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Kuxlejal Politics

Kuxlejal Politics
Indigenous Autonomy, Race, and Decolonizing Research in Zapatista Communities

This work of activist anthropology investigates the decolonializing cultural practices that the Zapatistas of Chiapas employed to resist the racialized policies of the Mexican neoliberal state and assert their autonomy.

December 2017
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w photos, 2 b&w maps, 1 b&w chart/graph, 2 b&w tables |

Over the past two decades, Zapatista indigenous community members have asserted their autonomy and self-determination by using everyday practices as part of their struggle for lekil kuxlejal, a dignified collective life connected to a specific territory. This in-depth ethnography summarizes Mariana Mora’s more than ten years of extended research and solidarity work in Chiapas, with Tseltal and Tojolabal community members helping to design and evaluate her fieldwork. The result of that collaboration—a work of activist anthropology—reveals how Zapatista kuxlejal (or life) politics unsettle key racialized effects of the Mexican neoliberal state.

Through detailed narratives, thick descriptions, and testimonies, Kuxlejal Politics focuses on central spheres of Zapatista indigenous autonomy, particularly governing practices, agrarian reform, women’s collective work, and the implementation of justice, as well as health and education projects. Mora situates the proposals, possibilities, and challenges associated with these decolonializing cultural politics in relation to the racialized restructuring that has characterized the Mexican state over the past twenty years. She demonstrates how, despite official multicultural policies designed to offset the historical exclusion of indigenous people, the Mexican state actually refueled racialized subordination through ostensibly color-blind policies, including neoliberal land reform and poverty alleviation programs. Mora’s findings allow her to critically analyze the deeply complex and often contradictory ways in which the Zapatistas have reconceptualized the political and contested the ordering of Mexican society along lines of gender, race, ethnicity, and class.


Honorable mention for the Latin American Studies Association Mexico Section Social Sciences Book Award

Honorable mention for The Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology Book Prize for Latin American Anthropology

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • One. A Brief Overview of the First Years of the Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (1996–2003)
  • Two. The Production of Knowledge on the Terrain of Autonomy: Research as a Topic of Political Debate
  • Three. Social Memories of Struggle and Racialized (E)states
  • Four. Zapatista Agrarian Reform within the Racialized Fields of Chiapas
  • Five. Women’s Collectives and the Politicized (Re)production of Social Life
  • Six. Mandar Obedeciendo; or, Pedagogy and the Art of Governing
  • Conclusion: Zapatismo as the Struggle to Live within the Lekil Kuxlejal Tradition of Autonomy
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

MARIANA MORAMexico City, Mexico

Mora is an associate professor and researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS). She coedited the book Luchas “muy otras”: Zapatismo y autonomía en comunidades indígenas de Chiapas.


“Remarkable…Mora does not limit her analysis to examine Zapatista indigenous autonomy from a de-colonial framework, but also decolonizes her own research methods...Kuxlejal Politics contributes to expand the discussion on the various autonomous projects underway in Latin America and to challenge the research methodology of the anthropology in contact with indigenous peoples.”
European Review of Latin American and Carribean Studies

“A brilliant ethnography of a movement from below that simply refused to accept the prevailing ideological, social, and political structures of oppression.”
Latin American Perspectives

“[An] innovative book…decolonial approaches are needed to reframe research and knowledge production in geography; such a reframing should be attentive to multiple and diverse ontologies and epistemologies…Kuxlejal Politics is exemplary of how the work of reframing might be done. More than that, it is a vision of a life politics that gives me hope.”
Journal of Latin American Geography

“Mora’s project is a model of collaborative research with the communities she did research in....Mora does not romanticise the Zapatista movement; rather, she allows her research subjects to step out of the background of data collection. In this way, her conceptualisation helps us to understand the historical roots and current practices of Zapatista communities by placing them centre stage.”
ALMA Reviews

Kuxlejal Politics is a most eloquent testimony to the dynamic Zapatista struggle and to what an engaged academy can do when it genuinely walks along the paths of subaltern groups intent on defending their worlds. By theorizing and embodying a farsighted vision of decolonized and decolonizing research, Mora renews our commitment to the idea that another academy is possible and practicable. This work is a gift to us all by one of the most inventive exponents of Mexican anthropology at present, in the best tradition of Latin American critical thought.”
Arturo Escobar, Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“This book shows in meticulous detail how the Zapatista movement responds to deep-rooted forms of oppression inflicted on colonized peoples. It reveals, in particular, how women gain agency under the collective decision-making practices of mandar obedeciendo, a pedagogical component of self-governance, spurred by differences of race, class, age, and gender, allowing the community to defend itself through a morality based on cooperation and collaboration.”
Pablo González Casanova, Professor Emeritus, UNAM


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