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Mexico City's Urban Indians Call for Autonomy

Mon Sep 29, 8:03 AM ET

By Pablo Garibian

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Nine years after Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas burst
into the limelight, they have yet to win the indigenous rights they seek,
but their campaign has inspired other Indian groups to push for autonomy as
well.

Even in the megapolis of Mexico City, small groups of Nahuatl Indians, who
are descended from the Aztecs, are trying to reclaim land they say was taken
first by Spanish conquistadors then by the Mexican state.


The Indians of Milpa Alta, an area on the outskirts of the capital, style
themselves on the Zapatistas who are setting up autonomous communities in
the southern state of Chiapas.


"We have been Zapatistas in Milpa Alta for some time," said Agustin
Martinez, sitting below a photograph of the legendary peasant leader
Emiliano Zapata. "It's not just Chiapas, not just little outbreaks in
different places. We are everywhere."


Twelve indigenous communities in Mexico City are demanding that the
government recognize them as autonomous municipalities, which can elect
their own representatives and use their lands and other resources according
to custom.


"We have been arguing with the city government that they must recognize us
as owners of communal land," said Silverio Arroyos, who represents the
community of San Pedro Actopan in Milpa Alta. "We're the ones in charge
here."


But the city has barely acknowledged the demands, said Francisco Garcia,
head of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, in Milpa
Alta. The PRD controls city government.


"There has been little response from either the local government or the
federal government; meanwhile urban sprawl is encroaching on us," Garcia
said.


The Zapatistas, led by the enigmatic Subcommander Marcos, burst out of the
jungle in 1994 and attacked security forces in a campaign to win rights for
Maya Indians. The violence did not last long and the rebels are now
contained in their southern base, posing no or little military threat.


INDIAN AUTONOMY


Last month they returned to the political spotlight, installing so-called
good government committees in Chiapas composed of local indigenous leaders
to run them and collect taxes.


Though government officials say the committees may be operating outside the
law, they tolerate them.


The Zapatistas' struggle has put the focus on the demands of Mexico's
estimated 13 million Indians for greater rights.


Most are trapped in rural poverty, but those in Milpa Alta live in the
nation's political power base.


Some 100,000 Indians live in Milpa Alta's adobe houses. On 66,700 acres they
grow vegetables, corn and nopal, an edible cactus popular in Mexico. They
cannot touch the forest under preservation laws passed in 1947.


Mexico City, a conurbation of some 18 million people, has devoured other
indigenous communities over the centuries. But 33 remain.


Mexico City gives them access to the largest market in the country for their
products, and some families have prospered enough to build brick homes. They
have water, electricity and other services that many of their country
brethren lack.

But the city chips away at their traditional lifestyles.

"Modernization traps us, of course; it destroys the sense of communal life,"
Humberto Jurado, a teacher from the Milpa Alta community of Santa Ana
Tlacotenco. "Urbanization absorbs political power, identity, but we're
fighting it off here."

Indian communities struggle to pass down customs, art, history and language
orally from generation to generation.

In Milpa Alta some of the old people teach the Nahuatl language to
youngsters. Young people participate in a traditional dance group and
villagers hold annual indigenous festivals.

"At the end, one is proud to have a culture thousands of years old," Jurado
said.

Indigenous activists say greater autonomy would be key to helping preserve
their cultures by allowing communities to develop through their own
resources and customs.

Most often, they remain on the margins of development, in dirt poor
communities, with migration the only possible route to a better life.

"The government allows what has been going on for 500 years to continue,"
said federal deputy Hector Sanchez, an Indian from Oaxaca.

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