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The Paipai of Jamau: A Test Case for Constitutional Reform

Perhaps the least-known indigenous region of Mexico is that of Northern Baja California. Here vestiges of once large populations live in the mountain range of the Sierra Juarez and the Sierra San Pedro Martir and along the northern Gulf of California coast on the Colorado River Delta. Today California coast on the Colorado River Delta. Today a total of some 500 indigenous inhabitants of the Kiliwa, Cochimi, Kumiai, Cucapa, and Paipai groups live in this northern range, which stretches some 200 miles south of the US-Mexico border, between the urban metropolises of Tijuana and Mexicali. These people are the last indigenous survivors in the Baja California Peninsula of Mexico, where once 25,000-50,000 native peoples lived before the arrival of missionaries and explorers.

These peoples, like other Mexican indigenous groups, are facing the slow erosion of their native territories because of the "occupation" of land by Mexican ejidos. Ironically, the Reforma Agraria (National Land Reform Program, or Agrarian Reform), established in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1911 to guarantee the rights of the Mexican campesino to land, is the vehicle being used to usurp indigenous lands. The native peoples of Baja California are now relocated onto significantly reduced areas; one group, the Paipai of Jamau, has been removed completely from its ancestral lands.

This article illustrates the political environment within which local land disputes between Indian and Mexican take place. Final decision on land grants rest in the central Agrarian Reform offices in Mexico City. However, regional and local inerpretation of disputes, and support of or dissent against petitioners, form the basis for land grant decisions. Regional offices of the Agrarian Reform can sway outcomes regardless of the stated objectives and principles in actual law at higher levels of government in Mexico City. In this case, the regional Agrarian Reform favored Mexican nationals over indigenous peoples, disregarding appeals from numerous public and private groups and the intervention of officials from the central offices in Mexico City.

The struggle of the Jamau Paipai began early in the century. During the last 20 years the Jamau Paipai have appealed to local, regional, and federal authorities, and directly to two governors of the state of Northern Baja California and two presidents of the republic. IN Jamau local and regional authorities manipulated the law and eliminated any Paipai voice in the actual granting of land to outsiders, who claimed that the region under question was uninhabited and no such indigenous group existed.

This occurred regardless of Kiliwa, Kumiai, Cochimi, Cucapa, and Paipai testimony and affidavits affirming the existence of the Jamau Paipai. Official declarations to the governor and president by the National Indigenous Institute (Instituto Nacional Indigenista - INI) acknowledging the validity of the Jamau claims were also ignored. This struggle is not solely a land rights struggle; it entails the actual recognition of the existence of an indigenous group.

Constitutional Reform: The Promise for Action

Although the land in question was officially granted to Mexican cattle ejidatarios, current changes in the federal and regional government can reverse this action. The recent election of President Salinas de Gortari has spotlighted indigenous rights as a priority of the newly formed government. The president assigned INI to set up the National Commission for Justice of Indigenous Rights, which was to adopt a proposal for constitutional reform that would address the rights of Mexico's indigenous peoples by directly naming them in the first articles of the constitution. In August 1989 the commission published a booklet entitled "Proposal to Reform the Constitution for the Recognition of the Cultural Rights of the Indigenous Populations of Mexico."

For the Paipai, as for other groups facing extinction in the face of aggressive land takeovers, the constitutional reform is meaningless if action does not occur at the local level. The Jamau Paipai case illustrates not only the need for the constitutional reform advocated by INI, but the urgency in actually implementing such laws.

The Paipai Region

The Paipai inhabit the Sierra Juarez of Baja California. They are subdivided into three territorial groups: the San Isidora, Santa Catarina, and Jamau Paipai. Before contract, the Paipai were organized as patrilocal bands that hunted small game and gathered natural foodstuffs in the mountains and adjacent deserts, each band living within specific, respected boundaries. Mining, however, brought an influx of Mexicans and Americans, which, in conjunction with earlier missionary activity, eventually diminished Paipai territory.

As more and more settlers arrived, the Paipai were forced into smaller areas, which eventually became population clusters known by the three territorial names above. Nevertheless, all the Paipai know each other by name, share the same culture and history, and are welcome in each others' groups. Each group has a head person, known as the "general," who acts as a liaison with the outside, but the Paipai as a group have no political organization.

Although all three groups are experiencing land problems, only the Jamau group has been forced off its land and is not recognized by regional officials as indigenous.

Jamau lies between the Santa Catarina and San Isidoro groups. The Jamau region also has a residential cluster known as Rancho Jamau, where houses, wells, and corrals were built by the Paipai, who became known as the Jamau Paipai. The original Jamau patrilocal band consisted of approximately 50 individuals; today there are 22 survivors. The entire Paipai population is about 200.

After Mexicans and Americans introduced cattle to the area, the Paipai drove their cattle into the mountains of the Sierra Juarez in the summer, and during the winter came down to the coast to gather and collect food. Today they primarily live by raising cattle, augmenting this with wage labor. The Paipai - like their neighbors, the Kiliwa - have adopted a "cowboy" lifestyle reflected in their western hats, boots, and apparel.

The Dispute

Ironically, the members of an encroaching ejido took Jamau as their ejido name. The ejidatarios of Jamau claim that this land was uninhabited and unused, with no title held by anyone, making it land for the taking under the laws of Agrarian Reform. The ejidatarios, who were both politically and economically linked to the authorities, influenced the Agrarian Reform to sanction and legalize the claim.

The Jamau Paipai, however. Claim that this land was Paipai territory, however, claim that this land since "time immemorial." The majority of them were born in the Jamau rang, as were their ancestors. Their history reveals how their ancestors settled in Jamau, and the tragedies they endured during the Mexican Revolution and with the arrival of the nonindigenous people.

IN 1975, the ejido was granted a land claim totaling 46,170 hectares (Diario Oficial), which encompasses the natural springs and the hand-built wells of the Paipai (the equivalent of 114,086 acres for 20 individuals and their families). Currently no ejidatarios live in the traditional Jamau region; the population center of the ejido is a few kilometers off the main highway that passes though the mountains and the Valle de La Trinidad. The land under dispute is a full day's travel into the mountains from the ejido center. However, it is evident that the ejido has claimed this land so that its members can control the water and an abundant growth of wild jojoba once harvested and sold by the Jamau Paipai.

This land struggle differs significantly from others under way in Northern Baja California. The lands of the Cochimi of San Antonio Necua, the Kumiai of San Jose de la Zorra and Juntas de Neji, and the Kiliwa of Arroyo Grande are all under threat of encroachment. However, these groups currently live on and have legally recognized claims to the lands. The Paipai of Jamau, on the other hand, have no such legal recognition and do not possess their land. Group members died in violent attacks during the revolution, and the number of remaining individuals, scattered throughout the region, is actually declining.

Revolution and the Beginnings of Encroachment

The land struggle faced by the Paipai of Jamau actually began long before the first ejido claim in 1969. The fight goes back to the Mexican Revolution of 1911, when the Jamau Paipai were brutally attacked in the early morning hours by a band of federales acting on a rumor that Indian renegades were attacking and causing trouble for federal forces in the region. This massacre drastically reduced the Paipaiclan: most adults were killed, and only one extended family was left, which today numbers about 25 people. Cautiously, over the years they moved back into the Jamau area.

Don Guadalupe Nuñez and Juan Loperena came to Jamau from the interior of Mexico and began raising cattle shortly after the Jamau massacre. Their families intermarried and today form the basis of the ejido. By 1940 they had begun to pressure the Paipai. The Jamau Paipai moved out at this time, but left cattle and belongings in the Jamau rancho. Over the years they moved back and forth, staying in Jamau, their natal land, and persisting in their rights and identity.

The Modern Era and the Ejido Dispute

The Loperena family was unable to obtain private title to the lands in question. By 1960 land grants to ejidos had taken precedence through the Agrarian Reform. Loperena, seeking to control possession of Jamau, assembled his family and petitioned for the rights to the ejido. In 1966 El Diario Oficial, the official journal of the Agrarian Reform, published the request for the creation of a cattle ejido in Jamau territory and surrounding areas.

In October 1968 the agrarian order appeared in El Diario Oficial that legally granted (through government endowment) a total land surface of 46,170 hectares to the ejidatarios claiming Jamau. On 21 October the election of the internal ejido authorities was verified, and the ejido, which consisted of 20 individuals, received provisional possession of the lands to be endowed.

These events took place without the knowledge or participation of the Jamau Paipai. Agrarian law dictates that "public" meetings be held to allow for any appeals concerning rights to the land in question. (No public forum was ever held.) In distress, the Paipai turned to the offices of INI. For the Paipai this meant arduous trips to Hermosillo, Sonora, as there were no INI offices in Northern Baja California at the time.

A 1969 presidential resolution, in total ignorance or disregard of the Jamau Paipai claims, endowed the land to the same nucleus of outsiders. In July this endowment was sanctioned in El Diario Oficial.

Injustice Continues

In 1972 a Jamau Paipai delegation, accompanied by other indigenous representatives of the Kiliwa, Cucapa, Paipai, and Kumiai, traveled to Mexico City to appeal directly t the authorities. Although the Jamau Paipai had delivered documents, letters, and affidavits appealing the ejido to local authorities in Ensenada and Mexicali (the capital of Northern Baja California), no such documents ever arrived in Mexico City and the Agrarian Reform and INI had no record or knowledge of the case. These agencies quickly sent a commission to Ensenada and to the Sierra Juarez to conduct and investigation and survey the land.

The Jamau, Paipai say that in Mexico City they were told that the delegation from the Agrarian Reform was to go directly to Jamau as first priority. However, when the delegation arrived at the Agrarian Reform offices in Ensenada, it was detoured and taken to San Isidoro. Again, the ejidatarios had intervened directly through relatives who worked at the Agrarian Reform. As a result, San Isidoro was recognized as an Indian community, as was Santa Catarina, and both eventually received ejido status and hence protection under the law. But Jamau again was sabotaged at the local level through the political influence of the Loperena family.

In 1974, the ejidatarios, interested in controlling the area's water and wild jojoba, fenced off and divided the Jamau Paipai settlement. Rosa Arballo Salgado and her daughters, members of the Jamau Paipai, were living in Jamau when ejido workers erected a fence separating Paipai cattle from the wells and watering troughs the Paipai had constructed decades earlier. The ejido, using influence with the government purchaser, arranged that no jojoba from Jamau would be purchased, cutting off the Paipai's regular source of income from jojoba harvesting. Meanwhile, all the surrounding areas sold their jojoba through the government program.

In 1975 a Jamau Paipai delegation attended a national convention of indigenous leaders, where it received undaunted support. With renewed fervor the delegation appealed to the governor of the state, who in response requested an official opinion from INI as to the existence of indigenous people in the area of Jamau. INI's answer was strong and direct:

The commissioned delegate of the Reforma Agraria... the State Agraria Mixta and... the Indigenous Coordinating Center (INI) verified the physical existence of this Paipai family group that for various generations has lived in this region... The cemetery where they have buried their dead comprises an anti-quity of many hundred years; some paintings, and many other signs... illustrate the veracity that these first inhabitants of Baja California have an indisputable right of respect for their rights to the land... existing wells date back many decades... In whichever direction one goes, one finds vestiges that prove... the right that the Paipai have to this land... We should be aware of the respect that these first inhabitants of Baja California merit that for various generations have lived Jaquetel, Jamau, El Batamote, the mountains in between and all these areas that reach to the great desert. (11 June 1975)

Two weeks later, the General Office of Agrarian Rights ordered a state Agrarian Reform delegation to conduct a complete census of the Jamau region - a process which, however, did not incorporate the Paipai.

The consequences of this action were negligible. Since the census indicated that no Paipai were living in the area under question, the governor's office and the Agrarian Reform simply ignored the INI appeals, and INI had nowhere else to turn. The Jamau Paipai found themselves back at square one. The following year they employed new tactics in their efforts to retain their land rights.

Realizing that their previous efforts had borne no fruit, the Jamau Paipai now relied on the Agrarian Reform laws to integrate them into the ejido. They requested that the Agrarian Reform formulate an agro-economic survey, which if conducted correctly would illustrate their longstanding residency and usufruct rights to the land. If integrated into the ejido, this would allow them to maintain at least the portion of land on which they had built houses, corrals, wells, and a cemetery. One month later, however, the Agrarian Reform found that the study results illustrated no foundation for their request. In July 1976, the Jamau Paipai appealed directly to the Mexican president, denouncing the conflict that "persists with the non-indigenous cattlemen... who have received unconditional support from both federal and state institutions."

That same year, the local Agrarian Reform offered to conduct an investigation of land use to proceed with Jamau Paipai rights on the condition that the Paipai vacate Jamau. The Paipai took this offer in good faith, but lost possession of their land. The investigations never took place.

The 1980s: Jamau Burned and Ransacked

In 1982 the Paipai returned to Jamau to find their houses and ramadas (shelters) ravaged, their belongings thrown into piles and burned, and traditional ramada structures burned. Immediately returning to Ensenada, they formally accused the commissioner of the Ejido Jamau and reported the case to the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry), the State Offices of Justice, and the Agrarian Reform. To date, no action has been taken; in a recent appeal to the Public Ministry the Paipai were told that no records of such reports existed. In addition, the time period for action had passed (more than seven years) and the Paipai would need to file a new petition.

In July 1984, they appealed to the governor of Northern Baja California. In 1986 they again requested the state delegation of the Agrarian Reform to conduct the necessary work for their recognition into the Ejido Jamau, and in 1987 they appealed to the National Council of Indigenous Peoples and requested its intervention. Again (1987) the Paipai solicited an audience with the state governor and hand-delivered a letter to President Salinas de Gortari from all the Baja California indigenous leaders in support of the Jamau Paipai claims. In July of that year, the commission from the Agraria Mixta (the state arm of the Agrarian Reform) declared that the appeals of the Jamau Paipai to the lands in question were unprecedented and null, indicating that the appeal was made after the expired time allowed and that an excess amount of time had passed since the period of allowable clarification.

The Paipai then turned to the National Confederation of Campesinos (CNC), a national organization representing campesino unions from throughout the Republic of Mexico, addressing claims and problems of campesino groups to federal offices. CNC pressure on the Agrarian Reform resulted in an investigation of the rights and privileges to the ejido, but the results the following year (1988) reported in favor of the ejidatarios of Jamau. The report stated that the ejidatarios had lived on the lands in accordance with the national agrarian ejido laws for more than two years, and that the only absent residents were the indigenous group that appealed.

"Indigenous Rights Have Been Hidden in Old Trunks"

Over the last 10 years, the problem of Jamau Paipai land rights in Northern Baja Califronia has grown more urgent due to the diminishing and slow dispersal of the group. Some people have moved to find work in Ensenada; others have focused on developing their lives outside of Jamau, in despair over the relentless abandonment with which the authorities have reacted to their case. Rosa Arballo Salgado, the elder and matriarch, died in 1986 at the age of 101. Her death signified a great blow to the Jamau Paipai.

In addition to a lack of concern and actual prejudice, one of the most serious problems that the Jamau Paipai have experienced is the continual turn-over of government officials. With each change of government, records are lost, and all the work done before any election has had to begin anew. However, a promise of corrective action stems from the presidential decrees and priorities that identify indigenous rights as primary in the new Mexican government. The president himself stated, "It is with great interest that I take the proposal to elevate to the constitutional level, the recognition of Indigenous Communities. If any Mexican must be recognized in and be recognized by the constitution, it is precisely the indigenous native."

In October 1989, a Jamau Paipai delegation attended an INI convention at Hermosillo for indigenous leaders from the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California to review the proposed constitutional reform. In concluding, the Jamau Paipai delegation stated:

Just as this example [of Jamau] is repeated in distinct ways in each of the indigenous communities of Baja California, it is also perhaps occurring in the communities of Sonora and Sinaloa. We know, through our contacts from other ethnic groups, that land takeovers have been constant since the Conquest was consolidated, and that the rights of indigenous people have been hidden in the old trunks with the dead history of our country…

This historical event in which we meet to consider the proposals to modify the constitution, will allow us to scratch the roots of history... in order to acknowledge that we, indigenous peoples of Mexico, have the right to live and produce on the lands of our grandfathers.

The Paipai believe that the laws of the nation as interpreted by local and regional authorities will continue to ignore their rights and the history of their struggle, and will continue to favor politically and economically influential individuals such as the ejidatarios of Jamau. This opportunity for justice lies in the power of the presidency and in the implementation of the laws in the proposal of constitutional reform. If constitutional reform is truly a priority, then the problem of the Paipai will be ignored no longer.


1. Under Agrarian Reform law all Mexican citizens have the right to work land. Any unused lands, especially federally owned, may be distributed among a viable group of individuals claiming usufruct rights. Those groups are called ejidos, and the members of the group ejidatarios. Ejidos are granted for both agriculture and cattle raising.

2. The proposal is aimed at reforming Article 4, which outlines the social rights of Mexicans, including (1) equal protection under the law for men and women, (2) free right to choose the number and spacing of children. (3) the universal right to health protection, (4) the universal right to housing, and (5) the rights of minors. The proposal seeks to add and clarify the rights of indigenous populations, and outlines the procedure to implement this reform.

3. The Paipai claim that this study was done in a ridiculously short period of time: in one day, at the home of one of the ejidatarios. A proper survey of the area would take at least a week, for no roads enter the area and all travel must be on foot or by horseback.

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