I spent ten days in Chiapas in January with Rachel Neumann, a friend and colleague. We met up in San Cristóbal, the colonial city of 35,000 people where the armed takeover of the town hall building on January 1, 1994, signaled the start of the Zapatista uprising. During our two days there, we were scrutinized, briefed, and credentialed by the non-governmental organization (NGO) that was sending us to do human-rights observation in a Zapatista indigenous community, and we met with several people to get a sense of the current political situation. Then we hiked up to the mercado early on a Saturday with our bags full of potatoes, pasta, peanuts, Gatorade, and water purification drops and left for the mountains in a colectivo.
We drove into the clouds, passing towns I’d been reading about in EZLN communiqués. We played simple word games in Spanish, which eventually transformed into gasps and squeaks, with the two small boys in front of us. After an hour of rolling through towns with pro-EZLN graffiti alternating with pro-PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) propaganda, we saw the sign covered in paintings of people in black ski masks announcing the community to which we were assigned.
Stepping off the van, we found ourselves in front of about forty members of the community. Twenty or so men were doing security at the entrance to the village, and almost twenty women were embroidering in the shade of a tin roof while their children chased marbles in the dirt and three men played sweet music on their guitars. Rachel asked around to find out whom we should talk to and after a few minutes, a man named Vicente asked for our credentials and disappeared. Everybody stared. Half an hour later, Vicente returned, smiled, and asked us to enter. He showed us to our room (we were surprised to find we had our own room, with bunk beds and pillows!) and left. We found the other observer that we’d heard was there, a young Swiss woman, who briefed us on the basics.
We started observing that day, which meant sitting near the road that passed by the community with a notebook, a watch, and a pen. Every time an army vehicle went by, we wrote down the license plate number, the type of vehicle (truck, tank, jeep, etc.), the number of soldiers inside, the time of day, and the direction the vehicle was headed. Some days we noted twenty or thirty vehicles. The soldiers almost always paid attention to us as they passed: some tried to look menacing, some leered and flirted, one pretended he was going to take my picture. Our presence was meant to serve a dual purpose: we provided information to the community and to the NGO about military movements and we let the soldiers know that there were internationals in the community, ideally making them (and their paramilitary supporters) less likely to attack.
We observed every day for a week. For the first few days, community members were very shy or indifferent with us, especially the women. It was easier to talk with some people than others: we got to know a member of the presidencia of the village (an eight-member representative council) and ate dinner one evening with the doctor from the health clinic. We also learned about the organization of the Zapatista communities (the forty-five or so municipalities are divided into five aguascalientes, or regions) and their commitment to autonomy (they accept no personnel or aid from the government, preferring to train and dispatch their own health and education promoters), spent a day in Acteal (the site of the December 22, 1997 massacre of forty-five refugees by paramilitaries) and, by the last few days, began to have more comfortable interactions with people in the community. Rachel learned some Tzotzil, one of several indigenous languages spoken in the area, and my Spanish improved.
There is no way that these few paragraphs can do anything more than skim the surface of our time there which, for me, was one of the most powerful and joyous lessons I’ve ever learned about the significance of international solidarity and the implications of the Zapatista struggle for the rest of the world. A way of life exists in that community that has at its core a deep understanding of freedom and dignity.
The determination and strength I saw in the people of the community is echoed in Comandante Ramona’s speech to students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1997: “We Mexican Indians know how to resist, we are not going to allow power to continue with its human sacrifices. We have on our side justice, reason, and history. We will win and are going to construct a Mexico with all of you.”