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10592 km: Roberto Barrios, "The Caracol That Speaks for All"

Written on: Monday May 5th, 2008

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

We have spent the last few nights camped at the Roberto Barrios Caracol. Caracol is a Spanish word meaning ?snail shell?. As the snails shell is a spiral, the name ?Caracol? was chosen to represent a place where the outside meets the inside. Not only is the Caracol a gathering place for bases of support, it also serves as the home-base for the Zapatista civilian government and the autonomous education and health systems.

There are five Caracoles covering all of Zapatista territory, one for each of the geographic and ethnic zones. At each Caracol a government board governs their respective municipalities. The ?bad government? (aka the Mexican government) is not acknowledged here. The government board, called the ?Junta? is composed of rotating members from the community, chosen by the community (pronounced Houn-ta). This is different from our democratic process, where pre-selected candidates ?run? for an election. This process is also very true to the traditional indigenous way of governance. At Roberto Barrios, delegates serve on the junta for a four week rotation. This role is considered community service and is not a paid.

I should mention here that not every indigenous person in Chiapas is a Zapatista. The Zapatista movement is an organization, and individuals, or often communities, choose to join. Once part of the organization, the community (or individual) must agree to refuse government support (i.e. use government schools or health clinics) as well as refuse government subsidies. Also, Zapatista communities are free from alcohol and drugs. There are many indigenous communities that are split between members and non-members. It think that I heard somewhere that about 1/3 of the indigenous population in Chiapas is Zapatista.

The Junta is responsible for balancing development and dealing and monitoring interactions with civil society. This is extremely important for several reasons. First off, they ensure a fair distribution of aid money, project support and funding to the communities within their region. Secondly, they monitor and deal with the increasing number of requests from civil society for visits and projects. I just found on the internet that one of the larger Caracoles had 4,500 external visitors several years ago. This is a huge influx of people and could, if not handled properly have negative consequences on the traditional and peasant lifestyle of the indigenous people. Another major function of the Junta is to mediate disputes and conflicts between non-Zapatistas and Zapatistas. They seek to resolve conflict through dialogue and mediation.

When we arrived here on Monday morning we were first greeted by a large sign: ?Esta Used en Territorio Zapatista en Rebeldia. Aqui Manda el Pueblo y el Gobierno Obedece?. Roughly translated this means: ?You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here the people command and the government obeys?. Underneath, the sign indicated that we were in the North Zone and warned that alcohol and drugs are prohibited. As we pulled up to the Caracol gate, two balaclava-clad guards approached and opened the gate for us to pull in and park our vehicles. Outside the colorfully painted concrete building we waited for the Junta to see us. I starred for a long time at a beautiful mural of a snail on the wall with the written words, ?El Caracol que habla para todos?. This is the poetic name of Roberto Barrios, which means ?The Caracol that speaks for all?. When the Junta was prepared to see us we were invited into the room and invited to sit down. Behind a table were seated the four balaclava-clad members of the Junta. ?We would first like to thank you for taking such a long journey to come here to be her with us?. As the welcome speech continued I felt any hesitation upon facing a masked group of people ease away. ?Please tell us what is your request? a female junta member asked as she pulled out a pen and a notebook. Peter explained in Spanish the reason for our visit: We would like to request meetings with the education and health promoters to learn more about their autonomous systems. We would also like to meet with the woman?s cooperative. Lastly, we would like to volunteer in the Medicinal plant nursery (more on that last point in my next blog). Before answering any question the Junta would speak amongst themselves in Chol, their native indigenous tongue, and agree on the response. ?Do you have any more questions or requests?? asked the Junta. ?Why do you wear the face masks?? was my mother?s first question. Their response was profound: for decades they have been ignored by the Mexican government and people. They are now hiding their faces in order to be seen. Also, by showing only their eyes they are expressing that they clearly ?see? what is going on around them and that they intend to struggle, suffer and resist until they are heard and seen in an equal word for all. The junta agreed to set up meetings with Education and Health and informed us that the Women?s Cooperative was already expecting us. We were also granted permission to work at the nursery.

Off we went to meet with the women?s artisan cooperative. We had a very interesting chat with the group, who explained to us how they were formed and how they organize themselves. Basically the 37 women pool their money together to buy materials to make crafts, and then collectively sell the clothes, handbags, shawls and wallets in their tiny store across the street from the Caracol. It is not a very profitable venture however, and the cooperative has had some difficult times. When asked about the challenges that they faced, the women replied that the biggest challenge for them was transport. An average family in this community makes about $150 dollars a year. A return trip to the nearest city (Palenque) costs $3? equivalent to one week salary. The cooperative bought a car to share earlier this year in hopes of reducing the transport dilemma. When the car broke down, they tried to fix it but eventually had to sell it and lost $600 on the project? a huge hit for their group. However, they were very proud of the fact that they did not accept government support and that they were continuing with their ?resistance? and ?struggle?. I sensed a little resentment towards some previous coop members who left the Zapatista organization because of ?bribes from the government?. It was a very interesting meeting and we finished by supporting their coop by purchasing a few articles. The women were happy to put on their paliaclates for a group photo.

Peter and Susan then invited us to cool off in the local river. Not only is this the main source of drinking water for the community, it also serves as the communal bath tub and laundry mat? in a beautiful tropical location. Just upstream, two small waterfalls join together into several beautiful pools of refreshingly cool water. We decided that the jungle river swim would become a daily ritual for the remainder of our time at Roberto Barrios.

Our day wasn?t over quite yet, as we discovered upon returning from our swim that representatives from Education would be willing to meet with us that evening at 8 pm. We headed for the classroom and met with two more balaclava-clad individuals. They had with them the sheet of questions written down from the Junta. After welcoming us, and thanking us for our interest, they addressed the first question: Why did you set up autonomous schools? The younger of the two representatives explained that they have set up their own autonomous indigenous schools to get away from the discrimination that was so evident in the government schools. Also uniform, school books and other material costs were too expensive for most indigenous children; as a result they were forced out of the government educational system. There was also the question of mother tongue. Spanish is the language taught in almost all government schools, as very few teachers speak indigenous languages. ?Are you a Promoter?? we asked him. ???Yes,? was his reply. Education Promoters are the coordinators of their autonomous schools (there are also Health Promoters and Agro-Ecology Promoters). They do not to use the word ?teacher? as they see this as a hierarchical label. Peter had already explained to us the notion of ?cargo?, which stems from times of the ancient Maya. The cargo system requires unpaid service for the good of the community, and when an individual decides to become a Promoter, he is dedicating himself to working for free for the benefit of the community. ?If you work for free, how do you feed yourself?? we asked. I was a little surprised when he started to chuckle. ?Well, the community is meant to support the Promoters, in exchange for their community work. However, the community here is very poor. Sometimes it is very hard.? This was rather shocking. Here the promoter was admitting that sometimes he didn?t have enough to eat, and yet he was committed to volunteering his time to improving the lives of the people in his community. We also learnt that the region currently has 2000 children in autonomous primary schools, and that they were planning on starting the first secondary school in the region in the Fall. This secondary school would provide an opportunity for approximately 280 children between 12-15 years of age to continue their education. However, they had several challenges ahead. The region is very large, and many children would have to travel far to come to the school. Most children would have to be boarded because of the cost and impracticability of travel. The cost of travel and food for the children was the biggest obstacle.

We left the meeting with the Education Promoters in awe and spent the rest of the evening reflecting and processing everything we had heard that day. War is associated with destruction and in 1994 the Zapatistas picked up weapons and declared war on the Mexican government. Twelve years later, these peasant farmers are silently and simply building and constructing. They are fulfilling their demands for indigenous rights, regardless if these have not been sanctioned by the ?bad government?. They have gone ahead and built schools and health clinics, and are constructing systems to govern themselves, more true to their traditions, value and culture.

The lessons of autonomy and self management and the power of a grass-roots, bottom-up movement is truly inspirational.