Alive and Well: a visit to Zapatista Territory

by Wolverine de Cleyre

Wedged into the back of an overheated a van, I am weaving through the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, waiting to arrive in Oventik, a Zapatista town that is having their annual Festival del los Caracoles, their Snail or Spiral Festival. The Zapatistas are an indigenous resistance movement that first captured world attention January 1, 1994, when several thousand of them took control of towns and cities in Chiapas, freed prisoners from jail, and set fire to police stations and military barracks. The news was accompanied by gripping images of masked women with a baby in one arm and a gun in the other.

The van dumps me out into blissfully fresh air, in front of a gate and a sign announcing Zapatista Territory. A masked woman tells me I will have to wait to check in. Eventually, another masked person comes to inquire and write down my name, country, profession, collective, & whether we are adherents of the Sexta.

The “Sexta” refers to the EZLN’s 6th public declaration, put out in 2005. They outline what they´ve been doing, and the structures they’ve developed for autonomous self-government in their struggle. They describe their fight not just as something for themselves, or indigenous people in Chiapas, but as a union of the world´s dispossessed, exploited and rebellious against capitalism and neoliberal economic policies. They call for mutual aid between all groups struggling to preserve their difference and autonomy against corporate globalization.

Entering Oventik, I´m overwhelmed by the murals covering all of the buildings. Very few people live here, it´s rather a center of administration for Zapatista territories. I pass a two-story hospital, complete with pharmacy, on my way to the main stage, where hundreds are assembled to watch a girl’s basketball tournament. There have been different sports competitions between villages all today and yesterday. Around the corner are 15 schoolrooms arranged around a central courtyard.

It has the feel of a 4-H festival. This is partly because of the straw bales, but more because of all the kids running around, the family feel of the event. This shouldn´t be surprising, as the Zapatistas are essentially a network of indigenous families, rather than individuals who ascribe to a particular political ideology.

I have just a sleeping bag, not a tent, and there´s supposed to be political discussions at night that I want to stay for, so I find a masked person and ask where I should sleep. He checks in with some folks and takes me to an area with a roof, talks to the people there for a second, and rushes off to attend to other things.

I introduce myself to the women next to me, but they just look at each other and giggle. Do they not like me? Are they weirded out that I’m here? It takes me a minute to realize that they don’t speak Spanish, only Tzotzil, one of the many indigenous languages in Chiapas.

The EZLN is not the only indigenous organization that has come into conflict with the Mexican government over the years. But the Zapatistas are unique in that they advance the interests of more than a single ethnic group, meaning that the organization encompasses several languages. In this area, people mostly speak Tzotzil, but the Zapatista network also includes speakers of Tzeltal and Chol.

I’m getting hungry, so I make my way over to some tables where they´re dishing out tacos, chalupas, and coffee to a lively crowd. There are a lot of Spaniards here, some Europeans, and Mexicans from big cities, along with Zapatistas. All around me, people are having political discussions. I strike up a conversation with some teachers from Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas. Mexico has a very powerful teachers union, and I knew that they were fighting a new exam, one that would cause a teacher to get fired if they failed it.

Annabel told me why she feels that their struggle is connected with the Zapatistas. She explained that it was ridiculous to have one national exam for teachers operating in different regions of Mexico. “There are teachers in Chiapas that don´t speak Spanish well. Their classes are in Tzotzil. The government wants to fire those teachers, wants to send in teachers from Mexico City that know nothing about the students or how they live. They want everyone to be the same, more central control, more standardization.”

Trekking back from the bathrooms, she asks what people think of the Zapatistas. I reply that when I was younger, 6 or 10 years ago, everyone on the left talked about the Zapatistas, but it seems to be less in fashion now. “You know, I think everybody looks at movements in other countries for how they relate to your own. When the talk was about globalization, the Zapatistas offered a vision of an alternative. In the last year, the big fight is against police violence in the cities, violence against bla–“

And I am hushed as two lines of masked men and women march past us, a solemn procession.

“Who are they?” I whisper after they pass.

“The Clandestine Committee,” they proceed through the crowd to the front of the stage.

There is a speech. Despite the big military concentration just down the road, despite the presence of and clear reverence for the masked individuals in front and walking through the crowd, the speaker doesn´t talk about the glorious resistance of fighting, martyrs, or the brutality of the evil government. It’s all about producing healthy and pure food, remembering that man and woman are equal, education of children, and resolving conflicts with each other. The translation in Tzotzil seems longer than the Spanish version.

Then the music starts and the basketball court and beyond becomes a dance floor. The Zapatistas don’t drink alcohol. This was a controversial decision that was pushed through by Zapatista women, partly because of alcohol´s associations with violence and sexual assault. In this crowd of over a thousand, I see no conflicts all night, and I’m amazed at how giddy and ridiculous I feel without alcohol, how light I feel without having to fend off drunken guys. There are still hundreds of couples dancing when the last band wraps up at 3am.

In between dancing, people eat and drink coffee. Zapatistas are used to foreigners coming through, and they´re comfortable and confident talking. The ones I spoke to had absolutely no interest in our demonstrations, our revolts, our publications. All they ask me is “And what food projects do you have? And what of the education of your children?” They are not incredibly impressed by my replies.

I think about the difference between the Zapatistas and radical folks in the US. Radical rhetoric and imagery from anti-government folks usually focus on the glory of resistance and struggle, crowds in the street and cop cars on fire, as the important thing, the exciting thing.

In contrast, Zapatistas see the real work, the important thing, as growing their own food, raising their children, living together. They are willing to engage in armed struggle to defend this autonomy from a government they feel has no legitimacy, but that´s not what they want to devote their energy toward.

The government mostly leaves them alone these days, aside from a paramilitary attack in 2014 that killed a Zapatista teacher. The state doesn´t try to enter their territories. They don´t pay any tax to the government, don´t send their children to government schools, and put EZLN markers on their cars in lieu of license plates. Their autonomy is due both to their own unbending will, and international pressure that keeps the Mexican military from slaughtering them wholesale.

The Zapatistas are alive and well.

I can’t copy them, as I am not, and can never be, tied to a piece of land in the way that they are. And I wouldn´t want to, as I’m lazy and the thought of being so enmeshed with my extended family makes me nauseous.

What we can learn is to neither shun violence, nor confuse the most conflictual action with the most radical. Conflict with the state is neither synonymous with nor alien to radicalism. Where do we start? Perhaps in building something so lovely that we too will be inspired to defend it.