembly did. But there was a moment of concern and of feeling like the whole process was being destabilized because of something like this. Later it was shown there were other interests involved, such as trying to bring drugs into the community and other things that came out. But fortunately, the community acted in time, the patrol was listened to, the other parties were listened to, things were clarified, support was given to the patrol, and as a result, the volunteer patrol came out of it stronger, in a way saying, “We are all the patrol and we are here together.” And the inhabitants of Cherán were on alert while all this was going on. While the patrol wasn’t active, the barricades were covered by the people of Cherán. A few days passed like that and then the patrol was reestablished.
Now there is an investigation process, because along with blaming the patrol, people attacked and burned the coordinating offices of the patrol. So now fortunately there are processes underway for those responsible for starting the disorder. There are people who are detained and people who are assisting with the investigation. And now things have become clearer. But when this type of thing happens, it rattles the entire community and once again, doubts begin to surface. People who didn’t have all the information began to speculate. People on the outside began to say, for example, that Cherán was a disappointment and things like that, because they were relying on news being put out by the sensationalist and tabloid media. But the reality on the inside was very different. Fortunately, everything is calm now, it’s gone back to normal, and, well, things are still working and the patrol is already back with us.
SC: That’s good. Changing the subject to another crisis, that of the coronavirus pandemic. How is Cherán responding to this pandemic? How has it helped to have a community government to respond to this crisis?
YT: When the whole pandemic thing began, I think in the first few weeks, people were very scared, listening to the news or seeing what was said on social media. Also, our community government, our commissions, were sharing information. At first, people stayed at home almost entirely. There was no activity in the community.
Later, people began to need to leave their homes and didn’t trust as much in the news or the information that was circulating, and people began to return to the streets. We think this happened perhaps because in Cherán and other towns and communities in the meseta P’urhépecha, the rhythms are always different. Even the pandemic exemplifies that. When there was concern in all of the main cities in Mexico, they began to take very specific measures. But here, because we didn’t have any cases in the community at that time, the people felt confident. Things have changed drastically in three months, and here the peak of the virus is just beginning. There are already many cases.
One of the reasons there are cases was the return of migrants, residents of Cherán that returned to the community as they had previously planned. There are certain times of the year when they return to the community and, well, it’s not like they can be denied entry. Although precautionary recommendations were given, we still began to have cases afterwards
So yes, sanitary measures have been established by the Community Patrol, to ensure that the people are following the recommendations; that the businesses are following the protocols established by the community itself; assemblies have been temporarily suspended. There are measures that have been taken here, and since they’re decisions coming from the assembly, the people trust in what is being done.
There was also a decrease in business. For example, in the center of Cherán. The street market downsized in an impressive way. There is concern about the current situation. Here in Michoacán, we are on the red light, that is to say the critical point of the pandemic. So, we are living through all of this with a little bit of fear. This has had a consequential impact for those that live day to day, or the many jobs which people depend on. For example, commerce, selling goods in front of the schools, that also has had implications.
But also, it is very comforting to remember what Cherán is capable of doing. The first measures taken in Cherán were by the people, rather than from the community government. The people were concerned about bringing food to those who could not get their own food, to bring aid and food supplies. There was massive mobilization from the community itself. That is where Cherán surprises us again, because you say “the people are there”, right? Before the community government decreed or did anything, the people were already acting to help. The teachers from the community organized donation drives, brought food supplies to the people who needed it the most, or who were considered to be the most in need. There was a massive mobilization of many people, cooking, delivering things, worried for the well-being of others. That is what we call “making community,” the concern is first for the community. You don’t wait for the government to propose or help you solve the issue but rather the people themselves act. This has been significant, all of what the people themselves are doing. And well, we continue. The issue is just getting going.
SC: I imagine there is a major difference between how the issue is being handled there and how it is here in the United States. Looking at Facebook pages from Cherán, I don’t see any attempt to politicize the pandemic or do anything more beyond care for the community and see that the community is caring for itself. How do you see the response? Is it satisfactory or is there more to be done? Do you think you all are on a right path in facing all of this?
YT: I feel like here, knowing the people in Cherán, there is always something more to be done. The people are very critical of everything, including even if it causes fear. When we were in charge of the council it was very tough because, to the people, you’re always going to be missing something. Even if you’re doing things well, there is always something lacking, right? And here it is the same. I think that there is always more to give. But the community understands it and understands the mechanisms.
The elders, the grandparents, that is the population for which it has been the hardest. The change in routine is difficult. For example, to prohibit the use of spaces like the town’s central plaza, where the older people were accustomed to go and sit in the afternoons. That was their habit, it was a moment to talk with their friends and so on. And now that’s been restricted. And it’s difficult because they feel like it’s not something that’s real. So, it is difficult with certain age sectors, but they are working on the sanitary measures there as well.
And also, the collective responsibility. This is important. How do you leave your house? Why do you leave your house? And it is different because of the community organization, but also because fortunately we have open spaces. I would talk about what is happening here with many friends from other places or cities. And that here at least you know and have the confidence that you can leave your house for a bit, go to the hill or walk to some place, and you won’t encounter anyone. You can walk and breathe fresh air in an isolated manner, and nothing happens because you don’t come into contact with anyone. It is that possibility to at least move your body, to change your scenery, that relief…and also the healthy distancing and so on, it has been achieved.
There was a decision from the assemblies, from the people themselves, that for example, the traditional festivals must be suspended. This was a decision from the assembly. From there, when the assembly makes a decision, there is no going back. The decision is made and everyone has to abide by it. That’s why it helped a lot, for example, that all of the burden and work didn’t fall upon the community government, but rather the people had already proposed their own kinds of preventative measures and ways of taking care of each other amongst themselves. The community has responded in this way, and they continue responding, the community continues moving forward. It is difficult also because Cherán is a transit point, where many people pass through. They are informed of the recommendations although many are just passing through, or if they are staying for a while, they are constantly reminded of the sanitary measures in place.
SC: Very good. And I just have a few more questions that you more or less touched on in your previous answers. In addition to the pandemic, here in the United States there have been rebellions unleashed by the police killings of African Americans, against the white supremacy and anti-Blackness that is at the heart of this national project of the United States. This state violence and the pandemic have revealed or exacerbated the inequalities, injustices and forms of oppression that structure our society and politics.
In response, we have seen people and groups rising up in struggle and also getting together to organize forces of mutual aid to work for our survival and collective well-being without the mediation of the state and capitalism and hierarchical institutions. With respect to these struggles, what are some lessons that can be offered to us from the struggle there in Cherán? From your experience, what would you say are important factors to keep in mind as we organize?
YT: Well, many times people have come to visit us from other communities, including urban environments, from the city, and the question always is: How have you achieved what you’ve achieved? What are the steps to follow? For us, I think that we have always responded that, with the people in Cherán having so much to resolve in the day-to-day, sometimes we’ve done nothing more than share a little bit of our time to talk to others about what new forms are being constructed here and what Cherán is attempting to build with its autonomous process. We say that there are no established steps because each context is very different. I think that each town, each place, lives its own realities with its own complexities. But definitely, what is happening in many communities in Michoacán that are searching for this process of autonomy, the key has been nothing more than organization.
I think that making community; caring a bit about who is by your side, our neighbors in the case of Cherán, for example. I think that from there you can respond collectively to something that is harming you. Here in Cherán, this has been the means we have used to respond to many things and there is nothing more important than to collectively assume responsibilities and decisions. A very key guideline that we have followed is that when something is agreed upon, it is taken on by the community. And when it fails, we assume responsibility as a community. Thus, I think that collective accompaniment is the only way to respond to these complex times that we are living through. The realities that we face are, let’s say, not the best. These are very tough years. But here, not only in Cherán, but in other communities in Michoacán that are on the same path, they’ve shown us that through organization things can be achieved. Many times, we do nothing more than share that “it can be done.” Everything starts from the moment that we begin to worry about the well-being of our neighbors, when we take on a task that is required of us collectively, and not distance ourselves from the responsibilities. It is an active participation that we have because of the commitment of being part of a community. You don’t just leave the task to someone else or hope that someone else solves it for you.
That is the only thing we can share. I believe that organization, the collective, this mutual accompaniment that we have is the only way to respond to any situation. And Cherán, day in and day out, helps us understand a little more of that. To continue building. There are a lot of challenges that each person faces in their life, but without doubt, I believe that collectivity is one of the responses to all of the very difficult situations we are living through.
SC: Very good. Thanks. And for those who want to know more, do you have suggestions of where people can go to know more about Cherán and to keep up with the community and its struggle?
YT: Well, yes. There is a web page of the community government that is www.concejomayor.gob.mx. There is also the web page of Radio Fogata that is www.radiofogata.org. That is a project which came about as a proposal from the youth to accompany the movement. Just as the movement is nine years old, the radio has also worked without interruption for over nine years. I think that maybe those references could be useful. There are some publications about Cherán that have come out which people can freely download. Like the book, Cherán. 5 años de autonomía or some other texts that have some information about Cherán. Also, this other page that is kejtsitani.wordpress.com.
SC: Very good. We will put those links in the program description. Is there anything else that you would like to add or something that we haven’t spoken about which you believe is important to say?
YT: Well, I just want to emphasize that Cherán began and has done what it has done for something that is also very important, especially today in 2020. I am talking about the struggle for territory. We have said that in Cherán the struggle for territory is the struggle for life, and the struggle for life includes those forests that have given us life. The issue of our natural resources being brutally destroyed. Here there has been a fear about disrupting nature. And now this is happening because of all the damage that we have done. Here the defense of the forest has been important because through the defense of the forest, we are defending ourselves.
How can someone try to dominate all of this when we don’t understand that we are part of it, and that we must protect it? Fortunately, here in Cherán, I am proud to say that at a very young age people are taught that the forest must be taken care of. It is a matter of returning to nurture the forest, from the youngest to the oldest. I believe that is an important lesson; to have respect for the territory because this is what orients the process that Cherán has.
SC: Perfect. Well, I think that’s it. And many thanks for being with us and sharing your time and experience and all of that. Much thanks, Yunuen.
YT: You’re welcome.