“What is autonomy?”
A 10-year-old questions his parents at a meeting between hundreds of people from around Mexico and a group of EZLN (Zapatista) members in preparation for the third cycle of the “Zapatista School for Freedom”.
His parents try to explain the concept to him in terms of political theory.
“Why does it say ‘autonomous medicine’ over there?”
The child points to some products made by Zapatista collectives, leaving his parents silent and reflective. The adjective ‘autonomous’ appears alongside the names of medicines, co-ops, and schools, and is a key word for the Zapatista movement. On the twentieth anniversary of the group’s uprising, it is worth reflecting on what ‘autonomy’ means in the Chiapan communities where it is being fostered and consolidated.
In the face of economic, political and social crises, social movements throughout the country are growing. The ‘Indigenous Reform’ proposed by the federal government, meanwhile, hopes to counteract the influence of the Zapatistas. But the fact that their movement is as strong as ever means that debate about Zapatista autonomy in Chiapas will not be silenced so easily.
So what has been achieved? And what are the challenges? The young anthropologist Jaime Schittler Álvarez discusses Chiapan autonomy in his Master’s thesis, in which he reflects on his work as part of the Koman Illel collective (“collective view” in the Tsotsil language) in different Chiapan communities. In his essay, he seeks to “reflect collectively on the Tsotsil and Tseltal cultural concept of ‘Lekil Kuxlejal’, understanding it as a horizon of struggle that people and collectives independently translate into practice in order to end exploitation or domination”.
This piece of work is essential reading for those hoping to understand the practical application of autonomy and the demands made by the Zapatistas and other groups in the collective to have their autonomy respected. Álvarez, reflecting on his own experiences within the social movement, describes the daily construction of autonomy which “seeks to create a just, equal, and democratic society, built from below, from a free people”.
In his introduction, he describes Lekil Kuxlejal as a way of “naming certain practices and methods of understanding, creating, and recreating the world”. The concept is based on “a relationship of respect for others and for the Earth”. Seeing life and the Earth as sacred bodies worthy of respect, it seeks a harmonious connection in which a common good is forged between people and the world they live in. In this way, it conceives an idea of wellbeing and of “what is necessary to live a just and dignified life”. While it represents cultural, political, and social practices, it is also the foundation of a socio-political project that indigenous communities in Chiapas have been pioneering for years.
Álvarez describes how Liberation Theology, born with the “Congress of 74”, led to a rebirth of popular organisation and self-discovery, which saw underground activism grow and lead to the Zapatista uprising of 1994. He goes on to discuss the San Andrés Accords, the failed process of dialogue, and the subsequent response of the Zapatistas and their supporters in “building autonomy” through the construction of ‘Caracoles’ and ‘Juntas de Buen Gobierno’ (autonomous Zapatista regions and their ‘Committees of Good Government’). In addition, organisational structures such as the ‘Bees’ Board of Civil Society in Acteal were also created.
According to Álvarez, autonomy isn’t just sought for its own sake, but as a “tool for the construction of Lekil Kuxlejal”, and the path towards a good life, with respect for nature. The horizon of hope fuels the search for autonomy. It also provides a focus, “a line of practice, an ethical posture, and a way of being in the world, and inspires us to keep working”.
Jaime Schittler Álvarez’s Thesis can be found at www.ciesasdocencia.mx/Tesis/PDF/739.pdf
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Ángeles Mariscal, published in Spanish at http://www.chiapasparalelo.com/noticias/chiapas/2014/01/el-lekil-kuxlejal-el-ezln-y-la-autonomia-en-chiapas/ on January 6th 2014