Everyday Resistances to Environmental Racism, Mestizo Geographies, and Toxicity in Oaxaca


Opportunistically using the comparison with its northern neighbor and engineering a myth of racial mixity, Mexico is seldom perceived as a settler State. Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera uses the concept of “Mestizo geographies” to show how ecocidal projects in Oaxaca are targeting Indigenous and Black communities along with the environment on which their daily lives depend.

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Fisherman in Puerto Escondido. / Photo by Julio Ortega (2020).

It wasn’t until 2019 that the Black population was recognized in the federal national constitution of Mexico — this happened only after almost 20 years of activism by Black leaders in the country. In the case of Indigenous peoples in Mexico, even if they were recognized as part of the nation, it was only in terms of cultural rights that were not translated into political, economic, or territorial rights. The historic invisibilization of Black peoples and the folklorization of Indigenous peoples in Mexico arise from deeply rooted anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism that constitutes Mexico’s national mestizaje project. Mestizaje, understood as the mixture of Indigenous and Spanish ancestry, explicitly denies the historical presence of Black peoples in the country and implicitly advances a representation of the nation that associates progress and welfare with whiteness — an ideology known as blanqueamiento (whitening). José Vasconcelos, one of the main architects of this ideology, described in The Cosmic Race (1925) how it was through “sexual attraction” and mixture that white traits would persevere.

Interestingly, Vasconcelos considered himself as trying to oppose the U.S. with the mestizaje ideology, by portraying Latin American nations as not racist and anti-imperialist. The argument was that, since everyone in Mexico was the result of miscegenation, the political concept of race made no sense and racism could not possibly be operent.

Although settler colonialism in Turtle Island (i.e. North America) is usually approached and analysed with a focus on Canada and the United States, Mexico is also a settler colonial State. Since its foundation, the Mexican nation State proclaimed ownership over the land and territory, but it also erased particular histories and existences, especially from Black and Indigenous populations (especifically Chatinos and Mixtecos). In order to analyze this colonial erasure, we can use Lauren Berlant’s concept of slow death and Robert Nixon’s concept of slow violence. As opposed to an ordinary death, Berlant defines slow death as progressive through time and space. In the particular case I engage with, the slow death of a lagoon — a body of water separated from larger bodies of water by natural barriers such as sandbars or coral reefs — in a Black and Indigenous territory on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. Slow violence, according to Robert Nixon, refers to the gradual attritional violence that is typically not seen as violence.

I propose the term “Mestizo Geographies” to refer to the Mexican nation State’s material process of slowly erasing and trying to eliminate Black, Indigenous, and non-mestizo people and territories through dispossession, displacement, as well as through pollution, tourism, and toxicity. Here, pollution and toxicity are material tools of colonialism, and mestizaje populations have also become part of the process in disappearing and slowly eliminating territories and the communities that live on them. Robert Brullard reminds us that this is how environmental racism functions, since racialized communities are disproportionately affected by environmental policies and practices.

In September 2017, I visited Zapotalito, a small community on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, where most of its population self-identifies as Black, Indigenous, or mestizos. Zapotalito is one of the multiple communities that live around an extensive body of water, a system of lagoons connected directly to the ocean. In 1938, the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons were declared as a National Park, a federally protected area by former president Lázaro Cárdenas. However, this protection has been exclusively symbolic given the current polluted conditions of the lagoons. When “conservation” and “protection” of natural areas in the country entail federal property regulations, Black and Indigenous communities are left without “legal” ownership over the land and consequentially limited in their abilities to practice traditional relationships to land. This mechanism is a strategy used by the mestizo geography to exert control over ancestral Black and Indigenous land. As Christopher Loperena has argued in the article “Conservation by racialized dispossession: The making of an eco-destination on Honduras’s North Coast” (2016), when legal rules are imposed over these territories, Black and Indigenous people can be criminalized for their traditional kinships to their lands.

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Breakwater over the Pacific Ocean in Cerro Hermoso. / Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera (April-May 2018).

The Toxicity and Ecocide of Different Bodies of Water ///
On September 17, 2017, a 7.1 Richter scale earthquake shook Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Its epicenter was situated offshore from Oaxaca, and was a powerful earthquake that had multiple damaging and mortal consequences in various regions of the country. However, the consequences on the lagoons did not appear in any major newspaper. Two days after the earthquake, people from Zapotalito woke up to a smell similar to ammonia. The fishermen who usually go to the lagoon found the horrible scene at sunrise: the lagoons were covered with dead fish. People in the community gathered, surprised by the scene, but unfortunately it was not the first time nor the last. Fishers’ families organized and used their fishing equipment to clean the lagoons, throwing away tons of fish. The local government only helped to transport the waste with buses. Local families were very concerned about the situation since fishing is the primary source of living for the communities, with some people deciding not to throw out all the fish since it would mean not having food for themselves and their families. Through their daily work, relations, and deep understanding of the natural environment, the locals came up with an explanation for this phenomenon — when the earthquake happened, all the toxic gases in the lagoons’ subsoil were removed and came to the surface of the water, in turn killing the fish and many other animals, including shrimps and mussels.

The lagoons are going through a slow death, that is ecocide, that started in the 1970s with the construction of two breakwaters. The government also built a dam in a community close to Zapotalito in the 1990s. The reason was supposedly to use water for irrigation, since the region is a high producer of papaya, lime, sesame seed, and coconut, amongst other crops. The water was retained from the Río Verde (Green River), a big river on the Coast of Oaxaca that is also at risk of disappearing. As a result of all these governmental initiatives, the water that initially was nourishing the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoon’s oxygen was also cut. To combat this, COPUDEVER, a local organization composed of Black, Indigenous, and mestizos defending the Río Verde, has used different juridical resources to protect local ecosystems, even though the government has tried on multiple occasions to have transnational capital invested into the region, in order to create hydroelectric projects that would significantly affect the natural environment.

In the 2000s, the government built more breakwaters in Cerro Hermoso, which is a community next to Zapotalito and directly connected to the Pacific Ocean. The State project was to create a new “tourist bay” in the area, even though Cerro Hermoso was already a place that national and international tourists would visit. However, the project failed and created massive environmental, economic, social, and political consequences. The breakwaters disconnected the ocean from the Chacahua-Pastoría lagoons, causing the lagoons to become isolated with stagnant water that has no access to oxygen. Furthermore, Cerro Hermoso lost the original bay between the lagoons and the ocean and now has an open sea, which is dangerous because of the size and strength of the waves for locals and tourists alike.

Local communities had warned government officials in charge of building the breakwaters of the risks and possible consequences, and had come up with alternative proposals. However, they were not heard because they were not deemed “experts.” This is a clear example of how colonial knowledge is imposed, and Indigenous epistemologies based on experience and ancestral knowledge are ignored or erased.

Another factor affecting the lagoons is a transnational lime-oil factory situated in a community close to Zapotalito. This factory brings waste directly to the lagoons through the canals that were built originally to irrigate crops in the region. The waste is highly acidic and toxic for this body of water. Moreover, the pesticides used for agriculture in the region, through rain and air, end up in the lagoons.

All of these factors have contributed to the lagoons’ slow death and, with it, the displacement and risk of death for the local communities. I name this displacement and toxicity that occurs by design to bodies of water are what I name, as a mestizo geography of elimination and dispossession of Black and Indigenous territories.

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Dead fish over the shore of the Chacahua-Pastoría Lagoons. / Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera (April-May 2018).

Everyday Decolonial Resistances Against a Mestizo Geography ///
Ever since the foundation of the colonial Mexican nation State, and its attempt to create a mestizo geography through maps, laws, and mestizaje ideology, there have been resistances throughout history from different racialized communities for their land and territories.

Local people from different communities around lagoons have organized multiple protests for their struggles to be heard, and conceived of strategies in seeking solutions to the lagoons’ ecocide. In 2011, people from Zapotalito, along with the Ombudsman from Oaxaca, created a Human Rights violation report. The report recommended solutions to the ecocide problem by connecting it with fundamental human rights such as access to a healthy environment, access to health, access to food, access to jobs, among others. Yet there was no clear response or support offered from the government. In 2018, the Chacahua-Lagoons case of environmental racism was taken to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (ICHR) by COPERA (Collective to Eliminate Racism in Mexico). The ICHR made recommendations to the Mexican State to resist the ecocide and the effects on the Black and Indigenous population. However, three years later, there is still no resolution to the crisis.

We could read these actions as critical legal resistances from the community. However, I would like to consider alternative, decolonial forms of activism that are not legible as normative “political mobilizations.” In Zapotalito, for example, people partake in defending the concrete livelihoods of their families, the communities, and the lagoons in the everyday. Their roles within the wider ecosystem are essential considering how slow death or ecocide also have material and incarnated effects on the people who inhabit the lands, especially when the large death of fish causes a lack of fish to eat and to sell. Before the ecocide, people from the communities surrounding the Chacahua-Pastoría Lagoons would only spend time fishing inside the lagoons and collecting enough fish for their consumption and selling in other communities. After the ecological catastrophe happened, people from the communities either have had to look for alternative forms of income, or go fishing directly in the Pacific Ocean. Both of these options have their various risks and challenges.

In attempting to create alternative economies, women in Zapotalito, for example, have created different collectives or individual projects for income. I am a mestiza brown woman born and raised in Mexico, so I represent the hegemonic population in the country. My positionality helped me to better understand the gender dynamics, however, I do not experience racism or classism in my everyday life in the Mexican context. My privileges in the country are important to acknowledge. While I was on the coast, women had weekly meetings to do workshops on kneading and weaving traditional clothing of the region; these pieces would be later sold to tourists in the region. Additionally, women also sold food to fishers, making tortillas to sell to neighbors, as well as selling chicken and eggs. In some cases, locals fish in the lagoons because there are still small fish, shrimps, and mussels. These animals are traded for consumption — usually, a fisher will be walking around the community with a cart full of shrimp and a bucket with some small fish, and people will come out from their houses to buy it. However, because of the economic crisis caused by ecocide, many people do not have the income to buy from other people. These challenges are mitigated especially by women who have created mutual aid initiatives within the community, for example, taking care of each other´s children, sharing food, cooking together, sharing fishing work, amongst other examples.

Not many fishers can fish in the Pacific Ocean, as it requires specific knowledge and resources. Firstly, it entails much more risk to be amongst strong water currents of the open sea, which requires a certain level of expertise and in-depth knowledge to navigate the ocean. Some fishers have drowned trying to fish in the ocean. The other limiting factor is that, in order to get to the ocean, people need a special boat motor that is more powerful but also more expensive — and not a lot of people have access to one. Furthermore, it implies consuming more gas, which adds to the costs. Yet all these alternatives taken are everyday Black, Indigenous, and poor Mestizo methods of survival to the lagoons’ ecocide, and their convictions to keep living on their land.

Yet people continue to create ways to take care of their territories and waters. There is a kinship with the land, which we can interpret as decolonial ecology in the other relationship to nature it embodies. As opposed to the modern/colonial project where nature is exploited by humans, a kinship with land entails mutual care, respect, intimacy, and affect. It is an interrelation and reciprocal physical and spiritual connection to the land and waters, where Black, Indigenous and poor Mestizo population take care of the lagoons and are deeply affected by it. It is cuerpo territory, as the communitary Xinca feminist from Guatemala, Lorena Cabnal names it, to describe the intimate and imbricated relationship between cuerpo-territorio (body-territory).

Black and Indigenous women in Zapotalito have developed care practices for the lagoons. For example, women started going to a canal connected to another lagoon to clean it, because they believe this can be a source of oxygen for the body of water. Men and women regularly clean the lagoons from dead fish and garbage to prevent accumulation of pollution and toxicity. Other forms of everyday resistance inside the community have consisted in mutual aid initiatives created by locals to face the ecocide and its consequences on the community and families. We can see examples of this in the way women cook collectively everyday in their open kitchens at home, and how women also share ingredients so all families can have access to food. Women also often share the task of caring for children if a parent has to go away to work or fish. Moreover, as a community, where there have been collective events, everyone organizes to equally participate, either by donating in material ways or by doing community work.

Tourism has also impacted the lagoons and the surrounding communities. Tourists from the Global North and the rest of Mexico — who are majority white and mestizo —come to this region on the Pacific Ocean’s coast during various seasons in the year. Mainly, they go to the Chacahua Island because it is famous for having big surfing waves. However, because it is an isolated island with small cabins and restaurants instead of resorts and hotels, tourists come for an exotic, colonial tropical fantasy. It is a colonial tropical fantasy because, on the one hand, the government uses it to produce more capital as a “National Park,” turning nature into a product to be consumed by foreigners, while it is not owned or used by the local population. On the other hand, tourists exploit local people through lodging and cooking services.

The fact that people in the community take time to fish, to cook, to make tortillas, but also to grieve ecological loss, the slow death of their lagoons, as well as those in their community that have passed away due to structural violence, makes Zapotalito an alternative temporality to the capitalist colonial one.

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Lagoons disconnected from the Ocean. / Photo by Meztli Yoalli Rodríguez Aguilera (May 2018).

Conclusion ///
In this text, I have argued that Black, Indigenous and poor Mestizo populations in the Coast of Oaxaca are resisting the ecocide of the lagoons that make up part of their land through everyday actions. The ecocide of bodies of water and the effects of displacement or disappearance of the communities around them are part of a broader project of whitening the Mexican nation. I define mestizo geography as the material and incarnated effects of the mestizaje ideology. Its core is a whitening project, where Black and Indigenous populations and their lands are either denied or integrated into the “mestizo identity,” a settler State foundational myth. Mestizo geography operates through the dispossession of racialized territories by extractivism, pollution, toxicity, and tourism. These are all Mexican State strategies to possess “federal territory,” as well as to exploit nature and land for transnational capitalist investment. Black and Indigenous people on the Coast of Oaxaca have created multiple community-based and collective mechanisms and strategies to survive the ecocide and defend their families and land, through mutual aid initiatives, alternative economies, reciprocity and care with the lagoons.

The foundation of nation-States is a continuum of the modern-colonial project. The population had to adjust and integrate to the Mestizaje miscegenation and whitening project. However, these are decolonial ecologies that have been practiced for over 500 years, and will continue to thrive and find new ways of resisting capitalism and settler colonial States by defending and caring for their land and communities. As many Indigenous elders have said, kinship with the land is the future. ■