Berkana Blog

Hablamos de la Comunalidad

by Margaret Wheatley on October 26, 2011

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 work via the tequio.

  • 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 thatCommunal power via the assembly 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.

Comments (7)

  1. Ria Baeck on October 26, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    I would love to read more about the four pilars Aerin! Maybe another blog post to elaborate on it?

    • Aerin Dunford on October 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm

      Sure, Ria … I’m definitely not an expert but Benjamín did give some interesting examples of how the indigenous movements worked first with a focus on one pillar and that led to a reinvesting in one of the others. There are definitely SEVERAL blog posts possible out of this one talk …

  2. Anonymous on October 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks for raising awareness about this important concept. You can read more about it in the wonderful book, Grassroots Postmodernism. I think Ivan Illich also writes about it Tools for Conviviality, though I don’t remember exactly.

    • Aerin Dunford on October 31, 2011 at 6:30 pm

      Thanks for these resources Antonio. The other anthropologists that are most well-known for the development of the ideology of comunalidad are: Jaime Martínez Luna, Floriberto Díaz and Juan José Rendón

  3. muddog on November 2, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Do you have suggestions about how the process of naming and “creating the conditions or opening the space to find out what’s already present and accessible” could be brought into the Occupy movement?

    Also check my article out –

  4. Craig on November 3, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    What about old guys with bad habits, but good intentions? Should I just send money? support? love?

  5. Lindsay Newland Bowker on November 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm


    I am a slow learner.

    I just noticed that it’s “communalidad” not “communidad”..apologies. A critically important distinction

    I posted a link to this essay t my current TED Conversation:

    There we have also been looking to a new vocabulary to describe the fuller more humanity ceneterd vision of a “governance by and for the 100%” We have been looking past democracy to “conviviocracy”..democracy coupled to underlying foundations in shared personal values, humanity, to ideals of a regenerative economy, a thrivable economy.

    Everything in fact is pointing excatly to the same place you are pointing to here and it requires that we look back to and reconnect with the ancient wisdoms, the ancinet ways.

    Would love to have your thoughts there.

    TED as you may know is the seat of just the opposite values..wich is precisely why I write and post there.

    Would love to have you there in this conversation.

    With profound respect and appreciation

    Lindsay Newland Bowker
    Stonington, Maine