Times of Crises: Strengthening Our Bond with the Earth, Because We Are of the Earth

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by Carmen Cariño Trujillo
©Carmen Cariño, 2020

I start these lines from the backyard of my familia campesina 1, located on Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) territory, home to the people of the rain, in the south of Mexico. Without doubt, the confinement that has us locked down here is not experienced in the same way as it is in cities: I am among chickens, sheep, piglets, and fruit trees that give us food and protection. Here, we are also close to our milpa 2, and the whole family contributes to taking care of the corn, the beans, the pumpkins, and a huge diversity of plants that grow here and complete our familial diet. We basically feed ourselves from what the milpa and the backyard give us, products of the soil and wise campesino labor. These days we are also reinforcing the trueque (exchange) of seeds, fruits, and local vegetables. All this has worked for us as material and spiritual support in the actual context of death, which has now been added to the violence already experienced in Abya Yala for centuries and has increased as a consequence of the war against the communities, the colonial pandemic that has looked forward to exterminating us for almost 528 years.

While I write, there is news reaching our town about Mixtecan campesinos that have lost their lives because of the pandemic around the world, in the impoverished neighborhoods of the Mexico City and New York City as well as news from protests held by rural laborers, most of them Mixtecan, in the North of Mexico, who are even more unprotected now during the pandemic. Because not everyone had the chance to stay in their communities of origin, we are a pueblo crossed by migration.

Migrating is not a privilege for the majority of our communities. Migration, being away from our territories, living in community, or even worse, dying far from home is a terrible blow to the people of the rain. During the last decades, the right to stay in one’s own region has been denied to millions of people in the world. We, the ones that stayed, have been clinging to the land that has suffered from the abandonment of its children. But the exodus is not a coincidence, it is the result of economic, political, social, and historical exclusion that aims, in myriad ways, mainly violent, to uproot us from la tierra we belong to.

Thus, the ones expelled from their territories, in particular the youngest ones, have been denied the right to live in a way where the relation to the earth is at the center of all relations, because from the land we live, on and through it, we find work, food, joy, coexistence, festivities, collective life, our ancestors.

When our people go pal norte, our world falls apart, but, at the same time, we hope that the ones that make it to the other side of the border can find a job and help their children to study, reach the dream of building a house, and have a “better future.” Like that, landscapes are transformed, in the native land and in the places of arrival. 

First Landscape: The Town of Rain

When the people of the rain leave pal norte, the fields become empty. In previous times, with the beginning of the first rain of the year, we would see animals with yokes and people sowing milpas, people exchanging seeds, feeding the relation with the madrecita tierra, but with the passing time, we are less and less people that sow. The grandparents stayed alone, the young people left.

Migration isn't a privilege for the people of my community. Since many decades, but especially since the eighties, the migration of Mixtecans has multiplied. With time, it has become more difficult to stay at home, on the land “where the navel was sowed” 3. This is not a coincidence, but the result of a long process of the worsening of the living conditions in the region, following the implementation of a restrictive model that makes it impossible for the people of the field to have a good life in their territories, and forces them to leave. The right not to migrate has been denied for decades, even more since the implementation of neoliberal politics around the world. In this context, the right to stay on native land is a denied right, and for the ones that stay, the struggle for existence requires double or triple the amount of labor in order to meet basic reproductive needs.

The Mixtecan region is essentially rural, campesina, devoted to the sowing season; mainly corn, squash, beans are planted, and goats are also bred. It is one of the regions that suffered the most from the effects of neoliberal politics on Mexican fields and of the commercial agreements that started in 1986. In 1994, right after Mexico established the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada, every day, we started to see the young people from our communities, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues from school, preparing small bags for heading North. From one day to the next, we found out that groups of 10-15 young people had left in direction to el gabacho, mainly California and New York in the United States, or Sinaloa and Baja California in the North of Mexico. Not following the “American dream,” but with the idea of finding a job with which they could at least face the crisis that started in the Mexican fields when the effects of neoliberal politics began to appear.

Second Landscape: From the Milpa to the Agro-Industry

The Mixtecan people, roughly expelled by capitalism since the 1990s, head north, from the Mesoamerican milpa to the extractivist colonial monocultures created by the agrobusinesses of North Mexico and the United States. On the other hand, the neoliberal impact of rural agriculture in the town of rain, as well as many other communities South Bravo river, stimulated the accelerated growth of the export-oriented agro-industry in the Northwest of Mexico, and especially the United States (who became the first global power within the agro-food business at around the same time).

Simultaneously, as part of the program for the destruction of the Ñuu Savi rural agriculture, it required uprooting millions of campesinos and campesinas, many of them Mixtecan, forcing them to become industry employees. From one day to the next, the Mixtecan migrants found themselves on the border, whether on the Mexican border or the North-American border. Most of them belong to the lowest wage scale on the market, often referred to as the “non-qualified workforce.” However, at the same time, their skills for growing, sowing, and harvesting agricultural products to be exported (knowledge acquired in the milpas of their native land) are in high demand from the agro-businesses.

North-American agro-industries required an abundant young workforce, cheap and skilled, in order to increase their profits, to expand and become the agro-food global power that is today, which coincided with the destruction of the food sovereignty and the Mexican field crisis. In opposition to the Mesoamerican milpa, we find now single-crop farming and agro-chemicals that lead to the extinction of communities and their ancestral knowledges about the reproduction of life.

Third Landscape: Going Back to the Native Land, Restoring the Bond with the Earth

Not all rural laborers left their land, the ones that stayed kept on sowing, despite everything, even the bad weather caused by climate change and the effects of the exploitation and extraction of la madre tierra. The ceremonies to the Wind God, the offerings to the sacred caves, to the Thunder God, the prayers in the milpas at the beginning of the sowing season and at each stage of the farming cycle have never ceased to be heard, some just as a whispering, but the sacred bound to la madrecita tierra has not been broken.

Resistance means to carry on sowing, especially in a context where harvested food has to fight its industrialized counterpart. Because, at the same time that our sowing season starts, we receive, especially from the United States, thousands of tons of corn, beans, fruit, and seeds, fumigated with agrochemicals and produced through the over-exploitation of the soil and the people. These are low-priced products, and because of them, local farm produce is disregarded and gravely affected by unfair competition. In this manner, the neoliberal discourse about comparative advantages works to destroy the campesino production. 

For modern societies, the people of the land are from the past, synonymous with under-development and savage ignorance. And yet, even scientific sources recognize that there are 1,5 million small farmers that produce around 80% of the planet’s foodt (FAO, 2018). In opposition to the expectations placed on them, the campesinos and campesinas have been fighting for their existence against a capitalist modernity/coloniality and during each growing season, they have strengthened their deep relation to the land and the sacred bond they have with it for representing their material, symbolic, and spiritual support. This is why many of those who left couldn´t be completely uprooted, and even from thousands of kilometers away, they support their communities, they build routes, they prepare festivities, they are an essential part of communal life and economically contribute to those who stay so they can continue to sow.  

The campesino worlds exist because they resist, because they have survived colonial capitalist neoliberal pandemics. The farmers have kept on sowing until their last breath, because they love their work, they take care of the seeds and grasp their dependent bond with the earth and because they know, like my padre campesino says, that: todo lo que se siembra, se cosecha (“all that is sown is harvested”.)

Humanity has moved away from the land, the further away the more modern. This false and arrogant distancing has caused the expansion of the epidemic that hit us today, and the ones to come. Indeed, the only way to save ourselves is to strengthen the bond with the earth, return to the pachamama, to the root. That process will only be possible by acknowledging and learning from the wisdom of the campesinos, who never stopped talking to her. They are the ones that know how to talk to the rain, know how to read the clouds, know how to talk to the wind, know the time for the sowing, the field labor, the harvest; and therein, we find the wisdom we need to sustain life. 

Coming back to the terruño (native land) is essential, as well as ceasing being modern, and recognizing that the campesinos and campesinas are here, that they have not disappeared, and that they will not. They will continue sowing, because they are part of the land and not its owners, because they know that modern humanity is destroying it, and the only way to revert the situation is to go back to the root with humbleness, respect, and labor. It might be our last chance, and it is within the milpa, the chacra, the garden, the backyard, la tierra.

Footnotes/Translator’s Notes

1. Campesino, campesina can be translated into “farm worker.” I have chosen to keep the original word. Campesinxs are rural workers who often do not own the land and whose occupation is harvesting the land mainly for their own consumption. While it is often used in ridicule and as an offensive term, campesino holds special cultural meaning. 

2. Milpa is a word that comes from the nahuatl language, milli=field y pan=above, meaning ‘above the place.’ The milpa is an ecosystem built from what is known as the Mesoamerican triad, mainly corn, beans, and squash. In the milpa, quelites (edible herbs), tomatoes, flowers, fruit trees, nopales and many other vegetables and fruits are grown, which are all essential to the family diet. The milpa is an ancient traditional method, and it is primarily aimed at self-consumption.

3. From the original text: “la tierra donde se sembró el ombligo”. “To sow the navel” is a symbolic and literal act that represents the connection with the territory. The navel is sown where one was born. 

Translated by Lia Kastiyo-Spinósa

Carmen Cariño TrujilloÑuu Savi, from Chila de las Flores, México. Campesina and rural sociologist. Professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Azcapotzalco and member of the Latinoamerican Group of Studies, Formation and Feminist Action (GLEFAS). Student of the Zapatista School and an activist for the struggles and social movements defending land territories.