María de Jesús Patricio, known as Marichuy, is an indigenous Nahuatl woman born on 23 December 1963 in Tuxpan (“land of rabbits”), a small town located in the south of the state of Jalisco, where she grew up in a condition of extreme poverty. She is mother of three. As a child, she spent time observing older women from her family practicing traditional medicine. They were performing rituals and preparing oils and medicaments to heal people in their community. Over the years, she became a practitioner. In an interview of some years ago, (Tukari 2010: 12) she recalls that a mentor once warned her not to profit from her ancestral knowledge, because “the light protecting you would extinguish,” he argued, and she would no longer be effective as a healer. Her wisdom increased significantly as she started giving workshops around the region. Since 1995, María directs a health center in the Calli neighborhood of Tuxpam, where indigenous medicine is practiced and researched. Since then, she has received several public recognitions for her work, which focuses, she argues, in healing the community rather than just individual diseases. “Through the health center we defend traditional medicine, indigenous territories, and the mother earth based on an anti-capitalist approach and the libertarian struggle of the indigenous people” (University of Guadalajara 2015).
The Zapatista uprising of 1994 inspired her deeply. Seeing people coming from an even poorer area of the country rising up in arms against oppression motivated her political engagement. That same year, her community was invited to participate in a national indigenous forum organized by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in San Cristobal de Las Casas (Chiapas), and her people sent her as a delegate. María immediately associated with the other members of that network, which since then became her space of action and organization. Within the forum, she has raised awareness on gender equality and the fundamental role played by women in the urgent task that native groups in Mexico refer to as the “full reconstruction of the indigenous peoples of the country.” In March 2001, when the EZLN occupied the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies to defend the San Andrés Agreements, she intervened with a powerful speech on the indigenous people’s struggle for equality.
On Sunday, 28 May 2017, in the auditorium of the CIDECI (Earth University) of San Cristobal de Las Casas, packed with 1,480 delegates of the CNI (National Indigenous Congress) and invitees from across the country, in an atmosphere charged with excitement and momentum, María was unanimously designated as the spokesperson for the newly confirmed Indigenous Government Council (CIG), a national assembly of 71 delegates representing around 93 indigenous communities and organizations. With the full support of the EZLN (who actually conceived of this initiative), Maria will run as an independent candidate to the presidency of the country in the 2018 elections representing the CIG and the EZLN. She will act as the spokesperson for this network. “We had to propose one individual candidate,” argued Mario Luna Romero, leader of the Yaqui Tribe (Sonora) during the first press conference of the CIG, “simply because the national law does not allow registering a full assembly.”
The CIG will therefore act as an intermediate institution, a hybrid body situated between the state apparatus and society, between the government and the organized people adhering to the CNI. It epitomizes a decentered conception of political representation that rejects concentration of power into the hands of a single individual. “We reject an occidental individualist conception of politics,” argued a delegate. Any act or declaration issued by the candidate will be the expression of a popular will—and it will follow the rule of mandar obedeciendo (“ruling by obeying”) shaping autonomous self-government in Zapatismo.
The adoption of this strategy as a means to open a new cycle of struggles in Mexico was announced by the CNI-EZLN in October last year during the fifth national congress of the CNI. “May the earth tremble at its core” is the heading of the manifesto issued during that gathering. The document (EZLN 2016a) calls “on all of the indigenous people and civil society to organize to put a stop to destruction and strengthen our resistances and rebellions, that is, the defense of the life of every person, family, collective, community, or barrio. We make a call to construct peace and justice by connecting ourselves from below, from where we are what we are.” The final paragraph emphasizes the will to “construct a new nation by and for everyone, by strengthening power from below and the anti-capitalist left.”
The proposal came up as a huge surprise for people within and outside the indigenous movement. It immediately produced astonishment and a heated debate. Right after the announcement, Subcomandante Galeano (previously Marcos) encouraged the attendees to “take the idea of subversion seriously and turn everything upside down, starting from your own heart.”
The proposal was a real blast. On the one hand, it offers a mind-blowing possibility to the broad indigenous movement of Mexico. A member of the CNI prophetically claims this will be “a nonviolent uprising, the last one in the history of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.” However, it also needed (and still needs) time to be properly processed. And there are several reasons for this.
“Elections” is a particularly controversial topic among Mexican activists. The political subjectivity that the EZLN has tried to promote among its members, allies, and followers is radically heterogeneous to the state and its procedures, especially elections. Even in recent times, the comandancia of the EZLN has repeated that “as Zapatistas, we don’t call for people not to vote, nor do we call for them to vote. As Zapatistas, every time we get the chance we tell people that they should organize to resist and struggle for what they need.” “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes,” they insist (EZLN 2016b), suggesting that their revolutionary project goes far beyond the governmental logic.
Although they have never explicitly called for abstention, at least since the rupture of the San Andrés Agreements, the approach chosen by the Zapatistas is framed by the idea of “autonomy.” The noncompliance by the national political system has pushed the EZLN towards “auto-applying” the agreements in their own territories, and on their own terms. Over the years, autonomy became an axiom for the multiplicity of organized realities spread over the Mexican territory.
Furthermore, many members of these organizations are not even registered citizens, and they have no voting credential. This is partly because of the oblivion to which national politics has condemned many groups living at the margins. Nevertheless, this is also the result of a choice to be fully independent from the state.
Some commentators are ironically asking how these anti-citizens will vote. Definitely, their mobilization in the electoral process will be paradoxical. Symbolically, they remind of those milicianos of the EZLN who fought the Federal Army with wooden rifles in 1994, whose image resonated around the globe. The contribution and sacrifice of those rebels was a statement on war and revolutionary commitment. They represent the often “illogical logic” followed by the Zapatistas, a movement that was able to creatively transform revolutionary warfare into an imaginative and essentially peaceful political process. What I am suggesting here is that even with the current electoral initiative, one must be prepared for the unexpected.
Another critical point is the unfavorable conjuncture in which this initiative is taking place: a context shaped by a generalized discredit in the electoral option. The power of national governments, including those that are less aligned with the logics of global capitalism, does not seem strong enough to change things in a single nation-state—particularly in Latin America, where the apparent downturn of the “pink tide” (the cycle of progressive governments that have shaped the region since the early 2000s) is giving rise to a new wave of free-market ideology (see the Focaalblog feature). Arguably, times are calling for resistance rather than electoral engagement.
However, the primary aim of the initiative of the CNI-EZLN is not an electoral victory. Elections are just being used as a frame, an expedient, a vessel, a launch ramp from where to open unprecedented political possibilities. In her first press conference, María de Jesús Patricio remarked that the aim of the indigenous coalition is not to collect votes and achieve power positions. “Our engagement,” she said “is for life, for organization, and for the reconstitution of our people who have been under attack for centuries. Time has come to find a new configuration for us to keep existing.” She added that this is also an invitation for all oppressed sectors of society to “join the struggle and destroy a system that is about to exterminate us . . . This is a real alternative to the war that we are experiencing.”
We know that for the indigenous candidate to participate in the electoral process, almost a million signatures distributed in at least 17 states must be collected and submitted to the National Electoral Institute. This calls for an extraordinary collective and logistic effort. Mexico has around 125 million inhabitants, out of which 11 million recognize themselves as indigenous. The signatures obtained in the communities of the CNI—EZLN will not be enough. A key factor for the success of this campaign will be the coalition’s capacity to mobilize nonindigenous sectors of Mexican society.
Alessandro Zagato is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Egalitarianism project at the University of Bergen. He is currently conducting fieldwork among rural communities in the south of Mexico. He has recently edited (with Bruce Kapferer) The Event of Charlie Hebdo: Imaginaries of Freedom and Control (Berghahn Books, 2015).
 The San Andres Agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture were signed by the Mexican government and the EZLN in February 1996 as a commitment to modify the national constitution to grant rights, including autonomy, to the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
EZLN. 2015. “Sobre las Elecciones: Organizarse.” Enlace Zapatista, 3 May.
EZLN. 2016a. “Que retiemble en sus centros la tierra.” Enlace Zapatista, 14 October.
EZLN. 2016b. “Una Historia para tratar de entender.” Enlace Zapatista, 17 November.
Tukari. 2010. “Anhelo una organización de abajo hacia arriba, en la que se mande obedeciendo y se respeten los acuerdos de todos.” Tukari 3 (15): 1–12.
University of Guadalajara. 2015. “Galardonan a María de Jesús Patricio Martínez con el Mérito Tuxpanense.” UDG.mx, 20 May.
Cite as: Zagato, Alessandro. 2017. “‘Spokesperson for the people and candidate for the media’: An indigenous woman for the 2018 presidential elections in Mexico.” FocaalBlog, 19 June. www.focaalblog.com/2017/06/19/alessandro-zagato-spokesperson-for-the-people-and-candidate-for-the-media-an-indigenous-woman-for-the-2018-presidential-elections-in-mexico.