Aldo González is a tall, square-shouldered Zapotec Indian of 45 whose long hair falls halfway down his back. He is one of 400,000 Zapotecs whose ancestors built Monte Albán, one of the greatest and earliest cities of Mesoamerica, and who have lived in this part of Oaxaca, high in the Sierra Juárez mountains, for thousands of years. The Zapotecs refer to themselves as the "people of the clouds," and most in the villages speak Zapotec. Virtually all land is held communally.
González studied electronic communication at a polytechnic university in Mexico City, but soon after receiving his degree he returned to Oaxaca, where he helps run the Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca (UNOSJO), a civil organization that represents Zapotec communities and their concerns. At the top of the list is corn, the farming of which is at the heart of Zapotec culture, as it is for all indigenous cultures in Mexico. But corn culture, and indigenous Mexicans, have been under siege ever since NAFTA went into effect in 1994 and the Mexican government concurrently initiated a number of measures designed to eliminate the country’s small-farm sector, which includes most indigenous corn farmers. The thinking behind the government’s decision was more economic than anti-indigenous—although it was arguably that too. Small farmers have long been the poorest of the poor in Mexico, and from the time of Mexico’s revolution they have received government subsidies. The government’s position on corn has been succinctly explained by Jorge Castañeda, former foreign minister under President Vicente Fox and now a professor at New York University (Fox was elected in 2000, six years after NAFTA). In his book Ex Mex (2007), Castañeda observes that it was "unclear…whether the rest of Mexican society should continue to subsidize 2.5 million families that will never escape from poverty growing corn on barren, rain-fed, tiny plots of land."
Like the Zapotecs, many of these farmers consider growing corn more than an economic activity. It is something closer to a defining way of life. Since NAFTA, to the surprise of government planners in Mexico City, many indigenous farmers, including the Zapotec members of UNOSJO, have in effect chosen to withdraw from the national economy, some weaning themselves off expensive chemical fertilizers and subsisting on the corn they can grow, harvest and barter. Economists refer to this phenomenon as a "retreat to subsistence," and life has not been easy for those who have stuck with farming. Poverty has descended upon the Mexican countryside and especially its indigenous areas, which are concentrated in Mexico’s south. In 2003 the World Bank reported that 40 percent of Mexicans lived in poverty but that in the heavily indigenous southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, 70 percent lived in "extreme poverty," a condition in which a population is unable to secure a daily minimum food requirement.