El Cambalache – connecting decolonialism, diverse economies and intersectional feminism in Chiapas, Mexico

By Martina Locorotondo

In this post, CURA’s PhD student Martina Locorotondo reports the outcomes of a Boot Camp Workshop on Decolonial Diverse Economies, held at El Cambalache (Chiapas, Mexico) in January 2020, and reflects on the significance of this encounter for her own PhD research. A highly recommended read for academics both established and emergent, this is an honest and reflexive personal account of the research journey towards an ethnographic account of non-hierarchical knowledge production embracing decolonial thought and intersectional feminism  (1263 words / 5-7 minute read).   

“Desarmando el Capitalismo” (Dismantling Capitalism) – a big handmade graffiti on the front wall – is the first thing I saw when I entered the space of  El Cambalache. Then, just next to it, “Todo tiene el mismo valor” (everything has the same value) clarifies the terms of this statement. A doctor’s appointment, a laptop repair, a jacket or a pen: everything has the same value, and nothing corresponds to a monetary value. The hierarchies between knowledges, objects and services – necessary to capitalist profit – suddenly, are wiped away by the needs of a community that organizes itself.

El Cambalache is a space in San Cristobal de Las Casas (Chiapas) that is managed by a group of six women: some of them indigenous, others migrants. As Josefa – one of the generators – told, they came together five years ago, stating no estamos solas (we are not alone). But, what is exactly El Cambalache? How does it work? First of all, El Cambalache means ‘The Swap’ in English. Las compañeras describe it as a moneyless economy. People exchange goods, services, knowledge and mutual aid there, without the use of money. Anyone who decides to participate is invited to take/ask for what they really need, and give back what they don’t.

During the workshop, Las Cambalacheras (the term that women members of the group use to call themselves) tried to highlight some founding principles of their organizing, whilst connecting these latters to the local geopolitical context. The concepts of Decoloniality, Diverse Economies, Intersectional Feminism and Commoning have been addressed in a way that kept together theoretical elaboration and lived experience. 

The geography of resistance

El Cambalache is positioned in a residential neighbourhood of the mountain-town of San Cristobal de Las Casas – far from the city centre and from the roads scored by tourists. The soil, on which El Cambalache lays, is what gives vital lymph to its project. The roots that enhanced El Cambalache to grow – similarly to the many community projects that inhabit this territory – are deeply embedded in Maya-Tojolabal value of nosotrosidad (‘ourness’). Tojolabal and Tzotzil languages are characterized by the frequent repetition of the sound ‘tik’, which in English means ‘we’/’us’/’our’. The collective ‘us’ represents an organizing principle of such languages, as well as of the cosmovisions that are reflected in the same languages. The community is the organic whole composed of all its members. On one hand, community empowers and gives value to the individual. On the other hand, each individual is ‘organismically’ necessary to the community. As a consequence, there is no space for the individualistic affirmation of the ego, as each individual is what it is as an organic member of a whole (Lenkersdorf, 2002).

The geography of Chiapas is marked, at the same time, by the history of colonialism and domination. During a seminar, Belkis – one of the Cambalacheras – talked about the attempts by the conquerors of objectifying the subjectivities, the stories and the lands. This has been done in multiple ways: for example producing representations of the indigenous women as indecent because they were naked, and imposing clothes on them. Or reporting biased interpretation of cannibalism in order to label those populations as barbaric. In relation to territories, colonizers described them as passive lands and too vast for the Indio. Such representations served to push forward the acts of violence as not only justifiable, but also necessary.

On the one hand, the ‘white masculine European mappings’, on the other hand ‘a different sense of place’ that resisted centuries of colonialism and that dates back to the millenary Mayan culture. During the workshop, I appreciated a notion of geography, which is not static, ‘secure and unwavering’. It is rather characterised by the struggle, by the restless tension oppressing ↔ resisting (McKittrick, 2006). In this interplay, the ‘borderlands’ are the places where liminal intellectual spaces have survived in parallel to, and without being incorporated by colonialist thought (Anzaldua, [1989] 2012).    

Diverse Decolonial Economies

The resistance of pre-Hispanic values and organizing principles over centuries of colonization – in combination with marginality from capitalist economy – enhanced the development of diverse decolonial economies in the state of Chiapas. As Erin – cambalachera – explained, the economic project of El Cambalache can be read through this theoretical framework. Foremost, the collective calls for a pluralistic idea of economy, which is not limited to money exchange and it is not aimed at accumulation. Rather it embraces all of the activities that are necessary for living, first of which care for people, barter, gift, housework, interpersonal relationships, etc. (Gibson-Graham, 2013). These actions – it is relevant to stress – play a primary role in a context of limited access to resources controlled by capitalist economy. Accordingly, as Elena – another cambalachera – explained, El Cambalache sees as the beating hearth of its economy especially those things that are not valued by a capitalist economy. This entails considering as crucial social responsibility and care, as well as all of those relationships that tie together people, land and resources.

Intersectional Feminism and the Commoning

‘Economy is the space where we build how we live’, Las Cambalacheras stated during the workshop. With these words, they suggested that the everyday and embodied practices that are at the base of an economy, dynamically build communities and their power relationships. This process is also identified as Commoning. Accordingly, analyising commoning through an Intersectional-Feminist lens aims at shedding light on the practices that produce oppression as well as on the ones that generate collective well-being and mutual aid (Clement et al., 2019). Tito – a PhD student holding a seminar – has exemplified this theoretical standpoint telling the story of Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a catholic figure – tied to Spanish colonization – that is the national saint of Mexico. The same figure represents Mother Earth as well, a fundamental element of Mayan rituality. The reuniόn de senoras(ladies’ reunion) is the organizational center of the celebration: local women are in charge of the collective gathering of resources, as well as of the making of tamale. Tito explained that tamale is a Mexican food made of corn that has a particular bound to earth and its products, which is prepared collectively. Within this long-standing activity, all the work of the infrastructure is enclosed: often invisible, usually made by women. The celebration of Guadalupe, thus, represents the space of decolonization operated by local ladies. Indeed, through the re-appropriation of the colonial celebration, women construct forms of economy that are alternative to neo-liberal paradigm. Infrastructure, interpersonal relationships, collective managing of resources: these are the elements at the very heart of such diverse economies. 

A circularity of knowledges: how does it inform academic research?

Having participated in El Cambalache’s workshop has a fundamental relevance to my research. In first instance, since I am adopting a decolonial theoretical framework, learning about it from a community that is directly involved both in the oppression suffered from colonialism and in the decolonial endeavour is pivotal. Doing this on-site had the added value of appreciating the fundamental ties that exist between these processes and the human geography of a territory with its multiple stories. In second instance, the experience within a grassroots community provided me with some tools that I will develop further for the ethnography that I will conduct next year. For example, the feminist-intersectional lens will serve to analyse the everyday practices that shape communities. Ultimately, El Cambalache’s non-hierarchical standpoint in relation to the production of knowledges – whether they are skill-based, academic or non – will bring some reflections about the strategies I will adopt to better collect and report the variety of knowledges that one community produces.  

 

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