You can come here and listen to the people who worked with Mexico’s next president when he was a community organizer in his 20s to learn just how wrong and insulting it is to call him a “populist” or a “tropical messiah.” Here you can also get a glimpse of the political revolution that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, hopes will continue to spread across Mexico.
Tucta, located in the steamy, swampy southeastern state of Tabasco, is a village in an area populated mainly by indigenous Chontal people, who have historically suffered high levels of poverty and discrimination. The people here are campesinos, small farmers who grow corn, beans, vegetables, and fruits. López Obrador, a native of this state, came here in the 1970s, just out of university, to work with a government agency, the National Indigenous Institute. Reyes Arias Romano, whom everyone calls Don Reyes, is one of the local leaders. He earned the honorific “Don” not because he is a big landowner—he has a small plot just like his neighbors—but because he is a respected community leader, still president of an agricultural board at age 72.
“When Andrés first came we didn’t pay him much attention,” Don Reyes says. “Others had come before him and nothing changed. But when he moved into our community alongside us, we saw right away that he was different. Andrés was not afraid to roll up his pants and step into the mud. Unlike the other politicians, he knows what the bite of an ant feels like.”
Don Reyes has a sharp memory. He enumerates the changes that started once the young organizer got to work. “We pressured the government to bring electricity,” he says. “Before, we had to use candles and kerosene lamps. The first new housing project got started: 105 new homes, and then more later. Running water arrived. We set up a cooperative to make and commercialize handicrafts. We even started a community radio station.”
Don Reyes was particularly thankful for bilingual primary education. He never got a chance in school himself because he was unilingual in the Chontal language, like most people in his village.
“Populism” has a notoriously fuzzy definition. But in Latin America, one of its core features is a charismatic leader who hands out to the adoring masses in return for their continued support. No populist politician welcomes independent grassroots organizations that can hold him accountable.
López Obrador’s July 1 victory was at least partly the triumph of one remarkable 64-year-old man. But it was much more than that. Mexico’s one progressive national newspaper, La Jornada, put it best the day after the vote: The electoral landslide “has roots in many decades of working-class, social, and campesino movements, as well as long struggles to democratize the country, in which the majority of the national left has participated and resisted for over a half century or more.”