It takes a village to produce new leaders
In the driver’s seat, my colleague Jose Pablo Antonio, the proud owner of this old Volkswagen Beetle, talks about his beloved bocho: “It doesn’t look like much, but this car can go places that others won’t,” he tells me. I nod, fully convinced. The same could be said of Jose Pablo himself. Jose Pablo is an indigenous Mixe leader who has overcome all sort of obstacles to get where he is now – a lawyer working to protect his community’s rights and traditions. “I constantly told my father that I wanted to go to college. His answer was always something like, ‘Don’t worry, you will get there.’” He was right, but it took a little longer than both men expected and, ultimately, Jose Pablo traded in his dream of becoming a chemical engineer because of his father’s own circumstances. When Jose Pablo was in his late teens, his father was sent to jail for little over a year for a crime he didn’t commit. “One year, four months and three days,” his son recounted. During that time, Jose Pablo sold ground coffee and spices and took construction jobs to help his family and pay for their visits to his father. “Here we have to pay to visit our family members in jail,” he explained. During the visits to his father, Jose Pablo met other Mixes and, listening to other stories, saw a common pattern of injustice in which indigenous people were mistreated and misrepresented by the legal system. Like his father, others were discriminated against by the police and the judge who failed to understand indigenous customs and traditions. His father, Don Severiano, at least had access to a lawyer. Others in jail didn’t have the same luck, and many were unable to speak let alone read in Spanish to defend themselves against wrongful accusations. The experience of his father and many others trapped in this flawed system changed Jose Pablo’s academic path. He switched from his goal of being a chemical engineer to a pursuing law degree. While in law school, Jose Pablo accepted an internship at the Mixe People’s Services (SER Mixe), a Grassroots International partner in Oaxaca. Created in 1988, SER Mixe provides legal assistance to indigenous communities affected by the growing privatization of land and water in Mexico — this has had enormous impact onf indigenous peoples and their territories. The internship was just the beginning of what was to become an outstanding legal career. In fact, the story of Jose Pablo and SER Mixe are intertwined. His father was one of the founding members of the Committee in Defense of the Natural, Human and Cultural Resources of the Mixe Region (CODREMI), the precursor to SER Mixe. As a young Mixe, Jose Pablo was expected to serve his community. SER Mixe was the perfect match. “Many young people do not have the same opportunity as I did,” he confessed. “They are forced to migrate to find jobs and good schools elsewhere. The organization provided me with the support I needed.” In the beginning it was hard because he needed a paid job, but he managed to stay with SER Mixe until the organization had funds to hire him as an assistant in its indigenous rights sector. SER Mixe provides leadership development opportunities for promising young talents like Jose Pablo who are committed to social justice. By nourishing young talent, the organization creates a steady stream of trained youth to take the reins in the organization or to lead other initiatives related to indigenous rights. Jose Pablo asserted that, because of this policy, SER Mixe avoids “atrophy, created by a vicious cycle, where people remain forever in their leadership position.” SER Mixe’s model follows the indigenous traditions (usos y costumbres) of shared leadership. For Jose Pablo, leadership is not a heaven-sent gift but a result of a nourishing process. “It takes a village to produce new leaders,” he said. Every young person in the Mixe communities is expected to participate in the collective work called tequio, contribute to the community and serve the community as the leader in different governing bodies and social activities. These three elements — collective work, cooperation and service — represent the indigenous path to leadership that thousands of others before Jose Pablo have taken. Jose Pablo’s commitment helped pave the way for him assuming ever new responsibilities in the organization; to the point that he was short-listed to lead the organization. “I was coming from my classes at the university and had to stop by the office to get cash for an upcoming trip. But all the members were in a meeting, including the administrator. Well, I didn’t have any other option but to wait until the meeting ended. It took a good three hours” he laughed. At the end of the meeting, the council of directors invited Jose Pablo to join the meeting, and right there on the spot shared with him the news that he would be SER Mixe’s new director. Frozen in his chair, Jose Pablo couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I felt a mix of excitement, honor and tremendous responsibility.” The council recognized his experience, commitment to the Mixe communities and capacity to coordinate with local indigenous authorities. The young teen who walked to SER Mixe’s headquarters in Oaxaca City from school to serve as an assistant was now its new director. Don Severiano, Jose Pablo’s father, still goes village to village knocking doors to sell the same home-made (by his wife) products that Jose Pablo used to sell. It is hard work for a man in his 70s, but he does it without complaining. He knows that his son will have a different future. “I am proud of my children and their mother. She always took good care of them and they have been good kids. I am proud of Jose. He is not only a lawyer, but he knows construction and carpentry.” Jose Pablo’s two degrees — one is from law school, the other from life — are no joke. He proved that he could go places when nobody believed he could. On our way back from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, a Mixe village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Jose talked about his ideas for training new leaders. He told me that he is already grooming others to take his position after he finishes his three-year term as SER Mixe’s general coordinator. Jose Pablo Antonio, the enthusiast bocho owner, is still going places.