Indigenous Culture, Teotitlan del Valle

Getting Grounded in Community: Talking about Land and Place

I’ve always lived in cities – first in Washington D.C., now at college in Chicago.  Growing up, I never really knew my neighbors. Signs proclaiming ‘Private Property: Stay Away’ were quite prevalent and the idea of sharing space was reserved for very limited areas such as public parks. As an American, I’ve often wondered if we are losing our sense of community – are we less connected to those around us?  Have we become less supportive of our neighbors and those who live their lives alongside ours?

These questions have resurfaced during my time volunteering with En Vía in Oaxaca.  Recently, on a tour with En Vía, a woman was explaining to us how her whole family was busy preparing food for the funeral of a neighbor. It seems there is always a gathering to which the whole community contributes, always a wedding that everyone attends with flowers or food in hand…basically, a more tangible sense of community than I’m accustomed to.

During my short time here, I have noticed something about the five communities in which En Vía works: people are connected to the land, as well as to their communities. Moreover, each town has a different way of relating to and organizing land use. One of these systems is based on the ejido.

A land plot in Diaz Ordaz, one of the communities in which En Vía works.
A land plot in Diaz Ordaz, one of the communities in which En Vía works.

In Mexico, the ejido system refers to land that was granted to certain communities Community members individually farm a specific parcel while some land is also reserved for communal use.

The ejido system has roots in the Aztec empire. However, with the arrival of the Spanish in the early-mid 1500s, this arrangement was replaced with the encomienda system in which a parcel of land and its inhabitants were given to a subject of the Spanish crown in exchange for converting (nominally, at least) its inhabitants to Christianity.

Following the Mexican Revolution and the Constitution of 1917, the encomienda system was abolished and there was talk of restoring the ejido system and giving the land back to the people who worked it: the campesinos.

Soledad, one of the women in our program, working on her vegetable plot.
Soledad, one of the women in our program, working on her vegetable plot.

1934 is the year in which the ejido system was truly implemented and reinvigorated.  Let’s take a moment to compare that point in time to the same year in the U.S.  By 1934, the U.S. was at the base of an abyss (i.e. the Great Depression).  As they frantically tried to revive the industries responsible for the economic success of the 1920s, they gripped firmly to their faith in industrialization, private property, and capitalism.  Mexico, on the other hand, was talking about expropriating private land and giving it to communities to form co-ops.

It seems that in the U.S. today there is a tendency to hold ever more tightly to ideals of private property, personal wealth, and individual achievement. Conversely, while the ejido system was significantly undermined in the early 1990s (with talk of low productivity and dissonance with the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]), the towns of rural Oaxaca are still retaining their traditions of collective landholding.

Not by coincidence, the sense of community in the five towns in which En Vía works is incredibly tangible. Whether the town is organized by a system of ejidos or has a similar system based on communal land, the communities are grounded in a strong sense of place. This is the lesson I want to remember: the feeling of a community rooted in a locale, the collective investment in the growth and wellbeing of the place.

Today I attended a festival in Teotitlan.  On the way out there I asked a woman from the town who was sharing the collectivo (taxi) with us, “what is the festival celebrating?”  She responded, simply, “The town.”  The towns in which we work are collectives.  They come together to collaborate in the governance of their land and to celebrate its shared success.  They are communities.

By Gabrielle Newell

Photos by Kim Groves

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