Meet the People from The Deep

EP. 12 / Mexico

Meet the People from The Deep

High in the Sierra Madre of Northern Mexico the O’Dam, Mexicanero or Nahualt, and Wiirrarixa still live by their traditions despite the influence of the Catholic church and the relative indifference of the Mexican government.

Along the highland of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the north of Durango, close to the border to the Unites states, some 2000 Indigenous communities exist in close connection to each other and the land they’ve inhabited since time immemorial.
However, today they struggle to remain in their land as corporations, government and drug cartels all fight for their land, their water and their mineral wealth.

Since the first steps of man, Native peoples have shared a spiritual connection with mother earth, a belief that sustains us, shapes our cultures and gives us faith.

My name is Simon Baker and I’ve come to Durango, to meet the Indigenous peoples of Mexico and understand their traditional justice systems.
Native Planet takes me deep into the Sierra Madre mountains to see how Indigenous peoples are adapting to a world where violence has become an environmental issue.

Mexico’s ancient civilizations still live by their traditions largely ignored by the Mexican Government.

At over a mile above sea level, Durango is the state capital which presides over a vast frontier where autonomous Indigenous communities still practice their own form of traditional justice. These communities have remained largely isolated and in tuned with their gods, they govern themselves by electing governors each year and all member of the communities hold the job at least once in their lifetimes. My journey begins in Durango, an old Colonial town that still preserves intact its Spanish heritage and unique relationship with scorpions.

I’ve come to meet the State Film Commissioner who’s helping me connect with the Indigenous world.

The first destination - Durango, an old Colonial town in the Northwest Mexico.

We don’t need political parties to govern for the common good.

Juan Carlos Salgado of the Indigenous Consultation Group, Fernando de La Rosa, my guide and translator.

I am heading to a region not well traveled by outsiders, so I am reaching out to the CDI organization who provides services to Indigenous families in the Mezquital, to guide me through the region. The Commission is pleased with our visit and they offer us their driver and vehicles and for our safety also access to their schools and offices for our crew to sleep at night. The roads we will be following are not well marked, and many languages are spoken along the seven communities we are going to visit.

Simon visits the Indigenous communities maintaining traditional ways of life, customs and languages to this day.

A few hours south of the City of Durango there is a region called El Mezquital, home to Indigenous communities since time immemorial. These communities have maintained their customs and languages to this day. This is the reason why Fernando de La Rosa joins the team as guide and translator. The first community we visit is Santa Maria Ocotan, Fernando’s home town. Here the language spoken is O’Dam, however the radio station we visit here broadcasts in three Indigenous languages, O’Dam, Mexicanero or Nahualt and Wirrarixa, as well as Spanish. This is one stop Fernando recommends before heading up to the heart of El Mezquital in the Sierra Madre mountains, to announce our presence in the territory.

The communities we’ll visit are a mix of cultures, as globalization and their dwindling territories force them closer together in bigger conglomerates of people and languages, these communities are thriving in their diversity, governed by their shared belief in their traditional justice systems.

Ceremony is how we listen to the planet. We all lose if we don’t listen to the voice of Mother Earth.

Simon meets Juan Carlos Salgado of the Indigenous Consultation Group.

El Mezquital is a large territory and it will take us days to travel, but there is no official map. We have a drawing Fernando’s father sketched for us as he visited the communities ahead of our visit. As we enter the territory, our first encounter is with militarized vehicles, our guides are reluctant to explain who they are, I suspect they don’t know themselves. ‘Here in the deep’, is how the people of Santiago Teneraca, the second community we visit refers to where they are in the world, ‘here in the deep’ is far up in the mountains, where breathing is hard with altitude and heat. As we enter the town of Santiago a group of armed men descends from the hills and surrounds our vehicles. Fortunately, the radio broadcast had reached them, and they let us through, despite a surprisingly friendly exchange, they declined to be filmed. This was the moment we began to understand the stress these communities are under, with the presence of narcotraffickers and militaries in their territory.

Maybe Mexico is not capable of taking care of its Indigenous peoples, that’s why we want the United Nations to hear us.

Teneraca community.

Simon is heading to O'Dam Community of Santiago Teneraca to meet the Traditional Government.

While the communities of El Mezquital seem sleepy and quietly delightful, there is an undercurrent of fear in the air. This is particularly obvious in the way they care for their children. At school the children learn in their own Indigenous language, values that are reinforced at home. Parents keep their children close and involved in the affairs of the communities, even though this contradicts their desire for the children to also have an education, as they send them away to boarding school; which means that sometimes boys and girls must walk 18 or 30 hours across the mountains alone. A journey they repeat many times throughout the school year, sometimes at the end of each week, putting them at risk of bumping into narcotraffickers that increasingly roam the mountains in search of recruits.

The organized crime often kidnap youth and kids to add them to their narcotics production lines. There is a couple of ways they do it, one is plain kidnapping and the other is seduction through money, drugs, women until they are in debt and then forced to work for them. But they had few choices in the first place. Here globalization beats down on the poor, and roads, electricity, Internet, cell phones work harder for the crime lords than the people they are supposed to serve.

Home to many O’Dam, Mexicaneros and Wirrarixa communities El Mezquital is magical even though is easy to understand how fearful they are for their kids and their future.

Villorio, EL Mezquital.

We continue our journey to San Francisco Ocotan, San Pedro Xicoras and San Antonio de Padua, where we are to meet the traditional authorities and the people of each community.

In San Francisco the authorities came to their government house to meet us, we formally introduced ourselves to everyone, it was clear their idea of authority didn’t imply the notion of one being superior to another, they had a gracious way of speaking as a collective. I am impressed by the seeming simplicity of their government structures, yet each member of the community has a role, and everyone counts, even if some men speak for the women, in their collective way of being that is nor perceived as a slight and it’s meant instead to protect them from outsiders.

In San Pedro I am invited to visit their church, they ask among themselves who is ‘clean’ and look at each other. They decide to wait for someone else. Curious about the meaning of ‘clean’ they invite me inside and explain the ritual they perform every year together to cleanse their minds and hearts of negative thoughts and pray for peace in the world. Unless they are feeling ‘clean’ they don’t enter the sacred places. I am moved by the power of their way.

Unfortunately, the problem of growing drugs is decades old. There is corruption at all levels of government and they prefer to allow the traffic of narcotics north and guns south, it’s extremely profitable, just not for us.

Simon visits the Catholic Church of El Mezquital.

The peoples of El Mezquital have been living with the legacy of the Spanish conquest for about five centuries. This means first, the imposition of the Catholic church over the way of thinking of the people, transforming a populace very much in tune with the invisible languages of nature, into test subjects, something less than the ‘conqueror’, forced to believe in their own worthlessness and to live fearful lives. Yet, after all the incredible tactics of a powerful church, the Indigenous peoples of El Mezquital remain faithful to their traditions and their place of origin, where they literally have practiced their peaceful way of being since time immemorial, a place they call ‘patio mayor’.

The places we call Patio Mayor (sacred garden) have been here before us and will be here after us. They are doors to where knowledge waits and we are the key to those doors.

Breakfast with the teachers and coordinators of the Commission of Indigenous Education.

It’s too soon to say goodbye yet I am eternally grateful to this place and Fernando for opening my eyes not only to the plight of the people but to the way nature communicates with us. Through the Peyote ceremony I can understand the cohesion that they feel with one another and the planet. In San Antonio de Padua, the last community we visited, I realized how the towns get bigger and more mixed as we get closer to the big city of Durango, yet what keeps them together is their vision of the world in which they see themselves as a unit, not individuals like the competitive society we live in.

Peyote is the master of all our ancestral knowledge.

Simon expresses his gratitude about what he learned about the unique histories, cultural practices, spiritual beliefs and values of life from people of El Mezquital.

As the journey across The Mezquital comes to an end I realize how much I have learned about family, respecting the knowledge of the ancestors and looking to the future with a view to our own continuum in the river of life. The incredible attitude with which the people of the Mezquital face their struggles is a lesson about the value of life and our need to understand our relationship with nature and one another.

Last days of my El Mezquital journey.

Peyote teaches us our gifts so one day everyone learns to be a benefit to the community.

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