In Zapatista Territory

I will start with a question – and don’t google the answer:  WHO ARE THE ZAPATISTAS?


When I woke up I knew I had an unusual day ahead of me. Today I would go into Zapatista territory to learn more about the movement and to see first hand who the Zapatistas were.

Cesar was again our guide, his knowledge and friendliness were unequaled. We took a minivan – and we were joined by a young Israeli man and a lovely woman from Brooklyn (and who became my good friend after this excursion). We wind up and down typical hairpin curves for almost an hour. The van driver stopped so that we can take a photo of a sign warning we are entering Zapatista territory. Beyond the sign, at the foot of a hill, there was a school which read “Rebellious Autonomous School”. Nice, how about having this school on your resume? Yeah, can you please explain your experience at the Rebellious Autonomous School? What did you major in?

We arrived in San Andres, a Maya village where the Acuerdos de San Andres created by the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) and were signed by the Zapatistas and the government of Zedillo in 1996. It was a Saturday and there was quite a lot of activity in the main plaza: the civic leaders sat down in front of the autonomous city hall (there is another one that is run by the government) and the religious leaders hang out in front of the church. San Andres is split in 2 parts– Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas. Because of this, the village has 2 governments, 2 market places, 2 radio stations, 2 mayors…the only difference is that the autonomous (read Zapatist) institutions are not recognized by the Mexican government.

We had an interesting experience in the church where the padre, supposedly adept of liberation theology, arrived and started listening to confessions. He seemed to be well liked by the church goers. There were pews in the front and the back part was empty so that the Maya ceremonies could take place at the same time with the confession in the front. Everything seemed to co-exist in harmony.

We stopped by the textile shop of Luz (me and her laughed that we had the same name) and had an educating conversation about textile making and education. We then visited the two market places, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) market and the autonomous (Zapatista) one. Then we set off into the mountains to try our luck in visiting a Zapatista caracol  (a sort of administrative unit of the Zapatista autonomous government).

After a few kilometers through forested hills, we stopped on the right side of the road, in fromt of a barrier. A fenced entrance was guarded by masked sentinels. We were instructed by Cesar that we could not take any photos of the people there, especially the ones without mask and of the cars to protect their privacy. It seemed I was witnessing a theater play, it was that surreal to look at the armed guards with masked on their faces – a woman with a red bandana tied under her scrutinizing almond eyes. I was really there and she was the first Zapatista I ever saw.

It took about one hour to get cleared by the vigilancia of the caracol. A masked man came out and spoke to Cesar. He requested our passports. With the pile of documents in hand he went beyond the gates, and into a wooden house along the main road of the caracol. And we waited. Cesar told us that sometimes they refuse visitors, you never know. My only chance to visit this Zapatista unit was in the hands of its leaders who were making their decision now. And we waited. After about an hour, to our surprise and excitement, the iron gate opened and we were welcomed in by a young Zapatista that returned our documents. He was assigned to guide us. He showed us the compounds. The caracol looked like a very well organized small village, with wooden cabins, a clinic, a school with library, dorms, kitchen, dining hall.  I was surprised by the organization, especially that the Zapatistas living inside did not get any outside help and they were not allowed to ask for any outside help, they were subsisting on their own. There are foreign European agencies that  donate especially to the clinic which has ambulances and medicine and a couple of medical labs for routine tests. Walking through the caracol felt similar to walking through an art museum thanks to the beautiful murals that covered all the houses. All paintings were sending messages about the Zapatista fight, through creative and very colorful drawings. The painting that stroke me the most was the Virgen of Guadaloupe, protector of Mexico,  portrayed as a Zapatista. Beautiful and powerful.

The highlight was when the junta del buen gobierno (the administrative chiefs of the good government) received us in an audience and discussed with us for about one hour. I could not believe I was sitting on a bench across 3 Zapatistas who explained us a bit of the history, what are they fighting for, and even allowed to ask questions and take a photo with them! They wanted us to take their message out in the world and they knew that people like us were likely to spread it. So here it is, in short:

Zapatistas are indigenous people (Maya – tzotzil, tzeltal, chol) whose voice and rights were ignored for a long time. Since 1994 (the year when NAFTA was signed – this treaty being a symbol of neoliberalism, whom the Zapatistas oppose because they believe it is one of the causes of oppression of indigenous people. How? For example, it kills the local agriculture) the Zapatista movement came forward fighting for basic human rights for this impoverished, ignored, underrepresented, abused class. They want their land, human working conditions, access to education and medical care, they want to be considered and treated like regular Mexican citizens, not ignored and treated like a subclass (sadly very common for the indigenous all around the world).

Meeting and talking to the Zapatistas and seeing the documentaries at Kinoki really helped me understand who these people were and what they were fighting for. People cringed when they heard I was going to Chiapas – oh it is so dangerous because of the rebels! Stereotypes about Chiapas always involve guerrillas and Zapatsitas who were portrayed negatively. It is not so. The Zapatistas I met were proud, respectful, amiable, happy to share their story and dreams. They are fighting a David versus Goliath fight, and their stoicism is to be admired.

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