Joaquín López Roselio
MexicoFellow since 1988

Roselio is a Purepechan Indian from the highland community of Cheranatzicurin in the state of Michoacan.

The Person

Roselio is, before anything else, a Purepechan. Although Purepecha is his native language, he is bilingual (he speaks Spanish) and in fact was trained as a bilingual primary school teacher. Although he now no longer works in that capacity, he has maintained his commitment to the education sector. He currently works as technical coordinator of the Purepechan literacy project, which teaches adult men and women to read and write in their mother tongue. Roselio has a deep commitment to his native people. In common with the other indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Purepechans identify with each other over and above any other Indian, let alone national, identity. The core of this ethnic identity is the community and the links that tie communities together in different regions. Anyone who talks to Roselio can sense his pride in Cheranatzicurin and the impact that this particular community has had on the region and on the Purepechan people. His strength of identification with his region forced him to resign as a bilingual schoolteacher when circumstances obliged him to make a choice between siding with the communities or with the educational authorities. Although he received a secondary school education, which enabled him to get a bilingual teacher’s diploma, Roselio is above all an Indian whose interest is the land. Not surprisingly, he came to be responsible for the administration and division of communal lands in Cheranatzicurin and his current work is closely related to preserving and using the land more efficiently.

The New Idea

One of the most important sources of food for the indigenous cultures of Mexico—and in particular for the Purepechans—are the wild plants and fruits that they have been gathering since pre-Hispanic times. With ecological decline, these products have begun to become scarce. This has increased their price at a time when the economic crisis in Mexico has meant a serious reduction in purchasing power and a consequent deterioration in diet and nutrition. Roselio’s solution to this problem is to domesticate these wild plants and reproduce them in demonstration plots in his own community and in the surrounding Purepechan communities. It is an idea that grows out of his Purepechan world view and his daily life as an Indian cultivator.

The Problem

Mexico’s ecological problems are usually associated with the capital city and in particular, with the problems of industrial waste. However, rural areas of the country are undergoing a process of severe ecological decline owing to the indiscriminate use of timber as firewood for domestic energy. This has led to problems of land erosion, the disappearance of plants critical to natural ecologies, and the scarcity of water. The other side of the problem is related to Mexico’s indigenous population. The generalized economic crisis has forced the male population to look for additional means of income, either in the big cities or north of the border. For Mexico's Indians, this has meant the loss of traditional culture at all levels—both in terms of knowledge passed down from generation to generation and skills taught by parents to their children. Roselio’s work, therefore, has two sides to it. On the one hand, he is an ecologist concerned with preserving the natural habitat and promoting efficient and cheap ways of doing so. On the other hand, he is a Purepechan Indian, looking for ways to overcome problems of malnutrition while at the same time conserving the traditional plants and foods of his people and passing this knowledge on to future generations.

The Strategy

Roselio was one of the founding members of GIRA, the rural alternative technology group of the state of Michoacan. This group originally included two Purepechans from the community of Cheranatzicurin and several professional people from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. From the outset, Roselio took a leadership role in this organization. As the university members of GIRA dropped out for lack of funding, the organization took on more of the role of making alternative technologies more culturally appropriate to the Purepechan people. Now it is impossible for Roselio to talk about GIRA as an organization external to himself. His strategy for promoting the rescue and reproduction of traditional indigenous plants is as organically a part of GIRA, the organization, the man, the community, as his other ecological activities (e.g. the use of energy-saving stoves, the building of cisterns to collect rain water, and training courses on ecological techniques). Firstly, he proposes to obtain at a scientific level all the information that has been produced about these plants—be it the climatic conditions where they flourish or the phases of their reproductive cycles. The latter is particularly important, for example, to enable him to obtain the seeds he needs to begin domestication. Once this first stage of documentation and experimentation is over, the second stage will be to ensure that the maximum number of families begin to plant these new foods. This will be achieved through training courses and demonstration plots, located at strategic points within different communities. In this sense, the strategy follows the normal flow of life in the communities: new events arouse curiosity, curiosity provokes requests for information, information generates a desire to participate, and participation has long term benefits of both a personal and social nature in terms of the project’s goals. The final stage of Roselio’s strategy is to make Cheranatzicurin a center for research and innovation in the production and reproduction of traditional indigenous plants. As with everything else, Roselio cannot separate himself from the community. Consequently, the projection of his ideas beyond the local level necessarily starts at the core of his universe: Cheranatzicurin. At least at a state level, it seems that this ideal is beginning to take shape. Visitors from local colleges, universities, and government offices are now arriving in the village to find out what is going on. Word is out that something unusual is happening in this village. That is Roselio's strategy: to communicate at an informal level in growing circles of influence following on from the traditional oral culture of his native Purepechan people.