The indigenous roots of Magonismo: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mazatec Cosmovision
Critical Theory from Below & to the Left
Critical Theory from Below & to the Left: Session 1
In this interview the photographer, journalist and philosopher Heriberto Paredes explores the indigenous roots of Magonismo after a contemplative session with taller ahuehuete’s Nadie73 and Lluvia Benjamin.
Heriberto has researched the ancestral anarchist roots of the populations that comprise the Sierra Mazateca. The journalist, whose extensive work speaks for itself in terms of his anti-capitalist convictions, is not afraid to speak in the face of power and oppression.
In this first session of our series, Critical Theory from Below and to the Left, we have proposed to take theoretical postulates out of the lecture halls, and apply the transformative potential of these texts to the context and praxis of contemporary struggles.
Taller Ahuehuete had the opportunity to converse with Paredes, and together we unpack the vigorous October 6 speech delivered in El Monte, California by Mexican anarchist-communist and mobilizer Ricardo Flores Magón.
Join us in this analysis, we would be glad to count with your presence.
Nangi ko kjoabijnandiì (Land and Freedom)
Heriberto Paredes: There is one thing I would like to mention, which has to do with the spirit of Flores Magón's questioning of individualism, of lack of solidarity. I think that, in general, the Magonist movement contributed with an important innovation in the revolutionary transformation [in the territory often recognized as] 'Mexico', but also to the worldwide struggle by means of the anarchist tradition: I am referring to Magonismo in relation to the land.
I feel that the land is a very important element, which we now find present in autonomous movements led by originary nations and their conflict in the face of the dispossession inflicted by the state and capital. From this characteristic, this bond with the land, we can generate profound changes. This attachment to land as a social intercourse questions the vertical structure, the individualistic pyramidal approach to governing.
And this does not mean that people do not have access to their soil to cultivate it, or that they are not the owners of their production. It means rather that there is a possibility of generating collective benefits. I find that this is one of the contributions that Flores Magón makes at the beginning of this discourse, which opens the postulate in opposition to individualism. That is to say, if individualism is the one that tells you "worry about yourself, and about your own, and the rest does not matter..." How is this different from the capitalist premise? That's what is promoted in most self-help books, always individualism.
"You have to be the one who is always hustling,"
"success is built on individual effort."
However, the alternative proposed by Magonismo is: "let's work the land, let's work it together". It implies that everyone has the possibility of owning their harvest, also the possibility of participating on the basis of common labor, which does not reproduce profit, but benefits economically and also socially. This “non-currency” allows us to be more fraternal.
If we recognize the land as ours, we are going to defend it from capital. And that is what the Magonista voice imparts: as long as we have [communal] access to the land, the land will allow us to be free. Free: through the fraternity and solidarity that our new society has harvested. That it has developed, because it is a process. Because I don't think it is immediate, but it is a process [territorial-social communization].
Lluvia: We read your article (Nangi ko kjoabijnandiì (Land and Freedom), 2020) in "Lengua Daga", and we really recommend it to everyone who is listening, because it is excellent. It goes to the heart of the movement, and also to the seed and to the root: Teodoro and Margarita [father and mother of the Flores Magón brothers]. Can you tell us a little about your experience in the Sierra Mazateca?
Heriberto: I arrived there because of a conflict. It turns out that the situation in Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, the place and the community where Ricardo Flores Magón was born – because Enrique was born in Teotitlán del Valle – is a very interesting one.
I arrived there because of a political conflict. There is a position of cacicazgo, of control of political and economic power through a family. It is a family that is divided, without this meaning – and I want to make this very clear – without this meaning an intra-community or family issue. That they are a family is almost an accidental condition.
The issue is that there are two economic and political tendencies that are confronting each other through two opposing visions: the one that has more to do with the cacicazgo, and the other that has more to do with an attempt to strengthen the community, to generate a different form of governance. So, this conflict emerges and has led to violence. There are people currently in jail: 7 people, derived from this conflict between a congresswoman, her father, a former municipal president, and the rest of the frightened community, unsure of what to do. There are people in hiding, it is very complex. And this is the moment when I arrive to Eloxochitlán: to cover this, to unveil it, to investigate.
And I realize that in reality the position most affected – the one most attacked through means of violence – is the sector that happens to be the one attempting to embrace Magón's thought. There is an interest in having this connection to Magón's philosophy: the defense of the land, the defense of the processes of fraternity and solidarity.
Once in Eloxochitlán, I realize I stumbled upon an enormous cultural richness. I spoke with Carrizo Trueno – a great character – who is devoted to researching the history of the Flores Magón family. He's investigating what it was like growing up there, but he also wonders what Flores Magón and his family took with them from Eloxochitlán - in other words, from that childhood connection in that community. And what aspect of Flores Magón's thought relates in some way to the Mazatec cosmovision?
In Ricardo's time, to speak of a political connection with indigenous intellectual thought was something unconceivable, an anachronistic imposition, an absurdity. It was not recognized.
But Flores Magón has texts on the subject. And he does feel that there is a link with the Mazatec culture that prevents him from disconnecting, that prevents him from escaping from his ethno-historical context, which is still palpable there. It is necessary to read Flores Magón's texts in a much more current code to find those links because before this was not taken into consideration. A deeper talk with him has always been pending.
But Flores Magón is present. He is present in the community, in the people. There is a notion that one of their inhabitants, born in that community and one of them, became a very important figure in history. It is rare to find statues of Flores Magón everywhere in that town, but it is also nice to see how people yearn for him.
The children... well, there is a school named after Ricardo. And the children talk about him, and if you ask them,
"who was Flores Magón"?
"he was an anarchist who fought a lot for the land. He fought a lot for our communities".
It is palpable, like Zapata's legacy: there are not many biographical details in his community, but there is the idea that remains and feeds the struggle day by day. The everyday struggle, of not hurting each other, of examining life in a different way.
I do not believe much in the heroes of the homeland, and in the figure of the patriotic hero, but I believe that in that sense Zapata and Flores Magón generated a different way of having those bonds with the people from a not so hierarchical arrangement, but a more common-human one. I don't know if it is a more horizontal one, but at least closer to the people, because they feel their own. The Sierra Mazateca is very beautiful, I think you have to visit it, walk where Flores Magón walked. There are some marked trails where his father used to go with Ricardo on his way to look for supplies in a larger town called Teotitlán del Camino.
Now of course, many people make use of the figure of Flores Magón, even Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself has said several times that he is going to rename the Sierra Mazateca the "Sierra Flores Magón". We return to the same thing: the tergiversation of ideas, of figures, with totally - I would say - perverse purposes. But it is part of all this, I think there is much to learn from this nucleus, from this Mazatec center. We have to go back to read Flores Magón with this key, considering this cosmovision. And maybe we will find some interesting clues.
Land, Labor, and Liberty
Lluvia: In your article you mention that Teodoro, Ricardo's father, read and interpreted letters for the community. And they compensated him with different products: beans, corn, different items of food:
"Teodoro and Margarita, parents of the Flores Magón brothers [...] taught people to read and write. And the community paid them by covering their main needs.
They made a house for them and the people loved them very much.
Margarita also taught sewing, but they left shortly after Ricardo's birth and the people were very sad."
Nangi ko kjoabijnandiì (Land and freedom), Heriberto Paredes (2020)
There was that communitarian tenet characterized by self-determination: "why would the federal government or the caciques have to intercede in our village?"
In your article that emphasis is noticeable, the concept of communal flourishing:
Heriberto Paredes: What are some of the teachings of Ricardo Flores Magón's thought in these communities?
Sergio Nieto: We think that we have to apply anarchist principles in our homes, in our environment - in the city or in the countryside- wherever we are.
Ricardo could have been born in the future and, therefore, we have to be aware of the anarchist knowledge he defended.
We must seek harmony and freedom, we must live with freedom without imposing thoughts contrary to life.
It is important to defend mutual support with others and this still exists in the Sierra Mazateca.
Self-sufficiency: many of us still sow for our own sustenance and do not wait for aid.
The system wants us accustomed to receive it, and where we begin to stop working, we cease to be autonomous.
This knowledge is ancestral and Ricardo saw it clearly.
Juxtaposing this quote with other writings from the anarchist school of thought – generally those most prevalent belong to the euro-centric viewpoint – we encounter mentions of autonomy, but framed rather differently. How does this distinction manifest itself in Mazatec culture from your point of view?
Heriberto: The first thing I want to emphasize is this part that you mention, of learning about the social structure of Eloxochitlán, in which there is an intermediation of goods exchanged. And there is not always an economic relationship of buying-and-selling [or monetary transfer based on the commodity]. I believe that this was engraved in the Flores Magón family. And that is where the Magón brothers were attuned to certain proposals for a recomposition of the political structure and social relations based on libertarian thought, where they originate.
Later, on the other hand, Flores Magón would develop. He has other life experiences, other influences.
But it starts from the nucleus of mutual aid. And in the end, of collective autonomy.
I feel that this is where it all comes together, that it is like the point of convergence: if you own the land that you are working and you are producing, then you have food. You don't depend on someone else, on an intermediary - on a company, on an boss - to get your food. So you have food, but you generate a surplus that you can exchange for other products that you do not produce. And this allows us to generate a circuit of exchanges and support that goes beyond the exploitation of "I have beans and you don't have any, so I exchange them unequally", I think that is where the principles1 [of production in Mazatec society] come in.
It is a kind of autonomy that allows us to make decisions. If I do not depend economically [on wage2 labor] for my subsistence, I also have the possibility of organizing both politically and economically. And thinking on a small and medium scale, but at the same time autonomy is understood as this process of responsibilities where the individual needs the collective and the collective needs the individual.
Someone from outside is not going to come and impose on us how to organize ourselves, how to make decisions; we decide that on the basis of our own common interest and our own needs. And then, from that measure, there is a certain freedom of decision making in what was called many years ago "the self-determination of the Peoples", who can subsist and feed themselves. If we go very deep into the depths of the human plight, if you have nothing to eat you cannot live, so if you can collectively produce your food, you can also decide how to organize yourself, how to produce it.
Now, for example, in the context of the pandemic and living in a large city, I observed that one of the most common fears was that there would be food shortages. And of course, in a city like Mexico City or New York City, there is no space to grow crops. And you are totally dependent on the markets, or the distribution circuits, or the supermarkets. There is no real autonomy. Instead, the Zapatista communities and so many others said,
"well, we have enough food, we have it figured out, we don't depend on the market or the rules of capital. So we are going to survive."
And that decision-making capacity is also given to us by this balance between individual work and collective work.
I feel that sometimes in Europe autonomy is perceived as the possibility and the right to do whatever I please without caring if I affect others. There are limits there. Many times, concepts like "autonomy" and "freedom of expression" are understood as the empowerment of the individual, and they go that way. It is as if I have the possibility to say whatever I want and write whatever I want and publish it wherever I want, invoking "freedom of expression" regardless of the fact that sometimes I affect or afflict, defame or put someone at risk.
And the same, if I want anything that affects the social fabric, it is allowed because we are "autonomous" we are "free" and this is a "democratic and free society", but behind this notion hides the perversion of individualism, of the most brutal selfishness, where we are not even capable of thinking about our neighbors, if we will affect them or not affect them. But if they affect us, that is when we react. I feel that there is a difference there. Fortunately there are population centers in areas of the world where every day this possibility of non-egoism, of being a little more considerate with the one next door, is being defended. And to make decisions together, and responsibly, without obeying impositions.
A Common Cornfield
Lluvia: I would like us to also emphasize the fact that, when you have the staple needs covered for everyone and land to live on, the concept of labor is finally altered. Through this you provide free time for your community once you have the core needs met for everyone.
It seems to me that we do not consider the amount of free time we would have in common if we worked only what was necessary for this procurement, and the freedom that would be attained.
"In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour time.
Only by suppressing the capitalist form of production could the length of the working-day be reduced to the necessary labour time.
The capitalist mode of production, while on the one hand, enforcing economy in each individual business, on the other hand, begets the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.
The time for free development [...] is greater, in proportion as work is more evenly divided among all able-bodied members of society, and as a particular class is more and more deprived of the power to shift labour from its own shoulders to those of another layer of society.
In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour time."
I note, in general, that the anarchist concept acquired from the canonical literary-theoretical framework - whose axis is based on Eurocentric and ethnocentric sectarianism - does not explore in sufficient detail the distribution and planning of material production outside the framework inherited from capitalism. (After all, the term 'economy' is derived from oikonomia3, the administration of the household, of the house).
Heriberto: I think we need to create community from now on, because we do not live separated from society. We are not self-sufficient individually, but not only in the productive field, but also emotionally and aesthetically. What you are talking about, about overwork and free time, I do believe that there is a deep need to defend free time. And not to be thinking all the time about "what are we going to produce", "how much time are we going to take to produce" and overdo it. I would say that at some point we have to stop. We have to stop this idea that we always have to do something, make a profit, and produce a lot. That's it, it's over.
We have to put a stop to this, and defend free time. Because free time also allows other things at a social level. It fills your spirit, you live together with people in a different way. I feel it must be defended. In capitalist societies, free time is not accessible to everyone. For example, if a worker goes to a maquila on the border – for example, in Tijuana – and works 10 hours a day from Monday to Saturday, of course, when he gets home he feels like doing absolutely nothing except sleeping, drinking a beer and getting drunk with his people, and the next day doing nothing. That's not quality time off.
And there are many people who think, and I have heard: "Oh, these lazy natives who don't work hard enough. So, because they are slackers, they don't have what they need, they don't develop". For these people there is no free time, they would have to be producing all the time, serving all the time. They have to be exploited all the time?
We have to put a stop to that. There is leisure time, there is also celebrations. I think that is why the party remained deeply in the spirit of the people who suffered slavery, because it was a survival mechanism. And then, thanks to that, they could preserve traditions, family ties, stories. Thanks to the possibility of sharing it in this mechanism of celebration. I feel that we must defend the party as one of the most important elements for the reproduction of life and the common.
Our head and our spirit also need another type of nourishment, which is provided by going to the movies, walking around the city, the countryside, having another type of relationship, and yes, yes, we are in defense of free time.
Nadie73: Even, in that logic, it reaches the absurd, because "if you do not work, you are poor", so, if you work, are you not poor? That is the absurdity... then, who works in excess, that who is over-worked, is a millionaire?
Heriberto: That is their [capitalist] logic, but... well....
Beyond “Rose-Tinted” Glasses
Lluvia: Is there any other aspect of your experience, looking at the root of the movement, how it initiated in the Sierra, any other kind of testimony you would like to share with us?
Heriberto: The principles of mutual nurturing, of taking care of your fellow companion, I saw them still very much present in the Sierra Mazateca. Although nothing is ideal, there is a bit of everything, there is also violence and cacicazgo. But I feel that there is a sort of very deep underlying tradition where people are always looking out for each other.
I have been thinking about the Flores Magón family, trying to survive. Coming to this community, which if it is small now, 100 or 120 years ago must have been much smaller. Being accepted as part of the community in a very scarce financial setting is difficult, yet the labor as a teacher Don Teodoro shows they were assimilated into the society. Permitting them to integrate into the community as strangers was already mutual care that later allowed the whole Magonista movement to also accept other compañeros and compañeras of the struggle in a non-prejudicial way. Just think of Praxedis [Guerrero], or these sometimes visceral personalities, sometimes very politically committed, but nonetheless literati [and belonging to different classes]... to allow them to become involved. I think it must have been crazy, that mobile newspaper, that editorial office [Regeneración, the anarchist newspaper founded in 1900].
And I also believe that there is something else that is not so positive. And which is not questioned much, but which also has a lot to do with the way in which they are still shaped in the communities, and in general in the whole country. I am referring to this gender division, where women are not present in political life.
Now the assembly in Flores Magón, in Eloxochitlán, has changed a lot. The strong nucleus of the communal assembly that is defending the lands in the political process itself is comprised of women. The assembly is essentially all women, and nevertheless, I believe that this is an act of empowerment and a relatively recent transformation, of the last 10 or 15 years.
But that patriarchal structure prevented Flores Magón and the Magonista movement from being much more radical, in terms of gender relations. Well, not everything is perfect.
However, there is a great driving spirit, and examples of Magonista women that are worth rescuing. I feel that part comes from that as well, because Flores Magón was moving around a lot, traveling, writing from prison.... Nevertheless, I suspect that the most important formative nucleus was in his childhood in the Oaxacan highlands. I mention this to make a small criticism of the Magonista movement.
Lluvia: In "I Am Action", Praxedis [Guerrero] has been criticized for his ability to see the emancipatory form in the individual, but his incapacity to apply the same maxim to women in its totally, upholding traditionalist bourgeois principles and their [heterosexist] limitations.
What I have considered lately [upon further reading of Proudhon with my best friend], is the frequent reemergence of the conceit of emancipation and autonomy - however, inapplicable, according to Proudhon, to women:
"I think it is a great honor to call women men's companions. Happy and praiseworthy is she who can deserve such a title [...]
That is why, in principle, no woman should be considered sui juris sui compos: she is supposed to be eternally under the guardianship of the father, the brother, the uncle, the husband or even the lover, when concubinage is recognized by law.
In the absence of a natural guardian, the law must assign one.
But do not be frightened by the incessant complaints of your wives: their nature is to strive incessantly for dominion, and I would even say that their right is to test our authority and our justice without ceasing, to see whether we are worthy of their love.
I don't know what woman was scandalized to hear that we men think a woman knows enough if she is able to fix our shirts and makes us steaks. I am one of those men.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, La Pornocratie, ou les Femmes dans les temps modernes (1875)
Also the invisible labor of many people. For example, I read a little about Teodoro, but I wish we knew more about Margarita. I saw that she had great determination and a particular interest in the educational formation of her children.
Heriberto: I asked a lot about Margarita. In the community, that trail is lost. There is not much data. Of course, the teacher was Teodoro, so his figure predominates.
Perhaps who we could consult - and I am waiting to talk to him - is a descendant of Enrique Flores Magón. Diego, Diego Flores Magón. He lives in Mexico City, and he has been doing a series of publications to rescue the legacy of Magonism. I think we can find something about Margarita there. They have just published a book called "Mujeres Magonistas" (Magonist Women). A small book... but that is all there is.
About five years ago there was an exhibition organized by him, and Diego recovered the printing press where the newspaper "El Hijo del Ahuizote" was located, which is where Ricardo and Enrique first started working. That building is in Mexico City, Diego recuperated it. And he formed an extraordinary graphic arts workshop.
This exhibition contained a good portion of his family's archives. He even had Ricardo and Enrique's bicycles, which I guess they rode from time to time, as well as many of Margarita's files and letters. It is the perfect way to get a little closer to her thoughts, to her way of understanding, and the relationship with her sons. But that's all there is, there's not much more – maybe letters, some things, some memories of her? Again, the weight of the figure of Teodoro, the rural teacher. People remember him much more, unfortunately. But I think we have to take it within the context, the historical moment where things happen. And not try to make judgments with our current understanding of the past. You have to put it in perspective, for that is not why Magonism is disqualified a tool for critical consciousness.
There is another important thing in Eloxochitlán, which is the celebration of the Day of the Dead - which has just passed - because the presence of the Flores Magón is always there.
It is like a very tangible spirit. I feel that sometimes he does return, that is, of all the options to which Ricardo's or Enrique's spirits could go, I feel that at some point in the night they do return to Eloxochitlán. And it is an incredible moment. I hope one day we can go and live that experience, because it is a deep spiritual experience: and people are dancing, singing, with Ricardo's paper cutouts in the background. It's wonderful.