Purépecha People’s Labyrinthic Search for Social Justice

Photo: Wikipedia


MORELIA, Michoacán — The exact number of indigenous people in Mexico is uncertain, although, according to the last population census in 2020, it is estimated to be about 16 million. Estimates from civil organizations speak of a higher number. This population is concentrated in 56 different ethnic groups located throughout the country, creating a diverse cultural mosaic that identifies and distinguishes Mexico from the rest of the world.

However, despite this, a large portion of this Mexican population lives in appalling conditions of extreme poverty. It is no coincidence that the poorest municipalities in the country, located in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, are towns whose population is entirely indigenous, with 98 percent of its inhabitants living in extreme poverty.

These municipalities, like many others in the country, lack basic services such as running water, electricity, education and medical services. The communities are often located in remote areas with difficult access to the outside that limit their economic development, isolating them and widening the inequality gaps in comparison to the urban areas of the country.

The indigenous groups in Mexico include the Tzotzil and the Maya in the South, the Tarahumara  and the Yaqui in the North, and the Otomí and the Purépecha in central Mexico, and each tribal group is culturally and historically distinct from the others. 

The Purépecha are native to the state of Michoacán, residents of the wooded and lacustrine areas of the central Mexican state.

The Purépecha, according to historical records, were the only people in pre-Hispanic Mexico that could never be conquered by the powerful Mexica (Aztec) Empire.

It is also believed that it was this indigenous group, where the well-known celebration of the Day of the Dead originated, now attracting thousands of visitors from all over the world every year.

The Purépecha have likewise stood out from the rest for implementing autonomous forms of government. An example of the above took place for the first time in the modern history of Mexico in 2011, in the community of Cherán, located in a wooded area of northeastern Michoacán, in the Meseta Purépecha region.

After decades of being constant victims of local criminal groups, timber traffickers and the corruption of municipal authorities, the Purépecha organized their own people to expel the local government, along with all the political parties, creating an autonomous form of government based on community councils, just like they used to do back in pre-Hispanic times.

This form of government established in Cherán was recognized and guaranteed by the Mexican government, and although this municipality continues to receive state and federal funds, government intervention is regulated by the community’s authorities. The Cherán model has been replicated in other municipalities of Michoacán given the good results of its implementation during these first 12 years.

Unlike many other indigenous groups in Mexico, the Purépecha have shown great organization and social cohesion among the inhabitants of their communities, who have not ceased in their pursuit of their rights and demands from state and federal governments.

Their search for social justice stems from the historical discourse of the conquest and has led them to carry out acts of rebellion, according to them, in memory of their people, through demonstrations and blockades of state highways.

Likewise, last month, within the framework of the Death Anniversary of Tangáxoan Tzíntzicha, the last Cazonci or Irecha, governor of the ancient Purhépecha State, who was arrested, humiliated, tortured and burned alive by the Spanish court in 1530, activists from the Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacán (CSIM) destroyed with sledgehammers a colonial statue located in the Historic Center of the city of Morelia, the state capital.

The statue was known as The Builders and it displayed a Spanish cleric ordering a half-naked Purépecha to cut a block of stone while on the side another Purépecha carried a rock on his back. This figure, according to the members of the CSIM, represented a symbol of subordination, a representation of slavery and the Spanish genocide, which is why, given the indifference of the City Council, the CSIM decided to remove it.

After this act of vandalism, the Michoacán state police arrested 24 people who were released hours later after pressure from indigenous groups linked to the movement that blocked some state roads.

The demonstrations of disagreement by the Purépecha did not stop there, as they have also started a series of protests starting in the capital of Michoacán and later heading to Mexico City, where they demanded to be heard by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) on a plan to create a social justice for the indigenous people of Michoacán, similar to what he did with the Yaqui people in Sonora a few months ago.

For this, they prepared a proposal plan that they expect to present to López Obrador in the coming days that addresses five approachs. In the first place, actions are demanded to guarantee access to running water for the indigenous communities of Michoacán, since at least 20 percent of these communities cannot access this basic service. Second, the Purépecha demanded government actions to defend and care for the forests belonging to their communities, which have suffered from fires and excessive logging.

In the third place, the Purépecha asked the government to put in place an action plan for the defense and restitution of indigenous territories that are now owned by agricultural companies. Likewise, they demanded respect and recognition for the autonomy of indigenous peoples, since it is currently a lengthy process that takes several months to complete, delaying, among other things, the delivery of the government funding.

Finally, the Purépecha demanded plans and actions to compensate the historical debt that the Mexican government maintains with the native people of Michoacán, for which direct investment in public infrastructure works in said communities is requested.

The need for greater visibility and inclusion of the indigenous population of Mexico in social projects at all levels of government is undeniable. These native people have been historically marginalized and isolated from the progressive plans of the Mexican government.

Today, the original inhabitants of Mexico see themselves as living like foreigners in their own land: scattered, far from progress and immune to modernity.

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