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The Spirit of La Magdalena- Fighting Campesinos

by mlm Tuesday, Nov. 05, 2002 at 8:25 AM


Reporter's Notebook from Atenco, Mexico

Part 1: The Spirit of La Magdalena

by Luciente and the Atenco Project Writing Group

Revolutionary Worker #1174, November 10, 2002, posted at

Earlier this year, I followed the struggle of the campesinos in San Salvador, Atenco for months in La Jornada and other Mexican newspapers. Then in July, their struggle against the Fox government's plans to build an airport on their land finally broke through the international media--and I got my first glimpse of this town in rebellion. It was captivating. I saw images of men and women sharpening their machetes on the pavement. Police cars were toppled over and burned. A Coca Cola trailer was turned on its side to block the road. Coke bottles became Molotov cocktails. Tanks holding 40,000 liters of gasoline were positioned at the bridges to be detonated if the troops tried to enter.

I hadn't seen anything like this erupt in Mexico in recent times. I had a lot of questions, and while their struggle did break through into the mainstream press I wanted to know more. I wanted to learn about this struggle from the people themselves. Why is it that they were determined and willing to do whatever it took to defend their land? A group of us traveled to San Salvador, Atenco in search for answers. This is the first of a four-part report of what we saw and heard in Atenco.

La Ciudad/The City

We arrived in Mexico City in the early morning, blurry eyed from excitement and lack of sleep. After so much anticipation, there we were among the thousands and thousands of people making their way through the streets of one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world.

Under the gray sky of the City, women lined the sidewalks selling quesadillas, tamales, and atole --a thick, sweet, hot drink made of ground maize, milk, cinnamon, and sugar. Children moved busily washing windows, selling chiclets, and shining shoes. Men and women jammed through the doors of the metro. Taxis, buses, and cars moved at a snail's pace through these crowded streets. It's estimated that every day more than 5,000 people arrive in Mexico City in search for work.

As we traveled about 20 miles away from the noise of the City and headed to San Salvador, Atenco, the pace of things slowed down and the gray cement landscape became green.

It was easier to breathe.

Un Municipio en Rebelde/A Rebel Municipality

When the people of Atenco stood up, they broke through the repressive haze that looms over Mexico. At Atenco, we found the town square still vibrating with the echoes of four days of rebellion that shook Mexico and made international news.

" No Aeropuerto " was spray-painted on walls in every direction we looked. Banners from Tlaxcala, Oaxaca, and other states in Mexico hung high from rooftops in solidarity with the struggle of the campesinos. Chunks of concrete used for barricades still sat at the edge of the central plaza. Empty Coca Cola bottles were stacked up high next to a mural that read " Unidad, Organización, y Resistencia para Vencer! La Tierra No Se Vende!" (Unity, Organization, and Resistance to Win! The Land is Not for Sale!"). A row of cars and trucks expropriated from police and other government authorities were parked outside a cultural center renamed after Jose Enrique Espinoza, a campesino who died in police custody after authorities denied him medical attention for his diabetes.

Atenco was still a municipio en rebeldia --a rebel municipality, two weeks after the August 1 victory when the government announced that it would cancel plans for the airport. The mood of the people was still strong and defiant--people walked around with a certain dignity.

El Campamento/The Encampment

The midnight blue sky was barely visible through a collage of dark gray clouds when we first arrived at La Magdalena. La Magdalena was one of the 13 communities in Atenco active in the struggle. It hosted an encampment that served as one of the many local 24-hour organizing and defense headquarters. During July 11-14, camps like this were erected throughout Atenco.

As we looked at the banners that decorated the tent, I tried not to stumble over the charred tires of cars that had been burned in the uprising, pieces of concrete and piles of rocks that had blocked roads, and firewood that lit evening discussions between youth and campesinos.

In July, this encampment beat with a rapid pulse. Campesinos, community members, and students worked together to build barricades to block roads and protect and defend the town from the PFP (the Mexican federal police) and other government authorities. They slept in short shifts along a row of mattresses and blankets donated by people of the town. They made schedules for guarding the area and drank coffee to keep awake for as long as 72 hours. New developments flashed from a small television set propped up on a crate inside the tent.

Sentiments of vigilant resistance were still strong at La Magdalena. The people were eager to share their stories with us. We sat around a long wooden table, illuminated by a bright light bulb hanging across the red and white tent and talked for hours as we shared cafe and bolillos (bread rolls).

The campesinos told us that Vicente Fox and his government never discussed with them the plans to build the airport. The campesinos felt humiliated at the outrageously low price the government offered them for the land. Their anger grew when it became clear that the government planned to take the land by force, despite its historical significance.

Many of the people we spoke with are the descendents of those who fought alongside revolutionary forces in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. We spoke with a 75-year-old ejidatario who has worked his parcel of land for more than 50 years. He told us, "Why don't they just leave our land alone? We were born here, we live here, we had our children here, and we want to die here. We don't want money. I prefer to have a fistful of dirt than a handful of bills. Money comes and goes. But I'll have the land forever. I can proudly tell you that I still have my fistful of dirt. I will have it for as long as I live. I still have it, and we will continue to have it as long as we live."

He talked proudly of their struggle. "We have the satisfaction of having defeated the government. We can say `we hit them hard'--this is positive. We can still hear the children play and sing, `This machete cuts through skin, don't come near me pinche granadero [riot police].' Imagine 6- and 8-year-old kids who already have this idea. What would happen [in the future] if they faced an invasion like this one? They would also rebel. A lot of us old people are going to die, but behind us are all the youth."

During the uprising it was difficult for vehicles to enter the area. Traffic was jammed for days. But this didn't hold back a couple hundred UNAM students who unloaded from buses and arrived in Atenco on foot. They spent several days in Atenco on guard. Many remained there for weeks after the uprising in case there was a backlash against the campesinos by the government.

In the thick of the struggle, there was a powerful fusion between the experience, knowledge, and determination of the UNAM youth and the campesinos. They spent many days and nights learning from each other.

The students learned about the culture and history of the campesinos in Atenco and what it's like to work the fields. The campesinos learned about things like philosophy and struggles of people around the world. The UNAM students active in the strike against the privatization of the university also shared some lessons about how to defend themselves and fight back against the police.

A student from UNAM who lives in Atenco--a daughter of campesinos from Puebla--said, "I think that we were learning how to work collectively. There had been thinking where everyone thought for themselves individually. Here people are learning how to apply our knowledge, not with an individualist goal, but a collective one."

Susana is one of the people in the community who initiated the idea of erecting a camp in La Magdalena. She remembers that Atenco used to be a town in strong support of the PAN--one of the main bourgeois parties in Mexico and Vicente Fox's party. Many people voted for Fox for president in 2000. She laughed as she told us that during the elections, candidates promised them the sun and the moon. She says that now things are different.

Times are changing and so are the people. Los de abajo --the people at the bottom--are finally saying, "Basta! Hasta aqui!" ("Enough! No More!") They refuse to believe the same lies from the government any more.

The other women in the camp echoed Susana's indignation as she spoke about the anger and humiliation the campesinos felt when they heard the announcement that their communal lands would be paved over for airplanes to land. Some women have inherited parcels of land, but even the women who don't own any land said, "We are willing to do whatever it takes."

"The time has come to say, `No more!' " Susana said. "The time has come for us to defend ourselves. We are willing to do whatever it takes. Now is not the time for women to have their heads bowed down. Now is the time that women are almost the same as men. Before we were considered less because we were women. Not now."

She looked back at the days she spent with her father, learning how to work the fields: "We would all help my father. We helped with what we could and he taught us how to grow corn and beans. He would tell us, `It doesn't matter if you're a son or a daughter. For me you are all equal because you all work in the fields.' "

Susana can't imagine leaving her life to move to the city to work in factories. She admits that working the land is difficult, but it's something that provides them with sustenance. "I don't think it's right that they just came in and offered us money for our land. Money is like candy, you suck on it for a little while and then it's gone. Not the land.

"As long as god gives us life we'll have our piece of land. The land is ours. The government doesn't work it. We do."

La Celebración/The Celebration

On the day we arrived, the afternoon was sunny in the plaza. Things were unusually quiet and calm. Women sold bright yellow flores de calabasa from small carts. Horses pulled big carts stacked with long stems of alfalfa to feed livestock. The basketball court in the courtyard was empty, and there were only a few people gathered at the town auditorium decorated with colorful murals of Zapata, revolutionaries on horses, and other images of the 1910 Revolution.

The people who usually fill the plaza were at a fiesta nearby, celebrating their victory against the government.

As we walked into the fiesta we saw groups of people gathered around long tables eating and exchanging "war stories" from July 11. A man's smile stretched from ear to ear and his eyes lit up as he talked about how it only takes minutes to get a fired-up people into motion. He described a scene from the July uprising: One minute a Coca Cola truck drives into town. The next minute the driver is nowhere to be seen. In another minute the truck is unloaded and turned on its side to barricade the road. Everyone laughed as someone said, " Coca Cola siempre presente en los mas grandes eventos !"--making fun of the posters that appear at soccer games, concerts, and other big public events that say, "Always Coca Cola!"

At every table and along every corner of the dance floor people laughed and danced. In between dances a 9-year-old boy ran to the stage and stretched his arm as high as he could, waved his machete, and chanted, " Tierra si! Aviones no !" " Ni hoteles! Ni aviones! La tierra da frijoles !" ("Land yes! Airplanes no!" "No hotels! No airplanes! The land gives us beans!") Thunderous cheers rose up from the crowd.

The expressions on the faces of the people in Atenco were strong and unapologetic, but also friendly and welcoming. Their voices and stories poured out with a tremendous force.

At the end of that day and in the days that followed, everyone we spoke with in Atenco--12-year- olds, women, campesinos, students, and old people--said that the struggle brought them together and strengthened their respect for each other and their love for the land.

We told people that we'd grown up in the city and had never really been to the countryside. The next day people arranged to take us on a tour of the fields so we could see how they work their land and what they grow.

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