This dissertation provides a case study of how rural and indigenous social movements in the Mexican state of Oaxaca launch contentious claims to defend their territories from mining and other resource extraction projects associated with global capitalism. Utilizing participant observation, ethnographic field work, and in-depth interviews with 53 community members across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region (El Istmo), I examine how indigenous cultures and local political traditions are expressed in the regional mobilization against the Isthmus Special Economic Zone.
The first empirical chapter centers on understanding what motivates collective action in defense of territory, despite risks of repression. It finds that activists’ strategies and discourses build upon pre-existing oppositional cultures. I discuss how comunalidad and Guendaliza’a—ways of life based on mutual aid and territorial sovereignty—have influenced a broad-based movement to prevent communal lands from being leased to open-pit mines. In this way, contra Swidler (1986), this points to how “unsettled social periods” can lead to cultural continuity and cultural revindication for suppressed cultures, depending on the role of social movements embedded in oppositional communities.
Next, I show how resistance movements reinforce as well as critique gender relations in the Tehuantepec Isthmus. Gender roles in El Istmo’s history of popular resistance have been underexplored. This chapter highlights the voices of younger indigenous feminists in the larger movement against neoliberalism in the Isthmus. Drawing from a sample of eight interviews, I show that men tend to extol women’s equality and women’s participation in the movement as an accomplished fact, while female activists encounter multiple forms of violence in daily life and even in certain movement spaces. In spite of the Istmo’s notoriety for being a female-centered, matrilineal culture, I treat the notion of Zapotec “matriarchy” as its own inequality regime (Acker 2006) that makes it taboo to struggle against patriarchal practices. This points to how people’s differential and overlapping social locations can generate tension over movement strategies and over shared cultural meanings.
Finally, this dissertation extends existing sociological research on natural disasters. I identify government policies of neglect, dispossession, and pacification in the wake of an 8.5 earthquake that struck the Isthmus in September of 2017. By reviving their culture of Guendaliza’a (mutual aid), grassroots movements worked to save their traditional homes from demolition by private contractors, thus resisting cultural dispossession.
As global capital continues re-shaping patterns of land ownership, space, ecology and culture, rural/indigenous people’s interpretations and responses to structural threats are shaped by their own cultural context, as well by as their social positions within local, regional, national and global structures of domination.