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Mexico: An indigenous language and territory at risk of disappearing

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Photo Santiago Navarro F

By Santiago Navarro F

Translation Laura Krasovitzky



In San Lorenzo Azqueltán, a municipality in Villa Guerrero to the north of the state of Jalisco, the indigenous peoples of the Wixarika-Tepehuana autonomous community are engaged in a struggle to reclaim 38 thousand hectares of land from the 94 thousand registered in the 1777 viceregal title, which recognizes them as the legal owners of their territory. These lands have been usurped by narco-ranchers and the region’s political class. On Thursday April 19, around 1 pm, unidentified and armed individuals kidnapped Catarino Aguilar Márquez, one of the community’s agrarian representatives, and Noé Aguilar Rojas, both members of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) who have been involved in a continuous struggle for the defense and recognition of their territory.

The indigenous community of Azqueltán is made up of two peoples, the Wixarika and the Tepehuano, who share the same communal territory. “Recently, they have set up roadblocks at the entrance of the village as a response to safety concerns and death threats, which are directly attributed to the municipal government of Villa Guerrero Jalisco and to small landowners, of course, who have usurped indigenous lands,” Cristian Chávez, member of the Coordination Commission of the Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) and accompanier of the indigenous community of Tepehuana, told Avispa Midia.

On April 23, 1777, the community of San Lorenzo Azqueltán received its Viceregal Title from the Spanish Crown and on December 15, 1954, the Agricultural Department of the Secretariat of Agrarian Reform verified the title’s authenticity. Nonetheless, the government never concluded the Confirmation and Titling of Communal Lands so the procedure is currently held up in the Unitary Agrarian Tribunal of the 16th District in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

Chávez states that Catarino Aguilar served as the community’s legal representative before the Agrarian Tribunal of the 16th District, which links his kidnapping to municipal authorities. “Catarino had already reported receiving direct threats from municipal authorities. A video even shows Ignacio Reyes Márquez, city councilman, admitting having hired paramilitary groups to attack the community,” said the accompanier of the indigenous community of Tepehuana.

Community members of Azqueltán have spent months publicly denouncing the intensifying dynamics they are experiencing regarding their lands due to initiatives implemented by state and federal programs and municipal authorities, who have strengthened and supported settlers on indigenous territory by offering livestock assistance. “This has resulted in a range of attacks, including shootings against fellow community members,” Chávez adds.

See also International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 Helps Legalize Land Grabs on Indigenous Territories

Through several announcements made to the community through the CNI, he has denounced that “throughout all these years, instead of recognizing our territory, all levels of governments take actions to enable caciques to take over our lands and mountains. They invent small properties and ejido lands, while giving away permits through government projects to destroy our sacred sites. They give them logging permits and livestock to enter community lands violently,”states the complaint filed in December of 2017.

Enforced Disappearance

Municipal, state and federal authorities hold firsthand information on the current situation in the indigenous community of Azqueltán. “We have experienced complete neglect. Enforced disappearances are what is taking place because when the armed group took our comrades, information quickly appeared about 10 minutes later in social media networks, reporting that the group was heading towards San Martín de Bolaños. Despite the extent of military presence in the region, Jalisco’s special police unit Fuerza Única and municipal police forces, no one stopped the car. There is only one road with no detours so a disappearance like this one cannot be carried out without the complicity of the Mexican State. This is why we are saying it is an enforced disappearance,” says Chávez.

María de Jesús Patricio (Marichuy,), spokeswoman for the CIG, reported at an event convened by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) called Conversatorio Miradas, escuchas, palabras: ¿prohibido pensar?, that the two indigenous men were taken by unidentified and armed individuals that were traveling in a double cabin gray Toyota Hilux. “Apparently, they were headed towards San Martín de Bolaños, Jalisco,” the spokeswoman stated. Minutes later, social media networks flooded with demands for the return of both indigenous men alive.

“We demand the immediate return of our comrades with their lives intact and we hold the municipal government of Villa Guerrero and the Jalisco state government responsible for any attacks against them,” Marichuy shared in a statement read on behalf of the CNI.

A language that can disappear

Tepehuán is the name given to two indigenous languages in Mexico: northern Tepehuán and southern Tepehuán. It is a region known as the Great Nayar, which stretches across the southern part of the Sierra Madre Occidental in areas belonging to the states of Durango, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Jalisco.

The southern Tepehuán language has two dialectal variations: the o’dam or southeastern tepehuán and the audam or southwestern tepehuán. The southern tepehuana language is closely related to the language spoken by the tepehuanes up north (ódami) in southern Chihuahua, the Pimas of Sonora (oob no ‘ok), the Pápagos (tohono o’odham) of Sonora and Arizona, as well as the Pimas (akimel o’odham) in Arizona, United States. These languages make up a linguistic subfamily called Tepimana and are part of the greater yuto-nahuas language family. Tepehuán means mountain people.

See also Mexico: Indigenous people who kicked a mine out of their territory celebrate five years of daily struggle

“The community of Azqueltán Tepehuano is the only place where the southern Tepehuana culture, language and identity remain. Through land displacement, the Mexican government is committing a crime of historic proportions by enabling the disappearance of a native language in Mexico. It has propelled a strategy of attacks to ensure displacement in this territory. They have tried to eliminate the agrarian general archive that holds historical records of this community in order to favor private property. In this light, the community undoubtedly knows that the enforced disappearance of our comrades serves to materialize this displacement,” says Chávez.

Return of the disappeared

Following an intense wave of pressure through media, social media networks and reports, Catarino Aguilar Márquez and Noé Aguilar Rojas, kidnapped and disappeared on April 19, were able to call from an unknown location on a public street where their abductors had left them beaten up.

“At 14:20 hours today (20), community authorities received a call from Catarino Aguilar, agrarian representative of San Lorenzo Azqueltán and member of the Indigenous Governing Council, reporting that they were well and in a unfamiliar place. There was no further communication until 15:50 hours when community commissions embarked on search missions, finding their comrades at 16:25 hours at a place known as the crossroads of Patahua in the municipality of Villa Guerrero, Jalisco,” the CNI reported in a statement.

“The kidnapping-enforced disappearance of our comrades is a crime that has been widely reported. We hold our governments responsible for being negligent to the desperate calls of our people, who ask: Immediately end the displacement of communal lands that ancestrally belong to our people according to the viceregal title of 1733; Stop the series of harassments, threats and attacks against our authorities who speak on behalf of all our people through assembly gatherings and not just one person; Investigate and condemn all direct threats and those carried out through social media networks that have targeted our authorities,” reads the official statement of the CNI indigenous communities.

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