photo of Mexican man the sierra norte

employment and income
family life
justice and crime
livelihood strategies
social change
spiritual beliefs
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introducing the area

social institutions

 quotes about social institutions
 key testimonies featuring social institutions

Several narrators refer to institutions which are part of the day-to-day functioning of the community - above all, the cargo system of unpaid community positions. This ladder-like arrangement of community officials and responsibilities is mentioned in almost every interview. Each member of the community is expected to carry out a number of cargos during his or her lifetime, according to aptitude. At the lower level there are quite a wide range of positions, but "higher" up the system there are fewer, more specialised, roles, attained (or at least accepted) by only a handful of men. One narrator (Mexico 15) talks of it as a lifetime progression: "All the cargos have been interesting and important for me. They form one as a human being, as a ciudadano (citizen), as a commoner. It's a development which occurs gradually; so every cargo, from the simplest to the elected positions, are important because one learns something every day in all of them."

Cargo duties embrace both civil and religious duties, and sometimes a mixture. One important role in many communities was to organise the festivals (Mexico 2): "As is the tradition in this community, they appointed a mayordomo (person responsible for arranging community festivals). The mayordomo has the duty of visiting the musicians so that they take the candles to the church. Also the mayordomo sees the fiscales (those responsible for certain church activities) so that, during the festival, in the church, they light the candles and look after them so that they burn well, and also they had to sweep [the church] and change the flowers."

Tequio is an important social institution. It is unpaid, obligatory work for collective benefit and in effect, in the absence of government provision, the source of labour for community projects. With the greater need for cash and waged work, some people have found it difficult to maintain this obligation, yet the majority of narrators seem to be in favour of its continuation. One man (Mexico 15) describes some local, recent, resistance to the idea: ".the main custom we have in this community is the tequios .which is work that is carried out by all the ciudadanos (citizens) when the .authority requests. The participants are not paid and for this reason many ciudadanos don't fully understand that the tequios are done for progress of the community. They are often in disagreement with it and tried to convince the authorities that it isn't valid, saying that the authorities are obliging them to work when our Constitution prohibits this. But recently, as has happened in other regions, the tequio was made into an institution, so the tequio is now officially recognised." As this narrator hints, obligations such as tequio and cargo can demand a lot from those who undertake them, diverting their energies from their own work for a time, and even involving loss of income. Nevertheless, it appears that this very distinctive form of social institution continues in these communities.

Another form of community duty, common in the Sierra Norte, is service on the comité de vigilancia (watchdog group) under the direction of the representante communal (responsible for community property), whose job it is to oversee community forests/lands and protect them from outside interference (Mexico 9): "I was, almost all day, [at] all the meetings...there have been [of the comité de vigilancia].If there isn't a group saying that we can't kill animals anymore or cut down trees or clear the forest anymore, well, we will continue as always... It will be finished and...what will we do tomorrow and the day after? .It's good that we have this committee now and...the people will have to respect what it says."

A further key institution is the asemblea, the community parliament and main decision-making body, which exists alongside the holders of the cargos. A narrator in Yavesía (Mexico 12) comments on the role which the assembly fulfills in the organisation of the community: "When the village takes a decision and assumes responsibility, it is because we are [all involved], everybody. The responsibility doesn't fall on any one [alone], we all assume the responsibility - this is the most important thing. It's not the same as you being presidente (highest authority in the municipality) or manager or ciudadano X taking a decision. with the community asamblea, well, we all assume the responsibility for what may come, whether it's good or bad. I think that this is the best thing."

A narrator in Ixtepeji (Mexico 22) reflects on the challenges of managing the asemblea in communities of different sizes: ".I see my community as being more organised than other communities. How can I put it? It is also small, there is more organisation, there are around 80 ciudadanos (citizens), and we can talk between all 80 of us, we can agree better than if we were 500 or 600."

quotes about social institutions

"People used to say you shouldn't send girls to school as they wouldn't end up with a cargo, but it isn't like that now because.women and men are equal now and can carry out any cargo. It wasn't like that before, unfortunately."
Elvira, F/50s, health promoter/traditional doctor, Tiltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico 4

".when I was 14 they gave me the cargo of topil (junior position involving running errands and keeping order) in the municipal council.then as municipal secretario (community secretary) I was on assignments for nearly three years. I've done nine assignments now. I had another assignment to represent the community in a legal procedure - so those are the cargos I've held."
Mauro, M/28, representante communal (official responsible for community property), Yavesía, Oaxaca, Mexico 14

"One has to conserve this tradition and this culture. one must comply with the cargos (unpaid community positions), the asamblea (community parliament), the orders, and with the tequio (obligatory, unpaid community work). I believe that there is a lot of worth in this, that there's a strength."
Mario Fernando, M/36, community manager, Yavesía, Oaxaca, Mexico 12

"One could say that the organisation is everything, couldn't you? Because in this way, work of different natures can be accomplished, with the development of the community as the objective. If there was no organisation, if methods of working didn't exist and if rules didn't exist, it wouldn't be possible for a community to move forward, it wouldn't have direction."
Miguel, M/52, member of the consultative committee, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico 15

"I had three cargos. First the Liga Feminil (Women's League) and after that I worked in the DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, Integral Development of the Family) with Senora Susana. After that I worked with the milk here with Senora Refugia... We were happy when we had a job... One gets used to a cargo and then when you leave, you always feel sad. In the cargos that we've had we've helped the village. I'm grateful to the village for giving us those jobs."
Timiana, F/85, Yavesía, Oaxaca, Mexico 18

"There was another boy who was called [a] topil.and he worked in the servicio (cargo service) of the priest, running his errands. He brought him water from the kitchen because in those days, as there wasn't much water, he had to fill the water tank, and he watered the flowerpots. He [also] went with the priest to the villages because [the priest] didn't have a car before, he travelled by horse, that's why [the topil] had his horse at hand. So taking care of the horse was the topil's work too."
Soledad, F/62, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico 16

key testimonies featuring social institutions

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   12    Mario Fernando   male/36   community manager   Yavesía, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   14    Mauro   male/28   representante communal (official responsible for community property)   Yavesía, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   15    Miguel   male/52   member of the consultative committee   Ixtlán, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   2    Casimiro   male/62   farmer   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   22    Fernando   male/33   carpenter   Ixtepeji, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   4    Elvira   female/50s   health promoter/traditional doctor   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   9    Javier   male/22   farmer   Tiltepec, Oaxaca