Marcelina, the voice of the San Pedro Mezquital | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
10 May 2016

At 57 years old, Marcelina López has a very active life. She sews her own clothes, makes beautiful jewelry, raises chickens, sells eggs, cooks, is a midwife and organizes the women of her community; all while faithfully conserving her traditions, those of the indigenous Wixárika people.

Perhaps what distinguishes Marcelina most is her great character and conviction, qualities that have rooted her deeply in a grand cause: the defense of Mexico’s San Pedro Mezquital River, threatened by Las Cruces Dam.

At AIDA we’re deeply moved by the commitment of Marcelina and honored to be part of the same fight. Just like her, we want the San Pedro—the only free-flowing river left in the western Sierra Madre Mountains—to run free. We’ve been inspired to know more about this incredible woman, and to understand why she does what she does.

Colors of the Sierra Madre

Marcelina lives in a house made of mud, built high upon a hill, in a small community in the state of Nayarit. To go anywhere from her house, she has to walk an hour and a half through the mountains. She travels everywhere on foot.

There’s no doubt Marcelina is a special woman. Everyone in the region knows her; she is unmistakable. She has the look of a wise indigenous woman, the bright colors of her clothes equal only to those of the beaded necklaces she wears each day. She herself colors the beads; they are a symbol of the importance of her culture. She often wears a head wrap, which gives her an air of certainty and connotes rich ancestral wisdom. Though her profound presence can seem serious, Marcelina is a very sweet and loving person.

Over the years, Marcelina has not been immune to violence and machismo, in its many expressions. She has had to fight to have her voice recognized in agrarian assemblies, and, for a time, had to provide for her children as a single mother.

Her people, the Wixárika—known in Spanish as the Huicholes—are a majority group in Nayarit. They live in the western central region of Mexico, in the Sierra Madre Mountains; they primarily populate the states of Nayarit and Jalisco, but are also represented in parts of Durange and Zacatecas. In their native tongue, belonging to the family of Uto-Aztecan languages, wixárika means “people.”  

For the Wixárika, ceremonies are fundamental to the social wellbeing of the group. It is through these sacred rituals that they ask for rain, give thanks for the harvest, bless its fruits, and pray for health and vitality. Their ceremonies are, in short, where they celebrate and honor life.

For Marcelina and her people, the San Pedro Mezquital is the pillar of social, spiritual and economic life. Its waters support their subsistence farming and fishing activities; 14 of their sacred sites are spread along its length. What’s more, the river feeds Marismas Nacionales, one of the most important mangrove forests in all of Mexico.

This important source of life and culture is threatened now by the construction of Las Cruces Dam, a project being proposed by the Federal Electricity Commission. The megaproject would be located 65 kilometers north of the city of Tepic. It would have a capacity of 240 MW, divided between three generators. The dam would effectively stand as a 188-meter high concrete curtain.

Speaking for the river

In her excellent Spanish, accented with clear links to her indigenous roots, Marcelina has on various occasions stood before microphones and cameras to defend the San Pedro River and the lives of those who depend upon it.

“The construction of this dam will have a severe impact on our culture and our spirituality. Many of our ceremonial centers are located along this river,” she explained. “It is there that we leave our offerings of thanks; it there that we pray, not just for our own community, but for the entire world.”

When asked why she decided to be part of the movement in defense of the San Pedro, Marcelina responded: “As an indigenous women, I’m hurt that they want to take away our river. What’s happening? Why didn’t they consult us indigenous people [about the project]? Where is their respect? Why are we treated this way?”

Her questions remain unanswered.

The construction of Las Cruces will have negative impacts on the land, its natural resources, and the way of life of the indigenous people who depend upon it. The dam will flood 4,506 hectares; the town of San Blasito, sections of communal land, at least 14 sacred sites, and one ceremonial center, will all be under water.

“We are the roots of Mexico,” Marcelina concluded. “It’s not easy for us to change our sacred sites; they’re like a tree rooted deep in the soil. Down these rivers run the blood of our gods.”

About the Author

anavarro's picture
Aída Navarro Barnetche

Aída Navarro is based in Ensenada, Mexico and is AIDA's human resources advisor. A native of Mexico, she has extensive experience coordinating conservation projects in the Baja California Peninsula, including international outreach and media campaigns to promote marine conservation since 2002. Aída holds and MSc in Environment and Development from the University of East Anglia and a B. A. in International Trade from the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.


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