Comunalidad as the Axis of Oaxacan Thought in Mexico

The history of Oaxaca has been interwoven with principles and values that display its deeply rooted comunalidad. For the Oaxacan people across many centuries, this has meant integrating a process of cultural, economic, and political resistance of great importance. In Oaxaca, the vitality of comunalidad as it presents itself witnesses the integration of four basic elements: territory, governance, labor, and enjoyment (fiesta). The principles and values that articulate these elements are respect and reciprocity.

The following article by Jaime Martinez Luna originally appeared in the anthology “New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South, and Central America,” edited by Lois Meyer and Benjamín Maldonado and published by City Lights. The book is a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky and articles written in response to those interviews by indigenous activists and scholars. For more information on the Academia de Comunalidad or on the First International Congress on Comunalidad- Communal Struggles and Strategies: Horizons Beyond Capitalism visit

The Fourth Principle

The history of Oaxaca has been interwoven with principles and values that display its deeply rooted comunalidad. For the Oaxacan people across many centuries, this has meant integrating a process of cultural, economic, and political resistance of great importance. Since the Spanish conquest individualist and mercantilist as it was Oaxaca has responded with a form and reason for being communal that has permitted it to survive even in the face of an asphyxiating globalizing process.

This historic and latent resistance is the basis for the achievement today of having the concept of comunalidad written into the State Education Act of 1995, as the fourth guiding principle of education. For its transcendence, this principle requires that it be integrally implemented so that in future generations, it becomes the foundational knowledge and the basis for constructing all other knowledge. This will guarantee its security and immediate identity within the current intercultural education process.

We have not the slightest doubt that comunalidad is the epistemological notion that sustains an ancestral, yet still new and unique, civilizing process, one which holds back the decrepit individualization of knowledge, power, and culture.

Based in the above, many of us as professionals who serve the interests of the form of education that Oaxacan communities demand consider it appropriate to lay out the set of criteria that undergird an integrated treatment of the concept of comunalidad, seen as the central concept in Oaxacan life.


The existence of a polytheism which sacralizes the natural world, the absence of private property, an economy oriented toward immediate satisfaction, and a political system supported by knowledge and work, led the original peoples to create a cosmovision originating from the us, from the self-determining and action-oriented collective, and, along with this, to construct a communalist attitude which has been continually consolidating itself despite cultural and economic pressures from outside.

Meanwhile, the colonizers, who were educated in autocratic regimens with a monotheistic and individualizing religion, a market-oriented economy, and a concentrated, privatizing concept of nature, have forced original peoples to develop strategies of resistance based in the collective, in shared labor, and in respect for their community elders or wise men (or señores naturales, natural gentlemen, as they were called in colonial law).

With independence and the creation of the nation-state, the encounter of these two visions did not erase their differences. The heirs of the colonial system, criollos1 and mestizos,[2] set themselves up as the central power of the nascent republic, undergirded by Western values, such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, that were constructed in the glow of the French Revolution. The Constitution of 1857 reflects European and North American influences; it supports private property and declares that ecclesiastical property, and perhaps communal property, as well, though this is unclear, are no longer held in perpetuity. Resistance to these actions varied across the Republic. States with lands of interest to the market felt the effects of these laws the most; not so much Oaxaca, where flat lands appropriate for mercantilist agriculture are scarce, and the greatest capitalist use of plains and plateaus included livestock in the areas where private property today is prevalent, such as the coastal region and Tuxtepec. The same occurred in the political sphere. The majority of Oaxacan communities and municipalities retained their self-determination, inherited from their cacicazcos, or prehispanic forms of governance. These managed to maintain their authority with the strategic support of both the colonizers and the independents.

With the Mexican Revolution, there was not much change. The contradictions played out with greater intensity in the indigenous regions. Oaxaca stands out in its resistance, thanks to its topography. At present, it is the state with the greatest communal land ownership, the greatest number of municipalities, the most peoples with distinct languages and cultures, but at the same time, the least important state in the nation, according to government statistics, despite its illustrious native sons Benito Juárez, Flores Magón,[3] and Porfirio Díaz, in order of importance.

Presently, thanks to the ways of thinking and being of its people, Oaxaca boasts the best preserved natural regions. It stands out in terms of energy potential, which has made it an expansive region coveted by private interests as lucrative terrain for development. Globalization and privatization find in Oaxaca unlimited potential for profit-making. It follows, then, that Oaxaca has also provided many opportunities for resistance and a depth of knowledge to more clearly define this process. This is demonstrated in the comunalidad which displays itself in every dimension of life.


The world is awakening from the illusion of a universal culture shaped by one hegemonic form of reasoning. Today it confronts the reality of diversity, multiculturalism, and the recognition of a daily intercultural process strengthened by increasing migration across the planet. The individualism which was imposed on the colonies, today nation-states, is reaching its limits in regard to the development of equality and democracy, as it confronts the truly vibrant epistemological proposal of comunalidad.

Comunalidad does not originate from a discourse devised in a cubicle, a classroom, or a laboratory. It emerges as a tacit display of social movements, which in the 1980s achieved their goal of controlling their own development by conceptualizing their actions.

The organizing mechanisms that sustain comunalidad are not visible outside of the social process; it is in this same social process that they become visible. In other words, comunalidad carries on independently of whether we conceive of it as such, or not. The actions are a demonstration of principles and values emanating from a historical reality, one that transcends the centuries and is being consolidated in a concrete struggle for the liberation of peoples, as well as their cultural reaffirmation.

Comunalidad is confronted by the individualism imposed as part of the logic of colonialism, privatization, and mercantilism, which are developed according to a philosophy centered in the individual as the axis of the universe. Neither Marxism nor nineteenth-century liberalism strays from this base. Comunalidad integrates diversity and reproduces it within collaborative forms of work and joint construction. In other words, we could say that predatory and now globalized individualism is confronted by an ancient communalism (which in the opinion of Marx, was surpassed by later modes of production). But in reality, comunalidad is an historical experience and a vibrant, present day set of behaviors, which is constantly renovated in the face of the social and economic contradictions generated by capitalist individualism.

In Oaxaca, the vitality of comunalidad as it presents itself witnesses to the integration of four basic elements: territory, governance, labor, and enjoyment (fiesta). The principles and values that articulate these elements are respect and reciprocity. Comunalidad and individualism overlap in Oaxacan thought. We are the unique result of our own culture, but we are also colonized. Everyone displays knowledge according to the context surrounding them; hence, contradictions are a daily occurrence, not only of individuals, but also of communities. This is why, due to the social processes that Oaxaca experiences, the study and reproduction of comunalidad in all dimensions of life is vitally necessary if we wish to transcend our prevalent socioeconomic contradictions.


In the 1980s, thanks to indigenous, peasant, and social movements in general, comunalidad was proposed as the explanatory concept of the organizational modalities of Oaxacan society. The teachers insurgence, as well as the commitments of various Oaxacan and Mexican intellectuals, found in this concept a logical articulation of their mobilizations and their teaching. The outcome was that Oaxacan teachers managed to insert the concept of comunalidad as the fourth guiding principle together with democracy, nationalism and humanism in the State Education Act of 1995. That law was, of course, also a response to fears generated in government officials by the Zapatista uprising of 1994.

The communal vision of life transcends the labyrinth that presently entraps indigenous education. Community-controlled education starkly marks the boundaries that separate school-based, cloistered education from that which the community in its entirety provides. Understanding the presence of comunalidad in education means understanding very specifically how to plant the seed of a civilizing process, one that investigates and proposes a concrete pedagogy that guarantees not only that the concept (and now guiding principle) of Oaxacan education is understood, but also that continuous mobilizations are undertaken for the liberation of knowledge.
Now that comunalidad is established as a principle in the State Education Act, spaces and opportunities must be opened up which are dedicated to developing the necessary knowledge and designing needed tools to make it a reality. This means incorporating this knowledge and these tools into the centrally planned state education which contradicts our realities and serves as an obstacle to our being able to express our own experiences. By expressing our experiences, we will be able to reproduce the principles and values that support the reaffirmation of our cultural diversity.

This line of reasoning can and must result in the achievement of our expectations. This leads us to the following conclusions:
–It is necessary to integrate specific, local, and regional content in the education that is imparted throughout the territory of Oaxaca.
–It is important to strengthen our ancestral knowledge using pedagogical agencies and tools appropriate to the task, in order to resist the ruinous individualization of knowledge.
–It is imperative that we ground an epistemology in the everyday labor of society in order to shape a new conception of the universe. Thinking must not be the preserve or property of the academy. It must be the practice of all the worlds inhabitants.


What needs to be taught is nothing more than sharing the sharing of anger, enchantment, routine, misfortune, pain, tenderness, joy. For teachers, all of these words are a familiar lingo. Paulo Freire called this the pedagogy of the oppressed, Makarenko referred to the identity of others, Summerhill saw it as constant hilarity; thus, everyone sees what they want to see. Everyone depends on his or her concept, context and text. In this sense, one cannot speak of one pedagogy, but rather an intellectual diversity that captures the world, that is not time-bound, but if given space, that defines character and emotion.

All pedagogical technologies depend on interests of all kinds: social interests, because they respond to the stimuli of relationships; acquired, and in many cases, imposed values; political interests, because they respond to governments set up by those who want to manage the lives of the inhabitants; and economic interests, because they respond to needs inserted from the outside, not only to those that are internal.

All of which leads us to understand that no one can teach anyone else, or all of us must teach each other, and with that we reproduce intentions and resolve needs. This is what we learn from comunalidad.

Noam Chomsky affirms that our peoples face challenges, in most cases historical challenges. Neoliberalism is neither liberal nor new, but it is a concentration of enormous power, and it also is collapsing. Edgar Morin shares the same view, believing that the communal is a very significant proposal, but it must be understood, valued and supported. The Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro is very enamored of this perspective and agrees with the communitarian view, though he will not be separated from his republican passion. The European philosopher Panikkar also agrees with communitarianism; however, his Western orientation keeps him from developing more detailed responses to this matter. González Casanova continues to be obsessed with democracy, a topic in need of debate in light of current realities.[4]

In education, that which is communitarian is a paradigmatic vision. A fundamental principle is to liberate the exercise of knowledge. It must be acknowledged to be the result of everyones labor: the so-called university-educated, bricklayers, teachers, peasants, in the end, all of us who inhabit the natural world. I am not bothered by the idea of knocking down schools and suppressing teachers because, essentially, we are all teachers. Teachers are not the ones, despite their intelligence, who should determine what we must know. They must understand that it is each and every one of us who has to open the door to knowledge. The collective task does not come from the outside; it has always been within us, and also the need. Nature has obligated us to work together, and not for the politicized notion of mass labor embodied in the Industrial Revolution, if that is what you want to call it, but rather for the need to survive.


As an 8-year-old boy, my mother enrolled me in a boarding school founded due to the initiative of Lázaro Cárdenas.[5] The students came from many communities, basically indigenous, a concept imposed on us thanks to Manuel Gamio[6] and his collection of anthropologist and bureaucrat followers. The tale is long but its importance centers on the the educational organization of the experience.

There was an assembly made up of all the students. Through a committee the students organized homework and chores; even the meting out of justice was decided in this representative way. The teachers were simply consultants; the students determined what was to be done.

There were workshops for agriculture, textile and shoe production, bread and food production, carpentry, ceramics, and music. The educational process was not centered on the teaching staff but rather in liberation and work. This is a long story, but we can understand and summarize it in the following manner:

a. An education founded in work.
b. An education based not in organization from above, but in the participation of all.
c. An educational method founded in respect for everyone´s knowledge, and fundamentally, respect for that which is our own.


In 1856, Karl Marx wrote in his Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy or Grundisse, about the existence of communalism, basing himself on the experiences of the Aztecs, the Iroquois, and the Asians, both Hindu and Chinese. He discovered in these sources distinct values and modes of organization. Yet his reflections were in a certain respect pessimistic. He thought that these were cultures destined to disappear. For him, industrial development made the worker into the subject responsible for social and economic transformation. However, in his reflections he provides elements that are consistent with an understanding of the communal within the relationship of human beings with territory.

This is the first reflection that I want to share with you. Communal beings, as Benjamín Maldonado affirms, make sense of themselves in terms of their relationship with the land. An indigenous person understands himself in relationship with the land. I want to clarify that I am not referring to the Zapatista or Magonista maxim of Land and Liberty, but rather to a relationship with the land that is not mercantile, a relationship of sharing and caring. That is, humans are linked to the land not only for organic sustenance, but also for spiritual and symbolic sustenance. In other words, the land does not belong to those who work it, in my way of reasoning; rather, those who care for it, share it, and when necessary work it belong to the land, and not the other way around.

Obviously in a world ruled by the logic of the market, it is easier to appropriate everything from nature for ourselves rather than to grasp an entirely reverse conception of ourselves. The need to survive causes us to view everything from a materialistic perspective; on this subject Marx made an abundance of reflections of great importance. But here is where the difference from indigenous thinking springs forth. Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that human beings are not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center only one, or all? The individual, or everyone? The market makes everything into a product, a thing, and with that nature is also commodified.

My second reflection is on organization. Marx respects the community as the nucleus that integrates families, that which makes of territory a space for social relationships appropriate for the exercise of a necessary social organization. This necessary organization is obligatory, not only for peaceful coexistence, but also for the defense of territorial, spiritual, symbolic, artistic, and intellectual values. The community is like a virtual gigantic family. Its organization stems initially and always from respect.

Everything is done together, a practice obviously reinforced by the policy of the Spanish colonizers of concentrating populations. Still, it is a natural reaction, naturally linked up with the use of a common language.

The creation and functioning of the communal assembly perhaps was not necessary before the arrival of the Spaniards, but for the sake of defense it had to be developed. Once the population was concentrated, religious societies to attend the saints (cofradías), and community organizations to plan fiestas (mayordomías) developed, which were cells of social organization that strengthened the ethics of the assembly. Out of this, the communally appointed leadership roles (cargos) originated. Someone had to represent the group, but all this implied the need for greater consolidation for decision-making. The Spanish governors designed the details of the colonial organizational structure, but in one way or another over time all the new colonial roles simply were absorbed into already-established traditional roles and responsibilities. Centuries had to pass before the colonial cargos that were used to control the native population were diluted and leveled enough so that the macehuales (community members, now comuneros) could ascend the social pyramid, and the community could become a space of truly horizontal participation.

Today, as before, one does not receive a community cargo by empty talk, but rather because of ones labor, attitude, and respect for the responsibilities entrusted. Everyone knows this, having learned it even before the age of eighteen, perhaps at ten or fourteen years of age, when assigned the first cargo, that of community policeman (topilillo). This gives the cargo a profound moral value that has nothing to do with categories such as economic value, efficiency, profitability, or punctuality, but rather with respect for the responsibilities involved. This has created a truly complicated political spectrum in Oaxaca. We have 570 municipalities and more than 10,000 communities. Eighty percent of these continue to govern themselves by communal assemblies. Their representatives are named in the assembly. For this reason, the widespread civic uprising that occurred in 2006 in Oaxaca must be analyzed under more meticulous parameters, a topic that will not be addressed here.

The third reflection refers to communal work. Weber, as well as Keynes and Marx, analyzed productivity in terms of the individual. They found in individual labor a process of value production that they explained according to their theoretical frameworks. However, communal labor is a different matter. To begin with, communal labor does not respond to the drive for personal satisfaction, that is to say, it does not obey the logic of individual survival, but rather that of satisfying common needs, such as preparing a plot of land, repairing or building a road, constructing a community service hall, hospital, school, etc. This labor is voluntary, which implies that individual wages are not received. In the urban world, everything is money-driven; you pay your taxes and away you go. Curiously, it is said of Oaxaca that it is the subsidized state par excellence, while what is not taken into account is the value of communal work, which if calculated, would surpass all the fiscal supports that we are aware of. The value of this work can also be translated to the context of political representation. Ask yourself how many political representatives in the city would contribute their time if they were not paid for it!

Fifty percent of the cost involved in constructing any community service is the cost of labor, apart from the purchase of necessary materials. This wealth of local participation goes unnoticed by the state and federal governments. We could say that Oaxaca lives by its own resources without outside support, and this provides a wide degree of self-determination. It is not a coincidence that 418 municipalities are politically self-governed. I am referring here to what is called usos y costumbres,[7] a concept that for me is pejorative, yet there is no other state in the Republic of Mexico that enjoys this self determination. If we add to this all the communal labor, then the situation becomes even clearer.

It is important to point out a few details. Oaxaca is the state with the greatest number of municipalities (almost a quarter of the country’s total). Almost 70 percent of its territory is in the category of collective ownership, and there are seventeen indigenous languages with thirty-seven variants of these.[8] It is the state with the two most biologically diverse areas in all of Mexico: the Chimalapas and the Sierra Norte. And something almost imperceptible but which marks the nature of Oaxaca it is the geographical convergence of the two mountain ranges of Mexico: the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental. This makes Oaxaca a wrinkled landscape, or, as Father Gay[9] used to say, like a crumpled sheet of paper. It does not have plains to guarantee an elevated level of productivity, which also explains its motley pattern of communal organization. It was easier to produce the dye-generating cochineal insect than corn, first, because of the geography, and also partly because of the ease with which all of the inhabitants could participate, both adults and children.

Another reflection concerns the fiesta. In a neoliberal context, it is the market that establishes the rules, and it demands greater production of merchandise. In the community there is production, but it is for the fiesta. All year long every nuclear community cultivates its products: corn, beans, squash, fruit, chickens, pigs, turkeys, even cattle. For what? For the fiesta. Any urban dweller would say, what fools! They could sell them instead. But that is not how it works. Here is the root of the difference. The community member (comunero, or comunario as a Bolivian friend says), does not work to sell, but for the joy derived. The little money that she or he manages to gather is used to buy some skirts, trousers, fireworks. Many interpret this as ignorance; I call it a connection to the land, or spirituality.

I would like to share some brief conclusions with you.

1. The year 1994the year of the Zapatista uprising awakened new dreams, but in reality what it achieved was to pull away the blanket under which we were hidden. Now here we are, reclaiming our comunalidad.

2. The isms are aberrations that convert themselves into authorities that impose themselves and are not naturally born. I fear communalism because it sounds doctrinaire. And I believe that is what we least want for our own free self-determination.

3. Marx included in his writings a fountain of knowledge by which to understand our social longevity, but this was covered up by his focus on industry and the protagonist role of the worker. And we all know how that turned out.

4. We must find in the experience of our peoples the lessons necessary to create new conceptual frameworks. And we must not be afraid to construct new epistemological notions that will lead us to transcend even ourselves.

Jaime Martínez Luna is a Zapotec anthropologist, early theorist of Oaxacan comunalidad, community member of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, and veteran community activist whose work has focused on the defense of communal forests and other natural resources, and more recently on traditional and activist music and the development and promotion of community radio.

1. Persons born in Latin America of Spanish descent.
2. Persons of mixed European and Indian descent; half-breeds.
3. Ricardo Flores Magón (1873-1922) was a Oaxacan anarchist who began a revolution against the Mexican state ander the banner of Land and Liberty. Exiled to the United States in 1904, he organized three armed uprisings (1906, 1908, 1911). He was the only revolutionary who was inspired by indigenous peoples, believing that their historic experience of communal life would be the foundation for reconstructing Mexican society after the revolutions triuph.
4. Edgar Morin is a French essayist who has influenced education through his proposals of transdisciplinarity and complex thought. See Los siete saberes necesarios para la educación del futuro, available on internet at . Luis Villoro is one of Mexicos major contemporary social philosophers with significant contributions in the areas of epistemology and ethical reflections on the relationship of the nation-state with indigenous peoples. See Saber, creer, conocer (México: Siglo XXI Eds., 2008) and Estado plural, pluralidad de culturas (México: Ed, Paidós, 2002). Raimón Panikkar is a Hindu-Catalan philosopher who reflects on the vast distance between Western and other cultures. See: ¿Es occidental el concepto de los derechos humanos? (Mexico, Diógenes 120, Winter 1982) and Religión, filosofía y cultura (2000) on the Internet at: Pablo Gonzalez Casanova is a Mexican sociologist, affiliated closely with Zapatismo, who in the 1970s proposed the idea of internal colonization to explain the relationship of the Mexican state with indigenous peoples. See La democracia en México (México: Ed. Era, Serie Popular, 1978); also El colonialismo interno, (2006) on the internet at:
5. Lázaro Cárdenas, the Marxist-oriented president of Mexico from 1934-1940, promoted socialist education policies and layed the foundation for indigenous assimilation (indigenismo) as public policy.
6. Manuel Gamio is considered to be the father of Mexican anthropology. He carried out important interdisciplinary studies and was a functionary in postrevolutionary governments.
7. A term used to refer to the traditional form of governance through a communal assembly that selects its community leaders in the form of cargos.
8. The number of languages and their variants spoken in Oaxaca is disputed. It is commonly reported that there are between fourteen and seventeen languages with between thirty to fifty variants, though some say the number of variants may be as many as ninety. A language such as Zapotec may more accurately be considered a language family, for its variants, such as Zapotec of the Tehuantepec Isthmus and Zapotec of the Sierra, are as different one from another as Spanish and Italian and Portuguese.
9. Fray Antonio Gay was an early Oaxacan historian whose work has served as the foundation of Oaxacan history. In reality, he pirated information from other sources and made unsubstantiated claims, such as that the Chatino people descended from Vikings.