American Anthropologist Review of Democracia Indígena

by Erica Wortham, Center for U.S.–Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Democracia Indígena. 1999. 35 minutes, color.
A video by Bruce “Pacho” Lane. Ethnoscope Film and Video

For a scholar who has dedicated serious attention to the complexities of indigenous autonomy in Oaxaca, Mexico, the pervasive yellow flags of Mexico’s left-wing opposition party, the Partido de la Revolución Democratica (PRD), in the opening scenes of the documentary Democracia Indígena read as a contradiction. What does the “Indian rights revolution”that the video addresses have to do with national party politics? Fortunately, filmmaker Pacho Lane does not attempt to resolve the contradiction but, rather, tells a fascinating and complex story of how a long-oppressed indigenous majority in the highlands of the state of Puebla gains and then looses control over their municipal government.

On the surface, the documentary is about the 1998 municipal elections in Huehuetla, a Tontonac Indian village of approximately fifteen thousand people in the Sierra Norte of Puebla. A lush, mountainous region, the Sierra Norte is known for its isolated communities that are notoriously difficult to access even though the state of Puebla itself has become an important and growing industrial hub of Mexico. Indeed, the election provides the narrative structure of the tape: It opens during the fervor of final campaign speeches and ends with a well-crafted, even-handed analysis of the election results. The current municipal government, a coalition between the PRD and the local Independent Totonac Organization (OIT), has been in power for nine years and is running an antimestizo, proindigenous campaign represented by the slogan “Never Again” to convey their will that the Indians ofHuehuetla remain free of Mestizo domination. But the OIT/PRD is facing stiff opposition from the the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), Mexico’s longest-ruling party, which was only recently defeated in national presidential elections for the first time since the party was created after the 1910–17 Mexican Revolution. Additionally, the fact that the PRI has held the governor’s seat in the state of Puebla since 1917 weighs in strongly for local PRI supporters who believe a PRI victory will secure important resources (state aid) for improving living conditions in Huehuetla. Beyond the election itself, however, the documentary is about the complex negotiations indigenous people undertake to secure control over the larger forces that shape their lives.

Albert Wahrhaftig, the main ethnographer, told me they styled the documentary in order to give viewers the “feeling of being an ethnographer” and chose not to provide additional information (for example, voice-over narration) that might give more background about the OIT or about Totonac culture. While the lack of contextual information positions the documentary to be an excellent choice for classroom settings where students can do additional reading, the documentary lacks the textures of everyday life in Huehuetla—people working in fields, domestic scenes, family interactions—that ethnographers are trained to provide.1

The main subject of the video is Cruz García Romero, a Tontonac “expatriate” who left the municipality 16 years earlier—presumably as a boy—in order to escape discrimination for being Indian. Cruz is our guide through Huehuetla and Leakaman, the rancharía (a smaller village that is part of the municipality) where he was born. His outsider/insider status complements the style of the filmmaker and ethnographer, who are known for crossing dividing lines within communities in order to uncover diverse perspectives. The viewer might expect from the introductory interview with Cruz that the documentary will be directed toward explaining why Cruz returned to Huehuetla: He had heard that the Indians had gained control of the government and he wanted to find out how they had managed to do this. Few of the Huehuetla residents and political leaders interviewed actually provide an answer to his question, however, with the exception of Jacinto Cruz Rojas, the parish priest. Father Jacinto speaks of a Totonac cultural renaissance within a broader proyecto indígena (indigenous project). In Huehuetla, the proyecto has involved the recognition that “indigenous people can’t do it alone,” and that in order to achieve control they need to form alliances with political parties. What seems to underpin the very possibility of Totonac municipal control is a process of cultural revival that, in the case of Huehuetla, has been spearheaded by liberal Catholic theologians like Father Jacinto. A sequence shot inside a church, during a mass given by Father Jacinto, especially suggests this connection. Totonac dancers in full regalia in the center space of the church, prominent saints dressed in Totonac clothing, and a 15- foot replica of the Tajín pyramid (thought to be the birthplace of the Totonacs) in the nave are clear signs that Catholic and mestizo religious symbols, mainstays of colonial domination, have been displaced by Totonac cultural images.2 Totonac cultural revival is the pillar of positive AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 104(4):1205–1207. COPYRIGHT © 2002, AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION social change in Huehuetla, according to Father Jacinto, but the Totonac alliance with the oppositional PRD is a temporary solution to political disenfranchisement. The OIT has developed “vices” in his opinion (which presumably have to do with seeking power for power’s sake), which could threaten the long-term goals of indigenous people to achieve political autonomy so that they can govern themselves by consensus, not by parties and ballots. Father Jacinto’s reframing of democracia indígena as an intermediary step on the way to autonomía indígena sounds more like the discussions I am used to hearing from indigenous activists in Oaxaca, a state that neighbors Puebla to the south, where I did my field research in 1999 and2000. In Oaxaca, indigenous activists and their supporters fought long and hard for the state to recognize indigenous forms of self-government at the municipal level (generally referred to as usos y costumbres) without affiliation to official political parties. The Oaxacan state constitution now recognizes municipal governments elected through usos y costumbres (which usually entails voting through general community assemblies), although some activists protest that all the state did was legitimize a practice that communities had been doing all along. Given Oaxaca’s long history of manipulation of rural and, particularly, indigenous votes, the deep presence of national political parties in a remote village with a clear indigenous majority seems disturbing at first. My own short interview with a Mexican scholar familiar with Huehuetla addressed my skepticism in ways the documentary did not (Israel Arroyo García, Professor of Political Science, Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico, personal communication, June 14, 2002).

He explained to me that OIT actually has an unprecedented degree of control in the area. Apparently, OIT is known to sanction PRD and PRI candidates well before elections take place, basically determining their outcome ahead of time. In other words, national political parties, in the case of Huehuetla, participate at the will of the local indigenous party—not exactly the “democratic” electoral practice portrayed by Lane, but an inspiring example of indigenous control nonetheless.

Much of the rest of the documentary follows Cruz as he talks with representatives from the two contending parties. Members of the current OIT/PRD governing municipal council, the PRD candidate for municipal president, and different local PRD representatives discuss the fear, daily discrimination, and exploitation the Totonac majority used to endure under mestizo/PRI rule. Venturing to the other side, Cruz talks with Victor Rojas Solano, a schoolteacher and PRI candidate for municipal president in Huehuetla, as well as with a few residents, such as Mariano Santiago, a loyal PRI supporter who runs the DICONSA store (part of a federally subsidized rural distribution network) in Leakaman. Not surprisingly, the Rojas campaign centers around notions of unity, and he blames the current OIT/PRD leadership for divisiveness in Huehuetla.

Perhaps the most interesting series of interviews are with members of Cruz’s own family who are clearly in favor of a PRI victory. His father, Salvador García, explains that the PRI has changed: “Before they didn’t pay attention to Indians, but now that’s over.” And his stepmother, Josefina García, says “Those PRD guys in town hall say they’re Indians like us, but its not true.” As Totonacs, Cruz’s family members do not feel represented by the indigenous party.

The voting sequence nicely captures the orderly, but loaded, sense of anticipation of a local election. Hundreds of people, including youth, the elderly, and women line up to present their voter credentials in exchange for ballots and then diligently stuff folded ballots through slots in cardboard ballot boxes. Lane’s camera crew has impressive access, shooting over the shoulder of election workers leafing though registers and, later, counting marked (PRD) ballots. Short interviews with PRI supporters while the votes are being counted foreshadow their party’s victory.

Election results are announced late in the night to cheers and whistles of the sizable crowd that has stayed up. At the end of Rojas’s predictable victory speech, we hear a defiant “Death to the PRD!” from the crowd. The final section of the documentary is a postelection analysis crafted by juxtaposing short interviews with OIT/PRD representatives featured earlier in the video and PRI supporters, mostly members of Cruz’s family. OIT/PRD representatives are convinced that the PRI bought votes, a tactic for which PRI is well known, especially in poor, rural parts of Mexico, which have historically been the party’s stronghold. Cruz’s father says he’s not interested in selling his vote because that would not solve the problems; his aunt stoically proclaims “no one can pay me to vote”; and a young cousin explains that she left the PRD when she was denied infant formula for her baby. Cruz himself, sitting between two editing monitors, showing stills from the documentary, offers his own assessment of the election. He believes there was vote buying—“you can see bribery”—but he knows that people will never admit to it. In the end, Cruz is proud of his people. He left Huehuetla as a boy, ashamed of being Totonac from Huehuetla, but now he is full of pride because his people have accomplished positive changes and have built a democracy without violence. Moreover, if the scholar I spoke with is correct in his assessment of the OIT’s control over elections, then the OIT/PRD loss may well have been a calculated one, as PRI leadership at the municipal level could potentially translate into more resources and support from the (PRI) state governor’s office.

The filmmakers underscore the larger point about nonviolence in the supplementary written material that accompanies the film (Lane and Wahrhaftig 1999; Vallverdu 1999). Lane and Wahrhaftig frame the electoral experience in Huehuetla as an “alternative to the Zapatistas” (1999), referring to the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, a Mayan-led army that declared war on the Mexican government in 1994. Despite the loss, municipal PRD leader Gilberto Mendez is proud that Huehuetla got through a heated election without violence: “We don’t 1206 American Anthropologist • Vol. 104, No. 4 • December 2002 want to be like Chiapas.” Without a doubt, as several people in the documentary also attest, the history of exploitation and sometimes violent repression of Indians by a mestizo minority in Huehuetla bears important similarities to the brutal conditions of life of many Mayan Indians in Chiapas. This documentary will be an invaluable tool in the classroom for discussing the variety of strategies, including their advantages and disadvantages, which indigenous activists in Mexico are undertaking to improve their living conditions and demand the dignity, respect, and control over their lives and resources that they deserve.


1. Pacho Lane’s two other documentaries about Huehuetla, The Tree of Life (1976, 29 min.) and The Tree of Knowledge (1981, 25 min.), most likely make up for the lack of daily life scenes in Democracia Indígena as well as give more insight into Totonac culture.

2. These kinds of overt signs of Totonac cultural revival might be lost on many audiences as they are only shown, not mentioned or discussed, by Father Jacinto or any other person in the film. However, in a short article intended to accompany the documentary, Lane and Wahrhaftig situate these transformations within the context of Totonac cultural revitalization (Lane and Wahrhaftig 1999).


Lane, Bruce “Pacho,” and Albert L. Wahrhaftig
1999 Totonac Cultural Revitalization: An Alternative to the Zapatistas.
Electronic document, http//

Vallverdu, Jaume
1999 One Vote Is Worth More Than a Thousand Words: Ethnic Identity and Political Change in Huehuetla, Puebla.
Unpublished MS, http//
Visual Anthropology 1207

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