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Democracy in Santa Cruz Etla

         Santa Cruz Etla’s cabildo includes an agente (mayor), alcalde (in charge of land issues), tesorero and secretario. All are elected in December by the Santa Cruz asamblea (assembly) from slates of three names hollered out in nomination at the assembly. All serve for one calendar year, and the entire government is replaced the next year. Each of these cargos (charges, assigned jobs) involves a vast amount of work, 15-20 hours per week, and none of the positions is salaried. In addition, several key working committees (public works, school, fiestas, church, police), each with a chair and several members, all of them similarly conscripted by the asamblea, also serve without remuneration. Village work is done weekday evenings after 7:00, Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday.


According to our form of local government, known as usos y costumbres (traditional ways and customs), all substantive decisions have to be made, or at least ratified, by the assembly of the whole village. The quorum for legitimacy is half-plus-one of all the residents of the village, one vote per family. There are 540 of us on the rolls, so the quorum is 271, if, indeed, there are really 540 of us. It is widely supposed that enough people have moved away, or died without issue, that we are actually fewer, which would lower the target number required to do business. Santa Cruz is currently conducting a census.


So this year we also have a Census Committee. Three of the members came to the Casa DaviLinda a few weeks back and spent a half hour seated on my porch quizzing me as per the categories on their form:


Number of residents on the property?    One.

Own or rent?                        Own.

How many years living here? Four.

Native of Santa Cruz?            No.

Connected to town water service?          No.

Electric connection?              Yes.

Indoor plumbing?                  Yes. Would you like another cookie or some more Coke or orange soda?

Yes. Thank you.


This quorum number is important because many villagers avoid the asambleas, for several understandable reasons. They don’t start on time, and they last for 4-5 hours routinely and sometimes even longer. They are announced without publishing the agenda, so no one is drawn to some particular favorite issue. The committees report in admirable, transparent, mind-numbing detail —every meeting held, every peso taken in or dispensed, every culvert cleaned, every pipe fixed, every room painted . . . you get the picture. Some people fear, with good reason, that if they are visible they are likely to be tapped to do something. And, frankly, some folks are just not engaged in village business. They or their families have moved to Santa Cruz recently; they are not related to the Jiménez, Gómez, Armengol, Santiago, or other founding family clans. They pay their predial (real estate tax), but they work in town and are present in Santa Cruz only after dark or on Sunday. Some live in the city, or in other cities, and their Santa Cruz residence is for vacations, or when they retire. They say identify with San Pablo Etla of which Santa Cruz is not an agencia, and say they live there because that is the larger town that people in the city are likely to have heard of.


The cabildo called an assembly for last Sunday morning, that being the single day in the week when wage earners are not out earning wages. The start time was announced, as always, for 9:00, and folding chairs for about 200 had been set out on the covered basketball court in front of the Town Hall (Municipio) and the school. By 9:45 almost half the chairs had been filled, and a line of mostly men were sitting on the tier of steps behind the covered area.  By 10:15 perhaps 40 more people had showed up. At 10:30 the agente called us to tentative order. He noted that this asamblea had been called to supplant a previous one that did not get a quorum; the replacement asamblea had been widely advertised throughout the village. Under our Usos y Costumbres these are the two conditions necessary for relaxing the quorum rule. He asked us to vote on whether to accept the 140 or so of us present as a legal quorum, and that any actions taken at the assembly would be binding on the village as a whole. To no one’s surprise, there were no dissenting voices.


All this is pretty normal in the Usos y Costumbres villages up and down the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. Probably the only anomaly is that from the moment Linda and I purchased our property here, Santa Cruz has considered us, despite our status as outsiders and not even Mexican citizens, to be counted as a legal part of the quorum. That is, I am not only a resident in Santa Cruz, I am a citizen. This leaves my anthropologist friends open-mouthed in astonishment. because Santa Cruz is an unusually accepting place. Or because we bought our land not from some agent but directly from well-known and respected folks passed the word that we were OK. Maybe the fact that my command of Spanish is near enough native that I can shmooze with people and get their jokes and make them laugh in turn. Maybe it is because I am always present, walking Qalba every morning on routes that cover every street and path in town, and that I know most of the donkeys and oxen by sight and the dogs by name. Whatever the reason, for my part, as Paul Simon so aptly put it, “who am I to blow against the wind?


After the vote that legitimized us, the agente announced the agenda. Approving the minutes of the last asamblea.  Receiving committee reports. And eventually, two pressing issues that required decisions by the assembly. The first had to do with security in Santa Cruz; the second was raised by disputes about individuals’ taps, called tomas de agua, into the pipe that brings drinkable water to Santa Cruz from the mountains immediately to our east. He broached the security issue first.


It seems that the outskirts of Santa Cruz are attractive to small groups of ... kids? gangsters? thieves? Druggies? Some villagers express widespread suspicion of inappropriate behaviors on the village outskirts, all of them occurring late at night or the wee hours of the morning. Shots have allegedly been heard. In the past year there have indeed been a couple of robberies, feelings intensified when Santa Cruz made the local news a month ago when a car containing a corpse was found on one of the terracerías (narrow dirt roads) up at the base of the mountain. The agente explained that several people have asked the agencia to do something, and that all of the “somethings” that have been suggested will cost money. The Santa Cruz cabildo drafted a few folks to go down to San Pablo to discuss the matter, and to ask for support, but San Pablo has not been forthcoming. They said it is a Santa Cruz problem.


The agente asked the assembly for comments or suggestions, and his invitation breached the dam. Citizen concerns, roiling with emotion, came gushing out. After the first burst, one by one people came up front and took the microphone, or took their turn to just shouted out their comments from where they were sitting.


“Who knows what’s going on up there?”


“It used to be that you could walk anywhere in Santa Cruz, night or day, and now my children are afraid to go out after dark.”


Tanta gente desconocida que sube, que ni sabemos quiénes son. (So many unfamiliar people are going up there that we don’t even know who they are.)”


“It’s a mafia, from the city, they come out here . . .”


“The cartels.”


No; son los nuestros (it’s our own kids). At night, they drink . . ., arman un escándalo (they make a lot of noise …).”


“What we need is more police patrols.”


Eso, pero de San Pablo. They have police cars, y son mejor capacitados (are better trained).”


“Maybe so, but they’re lazy. They make one cruise and then go to sleep in their cars.”


The first part, at least, is true. The main San Pablo police are salaried and they do undergo extensive training. They have real uniforms. The small Santa Cruz police corps are mostly teenagers doing their first public service. They control crowds at events and make a couple of rounds in the village truck every night. They are around, if there is a problem, but the man whose cargo it was a couple of years ago to supervise them told me the main purpose is to get kids early on to bond to the idea of village service.


 “Forget the police. What we need to do is put cadenas (chains) across the roads to keep people out at night, like they do in San Juan del Estado, up the valley.” That is true, though that particular village has only a single access road coming in from the highway, and village staffs gate-house after dark.


Cadenas? Who would lock them every night; who would open them in the morning?”


“How can you close the roads all night? My husband, he works a job with irregular hours, sometimes doesn’t get back until 2:00 in the morning. How is he going to get home?”


“How are we going to know when there is somebody at the cadena who is supposed to be let in? Are they going to honk and wake everybody up?”

“You know, most people have motos, motor scooters or motor cycles, and they can go around the cadenas, no problem at all.


We worried the cadena topic for a while, and then the agente tossed in another option:  “San Pablo suggested that we buy police whistles—they’re not so expensive—and distribute them in the neighborhoods and let neighborhood committees alert people when something is going on.”


“So if we make noise, then what heppens?”


¿Y si esos intrusos llevan armas? Yo no salgo! (And if those intruder people are carrying weapons? I’m not going out there!)”


“San Pablo also said that those terracerías are public roads: we don’t have the jurisdiction to put up chains to restrict access.” By now it’s pretty clear, to me at least, that the agente is not too excited about the cadenas option.


“Of course we do; we’d just have to leave one major access road, and control that one like in San Juan.”


At this point I made my way to the front. This first time I have ever done that, since even though I’m a part of the quorum, I am still an outsider. By federal law, as a not-quite-yet-permanent resident (there really is such a category) I am enjoined from taking any political action. It is quite possible that Usos y Costumbres assemblies might fall outside that restriction, but I have tended to think that my wisest place is in my seat with my ears open and my mouth shut. But I felt that at least one more point needed to be made before we came to vote, and nobody else was making it.


“If we’re talking about limiting access, remember, emergencies can happen any time, day or night or day. What happens when somebody out on the orillas (the edge of town) suffers a heart attack at 3:00 in the morning? Or somebody’s kid gets hurt.” Don’t we have to assure rapid access during all 24-hours for emergency vehicles like ambulances. There may not be time for somebody to search for a key to unlock a chain. In those kinds of emergencies, seconds count.”


Heads not, but nobody speaks to my point and the debate rages on for another few minutes. Finally it subsides enough for there to be a vote. The agente puts the question this way: “It seems like most people are in favor of chaining roads. Raise your hand if you vote for cadenas.”


A small, but loud, chorus of protesting voices accompanies the raising of the clear majority of hands. But the matter is not settled yet.


“Next: where should we put them? Calle Zaragoza, up by X’s house? Calle Pípila, where it makes the curve? Aldama, in front of Y’s gate? That would be three.”


“No, there also has to be one on Z. That’s an access, too.”


“And the terracería that comes in from Calle Morelos, from the Second Section of San Pablo.”


“And . . .”


Soon we had seven chain-points, with more emerging. But there was still more. “What hour should the cadenas be locked, and unlocked?” Several proposals, all strongly felt.


“And who should be responsible for locking and unlocking?” Another chorus.


“And who should pay for it?”


Of all those explosive details, this one lit the fuse. Readers of earlier blogs will recall that Santa Cruz, as an agencia, has at best a nearly insignificant budget. Money flows from the federal government, to the state government, to the municipalities, like San Pablo, who allocate it, in dribbles, to the agencias for which they are responsible.


At this an older gentleman stood up (no names here), and laid into the agente and the cabildo of the previous administration for not having been proactive on this issue, for not having been more forceful with the San Pablo cabildo and, basically, for Not Doing Its Job. On and on he went, with both decibel and pitch rising with each hurled and re-hurled ad hominem accusation.


There is another tradition in Usos y Costumbres. Any speaker is free to speak. No one cuts anybody off. People listen, quietly and politely, although sometimes with eloquent faces, for as long as the speaker wants to vent.


When the older man had finally finished, the young previous agente took the microphone, and in measured tones through clenched teeth, for the next thirty minutes stated, defended, restated, and re-defended, his administration’s record.


What I expected would follow this interchange was either a torrent of factional side-taking, or else a protracted, embarrassed silence. It was neither. As soon as the previous agente sat down, the current agente spoke into the gap, summing up the earlier discussion as if the hour-long mini drama had never happened.


 “Alright, then, we have the sense of it. The assembly has voted for the cadenas. We’ll put the details together into a formal plan and bring it to the next assamblea for discussion and approval. The next matter for decision has to do with tomas de agua (tie-ins to the village water mains).”


Ah, tomas de agua turn out to be enormously complicated. Only about half the town has them, with the rest using rain water or buying pipa tank trucks. Or, for all I know, brushing their teeth with mescal. The issues tumbled out.


Can tomas be removed from the Haves to punish anti-community behaviors? Like, say, not participating in asambleas or work tequios, or paying their fines, or contributing to the fund drives for fiestas and the like/ Are tomas a right or a privilege, and how does a Have-Not get to be a Have? Who owns the water (the federal government), the pipes (the towns, via the comisariatos de bienes comunales [commissions of public goods] or committees of the asambleas)? Who owns the junction registro boxes? If a water line happens to have been routed through someone's property, who is responsible for it? They are not like the irrigation ditches called zanjas, or canales, (like the one that flows across the back of the Casa DaviLinda) are they? Zanjas are sacred, they belong to the nation as a whole, but in practice, if they get clogged, it is the village, or the individual property owner who is required to unclog it. But tomas are different? Is the toma granted to the property (no), or to a specific person (yes)? Can it be passed to a surviving spouse (yes)? To children (no)? Is there a comprenensive list of who has tomas (yes, but not up to date)? Or who has applied for them (no, but there should be)?


All of this I find fascinating. Most I knew, but I was surprised by the imprecision of it all. As the discussion rambles it becomes hard to hear the emotion-laced testimonies with the out-of-season rain drumming on the tin roof over the asamblea. And the babies crying to be breastfed, and the toddlers calling for attention, and the rugrats running in circles around their parents’ chairs and giggling.


It takes over an hour and no conclusion is reached, other than that the town census needs to include information about tomas and that the issues will be revisited. By me, there should also be some clear, written, policy statement regarding rights, privileges, and procedures. But then my head has been shaped by more than half a century of living in a different culture that traditionally has given preeminence to such matters.


At 3:15 we adjourn. The rain has stopped and the sun is reflecting off the wet pavement. I get home in time to catch the last 40 seconds of the Patriots football game. Also hard fought, but ended with its main issue definitively decided and relegated to the history books.