A small group of Protestants in the Zapotec town of Teotitlán, members of the Church of God, had been living quietly with the Catholic majority for several decades before trouble started brewing. Lynne Stephen describes the conflict and its resolution in a recent journal article about the collision of individual rights and collective rights.

In the late 1990s, the Protestant group split into two churches, each with its own church building, and they became more assertive of what they perceived to be their individual rights. Their leaders started protesting any involvement by their members in either the religious or the civil requirements made of the other citizens of the town. They objected to participating in the religious festivals of the Catholics, normal duties of the citizens, they refused to help pay for the celebrations of the various saints days, and they wouldn’t serve on the Catholic Church committee.

But they also refused to participate in the civil duties of citizens. They would not serve as local judges or participate in the civil cargos, local community duties that adults normally provide without pay. Work designated as cargos might include serving as a police officer, mayor, fire fighter, committee member, laborer, or whatever else was needed. The basic purpose of the civil cargo system, Stephen explains, is to keep the public order, allocate resources, and maintain local customs. A religious cargo system, designed to maintain and support the activities and purposes of the Catholic Church, operates parallel to the civil one.

Apparently, the Protestants felt their religious beliefs forbade them from participating in the civil cargo system, even though many of the functions had nothing to do with the Catholic religion. Perhaps unfortunately, they also told people that not spending their funds on community and Catholic Church activities saved them money, since normally all the households contribute to the expenses of festivities. Their obstinacy was not designed to win them friends in the community.

In 2000, relations rapidly deteriorated when one of the elders of the Protestant community died. His family, predictably, did not follow local customs—they refused to burn candles, ring church bells, or accept other practices appropriate for honoring the deceased. When they went to the local committee in charge of the community cemetery to arrange for the burial of their elder, they learned about the hazards of cutting themselves off from the rest of the community. They were denied entrance. They’d have to talk to the proper official, the presidente municipal.

That man said he’d have to speak with the rest of the people in the town, and he called a community meeting. The meeting quickly became confrontational. Should people who had not participated in community responsibilities have community rights? According to one man who was a witness, “people from the town started shouting, ‘No! They are Protestants. They don’t provide communal labor for tequios, they don’t make contributions to the community, they refuse to carry out any cargoes’” (p.145).

The meeting got heated and people feared violence. Some of the Protestants went into Oaxaca City to bring some government human rights officials out to the town. The meeting was still in progress, but the angry locals reacted by running the officials out of town. The officials had come under the understanding that the presidente municipal had mistreated people because of their religious beliefs—he was supposedly denying them the right to bury their family member for religious reasons. The fact was that the community was refusing the privilege of burial in the community cemetery because the Protestants had refused to participate in community duties and responsibilities.

The Protestants decided to bury the body on the grounds of their own church. Fearing what might happen to the spirit of the deceased if the body were buried away from the consecrated burial grounds, away from all the other ancestors of the town, the angry people told the Protestants that if they buried the man there they would all be expelled from town.

Five days had gone by, and the body was becoming seriously in need of burial. The son of the deceased went to the presidente municipal and began earnest negotiations. The Protestant man capitulated. On behalf of his group, he agreed that the Protestants would pay the years worth of back monetary contributions that they owed the town. He also agreed that henceforth they would do all the civil cargo work that was not directly tied to the Catholic Church. They would, however, be excused from duties and obligations that were tied to that church. On the sixth day, the elder was finally buried in the community cemetery.

Stephen tells the story to illustrate her argument that the negotiation of individual rights—such as freedom of religion—often may conflict with collective rights—the right of a community to maintain its traditions. Resolution of the conflict shows how the compromise granted to the Protestants would continue their individual rights, but it also would maintain the collective rights of the community to assess labor and support from all members of the town. The members of the Church of God would retain their distinctiveness but they also agreed they would resume participating in the responsibilities and privileges of being a part of Teotitlán.

The thrust of the article is that there are many points in contemporary Mexico at which individual rights and collective rights come in conflict. Global discussions of guaranteeing individual rights may all be appropriate, but collective rights are also an essential aspect of maintaining the identity and functioning of many indigenous communities. Wider, global discussions of self-determination vary as to how they define human rights: as individual rights to liberty, property, and individual choice of religion, ethnic identity, and so on, or as collective rights that preserve a community. Stephen argues that “rights,” as in human rights, are not necessarily absolute. Rather, they may be subject to negotiation, as her example from the Zapotec community suggests.

While her article is focused on individual versus collective rights rather than on approaches to conflict resolution, the lengthy example she provides does give a good example of how a Zapotec community was able to resolve a contentious issue that pitted a serious concern by a minority group against the perceptions of fairness by the majority.

Stephen, Lynn. 2005. “Negotiating Global, National, and Local ‘Rights’ in a Zapotec Community.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28(1): 133-150.