The War of the Eggs: Event, Archive, and History in Yucatan's Independent Union Movement, 1990 (1)

Article excerpt

In 1990, a strike of national significance took place at large-scale egg- and poultry-raising facilities in Yucatan, Mexico. This article relates the history of the struggle of Maya-speaking workers to form independent unions and of the event that came to be known as the "War of the Eggs." Part of that struggle relates to the formation of an archive by strikers, and the eventual production of a historical narrative of the conflict by labor organizers from elsewhere in Mexico. An ethnographic reading of event, archive, and history demonstrates some of the ways that local understandings of past, present, and future shaped the account authored by organizers, transforming a story of national infamy into one of local redemption. (Yucatan, people's archive, union organizing, strike, labor oppression, redemption)

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It was a bitter ending to a long struggle. For five months, the workers of the Fernandez avicultural farms had fought to form a union independent of what they called a "phantom union" established by a national labor confederation (the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos, or CTM) at the owner's request. Women and men from the pueblo of Tetiz stood alongside the strikers, providing them with food and support, barricading roads to the egg-laying facilities, and at times even battling strikebreakers and state police. Facing the imprisonment and beating of union leaders, severe ultimatums from Jorge Fernandez and the governor of Yucatan, and rumors of imminent repression by federal forces, the independent union finally admitted defeat. On May 25, 1990, the workers voted to dissolve the union and to quit in unison, abandoning the farms they had occupied.

Several days later, Carlos Caamal Couoh, general secretary of the defunct Independent Union of the Workers of Tetiz and Hunucma (Sindicato Independiente de Obreros de Tetiz y Hunucma) ruefully remarked that the constitutional rights that workers thought they enjoyed--rights to form unions and to strike--had proven to be nonexistent. Nonetheless, the workers and the people of Tetiz found honor even in defeat. As Caamal declared in a letter addressed to "public opinion," dated May 30, 1990:

Truly responsible men and women struggle upright, with their heads held high, facing the sun. In the same way, without bowing or kneeling before anyone, they admit it when they have been defeated by brute force and cowardice. An entire pueblo, supported by reason and justice, was crushed viciously in order to impose the whims of a handful of powerful men. Let this remain for history, as a history of infamy.

Caamal's words were preserved in an archive of the events of 1990, formed by the Independent Union of Aviculture Workers (the Sindicato Independiente de Trabajadores de la Industria Avicola, henceforth SITIA). His letter marked the end of the independent union's existence, and signaled the conclusion of a series of events that came to be known as the War of the Eggs. As a historical document, Caamal's letter also is the last document in the chronologically organized SITIA archive of the strike, and calls for a future writing of the history of the struggle as a story of infamy. That history would soon appear, authored anonymously and widely disseminated by the organizers of the independent union, entitled The Battle of Tetiz and Hunucma: The One Hundred Forty Days that Shook Yucatan.

Archive and history were inextricably linked from the moment the conflict began. Leaders and advisors of the independent union took great pains to assemble an archive of the happenings in Tetiz, clipping newspaper articles, copying documents and press releases, and filing photographs, leaflets, and correspondence. Their archival practice was guided by a sense of the conflict as history in the making, and they were keenly aware of how elements of the stories presented in press reports and union documents eventually might be integrated into a historical narrative of the conflict. …