Last night I went to a talk by local anthropologist, Benjamín Maldonado about the origins and history of comunalidad. Given Berkana’s focus on healthy and resilient communities, I thought it would be worth my time to learn a bit more about what people here in Oaxaca mean when they talk about community. Comunalidad is a framework that grew out of the work of a small group of anthropologists here in the South of Mexico at the end of the 70s. This theory explores the essence of indigenous communal life in this region. It speaks primarily about the four pillars of communal life:
- Communal authority via the asamblea (assembly) and the cargo system
- Communal territory
- Communal enjoyment via traditional fiestas (celebrations)
- Communal work via the tequio (volunteer duties done on behalf of the community)
At the start of the presentation Dr. Maldonado made it clear that comunalidad is an idea under construction. The way the concept unfolds is via a dialogue between the lived experience in pueblos all over Mesoamerica and a group of people1 (researchers, anthropologists and historians) that continue developing the theory of comunalidad. The first thing Dr. Maldonado pointed to was the important role this latter group plays in naming or describing life in community here. Though the indigenous communities of this region have been living this way for millenium, comunalidad offered a means of expressing this lifestyle. He said that the ideology “offers written expression to an oral way of living.” “Interesting,” I thought, “naming is one of the four key elements of Berkana’s work.” (Learn more about how we work.) My attention was piqued.
The next thing that struck me was a comparison of indigenous movements in Southern Mexico based on comunalidad, with other social movements like the Cuban Revolution. The distinction was that in Cuba nothing like Communist society existed in the collective memory of the people. The revolution aimed to create a different mode of living, a brand new system and kind of society. Comunalidad describes a way of living that’s been around for centuries. Indigenous movements here are not constructing the new; they are naming, describing and identifying a living, palpable, vibrant way of being that already exists. As Maldonono explained, the work is to “create enough space for the old way to once again flourish.” This reminded me of some of the ways we talk about working intentionally with emergence at Berkana: creating the conditions or opening the space to find out what’s already present and accessible.
All of this really got the neurons firing. I began thinking about Occupy Wall Street since I know that many #Occupy groups are using assembly and consensus as an organizing system, two of the essential elements in indigenous communities in Mesoamerica. The message from the #Occupy movement seems to be: “We’ve had enough of this system, we want something different.” I’m guessing that #Occupy is about building a new system. But what if in this movement, we learned something from systems already in place, still working after thousands of years? Can we find a way to foster some version of comunalidad in our modern, urban, Western reality? Are we just too far removed from this kind of worldview, or is there a way we can make the space and go slow enough to tap into the deepest root of comunalidad: human interdependence.