Interview by Amalia Córdova of FVC, NMAI
AC: Can you tell us where you're from?
ME: I am from the southern part of Mexico. My native language
is Tzeltal, one of 57 native languages in the country. Well, this
is what the statistics say, but we don't know if 57 is the right
number; some say 62 languages exist.
AC: But you also speak or understand other languages besides
ME: I was fortunate to grow up living alongside another
culture, another people, in my village. I got to practice their
language a lot, so now I speak Chol just as well as Tzeltal. We
value that, mastering a language other than the one you were born
Of course Spanish is also another language we had to learn. So
I'm fluent in three languages, and there are a few others I can't
speak well but understand. And since my region has this make-up,
it's become necessary for me, in my work, to take full advantage
of my closeness to both communities. It's become easier with time.
Naturally, since these two peoples have been able to settle together
and maintain their Chol and Tzeltal identites, it's easy for me
to live with them, we understand each other, and that makes my
job as an indigenous communicator easier.
AC: How did your work as a Native communicator begin?
ME: Well, it's a bit of a long story. I've worked as a
communicator making and producing videos for a long time. It was
almost fourteen years ago when I started working with this type
of equipment. But, actually, my work with the communities had
started much earlier, and was exactly about communication; that
is, we would communicate through writing. Our purpose was to demand,
for instance, that local and state officials address our most
If you want to communicate, or have a connection with the city,
with the outside, it becomes harder the further removed you are
from the center. That made us more determined to see that our
government, our officials, attend fairly to their commitment to
serve their communities. Because we live in a country where we
pay taxes, our taxes should be directed at projects that further
the common good, the good of society. And we weren't seeing that
happen. As soon as a county president was elected, it would become
clear he wasn't really interested in meeting the community's needs.
It was more about finding a way to get as much as you could into
your own pocket, and getting richer.
So that's what people started complaining about. They would say,
"How is it that this man comes into power supposedly to serve
the community, does his term and leaves, and nothing changes for
us?" This went on year after year after year, and representative
after representative. Finally we decided we had to organize, to
demand of the next man who came into office that he do his job.
Serving the people is not, after all, foreign to the constitution.
What we are asking is that you follow your own law, because your
mandate is to look after the needs of the people.
We used to send representatives. They would go with their petition,
their writing, and when they got there they weren't treated as
people, they were treated like dirty animals. So one of our brothers
said, "What should we do? If today they won't listen to us
this way, we have to do something."
So they began to organize, because this wasn't just happening
to one community, it happened to everyone who came there. All
these people who weren't happy got together. Full of indignation
with the way they were being treated, they organized a march.
I think this was the first march of its kind, the first social
movement to come out of the region, and they brought down the
county president at the time. Of course there was tear gas, and
some were wounded and arrested, but that made the people stronger
in their will to continue: "If this is the way they want
to treat us we have to go on, and it doesn't matter if our lives
are lost demanding what is ours by right."
What finally happened is that one of our indigenous brothers,
José Daniel López, way back in 1986, left his village
along with others to sell corn in the city. The village and city
police were following them and our poor brother was killed. They
beat him up, they took his money, and then they left him there
dying. And nothing happened, no one said anything. Everyone saw
it but the officials did nothing. They didn't punish this crime
because it was committed by their own people, because it was the
police. That's what made people most angry.
In those years I was starting to take flight; I was fourteen
years old. I was interested in everything that was happening,
but I had no formal education, barely knew how to read. There
really wasn't a proper school where I happened to be born. There
was a small school where a teacher would come twice a week, and
sometimes stop coming for months. That's probably part of the
reason I started looking for other spaces, not to learn, but to
understand what was happening around me.
So I started asking around, looking for an organization that
dealt with social issues. That's when I met a group of colleagues
who were fighting for their rights. So I joined the group and
started attending their meetings and assemblies; they gradually
got to know me, and I grew increasingly intimate with these communities.
That's how I started exploring this field. At that time I wasn't
representing a particular community; I was just a kid, and surrounding
me were these very experienced community leaders, elders, who
knew exactly what they were doing. So I was taking it all in.
And I'd like to make clear that I was the only kid hanging around.
I figured I'd stay as long as they didn't kick me out. I started
helping, sweeping the meeting room, bringing water for those in
the meetings, passing on messages, writing short statements or
letters between villages, between people, stuff like that.
And that's when I came of age. They were six or seven years of
hard activism; the marches and demonstrations of those years were
quite intense. Then, around 1992, when I was about twenty, we
received an invitation from a government agency that wanted to
give video equipment to indigenous organizations, supposedly for
cultural preservation. When we received the invitation it was
discussed by the group, and the leaders of the organization were
not about to start learning how to use a camera and all that.
"How are we going to benefit the community, how is this going
to help us do what we have to do as leaders, or elders, it won't
help us. Here's a young one, why don't we send him." And
there was another youth there, so they said, "And you, too.
Let's send both these kids to the workshop and see what they learn."
So we went, while they stayed at a demonstration where they were
demanding the same things as always. And while we were there,
we found out that the demonstration had been dissolved, (this
time) by federal police operatives.
Meanwhile, we were at this workshop trying to figure out how
to work a camera: we didn't know what a camera was. We might have
seen a still camera before, but a video camera that talks, what?
We had no idea. And it was during those two months of work, while
we were getting acquainted with this new equipment, that we received
news that a decision had been made to abandon the regional demonstration
and go directly to the government in the capital. What was happening
to us was shameful, and the world had to know about it. Somebody
had to listen to us, or at least feel our pain. It was risky,
but it was the only choice we had left.
They decided to march. There were almost 100 miles separating
the capital from where they started, so they walked for 60 days.
And it was on the same day the march started that we arrived back
in our homes. We had just come back with the equipment, we had
no commitments except to record as much as possible, so
how we started our work as Native communicators.
What good is a camera to us if not to record things like this?
We had to rest at home for a couple of days before running off
to catch up with the marchers. And no one in the village knew
how things were going with the march. I mean, the press wasn't
really telling you what was going on. So that became our role,
to act as a bridge for this movement, which had left its place
of origin, and was communicating through us as it marched.
Well, it's a long story, a lot happened during those days. It
was then that the organization took its name: Xinich, which means
"ant." It's alluding to what happens when you see a
small ant-hill. It doesn't look like much, you destroy it, but
then more ants start coming up from underneath, and they keep
coming and coming, and you never finish killing them. The government
had tried to put down the movement by arresting and locking up
people, but all that did was to make our brothers come out.
That's how my journey as a communicator began, and I feel I'm
still doing the same thing. I mean, I really haven't changed my
approach. Maybe it's a little better now, my style. My technique
has improved, my craft. But the purpose, the main objective, is
fundamentally the same: that is, to contribute to the community's
work, to the work of the people of the region. To do my part.
That's why we always make sure that the materials we produce will
be understood by people outside the community. As I said, we function
as a bridge between the communities we represent and the outside.
We bring out what's happening inside the communities. That's pretty
much what I'm still doing.
AC: And how have you felt now, being a selector for the
festival, seeing your colleagues' work.
ME: Well, we're giving it our all, because the material
is of very high quality. Indigenous communication has really taken
off, not just in one region of the country but in most countries
in North and Latin America. Indigenous communicators are producing
more and more works: self-produced, giving importance to what
they're doing, striving to support community efforts, the collective
work of their region, their rights as indigenous peoples, and
strengthening their autonomy.
There's a great deal of work done in those terms, and then one
here or there will venture out and try to imitate a Hollywood-style
film, right? Well, that's alright, but if I'm not mistaken, I
think 90% are doing work that involves the community
little by little we've learned that TV shows, video clips, soap
operas, and fantasies are entertaining, but they make you forget
your reality, right? And we're the complete opposite, we don't
try to forget, but to support this reality around us and see how
we go about moving forward all together.
AC: Could you tell us a bit more about your work with
ME: Besides what I've told you about materials we've produced,
we also have a commitment to bring this information to the people.
It's a very intense schedule of visiting the various communities.
We're scheduled months in advance, we know what we have to do
for at least the next two months. And we're giving more priority
to disseminating the work.
Fortunately I received a grant from a foundation and we were
able to get a good set-up. If we have access to some resources,
no matter how small, we use it to strengthen what we are doing
as a group. So I gave the money to the organization and then I
asked for authorization to buy this equipment. They told me to
go aheadthe group made a decision as to how to spend the
resourcesand we got the best equipment we could for translation
and projection. Now we have what we need to disseminate our work.
We visit the villages bringing our equipment. In the past we
brought 12-inch, or at most, 16-inch television sets. People would
show up, but sometimes they would complain that they couldn't
see or hear well. Because everyone crowded around the monitor,
some people would just leave halfway. That's what made us want
to be better equipped; so now we have a bigger screen, and the
communities themselves ask us to visit their village and show
them productions, about themselves as well as the outside world,
that serve to encourage and strengthen their work. So we feel
we're doing a good job, or at least I do. That's it.
Mariano Estrada Aguilar - photograph by Tim Warner