The Defense of Cognitive and Actual Territories

An Interview with Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil

Art by Gilberto Kupyum

We tend to think of the world as a whole, under the absolute and indisputable control of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. With this understanding, we have no choice but to resist the brutal attacks of integrated global capitalism of the 21st century; but what does it mean to resist this? Perhaps to slow down or even stop the advance of capitalism, including transforming and appropriating the weapons of capital (whether political, cultural or even military) and turning them against it. Without a doubt, it is necessary to explore this and all other possible avenues. However, it is difficult to imagine the master’s tools dismantling the master’s house, as Audre Lorde famously said. It is necessary to question whether the tools of capitalism intrinsically involve imaginings and modes of existence that reproduce the fundamental aspects of capital: the impulse to authoritarianism, individualism, and exploitation. In this sense, can the institutional frameworks, the infrastructure of liberalism, and the values of nation-states offer outlets to the hells they have created?

In this interview is a suspension of certain totalizing notions around processes of emancipation and resistance to a form of capitalism so insurmountable that it has become omnipresent and omnipotent. Instead, we imagine a moment where integrated global capitalism has not devoured all things. Among the fractures and folds of big capital, there are other ways of understanding reality that obey other worldviews that go beyond folklore. These are political, social, economic visions and, above all, visions of world-systems that create connections without the mediation of capitalism’s communication infrastructure. This is a way of being that not only confronts the advance of capitalist predation, but also builds other worlds far away from the structures of control, extraction, and exploitation of capital in all its forms: liberal ideology, the nation-state, drug trafficking, among many others.

The activism of Yásnaya Elena A. Gil allows us to see and imagine different ways of building communities. Her work is a fundamental part of all kinds of conversations (colloquia, forums, conferences, speeches, talks, etc.) either at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in the Chamber of Deputies of the Mexican state, with the Indigenous Government Council, or among militant members of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). In these spaces, Yásnaya talks about how the defence of languages is also the defence of their speakers and of the lands they inhabit; that is, she proposes a comprehensive defence of physical and cognitive spaces. She also shares with us experiences of resistance, knowledge-production, and creation that, on one front have resisted the advance of Mexican narco-capitalism; and, on the other, disarm the ideological hegemony of the Mexican State thus allowing us to glimpse visions of a world beyond the one in which we live.

The interview is organized into three sections. The first part is Yásnaya’s testimony about what happened in the summer of 2017 when the Mixe community of San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla was expelled from part of their ancestral territories by an armed group. This conflict has been framed by the Mexican State and federal police as a conflict between Indigenous communities, a narrative rejected by Yásnaya. Many questions remain: how were these communities armed? Is it possible to think (observing similar experiences of communities deprived of territory by premeditated coordination between the state, paramilitaries and drug traffickers) that there is a specific intention behind actions like this? As this is an evolving situation, concern for Yásnaya’s safety does not permit her to properly clarify the nature of the aggressors and/or their relationship with the Mexican State in a more nuanced way. Importantly, the solution goes beyond signalling and revealing the direct aggressors. Rather, it is necessary to acknowledge the diffused and intricate network of complicities and responsibilities pervasive in the dispossession and subjugation of these communities.

The second segment allows us to disarm imagined notions such as mestizaje and liberalism—both hegemonic in Mexico. Concepts such as autonomy and the differentiation between nation-states and nations-without-states are explored instead. These conversations are relevant to understanding the conflict, as the depoliticization of Indigenous identity on the part of the Mexican State is key to the ongoing colonization of these communities. Oaxaca is recognized as the state with the highest number of Indigenous peoples (accounting for about one-third of the population). And, through much struggle, most municipalities have maintained some form of governance systems based on traditions and customs (usos y costumbres) which exist in constant tension with formal forms of governance and authority.

In the final segment, Yásnaya discusses the role of art and knowledge (whether academic, scientific, or traditional) in helping us imagine the possibility of other worlds. But more than existing in the realm of imagination, knowledge and art also provide a counter-narrative to the assimilationist project of the Mexican state, which has many parallels to the Canadian State’s policy of multiculturalism.

This interview was conducted in Spanish by Alejandro Franco Briones in June of 2020. Many thanks to Temóc Thania Vega and Manuel Marqués-Bonilla for translating.

Yásnaya Elena A. Gil (linguist, writer, translator, linguistic rights activist, and Ayuujk researcher) is a thinker and activist in many struggles over natural resources, and in resistance movements against abuses by the state. She carries out activism in defence of the ancestral territory and her community of origin: San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla located in the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. This community of approximately 5,000 people has a long history of resistance against colonial occupation. It was of particular value to the Spaniards for its geographic location along the route from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Although military conquest was hindered due to the persistence of the Mixe people and their knowledge of the land, which proved too difficult to navigate, conquest became possible through religious missions. So great was the influence of the Catholic church that San Pedro Y San Pablo Ayutla became the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Territorial Prelature of Mixes in 1964. Today, the area’s most exploited resource is pine and oak wood yet the majority of inhabitants work in the agricultural sector and live in conditions of poverty, with poor access to public services such as potable water. These conditions have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as Yásnaya’s work shows us, the long history of resistance in the community prevails.

Section 1

Can you tell me where Ayutla is and what it means for you?

San Pedro and San Pablo Ayutla is a Mixe community in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, in the south of Mexico. It belongs to the Mixe region, but Ayutla is in the highest part of the mountain range. Ayutla is also a municipality but works very differently from the rest of the municipalities in the country because it has an assembly as its highest authority. And, it is also where I was born and grew up and where I live right now. For me, it represents the possibility of creating structures—not create, but rather participate—in structures that are a bit separated from the hand of the state and which allow, or are based above all on, self-determination.

Can you explain what happened recently in this community with regards to access to water?

We have various problems coming out of a complex situation that is based on an agrarian disagreement between Ayutla and a group of people (from another community). Firstly, it was a disagreement that did not have any violent manifestation. Dialogue and the presentation of evidence were privileged.

Suddenly, that changed when other actors appeared. Weapons started to arrive and these other people became an armed group. Following this, on May 18, 2020, they stripped 150 hectares from us, kicked out the people who lived there, and now prevent them from returning to their houses and lands. They also took control of the main aquifer that historically supplied water to our community. Through community work over more than three decades, we used the aquifer to build a water catchment system with valves and tanks for distribution that made it possible to have potable water in our houses. When this other community took control, it was very violent. At first, we thought it was only an agrarian matter, but slowly things started happening that mostly had to do with the use of arms and with violence never seen before in our context.

We first tried peaceful pressure because we had internal displacement and the majority of the people were women from the commune (comuneras). The community trusted that criminal complaints could be made because of dispossession and the prosecution ordered a visual inspection; that is, the prosecution would send agents to verify the accusation. At that moment, people who had been dispossessed went uphill to attempt to do the inquiry, accompanied by the prosecutor’s agents and what happened was unexpected because we were mostly women and we were near our aquifer. Walking toward the conflict zone, they started shooting into the air. At that time we realized the high level of violence in these people and we understood that they wouldn’t allow the inquiry to take place. We decided to turn back. While we were walking, without weapons and in broad daylight, they started shooting at us from the hills. That day, we counted almost half a dozen wounded, among them, a senior lady. Sadly, the son of one of the women of the commune, Luis Juan Guadalupe, passed away from a shot to the head and they kidnapped four women.

That was a terrible moment. We had to mobilize to transport all the wounded. We didn’t expect anything like this because we were a group of citizens in broad daylight, deciding to return to our community since there were no conditions for dialogue. We did not understand the nature of that aggression. It started to become clear the state must be colluding with these people.

The times we have been most at risk we did not realize it because we did not know the situation. Of course, the government presents it as: “Oh, these are Indians fighting amongst themselves!” But it’s not like that, because we don’t have the type of weapons [the others do]. There is a video where the gunshots of the attacks we suffered that day can be heard. The weapons used are of an unprecedented calibre for these communities.

When the wounded, including the senior lady that I mentioned earlier, arrived at the hospital, the office of the attorney general (Ministerio Público)—instead of looking for those who had attacked us and making the appropriate inquiries—went around the hospitals where the wounded were, and attempted to test them with sodium rhodizonate1 and question them without interpreters and accuse them of firing weapons! This started to reveal strange behaviour on the part of the attorney general.

We had Luis Juan’s funeral with all the stress of not knowing if our comrades in the hospital were alive. We were in communication with organizations to pressure for the release and return of the kidnapped women. Eventually, law enforcement arrived because we wanted to avoid other people in our community (especially the men) intervening. The law enforcement agents met with the other people. We did not know what they negotiated. They went, they did not detain anyone, and only brought back one kidnapped woman in very bad shape. We spoke to her and we discovered all the physical violence and sexual abuse she suffered. The women who were kidnapped do not speak much about it because it is very hard. It was very intense physical and psychological violence—in other words: torture.

We realized that the other women were at such great risk and that the agents only brought one of them back. The agents said, “We are leaving, this is as much as we can do.” So the community—and above all the women­—organized ourselves, and the women in the authority determined that the agents could not leave our community unless they returned our comrades. This resulted in the secretary of public security of Oaxaca bringing 11 criminal charges against the Ayutla authority for kidnapping agents. We, the authorities of the community, had to defend ourselves with protection proceedings (amparos) because we could not even go to Oaxaca to avoid being detained for these accusations. It was incredible that our people—with wounded people, with people who had died, who still had kidnapped women and we still didn’t know how they were—we were being criminalized.

Well, after a lot of pressure the liberation of the women was achieved. But the government has always said that it was a matter between two communities but in fact, it was not. There are a lot of factors and very clear re-victimization, and that type of narrative suits the state.

Then, the government forced us to sit to talk to the aggressor party, when what we needed was justice. While they had hijacked the aquifer on May 18, on the day of the attack on June 5, they closed all the valves of our potable water supply system. After a month they told us that they were going to open it. The morning they were going to fulfill that agreement, an armed group used dynamite and bombed our whole system: the tanks, valves, and pipes. All that work built over many decades was destroyed and it was impossible to get water because there was no infrastructure for it.

The government, instead of condemning these actions, simply said that they could not do anything. Since then, more than three years later, we don’t have access to potable water. Each time we have said that something has to be done and that we have tried to do something, there is a violent response and the state seeks to create a self-serving narrative. And each time we try to denounce the situation, we receive aggression from their journalists and other people close to their interests. When we have said that we have no water, they have openly said that it is not true, because if someone did not have water they would be dead, which implies derision and lack of knowledge about what the human right to potable water means.

In the presence of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador a solution was demanded. The governor said that in two days we would have a re-connection to a potable water supply. This has not happened. There have been a bunch of legal strategies that the state itself has implemented so that this does not take place. Meanwhile, nobody here has access to water. That is to say, it is not water that the aggressor group wants: what they require is that we yield more territory. In fact, they have requested to dispossess us from more lands and the water is just to keep us under torture and pressure.

Can you comment a bit more about Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response to the issue?

He said that if Alejandro Ismael Murat Hinojosa, Governor of Oaxaca, did not solve it, Olga Sánchez Cordero, Secretary of the Interior of Mexico, would solve it—that’s what he said and he got upset because we had a demonstration, but there has not been any further response. It angers me to tell this story again!

How does the lack of water exacerbate other crises, such as the fire that your community experienced recently, and the global pandemic?

Exactly! It has been a nightmare, especially when it was the dry season, which lasted a very long time. We lost a life during the fires and we also had several wounded.

What lessons should the activist international community take from this?

I am very grateful for the solidarity with Ayutla. It has cost us a lot to bring forward the issue and it has cost us to file criminal complaints. However, in concrete actions, not much has happened. I believe that I would rather think about how to move toward direct action. It is a bit discouraging to think that the state cannot be thought of as a guarantor of social justice, but rather as an obstacle, and in this case, I would ask for allies to organize direct action.

Section 2

Shifting gears, I want to talk about your work. As you know, as part of its modernization, from the days of independence until today, Mexico has self-identified as a mestizo nation—to the extent that the only way to be Mexican is to be mestizo. This hegemonic narrative of the 20th and 21st centuries has marginalized any Mexican who doesn’t subscribe to such identity. Indigenous peoples, in particular, have been affected by this process of “mestizaje.” It wasn’t until the Zapatista uprising of 1994—to simplify a very complex history—that Indigenous peoples were pushed to political primacy to remind the world that they were still there and had something to say. Following the San Andrés agreements between the government at the EZLN, the Mexican state had to establish a different relationship with Indigenous communities, although not a satisfactory one. As you’ve identified in your text “Nunca más un México sin nosotros” (Never Again a Mexico Without Us), there is a fundamental difference between the cultural and political categorization that is key to the emancipation of the first peoples. Can you explain this difference?

The category of “Indigenous” has, unfortunately, been treated many times as a cultural category, as if all Indigenous groups had common cultural characteristics. And that’s not the case; there are many differences. For instance, sometimes I think that certain mestizo populations, say in Oaxaca, have more in common with Indigenous communities such as the Mixe people or the Zapotecs, than the Zapotecs do with the Yumanos people. Nevertheless, the Yumanos and the Zapotecs are considered Indigenous communities. This process of cultural categorization makes it possible for academic courses such as “Indigenous cosmology” to exist—as if by being Indigenous it means we shared the same cosmology—or “Indigenous music,” and such, even though there is a great global diversity. This is a process of depoliticization because in reality, Indigeneity is a political category. So then, in order to be considered Indigenous, you need to fulfill two requirements: one is to have suffered under colonialism and the other is to not have conformed to nation-statehood when the world was divided into nation-states, even though these peoples have become encapsulated within nation-states where they’ve been fighting for their existence. These are not essential characteristics. In this way, in the thousands of years that we have been Mixes (give or take, considering the oldest artefacts are from around 5,000-6,000 years ago), we have only been “Indians’’ for 500 years, and “Indigenous” for 200, which for the Mexican State is a label created and used only by them. In this sense, it is not an essential characteristic. Being Mixe is different from being Indigenous.

In your work, the concept of autonomy is very pertinent, especially in the text I’ve referred to in this interview. Can you tell us in your own words what autonomy means to you?

Recently I’ve had many internal debates around the meaning of autonomy. First of all, autonomy is a legal term that is available among other legal instruments for Indigenous communities. It’s interesting to me to think about what autonomy is. Obviously, autonomy is contrasted with the sovereignty of states. It’s as if they say, “I will give you autonomy, but not recognize your sovereignty.” Autonomy is given to these nations, or better yet it should be recognized, as it is the law. But that’s not true in action: sovereignty is what states have. Autonomy is the capacity for self-determination over life and our communities; but this isn’t what is happening. I believe that more than thinking of autonomy as “I don’t want to have anything to do with you,” I think that all of humanity needs to deal with each other; this notion must be complexified. But this isn’t what is happening, or if it is happening it’s in very few areas, and even then it’s a sort-of recognition. In 1998 they began to recognize our systems of government, what they used to call “traditions and conventions” and now they call “normative internal systems.” But the recognition of our educational and communication systems has not happened yet. The state has a lot of control.

I am curious about your thoughts on this concept of a nation without a state. What does that mean to you? Is it a concept that is worth thinking about and analyzing? Is it a concept that can only be analyzed in relation to what has been deemed “Indigenous” over the years? Or do you think it can be expansive? That others can learn about the concept of a nation without a state?

Yes, I think there are nations without states that are not considered Indigenous. Take, for example, the Catalan case. I think it is those nations that did not conform as states, but which are [still] possible. To get rid of categories such as “Indigenous” and others like this we need to realize that it is possible to administer life and community without the state. I think from here it could have potential. For the majority of human history, we have lived without states as we experience today—modern states, nation-states. Before this, there were a variety of socio-political organizations: monarchies, republics, clan structures, tribal structures, and communal structures. Suddenly everything was homogenized and ended up being encapsulated within this strong corset that administers capitalist, patriarchal, and colonial systems. We have only lived like this for a short time and it is a bit strange that in this ideological and totalizing eagerness it is very difficult to visualize a world in which states would not exist—not any state.

Can you imagine an international community wherein the mediation of states is not necessary? How can nations without states establish modes of communication and collaboration amongst each other? How can you establish effective alliances between nations without states?

I think that this is already happening, as we can see in the case of Kurdistan, and with the comrades from the autonomous Zapatista communities. I believe that these alliances are already here, and have been here for a long time. I think that what must be done is to be always strengthening and thinking about how to increase our numbers, so that it is possible to construct a shared life outside of the state. It has been said to me that “this is a utopia,” but to me it seems not as complicated as it is said to be, and that we should at least say that we can imagine a life outside of the state.

Of course. Imagination is the first step, no? And from there we can make it a real thing.

It is difficult to even imagine. But I think, in many cases, this is already happening. In my community, many things function far from the state. With the Zapatistas and even in urban populations there are many things—for example when the earthquake happened, many of the rescue operations happened without the state. It is as if the state cannot administer in extraordinary circumstances, right? It is not capable; it likes to administer in the norm.

Section 3

The Mexican State has produced a powerful imaginary about mestizaje as a homogeneous national identity capable of erasing the nations encapsulated within the state. Similarly, the Canadian State and, more recently, the neoliberal governments of Mexico have produced a liberal narrative based on multiculturalism in which Indigenous communities are seen as a source of cultural diversity rather than a divergence from the liberal status quo that entails the possibility of new forms of political, social, and even economic organization. A part of your work points to the destitution of the hegemonic imaginary produced by mestizaje and multicultural liberalism. As I understand it, in a larger context we need to constitute a counter-imaginary that acts as a way of producing a world where many worlds are possible. So I’m thinking of Gayatri Spivak and her ideas on pedagogy. Do you think that the arts and sciences (science must be understood like any academic endeavour, in this context) are a non-coercive way of organizing desire? In other words, are artistic practices and knowledge production an effective vehicle for producing counter-narratives and imagining non-hegemonic notions?

Yes, I am convinced of that, but not only Western science but different topics of knowledge. Let’s not forget that science, in its time, supported racist positions of the world. So, Western science and artistic manifestations are Western; thus, they are involved in that system and they validate it or, let’s say, they also respond to it. I believe that these counter-narratives and imaginaries have to come from multiple aesthetic manifestations and knowledge systems and one of those knowledge systems should be science.

And well, to end the interview, could you recommend some works of music, cinema, or art? In particular, if you believe or know if they have been translated or can be found in the Anglo-American or European context.

I think you can search on the internet for Luna Marán’s movie called “Uncle Yim” (Tío Yim), which is precisely about the struggle of a community member for the forests and their family history. It is cinema made from a community point of view and about someone very community-minded. There is also an artist that I highly recommend called Kumantuk Xuxpë which is a mix of jazz with traditional music and oral elements from the Mixe nation. You can find some of his performances on his YouTube channel.

I also heard that recently there was a collaboration between Julieta Venegas and the Ayutla Symphonic Band.

Yes, that can be found on YouTube on Kumantuk Xuxpë’s channel as well. I think that is where the intercultural dialogue is a little more on the same level, due to the quality of the music.

And a visual artist that you think is essential to be known in these latitudes? Or artist communities?

Ah, well there are a lot I would recommend. I am very fascinated with the work of Gilberto Delgado or Gilberto Kupyum who does some very crazy things, which are also very much based on Mixe traditions.

Perfect, many thanks for this interview.

No, thanks to you.


1 Sodium rhodizonate is a chemical used to test for the presence of lead and other metals found in bullets and bullet casings.