Reporter's Notebook from Atenco, Mexico

Part 2: Fighting for the Land

by Luciente and the Atenco Project Writing Group

Revolutionary Worker #1176, November 24, 2002, posted at

This summer, RW correspondent Luciente traveled to Atenco, Mexico to learn about the struggle of the campesinos to defend their land. The following is the second part of a four-part report on the fighting peasants of Atenco. Part one appeared in RW #1174 and is available online at

Viaje al campo/Trip to the fields

We took our first trip to the fields with more than 20 people piled onto the back of a pick-up truck that had been expropriated from the authorities by the townspeople. As the truck drove over bumps on the road, we struggled to hold on and keep our balance to avoid flying out. Swarms of mosquitoes formed halos around our heads as their stingers approached our unprotected skin.

A woman asked me, "You're not from these parts are you? Are you from the city? No ... you're from el Norte ."

She swatted at the mosquitoes with her hat. "Is it true that all you eat over there are chatarras ?"

Chatarras? I searched through my memory for this word. Had my mother ever accused me of eating too many chatarras ? I had to come clean--I had no idea what this woman was asking me.

"You know, junk food. Do you only eat stuff that comes from a can?" I assured her that we don't only eat stuff that comes from a can. We don't always get our meals from McDonald's. She searched my eyes to measure my truthfulness. She wasn't convinced. I finally confessed that sometimes it's easier and cheaper to eat chatarras .

She shook her head and pointed to the fields. "Not here. Here things are different. Look at all this land. Fox said that our land is barren and useless. Does this land look uncultivated? Look, what do you think grows over there? It's corn. We grow beans, squash, alfalfa, lettuce--that's what we eat."

My eyes scanned everything around me. Corn, lettuce, and squash--these are all common vegetables. Why did they look so different this time? I've seen all these things at the supermarket stacked up neatly along well-lit aisles.

What's different is that for the first time in my life I saw that all these things come from the earth, and I spoke with the people who spend their lives cultivating their crops from sun up to sun down.

En el campo/In the fields

The sun beat down hard. In groups, men and women emerged from the fields balancing large loads on their backs, on bicycles, or on horses. Their hats and long sleeves protected their skin from the sun, and their bent backs almost rendered them invisible among the tall stalks of corn. For miles all we could see was an ocean of green corn stalks, squash, alfalfa, wheat, oats, and cacti blooming with a ruby red fruit called tuna.

Two horses kept a little boy company under the shelter of a big leafy tree. I asked this boy--he must have been 3 or 4 years old--where his parents were. He pointed to the corn. My eyes searched the field until I saw the tops of two straw hats rustling among the corn leaves.

José and his son Sergio tend the fields during the harvest seasons. José is 48 years old, and the land is his life. He has walked among these fields since he was a boy. He learned to do small things to help his family with the harvest. When he married and had children, he taught his children to work the fields. Now he has a grandson who plays in the fields--the little boy I met under the tree.

For 25 years José has been building a house for his family. When he heard that the government planned to build an airport in Atenco, he felt a rush of intense anguish and anger. The thought of a bulldozer crushing his crops and the house he's been building for all these years in a matter of minutes overwhelmed him. He'd be left with no home and no land to harvest. "If the airport is built, we'd be discarded like trash, like waste."

A tiny face peeked at us from behind José's leg--his grandson. "Where would this boy go?" José said. "Where would I go at my age? I'm 48 years old. Do you think they're going to give me a job sweeping floors at the airport, or a job selling gum? They're not going to give me anything."

He looked at how well his corn is growing. "I'd have to leave and start all over again. What am I going to do? Around 5,000 of us, my age and older, would be ruined."

Working the land has provided him a means to live, but he admits that the conditions are also very difficult. The livelihood of José, and other campesinos like him, depends on various things. If it rains or if insects infest their crop, their harvest is ruined. Harvesting the land successfully season after season is a matter of life and death for the campesinos.

In recent years, it's become increasingly difficult to make ends meet solely on subsistence farming. To supplement their income, José and Sergio have started to work part time in Mexico City as taxi drivers.

José's face grew sad as he remembered his best friend. His friend was having a difficult time earning enough money to support his family and things were getting worse. He made a difficult decision to leave Mexico and cross the border into the U.S. He sold all his animals and left his land to his son with the hope that making money would be easier en el Norte.

José begged his friend not to leave. "I told him, `Friend, don't go because you will just go to meet your death.' He told me, `No, my brother,' and he left. A year later he was brought back dead in a box. Apparently they had a lot of trouble getting him back here. We never found out how he died. Poor man, he went with the hope of bringing back dollars. And what happened? He just went there to die. Our fields are better. We may earn little, but it's a sure thing."

"Here we're between a rock and a hard place," José said as he raised the sickle he cuts corn with, and his voice grew more agitated. "The government doesn't dare come out to see how we work. I want to see the president come and work with me in the fields--and let's see if he can take it. He can't because he doesn't know how. I want to see him, with a pickaxe and a shovel, work with me this strip of land 200 meters in length and one meter wide. I want to see this. At my age, I can still finish in half a day, while he's never finished anything. He doesn't know what work is. He has his people who do his work for him. Not us."

Many campesinos told us that working the land is difficult and labor intensive. They live day by day and their survival is often difficult, but they said that owning and working their parcels of land allows them to look people in the face, like equals. They are proud that they cultivate their crops on the land that their abuelos (grandparents) fought for in the Mexican Revolution.

The land in Atenco is held in ejidos , government titles to communal lands won in 1910. This land is handed down from generation to generation as a means of subsistence and economic survival. The campesinos speak about the land with affection and respect because it's a source of work, and the fruit of the land provides them sustenance.

The fields we walked amongst looked green and fertile, but it wasn't always like that. For generations campesinos have labored over the land and developed methods to cleanse it of minerals that make the land arid. For example, two men on an ejido explained to us that draining the earth of alkaline minerals like salt makes the soil fertile for crops.

No patch of land is wasted. Ricardo and Sonia rent a small plot of land from an ejido . Every month they pay rent to work the land where nothing grows. They dig up dirt from this plot of land--they call this process "exploiting the land" and mix it with water, other soil, and burned garbage. After that they mold the mudlike substance into rectangular shapes and bake them in an oven to make bricks.

Ricardo and Sonia live in a tiny brick house with a tin roof and a door made out of cloth. They've been making bricks since they were children. For more than 10 years, they've been traveling throughout Mexico renting plots of land to make bricks.

They are too poor to own the machinery for digging deep into the ground to extract large quantities of dirt. So they dig a hole with their shovels and carry stacks of dirt out until the hole is too deep for them to climb in and out of. Every day they make between 500 and 600 bricks if the weather is good and there's no rain.

Although they don't own the land they work, Sonia and Ricardo faced losing their source of income if the government succeeded in building the airport. Sonia said she supports the struggle of the campesinos in Atenco and sympathizes with their situation: "The land belongs to those who work it. The government hasn't planted anything. But now that they need the land for their airport, they come and see who these people are. Why didn't the government show any interest when the peasants needed aid for sowing the crops--why didn't the government come out and see them then? It's not right."

Making bricks barely provides Ricardo and Sonia with enough money to eat. Ricardo said that there are hundreds of people who travel from region to region like them. "These brick-baking ovens are everywhere, from Tijuana all the way to here. And all the people working them are poor. From Guanajuato to Zacatecas to Puebla, these ovens are everywhere."

Sonia said that they'll be okay "as long as there's enough to buy tortillas," as the saying goes. "But," she added, "sometimes we don't even have enough for that."

¨Quiénes se "ganaron la lotería"?/Who "won the lottery"?

Vicente Fox promoted his project in Atenco as the great "globalizing airport" that would open Mexico to foreign investment and "progress" for the people in Atenco. The people in Atenco had "won the lottery," the government said.

When the people saw straight through the government's lies and rejected the miserable 7 pesos (about 65 cents) in exchange for their land, the government painted them as ignorant campesinos who oppose "progress."

The people of Atenco said that the so-called "progress" that was being imposed on them was un engaño--a fraud that falsely promises prosperity and a better life for those who embrace it. The reality, of course, is much different.

During the height of the fight against the airport, commissions of Atenco campesinos and student supporters from UNAM traveled to Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and other states to popularize and build support for the struggle. The commissions spoke with campesinos who have been driven off their land as a result of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the treaty with the U.S. that went into effect in 1994. These campesinos have been hit hard with the effects of the government's vision of "progress" and "modernization." They've seen how young women from the villages are forced to work for dirt cheap wages in the maquiladoras--the foreign-owned sweatshops that pollute the air and contaminate the water along the 2,000-mile border with the U.S. They do not want to see their daughters become one of the more than 400 women murdered in Juarez in the past 10 years on their way to or from the maquila.

The campesinos in Atenco opposed the airport not only because of the threat to their land, but also because the project would open the door even wider for Mexico to be ransacked and exploited of its natural resources and labor. They see how Mexico is being carved up and sold to the highest international bidders through NAFTA and Plan Puebla-Panama--a huge project that, if implemented, would destroy the land and culture of indigenous people in southern Mexico and Central America. Campesinos in Atenco say that an important aspect of their victory is that it can help other people see that the government isn't all-powerful and inspire them to wage their own struggles.

"We're not a bunch of ignorant people. We don't oppose progress," Juan said. Originally from the countryside in southern Mexico, Juan now lives in Atenco. He used to work at a park called Los Ahuehuetes doing forestry work. Now he sells sweet merengue puffs to stores in the town.

"We don't even have an ambulance, much less a hospital," José explained. "Was the airport going to provide the people with these things? No. The only ones that were going to get anything out of it were the big investors. This airport was for the capitalists, not for us. When are we ever going to set foot in one of these airplanes?"

Trinidad del Valle is a dedicated organizer in the movement against the airport. We asked what her reaction was when the government said that the people of Atenco had "won the lottery." Shaking her head, she said, "The people who won the lottery are those who can put up a hotel, a store. But in our case--in my case--I have nothing. I have nothing, except the desire to see everything change and to see our people live better."

Elisa is a woman who proudly says that she is willing to shed blood in defense of the land she inherited from her abuelos . She points to the gray haze that's visible in the distance. "Look at all the destruction that exists. The water, pollution--we have to value nature. What are the big entrepreneurs doing to our mother Earth? They are making it gray with their pollution and pavement."

She says that the land provides them with sustenance in a world that is full of financial uncertainty. "Here in the fields you'll never die of hunger. We have rosemary, beans, corn, and nopales (cactus)-- that's what we eat."

A group of children between the ages of 9 and 12 gathered around to listen to our conversation. They all looked very serious, and they nodded their heads in agreement as Elisa spoke. Earlier in the day, campesinos had pointed to these kids as they spoke about how the government was stealing the children's future by taking away their only patrimonio (patrimony)--the land.

Miguelito is 12 years old. The expression on his face seemed much older as he adjusted his straw hat and looked into the fields. "The investment was for the richest of the rich. What about us? We'd probably end up in the city selling chiclets, selling candy, selling trinkets, or washing windows. If Fox can't keep the children on the street from being hungry, how can he say that he wants to build an airport? He was going to leave us like those children. Do you think that's right?"

Una Taza de Café/A Cup of Coffee

It was morning. Tiny beads of dew covered the red and yellow flowers in the yard. The air was cold and we quickly walked into the house to eat breakfast. As the pot grew to a boil, the smell of cinnamon and sweet earth filled the small kitchen in Doña Rosa's house--she was making coffee for us.

Since the day we arrived I had never seen Doña Rosa rest her feet once. She was always busy cooking, washing clothes, or running to the market. She smiled and stirred a big olla filled with coffee as she listened to us talk a mile a minute about all the people we had met.

Doña Rosa finally sat down and told us about a town in the Yucatán Peninsula. One season everyone in the town heard that growing coffee was like growing gold. Campesinos stopped growing food staples like beans and started to grow coffee. When it was time to take the picked coffee beans to the market, no one bought any of it. The price of coffee had dropped and the campesinos couldn't sell their crop--there was such abundance that they couldn't even give the coffee away. The coffee was stored in warehouses and left to rot. Since the campesinos hadn't grown much food for their own consumption, they were forced to pay high prices and buy food from other farms. People didn't eat much that season.

I told her about a conversation with a campesino at Atenco. One of the things that gave this man courage and strength to fight was that while traveling with a commission to build support for the airport struggle, he saw first hand the future Fox has planned for Mexico. He said he will never forget the day that he walked through a town in Chiapas. He saw children walking naked, not even with rags to cover their bodies. Families begged tourists for money. A people with a rich culture and history were selling trinkets along the road. He asked himself how this was possible. The people in Chiapas live on land that's rich in resources--but they don't own any of that land. He said that he didn't want that to happen to the people anywhere on Earth, and he would not allow that to happen to Atenco.

We heard many people in Atenco say that the community has changed a lot in the past year. The powerful and the rich dismiss them as "nobodies." But these "nobodies" had made the government back down through their determined and unrelenting struggle.

People joked, "No hay mal que una buena lucha no curee"--there's no ill that a good struggle can't cure. People who hadn't spoken to each other for years because of petty arguments fought shoulder-to-shoulder against a common enemy. Women who used to be timid swung their machetes at the riot police. Atenco and its people had begun to transform through the struggle.

Part 3: Mujeres con machetes (women with machetes)

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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