Zapatistas

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.

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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.”

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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!

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“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.

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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.

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Loving and Leaving

My heart is big and tender. This year, I have opened my heart to so many types of love, and also grief, and beauty, and pain. I’ve opened my heart again and again, even knowing every time that I am going to leave.

In one way or another, loving other human beings is committing to pain. When we love someone, we share their pain along with their joy, or they hurt us in some way, or we grieve when the friendship or relationship ends. Opening up our hearts – loving and being vulnerable – is committing ourselves to future pain or grief.

Of course, we do it because it is worth it – it’s probably impossible to live a meaningful and joyous life without love and loss. This year, the people I have met who have loved me, taught me, and held me accountable have been indispensable in my growth and my capacity to contribute to the struggle.

As I prepare to leave Mexico in under two weeks, I have been repeating this line to myself, from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods”:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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Guatemala

Southward bound

A ragtag van of travelers
Bumping and winding and dozing

We pass through the burning fields
of cane near Comitán,
Machete men hacking at tough husks
To harvest sweet sap

Red
Flashes of ripe jocote fruit, and flowers of the flamboyant tree
Shout vividly – alive – amidst the ceibas and the dusty dry paisaje.

We prepare to cross
A reverse migration
Vamos pa’abajo

The driver blasts Mariah Carey and Sweet Caroline.
The woman from London and the man from Israel sing of never-ending love
And discuss ATM fees and conversion rates
While a Honduran
Somewhere, maybe here
Or at another border crossing,
is being escorted- deported.

Me voy pa’abajo,
Voluntarily

My back is sweaty in the sweltering sun.
I walk two meters to the migration office
And think of the young brothers, cousins, acquaintances, who are doubtless walking miles in this heat,
Evading checkpoints
and white vans with green and red stripes.

They call it a visa run
But I don’t have to run.
I just have to smile at the immigration officer
My skin glowing bright, holding my blue passport open
As my right to roam is stamped onto its pages.

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Women, Water, Ocean

I’ve been busy with lots of wonderful things since I last wrote, and each deserves its own full reflection. But since I’m trying to balance writing with living in the moment and soaking up as many experiences as I can in my remaining time here, for now you’re going to get the highlight reel.

In early March, my dear friend Emily came to visit, and we went to the First International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport, and Culture for Women in the Struggle.

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Hosted by the Zapatista women, in one of the five caracoles (Zapatista autonomous municipalities), the event drew around 7,000 women from around the world, including 2,000 Zapatista women from around Chiapas.

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It was simultaneously inspiring, energizing, weird, beautiful, and problematic. We went to panels on lesbo-feminism in Mexico, gentrification in Chicago, and sex work in Argentina. We learned from critiques and conversations about racism, barriers to black women attending, and dynamics between indigenous and white women.

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One particularly moving moment was on the first night, during a speech by our Zapatista hosts. The lights turned off, and when everyone turned around to look, we saw that the Zapatista women had formed a line of lit candles and were slowly moving them up and down in an undulating river of light, a vigil for fallen sisters, and a small flame of inspiration to take back with us into our communities.

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Another hauntingly beautiful moment was after the closing ceremony, when a dozen or so women from indigenous communities across the Americas came on stage. They had met each other throughout the weekend and realized that many of them had brought native seeds and other gifts from their tribes or communities, for the zapatistas. They came on stage singing (a song from some indigenous group in North America, I don’t know which) and a woman near me in the crowd started singing along, her voice full of emotion and recognition of her people’s song.

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A few weeks later, I went to a pair of events in the north of Chiapas, in the Zoque region.

Getting there involved several modes of transportation, including the trunk of a taxi.

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The first was an event about water in the region – a particularly hot topic because of a proposed reform to a national water law that would give increased water access and control to private companies.

The second was a rally and meeting of thousands of people from the Zoque villages, marking the 36th anniversary of the volcanic eruption that killed and displaced thousands of people. The Zoque (one of many indigenous groups/languages in Chiapas) were not previously so unified between their diverse villages, but starting a couple years ago they organized to fight fossil fuel extraction on their lands. Now, they are continuing that fight, against new potential projects.

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A mural from the recent fight against fossil fuel extraction.

At one point in the meeting, people divided up into small groups from their villages. They brainstormed and shared out answers to what the problems are in their communities, and what the solutions could be. It was inspiring to see grassroots organizing in such a different context from what I’m used to, with identification of both the problems and the strategies coming directly from those affected.

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In between events, we went swimming in a beautiful swimming hole in a nearby river.

When I wrote this I was on a beautiful beach on the west coast of Chiapas for a few days – it was Semana Santa (leading up to Easter) so everyone goes on vacation. Along with a group of my housemates, I watched dolphins at sunset, swam a lot, and ate local fish.

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The site we were at was on a spit of land – the waves of the Pacific were on one side and a “dead water” calm inlet was on the other.

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We collected caco, a sweet and strange tasting fruit with white flesh and pink-purple skin.

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Not pictured is the Passover “seder” I had with the only other United Statesean I know here, who is also Jewish. We said the traditional blessing over the vegan oatmeal cookies and mango jam.

On the final night, we made a bonfire!

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Mexico City

I’ve been in San Cristóbal for about a month now, and I’m still loving it. I’ve started at the Center for Women’s Rights of Chiapas; I’m currently working on a database of feminicides.

This weekend, I left Chiapas for a short visit to Mexico City. I got to see a dear friend from D.C. who was in town for the weekend, as well as several people I got to know while at La 72.

Before those fun visits, though, I experienced my first earthquake, a 7.2 magnitude quake with an epicenter a few hundred miles away. I’ll spare you the whole story – it’s amazing how many details one can remember when pumped full of adrenaline – but it was the most terrifying two minutes of my life.

On the positive side, I met some really kind strangers – most notably a woman who showed me/ran with me to a safer area that had fewer swaying cables, light poles and precarious buildings.

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My new friend then helped me calm down when the quake was over, walked me to my hostel to make sure there wasn’t damage, returned for me when there was an aftershock, and bought me dinner and calming tea. Although people were pretty freaked – the trauma of September’s deadly quakes is still fresh – there was minimal physical damage.

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The rest of the weekend was eventful in different ways. For safety reasons I’m not posting pictures of my La 72 friends, but seeing them again after a few months was wonderful.

I got to visit la Casa Azul, where Frida Kahlo (and Diego) lived, which is now a great museum.

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I also caught a movie at the Cineteca Nacional, by far the most stunning movie theater I’ve been to.

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Finally, I got to geek out about the well-designed metro lines. When I got to the city, I realized I had listened to a 99 Percent Invisible episode about the city’s metro – the visual design makes it very easy to navigate, even if you aren’t literate in Spanish. Every line has a number and color (e.g. 1 is pink) and every stop has a simple picture symbol (e.g. Salto de Agua is a fountain).

Since this was more of a people-visit than a place-visit, there are still lots of things/museums/places in el D.F. I want to see – perhaps in the spring. But as for friendship and food, it was packed full.

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I had amazing food all weekend, but this Oaxacan black mole was probably the best.

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New adventures

Happy (relatively) new year! I left La 72 shortly after Christmas, to spend two wonderful weeks with my family in the Yucatán peninsula.

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Spending time near the sea meant beautiful sea-related murals.

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The four of us stayed by the shore for a few days, with very soft sand for long walks.

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We also visited a number of Mayan ruins, which for me is always a beautiful and humbling experience.

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Tulum, though populated with an overwhelming number of tourists, is a ruins on the beach – a stunning union.

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We also swam in many cenotes – freshwater pools, some in caves and some opened to the air.

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We met up with some dear family friends/chosen family, and went on more long beach walks.

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After saying goodbye, I traveled to San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. I have been here for close to a week now, living in a communal house for volunteers. I’m in the process of deciding which projects/organizations I’m going to be working with, but I’m already falling in love with this charming city and the welcoming, politically radical, and brilliant people I’m living in community with.

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Shooting Stars

Several heart-wrenching, unjust, and frustrating things have happened at La 72 recently. I am not going to go into detail here – it feels too personal, raw, and potentially voyeuristic. But yesterday, my heart was breaking, my sadness mixed with outrage at the larger systems of injustice.

I was feeling that our work here is akin to accompanying someone as they fight a large machine, only able to offer them a toothpick as a sword, and a bandaid or two for their gaping wounds.

But then, a few hours before dawn, I rode in a truck to Villahermosa to pick up the weekly vegetable donation. I watched the sky, and between 4 and 5am I saw more than 15 shooting stars. (PSA: tonight is peak Geminids, you should stop reading this and take a look!)

The earth moves through the same asteroid belt every year, and these breathtaking yet quotidian miracles burn through the sky. They will still be hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere during the day tomorrow, even when we can’t see them glow. Watching a meteor shower (lluvia de estrellas, a rainstorm of stars!) reminds me that we humans are such small blips in space and time on this planet.

I feel small, but in a different and better way than before. If we are facing the end of our species – which, science says there’s a good chance we are, sometime soon – then what else is there to do but to put out love into this world? To patch gaping wounds with bandaids, and to fight with all of our power to try to prevent the wounds in the first place?

We are little bundles of cells, and our lives are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. But in the time we are here, we can be so beautiful and bold, and full of possibility.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems, which is painted on the wall of the volunteers’ room here. Here is a link to an English translation that is decent.

Como Tú

Yo, como tú,
amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto
de las cosas, el paisaje
celeste de los días de enero.

También mi sangre bulle
y río por los ojos
que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas.

Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

Y que mis venas no terminan en mí
sino en la sangre unánime
de los que luchan por la vida,
el amor,
las cosas,
el paisaje y el pan,
la poesía de todos.

Roque Dalton

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