The Documentalist

Preliminary Impressions of Documentation Practices in Mexico

Posted in Reports by Sarah on March 17, 2010

As many of you know, three weeks ago I was in Mexico visiting a number of human rights groups so that I could document their documentation practices.  I will be writing up formal reports for each of the groups I visited, but I thought I’d post some of the highlights of the trip here for you to enjoy.

Que disfruten! –Sarah

Goal: D0cumenting Documentation in Mexico

On February 14, 2010 I traveled to Mexico to spend five days in the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, followed by three days in Mexico City.  The goal of the trip was to visit a variety of human rights organizations in order to learn more about the the work they do and the resources they dedicate not only to their activism, but also to documentation activities.  Above all else, I went to learn about how they document the work they do and the goals they have for that documentation.  The trip was a tremendous success, most especially thanks to the invaluable help and organizing efforts of Paco Vazquez, who served as my guide and consultant in Chiapas.  Paco is the director of Promedios (a video activism organization centered in San Cris) and arranged for me to visit groups whose doors would have otherwise been closed to me.  He carefully organized these visits so that I could follow the flow of information through various levels of documentation practice in Chiapas.  The interesting pattern there is that information organically flows from small grassroots community groups (who engage in intense activism but have few documenting resources) to larger organizations of legal and documentation professionals who can process community information and mobilize it to serve a variety of purposes locally, nationally and internationally.  Paco explicitly organized things so that I could see this pattern, but serendipitously, the groups that I later visited in Mexico City on my own happened to be those that receive the documentation from the documentation groups in Chiapas.   I was thus able to witness an important and central flow of human rights information in Mexico that has emerged in response to the challenges that individuals and groups face in Chiapas.  This will be the topic of a formal report that we are developing here at CRL, and I will announce that report here when it’s completed.

So where did I go?

The itinerary of visits to organizations I visited was as follows:

Monday February 15, 2010:

  • La Red de Defesnsores Comunitarios de los Derechos Humanos,  San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  This organization seeks to support local groups in their activism and collects minimal documentation.  The largest project they have been involved in was supporting legal proceedings for abuses in Morelia in the late 1990s and they maintain a copy of the legal documentation involved in that case.
  • Promedios, San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  Promedios conducts and supports video activism throughout Chiapas and also in Guerrero in an effort to allow local groups to use video to voice their own concerns and represent their lives as they wish them to be represented.  They have collected thousands of hours of video footage in the 12 years since their inception, all of which is stored locally in their offices.  Paco Vazquez and a volunteer are currently in the process of cataloging these materials and researching affordable and effective means of preserving them.

Tuesday February 16, 2010:

  • Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, Ocosingo (a community seat for smaller indigenous municipalities in the mountains about two hours to the northeast of San Cristóbal de Las Casas).  Fray Pedro is group that supports local indigenous communities in managing and organizing activism efforts.  They collect paper documentation of their case work and maintain digital archives of the reports they generate.
  • Servicios Asesoría para la Paz (SERAPAZ), Ocosingo.  The mission of SERAPAZ is to help mitigate conflict and establish a stable social peace between opposing parties or groups, above all between Indigenous Maya communities and mainstream governmental structures.  To this end, organizations approach them for training and empowerment so that they can learn to peacefully and effectively stand up for and receive their rights.

Wednesday February 17, 2010:

  • Las Abejas, Acteal (a Tzotzil Maya community about and hour and a half to the north of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the mountain cloud forests).  Las Abejas (meaning “the bees”) is a pacifistic Christian group located in the village of Acteal.  The group originally formed to engage in peaceful resistance of oppressive government policies, but after the Massacre of Acteal (which occurred in the village 12 years ago at the hands of fellow Tzotzil who were pro-state paramilitary members) Las Abejas has dedicated itself to justice and memory activities.  Though there is little in the way of infrastructure within the community to support documentation efforts, Las Abejas works with other groups to engage in video activism and to record their testimonies and provide evidence for legal proceedings.  In these latter activities, the community works with Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (see below), a group of human rights lawyers working out of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Thursday Feberuary 18, 2010

  • Centro de Derechos de la Mujer de Chiapas (CDMC), San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  CDMC is a confederation of 21 communities throughout Chiapas, all focused on improving women’s understanding of and engagement with their constitutionally guaranteed rights.  Though the focus is explicitly on gender issues, these are closely tied in with a whole range of human rights abuses that need to be addressed in the Chiapas region.  Therefore, the support and empowerment services that CDMC provides helps the women that participate in their network to help their communities realize their rights.  From the beginning, the organization’s founder has stressed the need to document all of their activities for memory and for legal purposes.

Friday February 19, 2010

  • Centro de Derechos Humanos, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, or Frayba, San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  Frayba is a group of human rights lawyers and technology professionals that specializes in legal representation and providing legal resources to local communities.  The center houses a large archive of legal documents, as well as case evidence to support the cases they present in national and international courts.  They also have a large collection of reference materials that hey have amassed as a result of researching rights issues and rights law.  They are in the process of designing a dedicated and controlled archiving space for preserving these materials and making them available for research.
  • Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC), San Cristóbal de Las Casas.  CIEPAC is a research organization that focuses on economic and political analysis at the local level.  They work to provide support and research training to local human rights groups who seek out their assistance.  The data they collect are used to create regional reports of conditions specific to particular communities, as well as to create more broadly comparative analyses.  CIEPAC strives to maintain a database of the data and reports the group creates and is in the process of organizing a large collection of reference materials that they have collected since their inception in 1998.

Monday February 22, 2010

  • Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos: Todos los Derechos Para Todas y Todos (RedTdT), Mexico City.  As an organization, RedTdT began its work in the defense of gender rights, but has transformed into a group dedicated to providing a system of documentation to a network of smaller human rights groups of all stripes from all over Mexico.  There are currently 68 organizations in their network and all are in the process of adopting a documentation database program that RedTdT has developed for standardizing and sharing documentation across Mexico.  The program is based on HURIDOCS’s WinEvsys documentation program and human rights thesauri.  The program will allow human rights organizations to catalog the cases they work with, as well as have access to case content so that organizations can run analyses of patterns and trends in their communities.  The database program also allows the groups within the network the opportunity to backup their data in a central database where it can also be used to run regional and national analyses of human rights trends.   Frayba (see above) is a principal participant in this program.
  • Canalseisdejulio (Canal 6), Mexico City.  Canal 6 is an independent, non-profit documentary film studio in Mexico City that creates films designed to uncover human rights and political abuses in Mexico.  In their more than 20 years of operation, they have created over 50 documentaries and collected thousands of hours of raw video footage, as well as associated notebooks and contextual materials.  These materials are now catalogued and preserved at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where scholars and legal professionals can access them.

Some Preliminary Impressions

Upon first impression, the most striking characteristic of the documentation activities I saw in Chiapas is the organic way in which the organizations work together to bridge an significant cultural divide in what counts as evidence when seeking justice or maintaining historical memory.  All of the groups I visited in Chiapas are explicitly involved in indigenous rights for the many Maya communities that inhabit the region.  These groups have traditionally been abused and repressed since the coming of the Spanish in the 15th Century, but they are making significant strides toward gaining autonomy, recognition, and the freedom to exercise their human rights.  In doing so, they have had to learn how to convert their forms of truth and evidence–which are largely oral–into the sorts of formal documentation artifacts that are required by mainstream Western legal processes.  Thus, much of the work in Chiapas focuses on transforming oral tradition–which is collaboratively created rather than individually recounted–into individualistic paper and video documentation that will stand up as evidence in legal and scholarly contexts.  Bridging this divide has resulted in a variety of organically emerging relationships between indigenous populations and mainstream professionals who have ties to the indigenous communities either through family or affinity.  Through these cooperative arrangements, the Maya maintain their oral histories while documentation and legal professionals record them and transform them into the legal artifacts that are necessary for gaining and maintaining legal rights.

This process is most strongly evident in the relationship between Las Abejas (and the community of Acteal) and Frayba, which has served as their legal representation for the last 12 years.  My visit to Acteal was the most deeply “impresionante” or impactful visit of my trip.   12 years ago this Tzotzil village experienced a massacre in which 45 people were killed as they attended church services.  Their attackers were neighboring Tzotzil–friends and family members that they new–who belonged to a pro-state paramilitary organization that sought to eliminate all resistance to state policies, even if that resistance was peaceful.  As Paco and I sat in the Acteal communal kitchen (a single room structure with a dirt floor and an open cooking fire at one end) we spoke to three community leaders who are also survivors of the massacre.  They explained to us how they have worked with Frayba to transform their experiences and memories of events into testimony and evidence that the courts will recognize and consider.  The process has been long and will continue for some time to come because of human and legal rights issues for both plaintiffs and defendants.  But each step and each adaptation that the Maya on both sides engage in represents an adaptation that allows their voices to be heard and recorded and serves as a potential model for bridging this sort of cultural divide between oral traditions and Western legal practice.


8 Responses

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  1. Wendy Smith said, on March 19, 2010 at 12:45 am

    This is fabulous work. A colleague of mine is working with Aboriginal populations and wrestling with questions of oral traditions — I’ll pass this along to her.

  2. Sarah said, on March 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Thanks Wendy–please encourage your colleague to comment and contribute her thoughts. I’m trying to establish a dialogue here on the blog to get people thinking about these issues in creative and constructive ways.

  3. Elizabeth said, on April 13, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Hi Sarah,
    this is really interesting, especially the ideas around the “formal documentation artifacts” required by mainstream Western legal processes. You mention how much it has transformed existing oral tradition into documentation for legal contexts – has the process gone the other direction at all, changing the oral tradition and the collection of other evidence as well? And is there nuance that cannot be understood without long-term ties to the indigenous communities through family/affinity?

    • Sarah said, on April 13, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      Hi Elizabeth
      These are some interesting questions and I don’t know that I have adequate answers for them. When I was in Acteal, the community president (for lack of a better term) told me how the process of documentation has had an impact on his traditionally oral community, not so much in terms of documenting events themselves (though it has impacted that of course), but on how they think about the future. Specifically, I was told that the Tzotzil Maya typically do not talk about the future because it isn’t yet known so to avoid telling an un-truth, people don’t talk about future possibilities among themselves. Of course people think and wonder about the future, but they don’t talk about it beyond immediate family. But with the events that happened at Acteal, there is a deep concern with avoiding such atrocities for their children and grand children. So, they’ve worked with outsiders to write a book to write down their history as they want to present it to their children in a hope that the children will learn what their elders want them to learn. This is something they wouldn’t necessarily have done before the massacre. Also, the president related to me that people now recognize that they have to interact with an outside world that values forms and documentation that were previously foreign to Acteal, so they are adapting to that and learning to adopt outside conventions to represent local needs and values. Of course, I was only there for an afternoon, so I can’t say definitively what reverse impact outside practices are having on an oral tradition. It would be a great research question!

  4. […] work investigating how human rights groups there document their work.  Like my trip to Mexico in February, this trip is part of CRL’s larger “Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study.”  […]

  5. Emily said, on December 27, 2010 at 2:07 am

    This is very valuable work, thanks for sharing. I’m going to San Cristobal for two months this summer to do a documentary photo project on a human rights organization, so it was great to find this. I didn’t yet know about a few of the organizations you visited. I’m interested in doing research similar to this but more long-term, with a single organization, and centered on images. My university is funding the trip, and the grant requires that I work with a H.R. organization, and have official confirmation from the organization by the end of January. I have no idea if you’ll see this in time, but if you could share some of your knowledge/contacts in this field with me it would be so helpful. I’m finding it rather difficult to establish official plans with an organization from so far away.

    • Sarah said, on December 28, 2010 at 1:03 pm

      Hi Emily,

      I would suggest that you get in touch with Promedios, since your interest is primarily in imagery. I’ll contact you at your indicated email address to provide you with the contact information for the program and for the sister program (Chiapas Media Project) here in the US, which might also be helpful for you. Keep me posted on your work! This sounds like a wonderful project.

  6. Emily said, on December 31, 2010 at 2:53 am

    Thanks Sarah, I would really appreciate that! I’m very interested in working with them, they seem to be doing an amazing thing. I’ll keep you updated on what comes out of the trip.
    Happy new year!

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