February 23, 2015
Walking down the streets of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, one can hear merchants speak to their family and friends in many indigenous languages, such as variations of the Zapoteco and Mixteco. With 15 out of the 62 recognized ethnolinguistic groups in Mexico, Oaxaca is one of the most diverse states in the country.
As a state rich in ethnic diversity, Oaxaca attracts a good deal of cultural tourism. The need has arisen, consequently, to assist in these cultures’ reservation. The foundation Alfredo Harp Helu, for instance, participates in the preservation of Zapotecan culture. Through the foundation’s support, different centers can host workshops on indigenous textile techniques developed in the region, and provide lessons to learn native dialects. This type of philanthropy is valuable for Mexican society, as it helps preserve the colorful and millenary cultures that we often associate with Mexico.
Unfortunately not all ethnic groups in Oaxaca receive enough help to maintain their culture. There are places beyond the capital where poverty, violence and illiteracy persist. The Triqui, for example, can speak their native language, but most can no longer read or write it. Despite their recent successes in international basketball, the Triquis of Oaxaca are currently in the midst of a cultural crisis. As Federico Anaya Gallardo writes in his essay titled Contexto político y social de la reforma constitucional en la materia indígena del estado de Chiapas, “Modernization produced the surge of new social identities and new political and social groups that societies were unfamiliar with in the best of cases, and in the worst, despised.” The same explanation may be extended to Oaxacan society. In the 70’s the Triquis began organizing to fight an abusive agricultural system. In the pursuit of political rights, factions of Triqui groups were created. They all wanted peace and respect for their human rights, but had different political interests and identities, and ended up working separately.
“Some groups weren’t as peaceful as others and the clashes between them escalated into violence”, explains Emelia, a young Triqui woman whose face shows the passage of few, but cruel years. “We are famous for our violence,” she says, “but with respect to our culture, we haven’t advanced much. We have lost a lot of culture from our writing because there have been too many murders. All of the knowledge that we have goes to the grave, it worries us.”
“We are looking for a strategy on how to lessen the violence, it’s difficult, it’s not easy. But that is our vision, that someday the Triquis can live well, like humans, like we all deserve. Little by little we have advanced and accomplished things. In 2012 we signed a peace treaty amongst the Triquis.”
Even if the Peace and Concord Treaty has brought some relief to the region, the scar of past violence has kept trumping overall stability. Emelia’s eyes fill with tears as she speaks about her cousins who disappeared in 2007, yet, her voice is filled with the conviction that she will not stop trying to bring peace amongst the Triquis. “And like that, little by little we have been working with several groups, little by little with the communities, and like that, we have been advancing. And it was really hard because two of my cousins disappeared. And like that, with all the pain we worked, and we advanced, and now we have had some peace for four years. Effectively, yes, there have been murders, but it isn’t like it was back in 2006 to 2010. Just because you weren’t a member of a certain community, you were an enemy, you were sexually attacked, physically. It was a critical situation. There’s a lot of widows and orphans thanks to the violence.”
Three years after the treaty was signed, the organization called Movimiento Unificación y Lucha Triqui (Triqui Struggle and Unification Movement, MULT) has attempted to create a house of Triqui culture in Oaxaca. This house, the MULT says, would bring together the Triquis under one same roof, and through the preservation of their culture, attain peace between the factions. There still are groups that clash, but the house promises to bring unity. “In this house there will be peace for everyone, not one group, but all of us, but we don’t have the means to start, that’s the problem. If we could receive some financial or cultural help from anyone, they could help us preserve our culture,” says Juan Domingo Pérez Castillo, natural leader and founder of the
MULT. “We want the house to be a sort of embassy amongst Triquis. For the Triquis of Oaxaca, we want this to be a place where we can document so many things from our culture. There are many young Triquis outside of Oaxaca, even in the U.S., who know they are Triqui but do not know much about us. So we want this house to be the place where they can go online, too, and do their research there.” Some of the things Juan says the house would have is a database of the curative plants they use, and have extensive information on the way the Triquis of the mountains sustain themselves. There is even talk of making a small documentary and going around the Triqui communities to have them all chip in their bit of Triqui wisdom. A major challenge they face in the creation of the house, says Emelia, is that very few living Triquis know how to read and write their language. The cost of reaching old Triqui speakers and writers is too high. “There are areas where the Triquis don’t even know how to read and write Spanish. So by keeping us ignorant, we stay separated,” says Juan. “Then alliances start forming, where groups look only to benefit themselves, instead of all the Triquis.” This does not mean that the Triqui language has been lost. There is a woman named Elena Erickson de Hollenbach who has a website where one can find books about the Triqui language. “The problem,” says Juan, “is that she came with intentions of evangelizing us too, rather than just documenting our language.” Juan says that they’re open to collaborating with any foreigner as long as they respect their beliefs and customs.
On February 2, 2015 there was a march in the city of Oaxaca where numerous MULT members walked down the main streets of the city. They were asking for the state and federal governments to implement projects that would improve the Triqui social structure including diminishing poverty and marginalization. It culminated with the state government promising a dialogue on the 9th of February. This dialogue could lead to the creation of the House of Triqui Culture with the help and respect of the Oaxacan government. While those dialogues develop, Emelia and Juan say they will dedicate themselves to unify the Triqui communities through the maintenance of their culture, in any way possible.