19 | MAR | 2019
For 24 years, Indigenous Cucapá women have fought for their rights
Inocencia Gonzalez Saenz, a Cucapá fisherwoman and artisan – Photo: Valente Rosas/EL UNIVERSAL

For 24 years, Indigenous Cucapá women have fought for their rights

18/10/2018
17:29
Ensenada, BC
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The Cucapá indigenous community was affected in 1993 when the federal government forbade them from fishing

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Mrs. Hilda Hurtado's face is the result of her ancestors: hooked nose, long ears, dark skin, traditional hairstyles, and oracle eyes. Her voice is like an echo that produces the teachings of her culture, born 500 years ago. She is a Cucapá, also known as Cocopah, descendant, and the word means “people of the river”, an ethnicity that worships the riverside, and the sea to fish.

Her home is located next to the Colorado River Delta, which meets the Upper Gulf of California, where the wind seethes hotly. That's where they established themselves, between Baja California and Sonora, they are led by women, but always through consensus with men.

“We have seen other indigenous communities where women are obedient, behind men; not us, we're equal, not below them,” says Hurtado, who is 68-years-old, and the president of the Cooperative Society of the Indigenous Cucapá Community.

At the head of the decisions, supported by her community, things haven't been easy since 1993, when the federal government created a biosphere reserve that violated their customs and traditions, according to them, because it forbids them to fish. “We've never agreed with the way in which it was established,” she says.

In time, their products were seized and they were detained by the federal security forces, which sparked off the defense of their ethnicity, backed by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in 2007.

These 24 years define the story of the most important ethnic and legal defense carried out by indigenous fisherwomen in northern Mexico, to demand their rights; the fight motivated the Human Rights National Commission (CNDH) to investigate the case and present recommendations before fishing and environmental authorities.

For Catalina López Sagástegui, director of the director of the Marine Program of the California Gulf of the Scripps Institution in the U.S., one of the researchers who have worked with the Cucapá women, they “not only distinguish themselves for leading the cooperatives, but also for having complex defense strategies, fishers from Bajo Río, Santa Clara, and San Felipe have learned from them. They are strong women trying to find a balance between culture and a way to survive.”

In the first two parts of this story, EL UNIVERSAL published that women are a minority in the fishing industry in the country, with 14,311 female workers against 158,227 male workers, from which 70% of those fisherwomen don't have a steady income, according to an analysis carried out by dataMares and Community and Diversity (Cobi). The official statistics don't emphasize the indigenous fisherwomen in economic unities, although they have achieved an uncommon gender equality system in Mexico.

During the period between February and April, the Cucapá people travel to El Zanjón, in the Valley of Mexicali, an area that was damaged by the 2010 earthquake, which is still in bad conditions until today. They set sail from there to fish.

In ancient times they fished in Tule and arrowweed rafts; now they fish using fiberglass boats and sail towards the tide because after the damming of the Colorado river ordered by the U.S. government, they registered a shortage of species. In family units, from both genders, from all ages, and they fish just as their ancestors did.

According to the book Human Rights, indigenous people, and globalization, coordinated by the CNDH, “historically, fishing has been one of the activities that characterize this ethnic group from northern Mexico (the Cucápas) and it still is an important source of protein in their everyday diet, and of additional income to survive.”

Today, fishing is not just part of their customs and traditions, but a commercial activity they carry out to generate an income. They legally created the Cooperative Society in 1983, led by Mrs. Hilda.

According to the leader, women are in charge because the authorities repress them less than they repress men; in their communities, there are more women, 53.6%, than men, according to statistics from the Inegi, and because they tend to “keep calm” when solving conflicts.

In 1993, they faced the creation of the Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River, to protect the vaquita marina and totoaba, two species in danger of extinction. The resistance turned into arrests, one of Hurtado's sons among them, who was jailed.

The logic of the dispossession

López Sagástegui, Yacotzin Bravo Espinosa, and Alejandra Navarro Smith, Bravo has a PhD in Law by the UNAM and Navarro a PhD in Social Anthropology by the Manchester University, in England, explain that in the article Cucapá Indigenous People: Cartography of the Legal Battle, in the CNDH's book previously mentioned, that “the authorities don't acknowledge this community's right to fishing or staying in their territory. This lack of acknowledgment has created a conflict between the Cucapás and the authorities, which reproduces the logic of dispossession and invisibility” of the indigenous community. Mrs. Hilda, along with other female leaders, Juana Aguilar, and Susana Sáinz, have a clear idea of the battle they have fought in the last years.

“They set up that protected natural area in a place where we used to fish, without consulting us, in an ancestral territory that belonged to our people,” she said during an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, in her home at El Indiviso.

Hurtado smiles when she shows pictures from her family album. “There are my grandchildren with a huge Corvina they fished,” she emphasized. There are three children in the picture, two boys and a girl. The Cucapá groups are formed by families, she explains, who make an effort to work following the indigenous traditions.

From López Sagástegui's perspective, who has a Master in Marine Biodiversity Conservation by the University of California, “the view of equality has also existed when participating in fishing tasks.”

For the expert, “little by little, this dynamic where women took the lead during the negotiations, in the discussions with the authorities.”

“I've never seen a man tell a woman they can't do something, I've always seen them working in teams,” she explains. “They recognize and value each other's strengths.”

Listeners and consensus

On the other hand, she explains that in the decision-making system, experienced women meet with the cooperative to reach agreements. For their part, men attend the meetings as listeners.

This accompaniment, explains the expert, is different from other fishing cooperatives in the northern region, whose leaders attend the meetings alone. “Although women are in charge, men also accompany them in these processes. Women's role as leaders must be acknowledged because they are playing a leadership role before the authorities. At this point, men are recognizing women's abilities to negotiate,” she explains.

One of the main strategic principles of the Cucapás is not to accept any subsidy from official agencies on the federal, state, or municipal levels. “The government won't give you money for free, they give you money because they want something in return,” they argue.

In 2007, the Subcomandante Marcos arrived from the Lacandon Jungle along with an entourage of Zapatistas, to camp along the Cucapás and close the Mexicali-San Felipe highway to protest. The rebels from Chiapas stayed in the area for two months and exchanged different lessons.

For Hurtado, the main lesson were the peaceful strategies to demand the fulfillment of the rights of the indigenous community. “If they wanted to seize the product, the fish, then we went and took the detained boat from them. We cut the rope tied to the dock,” she remembers enthusiastically.

The Zapatistas' methods they applied to their own circumstances were effective, when the harassment on the part of the authorities began to dissolve to make way for conversations, she says.

In May 2007, the Comandanta Dalia released a statement in the Zapatista website, to sum up: “Now we have fulfilled our responsibility as Zapatista women to be with you, so you can fish, so they fucking government doesn't bother you (sic),” she explained.

According to López Sagástegui, the survival as an indigenous community is not the only factor behind this fight. “They want to keep on fishing because they are women and men from the river; it's their culture, it's their past, and they also want it to be their future,” she emphasizes.

Over a decade has gone by since the Zapatistas supported the Cucapás in their fight against their territory, and they are still in touch. It's about coordination they say, the fight in the desert and the jungle; between southern and northern Mexico.”

Mrs. Hilda considers that they have always raised their voices, but with the Zapatista lessons, they dared to carry out other actions. Today, she emphasizes that “Cucapá women are the ones raising their voices to protest.”

In her home's backyard, there is a frame hanging from a plank that Mrs. Hilda observes with her eyes full of history and memories. It's the photograph of a boy smiling inside a canoe with a phrase: “Under and towards the left: Cucapás, Quilihuas, and Zapatistas united in the defense of the indigenous people and of mother earth.”

*This article is part of the science journalism project promoted by Iniciativa DataMares (datamares.org), which seeks transparency, dissemination, and understanding of information for decision-making processes regarding the sustainability and conservation of the natural resources of the country.
 

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