Mobility and the Politics of Belonging: Indigenous Experiments in Creative Citizenship

Meeting house. Photo: Lorie Novak
Meeting house. Photo: Lorie Novak

In January 2009, in a seminar on Intangible Heritage debates, an Oaxacan colleague observed that the Mixtecos, one of Oaxaca’s largest and most influential indigenous groups, were claiming a new human right, el derecho a no migrar—the right to not migrate, or the right not to migrate. The Mixtecos are known for their resourcefulness, creativity, and ingenuity in sustaining collective forms of organization and social reproduction in the eighteen years since NAFTA and state neglect forced them in large numbers into the northward migrant stream. 

Now, however, they were claiming the right to stay. In June 2008, the topic was headlined at the triannual gathering of the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations), held in the Mixteco town of Juxtlahuaca where, one participant reported, “two hundred Mixtec, Zapotec and Triqui farmers, and a handful of their relatives working in the U.S., made impassioned speeches asserting this right…Hot debates ended in numerous votes. The voices of mothers and fathers arguing over the future of their children, echoed from the cinderblock walls of the cavernous hall” (Bacon 2008, see also Siahpush 2012). 

El derecho a no migrar implies a new relation between citizen and state, a new entitlement: not to be forced into the migrant stream, the right to a genuine choice about going or staying. It’s new because in modern states, such an entitlement—the right to inhabit one’s fatherland—was taken for granted. Citizenship meant territorial belonging; staying was the unmarked norm, the expected case (though millions of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants to the Americas knew otherwise). Globalization—the reorganization of global economic activity along supra-national lines, led by multinational corporations—seems to have changed that. The Mixtecos’ claim stands out because the new right is collective as well as (or more than) individual. The Mixtecos as a people and an aggregate of communities, not a set of individuals, demand not to be compelled to collectively undergo dislocations and disruptions such as they have sustained over the past fifteen years, dislocations impacting both those who go and those who stay. 

The collective demand calls on the state to recognize migration as a mass imposition, not an individual choice. It also calls on the state to recognize its complicity in forced migration. After thirty years, the reorganization of the global economic landscape in the interests of multinational corporations has produced many national economies dependent on large scale outmigration of their labor forces. This mass mobility is functional for states in two ways: (1) outmigrants’ basic needs are met elsewhere (or not at all) and (2) migrants send back money to support those who stay home. Remesas have become the largest or second largest source of foreign exchange for a whole set of countries and regions including the Philippines, Mexico, Central America, Ecuador, and the Caribbean. If you are a migrant, the state does not want you back, but does want you to support the national economy from abroad, to exercise your citizenship and belonging cost effectively from elsewhere. Today, migrant labor is north-south economic redistribution, carried out by hand. In upholding such relations, even tacitly, states are extending their reach beyond their own borders.

A stencil seen on the outside of La 72 migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco. August 7th, 2015. Photo by Pablo Dominguez Galbraith
A stencil seen on the outside of La 72 migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco. August 7th, 2015. Photo by Pablo Dominguez Galbraith

El derecho a no migrar raises a challenge to rights discourse, which, as Sandy Grande notes, normally attaches to individual bodies in a way that is intrinsically “unplaced” (2004). The Mixteco demand underscores the damages migration inflicts upon collectivities—communities, kinship networks, generational relationships, reproductive units—as well as on individuals. Each departure creates, among those who stay, an absence that cannot be filled; communities and families become a fabric full of holes; social reproduction becomes much more difficult, sometimes impossible. A Mexican colleague, researching migration in rural communities in Puebla, commented on the sadness surrounding the unwanted departure of yet another group of ever-younger sons and brothers: 

Now that they migrate so young—they’ve spent their 5 basic years on the rancho, but many things are still maturing at the age of 14, 15, 16! And now they don’t even leave with their families! What will become of their identities as Indians, peasants, poor people, etc.?

The Devocionario del Migrante, “Migrant’s Prayerbook,’ published by the Archdiocese of San Juan de los Lagos in Western Mexico (1997), invokes this experience of involuntary mobility as a state of unfreedom. The prayer for the migrant on board the bus says:

You who knew the bitterness of exile when with Mary and Joseph you had to seek refuge in a foreign land, you understand that bitterness tears up my soul too, as I leave my loved ones. Care for them, Lord. Make sure they never forget me and I never forget them, despite the distance. I pray to you now that this trip may turn out well. May you keep me free of accidents and may things go well for me. Holy Virgin, Mother of Jesus, guide my steps and give me the strength to overcome the difficulties of the road. Lord, I give my faith to you so that I may stay firm in the face of dangers that could make me doubt your love.

Here we encounter a lexicon that has none of the vocabulary of adventure, discovery, and freedom commonly associated with travel: refugio, destierro, amargura, lejania, necesidad, peligro, destrozar, dejar, olvidar, dudar. The discourse of forced migration generates a literature of travel where the equation of mobility with freedom breaks down, as it does in the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the literatures of exile and flight birthed by modern states of the global south. Climate change has become the new motor of forced exodus, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. 

It would be completely erroneous, of course, to view all migration as involuntary, or an inherently bad thing. Migration is often a successful response by communities, families, and individuals, to the extremely uneven distribution of economic and social opportunity across the globe. For people oppressed by the norms of their cultures, notably women, it can be the path to liberation. The key point is that the scale of today’s displacements, voluntary, involuntary, or anywhere between, amounts to a significant shift in human geography, in the way human beings are organized across the planet. When I first reflected upon this shift, while living in western Mexico, I concluded that: 

The normative backdrop of im-mobility, stability, home and here against which mobility, in-stability, elsewhere and away are articulated is no longer the sole basis for citizenship and belonging, for the geosocial ordering of the world. This is not at all to say that the new norm is mobility. Rather the norm seems now to be multiplied, doubled, like transnational identities. New geographers will be required to map the planet reconfigured yet again by the vast mobilizing powers and immense inequities of capitalist empire (Pratt 2002, 15).

The Mixtecos are among those new geographers. Their claim of a derecho a no migrar marks the state of staying—of non-migration—as non-normative, as an entitlement now in need of a label. Their claim bears out Grande’s argument that indigeneity both calls for, and points toward, differently defined emancipatory projects framed not by a “Western conception of democracy and justice that presume a ‘liberated’ self,” but by “a construct that is both geographically rooted and historically placed” (2004, 117).

A growing body of contemporary indigenous thought makes a powerful challenge to mobility as a figure for freedom and knowledge. In writings often directed to western as well as indigenous readers (“Hay que indianizar a los q’aras,” “We must indianize the white people,” said Aymara leader Felipe Quispe, in a widely quoted remark), indigenous thinkers from many parts of the world insist on the value of modes of being that ground themselves in place, see humans as neither separate from nor superior to the rest of nature, regard collective life as essential to self-realization, and find models for plenitude in the deep knowing of the contours and life forms of a particular place, acquired over time and through interaction with them. Land- and forest-based peoples all over the world share many of these norms, whether they call themselves indigenous or not. The value of staying is often tied to the unfolding of individual and collective life in a place of belonging (which may, but need not, be an ancestral place).

In the face of intensified invasion of their territories and lifeways, land- and forest-based peoples the Dayaks of Indonesia, are becoming indigenous, that is, declaring themselves indigenous, in pursuit of the right—and the freedom—to stay (Bakker 2007).  Indigeneity, in other words, has become a planetary force capable of affirming and demanding the freedom to stay, to be “placed.” In fact, indigeneity names not a quality that inheres in a group of people, but a relationship between movers and stayers, between placed subjects who inhabit a place and de-placed subjects who arrive(d) there from elsewhere. Indigeneity names a relationship constituted by arrival, by unsolicited encounters between placed and displaced subjects. In the languages of the European colonizers, the generic descriptors used to refer to indigenous peoples (indigenous, native, aboriginal, first nations, pueblos originarios) refer etymologically to priority in time and place. They denote those who were “in place” first, that is, before someone else (the colonizer) who came “after,” which is to say that these terms are relational and retrospective. Indigeneity is created at the moment of encounter between those “in place” and those arriving, and both parties in the colonial encounter come to share this mutual recognition. Hence the crucial fact that “indigenous” is usually not a primary identity of indigenous peoples. Groups or individuals define themselves first as Apache, Maori, Cree, Hmong, Aymara, Dayak, !Kung, or Mam; they acquire indigeneity by virtue of that (temporally and socially) prior self-identification.

The indigenous becomes the rubric for affirming placedness because colonial relations make it a resistant identity. Indigenous peoples are those who survive as peoples through what Native American theorist Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” a resilient, resistant commitment to their own vital, creative unfolding over time and in place (2008). Survivance is not a matter of preserving traditions or resisting all change. “Indigenous voices,” says Arif Dirlik, “are quite open to change. What they insist on is not cultural parity or persistence, but the preservation of a particular historical trajectory of their own… one that is grounded in the topography much more intimately” (1999, 86). There are no exceptions, because peoples who lack that commitment cease to exist as indigenous peoples.  

This is an old story. In a serialized tale called “Si haces mal no esperes bien” (“He who does evil should expect no good”), published in a Peruvian magazine in 1861, Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti used the alignment of whiteness with movement and arrival, and indigeneity with unsolicited encounter and anchoring in place to spell out the colonial underpinnings of Latin American modernity. The story hinges on a specific spot on the well-traveled road from Lima to Jauja, where a series of unsolicited encounters occur. In the first, a white soldier rapes an Andean girl who is herding animals at this spot by the road. (Colonial rape is, of course, a founding trope of colonialism, and a paradigm for unsolicited encounter between he who arrives and she who was already there). The second encounter occurs five years later, when the young woman returns to the spot, again herding animals, and now accompanied by the daughter born of the rape. In search of flowers, the child strays to the roadside, into the path of a military convoy whose officer orders his men to snatch the child as a gift for his lover in Lima. The mother recognizes him as the man who raped her and fathered her child; the officer never realizes he has just kidnapped his own daughter.

Once torn from her indigenous place, the mestiza child becomes a cipher, passing from one colonial, patriarchal script to another. With ingenious literary architecture, Gorriti uses the serial geography of the road to identify, one after the other, the mobile regimes of power defining this neocolonial Peruvian modernity. The colonel hands the child off to his muleteers with orders to take her to Lima. They are ambushed by bandits who abandon her by the roadside along with other objects (hat boxes) not worth stealing. A passing French naturalist rescues her (“Traigo en mi maleta el reino vegetal y el mineral. He aquí el animal. ¡A Francia, pues!” “I have the vegetable and mineral kingdoms in my case, and now here is the animal. To France, then!”) and takes her back to France to become a surrogate for a daughter who died. There, as a French woman, she marries a young Peruvian student who brings her home with him to Lima. She reminds him of his beloved sister. Once there she becomes sickly and disturbed, haunted by a sense of familiarity she cannot explain. With her life in peril, doctors send her to mountains for fresh air, accompanied by her husband and father-in-law.

Thus ensues the third encounter. When they reach the fatal spot in the road, the young woman begins to weep, and “en ese momento una figura extraña, una mujer envuelta en una manta negra, pálida como espectro, se alzó detras de un peñasco gritando con lúgubre acento: “¿Quién llora aquí?” (“at that moment a strange figure, a woman wrapped in a black shawl, pale as a ghost, rose from behind an outcropping shouting in a grim tone, ‘Who weeps here?'”). Recognizing the colonel, she attacks him: “¡Por fin te encuentro! ¡Ladrón de honras, ladrón de niños, en vano te ocultas!” (“At last I found you! Thief of honor, robber of children, in vain you hide!”). The muleteers dismiss her as “la loca de Huairos” (“the crazy woman of Huairos”), but the reader knows, of course, that it is the indigenous mother still there fixed at the founding point of colonial violence. That night, she enters the tambo (hostel) where the travelers are lodged and the young woman asks her to tell her story. She does, and the young woman realizes that she herself is not French, that this is her mother—and that she is married to her half-brother. Colonial rape has set the stage for neo-colonial incest, circuited through the European metropole.

Gorriti’s story hinges on indigeneity understood as a colonial relation between the placed and the de-placed, between a colonizer who passes through, polices, and surveilles, and a colonized who stays, haunts, endures. It is important to notice that the indigenous woman is not fixed in place by ancestral belonging, which is the official source of indigeneity, but by the colonial script: unsolicited encounter, violence, dispossession, moral debt.  The colonial script also keeps bringing the officer back to the same place. His mobility is not an enactment of freedom, though it seems so to him. Travel brings him back to the point of assault over and over again, because there is only one road here, and nowhere to go when the jig is up. There is no future at the end of Gorriti’s story; the indigenous mother remains, haunting her daughter’s grave—La Quedada, the Remainder.

Mural on Paso del Coyote, near the Guatemalan border. Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. Photo by Diana Taylor.
Mural on Paso del Coyote, near the Guatemalan border. Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. Photo by Diana Taylor.

It would be misleading to end by leaving this script in place, however, for contemporary indigenous people and movements are rewriting it, not by abandoning the value of place, but by taking on the powers of movement and the powers of the host, producing solicited rather than unsolicited encounters. Experiments in mobility and placedness have been a hallmark of Zapatismo, for example, and one of its chief decolonizing strategies. Right from the beginning, the Zapatistas defined themselves in terms of place, the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. This was not an ancestral home for the Zapatista base, however, but a place to which they had been displaced by hydroelectric and other projects that took over their former landbases. From this place they deployed an array of experiments in extroversion. Some readers may recall the blanket invitation they issued to the world in 1996, to attend a summit on neoliberalism, a gigantic act of hospitality and a vast, solicited rather than unsolicited encounter. A global cast of thousands attended, and out of this gathering, according to David Graeber (2008), came the activist network that went on to organize the groundbreaking antiglobalization demonstration in Seattle in spring of 1999. From the place and placedness of indigeneity, the Zapatistas transcended or superseded the colonial script, by soliciting encounter, making themselves agents of contact.

Three years later, in the Spring of 1999, they took an equally bold step, in an unprecedented experiment in mobility and citizenship. Hemmed in and harassed by the Mexican army, the Zapatistas announced a nationwide consulta ciudadana. Delegations of one man and one woman, members of the Zapatista popular movement, would travel to each of Mexico’s 2500 electoral districts (municipios) where they would spend a week meeting with anyone open to dialogue with them. A call went out for local host committees to form in each of the 2500 districts to organize the visits and raise funds. Miraculously, this happened. So it was that in March of 1999. five thousand indigenous adults, plus another thousand or so children, became the ones who travel, and their fellow Mexican citizens became their hosts. The vast majority had never left their home district; many, particularly the women, spoke no Spanish. Most of their hosts—chambers of commerce, students, teachers, unions, community groups—had never listened to an indigenous language or sat across a table from an indigenous person. The consulta produced innumerable “first encounters.” A few details are noteworthy. In this experiment the Zapatistas set out to travel not from margin to center, (that is, from Chiapas to Mexico City, which they later did), but from one place to all of the others (the national electoral grid), thus identifying the nation as the totality of its inhabitants (the electorate) and not its government (the elected). By sending male-female pairs, the Zapatistas intercepted the sexual scripts of both colonialism and patriarchal hospitality.

Among the Zapatistas’ many strategies of decolonization, their experiments in remaking relations of going and staying, sending, and receiving, stand out. Reconjugating the relations among mobility, placedness, and indigeneity, they assert the indigenous interface as a site of full-fledged, extroverted engagement with the West’s dominant traditions and epistemologies. The counterimage is not nomadism, however, but crossing: “El zapatismo,” says one of the communiqués, “no es, no existe. Solo sirve, como sirven los puentes, para cruzar de un lado a otro. Por tanto, en el zapatismo caben todos los que quieran cruzar de uno a otro lado.” “Zapatismo does not exist. It only serves, and serves as a bridge, to cross from one side to another. Therefore, Zapatismo embraces all those who wish to cross from one side to another side.” Let that be the image of mobility with which I close. 

This essay was originally prepared for the International Conference on Travelers and the River Plate, Montevideo, June 2009. I thank the graduate students in Comparative Studies at Columbia University for their input, and for the invitation to present at their conference in April 2009.

Works Cited

Bakker, Laurens.  2007. “Threats or Rights? Dayak Indigeneity as a Source of Law.” Paper presented at The Law and Society Association, Berlin.

Bacon, David. 2009. “The Right to Stay Home—Derecho de no Migrar,” Banderas News (Puerto Vallarta), July 2008, p.1 . 

Dirlik, Arif. 1999. “The Past as Legacy and Project: Postcolonial Criticism in the Perspective of Indigenous Historicism.” In Contemporary Native American Political Issues, edited by Troy R. Johnson, 73-97. Oxford and Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

EZLN documentos y comunicados 3: 2 de octubre de 1995/24 de enero de 1997. 1997. Mexico, DF: Ediciones Era S.A. de C.V.

Graeber, David. 2008. “On Cosmopolitanism and (Vernacular) Democratic Creativity: Or, There Never Was a West.” In Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives, edited by Pnina Werbner, 281-306. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Grande, Sandy. 2004. Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. Oxford and Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. See also expanded 10th Anniversary edition, Rowan & Littlefield 2015.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 2002. “Modernity, Mobility and Excoloniality.” In Seuils et traverses: actes du colloque de Brest, edited by Jean-Yves Le Disez, 13-30. Brest, France: Centre du Recherche Bretonne et Celtique.

Siahpush, Amenée. 2012. “Migration and the Mixteca Baja.” Blogpost, Gallatin Fellowship in Global Human Rights, June 26, 2012.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. 2008. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


    Works Cited