by Ivory Taylor
San Juan Chilateca, Oaxaca, Mexico – Our Witness for Peace Midwest delegation arrived in the small town of San Juan Chilateca on a warm day in mid-January. We were met by Román, a community member who, along with his family, runs a small farm and home using eco-friendly and traditional methods of cultivation and building. We walked from the bus up a small road where murals decorated the walls of buildings and a cone-shaped granary showed evidence of former rural development efforts. As the road changed from pavement to dirt, we came upon Espacio Cruz, the family farmstead set against a stunning backdrop of mountains and blue skies.
Upon arrival at the farm, we sat down to learn about the history of the place we were in. Román explained the construction of the farm, and the reason why he and his family created a space which honors the cultural history of San Juan Chilateca and embraces traditional ways of rural living. Until approximately three decades ago, adobe builds were a traditional construction method used by a wide variety of families in Oaxaca. The benefits of adobe builds are numerous. A main advantage, as Román explained, is there is no specialized knowledge necessary to build with this material, unlike other methods such as cement and timber building. Additionally, this type of build is low-cost. The adobe clay mixture comes from the Earth, and the roof, walls, windows, and fences can all be constructed using sugar cane reeds found in local streams. Materials from daily living are recycled into building components as well, such as soda bottles used for constructing walls and the aluminum lining in milk or juice cartons acting as insulators from heat and cold between the ceiling and the one store bought material, corrugated metal roofing. A composting toilet provides fertilizer for fruit trees and flowers, and an ecological stove (brasero) uses dry wood from fields, acting as a low-impact alternative to electric and gas ranges.
Learning about Espacio Cruz from this perspective was very interesting, especially as our global society searches for ways to lessen our impact on the planet as we try to backtrack from decades of environmental and economical degradation. However, it was our lesson on traditional ways of living as a form of resistance that particularly made me sit up and take notice. Román explained that his family had decided to create Espacio Cruz, not just for practical reasons, but for political ones. To further explain, Oaxaca has been the site of indigenous resistance to land-theft, megaprojects, government repression, and rural development efforts for years, so there is a long history of struggle and social activism in the state.
On the subject of this, in 2000, Román married Yasmín, and together they began organizing in their community around issues of corruption and misuse of community funds by the local government, inspired by the Zapatista resistance movements in Chiapas in the 1990’s. During this time, their efforts were supported by the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática). From 2004-2006, they separated from the PRD due to corruption, fragmentation, and disloyalty. It was also during this time that the teacher’s movement was started in Oaxaca. Román, a teacher for five years, would work in Seccion 22, a dissident teachers unions, from 2009-2013. On the topic of what subjects he taught, Román expressed that he wanted to be an English teacher, but decided against it when he realized that English was the language of the colonizers, and to teach the language would be to endorse their beliefs and actions. This was a powerful statement which brought to the forefront the importance of language preservation and cultural survival.
From 2007-2009, the family participated in a community radio program in a neighboring town. Román was in charge of the news program, while Yasmín created a children’s program with their daughter Quetzali. Using this platform, the family spoke out against government corruption and brought international news to the community, such as the case of three Mexican students who were killed by the Colombian government in Ecuador. Unfortunately, as a result of these acts of resistance, the family began to be threatened and followed and, after consulting with someone from Comité Cerezo México, an organization in Mexico City which works to protect the rights of human rights defenders, they decided to leave the radio station.
Since 2014, Espacio Cruz has worked on creating a process of autonomy, of constructing a space that is free from government relationships. “To build something by ourselves, organize by ourselves – this is the way to live,” says Román. The family works to continue their mission of informing communities and strengthening networks in order for people to protect themselves. They travel to Oaxaca City every two days to collect international newspapers and publish the news on the internet with information about the goings-on of the valley region. They also print a magazine with verse, art, culture, history, news, and information about megaprojects, GMO crops, and the social and ecological repercussions of capitalist interference (such as poverty, higher temperatures, loss of natural water filtration, and animal death). Quetzali contributes to these magazines using her great eye for graphic design and storytelling through imagery.
At the end of our discussion, we were invited to stay for a meal of chicken mole verde, farmer’s cheese, tortillas, and horchata. The freshness of the food and the richness of its flavor was a testament to the love and hard work that the family puts into Espacio Cruz everyday. We were also able to view and purchase beautiful works of embroidery, which the family creates together as a hobby.
It was such an incredibly humbling experience to be invited to learn from a family who lives their values so thoroughly. The visit to the farm was, for me, one of the most meaningful experiences I had during our delegation. As I continue to engage in activism in my own way, and learn from the ways in which others participate in changing their communities, I will look back often on my trip to Espacio Cruz and hope to continue learning from Román, Yasmín, and Quetzali’s lessons in the future.