Land and Freedom: Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, Fight HIV and Repression

—Suzy Subways

December 2008 • Issue 9

Oaxaca, Mexico

The United States has twice the HIV prevalence of Mexico, so it isn’t surprising that the need to cross the border for work has increased Mexican communities’ vulnerability to HIV. But the reasons for HIV’s increase in some places in Mexico – indigenous, rural communities far from the border – may not be so obvious. “The state of Oaxaca has the highest HIV rate in Southeastern Mexico,” Oaxacan queer activist Leonardo Tlahui says. “One of the primary factors is immigration. The Mixteco people [one of Oaxaca’s largest indigenous groups] have a high population of immigrants to the United States.” He explains that migrating to a country with double the HIV rate makes immigrants more vulnerable to HIV, and that increased vulnerability is then shared with their home communities since most of the immigrants return home to Oaxaca.

Half a million indigenous people from Oaxaca (roughly one-seventh of the state’s total population) live in the United States, according to Rufino Dominguez, a founder of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) in Oaxaca. Interviewed by David Bacon for a article called “The Right to Stay Home,” Dominquez said, “There are no jobs here, and NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] made the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”

Treaties and Lovers

Two years after the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched its 1994 offensive in the state of Chiapas as NAFTA was implemented, the EZLN won a potential victory for indigenous land rights with the San Andres Accords, an agreement it negotiated with the Mexican government. But in 2002, the government gutted the accords, and now, indigenous activists say that large corporations are buying their peoples’ land. As more young people come to the U.S. to work and send money home, families are separated for years at a time, and individuals far from their partners become vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

For a new study called “Migration and ruralization of AIDS: reports on vulnerability of indigenous communities in Mexico” [“Migración y ruralización del SIDA: relatos de vulnerabilidad en comunidades indígenas de México”], researchers from Mexico City and California interviewed migrant workers and indigenous women in poor rural areas. Before a young man leaves as a teenager, the researchers report, he often partners with a girl who is also too young for legal marriage and hopes for pregnancy so that she will remain faithful while he is away. Some of the women said that, although they understand the likelihood that migrants have other sexual partners, it is very difficult to ask the men to use condoms when they return. It doesn’t help that Oaxaca’s archbishop condemns the use of condoms [“Condena el arzobispo de Oaxaca el uso del condón”] to prevent HIV.

One Zapoteca indigenous woman in Oaxaca, age 23, told the researchers, “I am here with my in-laws while my husband is in the United States, and he sees that somewhere they pick up other women. Now it is long that my husband hasn’t come, like five years. He already entered [the U.S.] for six years [once before]… When he returns, he always comes looking for another pregnancy.”

In a 2008 poster presentation at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) about HIV risk behaviors of Mexican migrant workers, Melissa Sanchez and other researchers reported that migrants, often struggling with unsafe working and living conditions, generally had more sex partners while in the U.S., and had more sex while using drugs or alcohol. A related study found that migrant men in California were 13 times more likely to have sex with another man than they were before leaving Mexico. Condom use increased while away from home, but migrants were unlikely to get tested for HIV for fear of deportation.

Sanchez also told that young men are being targeted for sex work at day-labor pick-up sites where they wait for construction work. “There are actually Web sites developed now where they give tips to people who want to approach Mexican-migrant, job-pick-up-site workers and actually recruit them,” Sanchez said. “They are told, ‘Go after three o’clock, when there is a clear indication that there is no work coming for the day.’ They target young, young men, thinking, ‘Well, they’re going to be more naïve, they’re perhaps more desperate to make some money given that they’re not going to get a landscape job during the day.'”

Corruption and Repression in Oaxaca

“It was agreed I would sign a document with the government promising…to cease activities concerning HIV/AIDS in Oaxaca.”

In 2001, the Frente Común Contra el SIDA (Common Front Against AIDS), a community organization in Oaxaca, began buying bus tickets for people living with HIV in the countryside to see their doctors at the clinic of COESIDA, the state AIDS council, in Oaxaca City. While meeting this need, activists got to know the people they were serving. The stories they heard – many of the people weren’t getting their medication regularly, were told to come back next month for medicine, or were given only one or two antiretrovirals rather than the standard combination of three – shocked the activists. According to the Frente’s website, this revelation set in motion a clash with COESIDA that culminated in the Frente’s closure amid threats and violence by government thugs in 2006.

First, the Frente went to the press in 2001 with the information they had gathered about substandard HIV treatment at the clinic. Next, they negotiated with COESIDA officials, who allowed the activists to conduct a more formal survey. For one month – in March 2002 – the Frente interviewed each patient who came to the clinic. The results were astonishing: Of 145 patients, 33 weren’t receiving any medication, and 20 were given only two antiretrovirals, which could do more harm than none by fostering drug resistance. Thirty-one patients opted out of the survey. While it’s possible that some may not have needed medication, it’s more likely that impoverished people from rural areas would come to the city for treatment only if they were very sick.

At their next meeting with the Frente, COESIDA officials revealed enough boxes of medications to treat 50 more people. After this victory, the Frente continued its work, publicly criticizing the under-reporting of rapidly increasing AIDS cases in rural areas where indigenous peoples live – and where the official HIV rates are the lowest.

Leonardo Tlahui, a founder of Oaxaca’s Nancy Cardenas Sexual Diversity Collective and an organizer with the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), explains, “There are no resources for our culture, for health, for housing…. All the budgeted money that comes in to serve people with HIV, mostly indigenous people, is lost. The indigenous people who are HIV positive in Oaxaca are invisible, even though more than ten years ago there was an armed uprising in Chiapas.” Under the current governor, Tlahui says, the situation has only become worse. “In this period, we have a pseudo-governor of Oaxaca, a man named Ulises Ruiz,” he says. “We are asking for his removal because he does not know how to govern the state, because he is a repressor, he has sent many people to prison, and we have many deaths and disappeared people. We are demanding justice.”

Bill Wolf, an artist from San Francisco who lived in Oaxaca and had worked with the Frente since 1995, took his own life earlier this year after a long struggle with lung cancer. Excerpts from his journals, available in English on the Frente’s website, describe the depth of corruption in Oaxaca’s government. In January 2007, he wrote, “The current Secretary of Public Health, appointed by Ulises Ruiz, in one short year has become one of the wealthiest men in Oaxaca, recently buying an enormous mansion…. The director of COESIDA, Gabriela Velàsquez, is the wife of the largest contributor to the political campaigns of both ex-governor José Murat and current governor Ulises Ruiz.”

In June 2006, teachers on strike occupied Oaxaca City’s central plaza. They held it for seven months with the support of APPO, which was formed during the uprising by representatives of Oaxaca’s 17 distinct indigenous peoples, many of the 400 majority-indigenous municipalities, and hundreds of grassroots organizations, all demanding the removal of Ruiz. Fifty-six movement leaders were assassinated during the government crackdown on the uprising that year.

Wolf and other Oaxaca artists built this “Day of the Dead Altar” on Nov. 1, 2006 to honor the 56 activists killed by the government and paramilitaries. The sign is a play on Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz’s slogan, “Giving our face to the nation.” The slain activists are portrayed rising from their graves.


“Five indigenous leaders were killed on the very weekend we received the final threat from COESIDA,” wrote Wolf, who was also an APPO supporter. “We later met and it was agreed I would sign a document with the government promising to have no part in the national [AIDS] convention, to cease activities concerning HIV/AIDS in Oaxaca, to not speak with the media, and to not mention the above ‘incident.'”

The “incident” Wolf mentions is described in a quote from fellow expatriate Stan Gotlieb’s blog: “They showed up at Condón Mania, the highly successful store [run by the Frente] that sells condoms at just enough over cost to stay in business. They gave a little demonstration by smashing the windshield on one of the worker’s car. They gave everyone some advice about how to avoid these kinds of visits in the future….”

Visions of Survival and Resistance

Despite the repression by Oaxaca’s government, its indigenous communities are creating new ways to survive and resist – with inspiration from their historical roots. Zapoteca AIDS activist Amaranta Gómez Regalado’s essay “Transcending” offers a glimpse of her hometown, Juchitán, Oaxaca, and its traditional embrace of muxhe, whose identity she defines as “people who are born a man and grow up with the generic identity of a woman; this is an identity not unlike a gay or transgender identity, but with truly unique characteristics.” Muxhes like Gómez have traditionally been embroiderers, seamstresses, and fish-sellers, she writes. And now, they are community leaders, especially in the AIDS movement.

“In 1995, a group of women and muxhes formed [Juchitán’s] first civil HIV/AIDS organization, called Gunaxhii Guendanabani (Love for Life), and in 1997 the muxhe community created other sources of civil movement for the promotion of sexual rights and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, like Colectivo Binni Laanu (Our People) and the group Las Intrépidas Contra el Sida (Fearlessly Against AIDS),” Gómez writes. She has become a leader in the international movement against HIV in indigenous communities.” [“Transcending” is available in English and Spanish on the Internet.]

The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) works with farmers in Oaxaca who are exploring new food crops to replace corn and beans, so that they can support themselves on their land and make the basic human right they speak of as el derecho de no migrar – the right not to migrate – a real option in people’s lives. In “The Right to Stay Home,” David Bacon writes, “Over the years, FIOB has organized women weavers in Juxtlahuaca, helping them sell their textiles and garments through its chapters in California. It set up a union for rural taxis, both to help farming families get from Juxtlahuaca to the tiny towns in the surrounding hills, and to provide jobs for drivers. Artisan co-ops make traditional products, helped by a co-operative loan fund.”

Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples

Oaxaca AIDS activist Amaranta Gómez Regalado.

In a conversation at the Indigenous Peoples’ networking zone in the Global Village area of the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in August, Leonardo Tlahui spoke about the role of APPO in the Mexican AIDS movement. “Part of being here in the Global Village is to demand respect for the human rights of all indigenous peoples, and of those of us who are in favor of justice in the state,” he said. “We use all the possible forums where we can get space to outreach about this. They didn’t want to open up a space for APPO, because they thought we were going to talk about guerrilla war and political issues. In the APPO, we also work on health and security issues and many policies that we want applied in Oaxaca. But we are closed from doing this. We have a thirst for information, but they don’t want to inform us.”

Amaranta Gómez closes “Transcending” in the spirit of nurturing her community’s heritage as a source of strength in the face of threats to its survival. “It is difficult to explain everything about what it is like to be a muxhe from Juchitán in this small article, however I hope that this brief look at our vision of the world has enlightened some,” she writes. “A vision which is not exempt from the social, economic, political and cultural changes taking place in Mexico, yet it has the goal of continuing to conserve the social and cultural harmony that has existed throughout the years and has allowed for different identities, like that of the muxhe, to flourish and be expressed. This goal becomes even bigger when those from the outside look at Juchitán as a society with its own reality that resists disappearing.”


Filed under arts and culture, displacement and gentrification, economic justice, gay and bisexual men, gender, immigration/migration, imperialism/colonialism, Latina/o communities in the United States, Mexico, Native Americans/Indigenous peoples, police repression, revolutionary strategies, Solidarity Project, trans and gender non-conforming, treatment access, women

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