The following is an excerpt from the introduction of A Revolution Unfinished: The Chegomista Rebellion and the Limits of Revolutionary Democracy in Juchitán, Oaxaca (November 2018) by Colby Ristow. This is the latest book in the Mexican Experience Series which explores the rich and varied character of the Mexican experience through narrative, description, and analysis.
Largely lost in the shadows of Zapatismo, the Chegomista Rebellion has long confounded historical classification. Until recently historians ignored popular participation in the Revolution in Oaxaca, arguing broadly that the state had been “bypassed by the tides of modernization”and thus lacked the requisite material conditions to generate the level of discontent necessary for sustained popular revolutionary activity. Beginning in the 1980s, however, historians began to reevaluate Oaxaca’s place in the Revolution, uncovering a more diverse and robust history of development, discontent, and upheaval than had previously been acknowledged. No region of the state attracted more scholarly attention than Juchitán, where the Chegomista Rebellion stood as the largest and most powerful popular response to the Revolution, despite the region’s supposed lack of acute discontent. As scholars sought to explain Juchitán’s seemingly counterintuitive rebellion the historiography grew, divided broadly into two interpretative camps, one “horizontal” and one “vertical.” The horizontal interpretation of the Chegomista Rebellion, written from a local perspective primarily (but not exclusively) by local intellectuals, locates the strength of the Chegomista Rebellion in horizontal relations of shared ethnicity and common class interest, unique to Juchitán. In this interpretation the Chegomista Rebellion represented but one moment in a long history of resistance to outside encroachment, enabled by Juchitán’s historically “closed” status, which protected the region from social stratification and cultural distinction—forces that elsewhere corroded unity and undermined communal solidarity. The vertical interpretation, on the other hand, downplays the exceptionality of the rebellion, situating it in the context of revolutionary politics and comparing the Chegomistas to contemporaneous popular but vertically oriented movements. Emphasizing the hierarchical (and reciprocal) dimensions of popular rebellion, particularly the importance of caciquismo, this interpretation deemphasizes the centrality of ethnicity and class in explaining the rebellion. While the two interpretations have carved out a space for the Chegomista Rebellion in the revolutionary and regional historiography, a more accurate account of the rebellion and its role in the Revolution must combine elements of both.
The horizontal interpretation of the Chegomista Rebellion has been indelibly attached to the political successes of another indigenous movement in Juchitán, the Coalición Obrera-Campesina- Estudiantíl del Istmo (cocei). A social movement that imbued a radical political agenda with ethnic revivalism, the cocei won municipal elections in 1980, making Juchitán not only the first urban center in Mexico to be controlled by a leftist opposition group under the pri but also a political cause célèbre, vaulted to international prominence as the site of one of Latin America’s most successful indigenous movements. The cocei’s extraordinary political success was aided and punctuated by a spike in local intellectual and cultural production aimed at mobilizing direct action around ethnic pride. This “Zapotec Renaissance” entailed a broad reimagining of local history from the perspective of the region’s poor and indigenous majority, intended to counterbalance “official histories.” Transmitted through political speeches, scholarly works, and a vibrant artistic and literary scene, the cocei’s explicitly political rendering of Juchitán’s past emphasized the region’s historical “rebelliousness in the face of oppression” and represented the cocei as “the most recent link in an unbroken chain of rebellions, resistance, and defense of Zapotec culture dating back to precolonial times.” No link in Juchitán’s “unbroken chain of rebellions” figured more prominently in the coceista political imagination than the Chegomista Rebellion.
As tensions between the cocei and the Mexican state heightened, coceista intellectuals articulated the history of the Chegomista Rebellion as a political rallying point—a symbol of Juchitán’s “spirit of rebelliousness”—and in so doing transformed Che Gómez into “the central figure of coceista continuity” with the past. Cocei histories, most notably the work of Victor de la Cruz, represented the Chegomista Rebellion as a unified defense of Juchitán’s ethnic identity and socioeconomic interests against the commercial interests of the landed oligarchy in the Valley of Oaxaca and their government allies. In this interpretation, the Chegomista Rebellion became a symbol of the struggle of Mexico’s poor and indigenous population to maintain its identity and control of its resources in the face of encroaching modernity, and Che Gómez became an authentic representative of Mexico’s marginalized masses, ideologically akin to more famous popular revolutionaries, like Emiliano Zapata. As such, Che Gómez and the rebellion that bore his name functioned as a reflection of how the cocei saw itself, or at least sought to represent itself. In particular, the violent repression of the Chegomistas by the federal government and Che Gómez’s martyrdom at the hands of the state government made the Chegomista Rebellion the ideal symbol of Juchitán’s historical conflict with the outside world and a parable for the ongoing treachery of the regime. By mobilizing the Chegomista Rebellion as a symbol of continuity, the cocei sought to foster solidarity and facilitate collective action by underscoring a history of conflict rather than collaboration. This strategic appropriation of the Chegomista Rebellion proved to be politically expedient, and its impact on the historiography of Juchitán was profound.
Drawn to Juchitán by the cocei’s cultural renaissance, in the 1980s and 1990s scholars from around the world transformed the study of Juchitán into something of an intellectual cottage industry. While focusing primarily on contemporary issues, these outside studies excavated the region’s past in search of a social scientific explanation for the cocei’s unprecedented success and, more broadly, “a historical understanding of the uniqueness of Juchitán.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the bulk of these histories reproduced the horizontal (and teleological) interpretation articulated by coceista intellectuals. At the core of this teleology is an image of Juchitán as a traditional “closed corporate community,” historically unified in its resistance to the penetration of the outside world. This “closed” paradigm of Juchitán’s past is based on an understanding of the town and the region as geographic periphery where, protected from the full impact of Spanish colonialism, Juchitán preserved “a strong sense of ethnic distinctiveness and a hostility toward all non-Zapotecs” that predated Mexico’s independence from Spain. Thus, in the nineteenth century, when the forces of state and capital threatened to penetrate Juchitán and engulf the region in wider political and economic networks, the people could draw on horizontal relations of shared ethnicity and class to defend their cultural boundaries, and “the culture of Zapotec resistance to state power and other encroaching outsiders was fully established at Juchitán.” According to John Tutino, this paradigm of conflict, pitting “ethnically unified Juchitán” against all forms of outside encroachment, transformed Juchitán into “a center of adamant resistance to state power, the role it maintains to this day.” As Tutino’s parallel suggests, once Juchitán was established as a site of resistance, safeguarded from the corrosive influence of social stratification and cultural distinction, the next 150 years become an inexorable process of identity formation culminating in coceista victory.
While this horizontal interpretation has empowered local indigenous political activity and helped to put Juchitán in bold letters on the cultural map of Mexico, it has done so at the expense of misrepresenting the Chegomista Rebellion and its role in the Mexican Revolution. In applying an inside-outside (or closed-open) dichotomy to the history of Juchitán, this interpretation divorces Juchitán’s historical trajectory from that of the nation, reducing all acts of historical resistance in Juchitán into indistinguishable links in an “unbroken chain of rebellions,” made possible by Juchitán’s closure from national politics; privileges conflict with the outside as the primary mover in the region’s history, obfuscating other types of center-periphery relations that also characterized Juchitán’s relationship with the state; reifies Juchitán as an ontological entity with a unified voice achieved by communal consensus—a reflection of shared ethnic identity and socioeconomic interest—rather than the product of internal competition and raw power relations; and ignores a long history of internal distinction and social stratification in Juchitán, itself the product of a complex relationship with the outside world that defies simple closed-open typologies. Ultimately, the historical image of Juchitán as a relatively closed corporate community fails to recognize that the Chegomista Rebellion did not pit “unified Juchitán” against outside “forces of oppression” but was instead experienced primarily as an internal conflict, reflecting deep fissures associated with the region’s participation in the open fields of state and market.
The second interpretation of the Chegomista Rebellion locates the rebellion firmly in the comparative context of widespread revolutionary violence. In his tome on the Mexican Revolution, Alan Knight laid the groundwork for this more vertical interpretation byfitting the Chegomista Rebellion into the broad milieu of serrano movements. According to Knight, in juxtaposition with popular “agrarian” movements, serrano rebellions were bound together by vertical ties of patronage rather than shared ethnicity or class interests; they were “politically ambivalent and opportunistic” rather than ideologically unified; and they mobilized for primarily political ends—self-government and the end of political impositions—rather than for control of land and resources. Knight’s inclusion of serrano movements in the mosaic of popular revolutionary protest challenged the existing populist narrative of the Revolution, which privileged agrarian movements and fetishized (horizontal) “peasant” unity as the authentic expression of popular discontent. His work helped to expand the dominant narrative of the Revolution to include popular movements previously marginalized as ill-defined at best, or non-revolutionary at worst, and place caciquismo at the center of studies of revolutionary violence.
According to Knight, communities on the geographic periphery often invoked “powerful local patrones” to defend their shared interests and serve as bulwarks against the “construction of a strong centralized state.” These patrons “readily contented themselves with a revived caciquismo of the old style,” consolidating their authority locally through networks of patronage, ritual kinship, unequal reciprocity, and “the diagnostic threat and practice of violence,” rather than formal institutions or the rule of law. While their followers invested in them the authority to defend their perceived (and inherently defensive) collective interests, and serrano caciques were “probably more sensitive than other caciques,” cacical rule was personalist and arbitrary, and caciques often used their authority to advance their own self-interest. Within this paradigm, according to Knight, the Chegomista Rebellion had “all the ingredients” of a prototypical serrano movement: it was clearly popular, politically oriented, aimed at local autonomy rather than land redistribution, and led by an opportunistic, old-style cacique.