Carlos Chávez

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1995
Asociación Jalisciense de Apoyo a Grupos Indígenas, A.C. (AJA)
This description of Carlos Chávez's work was prepared when Carlos Chávez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Carlos Chávez is helping the Huicholes, a group of unassimilated indigenous people who live in balance with nature in a mountainous region of Jalisco, to conserve their identity in the face of increasing contact with mainstream Mexico and to utilize Mexican law to protect their land.

L'idée nouvelle

Carlos Chávez is helping the Huichole Indians to engage with Mexico's development on their own terms. The Huicholes are the least assimilated of Mexico's 56 indigenous peoples; they are the only ones who have never converted to Catholicism. The wellspring of their culture is their relationship with nature: for them, the earth is mother and sacred. In Carlos's words, "We're talking about people that describe themselves with the mission to work for the conservation of life on earth. They sing, pray, dance and sacrifice for all living beings. [They are] a society in which the highest point in the social scale is reached when wisdom has been achieved and 'one can hear the voice from the other side of the mirror.' For thousands of years these people have concentrated their energy to perfecting ways to perceive and follow the rules from nature."
In Carlos's concept of development, human society will not be viable unless it manages a respectful exchange among cultures. He believes that the Huicholes can offer vital new ways of thinking to the western model of development, and he is creating mechanisms for them to do so that are adaptable for other communities. Thus his work directly contributes to the implementation of Mexico's obligation to respect the autonomy of all indigenous peoples under the provisions of the International Labor Organization. In contrast to other efforts, he assists the Huicholes to develop their community from the perspective of what they want to conserve and to work out an economy that supports a high priority for their environment.

Le problème

The modern Huicholes number about 10,000 people living in a remote area of 4,500 square miles in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains northwest of Guadalajara, Mexico. Their ancestors retreated from the Spanish over the course of 200 years before they were finally conquered in the eighteenth century. They have tenaciously protected their way of life by a strategy of retreat and feigned meekness during sporadic visits from missionaries, traders and soldiers. But escape is no longer possible from outside development that arrives on modern roads with the encouragement of the government; or from increasing pressure on their land from surrounding settlers and their own demographics; or from radio and television.

Without their land the Huicholes cannot survive as a people, and their hold on it has been ever insecure. Their pastures and forests are attractive to corporate timber and cattle interests, which the government has actively encouraged to develop the region. The land security of all indigenous groups was dealt a major blow in 1992, when then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari imposed constitutional changes that reversed the ejido system of communal land holdings that had been established at the time of the Mexican revolution; the new provisions turned what had been collective property into individual property. Too small to sustain a family, the individual plots have often been sold by their owners to commercial interests that buy them cheaply. "This," in Carlos's words, "has started to mean the end of the territorial union of the people; forced by poverty, some members of the communities have turned to the momentary solution of selling their land, lost their patrimony and passed to widen the misery belts around the cities, have exposed themselves to dangers by emigrating as illegals to the United States or have ended as employees in what used to be their land." The Zapatista peasants' revolt in Chiapas was fueled in part by the same event.

Many factors contribute to the vulnerability of Huichole culture, including their poverty and a general disregard for them in the mainstream society. Carlos refers to an event from the fall of 1995 to illustrate what they are up against: a group of Franciscan priests, uninvited, were preparing to build a temple on Huichole land. In due course, the Huicholes discovered that the priests had filed papers to try to acquire title to the property. When the Huicholes asked them to leave, the state government entered the dispute on the side of the priests, urging the Huicholes to accept their guidance; some officials called the situation an "indigenous uprising" that should not be allowed, since the Indians needed the "civilizing transculturation" that the religious men were providing. The issue has still not been resolved in court. Whenever their harvest is poor, many Huicholes leave their homes to work for low wages on plantations. There they are exploited, exposed to pesticides and foreign diseases and discriminated against.

Of course, Mexico's indigenous people, including the Huicholes, can more easily avoid persecution if they assimilate into mestizo society. It is common in Mexico today to see people with Indian features but who have lost an Indian identity–an outcome unchallenged by the government's centralized efforts to educate them. Over the course of five years, in 1972 through 1976, the government undertook massive development in the sierra with dozens of programs explicitly designed to "take the Huicholes out of backwardness." The government plans were poorly equipped to respond to Huichole interests, and they provided inferior education in basic academic subjects.

Because of the power differences between the Huicholes and the mainstream culture, the pressure on them to assimilate has an osmotic quality even when it is more subtle. Twenty years ago money had almost no exchange value in the Huichole communities. Now timber and cattle business offer cash for land to people with no experience in managing money. New consumptions are emerging: for example, commercial liquor is now available, and the level of alcoholism is rising against old traditions that dishonored drinking outside the rituals led by elders. Radio, television and new roads have eliminated the isolation that once buffered their way of life. A new highway goes within 30 minutes of one of the most important ceremonial sites in all the sierra. Technology has made an impact on the ritual hunting of local white-tailed deer, which has always been carried out with bows and arrows or nets. A hunter was lucky to catch one in a day, but with guns it has become possible to kill three or four.

Inner realities in the Huichole community contribute to a cycle of poverty and dependency. Their habitual use of the land is not linked to productivity for its own sake but rather a search for equilibrium and harmony with nature, and, at best, their agriculture had only their poorly soiled, dry land to work with. Thus their level of nutrition is always marginal and in drought years is worse. The growth of their own population has intensified their need for a better food supply.

La stratégie

Carlos founded an organization called the Jalisco Association to Support Indigenous Groups, through which he works alongside the Huicholes to strengthen their sense of identity and enable them to carry their values into the larger Mexican society. Carlos serves as a consultant; all decisions are made by the Huicholes, by consensus. They operate through a two-fold process. First, they set aside the time to hold regular reflection workshops in which they plan how to administer their resources and manage their relationship with the rest of Mexico. Then they integrate their reflections into strategic planning for legal action, education, and a new economy.

Under Mexican law, the principal protection for Huichole land ownership lies in the provisions of Agreement 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which the Mexican congress ratified in 1992. It obliges member governments to acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples to their historical lands and their traditional forms of authority. The Association has a staff of three lawyers who litigate on their behalf; in mid-1997 they were following 19 cases in the region for token compensations, with professional support from a consulting firm that provides its services pro bono.

Members of the Association staff, in collaboration with teachers from the Institute of Superior Studies of the West, have set up a Huichole Educative Center. In 1998 the first cycle of junior high school students will graduate from its program, which integrates experiential learning from Huichole traditions, including healing arts, into the curriculum. In contrast to ideals of mainstream society, the program teaches that academic skills should be used primarily in the service of the community and the earth. The Association's education project has had official support from the Secretary of Public Education since its beginning in 1995, and, in Carlos's words, "An essential element at all times has been the support of the Huichole people, because it really is their project, it reflects the old hope they had of having an education that strengthens their culture and at the same time makes it possible for them to access scientific knowledge. This allows them to advance with the wealth of their deep roots."

The Association is developing a new, more complex agriculture-based economy. It seeks to balance a heightened productivity, in order to provide better nutrition and more reliable subsistence, with their traditional relationship to their habitat. Plans stress sustainable production that does not pollute or waste resources; they use only materials available in the sierra and that do not require electricity and fuels, in order to avoid dependence on supplies and knowledge elements that are presently far from the Huicholes' reach. The Huicholes are learning to stop poor conservation practices such as the clear burns that they have traditionally employed on parcels in gullies. Whereas they have traditionally focused on production of a few grains, Carlos is encouraging experimentation in bee keeping, as well as cultivation of fruits, vegetables, indigo and mushrooms, and the community has introduced family greenhouses. The Huicholes are breeding fruit and animal species that are both marketable and helpful in restoring declining populations of the macaws, eagles and iguanas in the sierra. The Association is training the community in how to manage money–new to them–that they are able to generate and how to save for community projects and for their own future needs. They have set aside two preserves for the diminishing white-tailed deer and are considering a return to the arrow for hunting.

All activities are well documented, so that successful practices can be adapted by other ethnic groups facing similar problems. By 1998, the group plans to consolidate the methodology and results from the Huichole region in order to expand the work to other indigenous people. The Nahua people, in the south of Jalisco, have asked for a workshop on the Huichole experience, and a British advocacy organization is funding the systematization and writing of the Association's work.

La personne

When Carlos was young, a desire arose within him to know more about other identities and to search for meaning in life. He felt anguish at the many injustices that he saw in the world. He left home; for years he traveled and worked in different jobs. For a time he was in turn a sailor, a shepherd, a hotel receptionist and a laborer in the fields of Michoacán. He discovered beauty and true things, he says, when he was in the contact with nature, formatively in the company of an indigenous community in Michoacán. From that time on he continued to explore the indigenous world.

After returning to Guadalajara, he prepared to go back and help those who were so wise but lived so poorly. He studied traditional medicine and began to treat illnesses among the Huicholes with medicinal plants. He arrived at the conclusion that if health is such an important factor, it cannot be unilaterally addressed, but must be part of an overall vision that includes the social and material bases of the Huichole society. He has been among the Huicholes since 1980. For seven years, he was constantly questioned by them as he won their trust. He says of that time, "I consider it to be important that they are still that careful." He is committed to working with them so that they can find solutions within their own culture, thereby honoring their invaluable heritage.