Tony Nelson and Luz Rivera-Martinez share with Columbus Activists ideas on Global Justice Movement
(Photo by Bob Studzinski)

“Solutions don’t come from above. What is socialism? I don’t live in socialism? But I live and suffer in capitalism. Some people have told us that what we’re doing in Tlaxcala is anarchism. But we said, ‘what we’re doing is Tlaxcalan.’ Grand schemes won’t work. It’s got to start with the people…Use the Tlaxcalan style here in Columbus. We’ll use the Columbus style in Tlaxcala.” ---Luz Rivera-Martinez, thru interpreter Tony Nelson of Mexico Solidarity Network.

She said don't expect those in power to solve our problems.

“It’s much easier to think that someone else is going to do my work and solve something for me. It’s much easier to leave my responsibility in the hands of others. Unfortunately, here as in Mexico, those above have their own worries which are not ours. They’re looking for ways they can easily do their jobs against the people. So why are we wondering about whether they’re going to come and solve something for us ? The person who has hunger has to fight to have food. If you’re from below, you look for others that also have hunger and you look for communal food or a roof or some land where you can grow food.”

She said those in power are doing their homework when it comes to defending their interests.

“It doesn’t surprise us they do what they have to do. The question is, are we doing what we have to do to change the situation? If we look at those above, we end up just hurting our necks, and never see those who are at our side. That’s my equal, someone who has the same needs as me and suffers the same things that those who are above are putting on us.”

I asked her about the role of love in the fight for justice.

“If you work with the people, it represents a great love for humanity. I would not throw flowers at those that promote hatred and degradation against the people who are fighting for their rights. I don’t believe in hatred, but I believe firmly in dignity. So if it’s about love for people of my class, the people who are at my side, then it’s very welcome love."

But she said she has neither respect nor love for “those that are above.”

“I have a profound disrespect for them. Even though they are human beings, I never make the mistake of knowing who they are. They are those who are putting humanity and this planet at risk.

Rivera addressed the question of violence and nonviolence.

“From what I see, the violence has been coming from the police against the people in the Occupy movement. I saw an old woman in Seattle that was bathed in pepper spray. I saw how in Portland they unleashed a complete attack on the people with Occupy Portland…The history of violence is the history of those from above, of those who exploited, dominated and conquered. We shouldn’t be surprised that when you are opposed to being someone’s slave they sacrifice you like they did in Spartacus. It’s the story of humanity. Are going stay slaves? Are we going to forgive them for destroying us?

She said she was speaking in the name of her organization, CNUC, and not about her personal beliefs.

“My organization is profoundly civil and pacifist. Those that attack us and those that have others attack us are the people in power. But our patience is running out. We’re not going to be constantly ok with those that act violently against us. We simply want to live with dignity. We want to work without being exploited. We want them to respect what is ours. We don’t want them to take what is ours. We don’t want them to look down on us. Part of our work is to make people see that those who hate, those who are making wars, those that are exploiting and destroying humanity are those from above.”

She and others in her community in Tlaxcala have fought for their water for years.

“Here in the US, you open the tap and water comes out…In Tlaxcala, we’ve fought for years for water, for just one hydrant. And we had to fight for a well. After that, we worked to organize with each other on how to put together all the tubes and the other equipment for getting the water to houses. We worked hard to put together groups of people for doing this. Then, when we got it set up, the government said ‘we need to administer the water and we need to charge your for it.’ When there was no water, there was no one from the government to help. But when we did all the work in our communities to get the water, then they come around to charge us for it.”

Rivera-Martinez and her community also fight for their corn. Tlaxcala means land of the men and women of the corn.

“They want to take away our name. They hit us and beat us. Some say ‘be quiet.’ But we in CNUC are breaking the silence. One of the fights we’re taking on is the defense of our corn. Monsanto has a name but not a face. They want to take away what’s been our work for centuries. We don’t put a price on our tradition of corn. We put our sweat and pain into it. But they want to brand our corn and take away our knowledge of much more than our seeds.”

She said government officials passed a law to enable Monsanto to do this.

“The law asks all Tlaxcalans to register their seeds. But one of the campesinos said ‘how, can I register what belongs to the whole community?’ Those who don’t register their seeds are going to end up having property of Monsanto.”

She said she and people in her community have put in many resources and signatures against this law.

"We’ve been doing seed exchanges so we don’t get transgenic seeds. This law passed last year. The government made an offense against our organization. ..There was a big freeze that killed all the corn in the state. It was a bad year for CNUC."

Rivera said there are 52 types of corn in Tlaxcala, but that the introduction of GMO crops threatens this diversity.

“For us, corn is more than just food. It’s our life. It’s not a brand. It’s purple, white, yellow, red…It comes from the mountains.

Rivera said the corn ethanol industry has badly affected Chiapas, Mexico’s most impoverished state.

“They didn’t think about ridding hunger. They thought of making the corn into fuel. This is the best example of what’s wrong in a world where profit is put before the needs of people. They don’t care what the land is for unless it’s for ethanol or housing complexes or buildings.”

Activists have said one of the ways those who lead Monsanto get their way is by blurring the lines between industry insiders and what are supposed to be government regulators. Rivera said the agriculture minister in Tlaxcala formerly worked for Monsanto.

“This applies to the US too, as men of business want to turn everything in the world into merchandise. Over the centuries we developed our corn with great care. Corn isn’t created in a lab. Every seed was cared for to make the next crop better. This didn’t come from a test tube.”

GMO corn is problematic, said Rivera.

“Corn is very promiscuous. The wind, birds, and the bees make it so it is everywhere. So, if GMO seeds are introduced to Tlaxcala, the contamination will be spread far and wide.”

She said some people in Tlaxcala have used GMO seeds because of not knowing it and because of being desperate.

“Most of them don’t know it’s GMO, the same as when they hide it from people here in the US. People in our community gave each other GMO seeds. We realized that because of the corn stalks. There were many ears, but they were very small. It didn’t fill the husks and the corn was so tough some of the animals we fed it to had blood in their mouths when they chewed it. So, we identified those GMOS and we uprooted them and burned them.”

Rivera said freeing themselves from GMOs is as challenging as getting away from chemical fertilizers.

“First the fertilizers were gifts from the government. Now they sell it and it’s expensive. So, we must create a relationship of respect for the land. We compost. Every time we do it, the government says, ‘fertilizer is cheap, but making compost is hard.’ In the political campaigns they say, ‘don’t tire yourself, let me gift you with fertilizer.’”

Building the Global justice movement requires a non-hierarchical and heterogeneous approach.

“What unites us is the fight, not the names (of organizations) So CNUC is with Sonoreros and with the transportation collectives, and we are with you here in Columbus. We have the same problem: capital. It squeezes and exploits us. We stand up to take what is ours. They have the resources to beat us and jail us and kill us. We oppose the denigration of the poor, people of color, women, the young, those who are different, those who are not heterosexual, those outside of the market. They want to take our water, our land, and the resources from our mines.”

She said the fight against the exploitation from capitalism is global.

“When you realize you don’t want this, you start walking. Every step you take, you find more people ready for change.”

She said capitalism risks destroying the planet.

“A global movement can do away with the black night of capital, and illuminate the many better ways. Use the Tlaxcalan style here in Columbus. We’ll use the Columbus style in Tlaxcala. In the future, CNUC has many important battles. Now we’re defending our corn. None of the political parties opposed this law which is going to walk thru our lands. There is also the fight against Coca Cola. It’s many fights, not just Monsanto. Before they wanted gold, now it’s everything-- water, seeds, land…They say it’s progress. But, no, it’s business.”

Rivera said take part in the global movement against the exploitation from capitalism by fighting the battles we have here, such as those against the big banks.

She said solidarity within communities builds and then recedes and then builds up again. She accepts this as a natural process in social movements.

Speaking to a small gathering in a classroom at Ohio State University, she said peasant farmers who are fighting for their rights graduate from one stage in their rebellion to another, similar to how students progress thru their formal education.

She said these steps apply to activists in the US as they do to people fighting for their rights in Tlaxcala.

“In the first stage, we think no one will listen to us. In the second, we learn there are many others with us. In the third, we form respect between equals. In the fourth, we win a victory.” After that, the process repeats, said Rivera. She said CNUC learned about this from the Zapatista Liberation Army.

She said it’s important to come together as humans across generations and borders.

“Don’t believe what’s happening in your country is not also happening in other countries,” said Rivera.

Rivera said the movement that CNUC has been building has more than just one vision. It has many ways of looking at things.

“When you come from Tlaxcala, the needs are many. The Zapatistas have a good saying, ‘we want a world where many worlds fit.’”

Amid loses and wins, she said it’s important to never give up on fighting for justice. She said she respects what she’s seen of the Occupy Movement.

“These are important historic moments. The repression we’re experiencing in Mexico is going on all over the world. We don’t accept what they propose. We’re coming up with alternatives. As men and women of the planet, we’re not going to let capitalism destroy it.”

Nelson said Tlaxcala is the geographically smallest state in Mexico but among its most important because of the resistance work of CNUC, translated in English as National Rural and Urban Council.

Rivera said when the Chiapas uprising happened, she and other activists in her community identified with it.

“We said, ‘this is our program too. We’re not going to complicate things.’ We walked the path as they did. The first thing to do is to question. We say ‘walk while questioning,’ not with the arrogance of thinking we know all the answers but with the humility to ask people in their community what their needs are. Everything falls into place when we come together and talk about the problems we have.”

Nelson said the same.

“The responsibility of people is to find out what part of capital we can defeat from where we are.”

Nelson continued.

“CNUC is very organized. A lot of the time we in the US think ‘how can we help them?’ But when we go to Tlaxcala, we’re humbled and say, ‘how can we learn from you?’ We hear about mining companies exploiting villages. But we in the US don’t hear about the resistance movements there.”

Nelson said apply the 99 percent concept globally.

Rivera told the gathering here in Columbus she doesn’t compare resistance efforts in Tlaxcala to see if she and her communities are more organized than people standing up for their rights in other parts of the world.

“ I need to learn from you, too. The Zapatistas tell us to stop pretending we have all the answers. We need lots of questions and listening campaigns. We shouldn’t get discouraged if there’s not an immediate answer for replacing capitalism,” Rivera said.

Nelson said people in Tlaxcala last fall asked him and his study abroad students to explain the Occupy Movement that as it gained global attention.

“I told them ‘I don’t know. I’m here in Tlaxcala.’ But it was interesting when some of the people with Occupy got worried about the disagreements people were having within the movement. I was in Tlaxcala and some of the people there told me, ‘Don’t worry. It’s a new movement. They’re trying to figure it out.’”

Both Nelson and Rivera said don’t stop the movement; creatively grapple with disagreements within and among groups.

Rivera said there is not yet an alliance between CNUC and peasant farmers in India, though they face common foes such as Monsanto.

“We want to work with movements in other countries but we don’t have access to global media. Laws in favor of Monsanto turn campesinos into criminals. So we have to globalize the struggle against Monsanto. There are many places in the world where people are taking on this fight. It’s a fight with no guarantee of victory. But we have to break thru that fear or we won’t be happy.”

She said CNUC is not working with Via Campesina. Rivera said governments convinced some organizations within Via Campesina to support NAFTA.

“We believe they now think it was a huge error. But we remember the betrayal, so we’re not with Via Campesina.”

One of the authors in the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex suggests social movements in the Global South have outgrown seeing their options as a choice between capitalism and socialism. Rivera agreed with this, though she denounced capitalism.

“Solutions don’t come from above. What is socialism? I don’t live in socialism? But I live and suffer in capitalism. Some people have told us that what we’re doing in Tlaxcala is anarchism. But we said, ‘what we’re doing is Tlaxcalan.’ Grand schemes or recipes won’t work. It’s got to start with the people. We don’t know what the grand solutions are. But we know what we don’t want. And we have questions. Why are they taking away our corn? Why are the banks taking away the houses of people here in your country? Why are supermarkets filled with every type of food when so many people are hungry?”

Rivera-Martinez said it’s difficult for some people in the US to understand how NAFTA exploited and displaced them. "We didn’t want NAFTA. We didn’t want to be displaced or exploited. We didn’t want something created from above. We’re 15 times more dependent on the US for corn, after NAFTA. There are no farm subsidy supports, no matching grants. We maintain agriculture however we can in the face of competition that is different from the competition farmers have in the US and Canada.”

She said she and other peasant farmers anticipated the negative effects of NAFTA.

“We saw the storm coming, so we prepared ourselves. That is how CNUC was born in 1993.” The English translation of what the acronym stands for is National Urban-Rural Council.

“We weren’t born overnight. We came from campesinos and we came from urban struggles.”

She said proponents of NAFTA said it was for equalizing trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

“We’re dreamers, but we’re not naïve. We don’t believe in the good intentions of those in power. The government said NAFTA would bring development. But it’s like everything from above that doesn’t take the people into account.

Rivera said the elite of the 3 countries created a mechanism for exploiting and dislocating agrarian people.

“The political class permitted NAFTA. So we distance ourselves from them. In every step we take, we want to walk with those who are forgotten. We have no respect for the government. They don’t know how to govern other than by doing the bidding of capital.

Rivera-Martinez said she other members of her community shut down a maquiladora that was using child labor.

“We learned about this thru the teachers at the primary school when they said their students were falling asleep in class and not doing their homework. By talking with teachers and students, we were able to find out where this factory was.”

They called the press and gathered with mothers of the children. It was like the bursting of a dam, she said. They found about 100 other houses where children were working for less than $1 per day.

After her community fought back in this way, owners of the machines took them away, Rivera said. She said they also took away the grinder for making corn flour, and that a local government official threatened to take away from their community all services except for medical exams for those who prick their fingers while sewing.