Human Rights Advocates in Mexico
Mexico — 19 September 2012
Robert Joe Stout
“And the United States? Why aren’t your do-gooders advocating human rights in Arizona? In the prisons where they put indocumentados?”
It’s a question I’m often asked in Oaxaca, Mexico where I live. I have yet to formulate an adequate answer. Sometimes, half jokingly, I’ve responded, “Perhaps we Mexicans should send human rights workers to the United States?” the comeback to which usually is, “Chinga! They’d beat us up and shoot us just like we do them!”
American, Canadian and northern European human rights advocates have established workshops, educational programs, safe houses, nutrition clinics, land use and women’s programs throughout Mexico. Many are linked to established outreach organizations, such as the Maryknoll lay missionaries sponsored by the Catholic Church. Others are connected with smaller non-profit groups and are overtly political.
Scandinavian university graduates garner needed credits for teaching positions by participating in social service programs in foreign countries. International organizations like Witness for Peace dispatch young idealists, most of them single recently graduated university students, to respond to reported abuses. Most of these do-gooders have official Mexican government approval–as well as unofficial government disdain.
“They’re like houseflies always getting into things!” a Mexico City magazine journalist laughed as we chatted during a visit he made to Oaxaca. “The government doesn’t like them but has to tolerate them. Let’s face it, every incident involving a foreigner gets blown out of proportion by that country’s media and the government paddles around trying to band-aid the situation because they’re afraid the bad publicity will affect tourism.”
Most of these houseflies have some kind of funding, either personal or through non-profit agencies in their home countries. Whereas the tightly autocratic Mexican corporate and governmental structure can harass non-conformists’ families, employers, mortgage holders and social contacts, most of the foreign advocates are single and respond to threats by contacting their embassies. Mexico’s government-controlled media (or media-controlled government, as many believe actually is the case) cannot shove incidents involving foreign rights advocates under the carpet because TV and newspapers in their countries of origin latch onto (and often exaggerate) events concerning them.
“They become quite the heroes, especially the young women,” a government worker named Jiménez told me. “Blonde, energetic, easy to identify; they sympathize with the indigenas, hold their babies, talk to them. Then they go back to their own countries, to all the modern conveniences that are there, and they feel good about themselves.”
Two incidents involving rights advocates have been highly publicized outside the country: the slaying of U.S. Indymedia photographer Bradley Will at a citizens’ barricade in Oaxaca in 2006 and the assassination of Finn Jiry Jaakkola during a paramilitary attack on an aid caravan in mountainous western Oaxaca in 2010. The immediate reaction of state and federal officials to both incidents was to blame the victims for their participation and to investigate whether or not they had violated immigration laws by participating in political activities.
Whether “feeling good about themselves” is a primary motivation for the majority of these advocates I’m not sure but in talking to them and observing their interaction with Mexican communities I understand where Jiménez is coming from. Even members of international programs and disciplines who genuinely sympathize with the aspirations and traditions of the people they are working with can’t avoid being “different” as they embrace local customs. While some may differ philosophically with the politics of their countries of origin they come from the same imperialistic backgrounds that have promoted military takeovers throughout Latin America and that consider the countries south of the Rio Grande to be providers of labor and raw materials, not cultural equals.
Former exchange student Larry Wayne Johnson described “the arrogant humility” that he and others manifested while “culturally slumming.
“That’s what too many of us who came to Mexico believing we could do something for the underprivileged really were doing: We were slumming, although we didn’t realize it at the time.” When I remarked that I’d heard Southerners use the same term for northern civil rights workers during the early Sixties he clapped his fleshy palms together and laughed.
“It’s true! My uncle was in the Peace Corps in the sixties–India–and he said the same thing. Not that those in the Corps didn’t do a lot of good–they did. Probably the majority of those who come to Mexico do a lot of good, I don’t know. I lived in Chiapas two years and I like to think I helped some. Mostly because of what I did with my hands, physically, helping build houses, clear rocks from the land.
“Probably just that I was there, working with poor campesinos and indigenas, gave them some sort of feeling that someone cared, that they weren’t cut off from the rest of the world like they were before. But for me it was like college, or being an exchange student abroad. It was an adventure, not a way of life.”
Like Peace Corps participants (and for that matter Protestant and Catholic missionaries) the foreign rights advocates don’t come to Mexico for economic reasons or to establish homes or to escape from repression in their countries of origin. No matter how integrated into portions of the native culture they become they continue to be representatives of a different world.
Not that that necessarily is a negative. Rights advocates break through the chain of prejudice and repression by connecting with elements outside the traditional social and political system that separates Mexico’s elite from the masses. Many in Mexico feel a desperate need to be heard, to have the truth about their circumstances reported, recognized.
After armed troops and militarized federal police crushed the People’s Popular Movement in Oaxaca in 2006 local journalist Pedro Matias pleaded with members of a human rights emergency delegation to tell people in the United States what was happening in Oaxaca because the Mexican government and the Mexican media were falsifying information. According to official reports Mexico’s “democratic” government had effectively dealt with a renegade disruption sparked by “leftist” interlopers. (The situation in Oaxaca did not elicit the attention that the insurrection in Chiapas did twelve year earlier, largely because Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly lacked a spokesperson with Subcomandante Marcos’ publicity moxie and eloquence.)
Marcos’ descriptions of Zapatista belief and his criticisms of “the bad government” not only awakened international sympathy but brought thousands of journalists and rights advocates to Chiapas. The Zapatistas, realizing that the confluence of foreign sympathizers and volunteers couldn’t be integrated into the autonomous villages but not wanting to lose the support the foreigners were providing, set up separate sections in the villages to teach what zapatismo was about, reversing the “we came to help you improve your lives” syndrome with “we’ll show you what you can do with yours.”
Many of those who came and learned left Chiapas believing in the Zapatista cause and actively participated in support groups in their countries of origin, especially in western and northern Europe. But along with zapatismo in Mexico this active support seemed to fade as the novelty, the charisma, that the romantic uprising of downtrodden ethnics had aroused lost relevance as Mexican military and paramilitary forces confined all attempts at dissemination and in part because the world economic collapse in 2007-2008 displaced it as a focus of attention.
“The Zapatistas, I think, had the right idea,” a rights advocate named Kris who lived in southern Mexico from 2004 until 2007 told me. “They taught–changed the lives–of those who came rather than let them change the lives of the indigena inhabitants. And they were pragmatic, they had leadership.”
“They are well-intentioned–good people,” retired Mexico public school teacher José Martínez analyzed the foreign rights advocates as he and I conversed at a window-view table in a nearly deserted rural restaurant. “They become, you know, enthralled with the indigena ways of doing things.”
Enthralled–and too often non-objective in the formation of their opinions, he believes. The anthropologists who come, he suggested, understand more because they have examined the past, they evaluate both the good and the bad “but of course without results except, perhaps, for the academic community.”
Like the magazine journalist cited above Martínez insisted that the Mexican government only tolerates the advocates’ presence because of commitments to the tourist industry.
“They (the government and business entrepreneurs) really want high-end people who stay at five-star resorts, eat and drink at restaurantes de lujo, take tours. They don’t want kids in torn jeans with bulging backpacks who nose into the real Mexico.” (The “real Mexico,” he insisted, is poverty-ridden, corrupt and victimized by organized crime.)
That these foreign advocates aren’t linked to the local political structure allows them freedom of thought and movement that most Mexicans lack. Unlike the official bureaucracy’s forest of forms, procedures, offices and politicians’ relatives, the advocates can leapfrog bureaucratic ritual, appeal internationally for action through the Internet and connect petitioners with agencies that actually do something for them.
“Besides they listen,” Kris insisted. “In Chiapas and Oaxaca–and the D.F. (Federal District that encompasses Mexico City) people told me, ‘Nobody listens! I want to be heard!’ so they turn to someone outside the system for help and support.”
Unfortunately, organizations like Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the International Red Cross can do no more than report abuses, recommend changes or shake “naughty-naughty” fingers at perpetrators whereas the advocates are accessible and many are politically motivated. They “Teach Rebellion,” as Diana Denham and Laura Book titled their examination of the popular movement in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, many of those who “teach rebellion” are more attuned to theory than reality, idealize communal government defined by pre-Conquest “usos y costumbres” and offer no ways to resolve the urgent problems that millions in Mexico face: un- and under-employment, violence, shortages of food, health care and water.
In describing the effects that neighbors of his in rural Oaxaca engender after returning to Mexico from years of working–often as undocumented residents–in the United States, writer-activist Gustavo Esteve labeled returning workers “post-moderns” who weren’t accepting a return to traditional values but who were searching for the regeneration of a comfortable mode of rural living that included many elements of contemporary U.S. life.
Unlike most rights workers or missionaries they weren’t outsiders but paisanos who lived the changes they had seen, endorsed traditions but did not want to return to Mexico-típico campesino living and applied twenty-first century standards to agriculture, home life and education. Their experiences in the United States made them less not more political, less willing to follow doctrine and more skeptical–or more sanguine–about government programs, religious dictums and social conventions.
“They’ve learned to appreciate personal comfort, they know what it’s like to live well with technology and they want to combine that good life with what they have en el campo,” Esteve told an “El Mexicano en su sigla” forum.
That they’ve learned “to live well with technology” makes the majority of the returned workers that I’ve talked to pro-American in what they value but anti-U.S. politically, particularly in regards to immigration. But as many of them have point out, “We are Mexican. We love Mexico. But we hate the politicians and the police that enforce their bad decisions!”
As far as they and many others in Mexico are concerned, police are police no matter what country they come from and politicians are politicians–remoras feeding off the backs of working people–who only relate to the hoi poloi during election campaigns. For the majority family comes first, then community (except when the Tri–the national soccer team–is playing, then nationalism takes precedence). The communal focus is something they share with rights advocates, who work most successfully with ethnically intact groups, but for “there are so few of them and we are so many,” José Martínez shrugged, explaining that the majority of those who live in southern Mexico seldom come into contact with any of the foreign activists.
“They are like visiting performers–singers, acrobats. The come, they do their acts, they disappear and everything stays the same as it was.
“That is Mexico’s tragedy. Nothing really changes. Everything stays the way it is.”
Robert Joe Stout has written about Mexico for a variety of publications, including America, The American Scholar and Notre Dame Magazine. He was a member of two Rights Action emergency human rights delegations to Oaxaca. His most recent books are Running ut the Hurt and Why Immigrants Come to America: Braceros, Indocumentados and the Migra
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