I was born and raised in the colonia Condesa of Mexico City, at the heart of a middle-class family with limited means.
Our home was overrun by the creole nostalgia of my father, captivated by the memory of the family’s Porfirian hacienda. His eyes glowed each time he ran through the 19th century, identifying a prominent Esteva in each generation. He would always go back until he reached the pertinent ancestor in Spain.
My mother let him run; her ancestors couldn’t be mentioned. Like many people of her generation, she thought the best thing she could do for her children was to cut all ties with the indigenous past. At home we were told that the so-called Indians were not only ignorant and irresponsible, but evil, with the intention to make us run as soon as we saw any. But I adored my grandmother, whom we had to hide from my father’s eyes in our house. During vacations I would ask my parents to send me to Oaxaca to see her, which created my first connection to my own people, though those memories were buried in the depths of my consciousness, since my childhood was marked by the patriarchal and westernized stamp of my father.
I was also marked by president Truman, whom I met in a stadium just after my tenth birthday. It was the first time an American president visited Mexico and I was chosen to stand in one of the lines of children in uniform applauding him. . . . I was one of the two billion people who became the underdeveloped on January 20, 1949 when he coined the word “underdevelopment,” the very day he took office. He promised to share with all of us the technical and scientific advances of his country so that we could become like them, the developed. The movies were then the new entertainment. We rushed each week to see a new movie. And in all of them “the American way of life” appeared to be the closest thing to paradise. We all wanted to have it.
I attended the school of the Brothers of Mary. Shortly before finishing high school, a few days after my 16th birthday, my father died. My brother and I had to work to support my family and I became an office-boy in a bank. I enrolled in the National University of Mexico, to study law, since that is what my father had wanted. At the same time, however, I began to study a profession that had just begun to appear in Mexico, in the Jesuit university. There they promised we’d be at the center of the epic of development, helping to bake and deliver the cake: good conditions to workers, good services to the community, and good profits to the stakeholders.
The country seemed anxious to employ us and offered opportunities immediately. I rose in the bank and became the assistant manager of a small industrial company, then the manager of a service bureau for personnel administration. At twenty I was already the manager of personnel at Procter & Gamble, and then the manager of organization for Cervecería Moctezuma, and then the youngest executive in the history of IBM in Mexico. But it became increasingly apparent that I was not at the center of the epic of development, but rather on one side, and not the best side. I was fired from both Procter & Gamble and IBM because I refused to do what they asked. I thought that in my own professional bureau I could do something different . . . but although I quickly gained prestige and a good income it grew obvious that I couldn’t live with dignity if I continued on that path. I abandoned my profession when I was 24 years old, around 1959.
Along the way I’d been learning something else. Those were the years of the great workers movements in Mexico, the entrance of Fidel in Havana, the years of Spain, Argelia, and the revolts in Poland and Hungary. And also Bandung, Nasser, Suharto, Nehru, Tito . . . Frustrated with the corporate world and surprised by a political landscape that my home and my schooling had kept hidden, I naturally became a leftist—which soon meant becoming a Marxist. In second-hand bookstores, where I bought the only books I could afford, I found a magnificent edition, very well bound, of The German Ideology. I had no idea who Marx and Engels were, but the book was beautiful and only cost a peso. I found parallels between their settling of accounts with previous ideologies described in the book and the reckoning I was doing in my own life, among other things, by learning economics, because I was working then in the Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior, occupied with conceiving and editing what was then considered the best journal of economics in Latin America.
My generation was marked by Che. It seemed possible to repeat his experience and we felt a moral obligation to emulate his example. Following that impulse I joined a clandestine group dedicated to organizing the revolution. I loved the feeling of involvement with the cell, but even more, our incursions into Morelos or Guerrero to enter into contact with groups and organizations that would gradually join the cause. It fell to me to write the central article for the first issue of our theoretical journal, to which Lenin had given legitimacy: a theoretical journal, he said, could substitute for a party when the conditions to create it were absent. The fact that a leader and worker from the Union of Graphic Arts was incorporated into the Political Commission gave us immense satisfaction. One! We sheltered the hope that little by little we would permeate urban barrios and rural communities. Already a clear mode of action was taking shape, though weighed down by students and professors from the National University, particularly from Economics and Political Science, who were doing something different from us. We operated in several circles around the strong nucleus of those of us going for everything, and those who appeared as fellow travelers or sympathizers that with luck might become our comrades. We had already made our critique of the Soviet Union, which went even deeper after Jrushov’s revelations, and we kept some distance and ambivalence towards Mao. There appeared to be two trends: one that wanted to construct the party starting with the work of thought—mastering the theory first—and another eager for action. Although I had already spent time working for the cell, studying our Holy Marxian Scriptures, I clearly felt myself destined to the second of these options, and like many others preferred to close my eyes to the price it would entail.
That’s when the catastrophe happened. The violence we were introducing into our very way of being, as an indispensable condition for politics, can escape very easily from rational control. One of our two leaders killed the other over a woman. The organization was not prepared for such an event. After much discussion and reflection about the path that we had taken without enough deliberation we dispersed. Different groups went different ways, within a wide political and ideological spectrum. With some of my companions I went the way of trying to occupy the apparatus of the state that we had dreamed of conquering, but now without resorting to violence.
First in the Secretariat of the President and later in the system of CONASUPO I soon rose to high positions. I learned what it is to have the sweet reins of power. I swelled at winning bureaucratic battles—in the name of campesinos and urban marginals—and at conceiving and implementing great programs at their service. I appeared often in the house of the president—“Los Pinos”—and attended cabinet meetings. The success of the programs I organized, along with the contacts I made, put me at risk of occupying an even higher position in the new administration. That’s when I renounced, forever, government positions of any kind, convinced that they serve only to control and to dominate, not to effect the change we sought.
In November 1976, with some friends and colleagues, I started two grassroots organizations to work directly with peasant organizations. We grew rapidly, so we conceived a mechanism of coordination that we called Análisis, Desarrollo y Gestión (ANADEGES)—Analysis, Development and Management. We believed that these were things we could do and that “development” could make sense without bureaucratic intermediation. After several years of listening to the people, we changed the name of the organization. It was now called Autonomía, Descentralismo y Gestide l llam tennacirabajo dinaciirectamente con campesinos. Crecimos rr y dominar, no para un cambio social són—Autonomy, Decentralization and Management. The communities and people were not looking for development, which they habitually resisted. They were trying instead to foster their own autonomy and to keep economic, political, and ideological centers from controlling them. Management, for them, was not “administration” but self-governance and autonomous interaction with the institutional world. The campesinos themselves then brought us to the cities and we began to work with the so-called urban marginals as well. With Diego Zapata, the posthumous son of Emiliano—the campesino leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution—we organized a number of mobilizations, one of which led to the creation of the Coordinadora Nacional Plan de Ayala, a national peasant organization.
Rodolfo Stavenhagen invited me to help organize the 5th World Congress of Rural Sociology, focused on the campesinos. It took place in Mexico City in 1980 and I ended up being elected its president. That same year, as president of the Mexican Society of Planning, I organized its 10th Congress, where I tried to advance a critique of development and of planning itself. Thanks to Rodolfo, I also became the Interim Chairman of the Board for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.
Those were the eighties. I loved working in the communities and spending my time with them . . . but I wasn’t able to understand them very well. I assumed that I needed more study, but the more that I studied the less I understood. One day, I took off the lenses of the categories in which I was educated, the categories of development, and attempted to see with my own eyes. Dazzled at the beginning, I soon started to perceive things I had never before perceived. At the same time, two other things changed my perceptions. For one part, I brought the memories of my experiences as a child with my grandmother back into my consciousness, which allowed me to connect again, or for the first time, with my own people: to re-member them. For the other, almost by accident, I met Ivan Illich. When he had been at the peak of his fame and was living near Mexico City I’d refused to meet him or even read his books: on the Marxist left we saw him as a reactionary priest. We knew he criticized education and health, which made sense in our society, but we were convinced that a socialist society would do well in those fields, as we could already see in Cuba.
But I was fascinated by what he said at a seminar I happened to attend. A common friend invited us that evening to dinner. I started to read his books frenetically and soon began to collaborate with him. We became friends. In communities and barrios I’d heard the words that were some of his central categories, like convivial and vernacular. I began thinking that Ivan had managed to formulate the discourse of the people. When I shared his ideas in the communities it often produced an Aha! effect, as if they already knew what I was saying but had been unable to formulate it clearly themselves.
Two experiences along similar lines gave depth to our activities. The 1985 earthquake directly affected many of the people and groups with whom we worked. We became deeply involved in the fiesta of autonomy and love that was expressed by the struggle for reconstruction, especially in Tepito and colonia Guerrero, in Mexico City, and in several villages in the Mountain of Guerrero and the Oaxacan Mixteca. At the same time, for a decade, I traveled intensely through the US and Europe, primarily at the request of Illich, who invited me to his seminars and to meet his friends.
In 1989 I left my flat in Mexico City to start a new life in Oaxaca—in a Zapotec village close to the place where my Zapotec grandmother was born. I built a house of adobe and tiles, and my compañera made it possible for us to cultivate our own food. I quickly became involved in the intense social movement in Oaxaca, in which I have participated ever since. With a group of friends I launched the Center for Intercultural Encounters and Dialogue, convinced that the relations between cultures would be the central issue of the 21st century: we must learn how to host the radical otherness of the other, systematically denied by the West. We began learning how to share in conversation with the different indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, as well as with students, professors, and researchers from other countries, who came from places as far away as Japan or Finland, but above all from the US and Canada. The workshops and study groups that we organized for them allowed us to sustain our organization autonomously.
When I arrived in Oaxaca, Armando Labra was the chief advisor to the governor, Heladio Ramírez. Armando was a remarkable man, in his intelligence and his professional ability, his moral integrity, his political honesty . . . We were good friends, from long back, and I enjoyed working with him immensely as a consultant regarding juridical changes (the opening of the Oaxacan constitution to pluralism), the Chimalapas jungle, and other matters concerning the indigenous peoples. The task continued when Armando stayed on as chief advisor for Diódoro Carrasco and became my neighbor, in San Pablo Etla, then ended when he left the state.
In Oaxaca the commemoration of 500 years had a special significance. The King of Spain visited for the first time and was received with great dignity by the indigenous intellectuals with whom we worked. But not even that explosion of rebellious dignity, which rocked the whole continent, prepared us for the surprise of January 1, 1994. Like many others—many many others—I had to enter the streets and tell the Zapatistas they were not alone. The uprising changed my life. I don’t know whose hand I took in a peace belt in San Cristóbal, in the Dialogues of the Cathedral. I published a book and dozens of articles. I attended the National Democratic Convention, in August. It fell to me to preside as judge in the trial of the Electoral Tribunal of the People of Chiapas, in which a jury of 50 peers, who spoke four languages, condemned with overwhelming evidence the electoral process that had just elected the governor . . .
Since 1994 I have never ceased to participate in activities convened by the Zapatistas and to act in accord with them, both theoretically and politically. I had the honor of being one of a hundred “advisors” to the Zapatistas in their negotiations with the government in San Andrés, in 1996, and they have invited me regularly to seminars and other events in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
In Oaxaca, at the beginning of the new century, in partnership with organizations both indigenous and non-indigenous, I founded the Universidad de la Tierra—University of the Earth, Unitierra for short—in Oaxaca, as an autonomous space for learning which attempts to remain immersed in the Oaxacan social movement. Since the founding that idea has spread. We share our experience with other friends who have created, on their own and autonomously, Unitierras in California (United States), Manizales (Colombia), and Toronto (Canada), as well as in Chiapas and Puebla, Mexico, and are seeing smaller community unitierras being born, like that of San Pablo Huitzo and Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca. In Unitierra I participate in our activities in the communities, in our Wednesday conversations (now running 15 years), in study groups, and in a variety of other initiatives.
Unitierra was deeply involved in the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (la Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, “APPO”), which created what has come to be called the Oaxaca Commune in 2006. Both before and after, in collaboration with numerous other people and organizations, it has fallen to me to coordinate activities such as these:
Since October 2016 I have been involved with activities aimed toward strengthening the National Indigenous Congress and toward supporting and promoting its efforts to create an Indigenous Council of Governance.
At the moment I am seeking to organize the publication of my unpublished writings and of work that first appeared in marginal publications. I am also trying to write several new books, the most important of which I’ve conceived with Manolo Callahan to demonstrate the value of juxtaposing the thinking of Marx, Illich, and the Zapatistas to understand the current situation and to construct a new world.
I have overseen various journals and newspaper supplements and have written columns for several newspapers; I currently have a column in La Jornada and occasionally in The Guardian and publish articles in a number of national and international journals.
My livelihood comes from organizing initiatives with two universities and giving lectures in Mexico and abroad.
I live in San Pablo Etla, the Zapotec village in Oaxaca where I rooted myself 30 years ago with my compañera in both life and work. My two daughters, my son, my two granddaughters, my grandson, and my great granddaughter make their lives in other places.
San Pablo Etla, August 2017