The municipio of Cherán is located in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which is situated in the central western portion of Mexico, extending west to the Pacific Shore. Cherán itself lies in the northwestern portion of Michoacán, about 360 km (200 mi) west of Mexico City and approximately 123 km (76 mi) west of the state capital of Morelia; it is about 2400 meters (7874 feet) above sea level. The Municipio of Cherán is reported to have a population of 16,243, while the Localidad (town) of Cherán is officially accounted to have a population of 12,616, including 5,827 men and 6,787 women.
Cherán is one of a contiguous group of eleven Municipios that are demographically denoted as Purépecha. In Crossing Over, a book about the migrant community of Cherán, by Rubén Martínez, the author explains that in the Purépecha language Cherán actually means “a place of fear” alluding to its unfriendly landscape of “abrupt, irregular peaks and chasms” which bodes disaster to anyone taking a careless step. Inhabitants speak the Purépecha language, as well as the local variety of Spanish.
The 2011 uprising and the transition to direct democracy
Like many other Michoacán communities, Cherán was under the yoke of organized crime, bribed politicians and corrupt police. Kidnappings, extortion, murders, and illegal logging of the local forest--the lifeblood of the community--were part of daily life. The Los Angeles Times provides the background of the 2011 uprising:
That was the year that residents, most of them indigenous and poor, waged an insurrection and declared self-rule in hopes of ridding themselves of the ills that plague so much of Mexico: raging violence, corrupt politicians, a toothless justice system and gangs that have expanded from drug smuggling to extortion, kidnapping and illegal logging.
“To defend ourselves," explained a community leader,"we had to change the whole system — out with the political parties, out with City Hall, out with the police and everything. We had to organize our own way of living to survive”. Thus, on April 15, 2011 a group of women and men using rocks and fireworks attacked a busload of illegal loggers associated with the Mexican drug cartel La Familia Michoacana and armed with machine guns. The vigilantes assumed control over the town, expelled the police force and politicians and blocked roads leading to oak forest on a nearby mountain which had been subject to illegal logging by armed gangs supported by corrupt officials. The new autonomous government is composed of councils elected directly by the people. This community administration is leading an effort to plant thousands of new trees. The community has since seen a crime rate of nearly zero. Following lengthy legal battles, the Mexican government is treating autonomous Cherán as a legal self-governing indigenous community:
"In Cherán’s unique form of government, the real power lies wholly with the people. There is not a single decision taken without consensus, from who will get a local job in construction, to the allocation of public services and overseeing the spending of the budget. The authority of the community’s assembly is above any other local governmental body."
According to the Guardian, Cherán's version of direct democracy provided "a simple solution to the vote-buying and patronage which plague Mexican democracy." Direct democracy, according to one community activist, not only saved the forest, but brought peace: Cherán in 2017 had the lowest homicide rate in the entire state of Michoacán and perhaps even in the entire country of Mexico.
Cherán is in a tropical area but, because of its altitude, is cooler than the lower lying jungles and coastlands. Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI) indicates that the average temperatures for Zamora between the years of 1971 and 1999 ranged between 17 and 24 Cº, or 63 and 75 Fº respectively. INEGI also records average annual precipitation in Zamora over the same period of time as being 820.3 mm, or between 33 and 34 inches per year. (Zamora is the closest city for which these statistics are given: it is about 48 km from Cherán – see third link).
Business and government statistics
Rubén Martínez describes the length of Cherán from north to south as about three-quarters of a mile. The three prominent buildings in Cherán include the church, the presidencia municipal, and the casa de cambio, or currency exchange center. The government website boasts of 2,589 viviendas, or dwellings. The Cherán website also affirms that 80% of water is potable, 60% of the roads are paved, 90% of the streets have public lighting, but only 35% of garbage, or waste, is collected. The Municipio is able to provide education from preschool through high school graduate levels. Adults have access to the services of the Instituto Nacional de Educación .
On the other hand, Rubén Martínez offers a first-hand report of the poor availability of running water with half of the population lacking house connections. He also notes that there are only around 130 private telephone lines with banks of public phones, or public casetas, of which the general public avails itself to communicate mostly with relatives who have migrated to the United States—most of these calls are paid for by the relatives. The average annual wage is estimated at about $3,000 converted to U.S. currency. Martínez reports that road conditions are poor, with large potholes in abundance and that drainage and sewage systems are inadequate with most households still using outhouses. However this report is outdated, and data may now be obsolete.
Agriculture and raising livestock account for 49% of Cherán’s economic activity: corn, wheat, potatoes, beans and oats make up the bulk of the community’s harvest while it local farmers raise cows, horses, pigs, sheep and goats. Wooden products, including furniture and furniture repair, and cork account for less than 19% of the economy. Commercial production of apples, peaches, apricots, pears and plums comprise 10% of Cherán’s economic resources. There are essentially no services besides fondas, or small restaurants, that serve local fare.
Religion and healing
The town of Cheran has modern doctors, however, the people still believe in non-western forms of medical treatment from indigenous healers. The doctors and Indian healers were, at one time, enemies, however, they now work together for the good of the people. Migration has caused more work for the indigenous healers because they must consult with migrants in the United States through modern technology while maintaining their ancient methods of healing. Cheran’s religion is a mix of Indian tradition and Catholicism. Indigenous Gods and Christian saints were combined and related to create what exists today.
- Prince, Alan. Review of Crossing Over Archived December 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- Cárdenas, Lourdes (2016). "Life Without Politicians: A Mexican Indigenous Community Finds Its Own Way".
- McDonnell, Patrick J. (July 10, 2017). "One Mexican town revolts against violence and corruption. Six years in, its experiment is working". Los Angeles Times.
- Karla Zabludovsky (August 2, 2012). "Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
- Anna Maria Tremonti (2013-09-16). "Cheran citizens stand up to drug cartels". CBC.ca.
- Agren, David (April 3, 2018). "The Mexican indigenous community that ran politicians out of town". The Guardian.
- Total Annual Precipitation Archived July 22, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-12-09.