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Indigenous Self-Governance in Oaxaca

If you are a 14 year old boy living in Teotitlan del Valle, one of the first committees you might serve on under usos y costombres would be during the 3 day period of Dia de los Muertos, which takes place from October 31st to November 2nd each year.
During this time it is customary in Teotitlán to ring the church bells for 3 days straight. This is done to help guide the departed spirits back to the village so they may share in the festivities, and be present for conversations with the living. These boys, in a group of about 20, will take turns living up in the bell towers of the church, (probably going a little mad from the noise) and ensuring the bells ring 24/7 for the entire 3-day period of festivities.

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Teotitlán del Valle uses a traditional style of governance called usos y costumbres, which roughly translates as “uses and customs”. Indigenous communities are recognised by the Mexican government, and allowed to self-govern under this system. The state of Oaxaca has the most recognised indigenous communities – 412 of 570 municipalities self-govern under usos y costumbres.

Residents of these communities do not pay federal taxes, as instead they take turns to serve on different committees that manage the town, for example, forestry, public water, the produce market, the artisanal market, roads, festivals, public health, schools, the traditional dances, town policing and the most prestigious one, the church.

Depending on the committee, your length of service may be 6 months, or as long as 3 years in length. If you are chosen for a committee and you are not living in Teotitlán, you must return, or pay someone to do your service. You are not paid to do this community service, and in fact, it might actually cost you (in terms of time or resources) to perform it. It is considered an honour to be chosen to be on a committee, and during your lifetime in the community you might serve on several different committees.

Within Teotitlán del Valle one of the most famous dances is Danza de la Pluma (Dance of the Feather), which dates back from the time of the Aztecs. This dance is performed by 12 young men, aged 20-24, as a committee responsibility. These men are elected for a 3 year commitment, each one rotating in as another rotates out so as to keep the knowledge and ritual of the dance safeguarded. These men are then responsible for performing Danza de la Pluma in festivals and celebrations, of which there are many each year. It sounds like an easy job, but the dance can be performed for as many as 8 hours at a stretch, so maybe not.

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Another committee is responsible for public health, and among other jobs, they may paint public health notices on the walls of the pueblo. I love travelling through the different pueblos in the Oaxaca region and seeing the different messages painted on the walls. Probably the most common mural depicts the lifecycle of the mosquito and reminds people not to keep uncovered water around their house – in old tyres or containers. Dengue isn’t a problem in Mexico, but these types of reminders would keep prevention in everyday consciousness.

Other public health notices remind people of a woman’s right to choose, equality between the sexes, that violence is not condoned, and early childhood vaccinations are important to wipe out diseases like polio. It’s really nice to see words that matter on walls, instead of the ubiquitous advertising for commercial products and services seen in other towns and cities around the world (except Cuba, where these types of notices are propaganda announcements proclaiming socialism).

People on Teotitlán are invested in their community and under usos y costumbres, they actually get to have a say, and to shape their community for the future themselves, rather than via a distant government and layers of indifferent politicians.

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