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10552 kms: Our Delegation into Zapatista Territory

Written on: Sunday May 4th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

We left Villahermosa and headed towards Palenque. In Palenque we would be meeting up with the Organization Schools for Chiapas to start a two-week long delegation into the Chiapas Jungle to meet and interact with Zapatistas.

First, I believe that a little background history of the Zapatista movement is required. Some of you, upon hearing the word ?Zapatista? may think of masked bandits, for the mask is what they are likely most famous for. However, this could not be further from the truth. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), is a revolutionary group in Chiapas, the southernmost and poorest state in Mexico. They are indigenous Mexicans, many descendents of the ancient Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations. They have been living off the land for centuries, long before the arrival of the Spanish and the creation of the nation-state of Mexico. When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in the 16th century, 95% of the indigenous population was nearly eradicated, not from war, but from disease and pandemics introduced from Europe. Cortes defeated the Aztecs and installed the colonial system.

After centuries of oppression and poverty and attempts to assimilate and integrate them under the colonial and cast system, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement was deemed the last straw. On January 1st, NAFTA went into effect and the Zapatista organization went public. Indigenous fighters, hiding their faces by wearing black balaclavas (pasamontanas) or red bandanas (paliaclates), stormed and took hold of five municipalities in the Chiapas State.

Zapatismo, as is called the ideology behind the organization, opposes neoliberalism and corporate globalization arguing that it severely threatens their way of life. For instance, the North American Free Trade Agreement, melded two first-world economies, the U.S. and Canada, with a struggling third-world nation, Mexico. It required an end to crop subsidies for peasant Mexican farmers and opened the market to a massive influx of cheap, mechanically-harvested, synthetically-fertilized, genetically-modified and subsidized agricultural products from the US. Also, NAFTA required the removal of articles in the Mexican Constitution that guaranteed communal land rights for indigenous groups throughout Mexico.

A ferocious military assault was unleashed by the Mexican government and approximately 150 people were killed. However, the attack had to be called off in days as thousands of Mexicans flooded the Zocolo (Central Square) in Mexico City and other major centers to show their support and solidarity with the Zapatistas. A cease-fire was signed and talks ensued with the Zapatistas presenting a list of 11 demands related to work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace. Government talks with the EZLN culminated in the signing of the San Andrés Accords in 1996 that granted autonomy and special rights to the indigenous population. However, after signing, the government reversed its position and refused to implement the agreement. Instead the government stepped up its paramilitary intimidation tactics in attempt to undermine rebel support. Twelve years later, the Accord has yet to be ratified by the government.

Zapatistas often talk about their ?struggle? and their ?resistance?. They see their current situation as unacceptable and until the Mexican government makes the promised changes, they will not recognize the government or accept any support from it. Instead, over these last few years, the Organization has been setting up their own autonomous governance, schools, agro-ecology and health clinics to promote indigenous language and traditions.

It was these autonomous systems that Rob and I were very interested in learning about and the reason we signed up for a delegation with Schools for Chiapas. For the last twelve years, Schools for Chiapas has been helping the indigenous people of the Chiapas to build skills and capacity for healthy, sustainable and self-reliant communities. After extending the invitation to my mother to join us for a unique opportunity, we were surprised, but pleased when she signed herself up and bought a plane ticket to Mexico.

We arrived at our hotel, Posada Canada, to meet with Peter and Susan, the directors of the organization. As Palenque is also very hot and humid we were delighted when we arrived at the meeting spot to find a cooler full of cold beer. Susan and Peter spent the evening briefing us about the Zapatista Organization, the schedule for our trip and the rules we needed to abide by. ?Enjoy your beer?, Susan warned, ?Zapatista Territory is completely dry- no alcohol and no drugs allowed?. We also learnt a very important rule about photos, and you?ll notice it as you look through our pictures. We are not allowed to take photos of adult Zapatistas without a pasamontanas or a paliaclate. Basically, their face cannot be shown in the photo. Peter repeated a famous quote for us to help us understand why they chose to do this: "With my mask, I'm a Zapatista in a struggle for dignity and justice," replied the masked man. "Without my mask, I?m just another damn Indian!?

It is here in Palenque that we find ourselves, about to embark on what is surely to be a fascinating, mind opening, enlightening and inspiring two-weeks.


From StellaMaris on Sep 7th, 2012

Very exciting. I am planning to go with my son. Looking forward to hearing more about your delegation experience!