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A Caracol called Oventik

Written on: Monday May 12th, 2008

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

Monday, week two of our delegation, we headed north out of San Cristobal and drove 1 hour to the Caracol called Oventik. Again, we were greeted with the sign "Usted Esta en Territorio Zapatista", but this time we were in the Zona Altos, or Highlands Zone. We would be meeting with the Junta to request permission to attend several basketball court inaugurations, deliver a donation from Schools for Chiapas as well as ask any questions.

The guards opened the gates and we pulled off the highway and into the Caracol. In front of us was a long and wide concrete "driveway" lined with numerous colorfully-painted buildings (20+?) on both sides. Five hundred meters away the driveway ended into a large open field and behind the field was a concrete basketball court. To the left of the court I noticed another gathering of large buildings and later learnt that this was a secondary boarding school for Zapatista children. The Oventik Caracol was certainly much larger and had more resources than Roberto Barrios.

As we drove down the driveway I admired the beautiful murals and noticed that some of the buildings had signs indicating their use: "Casa de la Junta", "Tienda Collectiva", "Clinica la Guadalupana", "Socieadad Cooperativa de Artesanal de Mujeres por la Dignidad", "Promotores de Agroecologia"  to name a few. Near the end of the concrete we parked in front of a small wooden building, the Schools for Chiapas office. Schools for Chiapas is the only external association that has an office right inside a Caracol. Also, in the building next door there is a rustic kitchen (but luxurious for Caracol standards since it has a propane stove). These privileges speak very highly of the relationship that the organization has developed with the Zapatistas.

Other buildings in the caracole include a hospital (complete with 2 surgery rooms and a dental office), a very large tin-roofed structure that serves as a meeting and assembly hall, 3 woman's artisan collectives, 2 small grocery stores, a restaurant, municipal offices, and an Internet Center as all caracoles are connected via a satellite connection.

We headed over to the "Casa de la Junta" (House of the Junta). After a short wait, two indigenous men emerged from their meeting with the Junta. I don't know what their meeting was about (nor do I know who they were) but do know that the Junta undertakes mediation in legal disputes and also registers land, marriage, birth and death. Non-Zapatistas alike often turn to the Junta because they perform this task without the usual bribery, corruption and bureaucracy commonplace in the Mexican government. The group was a larger Junta than in Roberto Barrios, two women and four men sat behind a long table. One woman even had her young son with her. We were granted permission to attend the basketball court inauguration in Chu’Chen but were told that before granting us permission to attend the second inauguration in Sa’Clum, they would not immediately grant us permission to go to Sa’Clum, because of recent tensions in that community. We would only be allowed to go if it was deemed safe to do so, and they wanted to confirm of this first. We received permission to gift some sport equipment that Annette had brought from Canada at each inauguration as well as Schools for Chiapas had some sporting equipment to donate.  The Junta also gratefully accepted a financial donation from Schools for Chiapas to help cover the expense of the celebrations. When it came time to ask questions, the Junta actually suggested that we request a meeting with the comite de repuestas (the committee of answers) who would be better informed to answer questions related to the overall direction of the Zapatista Organization.

Two representatives from the comite de repuestas met with us in the small colorful building next door. After welcoming and greeting us genuinely we were invited to ask whatever questions we may have. Rob eventually asked, "What will it take for the Zapatistas to pick up their arms again?". This question provoked an amazingly articulate 20 minute reply. He spoke to the initial reasons for the armed insurrection which can be summed up with the popular quote, “"We took up arms that we might be heard" (i.e. we tried to get somebody to negotiate with us for 500 years and no one took us seriously until we took up arms). Now the over-all philosophy of the movement advocated peace and discussing. He then spoke about how the Mexican government retracted on what had been agreed upon during the peace process (The Accords of San Andres) and the Zapatista response in the face of government betrayal was to develop autonomous services in health, education and agro-ecology.  He went on finally to admit that despite a genuine desire to never again respond to provocation with armed conflict, that it was possible, if the government continued to attack communities and refused all avenues of peaceful resolution that an armed response, always the last resource, was not completely out of the question. The spokesman spoke so eloquently and poetically about the Zapatista struggles that I remember trying to fight my eyes from getting all teary. I was relieved to look over and see my mother slip on her sunglasses. 

Following the meeting, we decided to check out (or perhaps I should say check-in) at the Health Clinic. The Oventik Caracol has one of the largest and broadest Clinicas in all of Zapatista Territory. My understanding is that an Italian doctor has volunteered much time here but most of the services are provided by highly trained health promoters. Remember that Zapatistas do not like labels like "teachers" or "doctors" and prefer the more egalitarian label of "promoter" to describe those who have chosen a path of service to their community.

After secondary (basically junior high) health promoters start working and training in the field. Well, back in Palenque, Rob started to develop a small circular rash on his back. We kept a close eye on it and started applying polysporin, with hopes that it would recede. By now, it was spreading along the left side of his body onto his ribs and encroaching towards his stomach. He was also starting to experience muscle pain around the rash areas. If you've been following our blog, I know what you are thinking. Rob was starting the think the same thing, "I think my body might be telling me its time to leave Mexico", he told me, although I tried to convince him otherwise. The health promoters invited Rob into one of the examining rooms and Peter helped translate. After asking a few questions and taking a few measurements, the promoters (they always work in pairs) indicated that they believed Rob had some sort of a viral infection. They instructed for us to continue applying the antibiotic cream and also prescribed a medicinal herb-based soap. The soap we could purchase at their Herbal Pharmacy.

Rob and I were very excited to get a chance to see the Herbal Pharmacy. Peter explained that although they sometimes have to rely on patent-medicine (i.e. commercial medicine), it is very expensive for them. In response, their autonomous health system has set up Herbology centers where they make their own tinctures, teas, creams, pomades and other herbal remedies. They also train promoters to specialize in the making traditional natural medicine and maintain their focus on prevention. "La Tienda Cooperativa de Los Promotores de la Medicina Natural" or, The Promoters of Natural Medicine Co-operative Store, located on the highway across the street from the Caracol itself, is open to everyone. Products are free for all Zapatistas and available at a very small cost to anyone else. We found the soap that had been subscribed but eagerly continued looking up and down the shelves for other useful things. We grabbed a bottle of liquid for headaches, another liquid for cough and cold and some hand cream for dry skin. I even let out a gleeful "hey Rob!" when I found I small jar of pomade marked "hemorroides" and shoved it into the pile. When the store worker added the tally it came to a whopping 60 pesos (~$6). When he didn't have change for our 100 peso bill, we offered to make a 40 peso donation, and still felt that we got good value.

My mother and I also decided to pop our heads into the "Socieadad Cooperativa de Artesanal de Mujeres por la Dignidad" which translates "The Cooperative Artisan Society for Women of Dignity". Similar to the women's cooperative that we had visited in Roberto Barrios, the store contained clothing items, bags and purses, but I was especially interested in the large selection of amber jewellery. Amber is local to the region and the pieces were all hand picked and made by indigenous Zapatista women.

Later that evening enjoyed a delicious soup prepared by Peter and great conversation about all we had heard that day.


From Bohdar on Jun 27th, 2008

Very cool guys. We did some recent travel too. http://picasaweb.google.com/bohdar.lukomskyj/Thailand2008?authkey=u_pd48eJC3A

From Thea Avis on Jun 27th, 2008

interesting choice of words, Michelle - finding the hemeroidal meds and putting it on the "pile" - I feel confident there was no 'pun' intended - but rather apropos, nevertheless. Also, seeing Robbie shopping in the 'drug store' with his scarf on his head, made me think about how versatile a scarf that is - you could be a Zapatista - no problem - just transfer the scarf. love you both to bursting. thea