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CASA offers training on social justice issues in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

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We share lessons we learn from the resistance movements in Mexico with our home communities. We publish news and analysis in our newsletter, host workshops, short-term solidarity delegations, and speaking events.

drawing by flickr.com/benignpxl

Reflections on Complicity


By Leila It's a party with too much food, an endless beer supply and a whole cast of music snobs (myself included.) In short, a Friday night filled with all of the standard tropes of our extravagant merry-making. As the evening warbles past midnight and the conversation starts repeating, I slip away from the garden barbeque. At some point the beer has gotten warm and the decadence of the food left abandoned on the table has become upsetting to me. Troubled, I retreat to the house and lay down on the couch to sort through my cluttered thoughts. The flat, green lawn shimmers in the moonlight and the white walls and ribbed, bare wood rafters of the quaint house remind me of a ski lodge. In the garden, fresh spring flowers blossom in perfect order around the fence and gate, which is black, tall and resolutely locked. Outside, around the grill, the sound of confused but exuberant chatter and trendy Ipod music drifts back to me. It's not until the next morning that my discomfort crystallizes into clarity. As I'm being driven back into San Cristobal in the backseat of a car with power-locks, automatic windows, and a deluxe CD player, I watch the life of the colonia I've spent the night in glide past me. An indigenous woman at a roadside stand leans through the open window of her plywood and nails hut to hand a bag of peanuts to a small boy. Another woman with long braids, wrapped in the traditional wool skirt and the vibrant shirt of the local indigenous population, arranges mangos on the shelf at her own roadside stand. The world inside and outside of the tall black gates is sharply disparate. Here in the colonias of San Cristobal we're settlers in someone else's home. Our houses, luxurious in their own right and disturbingly more so in contrast to the surroundings, are fortresses of wealth and occupiers of land. The land is not, by cultural heritage, ours and our wealth is nothing but a cruel trick of history. Are we settlers in someone else's home not only in the colonias, but everywhere in San Cristobal? Do there have to be plywood shacks and indigenous families living across the street to acknowledge the extremity of economic privilege? And of economic marginalization? What does our affluence mean and what are its consequences? What are the ramifications of these side by side worlds? *** San Cristobal is a town of shocking contrasts that leaves me feeling absent, pensive and troubled. In Café Revolutión, a favourite with the international crowd and urban Mexicans alike, groups get rowdy over 25 peso beers while listening to reggae music. On the walls pictures of the icons and heroes of the dispossessed are twisted into novelty items for the diversion of the affluent. Marcos' face hangs over the revelry; Che's. At Café Revolución you can order a coca-cola, the drink responsible for water deprivation throughout Chiapas. Outside the doors, 8 year-old children sell ceramic "animalitos" and woven bracelets, beg pesos, while indigenous women sell underpriced artisanry until late into the night. For the 25 pesos that bought a beer 3 kilos of tortilla could have been purchased. That's enough tortillas to feed a family. Evidence of these deep inequalities is everywhere. The thing is, whether I am at a chilango (Mexico City folk) garden party surrounded by a wealth I'm unaccustomed to or in my own (modest by comparison) dusty house; whether I'm spending the afternoon with Americans or Europeans talking about pleasantries and minutia, or having an equally evasive conversation with urban Mexicans, something essential is being avoided. None of us are talking about what's all around us. None of us are acknowledging our own ease of life and its morally problematic positioning. We're not talking in personal terms about the reality of poverty that flanks us on all sides; sometimes I'm not even sure we're letting it trouble us. We recognize it systemically, intellectually, and beyond this we excuse ourselves. The violent realities of Chiapas are not a secret. Even the World Bank acknowledges that half of the population of Mexico lives in poverty and one fifth in extreme poverty (as of 2002). Less conservative sources report poverty and extreme poverty rates to be even higher. An article published by another mainstream source, the BBC, noted the extremity of wealth differential in Mexico by likening parts of the country to Germany and other parts to the most disadvantaged areas of Africa. We, as politicals, recognize that this poverty and inequality exist, analyze economic systems, denounce them, and call ourselves anti-capitalists. Unfortunately, it seems that we don't push ourselves beyond this systemic comprehension or personalize our understanding. When we blame an economic structure without reflecting upon our own position within that structure we falsely outsource the culprit. It's the corporation (Coca-Cola), we say; the system (Neoliberalism); the government (corrupt); or the rich (or at least the richer-than-us.) The problem is everywhere, but it is never acknowledged to be, also, within us. We are here in solidarity, we are different, we renounce our privileges (although they brought us here and we continue to enjoy them) and we are in league with the oppressed, the dispossessed, the poor and indigenous. We, after all, are the "good-guys." (And who would those be in a multi-dimensional world?) Political personalities flock to this town, inspired by the Zapatista resistance. San Cristobal is a lacquered tourist town with its prodigious yellow cathedral in the centre and its picturesque indigenous in bright and exotic garb, the image of whom is sold at wholesale to those with an "appreciation for culture" and an interest in "ethnic groups." These tourist fables, this marketing of culture and people, apply no less to the political than to the average consumer. It's just that for the political, for the revolution lovers among us, there's the added novelty of the iconic face of Marcos, shocking poverty, centuries of colonialism and the eternally trendy Marxist-Leninist paradigm with which to be alternately horrified and enamoured. The revolutionary tourist, who comes on extended stay for 3 months to 1 year or longer, is no less a consumer of culture, a tokenizer of the indigenous, than is the traditional tourist. It's still all exoticism and image; a superficial, power-laden, exploitive relationship. As John Hutnyk writes, academic director of the Cultural Studies program as Goldsmiths College, University of London, tourism is "a huge global industry [that] spans the world, and makes objects of people, places, meanings and experience. As pleasure- and treasure-hunt, tourism commodifies." He further says that, "politics, commodification, inequality and exploitation…are the very basis of the possibility of 'third-world' tourism in the first place." Our politically motivated presence in Chiapas is no more than a well-intentioned treasure hunt for new insights and contact with what has been created as the object of revolution. As politicals, we are not beyond and superior to tourist dynamics. Our very ability to be present in San Cristobal is still deeply embedded within the paradigm of unequal power. At the same time that we are caught up in highly intellectualized egalitarian discourse, analysing the way in which systems and governments exploit and dehumanize, we ourselves are engaged in these same oppressive processes. We, the politicals, are by no means free of guilt in any arena. We cannot stand outside of the systems of the current world: the structure of nation states and power, the colonialism and economic despotism that is enacted upon the disadvantaged, the random cruelty of history. We are raised, from childhood, into world views and world positions that ground themselves in patriarchy, racism and capitalism. Our thinking and our actions are not free of these bigotries. Our lives are not free of the privileges that come from the systems we decry. We ourselves are not innocent in our solidarity. We ourselves are sometimes the "bad guys," perpetuating that we struggle against. Political consciousness does not personally exempt us from atrocity. Spending all of our days investigating and writing denouncements about the way in which other people are enacting exploitation does not relieve us of the exploitation that we ourselves engage in. Perhaps when at extravagant garden parties, gorging ourselves on expensive foods and drinks we should feel a twinge uncomfortable. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: Who are the people outside of the gates of our party and did they have enough to eat? How did we end up inside the tall black walls and who is locked out by them? In other words, I feel that we as politicals, in Chiapas and beyond, are in need of some reflection about the ways in which our experience of privilege is actively recreating unequal social practices and reproducing systems of exploitation, be it through food, parties, alternative tourism, or any other mechanism. The systems are much bigger than us, but we must attack them from both within ourselves (resist personally) as well as from without (manifest resistance socially and structurally) if we're going to create real change. I am not arguing that we, the political tourists, necessarily need to leave Chiapas. Anywhere in the world there is inequality and anywhere in the world there will be complicated problematics about our positioning. Neither am I arguing for ideological purism or the stripping down of life; that we must be politically austere and surrender all indulgences. The process of revolution should be a joyous, people-based experience. Instead, what I am advocating is an increased sensitivity to our personal complicities and a dismantling of extremist, blaming discourses that perpetually outsource responsibility. As Emma Goldman says, "…it requires less mental energy to condemn than to think." So let's start thinking again, this time about our own roles in the systems we despise. Let's begin to manifest our personal resistance; to not only hold others responsible, but also ourselves.
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