Nov 27, 2018
Oaxaca City is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Mexico. It is a bustling center, rich with busy markets – each one with its street vendors and music. Above all, there is the music! You will hear music coming at you almost wherever you go in the city.
The area in which the city is located contains the largest percentage of people in Mexico who identify as Indigenous. Zapotec, Mix-tec and other peoples jostle together in the city, and live in villages in the three surrounding valleys. There are sixteen different culturally distinct groups that live in the area, each with its own language. And each of those languages contain within them many dialects.
The human history of the area appears to be that basically the Olmec came first, and then Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec and the others, and ultimately Spanish – each group rising, falling, and ultimately mixing with the other. The result is the Mexican people – who are basically a Metis people – some with more Spanish blood and lighter complexioned, and then others who are darker and more Indigenous. Their culture is deep and rich.
The Indigenous groups govern themselves at the local level according to their traditional ways. This includes dealing with less serious crimes, as well as seeing to the usual administrative duties needed to keep villages and rural areas functioning.
But here’s the thing: all Mexicans are equal in law, and they take pride in the fact that the constitution makes everyone equal citizens. There are no such things as “status cards” giving any one group superior rights over the other, no special financial privileges, and everyone pays taxes. They take pride in the fact that they are self-reliant. Alcohol abuse is a problem in the communities – mainly the traditional pulque that the Indians have made from agave since time immemorial – but it is not nearly the massive problem that it has become in Canada’s Indigenous communities.
So the Mexican status quo is quite unlike that which prevails in Canada, where status Indians have special laws that apply only to them, special financial privileges that only they enjoy, and special tax exemptions only available to people who carry these status cards that are based purely on race. Mexico has no separate system, like the one we have in our country. It is also unlike the Canadian situation in that Mexico’s Indigenous communities do not have the welfare dependency and alcohol related child neglect problems that exist in Canadian Indigenous communities.
But the most striking difference between the Indigenous people of Mexico (basically everyone) and Canada’s Indigenous people is that in Mexico there does not seem to be the same sense of grievance and victimhood that completely consumes so many of Canada’s Indigenous people. Mexico does not have the same endless series of victim inquiries, continuing demands on the federal government, and the overriding belief that others are responsible for all their problems. And they don’t have the same sense of helplessness, and total dependence on the federal government and the mainstream taxpayers for all of their needs. Instead, they are independent, self reliant, and proud of their independence.
And this is odd, because as their history unfolded, there was certainly no shortage of brutality and unfairness. Each tribe would victimize the weaker ones as they sought power, and when the Spanish arrived, the brutality went off the scale. The “Encomienda ” system the Spanish introduced held the Indians in virtual slavery for five hundred years. (During which time – in the complicated way history usually works – the Catholic Church acted both as exploiter, and protector, of the common people.) If one wanted to identify as a victim, the Indigenous people of Mexico would certainly have good reason to make that claim.
But they haven’t. Instead, they have developed a beautiful culture. They have recognized that just as a former enemy took something from them, it added to their developing culture as well.
This applied particularly to the Spanish conquest. As shown above, the Spanish were among the most brutal conquerors of old. The British in North America were pussycats compared to the fierce conquistadors. Those Spanish conquerors brutalized and exploited the Indians mercilessly. And yet, one only has to walk down a street in Oaxaca City to recognize the contribution made by the Spanish. The language they arrived with has served to unite the country. The religion they brought with them – though remedied by the state takeover of all church property – has both exploited and brought great comfort to much of the population. Oaxaca has beautiful churches on virtually every street corner. Just as the Spanish brought great suffering, they also made a tremendous contribution to what Mexico is today.
None of this is to say that Mexico does not have many problems. The poverty is evident everywhere. In Oaxaca, one of the poorest states, most people must get by on the minimum wage of 80 pesos a day. (80 pesos buys a sandwich and a Coke at a tourist restaurant.) There are also the usual tensions between areas, and among groups. Like any country, Mexico has its politics- sometimes violent. And Mexico’s misfortune in living next door to a northern neighbor with an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs has resulted in the tragedy of cartel corruption and violence. So the country certainly has its share of problems. However, in Mexico there is a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood between Mexicans of all groups. There is also a strong sense of pride that everyone is equal under the law.
Mexico is a country of many cultural groups. This diversity is celebrated, and every citizen can celebrate his or her culture in their own way. However, there is also the strong recognition that every citizen is first and foremost a Mexican, and that every Mexican is an equal in very respect.
Mexico offers a model that Canada should follow.
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