I wrote this in the beginning of May, when I was in a Zapatista community as a human rights observer, but I waited to publish this post this until I left Chiapas for safety reasons.
A mural in the encampment for human rights observers
As some of you may know, in 1994 an organized group of indigenous revolutionaries in Chiapas – the EZLN -rose up in arms against the Mexican government, and against capitalism as a global system. Today, there are tens of thousands of Zapatistas throughout Chiapas, in autonomous communities that have their own systems of governance, education, and healthcare, and don’t accept aid from the “bad government.”
A mural on the Zapatista school: “the bad capitalist system destroys education; our autonomy constructs the other, new education”
While the Zapatistas are well-known worldwide, there are actually a large number of autonomous communities in Chiapas that don’t belong to Zapatismo. And the number officially recognized by the Mexican government is likely a huge undercount of the number of communities that function autonomously, because, as someone here told me, “my generation decided not to register officially as autonomous because we would essentially be giving the government a list of the communities in resistance.”
I’ve learned a lot about Zapatista history, ideology, and practice while living in Chiapas, but I’m not going to go too much into that here. I still have a lot to learn but if you’re interested I’m happy to talk more offline or send some links to read!
“Get out, repressive army! Chiapas isn’t a barracks…”
I was placed in a community where 20 years ago, everyone was Zapatista. But over time, more and more families have essentially “defected,” taking money (and sometimes arms) from the government and becoming “partidistas.” In other communities in Chiapas, partidistas and Zapatistas coexist peaceably, but here, there’s tension – especially in the past four years.
In 2014, there was a conflict that ended in the partidistas destroying the Zapatista school and clinic, injuring several Zapatistas with machetes and bullets, and killing one Zapatista man. Since then, things have been tense and the two sides don’t talk to each other – even though they are each other’s neighbors and even cousins, aunts, and uncles.
In summary: it’s a little like the Jets and the Sharks, except that everyone used to be on the side of the Jets, and some of the Sharks might be paramilitaries.
Our role as observers is two-fold: first, the hope is that the presence of international observers would have a deterrence effect. Second, we are supposed to observe, document, and conduct interviews around any provocations or conflicts that may occur. Things have been relatively tranquil here recently, so the most likely thing we’d observe would be military vehicles passing through for show/intimidation.
While sitting and watching for military vehicles, I passed the time by eating green mangoes, learning to juggle, and talking about Zapatismo. And feeding stale tortillas to this mangy, flea-y, but super cute dog.
I do not think the Zapatistas are perfect – no movement or form of governance is – but learning about the ways in which they’ve succeeded in building another way of life apart from capitalism, on their own terms, has been incredibly inspiring.
Otro mundo es posible – Another world is possible.