A World Where Many Worlds Belong | Gustavo Esteva (Unitierra Oaxaca)
On this episode, our guest is Gustavo Esteva, a "deprofessionalized" social activist, author, and elder. I sat down with Gustavo in his house on the edge of a small Zapotec town to discuss the legacy of tourism in Oaxaca, how tourism is an extension of the colonization of the Americas, and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We touch on the differences between tourists and immigrants. Finally, we delve into interculturality, radical hospitality, the philosopher Ivan Illich, and the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico.
Gustavo is the co-founder of La Universidad de la Tierra (the University of the Earth) and the Center for Intercultural Encounters and Dialogues, located in Oaxaca, Mexico. He has authored and edited over 40 books, including "Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures" and "Escaping Education: Living as Learning within Grassroots Cultures," and "the Future of Development: A Radical Manifesto."
I first met Gustavo in 2015 at the Unitierra Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I had long heard incredible stories of Gustavo through a protege of his, Michael Sacco, a close friend and the founder of ChocoSol Traders in Toronto, Canada. Like Michael, I was invited into the philosophies and lived expressions of interculturality, hospitality, and local resilience that Gustavo and his work so deeply embodies.
Part 2 is entitled, "A World Where Many Worlds Belong."
The Corruption of the Best is the Worst
Meeting Ivan Illich at CIDOC in Cuernavaca, Mexico
Interculturality, 500 years of conquest in Mexico, and the ZapatistaUprising of 1994
Abandoning the western obsession with one world
Weaving community at the grassroots
The difference between conventional hospitality and radicalhospitality
Zapatista example: meeting the other as necessity for culturalcultivation and change
Tourist entitlement: “in the land that you go to, you do what yousee.”
The need to reinvent ourselves, culturally, socially, politically
Chris: I've had the great honor to be able to listen to you speak for many years. In that time, it seems to me that some of your greatest influences and friends have been the Zapatistas in Chiapas and Ivan Illich.
And so I'd like to ask you about them briefly, if I can. You spent quite a bit of time, it seems, with Ivan Illich, at CIDOC (the Center for Intercultural Documentation) in Cuernavaca before his death in 2002. Would you be willing to share a little bit with our listeners of who Ivan was, what was happening in Cuernavaca at the time and what he taught you about hospitality?
Gustavo: CIDOC was created by Ivan in 1960 and he closed it, yeah, at the point of the fame of Ivan and the success of CIDOC in 1976, after 10 years of operation. And he assumed that it was being invaded because of the success and then many students and CIA agents, were coming to learn Spanish in that magnificent language school that he created.
And well, in that time he created this after a long complex story. When president Kennedy had an agreement with the Pope to send 10% of all the priests and nuns of North America, of the US and Canada to Latin America. And they asked Ivan that was already had the prestige of knowing Latin America and having visited Latin America, being in Puerto Rico, et cetera.
They gave him the commission to prepare these nuns and priests. For Ivan, that was the horror. He assumed that that was a terrible kind of colonization. And then yes, they learned the Spanish with him very soon, with a fantastic method that he invented, but he explained to them how dangerous they could be going to Latin America.
And perhaps nine of every 10 that came to be trained to go to Latin America decided not to go. And those that finally went, they had the nails cut, meaning they were not dangerous anymore, after being sometime with Ivan. But he did something of that kind, but he knew that he will have been trouble with the Church because of what he was saying, criticizing his own church, criticizing the institution. He said many times an old saying in Latin, " the corruption of the best is the worst." And then he said that the Christian tradition was corrupted by the Church.
And that specific corruption of the church was the model for the corruption of the modern era. Modernity represented the corruption of the best and all the institutions of modernity became counterproductive for Ivan. Then in CIDOC, he created an independent center, not attached to the Church. It was really independent, autonomous, and then for ten years he became very famous because he brought to that place some of the best minds and activists of all kinds to be with him and to work with him and think with him.
And he published what he described as his Cuernavaca pamphlets. And these pamphlets were very, very famous. Ivan was clearly famous, but he decided in 1976 to close CIDOC and avoid that fame, that public face. He refused to give any more, any interview to anyone and he never again gave interviews. And he decided to work in the continuation of the critique and what he called it. "history of scarcity.".
And let me say it's a very long story. I think that Ivan was able to read deep trends in the society in the seventies. And he anticipated all the things that we are living today. He is the guy, really to understand what is happening to, to go to the real roots, to go deep into this dominant regime.
And second, he clearly offered some hints about the paths to follow after this disaster that we are living. Then, it is amazing how Ivan's teachings are currently really very valid. I would like to say something more. In the seventies, when he was at the peak of his fame, I was not reading Illich and I was not visiting him at 60 kilometers from a little place where I was living, because for us in the 'Marxist left,' he was just a reactionary priest.
And then it was not worth reading him. And we were saying, yes, he's criticizing education and health in a capitalist society. Of course they are terrible, but in the socialist society, we will have good education and good health. An example is now in Cuba that we are having that kind of thing already. And that was in the seventies.
In the eighties when I was lost for many different reasons, immersed it in communities, unable to understand what I was enjoying in the indigenous communities. Ready to study more anthropology and economics and political science and the more I studied, the less I understood in my experiences at the grassroots.
Then, I met, by accident, Illich in 1983, and then I was immediately fascinated by his stuff. We became friends pretty soon and then I worked with him for the rest of his life until 2002. Yes. I learned a lot. I could like to say something that not many people see in Ivan. Ivan became Ivan became the guy we know, because an intercultural experience.
He was coming to New York, escaping from a diplomatic career in the Vatican. And crossing a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York, he discovered the horrible treatment they were getting from the Irish priests. And then he asked Cardinal Spellman of the parish for the first time.
He practiced as a priest, and he changed the whole relation with the people in Puerto Rico. Long before the Vatican, and other practices in the world, he started to bring music and Spanish to the Church and created absolutely the relation with the people of Puerto Rico. The last time that he was there it was a fiesta of 50,000 people coming to celebrate with him, his departure.
And then I would say that, Ivan, a very Western guy, knew very well how to practice interculturality and his creations - CIDOC, is the center for intercultural documentation. That is one of his personal obsessions. In a very real sense, his thinking, his writing and his practice was clearly beyond any form of universalism.
That is very interesting because "catholic" means universal. The Catholic church is exactly with the idea of "universal." " Every one should believe in the same kind of thing," and finally controlled by the church. For Ivan, the Church that came from "ekklesia" was just a group of faithful that shared that faith.
They appointed someone, one of them to be the spiritual guide of the group. And that was an ecclesia without any formality, any bureaucracy, any series. It was just a group of the faithful, sharing a common faith. That is in a sense, one of the arguments of Illich. That was "the best," a group of people freely associated and creating one space for their spiritual expression and their own, the space that they shape it in their own way. That was "the best," And that was "the corruption of the best became the worst," in what we have, the great bureaucracy of the church. Then he was criticizing the Church as an institution and accepting the church as a "she," that ecclesia, that was a spiritual space.
With Ivan, yes, I learned a lot of things, but the most important thing is how to practice interculturality. That was my main reason to come to Oaxaca, 30 years ago..
Chris: The corruption of the best is the worst.
Gustavo: His analysis of all the institutions, of the school and the education, in general health, they said it was very counterproductive. Then the school was producing ignorance and health was sickening. The first phrase of medical nemesis that became very, very famous was "the medical profession has become a danger for health." It's counterproductive.
It's not producing healing, it's producing the opposite. It's sickening us.
Chris: Hmm. Yeah, I would double that by saying the tourism industry has become a threat to hospitality. Um, I'd like to offer a little story. Some seven or eight years ago, I was backpacking through Southern Mexico as a tourist, and I had known about the Zapatista caracol, Oventic, because a friend of mine had once visited. Even though I didn't speak Spanish at the time, I managed to find the shared taxi to the town. Along the way I befriended a Chilean couple who were also heading to the same spot.
And they said they would translate for me so that I might see the place. At the time. I knew very little about the Zapatistas apart from what I had read in books, about the insurrection in 1994 and the temporary occupation of San Cristobal and the subsequent founding of their autonomous villages.
We arrived at the town and filled out some paperwork and luckily they let us in. We followed a local guide a few hundred meters in to the village as he explained a bit about the place. Shortly thereafter, and for reasons to this day that I'm unaware of, we were asked to leave, which we did.
This didn't really bother me, as realistically speaking, I had no reason to be there, but a few years passed and I moved to Oaxaca and was visiting San Cristobal and there I was introduced to a mutual friend of yours, a Zapatista there. I was invited into this stranger's home, where we drank coffee and spoke of our mutual relationships and our mutual love for the world.
The coffee was followed by a walk around the land where people were tending to their daily work. I was gracefully introduced to each one of them and invited into their lives, even just for a moment. Now, the difference between these two experiences for me was immense. One was based around curiosity and to some degree entitlement. The other was based on friendship and hospitality.
In the years you've spent as an honored friend of the Zapatistas, Gustavo, what has their movement taught you about interculturality and hospitality in our time?
Gustavo: Well, it is really a very radical change because in the 80's I was with Ivan and learning interculturality, but it was the theory of interculturality. It was the image of interculturality. It was seeing the practice of interculturality, but not immersed in interculturality and still assuming a kind of universal culture in my mind. And then in the 90's, two things happened. At first, it was 1992, the 500 anniversary. That was an incredible affirmation of indigenous people in the whole American continent.
That, that was, I was very impressed by that affirmation, seeing how alive and vigorous and strong were the indigenous people in the whole American continent. And the second, I was already in Oaxaca. Here, it was really, really spectacular, the affirmation of 1992.
Two years later, we have the Zapatista uprising. I was in the street in January the 2nd, uh, supporting the Zapatistas and I have been with them since then, since January the 2nd in 1994. I was touching, I don't know whom, in chains that surrounded and protected them for the Dialogues of the Cathedral in March, 1994. I was there, since then, in all the events, organized by the Zapatistas and accompanying them and seeing really in their reality what it means, opening the political agenda of the world to interculturality, to the interaction with indigenous people.
I would say exactly what it meant for me, the connection with the Zapatistas. Internalizing and accepting the otherness of the other, accepting that perhaps it will not be able to understand the other because he or she has a completely different rationality, but still you can have interaction with him or her doing things together, participating in the same struggle.
I think that one of the main lessons of the Zapatistas is the expression of "let's construct a world in which many worlds can be embraced." It's abandoning the obsession, the Western obsession with "one world," since the time of the Greek, all the time there was, has been trying to create one world in the image of the west.
Then that is over. That is, that is now buried. Now we are really constructing the world, which many worlds can be embraced, many different ways. Today, right now they are going to Europe again to listen. It is perhaps the best example in the world, the Zapatistas, of how to be hospitable to other ideas and practices.
One of the main principles of the Zapatistas: "listening, we walk," ("caminando, preguntamos"). It is absolutely real in the case of the Zapatistas. Subcommandante Tacho said once, "to listen is not just to hear the other, but to be ready to be transformed by the other." And this is exactly what the Zapatistas have been doing from the very beginning.
In February, 1994, subcomandante Marcos, the late subcommandante Marcos was saying, "oh God, we have prepared ourselves for the war. Not for the dialogue. We don't know what is this thing of the dialogue, but we will learn." And because the civil society imposed it on them.
What we call now "the Zapatistas" tried everything. In the first 10 years, after 1983, tried social organization, economic organization, political organization, that fantastic "march of 2000 kilometers" and no one listened. And then they tried as a last resource, they tried the insurrection.
Then we were able to listen and we went with them immediately. And then in 12 days we have a ceasefire and the Zapatistas since then, since January 12th, 1994, they never again used their weapons. They were ready to fight, but they were ready to listen and the civil society, what we call "the civil society," now, told them, "no, no, we are with you now, but we don't want more violence, please stop."
And they stopped and never again used their weapons. The Zapatista passports now coming, now they're bringing the people that are in Spain now had these passports. The passports said in the first page, we don't carry weapons and we will not be associated with anything inviting weapons.
That is an army invoking nonviolence. That is what the Zapatistas learned in their way. If you see the Zapatistas in January, 1994 and the Zapatistas today, you can see an enormous change. This is one of the main lenses you can change radically without betraying yourself, without betraying your principles. Still being yourself, but changing, listening, trying to interact with others and changing themselves. In that very sense, it is being hospitable to other ideas, to other ways of being, to other proposals. Not being dogmatic and say, "oh, I am this.
I need to be, I must have my hamburgers everywhere. I must have exactly the same kind of belief, the same kind of behavior everywhere." No, we are open. There is a very old saying in Spanish, I don't know exactly how to translate it: a la tierra que fueres, haz lo que vieres." It's old Spanish, it's not modern Spanish. " In the land where you go, you do what you see."
Meaning, you are not doing what is your usual way, but you do the way of the locals. You adapt yourself to the local. That is not the tourist behavior. That is a different kind of behavior and this is what they have been doing all the time. When they [the Zapatistas] had that tour of first 1,111, and then 5,000, they were in all the municipalities of Mexico. They visited. In every place, they were going to listen. They had very big ears and really listen, and then are transformed according with what they listen.
Chris: Yeah, it's in incredible image. Some 500 years after the Spanish invasion and conquest of Tenochtitlan or what today is called Mexico City, that the Zapatistas invert history themselves traveling to Europe, not to conquer, but to meet and dialogue and like you said, with their big ears, listen.
Gustavo: They had just published one communique in which they explain why they are going, and not going to invade, to impose anything they're going to listen and to interact and something of critical importance to today, to weave all these civilians, all these people. It's not to create another massive organization.
It's not Proletarians of the World United, not again a big international organization, but it is, weaving at the grassroots, weaving on these kinds of things without any leader, without any group imposing on the others. Just listening to each other and weaving them. Hmm.
Chris: I'll make sure that the communiques is in the show notes for our listeners, both in Spanish and in English.
Gustavo: I have just a couple more questions. This next one comes to us from Michael in Toronto, Canada. Michael asks, what do you think, Gustavo, is the difference between hospitality and radical hospitality, and why is it important to make that distinction?
Hospitality is just to host the other with open arms and trying to provide them with the services for he or she to live his or her own life in your place for some time. Radical hospitality is what I just said that the Zapatistas do is to really be transformed by the other, accepting the otherness of the other and then say, but that person that is radically different from my own way can transform me.
Then I will be open to that transformation. Radical hospitality means that you are going to your own root. That is radical. You are going to your root and you are ready to root that root with another root, meaning that you are changing the direction of your own roots. Not only something superficial, not only some habits, not only some food or a way of preparing the food or one practice of cultivation, one technology, but even your roots. You are ready to change your roots when you interact with other roots. That is radical hospitality, to have that kind of openness, that in a very real sense, is our only hope of survival, today.
It is not abandoning your roots. It's not betraying yourself. It's not ceasing to be who you are, but being able to really interact and weave with others at a very basic level, not just accepting to sit in the same table for some time. It is really accepting to live in harmony with the different. That is radical hospitality.
Chris: Coming back to tourism then is it possible that we can engage in radical hospitality, is it possible that we can engage in intercultural reality when we knowingly or not arrive as tourists? I've kind of, over the years, come to this conclusion that in order to do something like that, that we have to be very much aware of our roots, both in time and place.
An alternative meaning of "tourist" is "amateur" or "someone who is temporary." So is it possible that through tourism things like radical hospitality or interculturality can happen or do you think that we need a completely different kind of approach to our, our manner of movement?
Gustavo: I think that, today, it is more important than ever that we have exchange with others. To have that exchange with others, we cannot trust internet and Zoom and that virtual communication. As the Zapatistas said just two days ago, we need interaction, face-to-face. We need to be able to touch the other and see the other to the face and to the eyes without the mask and without the distance.
And for this we need to go abroad, to go out of our place, to visit the other. I think that this requires a very radical change. We are not going just as simple visitors, just paying a visit with a specific purpose and then going, and that's it. We are not going as pilgrims. That was a very interesting category in the past.
The problem of the pilgrim is that he or she has a dogma. He goes with the dogma and comes back with the same dogma. It does not change. He's going to visit something that is part of his set of beliefs. That is a typical pilgrim and we need to avoid the temptation of just the visitor and the pilgrim.
The illustration, the example of the Zapatistas today. It is, yes, we need to multiply the visits, going to listen. This is not what the tourists do. They are not coming to listen. They're not coming to be really open to learn from the other. They want to be themselves, everywhere. The typical tourist and the Mexican tradition has been imposed by the Americans is to spread the McDonald's everywhere, to eat what they eat everywhere.
It is horrible to go on, to see the behavior of the tourists that before magnificent food, magnificent liquor, magnificent aguas frescas, juices, fruits here. They ask their Coke and they ask for their traditional way of then one asks, "why? Why they are coming, if they're just eating the same and doing the same and behaving like the same?" Then in a very real sense it is the opposite.
"In the land that you go, you do what you see." Then your behavior is adapted to that place, where you go. Then you are doing what they do at the local place and then you hear, you listen, you try to learn from them and to interact with them openly, sincerely, frankly, ready to be transformed by the other.
If the case come, not necessarily, you will be transformed. Perhaps what you go and see and listen, learn, is not what you want and you don't want to be transformed like that. And then you refuse to be transformed like that. I can imagine very well places where I have been in the US or in Europe or in Latin America, in Mexico, in Oaxaca, that I don't want to be transformed like them.
I don't want to be like them. But I was open. I was ready to be transformed then after seeing and experiencing them say, "no, no is not for me." Then I go. But, to have that attitude of being ready, to be simply open, to be transformed by the other. Hmm.
Chris: What might such encounters, such interculturality or radical hospitality offer us within this context of escapism?
Right? I mean, from my understanding, there is no end goal or purpose in engaging interculturally with someone. It is about the nature of, as you said, being open without looking for a synthesis or agreement or comparing. But what might be the result? What might intercultural dialogue offer the world in a time of exile and escape?
Gustavo: I would say that I am ready to support, to align myself with those escaping because it is really urgent to escape from the current conditions of the world. We cannot survive if the current conditions continue. We need to stop them. And then they need to really escape from those conditions. They are escaping from the horror, and they don't need to remain in the horror. Then I will be allied with them to create something else.
And I, this may seem illusory. It is illusory to think that we can survive without a really radical change right now, that the only hope of surviving lies in changing, radically, our way of being because we're destroying very, very fast, what remains of Mother Earth and what remains of human society.
We are living one of the worst moments of the human history and we need to change right now. And this is what I am seeing changing every day. First, because all those millions that lost their jobs and cannot, will not have their jobs, never again, have lost any source of income. You can see them in the city of Oaxaca, many thousands that lost their jobs associated with tourists, and they need to reinvent themselves.
They will never again have that kind of job. But I would say that not only those that lost their jobs need to reinvent themselves, but also those with the job. Because those jobs that remain are a prison, are a horror, most of them. It's not a human way to think that you are working 40 hours a week, 40 years of your life, with the hope that at the end you will have a pension.
That is horrible. That is why they are escaping every weekend, of every holidays, et cetera. They need to escape now, forever. They need to abandon that kind of prison because those jobs based in the patterns of consumption are those destroying the world. We need to stop destroying the world and destroying ourselves.
We need to create a real opportunity for living today. Not tomorrow, today. And then I am allied to all those escaping from the prison they had, whatever that kind of prison, with jobs, without jobs. Yes, we are allied. We are trying to weave ourselves to create a different world today. The main difference, Chris, about many different projects in the past, that is also said by the Zapatistas two days ago: " We are not creating the big change in the world. We are not creating something for Mexico, for the continent, for the world, the big organization. We are something that we can do in our place." I can change the world completely in my own place.
When I have put my hands and I can put my will and I can put my eyes and with other friends and with other neighbors, and I can change this specific place. That is something that is possible for everyone on Earth. Some places is more difficult. If you want to do that in Mexico city, in one of the areas from Mexico City, it will be difficult, but it is possible.
Some people are doing that in Mexico City in a very beautiful way. But it is more difficult that to do that [than] in San Pablo, at least in a small village, in a small Zapotec village where I live, where I have the privilege of living. Hmm.
Chris: Difficult work, but necessary. Yes. Yeah. Towards interculturality radical hospitality and being neighbors.
Chris: Like to thank you for your time today. It's been a true honor to be able to do this and to listen to you speak and, certainly, to hear you deepen your convictions and your willingness to serve a more beautiful world.
So on behalf of our listeners, I'd like to offer you a huge thank you, a deep bow for your time today. We'll have posted on the website some of your readings, including Grassroots Postmodernism, and, uh, and any other, uh, books that you've been, uh, an author too.
Gustavo: Thanks to you, Chris. It was beautiful to talk with you and I hope it will not be the last time that we are sitting and talking with each other.
Chris: Hmm. May it be so. Que asi sea. Gracias, Gustavo.