Note To Readers: Key sources used in this article mainly come from interviews on youtube, and for that reason this article will end with a collection of videos that address important points being made here in this essay.
As we watch the courageous communities of Michoacán and Guerrero organize to bring security to their lives and future from bloody cartel gangs, we are also witness to Indigenous cultural customs being used to combat this tragedy. The Indigenous communities of these two Mexican states have formed Policia Communitarios (PC), a community police organization.
In Guerrero, PC have been present for 18 years, and at times, have received financial support from local government, since Indigenous communities are legally allowed to create their own police force under the Mexican constitutional law 701. In Michoacán, there is also a PC in the Purépecha town of Cherán, but the “Autodefensas” (AD), self-defense groups, have recently gotten more attention. These AD groups aim to expel criminal gangs and have recently gone into towns like Nueva Italia, determined to reach Apatzingán, which is a stronghold for a Michoacán drug cartel.
Both PC and AD membership consists of community residents who voluntarily police in their spare time, and whose professions range from medical doctors to agriculturists, entrepreneurs to mechanics, and mothers to teachers. What cannot be ignored are women’s leadership roles in these community police forces.
The purpose of this essay is to look into the history of Indigenous people, specifically the roles women have had in relations to war. By doing so, we realize that Indigenous women are no strangers to uprisings, especially when fighting European colonization and its manifestations. Understanding these cultural trademarks, we can see that the brave women of Guerrero and Michoacán today are continuing with an Indigenous tradition.
In Guerrero, a woman by the name of Nestora Salgado initiated a PC in her hometown of Olinalá, and she was soon democratically voted in as the coordinator of Olinalá’s PC. She humbly accepted the position, and in time she made it clear to the public that the local cartels were not the ones giving her problems.
Instead, she bluntly pointed out that the problems were and are the local, state, and federal agencies that are opposing the efforts of Olinalá’s PC in fighting organized crime. Residents from Olinalá, including Salgado, observed that local police would never detain local delinquents; instead it became clear that the two had a working relationship.
On August 21, 2013, Salgado was detained by the Mexican government for false accusations of kidnapping and she currently remains incarcerated in inhumane conditions (not allowed to take her medication, and is forced to sleep with bright lights on) in a maximum security prison in Nayarit. According to her daughter, Saira, she is the first PC to have ever been detained in Guerrero since their 18 years of operation.
After Salgado was detained, Olinalá’s PC went to the local municipal building to demand her freedom; in the process there was a standoff with the police and some police were detained by PC. Gonzalo Molina, a PC partner of Salgado, stated that they were declaring her unjust arrest a kidnapping. Following these actions, Gonzalo Molina was arrested on November 6, 2013 and is being charged with acts of terrorism.
What is not being addressed in these historic events by mainstream and progressive media is that the involvement of women in these movements is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a component of “modernization.”
These are roles that Indigenous women have been in before and after European colonization. Indigenous women have had central roles in rebellions against Hispanics and their different arms of control. Historian and author of Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements (2008), Marc Becker, noted that “recognizing the central role of women as not exceptional but rather characteristic of Indigenous movements is key to understanding the development of popular movements in Ecuador.”
Becker is definitely right, but this is not just a characteristic for women of Ecuador, it is true for all Indigenous women of the entire “western hemisphere.” Other valuable information that he provides in relation to women’s active roles in revolts is that he gives a list of Indigenous women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from South “America” that confirms his point of women being active participants in rebellions.
Indigenous Women Physically Confronting Colonization
Micaela Bastidas was the wife of Túpac Amaru II who organized along the side of Incan soldiers against Hispanic colonizers in 1780. Bastidas is described as being a “shrewd commander and the revolts chief propagandist.” In 1803, Lorenza Avemanay organized the women of Guamote, Chimborazo, in present day Ecuador, to fight against Hispanic tax collectors.
On December 18, 1871, in the community of Yaruquies, Chimborazo, Manuela León played a leading role in a revolt against more Hispanic tax collectors. León had a strong trademark, as she is described as chastising her male followers for being timid. In Northern Ecuador, at Pessillo, Juana Calcán led another revolt in 1899 against Hispanic oppression with her infant daughter, Lucía Lechón, on her back.
Because of the high level of courage, determination, leadership skills, and intelligence demonstrated by Indigenous women, contemporary scholars, as noted by Becker, have described women to “understand what was going on better than their husbands and [were] also more radical.” Another scholar noted, “Women frequently egged men on to increasingly daring violence.” In regards to Indigenous women of México in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are described as leading “attacks and frequently were more aggressive than men.”
In Oaxaca, México, Zapotec women have also been recognized for their power in local politics and resistance against Hispanic society. Professor Kathryn Sloan briefly mentions these roles in her book Runaway Daughters (2008). Sloan cites Spanish sources that explain how Zapotec women in the middle of the nineteenth century firmly rejected Hispanic abuse to the extent that they took “spears and kitchen knives or cradling rocks in their skirts to fight the better armed Spanish militia.”
Sloan cites another event in 1851 in the town of Zoogocho where many Zapotec women no longer tolerated an abusive Spanish tax representative. The women “chased him from the plaza to the government offices, broke down the doors, threatened to kill him, threw rocks, and mud at him, spat on him, and stole his belongings.”
Sloan looked at the cultural practices of Zapotec women and concluded that “the leading role of women in peasant rebellions in southern México points to their greater participation in the social institutions and economic activities that maintained village unity. Although they did not lead pan-regional revolutions against Spanish authority, they protested assaults on the moral economy of their villages.”
To the north of Oaxaca, during the initial Spanish invasion of the mainland, the Spanish witnessed and documented Mexica women actively engaging in battles against them as they invaded the city of Tenochtitlan in 1519. A Spanish soldier by the name of Francisco de Aguilar, who was part of the invasion with Hernán Cortés, wrote about a battle in which “The Spaniards were alarmed at seeing so many of the enemy again, whooping and shouting at them, and when they began killing them and saw that they were women, there was dismay on both sides.”
In this invasion, the young and brave Cuauhtémoc is also remembered for requesting the help of women from Tlatelolco to head to the rooftops with shields and arms to go fight off the Spanish. Anthropologist Susan Kellogg, reminds us that “women’s military role during the conquests was similar to what it had been in the warfare prior to the European arrival: intermittent and less structured than male participation but not wholly uncommon.”
Important to keep in mind is that many of our historical leaders have been recorded in history without names, like the Mexica women who wore the battle gear of the dead warriors to continue fighting off the Spanish. Therefore, we have many “nameless leaders” that we must remember through their commitments, the dates they took action, and the level of courage and sacrifice they exhibited.
Non-Domestic Roles of Women Prior to Colonization and Now
Thanks to the internet and YouTube, we are able to see women in Guerrero and Michoacán actively engage in the elimination of cartel and government organized crime through various means. Recently, teleSUR, a Méxican television network, reported on a one hundred women PC contingent based in Xaltianguis, Guerrero. Xaltianguis PC member, Citlalli Pérez Vásquez, mentioned that they are breaking from the domestic role that contemporary Méxican women are in.
Pérez Vásquez added that they are modifying their lifestyles and breaking away from the restraining ideas that women should remain in the home, washing dishes, and taking care of the children. She clearly articulated her points of the present day expectations of women but fell short of making the connection that these customs she described were imposed by the Spanish. She also neglected to state that her contingent and leaders like Salgado are resuming Indigenous cultural positions that were taken from us due to Spanish colonization. We can look at the Mexica civilization prior to its destruction to see active and esteemed roles women had outside of the home.
The Florentine Codex (FC) is a twelve-volume collection of Mexica knowledge gathered in the mid 16th century from those who survived the invasion of Tenochtitlan and surrounding cities by Friar Bernardino de Sahagun. In book ten of the FC, we are taught of the professional roles Mexica woman had within society like being a Ticitl which means physician in the Nahuatl language. Sahagun described the Mexica physician being “a knower of herbs, of roots, of trees, of stones; she is experienced in these.
She is one who has the results of examinations; she is a woman of experience, of trust, of professional skill: a counselor.” It continues to say that “She cures people; she provides them health; she lances them; she bleeds them…She gives them potions, purges them, gives them medicine, She cures disorders of the anus…She provides them splints; she sets their bones. She makes incisions, treats one festering, one’s gout, one’s eyes, She cuts [growth from] one’s eyes.”
What we learn here is that women once held respectable positions as doctors in Tenochitlan and were obviously not secluded to the home. Professor Kellogg in her book Weaving the Past (2005) also draws from the FC to point out that Mexica women were also judges and administrators alongside men at the large marketplace of Tenochtitlan that had up to twenty thousand visitors a day. Their Nahuahtl names for being the marketplaces judges and administrators was Tianquizpan Tlayacanque.
They also were community leaders that looked over daily affairs of the community and were known as Cihuatepixque or Cihuatlaxilacaleque. These are uplifting cultural practices that we must learn we once had in order to resurrect them, so that women like Citlalli could soon be pointing out that we had women in positions of power, like doctors, marketplace judges and administrators. But because of Spanish colonization these cultural practices have been temporarily eradicated, and Citlalli and Nestora are examples of our people breaking away from Spanish customs.
We must applaud the level of bravery and sacrifice currently being demonstrated by Indigenous leaders like Nestora Salgado. What also needs to be known of her is that she is a mother with dual citizenship (United States & Mexican) who began volunteering in her town of Olinalá long before she initiated the town’s PC.
Her husband, José Avila, explained in a recent interview that she consistently took clothing and other necessities to her town to donate them to the less privileged. She also helped illiterate community members fill out applications or helped read important documents to them.
For these actions she is revered, and that is why she was chosen to lead, as coordinator, the PC of Olinalá. What should be taken away from the actions and commitment of Salgado and the other brave women is that they are strong Indigenous Leaders, practicing Indigenous customs.
These women donate their time and lives to defend their communities, and by extension, ours as well. Their efforts reach far beyond Guerrero and Michoacán. Let us learn our Indigenous history, and embody it, and be aware that Nestora Salgado and Citllali Perez Vasquez are continuing with an Indigenous legacy that includes women in securing our present and future.
In this video Nestora Salgado points out how the local government agencies at first supported PC, but then turned their backs on them.
This video here is from the Mexican news channel Telesur that speaks on the 100 women volunteer PC contingent from Xaltianguis, Guerrero.
In this video you see the PC of Olinala taking over the local municipal building demanding that Nestora Salgado be released from prison. PC member Gonzalo Molina clearly states these points.
Here is an article from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada reporting on the arrest of Gonzalo Molina.
Latest Interview (2-21-14) with Nestora Salgado from a Mexican High security Prison.
Here are the two latest interviews with Salgado’s husband Jose Avila where he gives a brief history on how his wife got involved with her community and describes the events that led up up to her unjust incarceration. PC can not fight organized crime without fighting police and government corruption.
In this video you get to see the genuine leadership and the orator skills of Our Comandante Nestora Salgado.