dorset chiapas solidarity

February 12, 2016

Indigenous Otomí-Ñätho Communities in Mexico Exercise Their Autonomy to Defend Their Lands

Filed under: Autonomy, Indigenous, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 2:56 pm



Indigenous Otomí-Ñätho Communities in Mexico Exercise Their Autonomy to Defend Their Lands



Like Cheran, Michoacán, and the Zapatista Caracoles of Chiapas, the Ñätho community of Huitzizilapan have exercised their sovereignty and voted to form their own communal assembly. Photo: Más de 131.


Huitzizilapan, whose old name is N’dete, which means “big town”, currently encompasses 12 indigenous Otomí-Ñätho communities living in the area between the two large cities of Mexico City and Toluca.

A year ago, its people organized themselves to defend their forests, a movement that ultimately led them to elect their own representatives free from the influence of any political party on 7 December 2015.

That day, the indigenous people waited for the arrival of the Agrarian Ombudsman, the authority which can give power to assemblies formed on communally owned lands in Mexico.

However, the ombudsman never arrived, citing an accident as the reason.

Meanwhile, members of the National Human Rights Commission, who were invited by the comuneros (a Mexican term for members of an agrarian community) to document the assembly, left without warning.

This did not stop the indigenous community members from exercising their rights in line with convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, the Mexican Constitution and agrarian legislation.

During the assembly, by a show of hands, they unanimously choose the “candidates of the people”.

The Ñätho, however, say that they were forced to confront a new assembly convened by the Agrarian Ombudsman without legal grounds on 18 January 2016.

The Ñätho worried that the local government and the pro-government Institutional Revolutionary Party would impose another parallel authority instead of the authority which the people had already elected.

They therefore decided to make efforts to reinforce their vote.

“We are getting organised and visiting all the comuneros so we can win again”, said Abundio Rivera, one of the local leaders.

In a statement released on 12 January, the comuneros criticised the town’s former authorities, who had links to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, for handing out 2,000 Mexican pesos to each person to persuade them not to support the chosen “candidates of the people”.

“We are working on increasing awareness”, stressed Rivera. And they did, on 18 January 2016 they won again.

Since 2003, the federal government has set up registers of comuneros in agrarian and communal centres around the country.

In Huitzizilapan, there are 904 comuneros who make decisions involving the land. Since then, all kinds of projects have been imposed by the communal authorities, without any prior consultation with the people.

The idea behind the 2014 movement and the formation of a group of candidates from open assemblies held in the town was to reverse the environmental destruction and protect the integrity of the Huitzizilapan people’s lands.

Once elected on 7 December, the first words of the new commissariat were: “We all know the great difficulties facing the community, we must care for our land, our water and our forest as well as deal with other issues. To me it seems we must keep those citizens of San Lorenzo whether they be at home or away, in mind. Let us give them the chance to voice their vote.”

Another comunero went even further in saying: “I will fight for the autonomy of the people, not just the chance to vote. I will open the doors to the people and recover the autonomy we had 15 years ago, because our children have the right to decide what happens to their land and forest, independent of the Agrarian Ombudsman.”

The president’s order

Along with its neighbours, Xochicuautla and Ayotuxco, Huitzizilapan faces the construction of the Toluca-Naucalpan highway, which was contracted to a corporation owned by Juan Armando Hinojosa, one of the businessmen most favoured by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government.

At the beginning of 2015, the former town commissioner and member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Luis Enrique Dorantes, passed a supposed “forest exploitation plan” without notifying the people.

A few months later, on the morning of 5 July, young men and women from Huitzizilapan set themselves up at the community council offices, lighting campfires to watch an assembly in which Dorantes had planned to hand over part of the peoples’ land to the local government of Lerma, though a process called “disincorporation”.

That morning the church bells rang next to the council offices, and hundreds of residents answered the call to expel around a thousand police from their town.

Women, young people and children of Huitzizilapan have met with indigenous people from all over the country, as well as with some of the families of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero who remain missing.

Their case has led them to file protection orders against an expropriation decree on their land ordered by Peña Nieto in March 2014, as well as to create a community newspaper and paint messages such as: “We are all comuneros” and “Here the people are in charge” on walls around the town.

Precious forest

The forests defended by Xochicuautla and Huitzizilapan are recognised by Mexico’s government as the Tributary Sub-basin Forestry and Water Sanctuary.

The 105,844 hectare area is classified as the Zempoala La Bufa Ecological, Recreational Tourist Park, and is known as the Otomí-Mexica Park.

Peña Nieto and Governor Eruviel Ávila insist on constructing a highway for 39 kilometres through this forest, which would practically divide it in two. Avila declared in December that the project will be completed in 2016.

When elected on 7 December, the new commissariat of the people asked, “Why do we care for the forest?”

He then answered the question saying, “Because it is the lungs of both the Valley of Toluca and the Valley of Mexico. It is a matter of preserving it for future generations, let’s raise awareness”.

Written by Mas de 131

Translated by Glenn Bower



June 20, 2015

Meeting between family members of the normal school students from Ayotzinapa and communities of the CNI in Chiapas, in San Sebastian Bachajón

Filed under: Bachajon, caravan — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 4:13 pm


Meeting between family members of the normal school students from Ayotzinapa and communities of the CNI in Chiapas, in San Sebastian Bachajón


On 17th June the caravan of family and friends of the disappeared and murdered normal school students of Ayotzinapa arrived for their second meeting with the organized indigenous communities of the Indigenous National Congress (CNI), at the ejido San Sebastián Bachajón for a meeting at Cumbre Nachoj, the headquarters of the adherents to the Sixth from Bachajón.

“Nine months without returning home, looking for my son,” mother of Ayotzinapa.

San Sebastián Bachajón, Chiapas, June 17. “I have spent nine months without returning home, looking for my son,” shared Mrs. Cristina Bautista, mother of Benjamín Ascencio Bautista, a student at the normal school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, disappeared by the police along with 42 of his compañeros last September.

“I never imagined I would get here, being with you gives us strength,” said doña Cristina to the communities of the Indigenous National Congress, adherents to the Sixth from northern Chiapas, meeting in Cumbre Nachoj, headquarters of the ejido in resistance San Sebastian Bachajón, in the municipality of Chilón. “The state has to accept that it was the one that disappeared our children,” stressed the mother of Benjamin, a few days after the judge Ulices Bernabé García from Iguala, Guerrero, now in exile, contradicted the official version of the facts that absolved the federal government from blame.

“In Tixtla, Guerrero, we thought it was just us, but all of us in one way or another have been hit by the government,” said doña Bertha Nava, mother of Julio Cesar Ramírez Nava, one of the students killed by the police. Together with her husband Tomás Ramírez, she denounced that in the last days of the electoral process, Tixtla was surrounded by police and soldiers, who did not allow them to move freely. “It is not a crime to look for our children, it is a right,” reiterated doña Bertha.

Meanwhile the student Omar Garcia recalled that these meetings with the communities of Chiapas, are with the agreement of the National Indigenous Congress, “to learn about how to build self-management and autonomy.” “Elections do not serve us anything,” stressed Omar who is also a spokesperson for the Ayotzinapa normal school.

The meeting was attended by members of the Ejido Bachajón, Ejido Tila and the organisation of the Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa de la Energía Eléctrica (PUDEE) from Sabanilla and Tila, adherents to the Sixth.

Audios of the meeting can be found at:

The words 0f the Ayotzinapa families can be found here:



July 21, 2014

Across Latin America, a Struggle for Communal Land and Indigenous Autonomy

Filed under: Indigenous — Tags: , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 4:53 pm


Across Latin America, a Struggle for Communal Land and Indigenous Autonomy

Sunday, 20 July 2014 00:00By Renata Bessi and Santiago Navarro F., Truthout | News Analysis



One evening in the community of Capulapam Mendez. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F.)

One evening in the community of Capulapam Mendez. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F.)

The elements that sustain the organizational community structure are the knowledge and values that have prevailed throughout their history. “We must understand what we are, not the ‘I’ or the ‘you,’ but the ‘we,’ and we should hold onto these principles in order to stop the interference of the vulgar and shameless principles of individualism. We shouldn’t enter into competition except to reproduce that which will be shared,” said Jaime Martínez Luna, an indigenous Zapotec anthropologist. “We are against development because it is linear and requires growth; we consider ourselves to be circular, in a spiral, and it’s because of this that men and women are not the center of the natural world. We are not owners of nature; we are owned by nature.”

Additionally, “Earth is considered to be our mother and we cannot do violence to her because she gives us life. We respect seeds because our grandparents taught us that they cry if they are not cared for; the grandparents say that the Mother Earth gives us food and when we die she receives and hugs us,” said Silvestre Ocaña López, of the indigenous group Tlahuitoltepec Mixes in Oaxaca, who does not hesitate to mark the difference between the way of thinking in her town and Western thinking. “Within the Western worldview, the earth is a product,” Ocaña López said. “For us in indigenous towns, we see it as our mother. She does not belong to us; we belong to her.”


Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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March 25, 2014

The Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 7:02 pm


The Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community

Melissa Forbis interviewed by Johanna Brenner

Source: Solidarity Webzine

chiapas-01Johanna Brenner: Many activists around the world have been inspired by the Zapatista project of organizing Indigenous communities in Chiapas around the principles of autonomy and participatory democracy. I’m curious to know more about how they are living there, producing and surviving. But first, can you say a bit about where these communities are located and their population?

Melissa Forbis: The “Zapatista territory” covers roughly the northeast half of Chiapas (corresponding approximately with the Diocese of San Cristobal). The population there is predominantly Indigenous, but in many places Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live side by side.

The Zapatistas have been very successful in organizing autonomous governance, autonomous schools, and autonomous healthcare. Their economic situation has been more difficult to work on. They have some advantages from their location in the countryside where they have been able to take over land and establish autonomous territorial governance. However, they are also embedded as we all are in neo-liberal capitalism—this is the 20 year anniversary of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA has been devastating for rural people, forcing them to migrate to the larger cities, to the Northern border, and to the U.S. However, the Zapatistas have had some success in taking control over their economy. For example, some areas produce coffee and in the past growers would have to sell to a middle person, who by the way is also called a coyote, just like the person who transports people across borders, for the same reason, because they extort money.

Growers did not have access to transport or transport was expensive, they could not verify the quality of the coffee, they couldn’t process it or roast it themselves, and therefore were dependent on the coyotes who set the prices for their crop. The Zapatistas have formed a number of coffee cooperatives who can cut out the coyotes by making links to fair trade coffee export groups primarily in the US, Mexico and Europe. Yet, while taking control of what they produce, and sharing earnings collectively, the cooperatives are still at the whim of the market—for example when there is a glut—and are threatened by other places that produce coffee more cheaply.

Zapatista collectives also produce for local consumption, for example there are bread-baking cooperatives, cattle cooperatives, and collective cornfields on lands recovered from wealthy landowners. There are also collective stores that provide local people with lower-cost goods because the collectives purchase in bulk. In addition, community members are saved the cost of travelling to the larger cities in order to shop.

Transportation is another arena where I’ve seen innovation. Most Zapatista communities are rural and people rely on buses or trucks to get around. Small companies provide transportation and in a sense they own the routes, setting the price and schedules. After the Zapatistas created the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Governance Councils) in 2003, I think there has been more oversight on whether those private companies are charging fairly and equally. Additionally, there is now Zapatista-owned transportation; those vehicles are also used for other community needs.

In spite of the development of these collective projects, many families rely on subsistence farming which is quite uncertain. In the past, the military destroyed crops or people were not able to harvest in time because of the military’s presence. But even without that pressure, there are years when crops fail because of weather or other conditions and the community has to purchase corn at inflated prices. So life remains precarious. One of the other recent efforts to improve economic security in the communities has been the establishment of “popular banks” or revolving funds that make low-interest loans to Zapatista support base members.

JB: Could you describe the structure of the Juntas de Bien Gobierno (Good Governance Councils)?

territorio-zapatistaMF: The Zapatistas have divided their territory into five regions which they call Caracoles. Within each Caracol there are several autonomous municipalities (the number varies). Each municipality is governed by a council made up of community members nominated to serve for two or three years. Each of the Caracoles has a Junta de Buen Gobierno. These councils are comprised of a rotating group of members who come from all of the autonomous municipalities that correspond to a particular Caracol. There is no standard way that these representatives are chosen – the autonomy is indeed autonomous – but frequently they are people who have served as community authorities, proven themselves, and then been selected to serve at a higher level. There can be a combination of the community naming someone at an assembly, or someone also desiring to serve and making that known. The number of days this group serves on the Junta varies depending on the Caracol. In some they serve 10, in some 14 days. They deal with ongoing and new matters brought before them. When they leave, a new group arrives.

Municipal representatives serve as a feedback link between communities and the Junta de Bien Gobierno. For example, in the municipality of 17 de Noviembre, located in the Caracol corresponding to the Morelia region, each community sends men and women as representatives to a municipal assembly. Sometimes issues discussed at the assembly need to be brought forward to the Junta. Or an issue may be sent to the assembly by the Junta who wants the communities to discuss it and report back. Autonomous governance begins at the community level, moving to the municipality level (municipio), then to the Caracol with the Juntas. Decision-making flows back and forth on decisions that are of a movement-level nature or of regional importance.

So, there is a lot of consensus decision-making and a lot of consultation with the communities before decisions are taken. Many people from outside would be frustrated because things would seem to move so slowly and you couldn’t get a decision quickly. But, it is because there’s this process of bringing things back to the communities to hear what people have to say, what their ideas are, then bringing it back to an assembly to discuss all of that. Community members who serve in the autonomous governing structures are unpaid, and they rotate frequently so that governance is really a matter of grassroots participation.

JB: Earlier you spoke about the Juntas regulating transportation businesses operating in their region. What other sorts of decisions come before the Juntas?

escuelita-paco-13MF: Individuals and groups come to the Juntas for a variety of purposes. For example, researchers, like me, are required to present their proposals to the Junta(s) in the region(s) where they plan to do research. The Juntas are also responsible for oversight of income that comes into the Caracol and for projects that are undertaken in their region—for example, the secondary school in Oventik or the sort of post-secondary school in Moisés Gandhi. One of the purposes for forming the Caracoles in 2003 was to make sure it was the Juntas rather than the NGOs and other organizations that were setting development priorities, and to also try to balance the distribution of projects and resources within each Caracol.

Since 1994, solidarity groups (national and international) have formed to support the Zapatista struggle and have raised funds to support the movement. Over the years, projects have included health promoter training, education, coffee production, potable water systems, etc. More collective projects have been gradually spreading in the communities, so that these days proportionally more resources are generated internally rather than from outside NGOs and solidarity groups.

JB: Does the Zapatista organization play any role in this system of autonomous governance?

MF: A communiqué from July 2003, “CHIAPAS: The Thirteenth Stele,” is one of the only places that I’ve seen this discussed. The communique says:

“The Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee in each region will monitor the operations of the Good Government Juntas in order to prevent acts of corruption, intolerance, injustice and deviation from the Zapatista principle of ‘Governing by Obeying.’”

That is as much as I can say, because there is nothing else public that I am aware of.

JB: You mentioned increasing migration since NAFTA. I take it the Zapatista communities have not been insulated from those same pressures.

MF: No, they haven’t. The Zapatistas have had a policy or they did have the policy up until the last time I talked to someone, that community members wanting to migrate had to first ask for permission. One reason is because the Zapatistas are not only a social movement, they are also still a clandestine movement. But, the greater reason is because participation in the movement requires a commitment to the collective, and absences make it hard to fulfil responsibilities to the community. Generally, people ask to go for a period of time—for three months, six months. And sometimes people don’t come back. But often they do. And there are people who have been able to build a house or use the money for other needs.

JB: Does that pose a risk of increasing economic inequality within the community?

MF: Well I don’t think people can accumulate large amounts of money in a six-month period. And often, permission is given because of an emergency, such as when a family has built up a large debt from hospital bills or the cost of medicine.

JB: So it seems that where the Zapatistas can use volunteer labour—where they can make their own road, so to speak—outside of the neoliberal capitalist system–that is where they’ve built their community.

MF: Yes. And the Zapatistas maintain autonomy through refusing to become dependent on government funding for social services, healthcare and education. The Zapatistas argue that it is necessary to reject government aid so long as aid is not given equally to all people. They refer to this policy of rejecting government aid and programs as being “in resistance” against what they call the “bad government.”

You could say that this is now the heart of the struggle. The Mexican state has moved from low intensity warfare, which was at its highest in the late ‘90s in the region, to what people have called the war of the projects. There is still a paramilitary presence and other kinds of incursions or threats of violence, but the form has changed since the 90s. Now, there is this “war of the projects” in which both the federal and state governments promise aid. Of course people are highly suspicious of these local officials because for decades, this was pretty much what the politicians did—make promises during elections that were never fulfilled afterwards. Now, the cynical way that the government has tried to break the movement is by capitalizing on people’s needs–needs that they helped create in the first place. The government has also shifted from more formally constituted paramilitary forces to offering incentives to competing Indigenous/campesino groups to attack or re-invade Zapatista recovered lands, for example, offering to legalize the land claims of the competing groups.

An informative mural in a Zapatista clinic.

clinic1_redAll of the Caracoles have clinics. In some places, they’re high level clinics with ambulances, dormitories, dentists, doctors, laboratories.

In La Garrucha an entire clinic is organized to provide for women’s health with trained midwives and a pharmacy with both western allopathic medicine and traditional healing and herbal medicine. Most communities have health promoters, who receive ongoing training, who provide basic preventative medical care and some of them are trained for quite high level medical care.

JB: How do the Zapatistas pay for that? How do they pay the salaries and keep the lights on?

MF: The health promoters are all volunteers. This is the case for most of the Zapatista projects. It’s the work that people do as part of their responsibility and obligation to both the movement and the community. This way of thinking does grow out of the Indigenous culture where you are named to a position and you feel a responsibility to do it well for a certain period of time and then other people can be named and if you like it, you could continue and take a higher position.

When the community health promoters come to the main clinic, they’ll stay in dormitories there and food is provided for them. Medicines are either free or very, very low cost. And the Caracoles have established a policy that for any project coming in from outside, for example from solidarity collectives, part of the money for that project is put aside to fund the ongoing autonomous elements of the Zapatista movement and is spread around among the autonomous municipalities in the region governed by the Caracol.

It is like a tax, or redistribution of income coming into the region. And if the state government wants to build a road through the area, then they need to actually contract with the Zapatista authorities and pay a certain amount too. Typically the contractors for an official government infrastructure project, such as roads or electricity, will negotiate permission with the Junta de Buen Gobierno, in effect recognizing their de facto authority.

Education promoters are also supported by the community. The community assembly might come to an agreement to give some food to them or they might help them in their fields when they have to spend time on their assigned tasks or travel to a training. The Zapatistas have tried many different strategies for supporting their autonomous projects. I really want to emphasize that the Zapatista communities are engaged in a process of evaluation and critique and this is one of the most inspiring parts of the movement to me. At the end of every year, there’s an evaluation. Is this working? Is this not working? How could we change it? What are people saying about it? How can we make it better?

book_of_educationJB: That leads me to another question: what does it mean to be a Zapatista community? Do the Zapatistas have their own organization separate from this overall communal decision-making process?

MF: You know, it really depends on the region and the particular community. So, some communities are mixed. They have Zapatistas, members of other peasant organizations, people who belong to political parties, people who might be Zapatista sympathizers, but not officially Zapatistas. The Zapatistas who are there would have their own meetings, make their own decisions, but wouldn’t necessarily “control” the whole community.

In many of the communities that are mixed, there’s a way of living side-by-side that works. There have been conflict in some communities; there’s been violence, not, by the way, started by the Zapatistas, but by people from other groups. But there are also communities that are 100% Zapatista, because they are settled on land that the Zapatista’s have taken over called recuperated lands.

The oldest communities in the Lacandon Jungle were settled at the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s when people from different parts of Chiapas began migrating in. Previously there had been plantations, many run by the church, and also by landowners. In the 1940’s and 1950’s people began petitioning the government for title to the land. After the Mexican Revolution it was legally possible for peasants to settle on land that wasn’t being worked and then seek a collective title to work the land as an ejido, or peasant community. The government could also take over lands lying fallow.

So, some of the land was national land that belonged to the government, belonged to the Mexican nation, the state, and then others were lands that plantation owners, ranch owners weren’t using. In the years leading up to the uprising, peasant organizations had been forming to demand titles, more land, and services from the government. But one of the major triggers of the uprising was the agrarian counter-reform of 1992. In preparation for NAFTA, the Revolution-era Constitution was amended and land redistribution officially ended, and the collectively managed ejidos could be individually parcelled and titled. This was a major blow to poor and landless peasants.

Differences within communities reflect political history as well. There was some disagreement about the decision to take up arms; those who opposed the Zapatistas on this have tended to remain outside of their movement, although they might be considered sympathizers. Some Zapatista members decided later to leave, for various reasons, for example, to join up with a political party or other peasant organization. Some left because of need, as when people decided to take government assistance. And some people left because of the kind of struggles we see in every political organization and social movement—power struggles and personal issues between people, conflicting thoughts on the direction of the movement, etc.

JB: So in the areas where Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas live side by side, how does governing work?

MF: The Caracoles and the Juntas de Bien Gobierno only involve Zapatistas. But their development has definitely been the result of many influences from the different people working with the Zapatistas in these communities, as well as all the people, Mexican and international, who have come to work in solidarity. Indigenous culture has also been a central influence.

The Juntas and the Caracoles see themselves as governing their territory—which includes people living there who are not Zapatista members. For example, the transport that runs up and down the road in La Garrucha, is also subject to their authority. I remember a case where bus and truck drivers were charging Guatemalan migrants more money than local people. When the Junta de Buen Gobierno learned of this, they said, “no, you have to charge everyone the same amount of money or you can’t run this route.” And, you know, the Zapatistas do have the presence and the numbers to be able to enforce that kind of thing.

Also, community members who are not Zapatistas will come to the Junta de Buen Gobierno to try to resolve matters. They say it’s because that kind of justice is something that they feel is more in line with how they see the world, with their culture, both Indigenous and rural and, the Zapatistas aren’t asking for money, like they would in the official municipality. The Juntas approach decisions by not identifying fault but by trying to reach a compromise that will create more harmony than discord. I think their approach to justice is about an ethic of caring that is quite different from a western model of justice, and the emphasis is on restorative rather than punitive justice.

JB: The Zapatistas originally were from outside Chiapas. Now, when you look at, say, a Zapatista community and the people who are setting up the Caracoles and administering and engaging in these decision-making processes, are they people from the area? Have the Zapatistas become Indigenous?

MF: Well, only part of the original nucleus of the EZLN were from further north in Mexico. The others were from the area. Before the uprising the Zapatistas had engaged in base organizing in Indigenous communities that had already been mobilizing around land rights and other demands for decades. So while not everyone who is a Zapatista is Indigenous, the original small group of non-Indigenous organizers have definitely lived side-by-side with Indigenous people and become part of an Indigenous community. And that’s where Indigenous becomes an identity that people use politically even if it is not a personal identity.

JB: So I’m still trying to envision how the Zapatista autonomous bodies of governing, health, education and so on, relate to non-Zapatista members living in their communities.

MF: Zapatista clinics treat people who aren’t Zapatistas. And people who aren’t Zapatistas can bring a matter before the Juntas to try to have it resolved. On the other hand, the Zapatista schools that have been set up are exclusively for Zapatista members. There’s a general sense that people have to participate in making these institutions work, i.e. community participation in designing the curriculum of the autonomous schools, if they want to benefit from them.

JB: Let’s talk about the gender politics of the Zapatista project. What is your assessment of how older patterns of participation and leadership are being challenged or changed?

MF: Well I think people are aware that women were very present from the beginning and took on leadership roles in the insurrection and then as military leaders. This is notably different from the history of the Sandinistas and the post-Somoza Sandinista government. I teach a class called Gender and Social Movements in Latin America and I assign “The Country Under My Skin” by Gioconda Belli, which gives a clear sense of what it was like for a woman to participate in that revolution. The Sandinistas did not include the idea of ending gender and racial oppression from the beginning and that led to considerable disappointment of women and Afro-Nicaraguans once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979.

ezlnwomenFrom the beginning, the Zapatistas emphasized gender equity, as well as the rights of Indigenous people, the rights of peasants, and so on. On the leadership level there have always been women insurgents, large numbers of them, and some in military leadership positions. On the civilian side, there are women who are health and education promoters, political authorities, members of autonomous municipal councils and Juntas de Buen Gobierno.

You see fewer women playing roles as authorities at the community level. One reason is patriarchy, which is just still present. Another is land titles, which give people rights as ejidal members. Women actually do work the land alongside men, although men do more of the work in the fields. Yet there is a persistent belief that women don’t really work the land and so don’t have a right to it. Over the past ten years, Zapatista women have been increasingly raising the idea that they should have rights to the land.

What gender equity looks like is very specific to Indigenous women in the communities. I like to point out that the Zapatista Revolutionary Law of Women, which went into effect in 1993, even before the uprising, included, alongside the rights we would recognize, like the right to control how many children one has, the right to not be forced to marry, the right to education, is the right to participate in the community. I think this right relates to Indigenous ideas that centre on the responsibility individuals have to work on behalf of the community. It’s different from the right to be a leader—which the Law also established. The right to participate comes out of an understanding of a self that is always part of a collective struggle. So to be denied the right to participate equally is to be cut off from being part of the movement in the same way that men are.

A colleague and I are writing a paper looking at Indigenous women’s theorizing and then reflecting back on our own Northern feminism and ideas of citizenship and the challenge to it represented by Indigenous women’s approach.

One of the key things that Indigenous women emphasize is that this is not just a struggle for women and they say that it’s always, always simultaneously a struggle for their people, for themselves as an Indigenous people. Women’s organizing will always have that collective component within it, even as they might be also demanding individual rights.

Outsiders coming to the communities often say it looks like women are still oppressed, because they’re taking care of children or are doing domestic work. Indigenous women are making a more subtle point. They will say yes, men need to help out in the domestic sphere, just as we help out in the fields. But they also say we should not value one kind of work as more important to people’s survival, contentment and happiness than another. They also view all people as inherently capable of doing all of these kinds of work.

The workbooks that were produced for the Escuelita, the Zapatista school, are interesting. They are meant to teach about Zapatista autonomous governance and one of the workbooks is on women. It is written by women from all five Caracoles, and covers different topics. The women reflect back on their struggle. And one of the women wrote “here in my community we think that the women’s revolutionary law needs to be extended from ten points to 43.”

So this is a system always undergoing development through a process of reflection. Autonomous governance is not a model to be simply followed. It’s something that’s worked out through day-to-day practice. The women reflected back on all the years, assessed what has changed and then were very critical about what hasn’t happened. And you see that they engage in this process keeping that utopian horizon in place. It is assumed that “we’re not giving up, we can get there.”

It’s hard, make no mistake. Being a Zapatista, you may be poorer than other people in monetary terms, because you’re not accessing income from government programmes. At the same time, there’s a sense of worth. There’s a sense of struggle, of having built something with other people that has been very empowering.

JB: You’ve described how the Zapatistas are going very deep, developing their autonomy on that land base and for the long-term. They clearly are very interconnected globally and continue to inspire support. I’m curious about their interconnections to organizing in Mexico. I know of one such relationship—with the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. The two organizations engaged in a series of “encuentros” where Zapatistas came up to Blanca Navidad, an illegal settlement near the Mexico-U.S. border, organized by maquiladora workers, and then some of the community activists travelled down to Chiapas.

ezlnotracampanaMF: As it happened, I was at the meetings in Blanca Navidad. My sense is that this connection between the two organizations was one of the outcomes of the Zapatistas’ “Otra Campaña” (Other Campaign), in which a Zapatista delegation travelled throughout Mexico during the national election campaign in 2006. Their goal was to make connections with grassroots organizing projects and to pose an alternative to people passively electing politicians to “represent” them. My sense of the Other Campaign is that they were most successful at the northern border, California through Texas. Blanca Navidad was one of those places. I think it is important to say that these meetings were a real dialogue. People in Blanca Navidad were inspired by the Zapatistas, but they had also been developing their own ways of organizing and their own ideas of building community; so there was a real dialogue.

Despite the fact that the “Other Campaign” did not have the results the Zapatistas had hoped for, which mirrors some of their earlier attempts to reach out to the so-called Mexican civil society, their example continues to inspire people throughout Mexico, as evidenced by the huge response to the invitation to participate in the Escuelita beginning in August 2013. Indigenous communities and areas continue to declare themselves autonomous and are organizing themselves in their own ways.

JB: An interesting contrast with the global connections that the Zapatistas have built.

MF: You know, one global connection I can think of right now that has been important is this question of alternative and social media that I think is something to reflect on with the 20 years of Zapatismo. The Zapatista struggle coincided really with the advent of the internet or at least the popularity of the internet and that it was a tool in the hands of activists. Some have called the Zapatistas the first post-modern guerrilla. Calling a large group of people who are peasants post-modern does not quite capture their daily lives and struggles! At the same time, the Zapatistas’ ability to use that tool for activism was important in shaping the struggle there—in terms of the incredible global solidarity and support they continue to receive– but also in the way that the Zapatista uprising was able to inspire people—for example, the organizing against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

JB: Inspiring, yes. But on the other hand, there is a difference between the virtual world and the actual world of ongoing connections to each other. Does the Zapatista presence on the web, expressed through its communiques and reports, fully reflect reality on the ground? Does something important get lost?

MF: That is an interesting point. What inspires me about the Zapatistas is the day-to-day complicated work, often conflictive work of living autonomy and putting it into practice. The communiques don’t always reflect the complexity of life in the communities. Yet it is from those hard, conflictive moments—and how people deal with them—that we have the most to learn.


Melissa Forbis is a member of the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory faculty at Stony Brook. She has been doing community work and research in Zapatista communities since 1996. Several articles on women in Chiapas and her Ph.D. Dissertation, “Never Again a Mexico Without Us: Gender, Indigenous Autonomy and Multiculturalism in Neo-Liberal Mexico,” are based on that research. She is currently completing her book manuscript based on the dissertation and subsequent research. On the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, she was interviewed by Johanna Brenner, a community activist in Portland, OR and an Advisory Editor of Against the Current.



March 16, 2014

Escuelita Textbooks – first book available in English

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 8:21 am

Escuelita Textbooks – first two books available in English

Autonomous Government I and Autonomous Government II are now available for download, and the remaining books will be published at one-month intervals (if not sooner).

The Books:

  • Autonomous Government I (Available now: click here)
  • Autonomous Government II (Available now: click here)
  • Participation of Women in Autonomous Government (Will be published no later than May 8th)
  • Autonomous Resistance (Will be published no later June 8th)

Note: the PDF download is of higher quality than the online preview


January 27, 2014

Now You See Me: A Glimpse into the Zapatista Movement, Two Decades Later

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , , , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 6:34 pm

Zapatista 20th Anniversary

Now You See Me: A Glimpse into the Zapatista Movement, Two Decades Later

By Laura Gottesdiener 


Line to search delegates, Zapatista Encuentro, 1996. (Image: <a" target="_blank"> Julian Stallabrass / Flickr</a>)

Line to search delegates, Zapatista Encuentro, 1996.

Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.

Hurtling South

The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds. There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.

Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.

As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.

Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.

The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent — tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules.

“Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”

After five days of driving, we reached LaUniversidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run schoolin the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.

Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):

“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”

I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.

Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.

¡Ya Basta!

Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.

The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.

So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village — along with those from hundreds of other villages — seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.

The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who,in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)

Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.

The Boy Who Is Free

Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.

He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.

Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him — not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date — is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.

By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.

The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.

Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.

Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy — especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.

As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.

Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.

As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?

Celebrating Dissent

Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.

It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts andpasamontañas,the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.

Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world — and even the dissenter herself — dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.

But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”

Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.

The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.

The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization’s leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.

“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.

“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.

Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist, social justice activist. She is an associate editor for Waging Nonviolence, and she has written for Rolling Stone, Ms. magazine, The Arizona Republic, TomDispatch, and other publications. She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park.


From Fire to Autonomy: Zapatistas, 20 Years of Walking Slowly By Andalusia Knoll and Itandehui Reyes, Truthout             Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


January 26, 2014

On the EZLN’s Escuelita: Neo-Zapatista Autonomy

Filed under: Women, Zapatista — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 9:01 am

Zapatista 20th Anniversary

On the EZLN’s Escuelita: Neo-Zapatista Autonomy

by Javier Sethness Castro

CounterPunch, 23rd January, 2014

As many readers of CounterPunch are likely aware, the Chiapas-based Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has recently launched an open initiative called the Escuelita (“little school”), a four or five-day program by means of which outsiders, both Mexican and international, are invited to reside with Zapatistas to learn more about the EZLN’s politics and the daily lives of the organization’s members, as well as to promote cultural exchange. The openness reflected in the launch of the Escuelita stands in contrast to the relative aloofness of the organization in recent years—with the EZLN’s command observing a period of silence for more than a year after Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’ plaintive condemnation of the Israeli military assault on Gaza during winter 2008-9. Of course, at the end of the thirteenth Baktun and the beginning of the fourteenth (21 December 2012), up to fifty thousand Zapatistas silently marched through five of the municipalities the EZLN had liberated in its 1 January 1994 insurrection—thus overthrowing their prior reclusiveness while dialectically preserving their verbal quietude.

Indeed, in this sense the Escuelita’s founding recalls the early years that followed the EZLN’s public appearance with its uprising, when the organization hosted Intercontinental Encounters for Humanity and against Neo-Liberalism—and even Intergalactic ones—that brought together radical thinkers and dissidents from Mexico and the world over to publicly strategize on ways to bring down capital and the State. I was greatly pleased, then, when in response to a form I had sent the EZLN some time ago, I received a letter signed by Marcos and fellow Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés inviting me to the second round of the First Level of the Zapatista Escuelita, to be held in late December 2013.

Registration for the Escuelita took place at CIDECI, or the Indigenous Center for Comprehensive Training, which has its campus on the outskirts of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the largest highland city in the state of Chiapas. Also known as Unitierra (Earth University), CIDECI hosts weekly international seminars on anti-systemic movements, in addition to monthly seminars dedicated to contemplation and discussion of the thought of Immanuel Wallerstein. Much of the art adorning the buildings on the CIDECI campus depicts Zapatistas, and the Center has hosted Sups Marcos and Moisés to speak on several occasions, so it is natural that it would be chosen as site of registration for the Escuelita.

Arriving with my friend Reyna, we entered the short registration line established for foreigners—the lines for those hailing from Mexico City and the states of Mexico being much longer than this one—presented our documents to the receiving team, paid the 380-peso fee (about $30US), and then were told we would be placed in a community belonging to the La Realidad (“Reality”) region located deep in the Lacandon Jungle. I was pleased to hear this, as La Realidad is my favorite of the five Zapatista caracoles (“snails”), or administrative centers located in the zones with Zapatista presence. Reyna and I then got in line to board the various vehicles the EZLN had organized outside CIDECI to transport us to our respective caracoles.


Map of the 5 Zapatista caracoles and their corresponding regions. From Niels Barmeyer, Developing Zapatista Autonomy (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2009), xvii.

When the caravan from CIDECI entered the jungle and arrived at La Realidad some ten hours after having departed, we were asked to remain in the vehicles outside the caracol compound for just a few more minutes. Thus were we faced with a white banner draped above the iron gate that served as entrance commemorating 20 years since the Zapatista uprising in general and the caída (“fall”) of Subcomandante Insurgente Pedro during the fighting in Las Margaritas in particular. Once the Zapatistas had finished preparing themselves, the alumn@s were invited to file through to enter the caracol, just as skilled masked players struck joyful tunes on the marimba from the stage above where the students came to join the assembled Zapatistas for a brief orientation to the Escuelita.

After declaring our support to the cause of revolution—responding with ¡Viva! to the mention of various persons and groups, such as the EZLN, Subcomandante Marcos, Comandanta Ramona, the Escuelita, the peoples of the world, the world’s women, and so on.—we were assigned to our guardian@s individually and then sent to sleep as segregated by sex while the marimba continued to play into the night. My guardián was a young Tojolabal male BAEZLN (base de apoyo, or “support base”) named Héctor—his name here is a pseudonym for reasons of clandestinity.


Banner in La Realidad Commemorating Sup Pedro, Who Died in the Insurrection on 1 January 1994.

The next morning, 25 December, the Escuelita at La Realidad officially commenced with a collective presentation made by Zapatista teachers of the region regarding different aspects of life and politics in the BAEZLN communities pertaining to this caracol. In basic terms, these teachers spoke to the EZLN’s autonomous health and banking systems—with the former comprised of health promoters, male and female, who are trained in the three fields of acute care, obstetrics, and herbalism, and the latter comprised of lending institutions (BANPAZ and BANAMAS) which offer loans for productive projects at 2-3% interest and provide economic support for Zapatista families struck by illness—as well as their democratic system of governance, which in parallel to the official system is made up of three tiers: the local popular assemblies at the communal level, the autonomous Zapatista rebel municipalities (MAREZ) at the intermediary level, and finally the Good-Government Councils (Juntas de Buen Gobierno, or JBGs), which coordinate matters at the regional level. Of the three, the JBGs represent the highest authority for the Zapatistas, yet legal proposals can be raised at the local assembly level, and the BAEZLN representatives voted into the JBGs through assemblies are fully recallable. The autonomous authorities, moreover, receive no wage or salary for their work but are instead supported with food from their base communities.

While the Zapatistas’ methods in civic administration thus seem to bear a great deal of similarity to the positive policy proposals made in Euro-U.S. settings by Karl Marx and some anarchists alike, they resemble and develop the political customs of many indigenous peoples of the Americas as well. Indeed, in philosophical terms in this sense, one of the teachers expressed the idea—as recognized also by G.W.F. Hegel and others—that the perpetuation of oppressive social conditions drives forward the dialectic: he spoke specifically of the memory of the Zapatistas’ ancestors enslaved by the feudalism imposed by the colonia as propelling the strength of the movement of BAEZLN’toward autonomy. At this time, one of the teachers noted that the EZLN’s goal at present is two-fold: one, to “liberate the people of Mexico,” and secondly to uphold and extend the autonomy of the organization and its constituent members.

The situation of women in the EZLN was first examined an hour and a half into the teachers’ presentation, when various female representatives spoke to the issue. Like Friedrich Engels on private property, the introductory speaker argued that the patriarchal enslavement of indigenous women began with Spanish colonialism, whereas previously the worth of women had supposedly been fully recognized, as based on women’s ability to reproduce the human race. This speaker noted both males and females to have been oppressed by the patrones imposed by European invasion and genocide, and she welcomed the vast changes provided by the EZLN in terms of women’s ability to participate in socio-political matters, whether as health promoters, communal radio progammers, JBG authorities, or milicianas in the guerrilla movement.

Several of the speakers on women’s issues stressed that the struggle to increase women’s participation in the EZLN has not been an easy one, due both to resistance from men as well as the internalization of self-deprecating values on the part of many indigenous women themselves. Another issue is that females in this context tend to be less literate and knowledgeable of Spanish than males, such that engaging in administrative work using Spanish as the common language among BAEZLN from different ethno-linguistic groups proves challenging.

One teacher noted that Zapatista women face exploitation on three fronts—for being female, indigenous, and poor—and based on her and other compañeras’ words, it seems they largely bear responsibility for domestic affairs and child-rearing within the dominant sexual division of labor which prevails in Zapatista communities. Speakers in this section also analyzed the Revolutionary Law on Women, passed by the EZLN before its January 1994 insurrection, by enumerating its stipulations—such as the right to freely determine the total number of children to bear, to reject imposed marriage and freely choose partners, to resist domestic violence, and so on—and afterward simply stating that all the conditions of the Law are being observed in Zapatista settings. However, this claim came too quickly, as we will shall see.

In the third part of the initial presentation in La Realidad, the teachers addressed some of the challenges the EZLN has faced in the development of its autonomy in the 20 years since its armed revolt. They claim now that their form of resistance is the word, both spoken and written: while in January 1994 their resistance took on armed form, it has now become peaceful and civic—with the resort to arms opening the subsequent possibility for the Zapatistas’ impressive development of autonomy.

Despite this difference between January 1994 and everything after, the Zapatista movement remains under siege, with the “bad government” (el mal gobierno) working now to divide indigenous communities among themselves by encouraging participation in official political parties and recourse to state-provided services—a strategy it adopted in direct response to the insurrection, yet one that was subordinated in the years of peak intensity (the years following 1994) to the overtly repressive resort to direct militarization and the fomenting of paramilitary groups designed to terrorize BAEZLN and Zapatista sympathizers in eastern Chiapas.

However, forced displacement of BAEZLN still takes place—consider the cases of San Marcos Avilés in 2010 and Comandante Abel more recently. One speaker mentioned the Lacandon indigenous people who live quite close to La Realidad as an example the Zapatistas do not wish to emulate—for the Lacandones have been made dependent on the State after having been stripped of their rights to fell trees and cultivate agriculture for residing in the region which has been designated as belonging to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (RIBMA). Defining the principal problems which the EZLN confronts at the moment, one representative noted the issues of the occupation of lands “recovered” by the Zapatistas in 1994 by indigenous persons belonging to rival political groups, forced displacement, paramilitary activity, and the arbitrary incarceration of BAEZLN. This speaker connecting the experience of these problems with the “peaceful and civil” Zapatista approach, which is to engage in public denunciation through the JBGs.

To close this introductory presentation, the teachers accepted written questions from the audience of alumn@s. In response to a question that would continually be raised over the course of the Escuelita, one teacher said that the Zapatistas “respect” the ways of gays, but no more specifics were given on this. As for the question as to how to reproduce the neo-Zapatista model in other contexts—particularly in cities, where living conditions are clearly rather different—the teachers said that that prospect could be helped along by means of the promotion of an autonomous sense of politics, however that be translated into reality. Intruigingly fielding a question about Zapatismo and ecology, one of the teachers noted that the EZLN seeks to carry through the word of the people in terms of how to manage natural resources, such that the question of whether nature be ravaged or left alone is secondary to adherence to the vox populi—an interesting permutation of “green” anarcho-syndicalism or ecological self-management.

Another question-and-answer had a maestro clarifying that BAEZLN practice a “high level” of abstention in official elections at the three levels (municipal, state, and federal). Perhaps most controversially of all, some of the teachers shared the general neo-Zapatista skepticism toward family planning methods, which are apparently considered in the main to be measures imposed from above to limit indigenous population growth. Along these lines, one maestra clarified that abortion is not performed at Zapatista autonomous clinics, considering it a practice of infanticide that should be suppressed if there are to be numerically more zapatistas. Separately, though relatedly, a different teacher declared that the Zapatista midwives are not trained by the Public Health Ministry.

Following the morning presentation, the alumn@s and their guardian@s traveled by group to the communities in which they would experience the Escuelita. Transport of these 500 people (about 250 students and their chaperones) took place by means of large sand-trucks—traveling in one of these during the journey out to community and back truly reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of the anarchist troop-transport vehicles used in the Spanish Revolution of the 1930′s. Upon arrival to the — community affiliated with the — MAREZ pertaining to La Realidad to which the group in which I was included had been sent, the first session of the Escuelita began for me, as Héctor and I were welcomed into the abode of the — family. (Thus, like many others, Héctor and I experienced the Escuelita with one family, though some alumn@s and guardian@s apparently experienced a more collective setting, such as took place in the actual space of an autonomous school.) The first text to be examined was Autonomous Government I, which like the remaining three volumes of written materials provided for alumn@s and guardian@s to study is comprised of varied testimonies from BAEZLN with different charges who belong to MAREZ affiliated with each of the five caracol regions.


A Scene from the — Community, Affiliated with the La Realidad Caracol

This first volume tells its readers that the EZLN base is comprised of a total of 38 MAREZ, with 4 belonging to La Realidad, and it notes that this caracol was the successor to the first Aguascalientes established in 1994 by the EZLN in the nearby community of Guadalupe Tepeyac—Aguascalientes referring to the Mexican state in which the 1917 Constitution was drafted—which was in turn occupied by the Mexican Army in 1995, its residents displaced for six years until 2001. In 1995, the EZLN responded by founding five more Aguascalientes, administrative centers which would in 2003 become the caracoles and the seats of the JBGs.

In terms of La Realidad, the region itself has an autonomous Zapatista hospital in San José del Rio—with a large state-based one recently installed in Guadalupe Tepeyac, and a government clinic (physically protected by barbed wire) constructed within the last three years just a couple minutes’ walk from the caracol itself. The text on autonomous governance says that the San José hospital has recently acquired ultrasound equipment for obstetrical purposes, but it remains unclear to me to what extent there exist rehab or harm-reduction programs for Zapatistas in public health terms—consumption of alcohol and all other drugs is forbidden for BAEZLN.

Moreover, in sharing the names of all the Zapatista MAREZ which exist, the volume speaks to the role of revolutionary memory in the EZLN’s program: municipalities are named for Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, San Manuel (Manuel being the founder of the EZLN), Ricardo Flores Magón (a renowned Oaxacan anarchist involved in the Mexican Revolution), Comandanta Ramona, Lucio Cabanas (a left-wing guerrillero who formed the Party of the Poor in Guerrero in the 1970′s), La Paz, La Dignidad, 17 November (date of the arrival of the urban-based Maoists to the selva Lacandona in 1983), Trabajo (“Work”), and Rubén Jaramillo (a campesino insurrectionary who sought to carry on Zapata’s vision until his 1962 murder by the State), to give just a few examples. Politically, volume I lists the seven principles of mandar obedeciendo (“to command by obeying”) which is to govern the action of representatives of the JBGs and all other civilian Zapatista institutions:

“To serve and not to serve oneself”; “to represent and not to supplant [or usurp]”; “to construct and not to destroy”; “to obey and not to command”; “to propose and not to impose”; “to convince and not to conquer”; “to go down instead of up.”

Beyond this, the interviews in the text discuss problems with rival organizations in the region corresponding to Morelia such as ORCAO and OPPDIC, and it provides some history showing the necessity of direct JBG oversight of projects proposed by internationals and NGOs to be implemented in Zapatista communities. Moreover, with regard to the northern region affiliated with the Roberto Barrios caracol, the text specifies that economic donations from visitors often go toward expanding cattle-herds, in accordance with the wishes of base communities.

The second volume, Autonomous Government II, which Héctor, my teacher, and I examined on the Escuelita’s second day, gives details about the specific autonomous social projects implemented by the EZLN, especially health and education. Interviews with educational promoters specify the types of classes on offer at the ESRAZ (Escuela Secundaria Rebelde Autónoma Zapatista, or the Zapatista Rebellious Autonomous High School): languages (Spanish and indigenous), history, math, “life and environment,” and integration (on the EZLN’s 13 demands). In the La Realidad region at least, autonomous education programs are designed in consultation with students’ parents, who are asked what it is that should be preserved from standard public education approaches, and what should be added. With regard to autonomous health, the text specifies that EZLN health promoters have composed a list of 47 points for preventative health, that medical doctors assist in solidarity with health projects, and that the San José del Rio hospital had recently acquired an autoclave thanks to revenue from the 10% tax the JBG collects on all construction projects undertaken by community, corporation, or State in its territory.

In the northern zone of Chiapas, vaccines arrive every three months for Zapatista children, and the organization SADEC (Salud y Desarrollo Comunitario, or Communal Health and Development) assists with their administration; my teacher assured me that vaccines are regularly given to BAEZLN children in the zone of La Realidad as well. Furthermore, the second volume mentions various difficulties and successes experienced by the EZLN, both internally and externally: for example, the forced displacement prosecuted by federal forces of the Zapatista San Manuel community located in Montes Azules and the scarcity of land limiting the scope of collective projects to be taken in the highlands region corresponding to the Oventik caracol, or the exportation of Zapatista coffee to Italy, Greece, France, and Germany.


Zapatista School in the — Community with Anarcho-Ayndicalist Colors (Rojinegro)

This same day, my guardián, teacher, and I decided to begin study of volume three, Autonomous Resistance, as well. This collection of interviews provides great insight into neo-Zapatista culture and resistance, as well as relationships between BAEZLN and members of other organizations, particularly officialist grupos de choque (“shock groups”). Providing an interesting perspective on Zapatista child-rearing practices, one representative explained the various alternative cultural activities Zapatista communities offer to their youth so that they not fall into “ideologies of the government”: sports, poetry contests, and dance. Also in terms of cultural norms, another interviewed spokesperson notes the celebration of religious holidays to be more popular outside the ranks of the EZLN than inside it—a reflection of the organization’s secular orientation. A socio-cultural milestone for the EZLN, the first and only appearance of the neo-Zapatista air force is also described in this volume: to protest the military’s occupation in 1999 of Amador Hernández, a La Realidad MAREZ, local BAEZLN organized a mass-production of paper airplanes carrying subversive messages which were ceremoniously launched into the barracks of the soldiers upholding the occupation. The resistance to this occupation also took on the form of sit-ins, dance, and exhortative speech.

In addition, the third volume examines Zapatista diplomacy and relations with other organizations. The construction of water-irrigation projects with which many internationals involved themselves—as is described in Ramor Ryan’s Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project (2011)—is mentioned as a sign of international cooperation and solidarity, while in contrast relations with local communities affiliated with the PRI (the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party) and ORCAO/OPPDIC (comprised in part by ex-BAEZLN) are shown to continue to be tense and problematic.

Indeed, it seems there is a true political competition going on between BAEZLN on the one hand and PRI militants on the other, with a number of respondents from the Morelia and La Garrucha regions expressing faith and pride that BAEZLN in many cases live better than their PRI counterparts, thanks to the organization’s reportedly consistent besting of the official system in health and educational outcomes—this despite the myriad social programs offered by the Chiapas state government, and the millions of pesos it spends on them. In universal (or galactical) terms, an education promoter from the Roberto Barrios region tells his interviewer that the neo-Zapatista struggle proceeds not only with the interests of BAEZLN in mind, but of all—tod@s.

The reading for the the third day was the fourth volume, Women’s Participation in Autonomous Government, perhaps the most interesting one of all—for it is testament to the patent conflict between Zapatista rhetoric and everyday life in this regard. From the La Realidad region, an ex-JBG member notes proudly that in neither organized religion nor in established political parties have women experienced the kind of participation that female BAEZLN have been allowed. A member from an autonomous council of the same zone claims the lot of Zapatista women to be better off than that of indigenous women in PRI communities, where high rates of alcohol and other drug abuse and sexual violence reportedly obtain.

Nonetheless, a great deal of tension between the end of women’s liberation and respect for established patriarchal custom can be readily detected in this volume on women’s involvement. For example, the 47 points on preventative health from La Realidad include one endorsing family planning, while health promoters affiliated with Morelia suggest to their female clients that they ideally try to leave a 5- or 6-year gap between each subsequent birth, all in accordance with article 3 of the Revolutionary Law on Women, which grants female BAEZLN the right to elect the number of children they will bear—yet sources from Oventik and Roberto Barrios note that it is precisely this law no. 3 which is being least observed in practice, given the strong opposition expressed by many male BAEZLN to the use of birth control methods.

Indeed, summarizing the results of a public discussion among BAEZLN in the Roberto Barrios region on women’s issues, one educational promoter reported the widespread opinion that women should not unilaterally decide on the question of number of children—thus expressing a popular repudiation of law no. 3! From La Garrucha, another educational promoter claims that women’s participation in her MAREZ is 2-3% of what it should be—that is, if I’m not mistaken, that >97% of female Zapatistas from that municipality opt out of taking on the charges passed to them through election. Sexual education would seem underdeveloped in the Roberto Barrios region, according to a Zapatista educator there, and in this zone marriage is common by 15 or 16 years of age, while in the Oventik region unmarried couples are apparently expected to ask permission from their parents to date—so that they avoid the “bad customs of the cities where lovers just get together without respecting their parents.”

In these terms, an interesting proposal from the base is that of the recommendations made in the Oventik zone in 1996 for an expanded Revolutionary Law on Women—a proposal that has yet to be adopted by the EZLN. While from volume IV it is unclear how this proposed expansion came about, and who precisely composed its articles, it in some ways reflects regression from the original Revolutionary Law: here, it is only married women who have the right to birth control, and this only to the extent to which agreement with male partners is achieved, while non-monogamous relationships are declared unacceptable: “it is prohibited and inappropriate that some member of the [Zapatista] community engage in romantic relations outside of the norms of the community and populace—that is to say, men and women are not allowed to have [sexual] relations if they are not married, because this brings as consequences the destruction of the family and a bad example before society.” In a similar vein, “arbitrary abandonment” and coupling with others while formally married are also tabooed in the articles of this recommended expansion. Whether such attitudes are representative of the thought of many or most female BAEZLN is unknown; however conservative such ideas may seem, it is also worth noting that 17 years have passed since their proposal.

Thus after finishing the last volume on women’s participation, the Escuelita in community had ended, and Héctor and I expressed our gratitude for the generosity showed by our maestro and his compañera (female partner) during the classes and our stay in the — community. We then met up with the other alumn@s (including Reyna) who had come together in the local assembly space and then departed for our hike to the access road at which we were to be picked up and returned by sand-trucks to La Realidad. Once the afternoon progressed into evening in the caracol, as more alumn@s continued arriving from other communities, the Zapatista teachers called us all back together once again for a final round of questions-and-answers, followed by the presentation of the Mexican and Zapatista flags and the singing of the anthems to State and EZLN, which in turn gave rise to more creative musical performances by the teachers and artistic interventions from alumn@s. I will confess that I cried for Sup Pedro when the maestr@s sang about this “simple” and “decent” man from Michoacán, born to a beautiful mother and killed in insurrection.

After the conclusion of the participatory cultural event, it was announced that all those desiring to return to San Cristóbal would be leaving in a caravan departing before dusk the next morning. Then the night was ceded to a large dance on the basketball court, as animated by a sustained series of ludic perfomances on marimba played by male BAEZLN of differing generations.

Fin de Año in Oventik


Presentation of Zapatista flag, 31 December 2013

Upon returning to San Cristóbal, I was already greatly missing Héctor; I hope we will stay in touch. I considered which of the 5 caracoles to visit for the New Year’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the armed uprising and launched myself to Oventik, the closest to San Cristóbal. After being admitted into the foggy caracol with a crowd of other visitors shortly after arriving, I placed my belongings in one of the classrooms of the escuela autónoma, as a new friend had just recommended to me, and we then made our way to the basketball court where live music was being played under a roof, protected from the rain. Standing on stage alongside Zapatista authorities and BAEZLN, the performers included highland indigenous musicians and conscious freestyle rappers from Mexico City, among others.

At a certain point in the evening, as the rain continued, the assembled Zapatistas performed a “political act” involving the marching presentation of the Mexican and EZLN flags and the public reading of the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee’s (CCRI) declaration on the event of the twentieth anniversary of the neo-Zapatista insurrection, as performed by a Comandanta. The text was subsequently read in Tsotsil and Tseltal translations—with these being two indigenous languages spoken in the highlands region in which Oventik finds itself. In the Tsotsil translation, the word kux’lejal (“bodily pain”) could be heard uttered several times.

At the end of this “act,” with the retiring of the Mexican and Zapatista flags, representatives of the EZLN wished all those assembled in the caracol a happy new year, and they particularly wished all Zapatistas a joyful twentieth anniversary for their resort to arms. Similarly to the case in La Realidad just days before, the remaining hours of 2013 and the first several hours of 2014 in Oventik were celebrated with several hours of cumbia rebelde, during which the basketball court was full with dancers, Zapatistas and their well-wishers together. Also present at the cumbia were organizers of the Climate Caravan through Latin America (Caravana Climática por América Latina), who sought to connect the assembled dancing rebels with this compelling initiative from below to combine direct action and information-gathering activities in resistance to unchecked ecocidal trends.


Entrance to Oventik caracol, 1 January 2014

Questions, Critique, and the Future

There can be no doubt that the BAEZLN have been truly impressive in their efforts to “conquer liberty” and extend the cause of autonomy in the 20 years since their declaration of war against capitalism and the Mexican State. Nonetheless, it would contradict the spirit of critique and autonomy not to raise questions and concerns regarding different facets of the Zapatista movement. For one, what is the political model the EZLN is pursuing? As against the original demand for independence made in 1994, this model is not that of formal statehood—as is made, for example, in the Palestinian case—but rather that of developing the new society within the shell of the old. In his Developing Zapatista Autonomy (2009), German anthropologist Niels Barmeyer argues that the Zapatista example advances the creation of a counter-state to the official one presided over by the Mexican government (el mal gobierno).

Contemplation of the various details provided in the four volumes of text assigned to alumn@s of the Escuelita would seem to confirm this diagnosis, from consideration of the Good-Government Councils (as counterposed to the bad government) to the Zapatistas’ alternative health and education systems. As Barmeyer notes, moreover, the EZLN provides protection to its members, even if the organization does not necessarily exercise a monopoly on “legitimate” use of force in the territories of its influence.1 Nonetheless, if the overall claim is true—that the Zapatistas really desire a State, or that the nature of their principles of self-government effectively express their wish for such, as an anarchist confided in me at the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City a year and a half ago—one must then interrogate the attraction the Zapatistas have represented for libertarian socialists and anti-authoritarians the world over these past 20 years.

Clearly, the 1 January 1994 insurrection has proven seminal for the adoption of the Black Bloc tactic all over the globe, while the indigenous character of the movement and the radical humanism expressed by its principal spokesperson—Sup Marcos—have enlivened and illuminated the radical imaginations and hopes of millions of observers. But what do anarchists have to say about the processes of socio-political autonomy undertaken by the EZLN since January 1994? Are they too similar to State institutions, or are they sufficiently distinct? Is it just a matter of “contradict[ing] the system while you are in it until it’s transformed into a new system,” as Huey P. Newton observed with reference to the “survival programs” the Black Panther Party implemented in the late 1960′s, “pending revolution”?2

How are outsiders, especially internationals, to engage with the persistence of authoritarian and inegalitarian attitudes toward women in social movements putatively based on the principles of “democracy, justice, and freedom” with which they express solidarity—despite the relative improvements seen in these terms over time? Can it justly be said that feminist perspectives are simply irrelevant if they are held by those who do not pass the course of their lives within a given movement? If it were to be affirmed, the principle underlying this second question would betray a cultural nationalism and relativism of sorts, one which undermines internationalism and global notions of solidarity. It would also effectively trivialize the disappointment expressed from the start by many Mexican feminists at the perpetuation of patriarchy within the EZLN—and, indeed, paper over the absurd expulsion of COLEM (el Colectivo de Mujeres, or the Women’s Collective, from San Cristóbal) from Zapatista territory on the charge that its feminist organizing threatened to “incite a gender war”!3

Conceptually, the idea of “autonomy” cannot immediately tell us which of the conflicting principles is to be held superior: in the first place, autonomy likely should presume substantive freedom for all as a precondition of its existence, yet in practice it is taken to mean the outcome of popular self-determination, as opposed to Statist or capitalist imposition. Such tensions clearly exist in appraising Zapatismo, especially with regard to the situations faced by female and non-heterosexual BAEZLN. A similar critical line of thinking could also bring to light the extensive deforestation which Zapatista communities have produced through their “autonomous” desire to raise cattle en masse in jungle environments, or it could criticize the Zapatistas’s drinking and selling of Coca-Cola and their generally non-vegetarian lifestyles—or at least the ambivalence Marcos expresses as regards the prospect of even discussing this latter point, for he declares vegetarian tactics of moral suasion to be an imposition to be disobeyed. As Mickey Z. Vegan could be expected to point out, the collective Zapatista butcher-shop from the Roberto Barrios region mentioned in volume III may not be the most liberating project to engage in, for either BAEZLN workers or the beasts themselves.

Thus, in spite the issues I have observed and the doubts they produce in me, I consider the EZLN nothing less than a world-historical revolutionary movement, one which has played a critical role in inspiring and spurring on the multitudinous activist militancy seen throughout much of the world following the self-implosion of the Soviet Union—a militancy which radically seeks the abolition of those power-groups which threaten the entire Earth with social and environmental catastrophe. I also believe that the EZLN’s struggle has much more to offer the world still—given that the Zapatistas had originally sought to incite other Mexican revolutionary groups to join them in insurrection in 1994, and in light of the continued strength of the capitalist monster against which the BAEZLN revolted—no matter how optimistic Marcos’s declaration last year on the occasion of the new Baktun and the silent Zapatista occupation of the townships the EZLN had taken in 1994, that the world of those from above is “collapsing.”

However, I do agree with Sup Marcos that the world of those from below is resurging. Hence was I very glad to have been able to attend the first course of the Escuelita and to celebrate the twenty years since the Zapatista insurrection together with them. I wish the BAEZLN the very best for this year, and the next 20 as well. ¡Zapata vive!

Javier Sethness Castro is a translator and author of two books who worked as a human-rights observer in Chiapas and Oaxaca during 2010. His current project is to complete a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. Visit his blog on libertarian eco-socialism here.


1) Niels Barmeyer, Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2009), 5, 214.

2) Cited in Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 63.

3) Barmeyer 99-100, 206.


January 25, 2014

Autonomy in Chiapas, the EZLN, and Lekil Kuxlejal

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 2:01 pm

Autonomy in Chiapas, the EZLN, and Lekil Kuxlejal

By Ángeles Mariscal,                                                                                                                                 6th January, 2014

Habitantes de Chiapas han asumido la defensa de sus derechos a la tierra y al desarrollo. Foto: Ángeles Mariscal/ChiapasPARALELO

People from Chiapas, Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, have taken on the defence of their rights to their land and development.                                                                             Photo: Ángeles Mariscal/ChiapasPARALELO


“What is autonomy?”

A 10-year-old questions his parents at a meeting between hundreds of people from around Mexico and a group of EZLN (Zapatista) members in preparation for the third cycle of the “Zapatista School for Freedom”.

His parents try to explain the concept to him in terms of political theory.

“Why does it say ‘autonomous medicine’ over there?”

The child points to some products made by Zapatista collectives, leaving his parents silent and reflective. The adjective ‘autonomous’ appears alongside the names of medicines, co-ops, and schools, and is a key word for the Zapatista movement. On the twentieth anniversary of the group’s uprising, it is worth reflecting on what ‘autonomy’ means in the Chiapan communities where it is being fostered and consolidated.

In the face of economic, political and social crises, social movements throughout the country are growing. The ‘Indigenous Reform’ proposed by the federal government, meanwhile, hopes to counteract the influence of the Zapatistas. But the fact that their movement is as strong as ever means that debate about Zapatista autonomy in Chiapas will not be silenced so easily.

So what has been achieved? And what are the challenges? The young anthropologist Jaime Schittler Álvarez discusses Chiapan autonomy in his Masters’ thesis, in which he reflects on his work as part of the Koman Ilel collective (“collective view” in the Tsotsil language) in different Chiapan communities. In his essay, he seeks to “reflect collectively on the Tsotsil and Tseltal cultural concept of ‘Lekil Kuxlejal’, understanding it as a horizon of struggle that people and collectives independently translate into practice in order to end exploitation or domination”.

This piece of work is essential reading for those hoping to understand the practical application of autonomy and the demands made by the Zapatistas and other groups in the collective to have their autonomy respected. Álvarez, reflecting on his own experiences within the social movement, describes the daily construction of autonomy which “seeks to create a just, equal, and democratic society, built from below, from a free people”.

In his introduction, he describes Lekil Kuxlejal as a way of “naming certain practices and methods of understanding, creating, and recreating the world”. The concept is based on “a relationship of respect for others and for the Earth”. Seeing life and the Earth as sacred bodies worthy of respect, it seeks a harmonious connection in which a common good is forged between people and the world they live in. In this way, it conceives an idea of wellbeing and of “what is necessary to live a just and dignified life”. While it represents cultural, political, and social practices, it is also the foundation of a socio-political project that indigenous communities in Chiapas have been pioneering for years.

Álvarez describes how Liberation Theology, born with the “Congress of 74”, led to a rebirth of popular organisation and self-discovery, which saw underground activism grow and lead to the Zapatista uprising of 1994. He goes on to discuss the San Andrés Accords, the failed process of dialogue, and the subsequent response of the Zapatistas and their supporters in “building autonomy” through the construction of ‘Caracoles’ and ‘Juntas de Buen Gobierno’ (autonomous Zapatista regions and their ‘Committees of Good Government’). In addition, organisational structures such as the ‘Bees’ Board of Civil Society in Acteal were also created.

According to Álvarez, autonomy isn’t just sought for its own sake, but as a “tool for the construction of Lekil Kuxlejal”, and the path towards a good life, with respect for nature. The horizon of hope fuels the search for autonomy. It also provides a focus, “a line of practice, an ethical posture, and a way of being in the world, and inspires us to keep working”.

Jaime Schittler Álvarez’s Thesis, Lekil Kuxlejal as a horizon of struggle, a collective reflection on autonomy in Chiapas, can be found at ‎

Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Ángeles Mariscal, published in Spanish at on January 6th 2014

See also:


January 21, 2014

Mexico’s Zapatista movement transforming lives 20 years on

Filed under: Zapatista — Tags: , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 7:12 pm

Zapatista 20th Anniversary

Mexico’s Zapatista movement transforming lives 20 years on

Michael McCaughan,

Irish Times, January 14, 2014

Outsiders are invited to visit and see how local autonomy works in practice

Marcelo and Maria, Michael McCaughan’s  hosts at the Zapatista village of Moises Gandhi, with their youngest two children, outside their home. The ski masks are worn as the Zapatistas still remain officially outside the law. Photograph:  Sergio Chua




Marcelo and Maria, Michael McCaughan’s  hosts at the Zapatista village of Moises Gandhi, with their youngest two children, outside their home. The ski masks are worn as the Zapatistas still remain officially outside the law. Photograph:  Sergio Chua

On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched an uprising in southeast Mexico, demanding land, democracy and freedom.

The Mexican army responded with bombs and bullets until a series of mass rallies forced then president Carlos Salinas to call a ceasefire. The pipe- smoking rebel spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, became a global celebrity, his witty missives shifting public opinion in favour of the movement.

The negotiations that followed produced the San Andres accord of 1996, which granted autonomy to rebel villages.

In a historic address to parliament in 2001 EZLN Commander Esther urged deputies to approve autonomy legislation, but Mexico’s political parties diluted the agreement previously signed by the government. The rebels retreated into silence, vowing to construct autonomy on their own.

In 2003 the Zapatistas launched five regional headquarters, covering an area almost the size of the Irish republic. Known as Caracoles (a snail or conch shell, used to summon the community), they represent a political process without a manual. Each Caracol has aJunta de Buen Gobierno, (good government junta), which resolves legal disputes, land registration, births, deaths and marriages and tackles five development goals: health, education, agro-ecology, politics and information technology.

Little school

Last year the rebels announced the launch of the “escuelita”, or little school, an invitation to visit rebel territory and get a first-hand look at the autonomy process. The cost of the five-day programme, which included text books, transport, food and lodgings, was €20.

On Christmas Day I found myself carrying a backpack into the Zapatista village of Moises Gandhi, alongside my Votan, a Tzeltal guardian from a distant village, appointed to take care of me. David (23) wore a silver chain and leather jacket, buzz haircut and a ready smile.

He joined the movement at 13, picking up responsibilities along the way. He is currently administrator of the regional Zapatista coffee co-operative, handling emails and money transfers for shipments of coffee to Germany. The rebel project is collective in nature but allows each individual to make the most of their own initiative.

The income from David’s own coffee crop allowed him to buy a dozen pigs last year. My guardian took his duties seriously and each evening prepared notes for his final report. My job was to share in the life and work of the community and study the text books. The 1,500 pupils included teachers and anarchists, home-makers and carpenters.

As we approached the basketball court the entire village (57 families) had lined up to greet us, violins and an accordion striking up Las Mananitas, a traditional song of welcome.

Our names were called out and a villager came forward to claim me; Marcelo took my bag and trudged up a muddy pathway to his home. We arrived at a wooden shack with a few chairs and an open fire where boiling pots signalled dinner ahead. Maria awaited with the family’s six kids, aged two months to 15 years. David and myself shared a small room, sleeping on wooden slats, a blanket each to ward off the cold. We were summoned to the kitchen for beans, tortillas and coffee.

King of the jungle

At 6am the next morning Marcelo woke me up and after another ration of coffee and beans we headed off to work, machete in hand. This work tool is the king of the jungle, used for cutting, clearing, planting and building.

My family, like the others, farmed a small allotment, or milpa, planting coffee, beans and corn. They also had chickens of their own along with a share in the village cattle. The latter served as emergency cash in times of crisis or a shared feast in times of celebration.

Michael McCaughan and his “votan”, or guadian, David, in front of the dental clinic in Moises Gandhi. Photograph: Sergio ChuaMichael McCaughan and his “votan”, or guadian, David, in front of the dental clinic in Moises Gandhi. Photograph: Sergio Chua

David walked beside me, urging me to be careful as we headed out to clear weeds on land where the cattle graze. After an hour spent swinging at the bush, my hand bleeding, David discreetly took the machete and effortlessly eliminated every unwanted plant. The daily tasks are divided along gender lines, with women in charge of the home and men in charge of the milpa. Marcelo and Maria’s home was remarkable in that, apart from light bulbs, there wasn’t a single electronic device: no cooker, fridge, TV, computer, radio or phone.

Each afternoon I spent time reading my books, written by the same indigenous men and women, outlining their experiences of self-rule. The anecdotes offered an insight into a project where “everyone is the government” as community assemblies pick candidates, pool resources and rotate representatives, putting an end to the notion of career politicians.

Each representative spends two weeks at a time in the Caracol, while family and friends mind their cornfield at home. No one is paid for their work on behalf of the community, which is part of a shared responsibility. Money is regarded as problematic and divisive and financial transactions are reduced to the absolute minimum.

The days followed in quick succession as we visited the primary and secondary schools where local teachers educate children in their native Tzeltal tongue. At the health clinic we met a dozen workers who combine antibiotics with homeopathy, while a fully kitted out dentist’s clinic is open 12 hours per day. Attention is free but medicines must be paid for.
Constant challenges

None of the jobs bring a salary but volunteers spoke of their pride in serving their people. The autonomy project faces constant challenges, notably government welfare programmes that offer cash and building materials to those who abandon the rebel ranks.

The Zapatista population ebbs and flows, but while some villages lose members, others take up the challenge, and I observed seven new autonomous communities that had sprung up since my last visit in 2008.

There was a sense of wellbeing and harmony in Moises Gandhi that contrasted sharply with the stressful lives of my peers in Ireland. Come early afternoon Marcelo and Maria settled down in their kitchen, one child in a hammock, gently rocking, another infant napping happily in his father’s arms.
No crime, no fear
The sound is of contented laughter and low tones of idle conversation. There is no crime and no fear, the armed rebels project a sufficient barrier to the drug gangs that have turned large swathes of Mexico into a bloody war zone. Alcohol and other drugs are prohibited while women enjoy, in theory at least, 50 per cent of jobs in the autonomous government.

As I hugged David and said farewell, I asked him how we might keep in contact. He had no phone number, no email address, not even a street address, as the rebels remain outside the postal system. Instead he gave me the name of his village. “Everyone knows me there,” he said, as I contemplated the strangest of beings; a man without an online life or a street address, with no bills or mortgage to pay, happy with his life, and apparently secure in his future.


May 9, 2012


Filed under: Human rights, Repression, Zapatista — Tags: , , , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 3:38 pm


4th May 2012

Letter sent to el Correo Ilustrado of the newspaper La Jornada
The governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, has intensified the acts of aggression and harassment of the Zapatista communities, in an attempt to divide and destroy the autonomy they are building. In the communities and villages that have more Zapatista bases of support, they offer houses, toilets, money, etc.

The federal government is also involved in this offensive, indeed another way of dividing communities is introducing the Fanar programme, which is the continuation of Procede, consisting of measuring the land so as to give individual land titles.

This is done within the lands which have been reclaimed by the Zapatistas since they took up arms in 1994. Lands for which the federal government paid money to the landowners (hacendados), who at that time were claiming ownership, so the land titles they are now trying to give to third parties are totally illegal.

Juan Sabines is also trying to destroy the autonomous education and health clinics so painstakingly created by the Zapatistas. Where there is an autonomous school, the government builds an official school next door; where there is an autonomous clinic, they put a hospital and say that with these actions they are fulfilling the San Andrés Accords. These actions contravene the San Andrés Accords, whose centrepiece is the autonomy of indigenous peoples and communities.

All this is done solely in the Zapatista zones, for where there is no Zapatista presence, they do not build schools or clinics, or roads or anything.

We urge the federal, state and municipal governments to fully respect the San Andrés Accords, article two of the constitution, and ILO Convention 169, and to refrain from further attacking the Zapatista communities, since these legal instruments recognize their right to free determination.

* Lawyers: Bárbara Zamora, Santos García, Manuel Fuentes, Humberto Oseguera, Samuel Porras, Pedro Aragón, Roberto Julio Chávez, Medardo Bañuelos, Verónica Salazar y María Luisa Campos*

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