“Si nos quitan los derechos, tenemos los izquierdos.”
(If they take away our rights, we have the left).
– found scribbled on a notebook page left in the communal campamentista kitchen in a Zapatista village.
In March 2008, I spent nine days in a small Zapatista village in southeast Chiapas, Mexico as an international observer for a respected human rights organization called Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Frayba). This small rural village of 31 families is called 24 de Diciembre and lacks basic resources such as electricity and running water. I met friendly village adults and children as well as other observers (known as campamentistas) from different parts of Mexico and Europe. I spent my days cooking over a fire, carrying water, bathing in the stream, scrubbing dishes with leaves, sleeping in an open shed in temperatures as low as about five degrees, and enduring bug bites covering my entire body; the 24 de Diciembre villagers and millions of other people around the world live with these conditions year-round. However, not all Zapatista communities lack as many amenities as 24 de Diciembre. Some have electricity and running water. Either way, life in rural communities in Mexico is not easy, but has improved since these indigenous people regained their independence and joined the Zapatista movement.
The Zapatista army, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) were a previously unknown leftist guerilla group until they occupied San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994. This date also marks the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Zapatistas, represented by Subcomandante Marcos, used anti-globalization and Mexican revolution rhetoric in an attempt to improve the lives of the indigenous people and gain a better distribution of the land, resources, and power that have been controlled by Mexico’s elite for centuries.
More than 150 people, mostly Zapatistas, were killed in this initial violence. The Zapatista army then fled to the Lancondon Jungle, gaining the support of many organizations and individuals in developed countries through the Internet. Zapatista peasants then took over hundreds of farms and ranches in Chiapas, and began to set up communities in order to regain their dignity and live autonomously from the Mexican government.
In 1996, the Mexican government agreed to sign the San Andres accords, which dealt with indigenous rights and autonomy, but the governing party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) never ratified them. In 1997, a PRI-linked paramilitary group massacred 45 people, and in 1999, approximately 21,000 villagers fled their homes after the Mexican army launched an intimidation campaign with the help of paramilitaries.
By 2000, two attempts to change the Mexican constitution had failed and the Zapatistas refused to participate in further talks. Instead, they established the five regional caracoles (regional governing bases) run by Zapatista men, women, and youth from nearby communities and started to establish their own schools and clinics.
Frayba is an organization that works to ensure that the human rights of indigenous people are respected. International observers for Frayba report events and conditions in both Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities and, at times, having an international presence can deter potential conflict. When I arrived at the Frayba office in San Cristóbal, Chiapas for my orientation, I met the other international observers. After travelling a number of hours in a small, cramped bus, we arrived at the caracol, where we had to wait several hours for permission to enter the Zapatista community, 24 de Diciembre. There we met villagers who, recognizing us as compañeras united with them in their struggle, were friendly and welcoming. We also met other campamentistas – a 20-30-something, community-oriented activist crowd.
We were sent to 24 de Diciembre as international observers because of the continuing conflicts between the village and its neighbouring non-Zapatista village, Nuevo Momon, over the previous eight months. The Momones had been harassing the 24 de Diciembre villagers by leading their cattle into the Zapatistas’ corn fields, destroying a total of ten hectares, as well as damaging their barns and cutting down trees. On our second morning there, a group of villagers and campamentistas led the cattle into the centre of the Momon village, resulting in a dramatic and angry exchange. Three days later, we were suddenly alerted that there were three large fires burning in the 24 de Diciembre forest alongside the highway, set by the Momones in response to the cattle-returning incident. We rushed through the forest paths with the villagers, carrying buckets of water, to help put out the fires.
The area holds special significance for both groups, as both 24 de Diciembre and Momon occupied the same land at different times – although the Momones hold the official title to the land. There are extended family members in both communities, so the ties run deep.
The Mexican military has worked hand-in-hand with paramilitary groups in order to maintain a level of low-intensity warfare with the Zapatistas, in order to discourage and intimidate the communities. The Mexican government has also been known to pay non-Zapatista communities to attack Zapatista communities. For example, one 24 de Diciembre villager reported to us that for one elaborate attack, a Momon family received $300,000 pesos (US$30,000) – an extraordinary sum for an impoverished area.
However, whether or not the government continues to support these attacks is unclear. In an article from a major Mexican newspaper La Jornada – copies of which Frayba had given us to share with the community – the governor of Chiapas claimed that the state government had nothing against the Zapatista communities, and in fact, had recently ordered the Momones to stop harassing the 24 de Diciembre community.
24 de Diciembre is a new community and is still in the process of becoming established. There were plans to build a new school to replace the small, rustic, one-room building that doubles as the campamentista kitchen, but the shortage of teachers has delayed this process. 24 de Diciembre and La Realidad were the only two communities in the area with teachers: the others only have education promoters. For the past couple of years, the teacher at 24 de Diciembre, like the one in La Realidad, has been working as a volunteer, and recently, had to leave the village for a few months to earn money.
According to the education promoter, the criteria for education in the communities is that the children learn the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic – as well as practical skills. He also talked about the Zapatista community’s goal to build a Zapatista university where students could specialize in practical areas such as sustainable agriculture practices and water usage, which would be open to both Zapatista and non-Zapatista students. This is a very noble goal, but it raises some practical questions: there are no adequate funds to hire quality instructors, and many students lack basic education due to the teacher shortages in their communities. Although there is plenty of international support for Zapatismo, these communities are at the mercy of those who are willing to volunteer for them.
Although many international solidarity organizations support the Zapatista movement through a variety of activities such as sending international observers, publicizing human rights abuses, and supporting fair-trade networks, there seems to be a lack of programs to send volunteers to work in Zapatista communities. These programs would likely be limited if they were formed, as the government and other sectors would not provide support due to the political nature of the Zapatista movement. Still, programs that could provide a steady supply of volunteer teachers, doctors, and other service providers into these communities would be valuable.
One afternoon, I asked the village education promoter some questions about how life had changed since the area became a Zapatista community a year and a half earlier. He recalled a time when the indigenous people in the area were working for the wealthy landowner and had no land of their own. Gradually, they had been saving money to buy a piece of land. At one point, they had harvested a fairly large supply of sugar and almost had enough to sell in order to purchase the property. But just as they were on the cusp of gaining freedom, their plan was cruelly thwarted: the landowner paid another patron to destroy their sugar, keeping them in a position of servitude for many more years.
It is clear that the lives of indigenous people have improved greatly since the times whenthey were landless and exploited by unscrupulous landowners, but there are still health and education disparities between Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities. Of course, the Zapatistas are developing their own health and education system, but like all Mexicans, they are still entitled to the free health care and medication provided by the government. It remains to be seen whether Zapatismo will be able to address these concerns. Clearly, obtaining dignity and autonomy through the Zapatista movement entails certain trade-offs in terms of physical and psychological health, especially in the context of ongoing conflict.
Although the Mexican government has been supporting military, paramilitary, and other non-Zapatista attacks on Zapatista communities, in recent years the government has been establishing services in non-Zapatista and mixed communities. But this new interest in the poorest state in Mexico seems to be a reaction to having an “enemy” to oppose rather than a genuine interest in helping the people. For this reason, it may be harder to evaluate the costs and benefits of Zapatismo because funding and services are now flowing into some communities as a result of the conflict and a reward for fostering violence.
One important aspect of the Zapatista movement is its encouragement of women’s leadership, which has not been the norm in indigenous communities. Indigenous women were active in forming the Women’s Revolutionary Laws, a number of laws created in 1994 that outline Zapatista women’s rights. These laws include the right to be respected and to participate in meetings and decision-making processes, the right for women and men to equally maintain family economic resources, as well as a prohibition against the consumption of alcohol or drugs because of its link to domestic violence.
24 de Diciembre appears to uphold these laws. For example, I did not see any alcohol or drug use, and I saw the entire community, including the women, participating in consensus decision-making. Almost every day, there was an asamblea (meeting) lasting a couple of hours, with all the community members present to make decisions that would affect the community. Additionally, women actively participate in leadership roles in the caracoles.
As we were leaving the village, one of the villagers told me, “So you suffered here in solidarity with our struggle. Life here involves suffering.” Rather than expressing a form of pride in suffering or self-pity, this man was speaking the truth. Although the quality of life has improved for the indigenous people, notably for the women, since joining the Zapatista movement, life in these communities is a life without some of the most basic amenities that people in developed countries or in other parts of Mexico take for granted every day. It is incredible how different life can be without electricity or running water. It was not uncommon to see a woman carrying one 15-litre jug on her head, another in her hands, with a baby strapped to her back.
Residents of 24 de Diciembre do not have the means to earn more than small amounts of money – they grow their own food and often do not have a surplus to sell. Corn constitutes almost the entire diet of the villagers. Meat is a luxury only eaten on special occasions like Christmas or Easter, and even then, depending on whether the villagers have the means to acquire it. Besides having a limited diet, villagers generally own only a few worn articles of clothing and one pair of rubber shoes.
Although life is still not easy, it is perfectly understandable why these indigenous communities want autonomy. Since Mexico’s colonization 500 years ago, they have been neglected and mistreated by those in power, including the Mexican government. For example, Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero are the poorest states, despite the fact that they are the richest in natural resources. Of all the states in Mexico, Chiapas supplies the most oil, gas, and electricity to other regions of Mexico, but has consistently had a lower percentage of schools, hospitals, access to electricity, and running water than any other state. Other areas have consistently been supplied with significantly more infrastructure and services, while the people in Chiapas – one quarter of whom are indigenous – are still living without services other states enjoy.
One afternoon, I showed one of the village girls, to her seeming disinterest, how to make a folded paper snowflake. She took the snowflake into her hand, looked at it carefully, folding each of the folds I had made, and examined how the decorative cuts lined up. I offered her paper and scissors and encouraged her to make a snowflake for herself, but she refused and then left without making one.
About an hour later I was visiting one of the villagers when a different young village girl passed by carrying two perfectly cut snowflakes made out of folded paper. These very closely resembled the snowflake that I had given to the other girl, who had, it seemed, gone home and made a couple for herself and her friends. I felt proud to see two new snowflakes randomly show up in another part of the village.
I hope that, through everyday activities like making crafts with the girls, I was able to share a little of myself and my culture with the community. These people shared their lives with me in a way that was fascinating and meaningful. I hope that I too was able to help them in their struggle, contribute something of value, and to share something of myself and of my Canadian culture – like bringing snowflakes to Chiapas.