Mexico’s Indigenous Congress: Decolonising politics

The First Nations of Mexico are on a quest to break down the silencing wall of racism, patriarchy and capitalism.

Reuters Mexico First Nations congress
The move of the National Indigenous Congress is a move towards the decolonisation of politics, of political life, write Mignolo and Vazquez [Reuters]

The First Nations of Mexico have launched a political campaign that has surprised many and that has been widely misunderstood. In the face of the horror of 215,000 deaths in the last 10 years and after 500 years of oppression, the First Nations, articulated in the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), have launched a political initiative constituting an Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), whose speaker, Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, will be registered as a candidate for the national presidential election.

Critiques of the established political spectrum were loud: from patronising, misogynic and racist attacks to Patricio Martinez, to calls for the inclusion of the CNI proposal into the ongoing political processes of political parties. All criticism evinced that Western political perspectives are bankrupt.

Why the misinterpretation and criticism? Mainly for two reasons:

First, the fact that the new initiative has been taken after 23 years of disqualification and rejection of both the electoral procedures and the national system of government by the EZLN (Zapatistas). The EZLN have indeed its own forms of governance, known as Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Boards of Good Government). How is it then, that now the EZLN, which form part of the CNI, decides to participate in the new initiative?

Second, the assumption that María de Jesus Patricio Martinez, the CIG speaker, will be just like any other individual candidate in the competition among political parties, in spite of the fact that both the CNI and the Zapatistas refuse to participate in any political party.

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What is in the project of the CNI that is so difficult to understand and respect?

While most of us have been indicted to celebrate western modernity, market democracy, meritocracy, and the 'good life' of consumption and development; we now have another option: the decolonial option that open up the door to 'indigeneity at large'.


The reason lies in the arrogant ignorance that distinguishes the western notions of institutional politics. First Nations’ concept of the political is derived neither from Greece nor from its modern European-centered version from Machiavelli through Locke to Marx. The CNI participation in the national presidential election appropriates the tools of the modern/colonial state to advance their own project. While the initiative is indigenous, it is not only for the “Indigenous” population but also for all of us who share the seven ethico-political principles of their political platform.

  1. Obedecer y no mandar (To obey and not to command)
  2. Representar y no suplantar (To represent and not to supplant)
  3. Servir y no servirse (To serve, not to serve yourself )
  4. Convencer y no vencer (To convince and not to win)
  5. Bajar y no subir (To go down and not to go up) 
  6. Proponer y no imponer (To propose and not to impose)
  7. Construir y no destruir (To construct and not to destroy)

A political project based on these principles may sound romantic to some. While most of us have been indicted to celebrate Western modernity, market democracy, meritocracy, and the “good life” of consumption and development; we now have another option: the decolonial option that open up the door to “indigeneity at large”.

The National Indigenous Congress agenda is no return to the past. On the contrary, it manifests and enacts the need to decolonise politics. The First Nations intervention in political life has a history that has been largely ignored.

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At this junction, we find the first sign of discomfort for the political establishment: the difficulty to recognise and accept that the uni-national state and the monocultural democracy is untenable. The second sign of discomfort is the political philosophy of the Zapatistas and Congreso Nacional Indigena. “To govern by obeying” is a powerful philosophical maxim that subsisted under the erasure of coloniality. “To rule by obeying” defies the pyramidal structure of Western political governance where those who govern do not obey, in spite of the fact that public officers are called “public servants”. The third sign of distress is to imagine being governed by an indigenous woman, María de Jesus Patricio Martinez. It is indeed unimaginable that a society ruled by a uni-national monocultural and patriarchal state supporting and supported by the capitalist economy would accept her project.

Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez is not primarily a candidate, but the speaker (vocera) of the Indigenous Council of Government, formed by more than 200 councillors, designated in communal assemblies across the country. The CIG required a prior consultation that included 523 communities in 25 states of the country belonging to 43 indigenous peoples. The council is made up of 73 members, 42 men, and 31 women, who were also proposed by their assemblies and accepted in the CNI plenary. The legitimacy of this council is undeniable and shows communal governance at work. No political party has this legitimacy.

The strategy of the National Indigenous Congress is resignifying the notion of the political. They are enacting a politics that is not interested in taking power. They are not interested in the electoral process as a competition ground for parties to see who gets power and wins the privilege of ruling over others. In our view, the move of the National Indigenous Congress is a move towards the decolonisation of politics, of political life.

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Yes, they are partaking in the national electoral process, but they are utilising an anti-systemic strategy capable of revealing its fundamental flaws. The electoral process is turned into a tool for delinking from Western/liberal presuppositions, of delinking from representative democracy. They are relinking with what has been preserved through 500 years of colonialism: 300 years of imperial rules and 200 years of internal colonialism after the independence and the formation of the Mexican nation-state. The delinking is not simply an act of resistance, but it also implies the enactment of a radically different political life.

We see this initiative as a call to “indigenise politics”. Indigenising does not mean essentialising, on the contrary, indigenising means to delink from the abstraction of representative politics, from the abstraction of the individualised consumer/voter. Indigenising the political means taking responsibility, enacting a politics of positionality and engaging in the well-being of the community or communities to which we belong, in the city as in the countryside. The CNI is handing an invitation to reclaim the freedom that has been taken from us by the apparatus of representation of the State.

Can we indigenise ourselves, can we relinquish the desire and weakness of being governed? Can we exit the apathy of representational life and regain the freedom to be and act with others? The decolonisation of politics does not mean to gather people around one political project, a national monocultural project. To decolonise the political means to celebrate difference: “to be able to host the difference of the other” (Esteva 1996).

María de Jesus Patricio Martinez is embodying the hope of the decolonial option, the hope of the re-emergence of all those that have been silenced, denigrated, been made dispensable under the project of modernisation, of progress and development. She carries the testimony and the hope that the ancestral voices will be able to flourish in a politics of “indigenisation”, of taking responsibility towards the earth and towards our communal others.

State politics has long ignored the Indigenous and the wretched. The CNI will not be competing in the market of representation. It is the moment of those whose lives have been made dispensable by the system to enter political life, to exercise the freedom of the political beyond the state. We know that the emergence of the voices from the assemblies, from every organised community reclaiming the freedom of acting and doing with others, will bear a torch of hope in the face of the silencing wall of the modern colonial structures of racism, patriarchy and capitalism.

The process launched by the CNI is actively “walking” the myriad geographies of the disavowed Mexico. The CNI is activating conversations, not political speeches. “Walking” means togetherness in the making of the communal. It is engaged in the reconstruction of the communal that the state (from the left and from the right) want to ignore and annihilate. The CNI voceras and voceros are engaged in the enormous task of weaving the communal through the country, with the smallest, the most vulnerable and the most resilient. The construction of alternative worlds of meaning is already taking place, much before and beyond the election.

The CNI, including indigenous and nonindigenous people following their lead, is enacting a politics of listening to all those that have been marginalised and silenced by the modern/colonial order. This campaign will not be entering the cacophony of modernising utopias, of development promises, but rather focusing on healing the colonial wound. This campaign will not be one that is searching to convince the self-interested client-voters, it will be one of enabling coalition building, of learning from each-other and doing with each other. This campaign will not be one of managing natural resources but of caring for the earth. In the face of the politics of representation, the CNI is enacting a politics of relationality.

Walter D Mignolo is William H Wannamaker distinguished professor and director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities, Duke University. His most recent book,The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (2011, Duke UP) is the third of a trilogy that includes The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization (1995, Michigan UP) and Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking (2000, Princeton UP).

Rolando Vazquez’ work is dedicated to develop decolonial ways of thinking, teaching and learning. He is associate professor of sociology and diversity fellow of the University College Roosevelt of the University of Utrecht, in The Netherlands. He coordinates with Walter Mignolo the annual Middelburg Decolonial Summer School since 2010. With Gloria Wekker et al he wrote the report of the Diversity Commission of the University of Amsterdam. In the last five years, he has been developing joint pedagogical initiatives with the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.