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Cliff's Notes: A Mexican Tale

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Interview by: Cliff Kapono (@cliff_kapono)

Photos by: Nash Howe (@nashowe) and Dan Lorch (@thesaltygiant_)

Many years ago, I remember sitting at the water’s edge and my father telling that where the land meets the sea is where we feel most at home. “We are ocean people. This is how it was, how it is, and how it will be as long as we don’t forget where we come from,” he said. At the time, I didn’t know how impactful these words would be on my life and how knowing where I come from would help me stay rooted in all aspects of life. As I travel, often times very far from the sands of my birth, I am always humbled to meet those who share similar beliefs. Marc Chavez is one such individual, who believes that without having a strong understanding of one’s past, it is very difficult to improve towards a better future. Having met Marc many years ago at an indigenous youth camp in San Diego, I was more than overwhelmed when he invited me to the home of his ancestors. The water was warm, the drinks were cold, but it was the hospitality that will remain unforgettable. Between the native food, culture and surf, we were able to catch up about what brought this once “lost” LA boy south of the border. It was only then did I realize just how volatile things were in the region.

Cliff Kapono: Bruddah Marc! Thank you for inviting me here. Where are we anyways?

Marc Chavez: We are in the State of Michoacan’s Northern Coast, the Aquilo District. Michoacan has had a bad rap for a good minute, as Cartel activity is legendary in this area. Michoacan, particularly these areas, is still referred to by other Mexicans as the “wild west.” In a way its kind of remote part of the coast, where there are no major hotels or resorts. Here there are just very small towns and Indigenous villages. The capitol of Michoacan is 5-7 hours away by bus and inland.

These are the Nahuatl beach communities. This is the area I was drawn to set up my place of study – proximity to the coastal Nahuatl communities of Northern Michoacan.

To my knowledge, Purepecha and Nahuatl Indigenous People make up the majority of the population in most of this region.

During the Aztec/Mexica Empire, Michoacan has and continues to have a long reputation of resistance to imperialism and taxing empires. Purepechas of Michoacan also known as Tarasco Indians, were of the few tribes who successfully resisted and held off imperial movement by the Mexica empire and later by the European colonial movements.

It’s a fascinating history and I encourage everyone to research more on all the facts, battles and triumphs of these resilient people. I believe we all need to bring pieces of the story to light, and many are often buried and not found in books. That’s kind of why I am here, to unearth my roots.

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That’s awesome. How is the community dynamic here?

I have only been here for some months, so I can only share what I have been told by local people and seen with my own eyes. When I first arrived to this area, I was warned to stay out. My mom and others kept sharing stories of kidnapping, violence and drug cartels. These stories are true, but what I “discovered” during my short residence has been even more surprising!

After years of Cartel control, extortion and violence, the Indigenous people of the area took back their region. It was basically thru force, inspired from being fed up and drawing on their historic resistance. It was lead by a man whose brother was shot by the cartel for not paying his taxes in the middle of the day. This last act of violence was the “straw the broke the burros back,” so to speak. The brother of the victim, instantly retaliated, killing the thugs on the spot and without fear, took up arms to lead the eradication of the Cartel and all its affiliates residing in pockets of this area. They literally took up arms, searched for and removed every known cartel member of the area. Again, these are mostly small towns and rural villages.

This indigenous resistance also kicked out the National and state police that was known to also be in cooperation with the Cartel. National police and military usually are not from these areas, and do not have vested interest in the community. Similar to many of the police in the urban areas of the U.S.

Abuse of the community, its women, business owners and assistance to the cartel, made police un-trustworthy and represented more harm than protection.  So the indigenous people held resistance and declared themselves as the protectors of their own community. They took up arms, vehicles and houses left from the extradited cartel. They re-commissioned these resources to a new Community Police Force.

To make a long story short, they held resistance with the state and national government and demanded to be recognized and supported. Over the last 3 years, meetings led by mediators avoided head to head battles with the National and State police. The Indigenous Community Police Force would not back down, closing main highways if needed, and strengthening a far reaching network of community watch.  Organizing an old school form of community watch, with eyes on everything, swift reporting of strangers, and took their goal of protecting the community very seriously.

It took time for much of the community to even get used to it as they were under terror and control by the cartel for so long. Most had even closed their businesses since they did not want to be bothered anymore with paying tax to the organized criminals. Folks wanted to appear as plain as possible, with no appearance of wealth. So the small towns slowly became without the little “mom and pop” business, which rural Mexico is known for.

I was told that folks, for the first year or so after the cartel was kicked out were still in disbelief that it was real. Many could not believe the Cartel bullies were gone, so slowly there has been an increase in vitality and business re-opening. It’s a vigor that is slowly coming back.

I see the Comunitarios [the Community Police] caring for the community. I am like damn, that’s the way it should be! In many parts of the world, the police are not your friend anymore. You don’t feel protected. In this case, you see them protecting the youth, accompanying educational fieldtrips in plain clothes, responding quickly, etc. Its like the light of a new day, dawn of a good era. It feels different.

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That’s heavy. Why would you come all the way down here in such a turbulent time?

Why am I here? That’s the best question. “It’s like why are we all here?” Or maybe why has it took me so long to get here to find my family, is a better question. Well, much of it is due to the reputation this area has had, the violence in Mexico, and stories of violence has kept me away. Also, I had a language barrier for most of my life, as I did not speak Spanish, and my family in Los Angeles was dis-connected to my family in Mexico.

In Mexico, I focused on a geographical area that would be within 2 hours from my mom’s birthplace in Colima. After getting some leads on waves along the coastal areas, I set out to go check this area. Remember, I knew nothing of the Community Police and only of Cartel stories. My mom was on the phone with me as I was driving south towards Michoacan telling me all the stories of kidnapping which here friends recently shared with here. So lets say I proceeded with caution and yes a little fear.

Long story short, I ended up setting up my residence along the coast. It was located between some great surf breaks that are exposed to all swells and one rarely, if ever, sees a gringo tourist. It was kind of surreal.

Later I find out that “coincidently” I had set up residence 20 minutes south of the actual place both my Grandfather was born, raised, and 20 minutes north of where my Grandmother was born.  At the time, this was totally un be-known to me that I had did this. This realization came months later, after I began tracking down both my grandfather's side of the family. And just until last week, I just learned the village from where my grandmother was from was in the exact same district where I was living. Like whoa.

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It seemed like fear was holding you back at first, but once you let that go things ended up just as they were suppose to.

Exactly. I decided I wanted to be close to my roots. Get there and follow the vibe, get some waves, and continue my study of indigenous foods and ways. What I “discovered” was very validating to my intuition and identity.

It was invigorating to re-connect with Mexican culture. It felt strange, yet so familiar at the same time. It was festive and I was buzzing.  A month after I arrived, I called my mother down and my son (who was living with his mom in California) down to visit. When they arrived, we began to search Colima City for her birthplace and seek out family. My mom does not have the best memory, but we took to the streets as three generations – my mom, my son and me. It was dope.

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How has founding a Native Youth Program help you in this search for your past?

I began Young Native Scholars in 2000 after being hired by the University in San Diego and later it morphed into InterTribal Youth and now morphing again into Native Like Water. It was based on how, I as a youth, was turned off from boring curriculum.

So, for the past 17 years, with ITY, I have been leading these super immersion programs. Leading and inspiring youth to find their path, be ok with their identity and release the burden of guilt that they often feel in regards to their disconnect to school.

In this whole journey of my program, I was perhaps just trying to make it right for myself. A reflection, a desire, a need to heal this dysfunctional trauma I experienced in my early education.

Your journey is really inspiring and it is an honor to participate first hand. Reminds me a lot of how we think about things in Hawai‘i.

You know, in doing the ITY program for 15 years, I always knew we needed to know more about the Pacific Maritime Story. ITY needed to reach out to those who know more than us about this great body of water. The program needed to learn more about our Hawaiian relatives, and in doing I knew we would learn about ourselves.

Hawai‘i was a revelation on many ways. I was taken back and in tears with the songs, community values and affirmation of our natural state of being. The “new” educational systems like the Hawaii Cultural Immersion Schools, Polynesian Voyaging Society, Na Kama Kai, Mana Maoli Music Education, and so many others have shown me so much.

In this crazy world of confusion and uncertainty we must find the guiding light, the stars that will take us home. Without a doubt, given the colonial history, resistance, and expression of culture, Hawai‘i is in the best position to teach and guide us in the right direction.

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To learn more about Inter Tribal Youth and Native like Water youth program visit @intertribalyouth or visit www.nativelikewater.org