One Vote is Worth a Thousand Words

Ethnic Identity and Political Change in Huehuetla, Puebla.

Jaume Vallverdu
Translated by Albert L. Wahrhaftig

In time, I learned that it is a mistake to smile kindly
at those who have cheated me.

Marcel Proust

The municipal elections on the 8th of November, 1998, in Huehuetla (in the northern mountains of the state of Puebla, Mexico) were especially intense. The results, in which the PRI triumphed by a margin of 485 votes, indicated that participation had been much greater than on previous occasions.3 Just a simple glance around at the last strokes in the campaigns of the two large competing parties made one thing evident: the people wanted to vote. They really wanted to vote. And many of them, as later could be determined, surely bet on a change, for a switch in the local political power. In effect, for the last nine years, the Independent Totonac Organization (OIT), an indigenously based civil organization, and the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), shared the municipal government of Huehuetla. Their alliance overthrew the power of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) in two consecutive elections, although in the second the winning margin began to narrow.4

In the days preceding the election, I functioned as an anthropological observer of the electoral process, taking field notes and absorbing the local values, actions, and reactions directly and also just as they were being reflected in filmed interviews. From these notes, reflections and other materials compiled in or about Huehuetla emerged the idea of writing this article.5 With it there is an effort to go a little beyond mere ethnographic description and contribute as much as possible to the broader program which is being carried out by Albert Wahrhaftig and Pacho Lane who graciously invited my participation, confident that I might be able to add my two cents worth.6 Therefore along with the reflections and interpretations derived from field work, I shall try to refer to and add a little more to some of the thoughts of these authors of “Totonac Cultural Revitalization: An Alternative to the Zapatistas,” specifically those which compare and contrast the Independent Totonac Organization (OIT) of Huehuetla with the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas.7

Obviously the pages which follow have all the limitations of a short stay (one week) in the field and don’t dare to do much more than formulate some superficial reflections, especially when dealing with a subject as complex and deeply rooted in this area as politics and the local power structure. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that later research by the Totonacapan project can proceed further towards deeper waters.

Days before the elections in Huehuetla one could breathe a highly polarized, even radicalized8 social and political climate with followers of the PRI on one side and of the OIT/PRD alliance on the other, both factions convinced of their victory, trading disqualifications and reciprocal criticisms about the ineffectiveness of the opposition and its lack of credibility at all levels. In short, a superheated atmosphere – though not to the point of public disorder – ready for the decision of the ballot boxes. To end adding fuel to the fire, on Wednesday the 4th, two election consultants affiliated with the PRI were dismissed. Immediately, a representative of this party, opposing the decision, warned that this dismissal could generate an “uncontrollable conflict” in Huehuetla.9 Luckily for all, this prediction never came true.

We weren’t able attend the closing ceremony of the PRI campaign, but were present at that of the OIT/PRI the day after our arrival. This coalition’s campaign was characterized by a clearly leftist and very radical10 rhetoric interlaced with themes dealing with aid for poor farmers and workers and with the battle for social transformation.11 Apart from its hopes for justice and dignity for the poorest, the central proposition was their claim of representing those of Indian ethnicity. Their “people’s candidates” opposed, in this sense, the “outsider” mestizos of the PRI. That party, on its side, as we shall see, claimed that there has been a “change” in its organization and in its attitudes, admitting former”vices” and corrupt dealings (to say nothing of bossism) and, as tends to happen in these cases, presenting its voters a cleaned up face, renewed and “centered.” This posture, furthermore, is reinforced by the slogan “let us work united” which attempts to reflect a program of nondiscrimination intended for all, including, of course, Indians as the potential voters and a majority in the rural communities.

Allegations of discrimination against known supporters of the PRI is used, on the other hand as weapon to fling against the OIT/PRD (or of some of their militant supporters), with the PRI declaring that it has no desire to respond “vengancefully” in case of obtaining a victory. In particular they spoke to us of “revengism” after the first electoral victory of the OIT/PRD coalition, a vengeance in which, according to the PRI, PRI members were on several occasions denied a hearing and aid on matters that had to do with the welfare of the population and not, as it was claimed, with personal or party interests.

A moment ago we referred in an oversimplified way to Indians on the one hand, identifying them generically with the OIT/PRD coalition, and to mestizos or “outsiders” on the other, associating them in the same way with the PRI. But in this political realm, the division of affiliations towards one preference or the other is not, of course, so clear cut, but rather has its grey areas. Nor is there a simple ethnic distinction between Indians and mestizos or between Totonacs and mestizos. On the contrary, bearing in mind above all criteria of ethnic self-definition among the “Indians” (indigenous people or natives of the zone), it is necessary to make a distinction between Totonacs, properly speaking and “ladinos.” 12 The latter, occupy a sort of “intermediate” or “transitional” space between the Totonac Indians and the mestizos. To be more precise, both are ethnic groups whose members belong in this locale by virtue of having been born there, but at the same time see themselves and understand themselves as different from one another, ethnically speaking. For the ladinos, to be native-born is the element which defines them as such, along with Indian characteristics or the color of their skin.We can’t say with precision how Totonacs conceptualize ladinos, but we suppose that they attribute to them birth in the zone (their own birth and surely that of their family of orientation) as well as certain cultural characteristics which are unique and which differentiate them. In any case, greater precision in the analysis of local ethnicity must take into account the representations and the concepts that the various ethnic groups use to define, delimit, and consolidate their collective identity.

Nevertheless, in broad strokes, it can be said that the Totonac Indians embody the most lowly and least recognized autochthonous ethnic group, in spite of the intrinsic legitimacy given by their native roots. The ladinos maintain an “essential ” bond with them in that they share a common indigenous language (Totonac) and logically in their common local origins. And, finally, the mestizos would be the group most clearly differentiated by characteristics which are as much ethnic as socioeconomic and by virtue of birth (“those who have come from afar”, “the outsiders)”. This distinction appears to be especially pertinent to the matter in hand in that ethnic identity is instrumentalized in political discourse for evident electoral purposes. In fact, the political ascription to one group or the other (including switching from the one to the other) and, more importantly, the greater or lesser weight in the final results, is a central aspect in the analysis of local pluriethnic relations and processes of political change. It is maximal when, as appears to be the case here, the numerically largest group (that of the Totonacs) has ended up overthrowing the dominant bipartisan balance with its greater participation in the electoral process or with its supposed “switching” (“volteos”) in the rural communities where Totonacs live.

During the last three year term of the municipal government’s, the OIT/PRD coalition invested more than seventeen million pesos in projects for electrification, potable water, rural schools, clinics, and other forms of rehabilitation or construction. In spite of this, the PRI supporters claim that improvements within the town (for example paving the streets) for which state funds were supplied were never accomplished, even by faena (unpaid communal work – “de servicio voluntario”). Another argument wielded by the followers of the opposition party is the lack of experience and education of the PRD/OIT members who throughout these years supposedly held back the progress of rural communities rather than stimulating it. Above all, they cite the lack of response to and resolution of petitions transmitted to the municipal government. For those of this school of thought, the PRI will attend to these necessities and is capable of resolving problems with services and of infrastructure within the rural communities.

The OIT/PRD response consists of remarking that the money received has been rationally invested in works “demanded by the people.” In contradiction to what their opponents affirm, representatives of the coalition assure that the rural communities are satisfied with the share they have received during this tenure and with the works that have been accomplished. In reality, they say, “the ones who are discontent are the ones who live fooled by the mestizos and the PRI.” Likewise, they declare their willingness to continue working organizedly to take care of the necessities of all communities without exception and to encourage as much development as possible. For that purpose, they emphasize, above all, raising the consciousness of the inhabitants, some of whom, in fact, vividly voice their political conviction affirming that “now we have left behind our former ignorance,” and “we know who the crooks among the PRI are” and “they can’t fool us now.” Of these PRIistas, they say that when they do participate in communal tasks and in projects planned by the OIT/PRD, they don’t do so for the communal good but rather out of their own egoism. In the 5th of May community, for example, we saw how everyone collaborated in work on a new system of water canals “united for the common good” and without distinctions of political preference, just as they were encouraged to do by the engineer in charge of the project. Nevertheless, in the opinion of those who think of the project to be an accomplishment of “their party” (in this case the PRI/OIT), the PRIistas only cooperated because in the future “they were going to have water in their homes and that was their interest” and that up to that date “they never participated in anything and only have criticized us.” From their side, the PRI supporters rebut these comments, alleging a series of discriminations based on party affiliation of the sort of “You are from the PRD so I am going to give you electric lights; you are from the PRI, so I’m not going to give them to you. This is unjust. The benefits should be equal for everybody.”

On the other side, according to the PRI’s mayoral candidate, the majority of the party’s voters are not from the town center (the municipality’s head town) as it is usually said, but rather from the rancherias, the rural communities. In accord with this, his “renewed” plan looks forward to “help for those who most need it” (presumably an allusion to the Totonac Indians.) He thus announced the intention of abandoning “the methods of old which marginalized rural communities” and of governing “for all, among all,” establishing a real agreement with the people and solidifying promises to guarantee local progress.

Another element of the PRI’s criticism was that the Indians (including the OIT) were systematically manipulated by the PRD and just as much by the pro-Indian rights stance of the local Catholic church. Leaving aside for the moment the truth of this judgement, it must be said that the role of teologia india actually appears to be very important in preserving Totonac “activities and customs” and traditional religious beliefs. From our point of view, this would be the “traditional” support or “resistance” component which adds to the “modernizing” or “innovation” component which the PRD attempts to offer with its politics of alliance with this indigenous movement, permitting the conservation and reproduction of meaningful symbols and of the last three year term cultural capital existing from ancient times. For another thing, one of the bastions of Totonac tradition, the Council of Elders, preserves its function today thanks to the encouragement of Catholic clergy aligned with teologia india.

The pastoral role of these clergy is nevertheless perceived by some PRI sympathizers as one of the fundamental elements manipulating the Indian population – which is never manipulated by the people of the PRI because, among other things, it would amount to a false paradox: “the Indians now decide by themselves.” In the words of their candidate, initially the priest and now the “outsider” nuns “came to deceive and exploit the people who have faith in the Catholic church.” Together with the local priesthood, the PRD, and especially the external advisors (asesores) of the OIT and of the coalition in general are considered equally or even more so to be manipulators. Of the external advisors, particularly, it is claimed that they only look out for their own welfare and that their conduct is far from stimulating local and communal development. Actually, the PRD in its campaign closing ceremony excluded the future participation of advisors in the coalition, which does make one think about possible irregularities in their conduct, at least, perhaps, among some of them, over the past years. Even so, from the PRIista point of view, such a public declaration “is no more than a campaign strategy to look good, given that the advisors continue, and will continue, to be here.”

We should not forget that liberationist social movements within the indigenous world grow from the base or with the aid – at first unconditional and later conditional – of religious or socioreligious liberationist projects ; that is, they draw their bases from the sacred and try to readjust tradition and the communal spirit which is found in its roots. This would be the case with the OIT in whose origins one encounters priests committed to liberation theology, the same progressive current in the Catholic church which in Chiapas promulgated a sense of the liberation of the oppressed which, together with other utopias and battles with strong social and political implications, debouched finally in the formation of the EZLN.

As Luís Hernández rightly says, “zapatismo as a political current developed incorporating and reconstructing itself stemming from an Indian intellectuality formed by the Catholic church.”14 Nonetheless, it is a fundamentally a lay force, or, better said, one that has suffered a gradual process of laicization. Moreover, according to Marcos, “it would be very damaging to the Indian population if an army like the EZLN were defined in religious terms, in favor of Catholics or against Evangelicals. This would replant the danger which the EZLN has avoided on several occasions of becoming converted into a fundamentalistic movement.”15 So far the relations of the Zapatistas with clerical followers of Liberation Theology have always been quite distant and ambiguous in spite of the evident ideological intertwining that can be established between the two. It is clear, on the other hand, that the fact that the first choose the armed path (or that of “no armed violence”) excludes them from any niche in the bosom of Liberation Theology.16

In the case of the OIT, assistance to the Indian cause by “neocatholic” clergy had a very different significance. In the first place, unlike the EZLN, the Independent Totonac Organization is a pacificistic indigenous civil organization, unarmed and choosing the path of democracy. Secondly, the thrust of the local clergy has not gone beyond the boundaries of the safeguarding (partially) of tradition – through religious offices and syncretic symbolization of the sacred – defending the role of the Council of Elders and of the duties of traditional religious officials, and without entering into the shifting sands of political policies. This situation, in the background, without manifest overtones of ideological struggle or ethnic resistance, should avoid its implication in conflict over local political power.

Another important topic remains to discuss: the role of outside advisors or intellectuals, criticized by the winners and questioned by the defeated, and, one infers, outside the municipal scene for the next few years. From their entry on the scene arises another parallelism with the situation in Chiapas. In an interview by Ivon Le Bot with Major Moisés of the EZLN, he mentions that when he was a member of the campesino organization Unión-Quiptic ta lecubtesel (in Tzeltal, “United by our own strength”) he was witness to various problems with external advisors, many of whom were finally expelled from the organization for “secret negotiations, with representatives of the government of the state.” “We found out that they were negotiating with the other side. Then we began to tell ourselves that “these are playing a game with us that we don’t know.”17

Continuing the comparisons between the EZLN and the OIT, which Wahrhaftig and Lane saw as a possible alternative – nonmilitarized and with a restricted compass- to the famous zapatista paradigm, we would say, actually, that we are dealing with two models with the same point of departure (the collective organization which arises from indigenous desperation) and with equal goals (the effective recognition of the historic and cultural rights of Indian peoples) but which nevertheless have followed different roads which appear to be produced by different individual sociocultural contexts and socioeconomic realities at a structural and at an everyday level. That is, the divergence doesn’t only rest on the “armed” or “pacific” nature of one movement or the other, that is to say in the means, (or even some part of the means) of achieving a goal, or in the greater expansionist desire and necessity of the Zapatistas (derived from the global and radical sensibility that defines their democratizing project) against the more localized aspirations of the Independent Totonac Organization. From our point of view, the essential differences reside in their respective nurseries . Aside from the religious symmetry already mentioned, doubtless in the birth of one or the other of these social movements, different factors have intervened which have in turn determined different developments, strategies, and rhetoric.

In this sense, it is a fact that the long tradition of peasant organizations in Chiapas reclaiming the rights of those deprived by the dominant bossism and abandonment by the state, the indigenous movement in the Lacandon Jungle and the arrival from outside of Marxist-Leninist-oriented guerrillas are factors which have configured specific processes of struggle and ethnic resistance in a social and political context especially predisposed to indigenous insurgence and armed uprisings. Doubtless, the strong sense of community and the organizing and consciousness raising of the OIT were equal factors in obtaining the considerable grass roots support for reaching its objectives. Nevertheless, its action plan presumes that the most coherent form of gaining these (and perhaps the most agreement with the contextual predisposition, or the available context) is that of democracy and pacifism, allowing the work of consciousness raising and ideologizing to chip away little by little at those for whom it is destined and that they themselves freely decide how they want to see their destiny managed. We have already said that an ecclesiastical thrust is at the very foundation of the creation of the OIT, revitalizing indigenous traditions and customs. In addition, the ideology which seems to prevail at its heart is compatible with the leftist pronouncements of the PRD, at least those which come forth when there is talk of coalition. Even so, everything suggests that in this case the hearth for the organization differs considerably from the Chiapas situation. On one hand, the mestizos of Huehuetla (called “caciques” [“bosses”] by their political adversaries) are not the rich and deeply rooted landed families of Chiapas, and, on the other, they don’t have much political and economic weight.18 From another perspective, the birth of the indigenous social movement hasn’t followed as conflict-filled and agitated a process as in Chiapas. Rather it derived from practical propositions without precedents or violent plans, and this pacifistic and pro-democratic posture is what it intends to maintain in the future. Ethnically, furthermore, it seems to look for its full legitimation within a sacred-mythic spirit, traditional and communalistic, which serves as a reference point and inspiration and which, at the same time, with its eclectic feeling, bypasses possible ideological divisions or fragmentations within or between communities which are so persistent in the Chiapas context. In that sense, an apt example is the following , from the program of a celebration:

First there were our Kinpuchinakan (gods),

Later our Laktatajani and Laknanajni (grandfathers and grandmothers),

Later we became a community,

Later was our communal organization which we call the Independent

Totonac Organization,

And with it, we go on being Totonac.19

In any case, it is important to say that in reality both “alternatives” (that of the Zapatista movement and that of the OIT) remain equally suspended – although for quite different motives. Neither of the two knows with scientific certainty what its future will be. That of the OIT depends, as we know, on following its stated will to “continue working in and for the organization” in its efforts to better the life conditions and generally the Indian reality. That of the EZLN, in which at its base there exists a complete and sincere will to settle the conflict in the zone and that the measures taken be directed to the roots of the problem (the social, political, and economic vested interests which are involved with factors such as discrimination, racism, and poverty) and not to bandaids which ignore them or try to camouflage them without resolving them. With the independence which it defends, and opting away from militarism, the indigenous insurrection in Chiapas, given the conditions which generated it, we understand to be totally legitimate. As is, of course, the OIT’s choice for democracy in Huehuetla. But both movements must follow their paths hoping that someday there will rise to the top those to whom they dedicated their humanistic efforts and be placed next to those who endeavor to create a more just future.

Within this frame of reference, the PRD’s opinion just before the election that “a victory of the PRI bosses will open the door to an armed and insurgent uprising in Puebla similar to that of the EZLN in Chiapas” strikes us as exaggerated. This alarmist prophecy of ethnic violence seems more to reflect a fear of electoral defeat, projected into the future, to beforehand let responsibility for any irregularity or aggressive act – present or future- fall on the opposition party. In fact, after the election results, the PRD did not recognize the legitimacy of the PRI’s victory, repeatedly accusing them of buying votes and electoral fraud. The manipulation of Indians according to the interests of parties and by outside advisors (or non-native intellectuals) that had been attributed by the PRIistas to the OIT/PRI alliance now was used to invalidate the PRI, branding them as “bosses,” “corrupt,” and accusing them of tricking Indians with false promises of material aid or with offering money if they would change their vote.

What we have just said brings us back to the local social and political polarization, a polarization shaped a priori by ethnic criteria which, actually, the elections have toned down. In theory, the majority of mestizos align themselves on the side of the PRI and the majority of Indians on the side of the OIT/PRD coalition. In practice, nevertheless, the numbers of “volteos,” who have switched their affiliation to the PRI, appears to have increased (or possibly the increase is in the number of new voters), a response in part to dissatisfaction with the conduct of the municipal government during its tenure (with practical, visible, material things that were not accomplished), in part to possible changes in the attitude or behavior of PRIistas during everyday life in the rural communities (less hierarchical and more mutually trusting “face to face” relations). Additionally, the proselytizing efforts of members of the PRI, pointing out the “weak points” of the opposition (that is, only mentioning in the rural communities necessities that have not been provided, or the ignoring of known PRIistas by the municipal government), or even openly accusing them (of theft of public funds and of manipulation by outside advisors) has been effective among the undecided, those who have previously abstained from voting, and those who lack a firm political commitment. Likewise, there is every indication that the propaganda wars between confirmed militants in the heart of the rural communities has been sharp, to such an extent that we have heard it expressed in terms such as, “that damned guy hates me for being with the PRD and is turning people against me and in favor of the PRI.” In any case, it is most probable that the “volteos” have been accumulating over several years. The search for causes in depth of these changes will, of course, require a much more exhaustive analysis. In any case, it is a fact that political alternation in Huehuetla has been brought from a matter of local interethnic relations to, probably, broader processes of social change and, perhaps, including a political culture.

My feeling at the end was that there was a certain premonition of defeat among the OIT/PRD coalition. Perhaps because of that, in the days before the elections, it seemed that some of its militants or sympathizers maintained certain “radical” or “in the trenches” attitudes which were not unnoticed there. On another hand, one or another of the newspapers, in a style visibly as partisan as it was epic, had increased the alarm in the final stretch of the campaign, predicting possible electoral frauds orchestrated by the PRI and its local “bought ones.” In that sense, consider the following fragment: “there is a disposition at all levels of the government, from the executive office on, that the PRI ‘reconquer Huehuetla,’ making available public funds, directly buying votes, threatening clashes with squads from Antorcha Campesina, and , obviously, preparing for electoral fraud.”20 In the case of this specific article, its clear sympathy to the position represented by the OIT/PRD invalidates any certainty about or confidence in its assertions. The OIT/PRD alliance is positively identified – on the symbolic and the rhetorical levels – with the Zapatista model (“Huehuetla is an example to follow for the people of other municipalities who want to vote this November 8 for candidates who ‘govern obeying'”) and the exaltation of Indian ethnic identity comes out into the open when it speaks of the PRI candidate who, “for certain, was not born in the municipality nor does he speak Totonac.”21 Other entities which are associated with the PRI as instruments opposing and controlling the OIT/PRD coalition are the local branch of the National Indian Institute and the state police who have been stationed in this locality for several years.

Of course, the linguistic aspect – inseparable in any ethnic dimension – plays a fundamental role in this scene. From there stems the existing polemic in the political choices among those of the bilingual school teachers who consider themselves linked to the PRI. Better said, the translation of the political and ethnic polarization into the confines of the local bilingual schools: On one side, the Benito Juárez School, linked “officiously” to the PRI and the official educational plan set forth by the Secretary of Public Education and, on the other, the Indigenous Center for Advanced Studies “KGOYOM” of the OIT, which organizes its curriculum giving priority to the defense of the Totonac language as the base and source of local culture and tradition. In the report which its coordinator furnished us, it delineates the proposal of being “A different model of traditional education which progresses with the idea of reestablishing cultural values and scientific knowledge over the base of our Totonac culture.”22 Contrarily, the “official” perspective, although recognizing similar objectives for the promotion of Indian culture, sees in the school of the OIT “an effort to absorb the indigenous identity with the goal which we do not share of changing its mentality – that is, its idealogy.23 With respect to this, one of the KGOYOM teachers corrected this judgement from her perspective, assuring that “the school has no political objective. It is interpreted that way because it has a proposal, a project, which is contrary to the official model of education. In this model, we work with simple, everyday material and from that we understand that one’s mentality changes. “The students are taught to value themselves, so that they won’t be submissive. In this sense, the people are raised up from their roots through consciousness. The official model, on the other hand, boxes people into an idealized program; many people don’t have the wherewithal to enter professional training, then, so for them, it all ends up being a mere illusion.”

Neither of the two models discriminates in the admission of students in terms of ethnicity or of residence (town center or rural farm, residence in a specific municipality or rural community). We can’t be precise about the proportion of Indian and mestizo students in one or the other of the educational institutions, but both groups appear to distribute themselves indiscriminately according to personal or familial preferences -which, as may be the case, might be related to the type of political affiliation. Nevertheless, speaking of preferences, it seems that the objective of the “KGOYOM” center of supporting communal work is not well understood and accepted by some students,who prefer to, as the center’s report points out , “go to other preparatory schools where they are taught only in classrooms. They say that to work the land they could stay home and school is not for this.”24 The government’s programs of rural agrarian development are held responsible for this situation and others similar to it, given that “the people begin to reject traditional obligations to work for the benefit of the community and when they are summoned to a faena (community work party) they want to be paid, that the government should pay them. Otherwise, how can they become rich.”25

Along similar lines, the reflection that follows from the “KGOYOM” center’s published prospectus expresses with sadness that many Totonacs are not conscious of the importance of preserving their own language and culture. And more so when there was a time in which the teachers – within the stipulations of an explicit official educational policy – dedicated themselves to discrediting the indigenous language with the object of channeling or “integrating” the Indians into the national hegemony. Memories of this process of deculturation (always camouflaged as “common welfare” in line with the mythology of “modernity”) was applied to real life with destructive consequences: “The official education has been a hard road for us, for it was only for mestizos, but later they made it for Indians with the goal of changing us into their world, their point of view, their clothing and speech. Through education they changed our children, changed their clothes and language and culture. The ‘new’ children don’t want to talk Totonac now. They want to be modern. They want to be like mestizos. To the mestizos, the Totonac is not capable of thinking; he doesn’t wear pants, but wears native trousers. Nor does she use a skirt; she uses the native wraparound skirt. To them, we don’t speak a language, only a dialect. Some of our brothers have believed this and have accepted this form of thinking within our own culture and some even accept that their children are no longer their children and despise their own parents as symbols of backwardness. That’s what they say: to be Indian is to be backward., to be a ‘naco (dumb Indian). And the Conquest continues right into the end of this century. By the school, disintegrating our families and our communities.”26

Reviewing these considerations and others having to do with the not-distant past, a PRD representative predicted a sure debacle in Huehuetla were the PRIista opposition to carry out a “coup d’etat.” In his opinion, the arrival to power of the “PRI bosses” would mean an irretrievable return to the “subordination and systematic marginalization of the Indians; to the former corporate and enslaving control.” Also, the improvements in rural communities, thanks to the OIT/PRD coalition government, will have led, according to him, to a discontent from the state government and especially from local bosses, a discontent which is contrary to the pacific model of transition to a just democracy which contradicts their interests in political and economic control. Giving their vote to those who really will support them, he concluded a little before the election, the Indians have a historic opportunity to modify the status of their life, moving ahead in peace towards the full recognition of their rights and towards the construction of self-government according to traditional practices and customs.27 Nevertheless, as we have already pointed out, the apparent good personal relationships and treatment which many Totonac Indians have received from known PRIistas has been a weighty factor in their political opinions. In some of these instances, it is mentioned that the PRI people “gave them a helping hand when they needed it and assisted them with their requests” – and also will probably give them work paid at a satisfactory rate. Although this logically is seen from the OIT and PRD side as a habitual stratagem of “deceiving” and “tricking Indians” with ulterior personal as well as political motives.

The day after the elections, with a PRI victory confirmed, this “trickery” through the buying of votes was the OIT/PRD coalition’s principal justification of the result: “those who did not deeply appreciate the OIT sold out” or “those who did not vote three years ago are the ones who now sold their votes.” Responsibility for the defeat appeared to fall on the shoulders of the Indians who, through opportunism or owing to their precarious economic conditions, fell into the trap held out to them by the PRI. Incomprehensibly, they say, in so doing “they have begun to depreciate themselves, without taking into account the work the OIT has done for them virtually for free.” Nevertheless, the a posteriori version of some PRI Totonac voters is quite different. They declare that the did not receive money for their vote and know of no such situation. On the contrary, they affirm that they themselves organized in their communities, seeing the problems they had and with the object of searching for a municipal representative and that all the various rumors are unfounded as, in every case, they can prove. Really, they add, what they have always looked for with their political choice are real, effective, necessary changes, and, moreover that their decision was the result of “thinking for themselves,” and in no case were they bought off (with a few pesos that “aren’t going to solve their life”) or manipulated.

But the PRI is not only accused of buying votes – about which it is said there are witnesses and formal complaints – but also of improper activities on election day. Furthermore, the great economic and political outpouring of the PRI to guarantee its election was often contrasted with the small sums received by the PRD to carry out its campaign. In all, according to its members, the defeat of the OIT/PRD coalition is not going to impede the organization or alliance from continuing in its task of working “organizedly” for “the future of our children” and “in order that the gains of the last nine years not be torn down.” The municipal clerk remarked, in this sense, that the Independent Totonac Organization is legally registered and perfectly well knows its rights, so from now on, nobody – in clear allusion to the past – is going to prevent them from continuing to carry out their activities in solidarity and in agreement with the Indians.

Actually, the central subjects of the elections in Huehuetla, those who by their majority had the last word, were without doubt the Totonacs. And in fact, finally, it was they themselves who tipped the balance towards the side of those who have been considered to a greater or lesser degree their “oppressors and exploiters,” those traditionally identified in the countryside with bossism and with monopoly over money and land. This is all a circumstance which without doubt requires a more profound analysis than we can offer at this moment. With respect to this we can only quote the declaration of an Indian supporter of the winning party who remarked that the Indians “are no longer the downtrodden and pistolwhipped like they were” but are “capable of thinking for themselves and choosing for themselves, according to their own criteria.” This expression contains a very significant personal and political attitude. On the one hand, it exalts the Indians’ capacity to confront the challenges constituted by their own cultural and ethnic identity, and on the other, to try to seek the improvement of the conditions of their life among different political propositions, and not only among some of them – in principle and for openers, with an ideology closer to their own collective interests. Further, it is clear that just as in Chiapas not all Indians are Zapatistas.28 In Huehuetla neither are all PRDers members of the OIT. On the contrary, many of them appear to be moved (legitimately) by immediate and practical interests which have to do with the bettering of their way of life and their surroundings, although for this they may have to “switch” from side to side according to their own convenience. Everything suggests that for those who act in this way, at heart, “the party is the least important, the important is that they fulfill what they promise (a fulfillment which means do, materially speaking.)

In this context, it is a fact that the independent civil organization created by the Indians and for the Indians, has not been capable of satisfying – at least fully – the desires and necessities of many of them – necessities which are always pressing. Now that the elections are over, the record is in the hands of the PRI, which intones its slogan: “I can promise and I promise.” From now on, it remains to comply “only” with what has been promised and to satisfy the expectations created, under penalty of being “punished” by the electors three years hence. Thus is the democratic game and thus the alternation of power is determined. For the moment, political change is a reality and, definitively, once again puts itself in accord with the manifesto that “one vote is worth more than a thousand words.”

 …we are few and forgotten, above us strides death

and contempt, we are small, our words fade out,

for long silence has lived in our house,

now the time has come to speak our heart

and for other hearts….

Jaume Vallverdu
December 1998


1. This article is the result of a brief stay in the vicinity of Huehuetla, Puebla, during the municipal elections of November 8, 1998. It developed from collaboration with the Totonacapan project of Dr. Albert L. Wahrhaftig (Department of Anthropology, Sonoma State University) and of film maker Bruce “Pacho” Lane, a member, as am I, of the School of Humanities (Department of Anthropology) of the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos, Mexico. The fundamental objective of the Totonacapan project is the production of a complete visual ethnography about Huehuetla and about the Garcia family, part of whom reside in this area and with whose members Wahrhaftig and Lane have maintained a cordial relationship for almost thirty years. During this recent stay there, from the 3rd to the 9th of November, I was generously invited by Pacho Lane to share in his filming project with the expectation of bringing an “anthropological vision” to the electoral process and its reflection in the local social and political climate.

2. Anthropologist, Department of Anthropology, School of Humanities, Autonomous University of the State of Morelos, Mexico.

3. The PRI obtained a total of 3,436 votes and the OIT/PRD coalition 2,951. In addition to the state of Puebla, elections took place in Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tlaxcala. The Party of the Institutionalized Revolution tallied gains or maintained its position in Puebla,Sinaloa, and Michoacan – in this last state only the composition of its Congress and municipal presidencies were contested. PAN suffered significant electoral losses and the PRD conquered the governorship of Tlaxcala in coalition with other partys (PT and PVEM).

4. ……………………….Do later………………..

5. In Huehuetla, we obtained the budget report for the works accomplished by the indigenous government of Huehuetla (formed by the OIT/PRD alliance) during the period from 1996 to 1999, the work plan of the “KGOYOM” Indigenous Center for Higher Education which was founded by the OIT, and obtained various campaign literatures of the PRI and of the PRD. Previous, two articles by Blance Petrich about Huehuetla had been consulted: “Huehuetla, comunidad acosada en la sierra de Puebla,” La Jornada, August 17, 1998, and “El acoso priista en Huehuetla, desde el triunfo electoral totonaca,” La Jornada, August 18,, 1998. A local informant loaned us an article by Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, “Huehuetla: el revanchismo de los caciques poblanos,” La Jornada, November 4, 1998 and finally, Fernando Ferrandiz, a colleague in my department, provided me with an article published during our staty in Huehuetla: “Militaban en el PRI. Destituyen a dos consejeros electorals en Huehuetla, Puebla,” La Jornada, November 4, 1998.

6. The details and the documentation of this Visual Anthropology Project in Huehuetla, titled Totonacapan, can be found on the internet at Within this documentation, dated September 3, 1997, is also included Albert Wahrhaftig and Bruce Lane’s article, “Totonac Cultural Revitalization: An Alternative to the Zapatistas.”

7. There is an abundant literuature about Chiapas, the Zapatista uprising, and its implications. The materials which I have selected and consulted so far are the following: Diaz-Polanco, Hector, “La rebelion de los indios zapatistas y la autonomia,” Chiapas insurgente: Cinco ensayos sobre la realidad mexicana. Txalaparta, Tafalla/Nafarroa, 1995; Diaz-Polanco, Hector, La rebelion zapatista y la autonomia, Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1997; Diaz-Polance, Hector, “Acteal y la autonomia,” Convergencia Socialista, year 1, number 4, Mexico, January 1998; Fractal, num. 8, Chiapas, Interpretaciones de la guerra, Mexico: Fundacion Fractal, 1998; Le Bot, Yvon, Subcomandante Marcos. El sueño zapatista. Barcelona. Plaza y Janes. 1995; Le Bot, Yvon, “El debate sobre la autonomia” Masiosare. La Jornada, May 29, 1998; Legorreta Diaz, Ma del Carmen, Religion, politica y guerrilla en Las Cañadas. Mexico. Cal y Arena, 1998, Tello Diaz, Carlos, La rebelion de las Cañadas, and, finally, the general work of Viqueira, Juan Pedro and Humberto Ruz, eds., Chiapas. Los rumbos de otra historia. Mexico. UNAM/CIESAS/CemCA/U. De G., 1988.

8.In fact, this polarization is mentioned by Wahrhaftig and Lane who distinguish quite clearly in terms of ethnicity between the Indians of the OIT allied with the PRD and assisted by teologia india (a branch of Liberation Theology) and the town dwelling mestizos linked to the PRI. As we understand it, this polarization implies a dynamism, an activism, a competition for local political power which, on the edge of eventual conflicts, has been converted into a clear motor for social change.

9. La Jornada, November 4, 1998.

10. Here the term “radical” should be understood in a sense relative to the context which produces it and pronounces political discourse.

11. In its political handbills, the PRD defines itself as “the part of poor farmers and workers,” and at the same time adds: “There is no other party which can serve us as an instrument of the struggle to change things.”

12. From now on, to avoid confusion, we will try as much as possible to dispense with the term indigenous and speak of Totonacs, ladinos, and mestizos when referring to the various ethnic groups in this area.

13. [footnote deleted as a result of revision]

14. Hernandez, Luis, “La esperanza de lo incierto,” Fractal, num. 8, Chiapas. Interpretaciones de la guerra. Mexico: Fundacion Fractal, 1998, pp. 74.

15. Le Bot, Yvon, Subcomandante Marcos. El sueño zapatista, Barcelona, Plaza y Janes, 1995, pp. 326. Also cited in Hernandez (ibid).

16. Proceso, num. 1127, ö”La Teologia sol puede ser de liberacion, no de esclavitud ni de violencia, a menos que sea paramilitar: Obispo Samuel Ruiz,” June 17, 1998, pp. 6-14.

17. Le Bot, Yvon, op. Cit. Pp. 166-171

18. Wahrhaftig, Albert L. And Lane, Bruce. “Totonac Cultural Revitalization: An Alternative to the Zapatistas”. Http://

19. Proposal of the Centro de Estudios Superiores Indigenas “KGOYOM” November 9, 1998, pp2.

20. La Jornada November 4, 1998

21.. Ibid.

22. Proposal of the Centro de Estudios Superiores Indigenas “KGOYOM” November 9, 1998, pp1.

23. From this judgement, one can infer that the “KGOYOM” center is perceived as a strongly ideological project whose consciousness raising work makes one think of suspicious goals (Promoting a violent insurgency?).

24. Proposal of the Centro de Estudios Superiores Indigenas “KGOYOM” November 9, 1998, pp 5. Other objectives included are: Provide an education in accord with the necessities and conditions prevailing in the municipality and in the Totonac region, develop productive entities which can assist the school, stimulate the incorporation technologies necessary for production and with which to confront the new millenium, and work towards a cultural re-evaluation which recognizes the indigenous world.

25. Ibid. Pp. 3

26. Ibid. Pp. 2-3

27. This point brings back the comparison with Chiapas with respect to EZLN demands for the self-government of communities and for autonomous municipalities. In its fight against racism and discrimination against the Indian population and in honoring self determination and autonomy, the fundamental means of the OIT are cultural development, health and nutrition, supporting sustainable and organic agriculture, democratization of the government through a General Council of the People, and resoration of traditional religion and customs (Wahrhaftig and Lane, 1997). These goals coincide with the principal Zapatista demands at different levels: in the economic realm – land, housing, work, diet, health, and defense of the environment-, political realm – democracy, liberty, justice, peace, security, and combating racism and corruption, and the cultural realm – education, culture, information, and independence.

28. Tello Diaz, Carlos. La rebelion de las cañadas. Mexico: Cal y Arena, pp. III.

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