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The Bonfires of Cherán

Pablo Pérez Mar 26, 2012

Editor's note: We bring you this translation of a Mexican journalist's take on Cherán, Michoacan, to bring more light to a community that has been building autonomous resistance to organized crime and corrupt officials since last year.

Nobody ever told me how Cherán was, I expected the chill of a mountain morning, the wind coming down from the wooded hills. What I hadn’t read in any account, in any article, is that Cherán is quite a picturesque village, a big one, in fact; I would say a bit bigger than Naolinco, in Veracruz; smaller than Empalme, Sonora; nearly the same size as Allende, Nuevo León.

It is a small city. A small city with a colonial square and an interesting church. A small city where you don't come across skinny children(there are indeed skinny kids, but the kind of wiry, strong and healthy kids who spend the day playing soccer), where stray dogs won’t follow you begging for leftovers, as a matter of fact, stray dogs will ignore you if you call them. They'll keep to themselves and don’t seem to be bothered by you. Where townspeople will greet you with a hearty “good afternoon,” looking at you with curiosity, not fear or distrust, even being an outsider to a town that has been under siege for the last 10 months.

A Spanish friend of mine says that Cherán reminds her of her own hometown near Valencia: medium sized and thriving. She considers herself a native Iberian because she, like the Purepecha, has an identity and language of her own. It is us, mestizo city dwellers, who can’t understand this community. We think that we should feel sorry for every insurgent town and it's Indigenous people. I think she’s right. Every report that I read,every chronicle, seems to leave aside the fact that Cherán isn’t exactly small or poor. I cannot blame my colleagues, those coming from Mexico City will anywhere with a population of less than 100,000 habitants a 'small town'; others could have considered that talking about the abundance of two storied brick houses in a rebellious village might project the wrong image about an Indigenous community that has fought to be autonomous. I think it is just the opposite: we should talk about Cherán being big, and prosperous, because organizing 2000 habitants is difficult, very difficult; organizing almost 30,000 is something worthy of being acknowledged.

The whole thing makes me want to sit down and ask: “How did they do it?”

It cost them, a lot, and they hadn’t planned for it either. They paid the price with fear and more than one life; the price of seeing how the mismanagement of their mayor and those of neighboring towns gave the green light to the illegal activity of loggers who took over the town's forests. “The loaded trucks went by, and if you stared at them,they would get out, armed and threaten you. The only thing we could do was humiliate ourselves,” said an old woman outside of the church, in sad reference to the old Spanish definition of humillar: lower your head and stare at the ground.

But Cherán's people were tired of staring at the ground.On the 15th of April, 2010, a large convoy came by and they couldn’t endure it anymore. The church bells rang, calling the people into action. The tolling of the bells gives the story takes a mythological flavor, making it one of those stories perfect for telling and retelling around the bonfire.

We will never be sure it there was 100 or 200, or if the Purépecha warrior blood really boiled in their veins as the drivers tried to run over the people with vehicles full of wood (Cherán's wood). How did they get the drivers and thugs out of the trucks, disarm them and drag them, helpless and begging for mercy, all through the town’s streets? All that is folklore now, dangling in the realms of legend. And none of those details really matter, but the telling of this saga will go on for generations to come. It is the story of the first day of a fight, one that had just started. After that they had to stop, and think, and plan.

They knew that the loggers paid the local cartel up to US$18,000 a day for the right of way and that the thugs would not want to lose this income; they knew that the federal police and the army never intervened nor would they try to defend the people from abductions or executions; and that their pleas for help to the state governor always fell on deaf ears. They had nothing other than to dig in and wait.

So sure they were that they were defenseless, that they put up barricades on the four entrances to the town, and were careful to leave the local police station outside. Fear was present in every street; a prohibition of alcohol and a curfew was declared; they organized their neighbors, sometimes, even each square, to go on guard duty all evening and report any suspicious individual or activity.

And here's where the story gets really interesting.

There are many towns in resistance, sadly, meetings and councils of every type. But this town stood to protect every corner of their narrow streets. In two of every three plazas, they organized guard points,always warmed by a bonfire, which eventually was the name they adopted for their guard posts. They had up to 190 of these bonfires burning through the entire town, occupied by neighbors who were no longer shutting themselves inside, in fear. Now the people were in the streets, willing to look after each other, and in front of the bonfires those of different political allegiance and those of different religions would meet as equals. Once the fires were lit,women couldn’t resist taking advantage of them: cooking came out into the street.

They sat, made plans and were called upon to take decisions, but the youngsters didn’t always want to take part in long and boring meetings. There were assemblies, but in the solemn assemblies the women often don't feel like talking, unless they are a teacher or doctor, and even so,they would be regarded as weird. However, around the bonfire, the cook's voice is as important as the voice of an old man. And the young would listen and ask without fear of appearing ignorant, and stay because around the bonfire you can always joke and laugh;the neighbors that weren't on talking terms because of political arguments would start chatting again. Eating, around the fire, everybody is equal.

This laid back coexistence in the street, in every neighborhood, in each plaza, was the process that slowly allowed Cherán's people to fight as one for their forest and their town.

Retaking old habits and customs; returning to the idea of la faena, work that’s done by all for the good of everybody. It wasn’t long ago that this tradition was still practiced. The elders will tell you:“we built this school with la faena”and remember how at a wedding or funeral, the tradition dictated that everybody helps with something: food, work, anything so that life it is easier for all.This old way keeps people close.

Today, nearly a year after its formal uprising, Cherán has a new Community Council that replaced a [Institutional Revolutionary Party] mayor who delivered his last report four years after taking office. A position he left peacefully, as the people demanded.

The council was elected according the old ways, formed by the men and women that the community consider honorable and responsible. The  State Elections Institute of Michoacán was a mere spectator to the voting.

There isn’t a place for political parties in this town,where people learned that together they are stronger and apart the only people that benefit are the malitos (bad guys). Even for the upcoming federal elections they have stated their intentions of not participating -the whole town, abstaining- to avoid the partisan rifts from separating their people again.

For this reason too, the people from Cherán who are del otro lado (people who have gone as migrants to the U.S.) have been involved throughout the movement, supporting those that defend what they feel is theirs. This town, where they live well, that is full of kids and young people, is very different to so many others where migrating to the north is almost a coming of age ritual. One can only imagine that this simple way of being a community is what makes the children willing to paint the facade of the old town hall, to replace the solemn and official looking sign on the hall for a new one, a little crooked but much more beautiful, that reads: Cheran K’eri (Community House).

The people still sit and chat around the bonfires in this fearless town, although just a few weeks ago a truckload of passengers were kidnapped and recently they heard how federal forces suppressed with violence and tear gas a demonstration by the villagers of neighboring Aquila,who are defending their territory from a foreign mining company.

The people of Cherán cannot forget that the danger still exists. But for now they smile and celebrate their victories and are determined to keep them, and to keep the bonfires that have helped so much to bring them together as a town again.

Before leaving, I took careful stock of Cherán, a small city, a large town just like many others that have suffered from organized crime and the indifference of the authorities. What's so remarkable here is how they fought to organize themselves despite being so many and having so many different interests. Just like the rest of Mexicans. From Chiapas to Baja California there are many towns, large and small, that are living through the same situation, divided by political parties, under the menace of drug cartels,exploited by greedy businessmen

What they have achieved in Cherán was cooked peacefully around the fire, seasoned with conversation and a deep sense of community and tradition, which they keep alive even when they’re so close to victory. It’s impossible to walk by any guard house without them offering you a cup of coffee or a taco. That’s their way of finding out who you are, what you want. Although they have gone from terror to an apparent triumph in one year, they won't want to let the bonfires go out.

Every morning, traditional medicine men ask for strength from Tata Jurhiata, our father sun,he who gives the gift of fire. They ask for the new Council, for the unity of the Purépecha people, for peace. In the central square the older men also take advantage of the sun to warm up and forget last night's cold wind. When I askif later they are going to their neighborhood bonfire later they respond with a firm “Yes.” Then, one ofthem added: “Once you lit the fire, you must take care of it, so it grows bigger and warmer”.

This article was originally published by La Rocka and Upside Down World. Translation by Laura Cann.

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