The surf was set to be flat for a week so i decided to escape the heat and return to the Sierra Madre for the third time. The Sierra Madre del Sur traverses Southern Mexico, often very close to the coastline. The range extends over a thousand kilomotres through Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It has a major influence over the weather and climate of the coastal regions and I have often witnessed large storms forming in the mountains to the north in my time on the coast.
After arriving in colectivo to Huatulco I noticed a distinct lack of the usual hustle and bustle at La Central. There were no colectivos queing up to ferry people to the next regional centre of San Pedro de Pochutla. I waited, as you get used to doing in Mexico. After a few quesadillas and a coffee, I decided to figure exactly what was going on.
"Hay un bloqueo en la carretera wey."
The taxi driver was right, the main coastal highway of Southern Mexico was blocked not far from Huatulco Airport. Cars were unable to pass, but I was told I could cross the blockade on foot and pick up a colectivo on the other side.
Shortly after we were skirting up the wrong side of the road past an endless line of trucks and semi-trailers to the intersection that had been blocked. Before us were positioned two white semi-trailers, the sun reflecting brightly off their sides into my eyes in the midday heat. The trucks had been purposely jack-knifed to prevent passage by any type of vehicle. Upon passing through the first two trucks on foot, I realised the same had been done on the other two sides of the intersection.
The scene that played out at this crossroads was mostly relaxed. Mexican tourists wandered around, some aimlessly, others on a mission. Then I turned to observe the people around the trucks. These men and women were mostly of darker complexion. They were people of the pueblo - people who lived from the land. And they were sure to bring their tool of choice: the machete. The machete is undoubtedly the tool of the tropics. Every home usually has one. You can open coconuts with them, chop wood, cut grass or tend to your crops. But today this ubiquitous tool had a different, more sombre use. It was not being wielded in a threatening or aggressive way. Instead, its presence represented a subtle yet direct warning that said 'we are here for real.' Police were nowhere to be seen, presumably avoiding any type of escalation.
The faces of the men, women and children who stood in that intersection communicated to me a story of staunch defiance mixed with an unflinching dignity. These people of the pueblo, of el pueblo Oaxaqueño y el pueblo Méxicano, were fighting for their right to live life the way they wanted to. A part of me wanted to take photos of these faces, but something in me remained unsettled by it and the camera remained in my backpack.
Earlier that same morning, Abraham Hernández González had been kidnapped and assassinated. He was a regional leader in Oaxaca for the Comité de la Defense de los Derechos Indigenas (Committee for the Defense of Indigenous Rights) or CODEDI. He was a man who represented the rights of the people of the pueblos in Oaxaca — the very people that stood before me in that intersection.
It has been a chaotic few months in México. The World Cup fever swept a nation, apparently causing small seismic disruptions in Mexico City when the country defeated Germany in the first game. Then, the day before Mexico was set to play Brazil, the country went to the polls to elect a new leader — something that only happens once every six years. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO for short) was elected in a landslide on a wave of millions of hopeful Mexicans wishing for change. Some people remain less optimistic and only time will tell what the effects of his Presidency will be.
Las tierras no se venden,
las tierras no se dan,
las tierras se defienden,
con mucha dignidad.
The lands are not sold,
the lands are not given away,
the lands are defended,
with the utmost dignity.
It's a rough translation, and loses some of its poetic nature, but these few lines of prose scrawled in red across an abandoned building on the highway have remained in my mind. I first saw them passing in a car, and then many more times as I made the frequent commute from Puerto Escondido to waves further in the south. Last week I rode past the same building on my bike. This time I stopped. Amongst the early morning shadows casting themselves across the crumbling white wall, those same red letters staring back at me once again.
Oaxaca and Chiapas — its neigbouring state to the southeast — have the highest populations of Indigenous people in all of México. Indigenous languages are still frequently spoken in these states and large numbers of people live in small pueblos, often in fairly inaccessible areas in the mountainous regions throughout. These pueblos often straddle the delicate balance between modern influences and traditional value systems and ways of life. These two powers can — and frequently do — come into conflict and if we don't use our collective energy to make the process a harmonious one, we risk social decline in so many heartbreaking ways.
Another member of CODEDI, Abraham Ramírez Vázquez, has argued that the goverment of Oaxaca has been targeting social leaders who oppose resource extraction and exploitation, and various development projects in the state. A strong claim but one that may have basis in truth.
The people of the pueblos were given the opportunity to vote, an opportunity to influence the future of their country and their lives. At least this is the idea they were sold. But when the leaders representing them are kidnapped and murdered, its not hard to understand why they have to take other measures to be heard.
The people at that blockade were not asking for much. They were not asking unfair demands. These mothers and fathers, sons and daughters were asking to be able to live their lives the way they choose — in harmony with their world and the environment in which they live. It's not much of a stretch to say they were asking for freedom.
I remember something Galarrwuy Yunupingu said in his beautiful essay about life on the land as Indigenous Australian in Yolngu Country:
What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you.
Maybe that's what the people are asking here. For the people in power to relax their grip, even just a little.
'Rom Watangu', an essay by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, can be read in full here:
If you ask me, it should be in the reading list of every Australian.