The indigenous Mexican town that drove out the cartel

The indigenous Mexican town that drove out the cartel

Meet the art collective reimagining the uprising through memorabilia and rituals of the Indigenous community.

At 6am on 15 April 2011, residents of the Indigenous Purépecha town of Cheran woke to the sound of fireworks. Sparks lit up the dawn sky, and a series of bonfires began to rage along the town’s border. A revolution, led by women, had begun. Located in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s most violent states, Cheran was once plagued by cartel-associated violence and corrupt politics. Murder, rape, kidnapping, and extortion was part of daily life, and since 2007 illegal loggers were encroaching on the ancient forests that surrounded their land and provided their livelihood.

The women were fed up, and met in secret to devise a plan. On that fateful morning, they distributed handwritten flyers reading: Enough is enough, comrades! It’s time to rise up!” Armed with brooms, sticks, and stones, the women blockaded loggers' trucks and claimed five hostages. Eventually they drove the cartel, police and politicians out of the town. Today, a 12-member council governs the town of 20,000, with neighbourhood watch patrolling and protecting the territory. The community has successfully reforested its immediate woodlands, and while the state has remained as one of Mexico’s most violent, Cheran’s officials have not reported a single kidnapping since the uprising.

It is this version of the story that was published by global news organisations. This version beamed across the planet as factual and true, but for the artist collective Ritual Inhabitual, it couldn’t be further from it.

“It’s a mistake to try to find the truth, because the truth doesn’t exist,” says Tito González García, who co-founded the collective with Florencia Grisanti in 2013. For the last five years, the duo has been attempting to reimagine the history of the uprising based on oral histories, academic research, and studying the memorabilia and rituals of the Indigenous community.

It is an approach they define as ‘mytho-documentary’. “It’s impossible to know what the events of 2011 were like, because each version is different,” says Florencia Grisanti. When it comes to reimagining history, as experienced by the people who lived it, the idea of an objective truth is farfetched. “We focus on myth as a social and cultural fact – as an archetypal foundation,” she says. Truth in its purest form is impossible to capture – not by a photograph or by words. Perhaps this approach is the closest representation of history – one that is an amalgamation of memories and experiences; a collective reinterpretation of the past.

The result of this five-year project is two photobooks: Oro Verde, which will be completed in 2024, and Realidad, Realidad, Realidad, which will launch this October. The first is a patchwork of documentary, archive, and still life photographs, merging disciplines like sculpture, craft and embroidery to reimagine the revolution. The second publication is more intimate, following the life of Jenny, a 45-year-old transgender woman who is recovering from a crystal meth addiction. Together, they explore the wider context of Cherán’s revolution, while exposing how the cartel violence has continued to affect the land and its people today.

La Familia Michoacana – one of the most powerful cartels in the region, active since the 1980s – are known for drug trafficking. But in the mid-00s, they saw a new opportunity in a commodity less illicit. In recent decades, the avocado market has become known as the “green gold” of Mexico. Along with cocaine, the US is the world's largest consumer of the native fruit. According to official figures from the California Avocado Commission, around 60 million kilos of avocados were used to make guacamole during last year’s Super Bowl alone. This demand has turned the business into a target for cartels that seek to profit from trade. Between 2007 and 2011, La Familia Michoacana illegally deforested more than 8,000 hectares of forest around Cheran to plant avocado trees.

The image of the avocado crops up throughout Oro Verde, most obviously in its title, which means “green gold” in Spanish. We see this tattooed onto the head of a pig, in a typography often associated with cholos culture. This image was made in collaboration with a local tattoo artist in Cheran, as a nod to the violent history between the US and Mexico.

There are several more recurring motifs that crop up through the series. The masked narco lumberjacks, inspired by the horned devil, and a child with a wooden mask – which represents the struggle of the community. Many of these visual codes were developed in collaboration with Colectivo Cherani, a group of local artist-activists that make work in support of Indigenous rights.

These relationships with local artists and organisations were built with time and care. Although the revolution itself was undocumented (to protect the community), the news of its success was widely covered in the press. “Many journalists came and took what they were interested in, without giving anything in return. People were tired of this dynamic,” says Grisanti. Before making any photographs, they first presented their idea to Cheran’s council of elders, and prepared an exhibition of their previous project to be shown in the village. Geometrical Forest, struggles in Mapuche territory was a five-year inquiry into an Indigenous Chilean community fighting to protect its forest from the paper pulp industry. This story helped gain the community’s trust, because it resonated with their own experience.

Ritual Inhabitual has dedicated the last 10 years of their practice to these stories, about human communities facing environmental conflicts. But before that, neither artist was a photographer. Grisanti was working as a taxidermist, and González García as a film-maker. They met in 2013 when Grisanti was exhibiting her taxidermy work at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. González García was hired to produce a video about the show, through which they discovered their mutual-fascination with the relationship between art, science and nature, and the role of ritual in the world today. Although they were both visual artists in their own right, they wanted to experiment with a new medium. “Photography was like a peaceful and new objective land for both of us,” says González García.

 A few years into their collaboration, the pair connected with Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo, a Chilean curator and researcher. He became integral to the execution of their projects, both in its conceptual stages, as well as its presentations. For Valenzuela Escobedo, the power of Oro Verde as a political work lies in its multimedia approach. “The aim of political art is to provoke critical thought and question power systems,” he says. Historically, the camera has been used as a tool to reinforce colonial narratives and perpetuate dangerous prejudices. Some artists have challenged this by photographing marginalised individuals, and offering a platform for their stories. “But photography is not enough,” says Valenzuela Escobedo. “A stronger political gesture is needed… shifting away from a perspective that focuses solely on victims or the vulnerable, to one that concentrates on individuals, or the systems that contribute to the problems. Photography needs to be used as a tool for deconstruction and social critique.”

Over 12 years have passed since the women of Cheran stood up to the narcolumberjacks. Today, the community exists peacefully, but as a calm oasis within a wider landscape still plagued by violence. Michoacán is the only place in the world where avocados can bloom 365 days a year, and its land is blanketed by orchards of “green gold” operated and managed by cartels. González García and Grisanti don’t want this story to be considered an isolated incident. “What is happening [in Michoacán] is happening simultaneously in other places on the planet,” says Grisanti. Cheran’s revolution offers an example of how community organisation can restructure society and repair relationships with nature. ”This could have a positive influence on Western societies that have severed their spiritual link to their territory,” says Grisanti, who believes that this separation is what has left individuals without the tools to cope with problems such as the climate crisis.

There is so much to be learned from Indigenous rituals, and these references ripple through Oro Verde. “Their relationship with the woods is not just economical, it is completely spiritual,” says Gonzalez Garcia. Each year, in a coming-of-age ceremony marking the post-Easter event of Corpus Christi, young people are sent into the forest to scavenge for bees' nests. These are carefully brought home and attached to wooden structures decorated with branches, wild flowers and stuffed animals. The young people dance for days on end with these huge, humming sculptures attached to their backs.

“By not seeing ourselves as part of a whole – a network of respect and empathy – we are able to act as a powerful entity in the face of the destructive pressure of the capitalist system,” says Grisanti. “Oro Verde can be read as the story about a community that became a hive,” says Grisanti, “like the bees of the forest, they performed a carefully organised dance – a ritual of rebellion and disobedience”.

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