On April 23, 2020, the Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) announced an austerity plan to confront the health and economic crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures secured, among other things, a series of controversial megaprojects in the South-Southeast of the country. Despite its alleged anti-neoliberal stance, AMLO decided to carry ‘development’ into this historically ‘abandoned’ region since the beginning of his term. The Mayan Train, a cargo and tourist train, and the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, a dry canal project, will be two of the main means. The Mexican State once more assumed what indigenous communities need to produce ‘growth’, ‘richness’, ‘employment’ and ‘wellbeing’. Thus, while the pandemic evidences the crisis of capitalism and pushes forward discussions on degrowth and racial justice, AMLO’s extractivist agenda boosts tourism, industries, clientelism and even militarisation in indigenous regions. Although AMLO rhetorically pronounces himself against racism, are not these megaprojects precisely embodying it?
My article Indigeneity as a transnational battlefield: disputes over meanings, spaces, and peoples explores how ‘development’ influences the creation, representation, experience, and use of indigeneity. It elaborates some of the ideas from my book to expose how the rhetoric of ‘development’ together with that of mestizaje set up ‘an epistemological frame that acts as a catalyst in the minds of peoples to guide aspirations towards the “escalation” in the social structure and promote the looting and exploitation of lives and territories’. Indigenous peoples’ lives, mentalities and desires are like this being shaped to sustain capitalist expansion and hierarchies rooted in colonialism. They are seduced into the dominant society while extending inequalities, dispossession, racism and community fragmentation. This can be done via tourism and migration, as I explore, but it can also be through industrialisation, urbanisation, technologisation and even militarisation. This frame maintains the fantasies not only of a ‘unique’ and ‘inclusive’ Nation but also those of a hierarchical and linear ‘progress’. Furthermore, it restrains our hopes and desires and validates only one way of being in the world.
However, indigenous peoples are not simply recipients of these ideals, many resist and defend their ways of being, thinking, organising and envisioning life and the future. In effect, many communities have defended themselves against capitalist/colonialist plans for centuries. In Latin America, we began to witness this opposition more intensely since the celebration of the 500 Anniversary of the so-called “discovery” of America. Many scholars identified that this upsurge of indigenous movements demanding autonomy and respect was associated with a strategic use of their indigeneity in the context of multicultural policies and rights. Nevertheless, they disregarded the influence and incentive that indigenous struggles represented for other communities that denied, concealed or degraded their ‘indigeneity’. In my contribution, I thus consider how the Zapatista movement became an inspiration and referent to dignify their indigeneity. Inspired by the work of John Holloway, I argue that these communities might strengthen internally to advance political projects that dismantle ‘development’, obstruct capitalist/colonial incursions, and build an alternative society where being indigenous is not a cause of shame and oppression.
My article, therefore, engages in the discussion of who is indigenous and who and what determines indigeneity. The main argument is that indigeneity is a political space where multiple subjects from the local to the global dispute the management of lives and territories. Adding to the work of Marisol De La Cadena and Orin Starn, and Paula Lopez Caballero, I explore how indigeneity is constructed not only in relation to ‘non-indigenous’ but also by ‘other indigenous’. Indigenous peoples navigate the logics of the state and market; so, their indigeneity might be romanticised, folklorised, patronised, commodified, excluded, ignored or suppressed. But their indigeneity is also marked by experiences and practices of their own and other communities; history, struggles, solidarities, rebellions, communality, and dignity also impress what it is to be indigenous nowadays. Thus, indigeneity is a space that amalgamates these opposing perspectives fighting to keep control over ‘development’, and thus, over their lives and territories. Moreover, by linking indigeneity to development, I examine this alterity from a transnational perspective within the workings of neoliberal governance. This requires considering diverse and diasporic contexts as well as blurred distinctions and borders; multiple and complex indigeneities contest in a globalised world.
I develop this argument by taking as a point of departure the Coca community of Mezcala in West-Central Mexico. Mezcala is an example of how communities are dispersed and fragmented via ‘developmentalist’ ideals and dreams. Mezcalenses’ experiences and narratives shed light on how indigeneity is currently lived within a global scenario of acute racism and dispossession perpetuated by neoliberal governance. In order to understand this, it is key to look back to colonialism; in the region, it caused Mezcalenses ‘to forget’ their Coca origin, but still managed to maintain their indigeneity by taking refuge in their territory. Over time, different processes marked by the racial legacy of colonialism led some to reject or conceal their indigeneity. Their indigeneity became even more problematic as economic and political elites attempted to develop residential tourism into their territory. Their indigeneity was denied and folklorised, and some Mezcalenses became accomplices of this manoeuvre. However, others took inspiration from the Zapatistas and engaged in recovering their history as Coca people to reinforce their organisation and sense of community. Like this, they now articulate strategies and alternatives against capitalist/colonialist representations and plans and defy the epistemological frame deployed. Through my analysis, I envision that the transnationalisation of their political project can function as a way to reverse the damage, division, dispersion and dispossession done to the community via ‘development’.
Even if the experiences and understandings around indigeneity in Mezcala might differ from those in the South of the country, it assists us to reflect how ‘development’ and racism work together. We must acknowledge that development projects are racial projects; as Robtel Neajai Pailey claims ‘development is fundamentally raced, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.’ Therefore, the purpose of the article is to incite the reflection on how ‘development’ acts together with ethnic/racial rhetorics to insert an epistemological frame that upholds ‘whiteness’ and ‘Western’ as synonyms of ‘progress’ and ‘superiority’. In Mexico it upholds ‘indigeneity’ in opposition to ‘development’, and in this way subdue indigenous peoples and territories into capitalist and colonialist logics. So, when Mayas and Zapotecs question that megaprojects are acts of social justice, it is because they are aware of how racism traverses them. ‘Development’ marked by the racial legacy of colonialism functions as a manoeuvre of neoliberal governance; it legitimises the incursion into indigenous territories, the subjugation of their peoples and the destruction of nature. Furthermore, a megaproject that appropriates the Maya identity and culture only demonstrates how indigeneity is indeed a transnational battlefield where a dispute over meanings, spaces and peoples takes place.