Un Caracol Chiquito in East Oakland: A Self Determined Landless Peoples Movement

Tiny - Posted on 17 June 2014

Jesus Barraza / PNN Correspondent

In the spring of 1994 my older sister told me about the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional also known as the Zapatistas) uprising in Chiapas and their declaration of war on the country of Mexico and how for thirteen days they held San Christobal de las Casas, the capital of the state. This Mayan uprising came on New Years day 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. NAFTA did many things, from relaxing environmental policies to removing Article 27 from the Mexican Constitution that provided land repatriation to indigenous people in Mexico as well as negative impacts on Mexican farmers who were affected subsidies for imported corn. Learning about the Zapatista movement changed my life; it was amazing to hear about their struggle to stand up to the government who had been ignoring the needs of Indigenous people for too long. It was an incredible thing because it happened at a time when the idea of armed struggle was considered something that would never happen again. I was a senior in high school at the time and had spent the last couple years reading about Third World revolutionary movements from the 1960s and had come to accept that revolutionary armed struggle would never happen again, that type of change was a thing of the past. But learning about the Mayan rebellion from the south gave me a new understanding of the world and helped me see that another world is possible.

Over the next few years I read the communiqués written by Subcomandante Marco the spokesperson for the Zapatistas and learned about their struggle and how they put their weapons down to negotiate with the government. During this time I came to understand how our histories were intertwined, as a Xicano living in the U.S. I definitely live a different reality, I have all the comforts that come with living in the first world, like housing, food and the right to an education as a youth. We do have one thing in common, our ancestors have been on this land since time immemorial and although we’ve gone through a process of detribalization my family has indigenous roots in Turtle Island. This commonality was something that many Xican@s here in the U.S. understood, and the Zapatista uprising became something of great importance in understanding their indigeniety as people whose ancestors had been through a process in which their indigenous culture was destroyed along with being displaced from their lands. The influence of the Zapatistas helped create a Xican@ Indigena renaissance along with a solidarity movement that inspired a dream for autonomous communities.

For many years after their uprising the Zapatistas the idea of autonomy was something that inspired people to dream about taking back indigenous lands as the Zapatistas had done during the uprising. The dream grew in the early 2000s when they removed themselves from the process of negotiation with the government that kept seeming less promising every day, the Zapatistas stopped making demands and instead created 5 autonomous Caracoles (Snails) with their form of horizontal self-government or good government as they describe it. Through these Caracoles the Zapatistas organized health clinics, schools, community banks and independent media projects and each has its own autonomous health clinic and primary and/or secondary school. The creation of these communities in 2003 helped fill a space in the imagination of XIcan@s of what autonomy could be like in a country where the government is trying to destroy your existence. This idea of autonomy in the Xican@ community has manifested in different ways, I remember going to Regeneración, a cultural space in Highland Park during the mid 1990s where Zapatismo was a guiding principle for the space. For Melanie Cervantes and me, it inspired us to create our collaborative Dignidad Rebelde, named after a phrase the Zapatistas made popular in their communiqués that emphasized the dignity they were taking back through their movement that inspired our use of temporary autonomous spaces where we come together with community and make art for the people.

More recently in East Oakland Poor News Network (PNN) moved in the direction of the Zapatistas and their experiment with autonomy and bought a small plot of land with a duplex on it. The name of this space is Homefulness, the house and land both needed some work but it was great start but most importantly the plot of land is big enough to expand on. The property was purchased through an equity campaign, which raised $134,000 that allowed for the land to be paid for outright. The idea of an equity campaign was seen as an alternative to a capital campaign, the difference being that through equity sharing, not tied to financial resources it will create a permanent and lasting solution to houselessness for families in poverty who have been displaced, evicted, gentrified and destabilized out of their indigenous lands and communities.
Homefulness operates as a sweat equity project that strives to provide permanent co-housing, education, arts and social change projects for houseless and formerly houseless families and individuals. Hearing about these projects reminded me of the Caracoles the Zapatistas have built. I had the opportunity to visit Homefulness during the ribbon cutting ceremony on March 6th, the day they officially unveiled the plans they had for the land to the community and threw a party to celebrate the occasion. I was lucky to have Tiny (one of the main organizers of the PNN) show me around and give me the history of the process they went through to acquire the land and how they were in the process of rebuilding the garage into a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) for Joe one of the PNN members. Tiny also told me about the work they were going through to build a series of 4-10 permanent housing units on the property, this was a way of making the most of the relatively small piece of land of building to create a community where poor folks are able to have a place to call home.

One of the things that differs from PNN’s Homefulness and the Zapatista Caracoles is that in hopes of creating something long lasting the group opted to buy a property rather than just take over or a piece of land that could be potentially taken away destroying all the work the group invested. This is something that has happened to other groups, an example of this is the South Central Farm in Los Angeles where community members came together on a piece of land to create a community garden and grow food for the community but was later displaced by the land owners and had to move outside of the city to continue their project. Through the “legal” acquisition of the property this situation is something that Homefulness is trying to avoid. Although there is an understanding of the relationship Homefulness enters with the government as landowners, this is something that under the current system of governance cannot be avoided in such a project.

At this point in time, taking over land and declaring autonomy is not something that is entirely possible to sustain over a long period of time, so PNN decided to create Homefulness as a way to have an autonomous space that can survive under current political conditions. I think of this as “inching” towards another way of relating to the U.S. government, as I read in one piece I found on their informational board:  
“We also imagine this as a first step, this inter-generational council will respect its elders so that leadership…will be returned to our indigenous communities of color like those of East Oakland to improve our situation and stop our dependency on the Capitalist system...Instead we look to a system based on self-determination and the power of responsible indigenous communities.”

This then is one of many steps toward creating a completely autonomous community, something that has no legal connections to the U.S. government, a place where people are able to exercise their right of self-determination when deciding their future. This is the dream for many indigenous people throughout the Americas, to have a place where they can determine their own future and be responsible only to themselves. This Autonomy is something that the Zapatistas have been experimenting for 11 years now and started sharing in 2013 through their Escuelitas in Chiapas where they have been inviting organizers, artists and educators to share what they have learned. Seeing what Homefulness is doing in East Oakland inspires me, it gives me hope that one day we will have many of these communities throughout Turtle Island.


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