Navigating Mexico: Independent Indigenous Communities

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In 421 municipalities across Mexico, the Constitution is in effect, but federal and state statutes do not necessarily apply.

These independent communities, made up primarily of indigenous people, are allowed, due to a change in the Mexican Constitution in the late 1990s, to self-govern with the official designation as a “community of traditions and customs.”

These indigenous communities are mostly located in the state of Oaxaca, but there are also some in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán and Baja California Sur.

They are often recognized by the traditional attire of the women and girls and some uniformity in the clothing of men.

These communities govern themselves the way they did before the Spanish arrived to Mexico. In other words, they were given the legal framework to return to their original roots.

These communities already had oral and written traditions dating back to long before the existence of Mexico as a country. But their tribal laws were often in conflict with “official” laws of Mexico.

In these communities, the highest authority is not the mayor, but the community assembly, the place where decisions, including financial ones, are made. While a typical  municipality has a very prescriptive budget process, controlled by the federal and state governments, these communities are free to allocate their apportionment to the needs they see within their communities.

Electing leaders can be done in a number of ways: voting by hand, voting by leaving a mark on a chalkboard, by acclamation or by the election of a pre-structured ticket or team. Voting is simple, and the new leadership is generally known by the end of the assembly.

While it sounds altruistic, like any system, the independent indigenous community hierarchy is imperfect. For example, these communities can legally decide who constitute the community’s members. Consequently, some communities exclude non-Catholics and vice versa. A small number exclude anyone who is not an evangelical.

The idea of conformity and respecting the group’s traditional legacy and norms is expected.

Crimes such as public drunkenness and minor theft, which might be punished with fines in “modern” Mexico, could mean jail time in these communities. For serious digressions, the punishment could be expulsion from the community.

In Catholic communities, which are the vast majority, there is an odd mixing of church and state, where the general assembly elects the typical community positions, but additionally, also elects the religious mayordomos for a year, who have the responsibility for the care of certain sanctuaries or being the custodian of the image of a saint and the annual festivities that accompany that saint.

Some of these positions are full-time responsibilities, with a salary from the general fund. Because there is not a dualistic mindset, church versus state, for example, public funds are mixed with these religious activities as they are so ingrained in the daily life of the communities.

The parish priest has a significant role in this blended life of the community. For example, for certain religious celebrations, schools, work, government, literally everything, is closed down as the entire community is involved in both the religious and social aspects of a particular celebration.

These communities are often at a great physical distance from other “outside” authorities, so in reality they have always been self-governing, even before they were officially recognized as such.

They are often isolated from the larger community during months of a rainy season when it can be tricky to access them.

Primary school education, religious services and other aspects of life are conducted in the native language. Spanish is a second language.

Most of these communities are agriculturally supported, as they have been for centuries.

While certainly a minority of the country, Mexico took a huge step forward in multiculturalism to officially recognize these alternative ways of life.

Most urban Mexicans, in fact, have never visited one of these communities, but their way of life thrives.

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