dorset chiapas solidarity

Escuelita: the Little Zapatista Freedom School

Escuelita Zapatista –

Little School of Freedom according to the Zapatistas





Reading Materials for the Escuelita in English:

The 4 text books for Level I are available here:

The reading materials for Level II have not all yet been translated in to English. See here:






The Second Level Of The Zapatista Escuelita

By: Gilberto López Y Rivas / III

Video For Level 2 Of The Escuelitas


Diego-de-Mazariegos 2

EZLN members brought down this statue of Diego de Mazariegos on October 12, 1992, more than a year before the 1994 Uprising.

Students of the Zapatista Escuelita (Little School) who hope to pass the second level had access to a video more than three hours long, a significant part of which demonstrates the less known history of the EZLN: the history of the years prior to the 1994 Uprising. This memorable film document, which offers an extraordinary lesson of how to organize in the most adverse conditions, begins with an introduction from Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, the current spokesperson of that political-military organization. Around 30 local responsables coming from the five Zapatista Caracols give talks.

In these testimonies they announce, live and in the various languages of the peoples, the difficulties of clandestine work from the crucial years of 1983 and 1984; the slow and tortuous process of taking consciousness, explaining the 13 demands, the exploitation, capitalism, imperialism, the bourgeois State, criticism and self-criticism. They talk about the first recruitment of members, about the forms of secret communication and discretion, meeting with each other in the milpa or in the coffee field, in the mountains, avoiding the travelled roads, walking along the dirt paths, at night, many times in the rain, enduring hunger, mud, cold and heat, all for the struggle.

They detail the security rules for not disclosing the presence of the organization in its infancy, including sharing it with family members, neighbours and friends, “burning the notes so that the enemy would not know about us.” They remember the sacrifices and zeal of the first militants, of the initial desertions and treasons of the splits, as well as the compas that continue firm in the struggle. They describe the tasks of the local and regional responsables throughout the years, as well as the sacrifices and the conditions in which the military preparation of the insurgents and milicianos took place. They looked for secure places for the trainings and, at the same time, the militants bought their weapons, machetes, boots, hammocks, uniforms and batteries; they had “reserves,” because they didn’t know how long the war would last. There was a bakery, a tailor shop, and later a radio. They cooperated among the support bases for that and they worked collectively; the rebellion was assumed as a great task for everyone, while the insurgents gave training to the milicianos and, in the midst of all this hustle and bustle, which finally led to the 1994 Uprising, there was time to “raise spirits,” above all by realizing that more were convinced every day, that there were concentrations of thousands, with those who joined the platoons, battalions and regiments of what would be the Zapatista National Liberation Army. The Indigenous Revolutionary Committee was composed of the zonal and regional spokespersons. Compañerismo and unity, information and formation, the economy of resources destined to mobilization were followed in all these organizing efforts. When the armed and uniformed insurgents arrived in a village, they would make welcoming fiestas with marimba music and dancing.

In the expositions they identified values and qualities for eventual members of the organization; that is, they chose those who “were well-spoken,” demonstrated punctuality, discipline and completion of work, were without addictions, with irreproachable conduct and, above all, who had no contact with the government and the finqueros. [1] The best of these were selected to be local and regional responsables. In these years they were forging the organization’s basic principles: don’t surrender, don’t sell out, don’t give up and don’t deceive the (support) bases.

The reference to the work of the women in the guerrilla organization was very instructive: their first incorporation into peripheral tasks in the beginning, and their passage towards positions and duties with greater responsibility, including those directly related to the war that was being prepared; that is, as milicianas and insurgentas. In the 1993 consultation to decide the start of the war, they also signed the agreement, prepared the food for the milicianos and milicianas who marched at the front. They even made known a military action at an airplane landing strip, in which the women brought down the antenna and expropriated a radio transmitter. Now, they proudly affirm that they have learned a lot: that they are agents, commissioners, midwives and health promoters, education responsables, members of the autonomous governments, commanders and, above all, self-sufficient human beings with rights backed up by the Women’s Revolutionary Law. They maintain that the war is never going to end because “the fucking bad government is always going to betray us.”

It’s also interesting listen to the stories of how the EZLN combined the forms of struggle before the Uprising, with open organizations that answered to their commanders, one of which brought down the statue of Mazariegos [2] on October 12, 1992, in which the indigenous peoples aired their protest against the “celebration” of the invasion of our continent and, at the same time, a general rehearsal for the taking of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1994.

What shows through is the pride and affection for the “organization,” for the history that its supporters are unravelling, each one in their fashion, from their particular experience and in their own forms of oral expression. They declare that they will never give themselves up as conquered, that the Zapatistas, 20 years after the declaration of war, have their autonomous governments, without depending on the bad government, and that this future they are constructing is forever.

They conclude by pointing out that they prepared the Second Level course for the Escuelita Zapatista with a lot of love, and starting with a commitment to the people of Mexico, to the millions of Mexicans, to whom they deliver this seed of organization and resistance.


[1] Finqueros – Ranch owners

[2] Diego de Mazariegos was a Spanish colonizer who invaded Chiapas.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

Friday, November 6, 2015

En español:





Escuelitas Zapatistas, An Invitation For Us To Organize



By Carolina Dutton

The EZLN, through its Sixth and International Commissions, will announce a series of initiatives, of a civilian and peaceful character, to continue walking together with the other Native Peoples of Mexico and the whole continent, and together with those who, in Mexico and in the entire world, resist and struggle below and to the left.” (The EZLN announces its next steps) Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, December 30, 2012.

From the beginning the vision of the Zapatistas has been to construct their autonomy together with the people of Mexico and the world. Massive support from the Mexican public and world opinion saved them from being wiped out by further massacres in 1994. Later that year they organized a national democratic convention in Chiapas. In 1995 they held a consultation with the people of Mexico to ask the people in all parts of the country about indigenous culture and the steps Mexico needed to take towards dialogue and democracy from below. They also presented their 13 demands for land, housing, work, food, health, education, culture, information, independence, democracy, liberty, justice and peace, which are not just for them, but rather for all people from below. More consultations were done throughout Mexico in 1999 and the March of the Colour of the Earth visited 13 states of Mexico in 2001. Then came the 6th Declaration and the Other Campaign in 2005-6. The Escuelitas (Little Schools), which began in 2013, are their most recent way of reaching out to others struggling against capitalism and working to create another world. In Level 1 of the Escuelitas, the Zapatistas permitted us to participate in their resistance and thus be directly connected to them. In Level 2, they connect with us by sharing online, so that the many who can’t go to Chiapas can learn from the Zapatistas’ experience organizing and building their organization in clandestinity.

In the first level of the Escuelita, we lived in Zapatista villages and the compas shared with us their everyday resistance and their construction and practice of autonomy, mostly from 1994 to the present. We worked with our host families on their everyday economic activities, everything from carrying water and collecting firewood to tending the cattle, cultivating the milpa [1], coffee and sugar cane. We visited their autonomous schools and health centres and learned about autonomous government. Our host families sometimes shared their history with us around the dinner table, how things have changed for them now that they live autonomously, and their participation in the uprising. We were given readings, which were testimonies of many Zapatista women and men who had served in various levels of civilian autonomous government.

The second level of the Escuelita has been conducted entirely online. The readings emphasize the need to organize our communities to resist the capitalist hydra economically and politically. We were given the link to a video where the Zapatistas shared how they formed their organization and how they organized and recruited new members, educated, encouraged, and protected each other as a clandestine organization beginning as early as 1983 up until the 1994 uprising, when they became public. The video consisted of testimonies from those who had been and some who still are both local and regional responsables [2] during clandestinity. Responsables spoke from each of the five Caracoles, or centres of Zapatista regional government: Caracol 1 La Realidad, Caracol 2 Oventic, Caracol 3 La Garrucha, Caracol 4 Morelia, and Caracol 5 Roberto Barrios.

The Zapatistas made it very clear their reasons for sharing this precious information. They hope that learning how they went about organizing will give us ideas and help us organize in other parts of Mexico or in our own communities in many parts of the world.   They are very aware that they cannot do it alone, that they need us to organize too, but that we may need to do it in our own way depending on our unique situations. We are all in this together and we need not only each other’s support but also each other’s vision.

In the Escuelita 2 video the local and regional responsables during the EZLN’s 10 years of clandestine formation shared with us their tasks and sacrifices. The local responsables coordinated the organization’s work in the communities. They observed how people participated in the community and recruited new members who exhibited responsibility and understanding. They were in charge of orienting new members and raising their consciousness to understand why their lives were so hard and the necessity to struggle and to study in order to prepare the struggle.

The responsables also coordinated local security. Women were especially important for security since they usually stayed in the community and were aware when people who didn’t belong there were present. The responsables, both men and women, also convened meetings and assemblies. Sometimes meetings took place in the middle of the night on stormy nights when people would not be seen or heard as they left home and travelled to a safe meeting place.

Local responsables also organized the training and equipping of the milicianos. [3] They also organized collective work, which was necessary to free up time for those with other responsibilities in the organization as well as to earn money to buy necessities for the struggle including boots and weapons. The sewing collectives sewed uniforms. The women collectively made tostadas and women and men collectively grew the food for the milicianos and insurgents. Many women and men had responsibly for this collective work and for security but the responsables oversaw the collectives in their area and communicated information about any problems and needs to the regional responsables.

The regional responsables oversaw the work of the organization in wider regions. They oriented the local responsables, prepared and encouraged the milicianos and raised the consciousness and understanding of members of the organization. In isolated areas compas often became discouraged so the responsables organized fiestas so that the members in a region could meet each other and see how many hundreds and thousands of compas were committed to the struggle. The Zapatistas love parties, all without drinking alcohol, which was against the EZLN’s rules.

So why have the Zapatistas decided to share this information with us now? They want us to organize too in our own way. They need people all over Mexico and the world to organize and to be in touch with them. It is the only way our movements can resist the capitalist hydra whose tentacles reach all corners of the earth and all aspects of life. I think they also want to share this history with their youth. An entire generation has grown up since the uprising that did not participate in building the organization and preparing for war. Zapatista resistance now requires creativity and sacrifice but it is very different. It is important that the youth know what came before, what has changed, and the ingenuity, discipline and sacrifice that went into building the organization they have always known.

Our exam to pass Escuelita 2 consisted of 6 questions, questions which each of us had to write and ask the Zapatistas. As Subcomandantes Moisés and Galeano explain: “The questions are important, as is our Zapatista way, they are more important than the answers… What interests the Zapatistas are not certainties but the doubts because we think that certainty immobilizes, that one is still, content, sitting still and not moving, as if we had arrived or we already knew. On the other hand, doubts, questions, make one move, search, not be still, not be in conformity, like day and night don’t pass, and the struggles from below and to the left are born of inconformity, of doubts and restlessness. If one conforms it’s that one is waiting to be told what to do or has already been told. If one is not in conformity, one searches for what to do.” (Second Level of the Little School, July 27, 2015).


[1] A milpa is much more than a field of corn. It is a diverse area of cultivation. The dominant plant is the basic grain of the people, corn. Beans grow up the corn stalk, different forms of squash creep along the ground and many medicinal and culinary herbs grow in and around the milpa.

[2] A responsable is the person responsible for a certain task or group of tasks. In the context of early EZLN organizing the responsable seems like more of a political operative or organizer.

[3] The milicianos were and still are somewhat like the National Guard in the US. They have military training, but are not insurgents, and can be called to active duty in an emergency.



A Reflection And Application From The Second Escuelita




Zapatista musicians play at the Homage and Seminar in Oventik, May 2015.


By: Todd Davies

“Por eso decimos que somos muy otros, muy otras, nosotros, porque es que vamos como si fuera el zapato, la ropa, se mide uno si le queda o no le queda pues, prueba, y si no hasta que encuentra la que sí le queda pues. Así somos, compañeros, compañeras, hermanos y hermanas, de lo que es nuestra resistencia y la rebeldía.”

“That is why we say we are very other. Because we move as if trying on a shoe, or clothes – you measure and see if it fits, try it on, and if not then you keep looking for the one that fits. That’s how we are, compañeros, compañeras, brothers and sisters, that is what our resistance and rebellion is about.” — Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, “Resistencia y Rebeldía Zapatistas II” (“Resistance and Rebellion II”), 7 May 2015

One of the themes running through the assigned readings and video recording for this year’s second level of the Zapatista’s Little School (Escuelita) was how much the compañer@s living in Zapatista Territory have learned through practice. I have long thought of the practice-driven approach of the Zapatistas as having lessons for us in movements here, but I had not seen such a clear explanation of both the philosophy underlying this approach, and some of the specific lessons it has taught, until I made my way through the curriculum of the segundo nivel.

A few years ago, after describing to fellow activists my understanding of the Zapatista phrase caminar preguntando (walking while asking questions), I was asked whether the Zapatistas’ method of learning along the way was similar to Marxist or religious concepts of “praxis”. Although I was familiar with this term, I wasn’t sure what to say at the time, so I hedged. After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that when friends of mine in movements had used the term “praxis”, they seemed to mean a form of practice that starts with an overall theory and then applies it through action. Part of the idea is that everyday practice is the means by which oppressed people actually learn how to change the world: understanding comes from doing, not just from hearing or reading. But particularly in movements of the left in this country, the use of “praxis” seems also to be infused with Gandhian and/or vanguardist thinking. Only through praxis can we bring about revolution, under this understanding of the concept, because without action, our theories are just words. Talk is cheap. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi said. And this is so because you must lead by example. Who would trust a guru who did not follow his own teachings?

So I sensed that the Zapatista approach to practice was not quite captured by the term “praxis” as I had generally seen it employed, because in caminar preguntando we begin by assuming that whatever we think now is probably wrong in crucial respects, and that we will learn what our theory should be as we go along, rather than primarily learning to appreciate what it means and demonstrating to others that we can apply it. As Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (now Galeano) wrote in 2004: “We are trying, with our clumsiness and our wise actions, definitions or vagueness, just trying, but putting life into it, to build an alternative.  Full of imperfections and always incomplete, but our alternative.” Not the words we expect from a guru or vanguard.

In the assigned readings for the second level, Moisés describes an example of how the Zapatistas have moved from “shoe to shoe” in their search for a better fit. Communities began by working collectively 100% of the time. There would be, for example, one milpa (corn field) for everyone. Over time, however, they learned that this approach worked less well than more complex arrangements that involved a mix of collective and family allotments and labour. The division of time now varies by community, and there are different levels of collective work and control: region, autonomous municipality, and zone, in addition to the community. The goal was to create a robust agreement that worked for everyone and was sensitive to problems and contexts (weather events, shortfalls, over-harvesting, different family sizes, needs, etcetera…).

Moisés says, “Here what we learned in practice is that what we were doing wasn’t working, that is, we made a mistake, and we failed when we required 100% collective work. We saw that this didn’t work because there were complaints; there were a lot of problems.” I think it is useful to contrast this with the more ideologically or theory-driven approach that we often see in movements, both capitalist and anti-capitalist: Those who complain are lazy (or are counter-revolutionaries). Problems come from those who are unproductive (or selfish).

The Zapatista approach is piecemeal: finding a shoe that fits is distinct from finding a good shirt or blouse. Theory-driven politics, by contrast, tends to push us to choose between entire wardrobes. In a widely read piece from earlier this year, L.A. Kaufman wrote about “The Theology of Consensus” in a way that portrayed consensus decision making as a religious doctrine that should be abandoned because it failed, for example, to yield effective decisions in the general assemblies of the Occupy movement. A Zapatista-like assessment would, I think, be more analytical. It would look at the many elements that vary across consensus procedures and ask which ones are sources of problems, and which should be retained depending on the context. The whole-wardrobe approach, by contrast, urges us to throw out everything and start all over again. That only makes sense if there is nothing in the wardrobe worth keeping.

The Zapatistas have held together as an organization for 32 years, and the rebellion that began on January 1, 1994, will soon celebrate its 22nd anniversary. What Moisés tells us in the readings for the second Little School is that the movement has survived this long because it has prioritized the organization and its radically democratic principles, has pursued what works well, and has modified what was not working. Such a simple lesson! But one that is ripe for application in our own attempts to build community and autonomy here in the bay area.




The Second Level Of The Zapatista Escuelita Part II




By: Gilberto López y Rivas / II

The texts of the Zapatista women included in Chapter 1 of the book Critical Thought versus the Capitalist Hydra, which students of the second level of the Zapatista Escuelita must analyze, are frightening, especially Comandanta Miriam’s narrative about the situation of the women before 1994: “Since the arrival of the conquistadores we women have had to endure a sad situation. They stole our land and took away our language, our culture. That’s where the domination of caciquismo [1] and the landowners came into being, along with triple exploitation, humiliation, discrimination, marginalization, mistreatment and inequality. Because the fucking bosses had us as if they were our owners.”

Her extraordinary description of acasillamiento [2] – being housed (on the haciendas) -touches on the different types of the women’s humiliation and forced work at the hands of the finqueros [3], to the extent that some decided to take refuge in the hills. “They got together, talked and formed a community where they were able to live. That’s how they formed a community. But again, once they are living in the communities, those ideas that came from the boss (or the acasillado) are brought in. It’s as if the men dragged these bad ideas with them and applied them inside the house, like the little boss of the house… It’s not true that the women were liberated. Now it’s the men that are the little boss of the house. And once again the woman stayed at home as if it were a prison. Once again, the women didn’t leave the house, they were shut in their houses again…”

Comandanta Rosalinda tells the story of the recruitment of the first women in the clandestine years, town by town, of the necessity of organizing and that there were both milicianas [4] and insurgents, “until ’94 arrives when we appeared in public, when we no longer endured the mistreatment that the fucking capitalists did to us. There we saw that it’s really true that we have courage and strength equal to men, because we were able to confront the enemy, without fear of anyone… Later we realized (that) making a revolution required both women and men.”




Comandanta Dalia continues the narration of women’s work with the EZLN, of the talks in each town, of the problems that they confront when even today some men become cabroncitos [5], of how they passed through all of the jobs with responsibility until they attain being on the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee. She asserts that they are going to continue organizing themselves “because there is still sadness, pain, incarceration and rape, as well as the mothers of the 43 disappeared… Men and women must struggle 100 percent. Having a new society in which the people are the ones that command.”

The young support base Lizbeth and the listener Selena maintain that they didn’t know the life of the haciendas and now they have the freedom and the right as women to express their opinion, discuss, participate in the multiple tasks of the resistance and autonomy, resisting the counterinsurgency and the mirages of capitalism that they show on television, trying to use cell phones and the very same television for their struggle. They distinguish the poor-poor, the party members, materially poor and poor of thought, from the Zapatistas, who are also poor but rich because of their work for the good of the people and so that there are no dominators or exploiters.

For his part, Sub Galeano, in his “Vision of the conquered,” points out how those generations of Indigenous women now say their word in the genealogy of their struggle. “Three generations of rebel Zapatistas –he emphasizes–, not only against the system, also against us… Zapatista men.” He declares defeat because of that struggle, although like the capitalist hydra he maintains that the males always try to regain their lost privileges. He again takes up the origin of that struggle and describes that everything started with the insurgents. He reiterates that non-indigenous women also participate in the EZLN, and in the main part of his unique narrative-testimony the various opinions of these compañeras are transcribed, which refer to the very intimate man-woman relationship and to the characterization of the dominant and violent male, a schizophrenic hunter who, however sensitive and receptive he may consider himself, cannot be a feminist, because he represents the same system against which he supposedly struggles.

The three parts of the notes on resistances and rebellions, presented by Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, constitute key texts for understanding the Zapatista struggle. He begins by remembering that the Zapatistas are an armed organization, but contrary to the militarist tradition of some Latin American guerrillas, in this case guns don’t become a fetish, rather they are seen as one more tool, like the machete, the axe, the shovel, although one is conscious that each tool has its function, and the purpose of the gun is to kill.

After the ’94 withdrawal, it was understood that the struggle could take many forms and that resistance and rebellion could be expressed in various ways. “Resistance is becoming strong, tough, responding to everything, to any attacks from the enemy, from the system; and rebellion is being brave to take actions, or whatever we must do… One must resist the provocations of the Army and the police, the media reports and the psychological bombardments.” They discovered that with resistance and rebellion it is possible to govern and develop initiatives. In fact, the Zapatistas have not carried out a single armed attack since January 1994. “It doesn’t mean, compañeros and compañeras, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t mean that we are renouncing our arms, but rather that it’s that political, ideological, rebel understanding, which gives us the way to see how one must really convert this resistance into an arm of struggle.” Political work and explanation are required for all this, and that governing is not conducted with orders, but rather with agreements.


  1. Caciquismo – Local despotism
  2. Acasillamiento – A type of indentured servanthood
  3. Finqueros – Ranch or estate owners
  4. Milicianas – Female political organizers with military training that can be called up in an emergency, somewhat like a national guard.
  5. Cabroncitos – little bastards


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

Minor edits by Dorset Chiapas Solidarity

Friday, October 23, 2015



Reading materials for the Second Level of the Zapatista Escuelita


 Critical Thought Against the Capitalist Hydra

Volume One: Participation of the Sixth Commission of the EZLN

Free Multimedia, Bilingual Zapatista e-book! “El Pensamiento Crítico frente a la Hidra Capitalista”



The Second Level Of The Zapatista Escuelita 


Zapatista youth and women form much of the current EZLN support base. This photo is from La Realidad during the homage to fallen Compañero Galeano – killed in a paramilitary attack in La Realidad on May 2, 2014. 


By: Gilberto López y Rivas/I

On October 3 the time period ended for sending in the six questions that each second level student of the Escuelita Zapatista (Little School) must send in order to be evaluated on their performance and, in the case of being approved, pass to the next level until eventually completing six. For that, the students must study Chapter 1 of the book Critical thought versus the capitalist hydra, as well as watching a video of a little more than three hours long, in which the genealogy and current characteristics of the EZLN’s resistance and rebellion are shown, in the voice of around 30 of its local “responsables,” [1] men and women, coming from different autonomous municipalities within the five Caracoles where the Good Government Juntas are located: La Realidad, Oventic, La Garrucha, Morelia and Roberto Barrios.

From the study of Chapter 1 what stands out are the participations of the current EZLN spokesperson, Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, who in the theme of Political Economy is recapitulating how the communities lived 30 years ago, how those who are not organized as Zapatistas live and how the same Zapatistas live now. Before the arrival of the EZLN in 1983, the indigenous of Chiapas did not exist for the capitalist system; they were those forgotten by the governments who survived from the Mother Earth. They resisted domination by the landowners, who unlawfully were retaining the best lands, protected by their armed forces, who were called guardias blancas. [2] There were no roads, clinics or hospitals, programmes or grants then. With time, it wasn’t enough for them (the landowners) to have the best lands, now they wanted the mountains, nature’s riches and, as a consequence, they organized dispossessions and evictions, because of which they reformed constitutional Article 27, whose intent is to privatize the ejidos, selling or renting Mother Earth. When the uprising happens in 1994, a counterinsurgency policy begins in order to avoid the expansion of Zapatismo. Those communities that let their ejidos be privatized by selling their land are in the streets, because they no longer have anywhere to grow their corn and beans, also remaining at the mercy of this policy. The use of the term partidistas (party members) characterizes this social sector that has fallen into the government’s trap, distinguishing clearly the non-antagonistic contradiction of Zapatismo with those who are even considered brothers and sisters; about the paramilitaries: “those are some sons of bitches!”

The Zapatistas recuperated Mother Earth beginning by organizing collectively, combining different forms of agrarian work at the town, region and municipal level, and by recognizing failed attempts and errors. He warns that we must not idealize the Zapatistas, thinking that when they say clean, everything is clean. The trick is to be organized and to distinguish that it’s one thing to say it and another to do it. They discovered resistance in the various forms of doing collective work reacting to those who had been sent from the government to watch over them, like the teachers, who were expelled from the zone, or coming to the conclusion that they wouldn’t receive anything from the bad government, which, in turn, conditioned the start of a large quantity of tasks in different ambits of the land’s exploitation, production, trade, health and education that were giving sustainability to the autonomous Zapatista process as opposed to the dependency, loss of identity, drug addiction and submission of the party members. In this way  Sub Moisés synthesizes the resistance that must be nourished from generation to generation, if one doesn’t want the exploiters to come back: “One of the bases of what constitutes our Zapatista economic resistance, is Mother Earth. We don’t have those houses, cement blocks and all that stuff the bad government gives, but we do have education; and our practice is that the peoples are the ones that command and the governments obey… we don’t pay for electricity, water, land ownership, nothing. But we also receive nothing from the system… And that is our way of being and that’s how we are going to continue working, struggling, and we will die that way if it’s necessary, defending what we are now.”

The Zapatista economy responds to the needs of the resistance and to the counterinsurgency strategy. They handle money only occasionally, like when they have to pay for gasoline. Everything is done starting with political and ideological work, and with much explanation. Sub Moisés gives the example of education, where the teacher with collective work is working his milpa, his bean field, his pasture and that way he can have his little payment. The thing is that no one remains without working collectively for the struggle, for autonomy, and for that the towns, the regions, the autonomous municipalities and the zones are in agreement as to how they want to work. The Zapatista economy has its banks, whose profits also are going to the autonomy movement. Loans are made for emergencies and the funds are made up of contributions from the support bases. He clarified how there were non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that cloaked themselves in the Zapatista struggle and obtained funds to pay for their bureaucracy, in the words of Sub Moisés: “Then from the shoulders of those who are struggling because of injustice and inequality, and misery and everything else, they still hang others from there. How smart we are, right?”

Operations in the rebel clinics are paid for from the rebel economy, even for the partisans, at prices much lower than those of the hospital market. All that is watched over thoroughly, given that it is the work and sweat of the people; therefore, they demand that their authorities render accounts. Collective work is not idealized and with a great sense of humour the EZLN’s spokesperson comments about those who are smoking their cigarette or filing their machete a lot, in order to pass time, in other words, to play tricks. But to these problems, the funny thing is that: “We didn’t stop. We are very stubborn; we are very foolish. We didn’t abandon it. We looked for a solution, counselling, giving clarifications, explanations, well, and that’s how we are going to continue.”

Translator’s Notes:

[1] “responsable” translates into “the one responsible” for something. One of the questions a Chiapas Support Committee member sent in before the October deadline was: for who/what are they responsible?

[2] “guardias blancas” translates as “white guards.” They were the landowners’ private security forces, often local police moonlighting.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

Friday, October 9, 2015

En español:



EZLN announces second level of Zapatista Escuelita

(@Espoir Chiapas)

In a communique published on 27 July 2015 that is signed by Subcomandantes Insurgentes Moisés and Galeano, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) announced the second level of the Zapatista School.

The dates for the new course are for 31 July-2 August 2015. However, on this occasion, “it is not a question of coming to Zapatista territories” but rather “the second level will take place universally outside of Zapatista lands.”Arguing that the economic situation and the governmental repression toward indigenous peoples makes matters difficult, the EZLN has organized levels 2 through 6 in this way, so that students do not have to come “every so often” to Zapatista territory.

The students who passed the first level will receive an e-mail between 30 July and 1 August that contains the instructions to access the video that contains the contents of the second level.

The communique ends by calling for solidarity with the struggles from below and to the left, as in Ostula and Ayotitlán, in solidarity with the families of the 47 missing students from Ayotzinapa, the families of the children who died in the ABC Nursery, as well as relatives of political prisoners and the disappeared throughout the world, in solidarity with those in struggle in Greece, and the indigenous people who care for Mother Earth.



EZLN: Special Cases


JULY 29, 2015


If you have not received an email with a “pass” to the second grade, it could be because…

…the email address you used to register for first grade has expired, or was erased, or you have forgotten your password.

…you have the same email but you haven’t received a “pass” because we got mixed up and we need your information again…or because you didn’t pass to second grade. If after following the instructions we detail below you don’t receive a “pass” email within a month, then it’s because you didn’t pass first grade.

In either case, the way to resolve the issue is simple: it is sufficient to send a new email to this address:, from a new email account with the following information:

–your full name and date of birth

–where you live

–your registration code if you remember it or have it

–the dates in which you went to first grade

–the place where you went to first grade (if you went to a community, the name of the community and the caracol it corresponds to); (if it was by videoconference, the name of the place, neighbourhood, city, country, and continent where you had the videoconference)

–the name of your Votán.




EZLN: Second Grade Of The Zapatista Little School




July 27, 2015

To the National and International Sixth:

To the former students of the Zapatista Little School:


The date for the second grade (only for those who passed the first) of the Zapatista Little School is approaching.

As we had previously announced, the dates are July 31 and August 1 and 2 of 2015.

No, don’t rush. This time it isn’t about coming to Zapatista territory. Rather, this time it is about not coming here, at least not for the Little School. The second grade will be everywhere, outside of Zapatista territories.

Let us explain:

As we have already said, we see that the economic situation is really difficult. Well, not just the economic situation. The government repression against the originary peoples, including the Yaquis (in Sonora) and Nahuas (in Santa María Ostula, Michoacán, and in Ayotitlán, Jalisco), and against the democratic teachers union (first in Oaxaca, later it will come in other states) reminds us all that those above do not honor their word and betrayal is part of the way they do politics.

With respect to the economic situation, we know that it is not easy to get together the money for daily things, much less for frequent travel to spend a few days here.

We Zapatistas know very well that if we say come to the Little School to continue learning how to really see us, well there will be people who can.

But the majority of those who passed the first grade are compas who do not have the money to do so or have to comply with work responsibilities in the geographies where they struggle. That is, they can’t just be coming here every so often. This isn’t because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. There are those who did everything they could to get here for the seminar/seedbed this past May, and it’s really difficult for them to come again this year.

And the Little School should not be only for those who don’t have problems with the calendar or the funds for travel. What we Zapatistas want is for our compas of the Sixth to see us directly, to see us and hear us and, as it should be, take what they think will be useful to them and leave aside what isn’t useful or is bothersome.

Taking all these things into account, we have to think about how to continue talking to you and mutually learning from each other.

So we have organized the next grade levels (2 through 6) so that you don’t have to come so frequently, but rather let’s say once a year. Of course, we will give you sufficient notice when there are possibilities to receive you here.

Given that, we want to let you know that for Second Grade there are no classes in Zapatista territory. Of course, if you want to come to the festivals in the Caracoles,[i] that’s fine. But you don’t have to come for class.

But there is going to be class, and of course, exams.

This is how it will work:

  1. Those who passed the first grade will receive, as of July 30-31 and August 1 of 2015, an email (if you have email that is; if not, we’ll send notice via the person who contacted you for the first grade). This email will have a link to a site with a video. In this video, a group of special Zapatista teachers will explain what is to be explained. In order to see this video you will need a password, as they call it, which will be included in the email. Now, the video doesn’t have to be viewed alone. You can get your collectives, groups, or organizations together to watch it. You can do this in the spaces that the EZLN’s Sixth Commission Support Teams have across Mexico, or in spaces belonging to the groups, collectives, and organizations of the Sixth throughout the world. There is no problem with any of that. Be it individually or collectively, you will see and hear our compañeras and compañeros explain to you a part of the genealogy of the Zapatista struggle. You all have already heard, seen, and even lived with Zapatista bases of support, with your Votanes,[ii] with your families. But this is just one part of the struggle for freedom according to Zapatismo. There are others.
    It is as if we had only given you one part of the puzzle. Or as if, as they say, what is missing is yet to come.
    You will also have to study Chapter 1 of the book “Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra,” the sections titled: “Some of what has changed”; “Toward a Genealogy of the Zapatista Struggle”; and “Notes on Resistance and Rebellion.” Don’t worry if you don’t have the book, because these sections are already on the Enlace Zapatista webpage, but it’s better to get the book because that’s where you get the whole picture.
  2. After you see, hear, and study what our compañeras and compañeros say in the video, and after studying those parts of the book, you will INDIVIDUALLY write 6 questions. You will send these 6 questions to an email address that will be included in the email that you receive. The date for sending your questions can be any day and time between August 3, 2015, and October 3, 2015.
  3. We will not respond to your questions individually, but rather collectively. That is, we are going to put all of the questions together here and then create texts, videos, and recordings where we respond. When you read a text from the [EZLN] Comandancia or listen to a recording from the votanes, you will know that they are answering your questions. If you don’t hear a response to your question, don’t despair, that just means that there are more words coming that will respond to you. There won’t be any individual answers, only general and collective ones.
  4. The questions are important. As is our way as Zapatistas, the questions are more important than the answers. And it is the questions that will be evaluated to decide whether you pass and move on to the third grade.
  5. The idea is that you realize that what interests the Zapatistas is not the certainties, but rather the doubts. Because we think certainties immobilize; that is, they leave one content, satisfied, sitting still and not moving, as if one had already arrived at or already knew the answers. In contrast doubts—questions—make one move or search. They don’t leave one at peace, but rather non-compliant and dissenting, as if there were neither night nor day. And the struggles below and to the left, compas, are born in disagreement, in doubts, in restlessness. If one is satisfied and in agreement it is because they are waiting to be told what to do or they have already been told what to do. If one is discontent, it is because they are searching for what to do.
  6. So we’re telling you right now what we are going to use in order to decide if you proceed to the third grade: the 6 questions that you put forward individually. This is what the votaneswill evaluate to see whether to put you on the list for “Continues on to Third Grade.”

Well compas, that is all we wanted to tell you for now. In any case, through the Little School and everything else, we will continue supporting each other and supporting those who struggle for truth and justice, like the Nahua people of Ostula who demand justice for the attack on their community in which the child EDILBERTO REYES GARCÍA was murdered by the federal army; like the Nahua people of Ayotitlán, attacked by guardias blancas[iii]and police working for the transnational mining company Ternium; like the families of the 47 absent students of Ayotzinapa; like the families of the children of the ABC Daycare (just because the media doesn’t report on them doesn’t mean they no longer struggle for justice); like the families of the political prisoners and the disappeared all over the world; like the rebellious teachers’ union; like the Greece from below and to the left that never bought into the story of the referendum; like the prisoners that continue to challenge Power and the State even from behind bars; like those who challenge Power from the streets and countryside in all geographies; like the originary peoples who keep up their defense of the Mother Earth; like those who do not sell out, do not give in, and do not give up.

Because resistance and rebellion are what break the geographies and calendars above. Because when above they predict defeat, discouragement, and surrender, there is always one [uno, una, unoa] who says “NO.” Because, look at how things are, at the roots of freedom there is always a “NO” that clings to the earth, nourishes itself and grows from her.

Okay then. And let’s not forget today nor yesterday, so that tomorrow we will remember what’s yet to come.

Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés

Little School Director

Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano

Little School Concierge


July 2015

[i] Anniversary parties for the Good Government Councils, usually celebrated between August 8 and 10.

[ii] “Guardians” assigned to each student of the Little School during the First Grade in Zapatista territory.

[iii] Armed private militias.

Colectivo Pintar Obedeciendo.




Download the text books and videos for the first grade of the Zapatista Escuelita August 2013


The Videos (in Spanish):

Escuelita Zapatista DVD 1 – La Libertad según l@s Zapatistas

Escuelita Zapatista DVD 2 – La Libertad según l@s Zapatistas


Escuelita Textbooks in English

All Four Escuelita Textbooks are now Available in English

Click titles to download:
(Note: the PDF downloads are of higher quality than the online previews)


Text books from the first course of the Zapatista Escuelita “Freedom according to the Zapatistas” in Spanish:


Gobierno Autónomo I
Gobierno Autónomo II
Participación de las mujeres en el Gobierno Autónomo
Resistencia Autónoma

In Sections:

Cuadernos de texto de la primer Escuelita Zapatista Gobierno Autónomo I, 1234567 Gobierno Autónomo II, 1234 Participación de las mujeres en el gobierno autónomo 1234567 Resistencia Autónoma 123456789


 Freedom According to the Zapatistas – Highlights of the Escuelitas

 Short video, with English subtitles, about the escuelitas, made by the Chiapas Support Committee, Oakland, California, December 2013–g36xI33nk



Articles about the Escuelitas

Below is a short selection, in English, of the many texts that have been written describing the experience of attending the Escuelitas



7 Lessons for Social Justice Activists from the Zapatistas

Written by: Justin Wedes (Zuccotti)

I found myself on the eve of 2014 in San Cristobal de las Casas in the southernmost Chiapas state of Mexico, just above the border with Guatemala. The colonial city’s name itself betrays a kind of solidarity with the native peoples of this land: Bartolomé de las Casas was Christopher Columbus’s lesser-known companion, the first Bishop of Chiapas, and a fierce defender of indigenous peoples against enslavement and killing by the colonizers. When indigenous activists seized this city on January 1st, 1994 – the day the NAFTA treaty went into effect – they found the town cheering on their arrival including the Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a modern-day de las Casas.

View image on TwitterSilence kills. Rise up woman. 

The Tzeltal and Tzotzil peoples call this place Jovel, the place in the clouds.

Tonight, the air smells of sparklers and fireworks, mixed with fresh tamales and ponche de piña made and served in little street carts by poor street vendors. A light-skinned woman wearing pearls and a Happy New Year tiara laughs deeply from inside a corner restaurant. Extravagance and misery commingle in the cool mountain evening.

The Zapatistas are not here in town but rather deep in the Lacandon Jungle surrounding us, and they’ve convened a Zapatista Freedom School on the 20th anniversary of their uprising to show activists, journalists and academics from around the world how they’ve progressed in building their Gobierno Autónomo in Chiapas. After the armed uprising of ’94 and the success of the Zapatistas in reclaiming and defending huge swathes of land from rancheros (Mexican ranchers, or large land-holders), the Mexican government began a strategy of low-intensity military and economic warfare to attempt to isolate, divide and ultimately conquer the growing rebel insurrection. The Zapatistas responded by shifting strategy from armed conflict to non-violent civil resistance, while bolstering and tightening their organizational structures “with a civil and peaceful movement”, as they proclaimed in their 2005 Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. This movement, in all of its intricate detail, is what I have come down to see in action.

Ten days later, I emerge from the jungle and return to San Cristobal de las Casas with a new perspective on this bold community-building work. And while Gobierno Autónomo ­­- truly autonomous and independent structures of governance – may not be the exact aim of every social justice activist, good government undoubtedly begins with governing oneself and then one’s local community. Here are 7 lessons I humbly submit to you, based on the very Principles of Good Government of the Zapatista rebels:


1 — Lead by Obeying / Obedecer y no Mandar

One of the most unfortunate consequences of living in a society that expends so much money and energy on election campaigns is that political “leaders” become cult figures. The cult of personality has been recognized for centuries to be a threat to real democracy, and is what lead the ancient Greeks to establish the ostrakismos (ostracism) that banned overly influential Athenians from society for 10 years. Politics should not be a fashion show or a popularity contest. It should be an unglamorous but essential civil service job.

The Zapatistas believe that political leaders are at best public servants, installed on a rotating basis at the local level to serve those particular needs of the local and regional community that can’t be fulfilled without collaboration. There are no campaign periods because these jobs are not glorified or lucrative: often times people are elected to positions of authority without them requesting it, and the job never pays a salary. This is not seen as an imposition or burden, because every Zapatista knows they have an obligation to serve their community through their unpaid trabajo colectivo (collective work). This work, however, will never take up more than half of their time, so they can focus on their equally-important trabajo individual (individual work) in order to provide for their families and themselves.

Imagine if our local political leaders worked only part-time as unpaid public servants and still held jobs to provide for their families. Imagine if they saw their role not as deciding for us how we should best live our lives – in consultation, of course, with their corporate masters – but rather helping us organize ourselves better to plan initiatives and confront inevitable problems that arise. The most qualified candidates for these jobs would be identified by the entire community in neighbourhood assemblies and voted into office democratically. I imagine politicians wouldn’t have to spend most of their time campaigning for the next election if the job were framed this way.


2 — To represent; not replace / Representar y no suplantar

There has been an endless amount of digital pixels splattered on screens in our movement about representative democracy and its failings. I do not know for certain whether representative democracy, or direct democracy, or even democracy in any form, is the best system of governance. I do know that any system that serves the people must be based on the consent of the governed, and that requires trust. When we proclaim, “You don’t represent us!” I suspect that some of us mean “You aren’t representing us!” and some of us mean “You can’t represent us!” I believe both groups have something to learn from the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas system of governance is based upon the notion of obedience, as described above, and is grounded in the collective trust of the community that all manner of civil conflicts can be resolved within the community by means of dialogue and honest mediation. This shared trusted is bolstered by the elders and teachers of the pueblos (villages), who remind us that “before the conquistadores arrived we indigenous people knew how to govern ourselves”. Self-governance is in their DNA.

Zapatistas take self-governance extremely seriously, as I quickly learned when I arrived to the jungle. An anecdote:

1/3/14 The Occupied Wall Street Journals I brought have created a bit of a problem for my Guardian – the Zapatista young man who has been put in charge of watching over me during the Escuelita (Freedom School). When I gave a copy to him he accepted it, but was concerned that he shouldn’t be taking a gift from me without consulting with his superiors first. (Almost all of his superiors, all the way up to the Junta de Buen Gobierno – the highest office the Zona – are women.)

Today, after breakfast, a woman with a pad of paper tells him to take the gift and any extra copies to the Junta. We walk into the Junta’s office, which has two large desks and a seating area of benches. It looks strikingly like a NY Courtroom. Almost all women in charge. They take down my name and my organization, three women writing diligently in triplicate. Then, they ask me to come forward and explain myself. It all has a very official feel to it, only slightly betrayed by the quiet, warm grins of the women.

I hand them the 10 copies I have and cautiously leave with my Guardian. He tells me they’ll take a look at them and then distribute them around the different Zonas in order to make sure nobody is left out. I breathe a sigh of relief as I survive my first encounter with the Junta.

The Zapatistas understand that the only alternative to the 500+ years of oppression by Europeans is to form their own Gobierno Autónomo and not have to depend on the colonists for their well-being. They see good governance and representing the people as key to this strategy. As the sign welcoming us into their territory reads:

You are in rebel Zapatista territory. Here the people command, and the government obeys.


Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys


3 — To work from below and not seek to rise / Bajar y no subir

Each Zapatista I spoke to described their trabajo colectivo with an almost-religious dedication. The doctor in the health clinic in my pueblo described meticulously the pharmacy and each of the herbal medications contained in it. When I asked him about the most common ailments, he responded: fever, stomach aches, and diarrhoea. He said he travels by car to nearby pueblos to give talks about sanitation and boiling water to remove bacteria. He is unsalaried, and works 8 days a month at the clinic. His travel costs, and all of the costs of the clinic, are not covered by charging patients for healthcare nor adding a premium to the precio justo (literally “just price”, at-cost price) of medications. The clinic operates transparently from the profits of a .5 peso premium on all the items sold in the nearby Zapatista store on the main road. If I don’t believe him, I can just look at the clinic’s entire accounting, which is done on a chalkboard in the waiting room of the clinic.

There is a dentist as well – say Dentista Zapatista five times fast! – with a state-of-the-art dentist chair in this humble clinic. The dentist did not take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to earn his career, but was selected by the community to participate in a training program with a visiting Swiss general practitioner five years ago. Today, he does regular cleanings, cavities and other dental work for 20 pesos per visit. That’s about $1.50 in U.S. dollars. If you’re not a Zapatista, it’s 30 pesos. (I tried unsuccessfully to explain to the Dentist why it costs about 30,000 pesos to treat a cavity in the USA. If in the future I find myself in need of dental work it might be more economical for me to come to him, airfare and 3-hour ride through the jungle all factored in.)

Each of these professionals is doing their trabajo colectivo (collective work), and sees it less as a career than an obligation to their community. When I asked if the mal gobierno (literally bad government, the term used to refer to the Mexican federal government) had tried to lure them out of their jobs with promises, they acknowledged that this is always happening. Scholarships for young indigenous students, drainage systems, more lucrative jobs, and all manner of alluring offers appear regularly from the mal gobierno, but most Zapatistas turn them down out of a very grounded feeling of commitment to their compañeros/as (loosely ‘comrades’). Their non-Zapatista neighbours, called hermanos/as (brothers/sisters), seem to benefit from this kind of low-intensity economic warfare as the recipients of the many federally-funded schools, roads, hospitals, and other services that otherwise may not have been provided had the Zapatistas not been there vying for their allegiance.

4 — To serve; not self-serve / Servir y no servirse

Everything for everyone. Nothing for ourselves / Para todos todo, para nosotros nada

– Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) slogan

There is a deep culture of mutual aid and support in the Zapatista community, not just in governance but at the local and familial level. A vibrant barter economy and sharing economy exists within the pueblos. If a visitor comes to your home during mealtime, it is customary to invite them to eat as well. Hard work is highly-valued, and those who work their milpa (your parcel of land to grow corn, beans, etc.) diligently are held up as role models to the youth. “The land belongs to those who work it” is a coveted saying here. By upholding personal responsibility to one’s family and one’s pueblo, the Zapatistas ensure that people can take care of themselves and won’t have to rely on the Mexican government for peso-paying jobs or scholarships.

This principle of serving others is not to be construed as self-abdication or some kind of religious asceticism. If anything, it’s the opposite: Zapatista culture revolves around balancing one’s collective and individual work so as to optimize the benefits of both. Tasks that are best done by groups of compañeros/as are designated as trabajo colectivo and the benefits of this work are shared equally amongst the community. There’s a bakery collective, a health collective, a sheep collective, a livestock collective, even music collectives that organize mariachi or traditional music bands. Still, Zapatistas recognize that your collective work should never overrun your life – a lesson many an activist I know can take to heart.

The balaclava masks that compañeros/as wear – they call them pasamontañas, are another symbol of the unity of the Zapatistas, and are worn whenever travelling or in large Zapatista public gatherings like the Escuelita. The masks makes visible one’s deep commitment to the organization, and by hiding the face also serves to engender intrigue and hopefully empathy from would-be supporters. Subcomandante Marcos, one notable and famous Zapatista militant, once told a reporter that his mask was “a mirror” reflecting back to the viewer. To the wearer, the mask also serves to ‘decolonize’ the mind and differentiate the indigenous peoples from their oppressor.

1/13/14 – At lunch my Guardian took off his mask to eat. Now I see his young face, probably my same age. His indigenous eyes looked wise and old behind his mask. Now he appears young and vital.

“That’s my cousin over there,” he says to me as he points to a young woman across the way. She has taken off her mask as well and is strikingly beautiful. I wave and she smiles, pointing to my Guardian and I can see her mouthing “Mi primo.” My cousin.


5 — To convince; not conquer / Convencer y no vencer

One corollary of the concept of consent of the governed is that good governance is not imposed by force but grown bottom-up by debate and convincing people. This idea has nearly been lost in many of our so-called “democratic” communities. Elected, or appointed, officials hold sham “public meetings” where they pretend to listen to parents, students, teachers, workers, farmers affected by chemical spills, or some other natural constituency. Then they pull out their BlackBerry and text their friend at the most powerful nearby corporation to let them know that they’ll be safe to keep profiting off of us peons. It’s no wonder that countless school board meetings keep showing up on YouTube with indignant parents being dragged off by security thugs. They’re not listening, let alone trying to convince us!

The thing is it’s easier to conquer than it is to convince. Convincing takes logical argument, consideration of many viewpoints, discussion, debate, revision, reflection, and a good dose of humility. It is far easier to bypass all of that messy democracy stuff and just steamroll through the will of the people. For Zapatistas, that isn’t even an option.

Each new project or proposal in the community triggers a community assembly, where men and women alike gather to discuss pertinent issues. These don’t have to be tiresome, 4-hour meetings, and are often merged with convivios (social gatherings, literally “living together”) that include delicious food with leftovers going into family pots for later consumption at home. The spirit of Resistencia is what propels these meetings, and as many of learned at Zuccotti Park: consensus is easier to achieve when people are trying to agree.

6 — To construct; not destroy / Construir y no destruir

Anti-exploitation is at the heart of the Zapatista mindset. From the Zapatista hymn:

Nuestro pueblo exige ya / Our people demand now

acabar la explotación / An end to exploitation

nuestra historia dice ya / Our history says now

lucha de liberación / Struggle for liberation!

1/5/13 – My Guardian’s father and I are standing atop a hill overlooking the village I am staying in. Hundreds of acres of fertile land, once owned by a single ranchero who put only his family and friends on it. Now, hundreds of indigenous people – some Zapatistas, others not – live on the land. The elder tells me about an oil company that was preparing a drill rig on the edge of this land in 1994 when the uprising began. After hearing that the Zapatistas had taken over the ranch and the land, the company packed up and left without even a fight. They didn’t want to be anywhere near Zapatistas.

The non-destruction principle applies as much to human relationships as to land, as evidenced by the Zapatista’s unique justice system. It bears a resemblance to restorative justice, the alternative to a retributive (or punitive) justice system. It sees crime as an offence against an individual or community rather than the state, and seeks to resolve conflicts by restoring justice for all parties injured by the act. (This includes the offender, who has unmet needs as well.)

Alcohol and drugs are prohibited in Zapatista communities, and stigmatized as tools of the mal gobierno to keep people down and confused. These stories become mildly believable when one considers the rampant alcoholism in Western society, among all strata of society and also among indigenous Native Americans.

Education is central in Zapatista culture, and autonomous schools exist in each pueblo to teach youngsters about their long history of Resistencia and self-governance. This is a particular point of pride for Zapatistas, who often recount the story of a Zapatista youth who went through autonomous schooling and then left the region for a non-Zapatista school. Her teacher in this new school was amazed at how proficient she was in all subjects, and knew that she must have come from a Zapatista school. One of the biggest threats to the Zapatistas, however, is the luring away of students from the community with promises of scholarships to state schools. This exploits the Zapatista’s highly non-coercive culture, which does not compel people to remain in the organization but rather tries to convince them of its value.


7 — To propose; not impose / Proponer y no imponer

The last, and perhaps most important, lesson to be learned from the Zapatistas is their breath-taking humility. This derives from a culture of debate and self-reflection rather than steamrolling forward without vision or contemplation. To propose a path forward, and not to impose one, is the ideal of the Zapatista. A common phrase heard around the Freedom School:

“Un mundo en que quepan muchos mundos / A world in which many worlds fit”

Is this a populist movement? A separatist movement? Neither? Both?

I asked my host uncle this very question at the dinner table, as I could sense he was both up on current events in the world and politically-inclined. The look in his eyes communicated to me that I was unnecessarily complicating the issue. He reminded me of the Zapatista mantra

Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys

This is both populist – the noble ‘people’ versus the elite few – and separatist. But neither term does it justice, and the 21st-century Zapatistas don’t view themselves in an insulated bubble but rather as part of a global movement for real democracy and climate justice. They don’t aim to take down the Mexican government, but rather to lift up (or perhaps ground down, in the humbling language of the Zapatistas) the people of Mexico to a grander ideal of living in harmony with each other and the land.

All of this reminds me of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, a document which one of its authors described as “a document, like a structure, with space inside for all of us.” It’s a deeply pluralistic movement like ours, bounded only by a commitment to preserving the 500-year tradition of its people against the often-overwhelming onslaught of misinformation and propaganda slung toward it by the destabilizing colonialist forces. It’s a meta-movement, a movement of local movements.

1/6/14 – La Despedida / The Goodbye It’s called a convivio when people get together like this to just spend some time together, eat, talk, pass the mic, you know.

This convivio has atole, sweet corn water, and each family comes up to get their bucket-full. Tamales too, filled with mashed black beans. We sit with our families as the mic is passed around the crowd for departing words, each mini-speech followed by a short cadence from a live mariachi band stationed at the corner of the open-air auditorium.

“I hope we come to see each other again, but if not, we will be together in heaven,” says the elder of the pueblo.

Justin Wedes is an educator and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the founder and co-Principal of the Paul Robeson Freedom School, an independent social justice youth and adult education space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


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

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 ReyesTruthout |

yh NzMJvfl7O2V7TAEFx3aCrr2b9Gg55nh5-jaaOQrw(Photo: Andalusia Knoll)

Speaking in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, on a cold drizzly New Year’s Eve, the Zapatista Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd: “Twenty-five or 30 years ago we were completely deceived, manipulated, subjugated, forgotten, drowned in ignorance and misery.” She was communicating the official words of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on the 20th anniversary of their rebellion, when thousands of indigenous people rose up in arms, took over dozens of major towns and villages in this southern state, and declared “enough is enough, never again will there be a homeland that doesn’t include us.”

Read More:


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 programme 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 Centre 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 centres 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 programmes 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 programme: 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 1970s), 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 [for sterilising equipment] 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-Syndicalist 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 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.

Notes 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.


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 Chua

Michael McCaughan and his “votan”, or guardian, 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.


Notes from the Course “Freedom According to the Zapatistas”

By: Gilberto López y Rivas Escuelita-Roberto-Barrios-Andalucía-13

It was a privilege to attend as a student the first grade course “Freedom according to  the Zapatistas”, which was run in parallel in various territories of the autonomous governments, as well as in the Indigenous Centre of Integral Capacity Building –Unitierra, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, from 12th to 17th August.

Because of its many meanings – political, strategic, programmatic and tactical – in the current tragedy of a country devastated by the government of national treason and its corporate-repressor associates (including organized crime), the course imparted by indigenous peoples from the different ethnicities which make up the autonomous Zapatista governments constitutes an urgent call to the national conscience, to the men and women with dignity and integrity to organize, resist and struggle for a better world where those who govern obey the peoples, based on the seven principles:

1. Serve and don’t self-serve, 2. Represent and don’t supplant, 3. Construct and don’t destroy, 4. Obey and don’t order, 5. Propose and don’t impose, 6. Convince and don’t conquer, 7. Go down and not up,

and based on the maximum ethic that reigns in the EZLN: “Everything for everyone, for us, nothing,” that is, the opposite pole of conduct to that with which the Mexican political class acts.

Throughout this memorable week, accompanied by our Votán, the tutor or “guardian-heart of the people and the land,” and of our textbooks for reading-consultation-discussion, the students entered into the study of the history of autonomous government. The arduous years of clandestinity were remembered, with the arrival of the Forces of National Liberation in the Lacandón Jungle on November 17, 1983; the 10 years of preparation that preceded the declaration of war; the slow but extended process of awareness of the role to play “when so many men and women arise who think about the others, who rebel to demand land and freedom.” They remembered the establishment of 38 autonomous Zapatista rebel municipalities (municipios autónomos rebeldes zapatistas, Marez), once the failure to fulfil the San Andrés Accords had been consummated and, afterwards, the teachers explained the conditions and problems that led to the creation of the five Good Government Juntas on August 8, 2003.

The students learned how government is organized within the community, municipal and regional settings. With linguistic turns of phrase and a great capacity for synthesis and conceptualization, our teachers demonstrated the path of the construction and strengthening of their autonomy by means of the collective practice of men, women, children and elderly, with trials and errors, throwing out what doesn’t work and changing what’s necessary. “If something goes wrong, we make it better. It’s only been 19 years that we have been constructing our autonomy, against 520 years of oppression!”

In the conveyance, participation and thematic content of the course, they emphasized the scope and victories of women in the autonomous governments, in the commissions of education, health, productive projects, in the changes that take place in day-to-day life, domestic work and care of children, as well as in sports and public events. Here also, the women teachers remembered how in clandestinity the integration of women started in the militias, in the ranks of the insurgents, making clear the current gender parity in the three levels of government. The machistas (macho men), who still exist, are now faced with the autonomous authorities, the assemblies and the right of women to report any mistreatment. If the woman holds a position, “the compañero has to take care of the children, make the food, wash the clothes,” my Votán commented to me.

Another important theme of the classes was that of resistance, because the bad government has not left the Zapatistas in peace for one single day. They know well that the media are powerful instruments of propaganda which lie all the time; therefore, they have created their own communications media. They identify the political parties of all signs as instruments of division and manipulation which promote the attacks against the Zapatistas peoples and their governments. But in this conflict, the Zapatistas assume a non-confrontational policy which has led to their advantage: “we have tried not to get upset to avoid violence. By not becoming upset, we have come out winning. With our patience, we have been able to resolve many problems. Our strength is our organization, without attacking those who do us harm.” That is the way the teachers refer to how the “party member brothers” have become so dependent on government aid and programmes that they abandon productive work and sell their land, while the Zapatistas collectively work on the recuperated lands and have their own resources and savings.

Paradoxically, many party members end up asking the Zapatistas for help. They go to their clinics, where they treat them like human beings, and they resort to their governments to impart justice and speedy conflict resolution. “We bring resistance itself. Resistance has given us the strength to construct autonomy. Since 1994, the bad government has wanted to see our face; it sought ways to attack us, but today, we are here! It (the bad government) introduces its policies and we organize ourselves and struggle for everyone.”

In this way, our teachers showed how they resist ideologically, economically, politically, culturally, “which is the way of life.” They demonstrated that neither soldiers nor paramilitaries have impeded the development of their autonomies.” Many more themes were treated, all with depth, a sense of humour and frankness, with pride in all they have achieved, but with modesty. On finishing the course the moment arrived to say goodbye to the teachers and Votáns, with a lump in our throats and many openly crying. For the graduates of the Escuelita, the world will not be the same.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Saturday, August 30, 2013

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

En español:


Photo Essay: Indigenous in Mexico Reweaving Struggles
Written by Clayton Conn and Santiago Navarro F.
Indigenous communities throughout Mexico are once again tightening the weave on their distinct, yet interrelated struggles to challenge and undermine the ever-deepening threats and realities of territorial and cultural dispossession. On December 21, 2012, the end of one cycle of the Maya calendar, the indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) began releasing a series of communiqués. Aside from the sharp rejection of the wedded political and economic systems, the communiqués laid out the Zapatista’s methodology to resistance and constructing autonomy (that celebrates 20 years on Jan. 1, 2014).

As one concrete measure, the EZLN put out a call to reform and re-launch the once defunct and fractured National Indigenous Congress (CNI) as a way to rejuvenate old networks and sow the seeds for new ones. On the weekend of August 17, in Chiapas Mexico, 233 delegates of 137 indigenous nations throughout Mexico and beyond participated in the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar. Named after the Pure’chepa indigenous leader and one of the original founders of the CNI in 1997, Don Juan Chavez Alonso, the seminar opened a space for representatives to discuss the effects of major issues such as resource extraction, dispossession of territory, insecurity and organized crime, as well as wholesale marginalization and discrimination that indigenous communities continue to face.

The week prior to the seminar the EZLN hosted and organized the “escuelita” (little school), scattering some 1,700 participants – activists, intellectuals, farm workers, street vendors, students, etc. – throughout the EZLN’s 5 Caracoles (or municipalities). For a week the “students” home stayed in Zapatista communities taking “non-pedagogical” classes on “Freedom according to the Zapatistas” Lessons were held collectively, while sowing the land in the milpa, preparing tortillas in the kitchen, or chopping wood for the fire. The school was an intimate look into how the EZLN’s indigenous communities fan their flames of resistance through the day-to-day practice of constructing autonomy and building alternative and participatory social, economic and political structures.

EZLN’s Escuelita – reflections by “student” and independent journalist, Santiago Navarro F.

“Students” of the escuelita gathered in the Universidad de la Tierra, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico to be sent to the different Zapatista communities.

Comandante Tacho (left), of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation goes through roll of attendees.

“Champa San Augustin mpio – autonomous freedom of the Maya people. You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here the people govern and the government obeys. Junta of Good Governance ‘Toward Hope’, Jungle Border Zone.”

“For those of us who had the opportunity to listen and meet them in their spaces, their milpas, their fields, amid their coffee harvests or sharing a mug of pozol, we were reduced theoretically and politically. In this escuelita, there was no group of scholars or teachers that knew everything, nor were there use of major categories and concepts to understand reality. Rather there were simple yet strong words shared while sitting at the table with bowls of beans, salsa with lemon, and tortillas. They were words that do not fit within the realm of academic abstractions, but rather represent a reality that many of us have dreamed.”

“It is here where other types of social relationships begin to be rebuilt. These relationships break with individualism and market dependence, and don’t follow the clock’s ticking march of time. These are relationships that exist within a sense of time that is measured by the sun, water and Mother Earth. In the Zapatista Municipality of Champa St. Augustine in the Caracol, La Realidad, community members declared: ‘We don’t need money, since all we buy is cooking oil, salt and soap. Everything else we need, we have in the community. Our form of government is like that of our grandparents, from before.”

“Thus, the desk, the classroom, and classes on freedom and autonomy were had while walking alongside the Votan, with families and the community. They shared their ways on how to solve problems, how to elect their authorities, how one assumes or is tasked with a particular responsibility, the participation of women and the role of children. We were taught a bit about how they work, how they organize their own education or how to maintain good relationships with people who are not Zapatistas. They also consider partying an important part of the struggle, which is for everyone in the entire community, from children, to the elderly, men and women. One member of the autonomous municipality commented: ‘We know when it’s time to go to the milpa and when to party because we are disciplined. Every struggle requires discipline, but dancing is also needed.’”

National Indigenous Congress:

“Seminar Tata Juan Chavez Alonso”

The rejuvenation of the National Indigenous Congress honored the name and life of Don Juan Chavez Alonso, Pure’pecha indigenous leader and pillar of indigenous struggles in Mexico. Chavez died on June 2, 2012 due to an accident in his community of Nurio, Michoacán. Since the 1970’s Chavez was recognized for his deep conviction in protecting indigenous rights and promoting resistance. Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s Chavez accompanied the Zapatista struggle, participating in the San Andres Accords, the EZLN’s 2001 March of the Color of the Earth, and many other events.

233 delegates from over 137 indigenous nations were present at the gathering to share their struggles, victories and strategies. Delegates aired the challenges they face based on the themes of mines, aqueducts, highways, wind projects, hydroelectric dams, gas pipelines, water rights, deforestation, land privatization, community security and police, migration, and the negative impacts of “green economy”.

Yaqui delegates from the deserts of Sonora, Mexico spoke on their high profile struggle to protect water.

A large contingent of Zapatista youth were also present, a display of how the decades old movement is intergenerational and continues to adapt with time.

Members of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation presided over the opening and closing of the congress. This was the first major public gathering of the General Command since the EZLN’s Other Campaign of 2006.

Comandanta Miriam read a final statement:

“As the Zapatista National Liberation Army we make our own all that is happening in every corner of our Mexican homeland, because we all suffer the same problems, dispossessing us of our mother earth, air, water, and natural resources. But the bad neoliberal governments and transnational corporations rule with money, and therefore impose projects of death in our territories. But as original peoples and owners of the natural resources, we have to defend them in any way possible, whatever the consequences, because we live and breathe with our mother earth…”

Comandante Tacho officially closed the congress.


The art of building a new world: Freedom according to the Zapatistas

By Raúl Zibechi

As the media stopped paying attention, many believe that the Zapatista rebellion no longer exists. Quietly, away from the spotlight and cameras, they have deepened their autonomous construction to the point that one can now speak of a different society, governed by rules, codes, and laws distinct from those of the mainstream world.

Ferrari 1. El arte de construir un mundo nuevo. La libertad según los zapatistas

At his six-year old height, Carlos Manuel hugs his father’s waist as if he’ll never let go. He looks up at the ceiling and smiles. Julián, his father, tries to escape. The child gives up, but stays close to his dad. Irma, his eight year-old sister, observes from the kitchen corner where their mother, Esther, is working over a woodstove, flipping the corn tortillas that are still the staple food of rural families. The three other children, including the oldest, 16 year-old Francisco, observe the scene that is repeated like a ritual at every meal.

The kitchen is a place for talking, for chats that spread slowly like the smoke that rises above the zinc rooftop. The words are as frugal and flavorful as the food: beans, corn, coffee, bananas and some vegetables, all planted without chemicals and harvested and processed by hand. Chicken raised out in the open countryside has a different flavor, like all of the food in this Tojolabal community. Upon finishing, they all wash their own plates and spoons, even the father, who at times helps prepare the food. I ask if this is normal in these parts, and they tell me that it is customary in Zapatista communities.  But not in the communities of the “bad government, ” those they call the “PRI brothers” without sarcasm.

The communities that bear a red star over a black background receive food and vouchers from the government. The government builds brick houses with floors for them. Throughout the week there wasn’t a single gesture of aggression between mother, father, and children. Not even a grumpy or reproachful one. It seems the prohibition of alcohol softens human relations. The women are the ones who most enjoy the changes. “I can tell the Zapatistas by the way they carry themselves, especially the women,” journalist Hermann Bellinghausen remarks.

The day the world ends

This new chapter in the Zapatista history began December 21, 2012, a day marked by the media as the end of the world, and for the Maya, the beginning of a new era. Tens of thousands of EZLN support bases amassed in the five Caracoles, or local government seats, in Chiapas, the same ones taken over January 1, 1994. The reappearance of the Zapatistas shocked a large part of Mexican society. Not only had they not disappeared, but they had resurfaced with more force, showing they were able to mobilize a significant amount of people in military formation, without weapons.

In a December 30 communiqué, Subcomandante Marcos assured that “over the years we have gotten stronger, and we have significantly improved our living conditions. Our standard of living is higher than those of indigenous communities who receive handouts from the government and waste them on alcohol and other useless things. ” He adds that unlike what happens in communities linked to the PRI, in Zapatista communities, “women are not sold as merchandise, “and that “indigenous PRI members go to our hospitals, clinics and laboratories because there isn’t any medicine, equipment, doctors or qualified personnel in those run by the government. ”

Some of this could be substantiated by those who attended the Zapatista Little School from August 12-16. Only “fellow travelers” were summoned to the school, which is a profound shift in Zapatista methods of relating to civil society. “From now on, our word will be selective in its destination, and, except on limited occasions, will only be able to be understood by those who have, and who continue to, walk without surrendering to current media trends,” the communiqué reads. CNI1 Subcomandante Marcos adds that “very few will have the privilege” of coming to know the other way of doing politics.

In a series of communiqués titled “Us and Them,” the Zapatistas emphasized the differences between the culture of the political system and Zapatista “culture from below,” asserting that they are not proposing “to build a large organization with a governing center, a centralized command, or a boss, whether individual or group. ” The Zapatistas emphasize that unity of action should respect diversity in ways of doing things. “Any attempt at homogeneity is nothing more than a fascist attempt at domination; in this way it’s concealed under revolutionary, esoteric, religious, or other language. When speaking of ‘unity,’ they don’t tell you that that  ’unity’ is under the command of someone or something–individual or collective.  At the fallacious altar of ‘unity,’ differences are sacrificed and the persistence of all of the small worlds of tyranny and injustice we suffer is hidden.”

To understand this approach, which led the Zapatistas to pioneer “The Little School” (La Escuelita) in August, you have to understand the problems they came across in relations with the electoral Left, and also with people who, in their opinion, “appear when there are soapboxes and disappear when it’s time for the silent work.” The logic of the Little School is the opposite of that political culture. It is not a matter of going to listen to the comandantes or Subcomandante Marcos, but rather, to share everyday life with ordinary people. It’s not a matter of a rational discursive transmission of codified knowledge. It’s something else: experiencing a reality that can only be accessed through the ritual of commitment, or being and sharing.

A new life

“We don’t have difficulties anymore,” says Julian, sitting on a rustic wood stool in his tin roofed house with wooden walls and an earthen floor. He says this casually, opposite someone who has been sleeping on wood panels, barely covered by a light blanket for four days.

Julian joined the clandestine organization in 1989. Marcelino, my guardian, or Votán, joined earlier, in 1987. They speak with delight of the clandestine meetings in remote mountain caves, dozens of Zapatistas arriving by night, while the bosses and their capangas slept. They would walk all night, barely returning at dawn to start the workday. Women would make them tortillas in the dark so that they wouldn’t arouse suspicion.

All things considered, he’s right when he says that the worst is behind them–the hacendado’s whip, humiliation, hunger, violence, and the rape of daughters. On January 1, 1994, the hacendados fled, and the capangas ran behind them. The 8 de Marzo community where I arrived with fourteen other student-outsiders (half of them Mexican, a 75 year old Yankee, one from France, one from Colombia, two Argentines and a Uruguayan) is on land that was one day occupied by Pepe Castellanos. His brother, Absalón, was Lieutenant Colonel, ex-Governor, and the owner of fourteen estates usurped from indigenous people. His abduction in that distant January was the spark that set off the flight of landowners.

The community has more than a thousand hectares of good land; they no longer have to farm the arid, stony hillsides. They grow traditional food as well as fruits and vegetables on the recommendations of the comandancia. Not only did they liberate themselves from the whip–they are better fed and are able to save in a very particular way. Julian harvests six sacks of coffee (some 300 kilos), leaves one for family consumption, and sells the rest. Depending on the price, he is able to buy between two and three cows per harvest. “The cows are the bank, and we sell them if there’s a necessity.” By “necessity” they mean health problems. His oldest son had to undergo medical treatment, and to cover it, he sold a bull.

The community applies the same logic. In communal lands, they carry out collective work in coffee plantations, and buy horses and cows with the harvest. Between the animals of the families and the communal ones, they have some 150 horses and 200 cattle. Days before the students arrived, the water filter broke and to repair it they decided to sell a cow.  They fund the health room, the school, and transportation and lodging-related expenses for the community members in the same way–all in order to perform the duties of the three levels of self-government:  the local community, the autonomous municipalities, and the Good Government Board.  

Women also have community projects. In 8 de Marzo, they had a coffee plantation, with which they bought six cows and a chicken coop with fifty birds. They use the savings from these for transportation and spending for women holding appointments or attending courses. The few goods they don’t produce (salt, sugar, oil, and soap) are purchased by families in the municipal seats, in Zapatista stores installed on properties occupied after the 1994 uprising.

There is no need to go to the market. Their entire economy remains within a circuit they control, self-sufficient, linked to the market, but not depending on it. Commune members tend the stores on a rotating basis. Julian explains that every so often he has to spend a month in the store at Altamirano (located an hour away from his community), which requires him to be away from home. “In that case, the community keeps up your cornfield for fifteen days, and I help out those that have to go the store in the same way.” Esther held a position on the Board in the Morelia caracol a half hour away from the community, and her duties were covered in the same manner. We can call this reciprocity.

Health and education

Every community, however as small as it might be, has a small school and a health post. In 8 de Marzo, there are 48 families, almost all Zapatistas. The assembly elects its authorities, half men and half women, the teachers, and those in charge of health. No one can turn these down, for it is service for the community. The school runs out of the living room of the mansions abandoned by the hacendado. The iron gate he used to pay his peons through still remains. They could barely see the hand that dropped the coins, as the boss’s face remained shrouded in darkness. Early in the morning, the children gather on the basketball court in front of the mansion. They march in military step, in line, guided by a young person of the community not over 25 years old. Zapatista education suffers from a lack of infrastructure; the classrooms are rickety, as are the benches and the rest of the furniture. Teachers do not receive a salary, but are sustained by the community, the same as the health workers. This has enormous advantages for the students: the teachers are members of the community–they speak their language and are their equals–while in state schools (those of the Bad Government), the teachers aren’t indigenous, but mestizo. They don’t speak their language (and even look down on it), they live far from the community, and maintain their distance vertically from the students.

The climate of confidence in the autonomous schools enables more horizontal bonds and facilitates the participation of students and their parents in school management. Children participate in many of the community tasks, including supporting the school and their teachers. There is no gap between school and community here; they are part of the same network of social relations.

If government schools have a hidden curriculum through which they transmit values like individualism, competition, the vertical organization of the education system and the superiority of teachers over students, Zapatista education is the reverse. The curriculum is built collectively, and aims for the students to take ownership of their community’s history to reproduce and sustain it. Since students typically work in teams, and much of school time is spent outside of the classroom in contact with the same elements that configure their daily lives, transformation and critique are permanent features of building collective knowledge.

What in state schools is separation and hierarchy (teacher-student, classroom-playground, knowing-not knowing) is complementary integration in the autonomous schools. Ferrari 3. El arte de construir un mundo nuevo. La libertad según los zapatistas In the small health post, medicines produced by large pharmaceutical companies coexist  with a wide variety of medicinal plants. A very young girl is responsible for processing syrups and ointments from those plants. There is a bonesetter and a midwife, who together comprise the basic health team for all Zapatista communities. In general, they tend to deal with relatively simple situations. When it’s something more complicated, they move the patient to the caracol clinic. If the issue can still not be resolved, they go to the state hospital in Altamirano.

Health and education are divided on the same three levels as the autonomous power of the Zapatistas.  The most advanced clinics, including one with a surgical unit for operating, are usually located in the caracoles.  The caracoles, which house the Good Government Boards, also tend to house the autonomous secondary schools.

The Little School

It takes seven hours to traverse the 100 kilometers that separate San Cristóbal and the Morelia caracol. The caravan (containing thirty cars and trucks) left late and advanced at a tortoise pace. Around 2:00 am, we arrived at the caracol, and a maze of buildings that house the institutions of the autonomous region, made up of three municipalities, twelve regions, and dozens of communities governed by the Good Government Board. There is also a secondary school, a hospital under construction, clinics, amphitheaters, stores, dining halls, a shoe store, and other productive enterprises. Despite the late hour, a long line of men and another of women await us, all wearing their bandanas.

We divide up by gender and, one by one, we get to know our Votán. Marcelino extends his hand and asks me to accompany him. We go straight to the enormous assembly room, and fall asleep on the hard benches. In the morning–coffee, beans, and tortillas. The members of the Board then speak,  explaining how the Little School  will work. In the afternoon, almost evening, we leave for the community. Among the students were Nora Cortinas of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and Hugo Blanco, the Peruvian peasant leader and ex-guerrilla, both nearing eighty.

We arrive at the community around midnight after a half hour of jolts on the back of a small truck. The whole community, organized in lines of masked men, women and children, receives us with fists in the air.  They welcome us, presenting students to their host family. Julián introduces himself, and once everyone has a family, we are off to bed. First surprise. They divided the house with a partition, leaving one room for the guest with its own door, and the seven family members piled up on the other side.

They wake us at first light for breakfast. Then we head off to work clearing the family coffee plantation, machetes in hand, until mealtime. On the second day, we lasso cattle to be vaccinated.  On the third, we clear the communal coffee plantation. So it went each day, work combined with detailed explanations of community life. In the afternoons, we read the four notebooks handed out on Autonomous Government, Autonomous Resistance and the Participation of Women in Autonomous Government, all with stories by indigenous people and the authorities. Students could ask the most varied questions, which does not mean they were always answered. We could live alongside a political culture different than the one we know–when a question was asked, they would look at each other, quietly converse, and finally, one would answer for everyone. It was a wonderful experience of learning by doing, sharing, and savoring the daily lives of people who are building a new world.

Raul Zibechi is international relations editor at the magazine Brecha in Montevideo, adviser to grassroots organizations and writer of the monthly Zibechi Report of the CIP Americas Program

Translation: Paige Patchin

Photos: Pola Ferrari  


“Practice First, Then Theory:” The Zapatista Little School Shares Lessons Learned During 19 Years of Self-Governance

by Kristin Bricker  5th September, 2013

The first night of my homestay during the Zapatista Little School, my guardian and her husband asked if their students had any questions.  My classmate and I both had experience working with the Zapatistas, so we politely limited ourselves to the safe questions that are generally acceptable when visiting rebel territory: questions about livestock, crops, local swimming holes, and anything else that doesn’t touch on sensitive information about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).


My guardian’s husband patiently answered our mundane questions.  Then he said, “Look, we entered into clandestinity in 1983, when the organization was just being formed.  We walked hours at night to organize other towns, always at night so that the plantation owners wouldn’t get suspicious, and we went into the brush to train.  My wife risked her life walking at night to bring bags of tostadas to the camps so that the insurgents would have food to eat during training.  Now, do you have any other questions?” My classmate and I looked at each other, our eyes seeming to say the same thing: “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be at the Zapatista Little School.”  Then our questions began in earnest, and our guardians and their neighbours enthusiastically answered every single one.

Setting the Record Straight

The Zapatistas made the decision to open up their homes to their long-time supporters and teach them about their past, present, errors, victories, and advances for several reasons.  During the Little School, Zapatistas repeatedly said that they hoped their supporters could learn from their experiences. “Self-governance… is possible. If we achieved it with just a few compañeros andcompañeras, why not with thousands or millions?” asked a Zapatista woman from Oventik. “We hope you’ll tell us if our practice, our experience with self-governance is in some way useful for you.” “Many people think that what we’re doing, our form of governance, is a utopia, a dream,” said another Zapatista in Oventik.  “For us Zapatistas, it is a reality because we’ve been doing it… through daily practice over the past 19 years.  And that is why we think that if we join together with millions of Mexicans, we can form our own governments.”

Years ago, a Zapatista told me that they often learn more from their mistakes than from their victories.  In that spirit, the Little School curriculum includes brutally honest discussions about errors the Zapatistas have committed over the years.  For example, the textbooks include a frank discussion about the demise of the Mut Vitz coffee cooperative in 2007.  Even though the cooperative’s sudden, unexplained closure was felt throughout the United States and Europe when roasters suddenly found themselves without a source of Zapatista coffee, the Zapatistas had not explained the reasons for Mut Vitz’s downfall until now. In the Little School textbooks, Roque, a former member of the cooperative and current member of the San Juan de la Libertad Autonomous Municipal Council in Oventik, reveals that mismanagement and corruption ultimately lead to Mut Vitz’s demise.  The cooperative had hired an outside accountant who, for reasons unknown to the cooperative members, did not accurately declare Mut Vitz’s assets to Mexico’s tax agency, which allowed the government to freeze their bank account.  As Mut Vitz underwent an internal audit to determine what money the cooperative had left outside of the frozen account to pay producers who had supplied coffee on credit pending its sale, the Oventik Good Government Council discovered that members of the Mut Vitz board of directors were stealing money from the cooperative.  The Council issued an order to arrest the guilty parties and seized some of their assets to replace the money they had stolen.

The Zapatistas also hoped to use the Little School to set the record straight about the state of their movement.  They read the news, and they told students that they know the corporate media reports that Zapatismo is a dying movement, that the Zapatistas have turned their guns over to the government, that Subcomandante Marcos died of lung cancer or was fired, that the Comandancia (the Zapatista military leadership) meets secretly with the “bad government” and accepts millions of pesos from it, and that the Zapatistas are closet communists, amongst other baseless claims.

escuelita-paco-16Furthermore, the Zapatistas admit that there have been traitors, compañeros who left the organization and collaborated with the government.  As one European activist said at the end of the Little School, “I think they realized that it had gotten to the point where Mexico’s security agencies knew more about how the Zapatistas’ government works than their own civil society supporters did, so they decided to let us in on what they’ve been up to.” The Zapatistas’ civilian government is, after all, not clandestine, and non-Zapatista indigenous people routinely use its clinics, justice system, public transportation permits, and other services that they can’t seem to obtain through the Mexican government.  Moreover, any non-Zapatista—be it the bad government or another indigenous organization—that wants to develop an infrastructure project that passes through Zapatista territory (roads or electricity, for example) must negotiate with the Zapatistas’ “good government” and therefore understands how it is structured.

With the Little School, the Zapatistas have officially and for the record explained exactly how their government works. Perhaps one of the Little School’s most important benefits for the Zapatistas occurred during its preparation.  The Little School’s four textbooks, Autonomous Government part I and II, Women’s Participation in the Autonomous Government, and Autonomous Resistance, as well as the two DVDs that accompany the books, were all created by Zapatistas themselves.  The textbooks are the result of Zapatistas from all five caracoles (Zapatista government centers) traveling to regions other than their own to collect testimonies and interview fellow Zapatistas about how they self-govern.

The Zapatistas’ bottom-up approach to government means that while all of the caracoles operate under the same basic principles and towards the same goals, their day-to-day operations sometimes differ drastically.  For example, every caracol has a Good Government Board, the maximum governing body in the region.  However, each caracol’s Board is structured differently.

Many of the Zapatistas’ questions to their compañeros from other caracoles in the interview portion of the textbooks revolved around their experiences and what has worked and what has not. For example, a Board member from Oventik asked former Board members from Morelia, “Are the twelve members of the [Morelia] Board able to do all of their work? Because in Caracol II [Oventik] there’s 28 of us, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed.”  The Morelia Zapatistas’ response was that they, too, are overwhelmed, and they feel the need to restructure the Board, but they have been unable to come up with a better proposal thus far.

Governing from Below

When the Zapatistas rose up in arms in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, they knew they wanted freedom and autonomy.  “But we didn’t have a guide or a plan to tell us how to do it,” a Zapatista education promoter explained to me.  “For us, it’s practice first, then theory.” While part of the EZLN drove rich landowners off of their plantations in the Chiapan countryside in the pre-dawn hours of New Year’s day, other contingents took seven major cities around the state.  “All that we’ve accomplished was thanks to our weapons that opened up the path that we are walking down today,” explains a Zapatista from Oventik on a Little School DVD. “[Since then] everything that we have achieved, we have achieved without firing a single shot.”

Immediately following the uprising, the Zapatistas implemented autonomous government at the town level.  Each town named its local authorities and formed an assembly.  “But since we were at war, we kept losing local authorities,” explains Lorena, a health promoter from San Pedro de Michoacán in La Realidad.  “There was disorder in the communities.”  As a stopgap measure, the EZLN’s military leadership had to step up and fulfill roles that civilian authorities were unable to carry out during the chaos of the war. The military leadership held consultations with civilian authorities, and together they decided to create autonomous municipalities in order to bring order and civilian governance to the rebel territory.

In December 1994, the Zapatistas inaugurated 38 autonomous municipalities comprised of an undisclosed number of towns.  Each autonomous municipality had its own municipal council named by the towns, allowing for increased coordination between towns and more formal organization of civilian affairs. escuelita-paco-35As solidarity activists began to arrive in Zapatista territory to donate money and labor, the EZLN’s command realized that some municipalities were receiving more support than other, more isolated ones.  “At [the command’s] urging, the municipal councils met and began to hold assemblies to start to see how each municipality was doing, what support each was receiving, what projects were being carried out,” explains Doroteo, a former member of La Realidad’s Good Government Board. In 1997, the Zapatistas formalized the assemblies of municipal councils by creating the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, comprised of representatives from each autonomous municipality.  “With the association of municipalities, tasks and work in health, education, and commerce were overseen,” recalls Doroteo.  “During that time a dry goods warehouse was created… with the idea of [economically] supporting the full-time workers in the [Zapatista] hospital in San José del Río.”

During the creation of the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, the Zapatistas formally redistributed the land they had taken over in the 1994 uprising.  Landless Zapatistas left the communities in which they were born to settle on recuperated land they could finally call their own, fulfilling revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata’s creed, “The land belongs to those who work it.”

In 2003, the Zapatistas inaugurated the third level of their autonomous government, the five Good Government Boards, located in La Realidad, Oventik, La Garrucha, Morelia, and Roberto Barrios.  However, the organization of higher levels of government does not mean that the Zapatistas are moving further away from direct democracy through local assemblies.  On the contrary, all proposals must be approved by town assemblies. Proposals can originate in town assemblies and work their way up the different levels of autonomous government if they affect more than just the town in which they originated.  The proposals pass through the municipal councils, which then brings approved proposals to the Good Government Council, which then runs them by the command, which then sends the proposals back down through the five Good Government Boards, which send them to the municipal councils, which in turn send the proposals to the people at the town level for consultation and implementation. The command can also create its own proposals and send them down through the three levels of civilian government to the town assemblies for consultation and approval.  Therefore, even though the Good Government Boards are the highest level of the autonomous government, they have no authority to create laws.  The Boards are limited to two main roles: to coordinate and promote work in their regions and to enforce and carry out Zapatista laws and mandates that have already been approved by the people.

Because the Zapatistas constructed their government from the bottom up, with people organizing themselves into community assemblies, which in turn organized municipal councils, which in turn organized the five Good Government Boards, every Caracol is different.  All work to implement the Zapatistas’ demands: land, housing, health, education, work, food, justice, democracy, culture, independence, freedom, and peace.

However, the Zapatistas’ progress in implementing those demands varies from Caracol to Caracol.  Some Caracols, such as La Garrucha, have collective economic projects such as stores or cattle to fund political activities at each of the three levels of government; other Caracols like Oventik only have collective economic projects in some towns. Likewise, methods and success in implementing the Zapatistas’ Revolutionary Women’s Law varies.  Morelia, for example, struggles to find ways to promote women’s participation in the higher levels of autonomous government.  However, Morelia is unique amongst the Caracols because its Honour and Justice Commission (the judicial system) has a special plan for dealing with rape that aims to reduce re-victimization and encourage women to report crimes.

Constant Progress 

Many have referred to recent Zapatista mobilizations such as their December 21, 2012, silent march and the creation of the Little School as a Zapatista “resurgence.”  The Little School left one thing very clear: this is not a resurgence, because the Zapatistas never went away.  During the school, students learned about the seemingly endless new cooperatives, the Zapatistas’ experiments in collective governance that are always being fine-tuned, and how donations from supporters were invested in livestock and warehouses so that they would pay dividends that would provide a steady long-term budget for hospitals and clinics. The Little School’s lesson is clear: if the Zapatistas aren’t talking to the press, don’t commit the error of thinking that they are losing steam or have faded away.  They are simply working extremely hard to advance their autonomy, and are too busy to get bogged down in countering the naysayers. After all, their success is measured in their achievements and not their rhetoric.  As one Zapatista man said at the end of a Little School class in Oventik, “We are demonstrating to the bad government that we don’t want it and we don’t need it, and it’s not necessary, for us to provide for ourselves.”

Kristin Bricker is a reporter in Mexico. 

Photos: Santiago Navarro F  



At the Escuelita Zapatista, Students Learn Community Organizing and Civil Resistance as a Way of Life

The Class Was Stopped Twice: The First Time to Emphasize the Importance of Discipline in Their Organization

By Alex Mensing

August 29, 2013

From August 11-17, the Zapatistas brought more than 1,500 people into their communities to attend the Escuelita Zapatista, the Little Zapatista School. According to a February comunicado by the EZLN, in a class entitled Liberty According to the Zapatistas: Autonomous Government I, “our compas from the Zapatista bases of support are going to share the little we have learned about the struggle for freedom, and the [the students] can see what is useful or not for their own struggles.”

Students line up to register to the first “Escuelita Zapatista” atCIDECI. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

The Escuelita was not your typical school, in many ways. The teachers had no degrees, the textbooks did not cite prestigious academic predecessors, and the classrooms had no blackboards. Class was in session 24 hours a day and the question and answer period was open all the time. And, to be sure, the subject matter was out of the ordinary. Some of the lessons imparted at the Escuelita were delivered in the form of textbook readings and presentations by Zapatista authorities. But many of the most important lessons were learned by sharing lodging, meals, work, life and conversations with the Zapatista families and guardians who hosted students in their small, remote communities for several days during the week-long Escuelita.

According to the Zapatistas, the purpose of the Escuelita was to show people from outside their territory how they had organized their struggle for autonomy, in the hopes that students would share the experience with others and use what they learned to organize their own resistance movements. But the school was not so much a how-to as a show-and-tell. “This is what we do. Questions?” As such, observation was key to learning at this school. Some basic principles of their organizing process can be culled from the textbooks and the experience, such as discipline and hard work, face-to-face community outreach, long-term planning, reduction of government dependence through collective work projects, avoiding confrontation with the enemy and emphasizing shared experience to convince unsympathetic neighbors. The structure of their autonomous government also reveals certain key aspects of Zapatista resistance and democracy.

Off to School

In the early morning hours of August 11th, dozens of passenger vans began to arrive at the Indigenous Center of Integrated Training (CIDECI, by its Spanish acronym) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, southern Mexico. The vans had emerged from Zapatista territory, “where the people command and the government obeys.” Each vehicle arrived with one female and one male driver, each one from a different Zapatista community. Some communities are over 10 hours away. They all arrived on time. Later that morning began a second wave of arrivals—the passengers-to-be of the vans that would return to Zapatista territory later that day. They were the invited students for the Escuelita Zapatista, a week-long immersion course on the Zapatista autonomous government. They were from all corners of the earth, they were of all ages, and they were not all on time. The Escuelita Zapatista (“Little Zapatista School”) was announced by the EZLN in early 2013, in one of many declarations since their public resurgence last December. Little by little, they released more information about the school. Students would be hosted by a Zapatista family, so they should not bring their own food or lodging. Nor should they come expecting to learn about the EZLN’s military—the school was to be about their self-governance and autonomy, not their armed resistance. The cost of attendance? Apart from getting yourself to San Cristóbal, 100 pesos for the four textbooks and two DVDs they would provide. Less than 8USD. In their characteristic political style, the first four announcements about the student body described the people who would NOT be at the school: leaders of social movements who had been disappeared, political prisoners, politicians, and those who came before and taught the Zapatistas how to organize and resist. As for those who WOULD be attending: 1,700 people, from five continents, aged 11 months to 90 years (with a heavy concentration in the 20-30 year range), independent or from collectives, academic institutions, and solidarity groups.

A man walks through Rosario Río Blanco in the autonomous municipality of San Pedro Michoacán. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

Students registered at CIDECI and were assigned one of the five Zapatista caracoles, as the autonomous regions are called. Those without invitations were dismissed. As organizers processed a long line of latecomers, live music entertained the crowd and collectives hawked the typical revolutionary goods: t-shirts, posters, notebooks, zines, etc. Meanwhile, the ski-masked Zapatistas waited.

Then came the first lesson in Zapatista organization: quick execution of orders. The departure of the first caravan was announced, destined for La Realidad, the furthest of the caracoles. Ten hours of travel lay ahead, and they wanted to get moving. Within minutes, the students bound for La Realidad were lined up at the entrance, including myself. Minutes later, we and our baggage were aboard… except for those students who had arrived late or were not listening for the announcement. Luckily for them, they were able to catch up quickly.

La Realidad

We were greeted in Caracol I, La Realidad, at 1:00 am by all of the Zapatistas in orderly formation, faces covered by ski masks or red kerchiefs. Tired students trudged through the mud and stood in the drizzling rain as the community sang the Mexican and Zapatista national anthems. Some students stayed out to dance after the greeting, many went to sleep on the concrete floor of the spaces designated for guest lodging. When class began the next day, the Zapatista presenters announced that “through our voice speaks the voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.” All of the teachers, host families and guardians had been declared spokespersons of the EZLN for the duration of the Escuelita, making clear the point that to learn about Zapatista autonomy is to learn from all of Zapatista society. That horizontality, as was emphasized in the first class, is a fundamental part of their autonomous government. Presenters introduced the structure of their government, with which many people are already familiar. The language of “good government” and “bad government” that Zapatistas use is very telling—their government has a sort of parallel structure to a typical government, but the mechanics and substance are different. Many of the characteristics of their autonomous government were explained by the Zapatistas in relation to the behavior of the Mexican government. “We don’t use electoral campaigns,” explained a presenter. “We don’t spend tons of money to choose a leader. The representatives aren’t determined before the people vote.” All laws or projects, community representatives and public servants (teachers, health promoters, etc.) at all levels of government (local, municipal and zone), are chosen directly by people, who approve or disapprove proposals by the government.

Public service is performed out of conscience, and not for payment. Anyone can become a “leader.” In a strict sense, there are no leaders, only community members playing different roles. This ensures that the government, the organization, so to speak, cannot go against the will of the people. During that first class, the importance of history to the Zapatista movement was also made clear. They understand their movement as part of a thread in history of oppression and resistance. One that builds upon itself and does not forget—the whole history is continuously relevant. The important events in their understanding of their history are well known:

-Before the Spaniards arrived, indigenous people had tightly-knit communities and cultural traditions that shaped their relationship to each other and the land they worked. -The Spanish Conquest destroyed their social fabric and made people work as individuals in an exploitative system. -In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo led peasants to take independence from the Spanish crown, but Mexico remained in the hands of the rich. They consider this the first important demonstration of nonconformity. -In 1910, Emiliano Zapata fought in the Revolution for “Land and Liberty,” achieving the ejido system (community-owned farmlands). -During the 20th century, landowners eat away at the advances gained by the ejido system and, together with the corrupt government, oppress indigenous communities. -1983, the EZLN is formed and arrives in Chiapas, beginning to train and organize. -1994, the EZLN’s armed uprising achieves a space for dialogue and autonomy. -2003, the Councils of Good Government are formed to organize Zapatista autonomy and governance.

When they talk about their autonomy in historical context, they consider what they have achieved in the last 19 years to be much greater than what was achieved in the past 500. This history was very present for the speakers, as well as all of the other Zapatistas I spoke with. In their opinion, it gives strength, meaning and context to their organizing efforts. My host family and guardian later on asked me, nonchalantly, about the history and present of civil resistance movements in my own country. When a student asked the Zapatista panel if they had any plans to provide higher education, the answer revealed that their movement has certain objectives and their organization has priorities. According to the representative who answered the question, they want their children to learn to read, to write, to do the accounting required in their government and collective enterprises, to understand the true history of their struggle, and to understand the natural world around them and their traditional relationship to it. So no, they don’t plan to make a university, he said, but “that isn’t the problem. The problem is the #*$%ing system.”

Another presentation was dedicated to the importance of their own communication media. They have two community radios in each of the five territories, a presenter explained, which allow them to distribute their “voice, word and work” of everyone equally. When the government tries to trick them or sends paramilitaries, the presenter pointed out, their cameras and radios allow them to record what is going on and announce what is going on. The government has its own media, they explain, so they had to make their own. Later during the school, in fact, my guardian informed me that the Mexican air force had performed low-lying fly-overs of the some communities the previous night. He had found out through the community radio.

Other key lessons emerged in that first class: freedom is not something you ask for, but something you take for your own; their form of self-governance did not come from a book, but from analysis of their own society’s needs and structure; the work of civil resistance requires that people be conscientious and informed of what they are doing. The class was stopped twice. The first interruption was one of several moments when the Zapatistas emphasized the importance of discipline in their organization, and when the representatives of activist groups around the world were shown to lack this particular skill. A Zapatista authority took the microphone and observed that many students were getting up to walk around, to go to the nearby shop and buy coffee or cookies, or who knows why else. “We don’t want you to be distracted. We remind you that pozol will be served at 1:00. We want you to understand the presentations.” Never completely without humor, the speaker called on Zapatista security to make sure nobody fell asleep.

The second and only other interruption was, of course, the pozol, a corn-based drink that provides the mid-day fuel for most campesinos in Chiapas. A second lesson on Zapatista discipline was given later that afternoon, but as with most of the teachings at the Escuelita, this one was only available through observation. Everyone was instructed to stand in formation while names were announced to join students with their guardians. As the Zapatistas began to announce names, it became clear that many students were not present. Many other students broke formation and began chatting. Every time a Zapatista’s name was announced, they appeared almost immediately. Many of the students’ names went unanswered for several minutes. A glance at the Zapatista guardians, calmly standing in orderly rows, was enough to deduce a tacit lesson. We would move faster and learn more if we practiced discipline.

We took so long we had to spend an extra night there before traveling to our communities. The advantage of staying another night in the caracol headquarters was that, with nothing else to do, we got a taste of Zapatista musical tradition. After all, you can’t keep up a fight for 30 years without a little song and dance. A Zapatista who plays guitar was finally convinced to perform some corridos that told their stories of resistance. Above all, the lyrics revealed in a very poignant way the deepness of the suffering felt by members of the movement. Some bits and pieces:

“He was killed by the damned government, for nothing more than demanding justice” “The assassins were soldiers dressed as campesinos while he was asleep they killed his wife and children” 

Not all is suffering, though.

“Look here now, the time has come And you can’t be a spectator The people’s struggle is without end Until we see the people triumph.”

The sinuous road makes transportation between Rosario Río Blanco and La Realidad a risky endeavour. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

The next day, after three hours in a dump truck and a warm greeting from the Zapatista community of Rosario Río Blanco, the immersion period of the school began. For the next three days, my guardian Jorge, my host “father” Rodolfo and I got up at 4:30 am for breakfast, which Rodolfo’s wife, Rosa, had already made. We went to work in the fields until noon, with a break at nine for pozol, then rested, bathed in the river, and ate lunch. The rest of each day was dedicated to studying: reading the textbooks, talking about their self-governance, or visiting the few “institutional” buildings in the town. That is how the community of Rosario Río Blanco chose to run the Escuelita, though students in other towns had slightly different experiences. Reading, working, eating, and walking around town all yielded different lessons about Zapatista organization.

The Textbooks

The textbooks for the Escuelita Zapatista, according to a February comunicado,

“are a product of meetings that the Zapatista bases of support in all zones have carried out to evaluate their work in the organization. Compañeras and compañeros from the communities in resistance of the 5 caracoles, tzotziles, choles, tzeltales, tojolabales, mames, zoques y mestizos, gathered to ask and answer questions among themselves, exchange experiences (which are different in each zone), and to criticize, self-criticize, and evaluate what they have done so far and what they still have to do. These meetings were coordinated by our compañero Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, and were recorded, transcribed, and edited for the notebooks.” 

One of the lessons that came up repeatedly in the textbooks was the importance of not overworking members of the organization. Since their creation in 2003, nearly all of the Councils of Good Government (the largest level of Zapatista representative bodies) have increased the number of representatives and decreased the amount of time they spend doing the work of governance. As a speaker in the caracol headquarters had mentioned, “we realize that we have families.” Each Zapatista family has to tend their own fields and maintain their own households. It is in addition to that work that representatives perform the task governance.

Textbook contributor Artemio from La Garrucha commented that “before, the work rotations lasted months, two or three months” and the Council representatives had other government positions. “When 24 people were elected just for the Council they organized three rotations of eight compañeros each, and each rotation lasted ten days. That was agreed upon to make the process more continuous, so we wouldn’t forget by the time it was our turn again.” Before that, many representatives failed to complete their work rotations, out of necessities back home.

Even with these changes, some Zapatistas tire of the work. Rosalinda, representative from the caracol Oventik, related in the textbooks that at one point 70 percent of their health and education officials had left their posts, and some had left Zapatismo entirely. Speaking to my guardian and family about this, I learned something interesting about the Zapatistas. “What do you do to keep people from leaving their posts or the organization?” I asked them. They looked at me, somewhat strangely, and my guardian replied “Nothing. In this struggle, everyone is free. If we were to tell them to stay, they would feel obligated, and then we would be just like the bad government. If someone leaves the organization, it is because they have changed their way of thinking. We continue doing the work, and when they want to be a part of it, they can come back.” I must admit that this was initially a surprise to me, coming from the USA where there is an overemphasis on growth. The Zapatistas have learned that an organization’s strength does not come simply from its numbers, but also from the quality and dedication of its members. Organizing and resisting are hard work, and there will always be people who do not want to participate, my hosts said. One of the seven principles of Zapatista autonomous government is “convince, don’t conquer.”

That is not to say that they make no effort to convince their neighbors to join the struggle. Besides leading by example, they practice a strategy that has been used to build many successful social movements: emphasize shared experiences. The Zapatistas always talk to unsympathetic community members (in person and through their community radio, which is listened to by many non-Zapatistas) about their shared indigenous identity and historic and continued oppression. They also practice non-confrontation with the people they consider their brothers and sisters, resisting provocation when the government sows intercommunity conflict. The textbooks also taught the importance of converting external aid into internal independence. In other words, donations by solidarity groups are almost always invested in the establishment of some form of collective work project that will generate its own earnings. Collective work projects are part of the backbone of Zapatista autonomy.

The stage at the “Escuelita Zapatista” in La Realidad has the images of Emiliano Zapata and the differents subcomandantes zapatistas.PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

One textbook included the testimony of Alex from La Garrucha, who described how his region had invested in the purchase of livestock, which are cared for collectively by members from each community on a rotational basis. “The goal of this work,” said Alex, “is that the donations to the Council are not misspent on any old necessity. That’s why we had the idea to form a regional collective so that one day we would have a way to sustain ourselves, and not have to wait for some NGO to give projects to the Council of Good Government.”

A word about gender equality in the Zapatista organization. One of the four textbooks was dedicated to the participation of women in the autonomous governments. To encourage women to participate, the Zapatistas from each community as well as their government representatives host assemblies to discuss the importance of women’s participation. They also have the long-term strategy of providing equal education, because many adult women never had the chance to go to school and do not know how to read, write, or do the math required to maintain financial accountability. The challenges to female participation range from Zapatista men who do not allow their wives or daughters to work outside the home, to women who refuse to take government posts, arguing that they are are incapable or illiterate, or out of worry that their family will not be able to cook, wash, or perform other traditional women’s tasks. Some women leave government posts when they marry.

However, given the depth and generational momentum of traditional culture (something which, in many cases, the Zapatistas seek to maintain), the progress that the Zapatistas have made in gender equality over the last thirty years, while incomplete, is impressive. My guardian was an exemplary Zapatista compañero who cooks, cleans, and encourages his wife to participate, learn and travel. (Not that she needs much encouragement. After meeting her, it is easy to see that she would never have married a machista.)

How to Sharpen a Machete

The first morning of work, I learned to sharpen a machete. Unfortunately, since I learned to sharpen the machete before I learned to wield it, I promptly sliced my finger open.. When my guardian returned with a bandage (after picking the leaves off a plant that helps blood clot), we sat and chatted. This was the first moment when Rodolfo and Jorge began to ask me about myself. When I explained that I travel and write about the US influence in Latin America, they began to comment on US-based transnational companies, neoliberalism, and GMO crops. The Zapatistas see social movements worldwide as relevant to one another, as part of a global capitalist system, and yet they understand each community and each movement as internally independent. When I asked them if they had anything in particular to say to a US citizen, they both said “no.” With prodding, they explained that everyone had to make their own movement. At the same time, they said, the Zapatista struggle is for the whole world. As the Zapatista phrase goes, they fight for “a world of many worlds.”

The next day, when we were taking a break to drink pozol in the corn fields, Rodolfo taught me to say “let’s drink pozol” in his native language, tojolabal. Wah kuti pichi, I repeated. Then he looked at me and asked, “do you know why we drink pozol together?” I could think of many answers to this question, but I had no idea what sort of answer he was anticipating. “We drink pozol together,” Rodolfo said, “because in the Zapatista struggle, we do everything as a collective. Nobody in the organization gets more or less. To drink pozol by yourself in a group is individualist.” This sudden statement by Rodolfo took my understanding of Zapatista equality to another level. Of course, many people talk about equality and sharing and community cooperation. But what might seem to many to be an unnecessary degree of sharing was natural and matter of fact for Rodolfo and Jorge. When the Zapatistas say they practice a value, they mean it. Undoubtedly, the most striking lesson to be taken from observing the Zapatistas at work, is that they work hard. They work very very hard. And that is why they have been able to build and maintain their movement, their resistance, and their independence. Men and women start working long before the sun comes up, and when they finish the work required to support their family, they participate in collective work projects to raise money for their community’s medicine or the transportation costs of their government representatives. Or they work the fields or cook the meals for families whose members are spending their time as health promoters, teachers, or Council members.

The Escuelita taught that the members of a civil resistance movement must not only work hard, but they must understand why they work hard. In thee case of the Zapatistas, if they do not support their own medical system, educational system, or justice system, then they will depend on the Mexican government for those services. And for two hundred years, the Mexican government has failed to provide those services or used them to control and manipulate the population. The average Zapatista understands this, talks about it, and works hard because of it.

A Walk around the Block

One afternoon, my guardian and host father took me on a tour of the Zapatista buildings in their town. Rosario Río Blanco has a local store, a regional store, a school and a health clinic. In the health clinic, the health promoter provided an example of the importance of long-term planning, skill-sharing and patience in the Zapatista organization.

A mural of subcomandante Marcos on a wall at La Realidad. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

Little by little, the Zapatistas have named community members to be trained as health promoters. Initially, external volunteers with medical experience trained Zapatistas, but as they gain experience, the new health promoters are able to train others, and in this manner they have trained enough people to have general practitioners in each community. The Zapatista government held an assembly and determined 47 important factors for improving the health of the population, and now that there are enough practitioners, after years of training, they have begun to address those 47 factors in all Zapatista communities at the same time. But rather than trying to work on all factors at once, they chose ten basic factors to address this year, in 2013. The factors include personal hygiene, the use of dining tables and proper storage of firewood and dishes, etc. By holding local assemblies and by visiting each household to help make sure they are implementing the improvements, the health promoters have already begun to see dramatic reductions in illness. But the organizational development required years of long-term planning and widespread training and skill-sharing.

Another important principle in the development of Zapatista autonomous government, which the health and education promoters embodied, is that you just have to start doing something even when you feel unprepared. In the case nearly all Zapatista government representatives, teachers, and doctors, they began playing their role with little to no experience. But by maintaining a healthy culture of cooperation, reflection, and periodic self-evaluation and critique, groups of individuals have been able to improve their skills in accordance with local circumstances and challenges. Learning from experience, in the end, has helped the Zapatistas to build a system that fits their own needs.


As I said goodbye to my guardian and thanked him, his reaction taught me one last lesson in Zapatista organization. When I acknowledged the difficulty of translating and thanked him for his effort, (he translated between tojolabal and Spanish for me), he replied simply that it was his job, and that everyone in the organization had done their part to make the Escuelita happen. Many students experienced this. The Zapatistas see their movement as a collective effort, and while each individual is responsible for their role, they do not take personal ownership over the successes of the organization. Social movements must share responsibilities and skills in order to achieve their objectives. Accordingly, the Zapatistas shared the credit for their accomplishments.

The audience pays attention during the final presentation announcing the end of the first “Escuelita Zapatista”. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing

The Zapatistas invited people to come to their escuelita so that they would go back to their own communities, their own worlds, and organize social movements to fight against neoliberalism, against oppression, against the commercialization of people and of the earth.

But the escuelita was not structured as a series of workshops, and was not intended to provide a blueprint for revolution. And most of the students I spoke with afterwards didn’t percieve the escuelita that way. In fact, many said that they already knew many of the things that were explicitly taught at the Escuelita.

What the escuelita Zapatista provided its students, above all, was immersion in a world where autonomy isn’t just talked about, it is lived. They saw in action the principles they had read about online and in pamphlets. They tasted the hard work and discipline required to build effective resistance to a powerful system. They spoke face to face with people who had suffered and persevered, looking them in the eye as they told stories of repression that few had ever come anywhere close to experiencing. The real training, the real workshops, the real blueprints, must be built outside Zapatista territory. The students must become the teachers. They must design their own strategies for approaching autonomy, liberty, and justice; strategies that maneuver around the obstacles of their own worlds, which are inevitably quite different from the highlands of Chiapas, but which arrive at the same fundamental values. It remains to be seen, then, what role the Escuelita Zapatista will play as its first class of students make their way back to their places of oppression… er, origin.


Back to school with the Zapatistas


Back to school with the Zapatistas

Last month, in the mountains of Chiapas Mexico, the Zapatistas hosted over 1700 supporters for the inauguration of their escuelita, or little school, to study freedom according to the Zapatistas. Applicants accepted to the escuelita traveled from around the world to join the little school from Canada, South Africa, Germany and Brazil. From August 9-18, the students learned Zapatista curriculum and participated in Zapatista community activities.

The timing of the first escuelita coincides with the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), the 20th tenth anniversary of the Zapatistas uprising and establishment of autonomous territory, and the 10th anniversary of the “Juntas de Buen Gobierno,” or Councils for Good Government, which govern the municipalities in the territory. It is the lessons of organizing for liberty and enacting autonomy that the escuelita aims to teach supporters. According to Subcomandante Marcos, a spokesperson for the Zapatistas, liberty is “to govern and govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.”

Zapatista Woodstock

To celebrate, the escuelita kicked off with a public, substance free, Woodstock inspired, three-day fiesta in autonomous Zapatista territory. Welcoming speeches were delivered in Spanish and the local Indigenous languages of Tzeltal and Tzotzil. Following the Zapatistas’ poetics of resistance, bands kept the crowd dancing until sunrise playing traditional, folk, rock, and hiphop infused music sets. Looking across the outdoor basketball court turned dance floor, Zapatistas wearing symbolic black masks danced to the music with unmasked friends and international supporters, collectively forming a rhythmic sea of bodies. Guests dined on accessibly priced tamales, local varieties of corn, and fried plaintains. When the party-goers tired, sleeping quarters with rustic wood bunkbeds were made available. Even the safe space of the fiesta reflected that Zapatista politics.

Learning liberty

The announcement of the escuelita in a Zapatista communiqué in March invited applications from supporters with “an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.” The 1700 accepted applicants were divided up to study, work, and live in one of the five Zapatista municipal centres, or caracoles: La Realidad, Oventic, Morelia, Roberto Barrios and La Garrucha. The students were provided with a study pack for a recommended donation of 100 pesos (equivalent of $8.50 CAN). The study materials consist of two DVDs and four books titled: Autonomous Government 1 and 2Autonomous Resistance, and The Participation of Women in Autonomous Government.

As an integral component of the five-day immersion curriculum, the students also participated in home stays with Zapatista families preparing meals of beans and tortillas, learning to work in the corn fields, chop wood, and carry water. The host families, teachers and guardians, called *votanes*, assigned to the students overcame language barriers to demonstrate that community and land ground the Zapatistas’ concept of liberty. A student named Camila from Mexico City elaborated on the teaching methods of the Zapatistas: “They explain through anecdotes, which are reflections of practice.” While Mónica from Uruguay observed: “The Zapatistas wanted us to hear them, to see them, to share with them their experiences of struggle.”

Militaries not invited

The realities of an insurgency living in a heavily militarized zone became clearer as some vehicles transporting students to the caracoles were stopped at military checkpoints, which are scattered throughout the state of Chiapas. While other students discovered how Zapatista communities live with the constant threat of harassment and attack from paramilitaries. Halfway into the weeklong escuelita curriculum, on August 15 the Zapatistas issued a communiqué denouncing military planes flying over the five Zapatista caracoles. Comandante Tacho of the EZLN declared: “Maybe, serving their masters, the Mexican soldiers are spying for the US government, or, maybe the North American planes are doing the work of spying directly. Or maybe the soldiers want to see what is taught in the Zapatista communities that they have attacked so much, but have been unable to destroy.”

Autonomous movement building

At the conclusion of the week long escuelita, students had understood that autonomy exists and is possible. “Now, we have a mission: that every one of us, in accordance with our ways and places, continue organizing according to our context,” said Mónica from Uruguay. Andalusia added, “The Zapatistas have never asked us to adopt their way of life. What they do ask of us is to stand with them in their struggle and that ‘each of us struggle where you are and construct your own autonomies where you can.'”

Celebrating the success of locally transporting, feeding, housing, and teaching the 1700 students, the Zapatistas concluded the escuelita with the first Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Traveling Seminar. Indigenous peoples from all over Mexico and around the world gathered at the University of the Earth in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for the inaugurate seminar to share strategies for defending territories against the shortsighted exploitation of corporations and governments.

Generating momentum

The Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar plans to re-convene in different regions of the Americas to create a traveling, grassroots forum for Indigenous communities to share solidarity.

Meanwhile the Zapatistas have announced that they will host two more escuelitas this coming December and January. For those unable to travel to Chiapas, the escuelita workshops will be broadcast globally by a team of media activists and translators to enable more people to go back to school to study freedom with the Zapatistas.


Living the revolution: Chiapas – a new world in our hearts

We have said before that revolution takes many forms and can be large or small scale. Here we present a living example of social revolution in practice. The Zapatistas long ago decided not to negotiate with the state but to create the revolution across whole provinces. Two weeks ago, in Chiapas, the Zapatistas organised a global gathering about how its revolution may be translated to other parts of the world. Below and via the video above we report on the gathering and its inspiration to many worldwide. We are seeing signs of hope – a new world, in our hearts…
It was ten years ago, on January 1, 2003, when — having exhausted the road of dialogue with the government, as well the one of a “big R” Revolution that would overthrow the Mexican state — the Zapatistas of Chiapas decided to “abandon the politics of demands, and with it, all contact with the state. Instead, they chose to concentrate on building their own autonomous, horizontal forms of self-government within their own territories and with their own means. In other words, to ignore the state as an institution and “act as if they had already won”.
Comrade ‘Bruce Lee’ of the CCRI in San Cristobal declared during the commemoration of the 1994 uprising that “we don’t have to ask the government’s permission to be autonomous.” Or, as Major Infantry Insurgent Moses put it in an interview with Gloria Muñoz: “The dialogue with the government didn’t work, but it enriched us, because we met more people and it gave us more ideas. After the “Color of the Earth march” in 2001 we said that with or without a law we were going to build our government the way we wanted.”
It was 10 years ago, on August 9, 2003, when the Zapatistas announced the death of the Aguascalientes and the birth of the Caracoles. Five caracoles were created, each with its own Junta de Buen Gobierno (JBG) established within it, responsible for its own Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipal Zone (MAREZ). The five caracoles are the following: “The Mother of Caracoles — Sea of Dreams” (La Realidad) “The Whirlwind of Our Words” (Morelia — 17 de Noviembre) “Resistance Until the New Dawn” (La Garrucha — Fransisco Gomez) “The Caracol That Speaks for All” (Robero Barrios) “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity” (Oventik) The municipalities and communities in each zone are not only divided on the basis of geographical criteria but in other ways (like ethnic composition and distance from the caracol) as well. Each caracol has its own autonomous health clinic, normally a primary and/or secondary school, and each of them is also involved in one form or another with one of the five Projects of Zapatismo: health, education, agro-ecology, politics, and information technology.
A. The gathering
It was ten years ago when the Zapatistas announced that they don’t need anyone’s permission to be autonomous, and started to work on what for them constitutes liberty and autonomy. And now, ten years later, on August 8, 2013, the Zapatistas invited the world to a three-day fiesta to celebrate the ten years of Zapatista autonomy, in the five caracoles in Chiapas. And not only that. When the fiesta was over, in one of the very few public initiatives they have undertaken since the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona (La Sexta) in June 2005, and since the start of the Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña) in January 2006, the Zapatistas invited the world to an initiative that they call “the Little School of Liberty according to the Zapatistas”.
For this Escuelita, around 1500 activists from all over the world were invited to visit Chiapas and study the Zapatistas’ experiment with autonomy through lived experience. The teachers were the Zapatista communities themselves, which hosted each and every student in their lands, one with every family, to experience what it is like to be member of the Zapatista Bases of Support; in other words, what it’s like to be a Zapatista.
Attending were students from five continents, including: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, the United States of America, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Venezuela, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Slovenia, the Spanish State, France, Greece, Holland, Italy, the Basque Country, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, South Korea, India, Iran, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Canary Islands. The furthest point of origin of students is Sri Lanka, which is more than 17 thousand kilometers from Zapatista territory. Then follows India (more than 15 thousand kilometers away), Australia (more than 13 thousand kilometers away), and new Zealand (more than 11 thousand kilometers away). Some 200 students also attended the Little School through video conference.
Just like the Zapatistas did in the years of the Global Justice Movement, with their Encuentros in their territories, now, in the years of the Real Democracy Movement, they again invited the world to come and see what autonomy and freedom looks and works like for the Zapatistas. “What for?” some may ask. “The Zapatista example is one that cannot be followed everywhere: we don’t live in the jungles of Chiapas to create rebel armies and autonomous communities,” others say. You may have heard these arguments before. Well, the answer is simple: the Zapatistas never projected themselves as the one and only example to be followed. They have constructed a world in which they have realized their own vision of freedom and autonomy, and continue to fight for a world in which other worlds are possible. That’s the world they invite others to experience.
And, on the last day of the Escuelita, the Zapatistas told the students: “the school is over, what are you still doing here? Go back to your lands!” After all, “We didn’t invite you in order to recruit you, train you, un-train you, program you, or, like they say, “reset” you. We have opened a door and invited you to come in and see our house, to see what we have constructed with the help of people all over the world… The outcome of the Escuelita is not militancy, belonging, submission to command, nor fanaticism. What follows the Escuelita is something that you, and only you, can decide… and act upon.”
Note… For those of you who would like to be part of it, the Zapatistas are organizing another course, in December-January 2013-14, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of the original Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994. Those interested to participate in person or through video conference will find information on how to do so on Enlace Zapatista .

B. On democracy

“We did not have a theory first, our theory is the result of our practice. For us, democracy is not about election season and candidates. We start from small to bigger in everything. We don’t have minority people dissatisfied, because their proposal was not voted for. Even our children apply democracy. For us, democracy is not about election season and candidates’ campaigns. It’s not about money, and a person telling us how he/she is going to do it when he/she gets elected. Democracy is at any moment, at every level of our life. Even our children are learning democracy. They don’t even know it’s democracy, but they implement it all the time among them. ‘What are we going to play today? Basketball or Football?’ they ask and take a vote. When their teacher sees them tired, he/she asks: ‘Would you guys take a break?’ and he/she takes a vote, or like we call it: they reach an agreement,” said the Zapatista teachers on the last day of the Freedom School.

Indeed, one of the most interesting topics for the Occupy Wall Street community was left for the last day – their voting system. They do not have minorities dissatisfied because their proposal was not voted for and their voices were not heard. But how do they do that? Do they use direct vote? Do they use consensus? Their answer was – they don’t allow any method/solution that does not work for the community to be permanent. Leaders get rotated. Officers cannot get re-elected in the same position. And all the proposals are just a test until they really work for the community.

C. And now.. image After inviting 1,700 activists from around the world to celebrate autonomy with them, the Zapatistas sent their alumn@s home to continue the struggle. The Zapatistas — the people who covered their faces in order to be seen, who once upon a time came down from the mountains accompanied by the Chiapaneca mist to conquer its cities and hearts — uncovered themselves for a while, and revealed the faces of their young, graduates of the Zapatista autonomous education, who undertook the responsibility to guide their 1.700 visitors in the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas. To introduce them to their families, their mountains, their jungles and rivers. To work the land with them; to share their plate, however poor; to translate for them from Chol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal or Mame into Castilian and vice versa; and to study together: to study how Zapatista autonomy is exercised; not only through the 4 books that the communities have worked very hard to produce, but also — most importantly — through lived experience: through seeing for themselves what Zapatista autonomy feels like.

But let’s take things from the beginning. A few months ago, the Comite Clandestino Revolucionario Indigena of the EZLN, announced its plan to organise the Little School. Thousands responded, but the communities were only ready to host 1.700 visitors, who — accompanied by one guardian@ — would gather in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas from all over the globe to spend a week with a Zapatista family, living in their homes as guests. I don’t know of any other clandestine revolutionary movement that ever did something similar in the past, yet the Zapatistas never ceased to surprise us, and despite the enormous organizational work such an endeavor implied, they made it!

But first, the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas decided to organize a three-day fiesta to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the death of the Aguascalientes and the birth of the Caracoles, hosted at the five Caracoles themselves. “It’s not big what we have achieved, but we had to work hard, to learn how to govern ourselves, not without mistakes, and we are still learning,” the members of the Good Government Juntas announced during the acto civico, which begun with the raising of the two flags — Mexico’s and the EZLN’s — and ended with a huge party, in some cases under the heavy Chiapaneca rain, with the participation of music groups like the Zapatista band Los Originarios de San Andres and others from all over the country and the world, who had come to Chiapas for the event and the Escuelita.

And, of course, there were the students too: the Escuelita alumn@s. Some of them old pals of the EZLN: the Italians, the Basques, the Greeks, the Spaniards. Some of them newer: the Nicaraguans, the South Africans, the Indians, and the Sri Lankans even. And some of them even newer and even younger: the young activists who grew their first revolutionary teeth on the streets and the squares of the Real Democracy Movement – on Sol, Catalunya, Syntagma, Zuccotti Park, Gezi Park, as well as the young Mexicans who had their first #YoSoy132 movement of last year. All those activists, young and old, have dreamt of a better world — a horizontal world without domination and exploitation — and the Zapatistas took up the opportunity to propose what that such a world might look like: by letting their alumn@s live it for a week.

After all, for all these years, the creation and evolution of this better world in Chiapas has been safeguarded by activists from all over Mexico and the world — and now the Zapatista communities took the responsibility to show them the results. Not to provide a “guide” or “blueprint” of what autonomy should be like, but to present what they have come up with, and to prove that a better world is not only possible — it exists here and now.

At the same time, the younger Zapatistas had the opportunity to meet the activists from different parts of the globe, spend time with them, listen to and learn from their struggles, and realize that the radical experiments of their own project of autonomy are keeping hope alive for millions of people they had never had the chance to meet — until now. And now that the Escuelita is over, the Zapatistas send their alumn@s back to their lands, not to copy their system of autonomous self-governance, but “to do what you will decide to, in the way you decide to do it. We cannot and we do not want to impose to you what to do. It is up to you to decide.”

D. Footnote: the Zapatistas show themselves

If you ever wanted to see what dignity is, what resistance is, if you despair of how you can be free in an unfree world, or if you simply want to be inspired, then look no further than the Zapatistas of Mexico… On 21 December, the Zapatistas marched in silence in their thousands in the cities of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Palenque, Comitan, and Altamirano (see video below). It was a moving sight. But this was not just a demonstration. This was an occupation – a permanent occupation.


Daily accounts of the Escuelita by OWS Zapatista

Escuelita Zapatista Day 1, Theme: Zapatista Autonomous Government

Summary of the Monday Session: August 12th, 2013.

A new era is beginning.  Zapatismo as a model for government and for life.

The Zapatista Freedom School online first session was on autonomy. “We know that autonomy is a dream, a utopia for some people, but here it is a reality for us. We are already exercising autonomy, and what we can tell about autonomy is that there is no recipe for it. You should not ask for freedom to the government, you should exercise your freedom. We have seen that it is possible.”

Seven Zapatistas talked to the participants online for two hours. Then, after a 15 minute break, they answered questions. They first talked about the seven principles of their government: 1. To lead by obeying 2. To represent; not to impersonate (impose?) 3. To work from below and not seeking to rise 4. To serve; not to self-serve 5. To persuade; not to conquer 6. To build; not to destroy 7. To propose; not to impose “To us, the government is a body that provides a service to the people, not a way to make money for yourself.”

escuelita5Following these principles, they have a governing board which rules by representing the people, not by conquering their will. They talked about how they organize themselves by obeying the people, listening to the people. “In the capitalist system all the government officers take office to serve themselves and become rich,” they explained. “For us, ruling is about providing a service. We think that life is healthier in an autonomous community. An autonomous community is a community with a future.”

They say that no one will give you freedom; the freedom that the government “gives” you is deceiving, because in the end the government tells you what to do. The real freedom is an autonomous, collective government. The collective government is at every level, every instance. They have three main instances: the Good Government Boards, the Watching Committee and the Reporting Committees. With a rotating positions system, each member of the board serves for three years. “We don’t call them ‘Good Government Boards’ just because they say so,” our Zapatista teachers explained, but because they have a structure to make sure the board represents the community. Each board is monitored by the other committees (the Watching Committee and the Reporting Committee).

For example, regarding the financial resources (which belong to the community), “not only each good governing board informs about the financial status but we also have financial watching committees on all the money and resources that come in and how they are administered, because we don’t want to repeat the experience on how we were before 1994, with bad governments”. So it not just the board saying “we did this and this” but they have another committee supervising them. There is a connection and constant communication between all the committees.

“The other principle is that we do not order or win over the people. We persuade, never defeat the people. If one of our authorities is not complying with our seven principles, the people bring that to his/her attention. He/she has the opportunity to correct it because we are humans and people make mistakes, but if that person does not correct the mistake, then he/she is demoted…that’s how we have conquered our freedom. Conquering freedom is about exercising our autonomy. Our autonomy comes from ourselves.” escuelita4

They also talked about the duties, responsibilities and rights of each government board member. They must listen to the people’s proposals, they should propose necessary proposals and explain to the people why they think a proposal is necessary, and each proposal must be discussed by all the committees and consulting with the people. “The capitalist system does not respect the people’s opinions; they think they don’t know how to think, so they don’t ask. The capitalist government officers think they are above us, so they don’t want to listen. We don’t think like that. Each officer serves the people and when their term is over they go back to their community activities. So for us our principle is about going below, not above the people to rule.”

They explained they have developed this autonomous structure over the years. First was the War of 1810, then the Mexican Revolution in 1910 (Zapata’s), and then the Zapatista Uprising in 1994, in each period learning something better, adding up. When someone asked them if there have been military confrontations lately in response to the paramilitary attacks, they said the way they are defending themselves right now is just “bearing and resisting, because we know that in the future these people will realize that this is the better way of living, – some of them have already realized it, and we are not confronting them with weapons. We don’t respond to the attacks because we know it is not them, but the government strategy so that Indians kill each other. We are not going to do that.”

After a 2-hour talk and a 15-min break, there was a 2-hour session answering the questions that participants made via chat. They also said that another Government Board duty is to take care of all the property “because they must know what natural resources and material goods we have”. All their property, resources and money belong to everybody. There is no such thing as “inheriting” the land in one family as private property. Regarding the “ejidos”, the coop systems in land, they said that “unfortunately these systems are not valid in terms of representing the people because they still require government officers’ permission and authority, which we don’t recognize.

For us, after the Zapatista Army National Liberation, the life of the community changed dramatically. The Good Government Boards must administer the lands that were repossessed by us after the 1994 revolution. The Good Government administers them so that everything we have is for all the people: the land, the water, all the resources.” They provided a detailed explanation on their government structure.

This is the agenda for the next sessions: Tuesday – Women’s Government Wednesday – Resistance (financial resistance against a capitalist system and resistance from paramilitary attacks) Thursday – Justice Friday – Democracy During the Q&A session there were interesting questions, like how they managed to eradicate alcoholism in their communities.


Escuelita Zapatista Day 2, Theme: Women’s Government  

Tuesday August 13th, 2013 escuelita1On the second day of sessions, our six Zapatista teachers from the autonomous communities talked about the Women’s Revolutionary Law which was created since the beginning of their fight (see below the 10 Principles of that Act which was made public since their uprising in 1994).

1. Women, regardless of their race, creed, colour or political affiliation, have a right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in any way that their desire and capacity determine. 2. Women have the right to work and receive a just salary. 3. Women have the right to decide the number of children they have and care for. 4. Women have the right to participate in the matters of the community and to take charge if they are freely and democratically elected. 5. Women and their children have the right to primary attention in their health and nutrition. 6. Women have the right to education. 7. Women have the right to choose their partner and are not obliged to enter into marriage. 8. Women have the right to be free of violence from both relatives and strangers. Rape and attempted rape will be severely punished. 9. Women will be able to occupy positions of leadership in the organization and hold military ranks in the revolutionary armed forces. 10. Women will have all the rights and obligations which the revolutionary laws and regulations give.

“We Zapatista women have conquered freedom through our effort ever since we started our organization” they said. “We conquered freedom to reach equality between male comrades and female comrades. Our organization taught us that we are worth it, that we can participate. We can fill positions in the governments at every level – Local, MAREZ (Autonomous Rebellious Zapatista Municipality), and Good Government Boards, we can be sheriffs, health promoters, health coordinators, education and agro-ecological coordinators and so on. They stressed that it’s been an effort for 19 years against 520 years of bad habits, so it has been hard both for men and women, and they have now benefits that their mothers and grandmothers did not have. “Women in the capitalist system are a commodity, just like animals, like a pig or a horse,” they said. “The female body is used to promote more commodities, but we think we did not come to this earth to be treated like commodities.”

They talked about the challenges both for men and women to accept that women have the same rights. When asked which ones where the main difficulties, they said that one of the hardest parts of the process was facing criticism – from other non-Zapatista women, from men. For men, the hardest part was to learn domestic tasks, to stay at home doing what women do, to overcome the destructive criticism coming from the sexist non-Zapatista society. “If they see a man washing his laundry they criticize you,” they said. “It has been very difficult but we overcame it.” In some areas, it was customary for women to work just like pack animals; they had to carry the firewood all alone. So when men started carrying the firewood other men made fun of them. Men felt ashamed when they carried it and another men saw them carrying their children or washing the laundry, but they got over it.

When talking about the process for women to fill government positions, they said that in the beginning only a few women got those positions. Women had to work hard to encourage each other and trust themselves to do the job, but men had to work too to encourage women and persuade them they could do the job, because there were women who did not think they could do it. Now there are women who cannot read or who don’t speak Spanish and they are part of their government too (usually older women, because younger women get education in their autonomous schools). These women bring their daughters to take notes, write or read and translate, but they can fill government positions. escuelita textbook1

They stressed the fact that whenever a woman’s position needs to be replaced, it is always replaced by another woman, not by a man. When asked how women avoid to work twice or triple workday, they explained that they don’t have to because now the domestic work is distributed equally. “We as men we feel this is an achievement they have conquered,” men said. “To us it is encouraging to see that they are participating, now we are not just one team but two teams. Now we are not alone, Now women are also government and they share knowledge and experience with other women. What we still regret a little is that there are still men who don’t understand that women must get involved, because the fight is not completed if women don’t get involved”.

Women also highlighted that they feel sad for other women in the country because, even though they go to college, they are not free. Their bad government makes fools of them, they cannot participate in their government even though their bad government says they do, and these women are not free. “However, we are certain that if these women join together, organize and mobilize they will conquer their freedom,” Zapatistas said. “Now, in our government, there are not just 10 women like when we started but many more. We are confident that those other women in Mexico will make it if they join together and fight. They probably did not have to face the same problems we did. They probably did not face opposition in their families or from their parents, but if they organize themselves they will make it. “We are certain that if other women start organizing themselves they won’t face the same challenges we did because challenges change depending on where you are, your region and culture, but you can make it.“

Zapatista women are not abused any more. If a woman is mistreated by her man, that is not accepted by our system, and the government board will act. “We have faced challenges but we have made progress. There are still difficulties. For example, some of us must walk for about one hour before taking our bus to go to work as government representatives; even so we do it because we understand that our involvement is important. “Conquering our freedom is not easy but we are certain that it is possible”.

“Talking about these achievements for an hour seems simple but it has taken 19 years, which is not too much in comparison to 520 years of abuse and exploitation . .. our female comrades have made two or three times the effort to be where they are now . . . they have also incorporated our heritage (in natural medicine, midwives etc.) . . . and this is done so that they can leave a legacy to their daughters and granddaughters. This is not a recipe either, we learn by just doing it and advancing.” The next class will be about resistance.


Escuelita Zapatista Day 3, Theme: Government in Resistance

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013 escuelita textbook2“Our Weapons are Our Words, Our Thinking, Our Hearts”: Zapatistas

RESISTANCE, Autonomous Schools, Autonomous Banks

“We are the Guardians of our Mother Land – it is not a commodity, it is our mother.”

On their third day of classes in the Freedom School, Zapatistas “confessed” that they are armed – their weapons are their words, their thoughts and their hearts.

The topic of this session was resistance – how their autonomous communities resist three different, simultaneous and constant kinds of attacks: (1) ideological, (2) economic, and (3) military. One of the most powerful ideological attacks comes from the government media and corporate media. “They say there is no poverty, which we all know is not true, because there are children and families living in dumps. They broadcast TV shows that have nothing to do with us, useless TV shows, like TV Novellas and sports shows”, the Zapatista teachers said. They counter these attacks with talks, popular assemblies, and through their community radio.

The other powerful ideological attack from the Mexican Government comes from building nice public schools where students “don’t get education, because you don’t get education by just building a nice school room, the education is in our minds and hearts”. These buildings are an attack against the Zapatista schools. “The government builds nice buildings so that people make fun of our humble schools and our education promoters, so that people start distrusting our autonomous schools. Unlike the Government, we don’t handle certificates and graduation diplomas, but we teach. Besides, those certificates that the Government school issues to young people are to no avail because there are no jobs anyway, so the students get education just to end up working as restaurant waiters and cooks.”

Zapatista children get prepared so that when they grow up they serve their community, not an employer. The Zapatista teachers pointed out that the quality of education, just as the quality of a government, does not lie on the nice appearance of a building. “We started our government in humble offices, in the beginning just in a humble house of somebody, but the government is in your heart and your mind. When have you seen a bad government officer cleaning his office, cooking his food, washing his laundry? Our government officers do all that, aside from their government job.”

The other way of resistance against the ideological attacks on TV is by practicing the opposite – instead of having their kids watching TV sports and TV shows, they encourage them to get involved in sports and cultural activities.

The last but not the least aggressive attacks against their autonomy are all the Government community programmes specially developed “to make people believe that our autonomy is useless”. These programmes have been implemented especially in Chiapas since the Zapatista uprising in 1994. All these programmes “have nice names,” they said, “like ‘Opportunities which provides school grants so that you study only to find out that there are no jobs, or the ‘Procampo Programme’ which is supposed to help the peasants, but it does not have a plan and a market for campesinos to sell their products. Actually, these campesinos’ programmes are making campesinos sell their lands without even realizing it”.

Also, the government programme for the elderly, named “70 and More” represents another attack against autonomy, by handing just a little money to elderly people and manipulating them. It is just a way to control their minds. They mentioned as well the government school breakfast system, also developed to control kids and families. Finally, the bank credits for peasants are given on the condition of handing over their property titles.

As for the most promoted programme of Mexican President Peña Nieto, named the “National Crusade against Hunger,” the Zapatista Indians call it the “National Crusade of Death”.  People get loans for 3 years, but what are they going to eat after these three years are over?, they wonder. “Who is going to feed them? Who is going to give them a job? What job?” On top of all, these programmes are of transgenic food “because they want to control what we eat”.

Also, the Government is subsidizing houses in suburbs around the cities with cheap materials so that people abandon their communities, migrate to the big cities, and then the Government takes their coop-lands (ejidos). That is how they destroy communities as well. “We do not use the land as a commodity. The land is our mother. We plant on it, we work on it, we live from it. We are not going to sell. It is our mother. That is why we say we are the guardians of our mother land.”


The autonomous Zapatista banks were created mostly to counter the expensive health system. These banks provide credits at the lowest minimum interest to the people in need of expensive healthcare. There is also a new bank created by women, the BANAMAZ. escuelita3Finally, they talked about the constant military and paramilitary attacks that they have been facing for 19 years.

In February1995, President Zedillo sent 60,000 soldiers to the autonomous communities to capture the Zapatista Army leaders. In 1997 the Government trained paramilitary Indian squads, and there was the Acteal massacre. In 1998 the Zapatista Government offices were attacked and set on fire. “What they don’t realize is that the Government is not in an office, but in our heart.” For all these years there have been constant paramilitary and military attacks on their schools, offices, communities and people’s houses. Their leaders get shot or arrested under prefabricated charges.

“We took the decision not to attack, because it is a government strategy to have Indians killing each other,” they explained. “The bad government is trying to divide us. It creates political parties’ supporters and community programmes, starting with the lands where the Zapatista peasants are a minority and the majority is made up of political parties’ supporters. “Political parties’ supporters allege that they want to ‘organize’ our land, but what they really want is to take our land. They never want to ‘organize’ the big farmers’ lands.” The way they resist is by not responding to their provocations, even though they have many comrades in jail. They sometimes need to relocate families and communities, just so that they don’t respond to the provocations.

They also talked about the psychological effects of the attacks with money bribes and slanders. There are families getting bribed so that they destroy their autonomy. And the media is always inventing slanders, about subcomandante Marcos (saying that he is vacationing in Europe or he works for the government) or about conflicts between Zapatista commanders. “The way we resist every new lie is by focusing on our work, because that’s how we show the people it’s a lie. Our resistance is the most powerful weapon we have. The bad government cannot break it, and there is no space for them in our community. We do not beg and do not accept crumbs. We have made very clear what our demands are. We are armed – our weapon being our words, our thinking and our hearts.”



Escuelita Zapatista Day 4, Theme: Autonomous Justice

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Unlike the Capitalist Mexican Justice System, you cannot buy Zapatista Justice. escuelita_mzsWith so many of their comrades having being murdered by people who are never punished, or else get exonerated and released (like the ones who committed the Acteal massacre), Zapatistas know about corruption in the capitalist judicial system. They know about comrades being arrested under false charges, tortured, forced to sign false confession statements, judged by corrupted judges and serving lifetime condemnations for crimes they did not commit. Criminals like the brother of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, accused of drug smuggling and unlawful enrichment (more than $120 million US dollars), has just been exonerated of all his crimes two weeks ago, while rural Zapatista teacher Alberto Patishtán still serves an illegal sentence for crimes he did not commit.

So Zapatistas know about justice being bought. That’s why they developed mechanisms to create a judicial system that is not about money. In the fourth class on Freedom According to Zapatistas, they talked about how their system avoids favouritism and bribes. “We call it ‘the other justice’ because there is a big difference from the official “justice” system. The Zapatista justice is non-negotiable, as opposed to the Mexican justice system from the political parties, where people can pay for justice. It is a judicial system that allows settlements by personal friendship, money, and corruption. You need to have money to pay a lawyer and all the corrupted officers.” “In the non-Zapatista communities, there is no financial treasurer, which means the police authorities are not accountable for the money they get,” they explained.

That does not happen in the autonomous justice system. No payments are allowed. There is accountability and information. While the Mexican judicial system manages to turn every step of the process into a business with side settlements, bribes and unofficial fines, the Zapatista system makes sure that fines and penalties (consisting of several days of work for the community, depending on the felony) compensate the aggrieved person or family. While each community develops their own regulations, they all follow the seven government principles.

The local authorities deal with minor offences. More serious crimes are referred to the municipality or the government board. In every case, it is never about one person deciding on a sentence, but about investigating, communicating, educating, trying different solutions and agreements, and then deciding a penalty. There is no such thing as police arresting people with no warrant, then violating the prisoner’s human rights, and then a judge deciding. Actually, when a crime is committed, the authorities try to talk to the family and friends of the accused person to persuade him/her so that he/her turns himself to the authorities.

In cases of serious crimes (like murder), the agents arrest the person and start an investigation along with a consultation with every officer and every person involved about the possible punishment. However, in the meantime the authorities can facilitate that the family of the murdered person and the family of the murderer get to an understanding.  It takes time, but they facilitate the possibility that the affected people and the offender decide on the punishment. “The families talk to each other. Some families think – what is the purpose of putting in jail the murderer? I won’t have my son back. So they agree on some other punishment. A murderer serves sentence working to provide for his family and the family of the affected people. So the authority is just a mediator”. “It is not easy, that’s one example, it does not always happen that way. Another time, we arrested the person and the person escaped before we could reach an agreement why? Because we don’t have always resources, so we asked the community to let us know if they find the criminal. “We don’t always have a place to detain the criminal, to feed him. So this is how it works for us right now.”

They also talked about punishment for human smugglers who abuse the immigrants from other countries (entering from Guatemala) on their way to the US. They stressed that it is an incipient system lacking many resources, but they have the vision of turning it into a complete rehab system, unlike the official Mexican system where people learn more crime and drug smuggling in jail than outside. “Aside from the fact that our justice is applied by collective agreement, our justice does not discriminate by race, language, genre . . . the prisoner eats exactly the same that the authority eats, if the authority officer eats meat, the prisoner eats meat . . . In the official justice system, prisoners of a higher social class have banquets in jail while the others have bad food.” “Those are the differences between the official justice system and Zapatista judiciary system, and we did not study that anywhere, in any Code, we learned from experience and from the community.” Those were, in short, the main points of today’s class. Tomorrow is the last class of the Zapatista Freedom School, the topic being “democracy”.


Escuelita Zapatista Day 5, Theme: Democracy


Friday August 16th, 2013

LAST DAY: The Other Democracy:

“For us, Democracy is Not about Election Season and Candidates’ Campaigns” ·         “We did not have a theory first, our theory is the result of our practice” ·         For us, democracy is not about election season and candidates. ·         We start from small to bigger in everything. ·         We don’t have minority people dissatisfied because their proposal was not voted for. ·         Even our children apply democracy. escuelita textbook11“For us, democracy is not about election season and candidates’ campaigns. It’s not about money, and a person telling us how he/she is going to do it when he/she gets elected. Democracy is at any moment, at every level of our life.

Even our children are learning democracy. They don’t even know it is democracy, but they implement it all the time among them. ‘What are we going to play today? Basketball or Football?’ they ask and take a vote. When their teacher sees them tired, he/she asks: ‘Would you guys take a break?’ and he/she takes a vote, or like we call it: they reach an agreement,” said the Zapatista teachers on the last day of the Freedom School.

One of the topics for the last day was their voting system. They do not have minorities dissatisfied because their proposal was not voted for and their voices were not heard. But how do they do that? Do they use direct vote? Do they use consensus? Their answer was – they don’t allow any method/solution that does not work for the community to be permanent. Leaders get rotated. Officers cannot get re-elected in the same position. And all the proposals are just a test until they really work for the community.

CONSENSUS – “All the proposals are listened to and taken into consideration. Not all of the proposals can be implemented at the same time. So the people vote (direct vote) for all of them. We implement the proposal that was most voted for (majority).

HOWEVER, if your proposal did not win, that does not mean it is a bad idea or doesn’t work for the community. We implement the majority’s proposal for a while. It’s an idea to try for. It is never a permanent ‘majority vote’ that we must stick with even if it doesn’t work. We make a lot of changes!

If we have a collective work project (be it a construction project, a production project, etc.) and we have been using one proposed idea for a while but it is not working, we switch to the second most voted idea and so we go on.” “Our proposals are not for the benefit of just one group, so we don’t have such things as people getting angry because their group was not included. There are no such things as dissatisfied people because their proposal was not voted by the majority. When they see that the majority’s proposal is working for them, why would they be dissatisfied? When the proposal is not working, the community can always change it and try the other ideas that were on the plate.

Besides, each proposal is analysed before the vote. It is discussed what the pros and cons it has – the benefits and the costs. We say that democracy works at every level because people elect even the duration of a certain collective work – for how long are they going to be working on something? That’s the result of a collective agreement as well.” The only case when authorities are allowed to make an immediate decision, without agreements, are in emergencies (like natural disasters and paramilitary attacks) “because we cannot allow a group of human beings to suffer for a while”. In such cases, the authorities have the power to act, but they must let people know how they took action and why. escuelita6“Each local and municipality has its own agreements as on how to elect their authorities, but they all must follow the seven principles of government.

Authorities do not make campaign to be elected. They don’t post their pictures. They sometimes are not even present when they get elected – they are somewhere else working. You qualify to be elected as an authority or representative if you are a responsible person who doesn’t steal, doesn’t abuse your family, doesn’t drink, etc.” “In the capitalist democracy, you qualify as an authority if you know how to cheat, how to lie, how to steal and how to stand for the system.”

Zapatistas said that all the capitalist state governors have stolen the wealth of the state, including the so called “leftist” former PRD governor Juan Sabines. “We don’t believe in the so-called democratic electoral system because it is all made so that officers serve themselves, become rich and get relocated in another elected officer’s position inside the same system forever. They offer housing, healthcare and education for all, but the housing system they offer is just a tin roof, their healthcare are hospitals with no doctors and nurses inside them, and the education-for-all they are offering is all being privatized. So we don’t believe them.”

“How do we know the official government does not work, and their campaigns and programmes are all lies? Because, after a while, we see demonstrations, barricades and rallies made by the same people who voted for them. These politicians are doing the opposite of our principle of ‘Building instead of Destroying’. They are destroying everything instead of building.” On their last day of classes, Zapatistas thanked the students for their time, and humbly apologized if there was anything they were not able to answer satisfactorily. “If Mother Nature and Life allows, we will see you in another time,” they told us.

These English versions are all by Compañera Malú from OWSZapatista.

Many thanks to her, and to Occupy Wall Street, for making them available.


Freedom According to the Zapatistas: The Launch of the Escuelita

by Andalusia Knoll

“The only thing that you need, objectively, to attend the zapatistas’ little school is Disinclination to talk or to judge, Willingness to listen and watch and a well-disposed heart.” – Comunicado VOTÁN II. The Guardians. Subcomandante Marcos

From August 12-16 the zapatistas opened the doors to their caracoles, communities and hearts to 1630 students enrolled in the first grade of “the escuelita (the little school): freedom according to the zapatistas.”

The escuelita didn’t have formal classrooms with a rigid schedule and teachers imparting their knowledge. Instead it featured immersion based learning, grounded in the daily tasks of constructing autonomy. This included grinding corn, weeding onion crops, collecting firewood, and washing your clothes in the river.

All students in the escuelita were received at the CIDECI, an autonomous indigenous learning center based in San Cristobal de las Casas. From there, each student was assigned to one of the five caracoles: La Realidad, Oventic, Morelia, Roberto Barrios and La Garrucha which are the centers of the “Juntas de Buen Gobierno”, which loosely translates to The Good Government reunions.

Days before, the caracoles celebrated 10 years of their existence with a grand party in each region. The escuelita was a natural extension of this historic anniversary in which the compas (short for compañero) would not only celebrate their creation, but also impart all the advances they have made in their construction of autonomous government.

I was assigned to Roberto Barrios, located in the northern region of Chiapas, close to the historic Mayan ruins of Palenque. Our caravan arrived at 10 p.m. after a long drive through the Chiapan hillsides and jungles. At best we thought a few zapatistas would greet us and that together we would dine with tortillas and beans. Instead we were greeted by hundreds of zapatistas bearing their trademark balaclavas and paliacates (red paisley bandanas), pronouncing “long live the students and teachers of the escuelita.” Together we sang the zapatista anthem and ate delicious stew. For many of the students, myself included, this was the first time that we had the opportunity to stand side by side with the rebel fighters that had so inspired us for close to two decades.

Once we were rested up from our long journey we all gathered together to learn more about the processes of autonomy. Each student was given, for a modest recommended donation of 100 pesos, ) a packet of books and DVDs. The titles were Autonomous Government 1 and 2, Autonomous Resistance and The Participation of Women in Autonomous Government.

As with most projects in zapatista life, they were produced collectively by compiling the stories of members of the communities in the five distinct regions each governed by their own Caracol. The teachers who helped draft the books, introduced us to them explaining how the 3 levels of zapatista government work on the local, municipal, and zone levels.  The government representatives are chosen from all zapatista municipalities and serve three year terms. There is a strong desire for gender equity in the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, yet the zapatistas acknowledged that they are still struggling in that area and that the majority of the representatives are male.

Speaking before the students in Roberto Barrios, one zapatista teacher stated: “The laws of the bad government don’t function here, they can’t enter our communities. Our governments are our dream. We are not thinking of operating with them for a few people but for thousands of people.”

The teachers went on to explain how their system of government even has its own justice and banking system. A story was recounted in which a “pollero”, or human trafficker of Central American migrants who passed through zapatista communities on their journey north, was captured. Once caught, he was not incarcerated; instead he was required to work 6 months with the zapatistas doing carpentry work.  The former migrant trafficker at the end of his 6-month work stint thanked the zapatistas, saying “it wasn’t a punishment, it was a great help because now I have learned a work trade that I can continue to use.”

The zapatista bank was formed so that when a compañero or compañera gets sick they would be able to obtain a loan to pay for medical costs and pay back the money with a very low interest rate, and in the case that they die, the family does not have to pay back the loan.

While these lessons were shared formally from the Caracol stage, the true teachers of the escuelita were the Votánes.  Each student was assigned their own Votán- also known as a guardian- who would accompany through the entire learning process, and serve as a translator from Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal  or Chol, into Spanish.

It is important to note that the majority of Votánes were younger than 25-years-old, meaning that they were born, or at least raised after the ‘94 uprising. The “other world” that we dream of constructing, is the only world they have known. They breathe and live autonomy, with a profound sense of collectivity and the education that has been bestowed on them from the autonomous zapatista schools.

Each student resided with a family in a different zapatista community, accompanied by their Votán. Some communities were what many would call “utopian” with solar power, composting bathrooms, extensive food cooperatives, and well-constructed houses. Some communities were located right off a well paved highway and some were only accessible via a four hour hike through the jungle, crossing rivers, where there was no electricity or running water, besides local creeks. Some communities were exclusively zapatistas and others a mix of zapatistas, “partidistas”, what the zapatistas call those of civil society who believe in the political party system and paramilitaries.

Our community, Comandante Abel, located in the municipality La Dignidad, was accessible via a muddy highway, which allowed us to advance at a maximum 1km an hour. It led us into a lush green valley full of corn dotted hillsides. Entering the community we crossed the beef cooperative where all members of the community tend to the land and take turns carrying for the health of the cows. Beyond the cow field was the elementary school, that serves all the youth of the community teaching basic skills and zapatista concepts of autonomy.

Comandante Abel is an exclusively zapatista community that lives under constant threat of the paramilitary group ironically named Peace and Justice.

While most students stayed with families, the security conditions were less than favourable in this community and us 20 students and Votánes stayed in one building together for safety concerns. Cell phone service doesn’t reach this area, but the Zapatistas have an internal radio system for emergency communication.

In the morning we headed out into the fields. We weeded an onion field, harvested yucca, sugar cane, and corn, and picked mandarin oranges and grapefruits. My Votán Rosario explains to me, “this is how we pass our days, we wake up and head to the fields to look for our daily sustenance, to harvest what our family will eat that day.” Talk about “fresh”, “local”, “seasonal” and “organic”- the zapatistas have it without the special terms. Little is prepared on the firewood stove that wasn’t harvested that day from the fields. Tortillas are made daily which entails harvesting the corn, shucking it, plucking the grains, cooking the grains with cal to start the process of nixtamalization, hand grinding it, and kneading and flattening it by hand.

The following day the students, guardians, and all members of the community heading to the cow fields to sharpen our machetes and hack at the weeds. Cleaning the cow field by hand would have been an impossible task for a few people, but many hands make light work and it is the zapatistas cooperative spirit that allows grand projects like this to be possible.

Fernando, who joined us from a neighboring Zapatista community that operates a honey cooperative said, “We resist the capitalist system with our cooperative projects. We are not asking for government support. These cooperatives are for our liberation and also on an international level for people all across the world.”

It is this collective force and the fruits of their cooperative labor that made the escuelita possible. Furthermore, this school wasn’t funded by some elite foundation, an NGO, the Basque government, or some Italian solidarity group. All of the labor to pull off this enormous endeavor was donated whole-heartedly by the compas who pooled money from their cooperative endeavors to fill the gas of the 100+ transport vehicles and pooled food to fill the stomachs of all the participants.

Living along side the compas for these few days gives us the smallest glimpse into the reality of life as a zapatista. While driving to the community we are stopped at a military checkpoint, which dot the entire state of Chiapas, and while we are only asked basic questions and held for 15 minutes, it gives us a little insight into what its like to be part of an insurgency living in a heavily militarized zone.

After the escuelita the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, released a communique denouncing military plane flyovers, stating that: “Maybe, serving their masters, the Mexican soldiers are spying for the US government, or, maybe the North American planes are doing the work of spying directly. Or maybe the soldiers want to see what is taught in the zapatista communities that they have attacked so much, but have been unable to destroy.”

We had a meeting with the entire community and in their native language Chol explain to us the history of the community. In a communique Subcomandante Marcos explained why we could only understand what the community said via our Votán.

“You will of course be left with the doubt as to whether your question was adequately translated and if the answer you got is the same as that which the teacher gave. But, isn’t that exactly what an indigenous person is subject to with a translator in the government courts of justice?”

The community leaders of Comandante Abel explained how on September 6, 2012 heavily armed paramilitaries arrived at the corn fields and evicted the zapatistas. One woman recounted how they had to take refuge in surrounding hillsides, carrying numerous children in their arms. They explained how this displacement created food insecurity as they no longer could access their crops that they had cultivated for years, and were left with nothing to feed their children.

A beautiful river runs alongside the community, yet the community can’t access it, and instead are forced to wash their clothes, dishes, and corn in a muddy water hole or small creek. While we celebrated our last night in Comandante Abel with a big feast from the cow that was just killed for us from the cooperative, we glanced over to the neighboring hillside where the paramilitaries have erected a bright red flag. Last time they erected one flag, followed by two more,  once the third was erected they attacked the community.

While we were accompanied by our Votánes, families and books, some questions still remained and when we returned to the Caracol, zapatista maestros responded to our inquires. The answers mostly addressed zapatista terms and names and failed to explore deeper issues. While one student commented to me “how you gonna criticize them in their own house,” others wondered“why they didn’t respond to their questions wondering if divorce or separation was actually practiced in communities, or what happens if a zapatista has interest in studying outside of the community.”

The zapatistas did assure us that we could not be zapatistas, nor live in their communities, but perhaps for many of the students that was not their intention. For some, the intense labour we participated in to provide one’s daily sustenance broke some of the romanticisation of life in zapatista communities.

But, the zapatistas have never asked us to adopt their way of life. What they do ask of us is to stand with them in their struggle and that for “each of us struggle where you are and construct your own autonomies where you can.

*********************************************************************** Students leave the Zapatistas’ first school with homework

Marta Molina


A man takes notes during the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar about indigenous struggles, which began directly after the Zapatistas first school on liberty earlier this month. (WNV/Marta Molina)

The 1700 students who travelled from across Mexico and the world to attend the Zapatistas’first school last week are leaving with an important homework assignment: to transfer what they learned to their respective collectives and movements. Some left with blisters on their hands from working in the fields with a machete for the first time. Others told stories of waking before the sun rose to prepare tortillas and beans and pozol (water with corn flour added) for their companions who were going to work in the milpa (cornfields) and to chop and carry wood. As the students prepared these meals, often for the first time, they listened to the sounds of indigenous languages like Tojobal, Chol, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil. As they ate, they shared experiences and began understanding that their sense of resistance came from their own families, from the very beginning of their childhoods.

The focus of the five-day school’s curriculum was liberty according to the Zapatistas, and students grew to understand how the home stays in Zapatista territories were an integral part of the lesson. “They care for Mother Earth because it’s what brings them food,” explained Marcos, a student from Argentina. “In the cities we buy everything in containers, and we don’t even know where it comes from. That [growing one’s own food] is also part of liberty.” Others said that liberty lies in exercising autonomy without government help. It is the hard daily work that allows the Zapatistas to survive without the government and be free, said the students.

Coherence, resistance and responsibility were words they repeated often in describing the Zapatista way of life. “To be free is to be able to decide for themselves what lives they want to have,” said Marcos. “What education they want. How they want to raise their children. How they want to organize. We have to go to the supermarket, go to the school that the system offers us to then reproduce that system — at university as well. We have to take the healthcare system that the system offers us and that we don’t understand,” he said.

During the school, Toño from Brazil stayed in the Rosario de Río Blanco in the CaracolLa Realidad, close to the city of Las Margaritas. “It was the best school I’ve been to in all my life,” he said. Toño and other students learned how a Zapatista family can live peacefully in communities where the majority of people support the PRI, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, and receive money from government projects. “But if one day they lose their government financial support, they won’t know what to do,” said Toño.

Erwin, a student from Cuetzalan, a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla, works to build autonomy for the community where he lives, and he understands how the Zapatistas navigate relationships with their non-Zapatista neighbors. “They have differences with their neighbors, but they don’t treat them as enemies,” he said. “The system is negatively affecting the everyday life of all, partisan, non-partisan. Even the army has indigenous people in it. And that’s what capitalism wants: for brothers to fight each other.”

womenMany felt that learning how the Zapatistas live alongside, and assume a non-confrontational attitude toward, people who don’t think like them was an indispensable lesson. Non-Zapatistas can even come to the autonomous clinic when they are sick, and they will be attended to rather than rejected. “In this same community we greet all people who are not Zapatistas with affection, because we are all affected by the system…The real enemy is the same, the system,” said Erwin.

The fact that oftentimes students did not speak the same language as their host families, teachers and guardians, called votanes, was not necessarily a problem. “We wound up understanding each other,” said 17-year-old Camila, who is a student at theCollege of Sciences and Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The texts provided by the Zapatista school were very different than those she was familiar with from college. “They explain through anecdotes, which are reflections of practice.” Camila said she hopes that a second grade will be added to the escuelita, and that, if one is, she will be allowed to attend. She said she learned over the course of those five days that autonomy exists and is possible.

The lesson that most impacted Uruguayan Mónica Olaso was when she asked her teacher why they were summoned and what the Zapatistas expected of the students. The response, Mónica recounted, was, “You know, Mónica, a bullet is not going to reach Uruguay. But our word will.” She is returning to her country, she said, with the mission to insist on organizing with the patience required to realize the commitments they make with people in her communities. She also feels the responsibility to pass along the lessons both in the books she was given by the Zapatistas and those already within her — her experiences. “The Zapatistas wanted us to hear them, to see them, to share with them their experiences of struggle. Now, we have a mission: that every one of us, in accordance with our ways and places, continue organizing according to our context,” said Mónica from Uruguay.

Toño, who is part of the Passe Livre Movement in Brazil, which helped organize the mass protests against the fare hikes earlier this summer, agreed. “Rural movements, urban movements, no matter which. But we have to learn how to be more autonomous, and therefore we will be more free. We will even live alongside the enemy itself, because if you are autonomous and free, then you can live with them,” he said.  

Alex, a student from San Francisco, Calif., stayed at the Caracol La Realidad with Toño during the school. He says that he learned discipline, listening and the importance of having a long-term strategic vision. In his opinion, these are three things that are missing from social movements in the United States. “There are two main lessons,” he said. “First, is the discipline to accomplish what you say you’re going to do. The second is being self-critic and evaluating our mistakes and victories.” He quoted the Zapatista saying — “we walk slowly because we are going far” — as he explained the longevity of the movement: the Zapatistas have already celebrated 30 years since founding the EZLN, 20 years since establishing the municipalities and starting to build their autonomy, and ten years since the creation of the autonomous governing structure, the Councils of Good Government. This long-term view, Alex said, is lacking in the United States.

In addition to organizing the escuelita, the EZLN also brought together representatives of indigenous peoples from all over Mexico to inaugurate the first Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Traveling Seminar. Held directly after the escuelita at the Centro Indigena de capacitación Integral, The University of the Earth, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, the seminar was a gathering of members of indigenous communities from around the world.

The location for the inaugural seminar was significant because the Zapatistas are organizing — like so many other indigenous communities in resistance — to defend their territories from threats by transnational corporations, narco-trafficking and governments. Some students who attended the escuelita to listen and learn with Zapatista families about the meanings of liberty and autonomy also attended the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar. Indigenous participants shared their victories and organizational missteps as a way to measure of the strength of the indigenous communities that conform the National Indigenous Congress, and those who still do not belong to it. The ongoing seminar will continue to re-convene in different regions of the Americas and is intended to create a traveling forum for indigenous voices, while the Zapatistas have announced that they will hold a second escuelita this coming winter.


The Zapatistas’ First School Opens For Session
Marta Molina
escuelita1Last December, tens of thousands of indigenous Zapatistas mobilized, peacefully and in complete silence, to occupy five municipal government office buildings in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. That same day, which coincided with the end of one cycle on the Maya calendar, Zapatistas released a communiqué, asking, “Did you hear it?” It appears that the answer was yes, because this week thousands of people from around the world are descending on Chiapas for the Zapatistas’ first organizing school, called la escuelita de libertad, which means the little school of liberty.
Originally the group allotted for only 500 students. But so many people wished to enroll that they opened an additional 1,200 slots for the weeklong school, which begins on August 12. Just as the Zapatistas have, for two decades, rejected hierarchical systems, the escuelita will also eschew traditional teaching models. Instead, it will be an open space for the community to learn together.
“There isn’t one teacher,” wrote Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement. “Rather, it is the collective that teaches, that shows, that forms, and in it and through it the person learns, and also teaches.” While attending the escuelita, students will live with a family in a rebel zapatista community and participate both in the school and in the daily life of the community. Participants will cut wood, work in the cornfields and cook and eat with their host families. Subcomandante Marcos acknowledged that attending this type of school requires shifting one’s way of thinking about learning and indigenous communities. As he asked in a communiqué:

Would you attend a school taught by indigenous teachers, whose mother tongue is typified as “dialect”?Could you overcome the temptation to study them as anthropological subjects, psychological subjects, subjects of law or esoterism, or history? Would you overcome the urge to write a report, interview them, tell them your opinion, give them advice, orders? Would you see them, that is to say, would you listen to them?

Leading up to the school, the Zapatistas published a series of seven communiqués entitled “Them and Us.” These essays illustrated the absurdities of “those from above” — those who hold coercive and repressive power — trampling the freedoms of “those from below.” The writings also spoke to the need to learn by observing and listening in order to build an alternative world.

But more than abstractions, the seven publications were a collection of lessons about how everyday life in the Zapatista communities, including how people resolve problems and how they organize themselves into an autonomous networks in which the people rule and the government obeys. The last installation of this manual, published on March 27, also announced the upcoming escuelita and outlined three requirements necessary for any applicant: “an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.”

The Zapatistas are unique not only for challenging power or maintaining their resistance for nearly 20 years. What sets them apart is their ever-evolving definition of liberty, and this topic — liberty according to the Zapatistas — will be the central focus of the school. According to Subcomandante Marcos, liberty is “to govern and govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.” But the definition also shifts from generation to generation, and Marcos explains that new generations must find their own paths through rebellion and dignity.

The experience of living with Zapatistas and other indigenous families will be another central part of the school. Some students will stay with families living in autonomous rebel communities, while others will be with nearby non-Zapatistas, or even anti-Zapatistas families. These hundreds of families have all agreed on a votán, a person who, in the Zapatista movement, represents a guardian and the heart of the community. The votáns will translate for the families and the foreign students, although Marcos acknowledges that translation itself is an imperfect process. “In legal cases, do cultures translate?” he questions. “In that sense, one understands that what they call ‘equality under the law’ is one of the greatest travesties of justice in our world.” El comandante Tacho resuelve las dudas logísticas de los alumnos de la Escuelita. Foto: Moysés Zúñiga Santiago

As for final evaluations, the school won’t, unsurprisingly, have an exam, a thesis, or a multiple-choice test. Rather, as Marcos explained, the school “will make its own reality,” and the results will be “a mirror.”

The school began after three days of festivals in rebel communities to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the councils of good governance, the Zapatistas’ autonomous governing system in which the community makes decisions and the government carries them out. During the celebrations, one could see empty buses and vans parked along the streets to Ocosingo and Palenque, waiting to transport the 1,700 students from San Cristobal de Las Casas into the rebel communities the following morning. Earlier this summer, the Zapatistas announced that future escuelitas in the Zapatista communities will be held this coming winter.



By: Raúl Zibechi las maestras

There will be a before and after the Little Zapatista School; of the recent one and those that will come. It will be a slow, diffuse impact, which will be felt in some years but will frame the life of those below for decades. What we experienced was a non-institutional education, where the community is the educational subject. Face-to-face self-education; learning with the spirit and with the body, as the poet would say. It’s about non-pedagogy inspired in campesino culture: selecting the best seeds, scattering them on fertile ground and watering the earth so that the miracle of germination produces, which is never certain nor can it ever be planned.

The Little Zapatista School, for which more than a thousand students went into autonomous communities, was a different way of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or qualifications. Real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of fellowship (hermanamiento) among a plurality of subjects, though previously with the division between an educator with power and knowledge, and ignorant students in whom knowledge must be inculcated.

Among the many apprenticeships, impossible to sum up in a few lines, I want to emphasize five aspects, perhaps influenced by the conjuncture that we are crossing through in the continent’s south. The first is that the Zapatistas defeated the social counterinsurgency policies, which are the way found by those above for dividing, co-opting and submitting peoples that rebel. Side by side with each Zapatista community are communities related to the bad government with their little cinder-block houses, who receive cash certificates and hardly work the land. Thousands of families succumbed, something that is common everywhere, and accepted gifts from above. But, what iss notable and exceptional is that thousands of others continue forward without accepting anything. I don’t know of another process in all of Latin America that has been able to neutralize the government social policies. This is a major virtue of Zapatismo, attained with militant firmness, political clarity and a never-ending capacity for sacrifice.

This is the first lesson: it is possible to defeat the social policies. The second lesson is autonomy.

Years ago we listened to speeches about autonomy in the more diverse movements, something very valuable for sure. In the autonomous municipalities and in the communities that make up the Caracol of Morelia, I can testify that they constructed an autonomous economy, health, education and power; in other words, an integral autonomy that contains all aspects of life. I don’t have the least doubt that the same thing happens in the other four Caracoles. A couple of words about the economy, or the material life: the families from the communities don’t “touch” the capitalist economy. They hardly border the market. They produce all their own food, including a good dose of proteins. They buy what they do not produce (salt, oil, soap, sugar) in Zapatista stores. They save the family and community surpluses in cattle, based on the sale of coffee. When there is a need, for health or for the struggle, they sell a beast. Autonomy in education and in health are placed in the community’s control. The community elects those who will teach their sons and daughters and those who will care for their health. There is a school in each community, in the place for health midwives, bonesetters and those who specialize in medicinal plants work together. The community sustains them, just like it sustains their authorities. cow

The third lesson is related to collective work.

As a Votán said“Collective work is the motor of the process.” The communities have their own lands thanks to the expropriation from the expropriators, the inescapable first step for creating a new world. Men and women have their own collective jobs and spaces. Collective work is one of the cements of autonomy, whose fruits usually spill into hospitals, clinics, primary and secondary education, in strengthening the municipalities and the good government juntas. Not much that has been constructed would be possible without the collective work, of men, women, boys, girls and the elderly.

The fourth question is the new political culture,

which is rooted in family relations and permeates all of Zapatista “society.” Men collaborate in the domestic work that continues to fall on the women; they take care of their children when the women leave the community for their work as authorities. The father-son relationships are affectionate and respectful, within a general climate of harmony and good humour. I did not observe a single gesture of violence or aggressiveness in the home. The immense majority of the Zapatistas are young or very young, and there are as many women as men. The revolution cannot do it without the very young, and that has no discussion. Those that govern obey, and it is not just a discourse. They appoint the body, which is another of the keys of the new political culture.

The mirror is the fifth point.

The communities are double mirrors: in which we are able to look at ourselves and where we can see them. But not one or the other, but the two simultaneously we see ourselves looking at them. In that coming and going we learn about working together, sleeping and eating under the same roof, in the same conditions, using the same latrines, stepping in the same mud and getting wet in the same rain. It is the first time that a revolutionary movement has carried out an experiment of this kind. Until now the learning among revolutionaries reproduced the intellectual models of academia, with an above and a below stratified, and frozen. That is something else. We learn with skin and senses.

Finally, there is a question of method or of the form of work. The EZLN was born in the countryside with a concentration that represented vertical and violent relations imposed by the plantation owners. They learned to work family by family and in secret, innovating the mode of work of the anti-systemic movements. When the world seems more like a concentration camp every day, their methods can be very useful for those of us who continue engaged in creating a new world.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee Friday, August 23, 2013

En español:


And Yes, Definitely, We Learned

Gustavo Esteva

La Jornada, 19th August, 2013 escuelita2

Last Friday we graduated, those of us who had the privilege of attending the first course of Freedom According to the Zapatistas. Our teachers were the thousands of grassroots supporters, particularly the young men and women, who shared with us their lived experience of winning freedom. Each one of us students had a votán, a guardian, who not only took care of us, but who was also our teaching mentor to resolve our doubts, provide more information and guide us in reading the textbooks and in other activities.

Although we only passed the first level, we learned a lot. We learned about words, for example, new categories created in the struggle for freedom. We now know that some things are in and of themselves; the resistance, for example, did not begin with the Zapatistas, since the grandparents were already in the resistance and had held the experience in their hearts.

We learned that there is a Zapatista way, entirely transparent but difficult to understand or define, because it is so very different. We learned about the [political] party members, an effective generic term for referring to the animals that feign to be different but who all behave the same way: they are confused brothers and sisters who still believe the stories of the bad government and the capitalists. We learned how autonomy is constructed, how it works, how all true resistance is not just to endure, but to build something new, how organization is …

But words were sometimes lacking because we witnessed radical changes that did not come from books, tall tales or ideologies, but from the practice, and they [Zapatistas] are masters of imagination … I believe there is no historical precedent, for example, for the process of orderly and consistent transfers of power by the political-military commanders. The [power] they accumulated when the bases of support told them to organize the [1994] uprising has gradually been dismantled, as the people, the towns, fully embrace the system of decision-making at all levels of autonomy and government.

A way to live and govern themselves was built from below in daily exercise of political power and radical democracy. The commanders remain vigilant, ready to provide support if it is required and to propose initiatives. Certainly, there will be a temptation to translate what is learned by organizing courses, turning the experience into a package of knowledge and skills in order to transfer it to others. Whoever might try would soon discover that doing so would betray the sense, style and intention of the Zapatista schoolhouse.

They didn’t invite us in order to educate us in a doctrine, much less in order to throw us a lifeline. They shared with us a lived experience, whose common substance is only viable in diversity. The challenge does not consist in reducing everything to a formal speech, more or less technical, but in adapting this form of ‘contagion’ to the style of each one. But this takes time, in order to develop the experience and prepare fertile ground in which the flower of autonomy might flourish. 1150857_616068511770775_1531679411_n

On Saturday, still bewildered by the emotions of the week, we saw the arrival of delegates to the National Indigenous Congress for a very otherly encuentro (gathering) that took place over the weekend. It might seem that the wisdom of Tata Juan Chávez flowed over the vast auditorium in which we listened for hours to the voice of the original peoples throughout the country, who generously imparted their dignity, which from now on will be a living and ongoing tribute to Tata.

It was overwhelming to listen to the endless enumeration of plunder and aggression. The names of the protagonists and the subject of the pillage changed from place to place. But it dealt with the same crime: a war against free subsistence waged by the capitalist corporations, at times behind the facade of a cacique or a landowner, but always with the active participation and open complicity of the government and the political parties.

Even more impressive was confirming the common denominator of almost all the interventions: a combative, articulate and vigorous resistance, by putting up this battle with energy and dignity not only to defend their territories, their ways of life and government and their traditions, but of fighting for the very survival of all of us.

In sum, exhausted after this week so intense that at times it seemed endless, burdened by the weight of learning that brings with it the duty to share it, we returned to our places full of hope. We drank our fill at this fountain of inspiration. We also learned that each of us, in our own way, can do what it is our turn to do, in ways as diverse as all our worlds. We can build a world in which everyone will fit. Inertia, paralysis and fear will be unlocked. We’re on the way.

Translation by Jane Brundage


On Anniversary of Autonomy, Zapatistas Welcome Students to “the Little School”
by Laura Carlsen zapatistas-mural-eco-391x260
This weekend the Zapatista Good Government Boards turned ten. Throughout the five Caracols in the state of Chiapas, villages celebrated their continued existence and the gains made over a decade of indigenous autonomy and self-government.
At the same time, hundreds of people are arriving from across the globe to participate in what the Zapatistas call “the little school”. According to organizers, 1,700 people from Mexico and abroad are registered to attend classes in San Cristobal de las Casas and the Zapatista communities. “Classes” that, predictably, do not conform to the usual definition of classes.
As Sub-Comandante Marcos explains, in one of a series of communiqués published before the event, “According to us Zapatistas, the place of teaching-learning, that is, the school, is the collective. The community. And the teachers are those who make up the collective. All of them. So there is no teacher, but rather a collective that teaches, that shows, that trains, and in it and with it the person learns, and at the same time, teaches.” Escuelita-Morelia-Eugénie-6
The participants will stay with indigenous families–part of learning is to go about their daily activities with them, to learn how they live and at the same time build up their autonomous communities. The subjects of the school are: freedom according to the Zapatistas, autonomous government I, autonomous resistance, participation of women in autonomous government and autonomous government II.
In the words of a message from the closely allied Network against Repression: “At a decade (and counting) of daily construction, the Zapatista indigenous communities have forged an example of an “other way” to do politics. Its advances in education, health, women’s participation, caring for the earth, justice, democracy, self-government, just to mention a few, are an example worldwide… The rebel communities teach us that we don’t need bosses and we don’t need to ask permission to be free and take control of our lives in our own hands, eyes, breaths and hearts that are part of a collective.”
Over the past ten years, the Zapatista communities in resistance have faced attacks and hostility from government forces and paramilitaries as part of U.S.-backed counterinsurgency plans. They have suffered divisions and challenges. And yet they have maintained their communities and defended their autonomy.

Democracy is simulated with elections every six years: EZLN

Elio Henríquez, Correspondent La Jornada, Saturday August 17, 2013, p. 13

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas., August 16.


After criticizing the parties, who “spend the people’s money”, support bases of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico stated that “there will only be transformation and real, not simulated, democracy, when the people elect a government that rules by obeying”.

In the fifth and final session of the Escuelita (Little School), in which the course Freedom according to the Zapatistas is offered, the participants noted that “official democracy is imposed”, since “it is not the people who decide”, while “in autonomous democracy the bottom line is that the people give their opinions and suggestions, and if a mistake is made when naming their authorities, they are removed”.

In the videoconference that addressed the issue of Democracy according to the Zapatistas, they said that in the system, democracy is simulated every three to six years with elections, while in autonomous government “we practice and live it every day”. They regretted that “official democracy does not allow the people to discuss, give opinions, analyse and demand the fulfilment of what is promised, because everything is imposed, like the victim’s law” passed by legislators earlier this year, in which “no family members were asked if it was okay and if it would protect them”.

The Pact for Mexico was imposed

One of the rebels reiterated that “everything is imposed, including the Pact for Mexico, they never consulted or asked the people if they agreed to take this course to improve Mexico”. “This is why, concerning those politicians who jump from party to party, we no longer believe them or we ignore them; their democracy is a camouflage, only to deceive the people. To those politicians who jump to see where they can fit in and steal better, we call them puppets, because they only serve their master: capitalism”, he said.

Once the Escuelita is finished, this Saturday the Tata Juan Chavez Seminar will be held in the facilities of the Las Casas Indigenous Training Centre, located in this city.  


For the government, justice is a business: EZLN

The fourth day of the  Zapatista Escuelita

Elio Henríquez, Correspondent

La Jornada, Friday August 16, 2013, p. 17

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas., August 15. escuelita6

In the Zapatista autonomous government “justice is not for sale, and whoever commits a crime pays for it through collective work and repairing the damage”, said rebel support bases on the fourth day of activities in the Escuelita, in which the course freedom according to the Zapatistas is being offered.

In the videoconference on Thursday, which revolved around the theme of justice, they claimed that “in the official government, justice is a business because whoever has money walks free even if he has committed serious crimes”, while the poor “are in prison for invented crimes”.

They said that one of the “thousands” of examples of “unjust” imprisonment in Mexico is that of Alberto Patishtán Gómez, for whom they “fabricated the crimes” of murder, possession of weapons for the exclusive use of the armed forces, and wounding, which have kept him in prison for 13 years; for this reason they demanded his release. “It is not fair, ​​his crime was fabricated and those that have truly committed one are free. Where is (Enrique) Peña Nieto now after all he did in (San Salvador) Atenco? He is President, it is his reward. When they make a total disaster, they get a prize, they move upwards”, they added. “Therefore we say that in this country there is a great injustice and people are living as they are living, because some are taking all the wealth of the people while others are poorer every day”, they said.

The six leaders who have offered videoconferencing since Monday were identified today as Gabriela, Valentina, Filiberto, Marin, Marlene and Doroteo. The classes will conclude on Friday at the five Caracoles and the Indigenous Training Centre Las Casas, located in this city.  



EZLN, in their escuelita, show their achievements after 19 years of autonomy

Ángeles Mariscal, CNN Mexico

escuelita-zapatista-1For five days the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) opened the doors of their communities, where their members live, to about 3,000 citizens who came to know their schools, hospitals, production cooperatives and forms of political organization.

On the Internet from Monday, August 12, until Friday, August 17, the rebel group also showed how they organize themselves to people throughout Mexico, who were able to interact by videochat with representatives of EZLN civil authorities, grouped in Good Government Juntas (JBG). “For some it’s a dream; for us to exercise autonomy is a reality,” were the opening words of the “Escuelita Zapatista por la Libertad” [Little Zapatista School of Freedom].

The Zapatistas displayed everything from their community stores to their health centres. In the region of the Roberto Barrios Good Government Junta in northern Chiapas, the Zapatistas set up a coffee cooperative and a grain storage facility that is administered by authorities of the insurgent group. Dividends are used for “the needs that we have,” they explained. escuelita-zapatista-3-chiapas-ezlnIn this region, they also showed the hospital that provides outpatient services, laboratory, ultrasound, hospitalization, dental and emergency services. In this area “doctors in solidarity” arrive every three months to perform surgeries; there have been 130 so far. Three other clinics in that region operate in the same way.

In other areas, the Zapatistas have set up a dozen clinics and two more hospitals. The insurgent group showed the operation of their projects in agro-ecology, transportation, butchery, craft cooperatives, concrete block-making, making traditional medicines, kitchens, tortilla-makers and community stores, in addition to a footwear and leather products factory. A common denominator is that part of the dividends of the collective work goes to support the families of those who work full-time in education or (Zapatista) government, but who do not receive a salary.

A System of Justice which Re-Educates


In other sessions, the Zapatistas explained the operation of their systems of justice. They explained that the administration of justice is first based on reconciliation, but in serious crimes, sentences decided by Zapatista authorities are administered.

The way we have resolved cases such as the trafficking of migrants, they explained, has been to impose work on those who abuse them. “We are not against the passage of migrants, but what we will not allow is for people to take advantage of this situation to abuse and exploit them,” assured the masked Zapatistas. “We do not resolve through economic sanctions, but the offenders have to pay with their labour. They are also given guidance so that they do not offend again. We demand that they go to school and learn a trade. At the end of their sentence, they are integrated back into society but now they have a better way of life,” they related. In the case of homicides, they said, “while serving their sentence, the murderers have to work to support their own family and also the family of the one killed. If one family eats beans, the other will also eat beans, there no distinction.”

“It would never have been like this without the women” escuelita-zapatista-comandante-tacho

There are thirty Autonomous Zapatista Municipalities and five Juntas of Good Government–in Oventic, La Realidad, Morelia, La Garrucha and Roberto Barrios–where the highest authorities are concentrated, who are elected by assemblies. The indigenous people said that after ten years of exercising autonomy and self-government, they have been able to move forward and resolve their problems “without the support of the bad government,” they said in reference to the constitutional government.

Internally, the Zapatista government is divided into committees. “For example, we have Vigilance and Information Committees. The Vigilance Committee has to monitor that their government is functioning well, that it is operating well and is made up of the inhabitants of the communities,” said a masked Zapatista. They said that members of the Information Committee “are those who must be informed about all the areas worked in by the Good Government Junta. They must be informed. Their function is also to direct our Junta, to help them, to guide them.”

Zapatista women were active in all the events. In the video-conferences, one of them, who spoke on behalf of all, said that “The Juntas of Good Government would never have been without the women. Without the participation of the women, it would not be the people’s struggle. It would be a men’s struggle, but not a struggle of the people. “We were analysing where we are right, and where we are wrong. We saw that for men to struggle alone is an incomplete fight for achieving true change. Even though the women might rise up and fight, it would be incomplete. We are all human beings, and we should all have the same rights, both men and women”, she declared in relation to equality.

The entire General Command of the EZLN, including Commanders Tacho, David, Zebedeo, Bulmaro, Miriam, Hortencia, Esther–who had not been publicly assembled since December 2008–were on hand to receive their guests in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Another group of 700 indigenous EZLN remained at the University of the Earth in this city, in order to participate in video-conferences and at the meeting on August 17 and 18 held with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI).

escuelita-zapatista-4-ezlnThe Zapatista School for Freedom was organized by the insurgent group to raise awareness of the developments that have taken place since 1994, when they announced their existence with a declaration of war on the Mexican government.

According to reports from the EZLN’s political and military leader, Subcomandante Marcos,  in various press statements, this meeting is not to recruit anyone, but to show how the Zapatistas live their daily life and how they have survived over the last nineteen years. Subcomandante Marcos explained that the “little Zapatista school” and the costs involved in transporting and maintaining the “students” were covered by the communities, which provided everything from corn and beans for meals to the cost of gasoline for transportation. As a recovery fee, those who received printed materials paid 100 pesos.

At the end of the parallel meetings which took place in the five regions of the JBG, the Zapatistas said, “This is our sharing with you, we did not have anyone to tell us how to organize ourselves or how to build our autonomy–life taught us”. “We share because we believe that if people elsewhere organize themselves, they can improve their way of life for themselves. We’ll see each other at other times if life and nature permit it,” they added. The third day of the meeting with citizens, the Zapatistas denounced overflights made by the Mexican Army over their communities. State and federal authorities have not made any statement about the EZLN event.

Based on a translation by Jane Brundage


The EZLN Denounces Night-time Military Flyovers of the Caracoles

Comandantes David & Tacho Greet Students Comandantes David & Tacho Greet Students

By: Elio Henriquez

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, August 14, 2013

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) denounced that on Monday and Tuesday of this week “military planes” made night-time flyovers above the five Caracoles in which the course in Freedom According to the Zapatistas is being offered. In a communiqué read this afternoon by Comandante Tacho, the rebel leader stated that: “perhaps it is that serving their master, the Mexican military personnel are spying for the gringo government or directly North American planes are doing espionage work. Or perhaps it’s that the soldiers want to see what is being taught in the Zapatista communities that they have attacked so much without being able to destroy.” “We say to the (Enrique) Peña Nieto government that if his soldiers want to learn in the Escuelita that they may ask to be invited, (although) however we are not going to invite them, but that way they will have a pretext that they are spying because we did not invite them.”

Tacho read the brief communiqué at approximately 1:00 PM, in the auditorium of theCentro Indígena de Capacitación (Cideci) Las Casas, with headquarters in this city, before some 150 students who are attending the Escuelita, with their respective Votanes (guardians). Classes will end on Friday the 16th in Cideci and in the five Caracoles located in La Realidad, Las Margaritas municipality; La Garrucha, Ocosingo; Roberto Barrios, Palenque; Morelia, Altamirano and Oventic, San Andrés.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada Thursday, August 15, 2013

En español:

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee


Communiqué from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee – General Command of the EZLN, announcing fly-overs by military airplanes in the zones of the five caracoles. [Audio Transcription]

AUGUST 14, 2013

Compañeros, Compañeras, Good day. We always make our appearance in urgent situations.  Allow me to read this communiqué that we are issuing at this time.

It says: August 14th, 2013, mid-morning. Communiqué from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, Mexico.  To the people of Mexico: To the people of the World: To the Sixth: To the students of the Zapatista Little School across the world: Compañeros and Compañeras:

111 ricardo mendoza vanguardia

We are notifying you that on August 12th and 13th 2013, during the night, military planes were doing flyovers over the zones of the five Zapatista caracoles, the places where they are teaching the course “Freedom According to the Zapatistas.”

Maybe, serving their masters, the Mexican soldiers are spying for the US government, or, the North American planes are doing the work of spying directly. Or maybe the soldiers want to see what is taught in the Zapatista communities that they have attacked so much, but have been unable to destroy. We say to the government of Peña Nieto, that if your soldiers want to learn in the little school, they should ask to be invited. We won’t, however, invite them. But then they can use the pretext that they are spying because we didn’t invite them. That’s all.

Democracy, Liberty, Justice From San Cristóbal de las Casas Chiapas, Mexico

For the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, Mexico.

Comandante Tacho México, August 2013

Thank you compañeros. That’s all. Okay…well, continue studying compañeros, you’ve heard the communiqué.

That’s all, Thank you.


The participation of women in the JBG is emphasised

Second day of the Escuelita Zapatista

Elio Henríquez, Correspondent

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, August 13, 2013

escuelita va

On the second day of activities in the Escuelita, support bases of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) highlighted the participation of women in the local government of the municipalities and good government juntas (JBG), through which they exercise their autonomy. 19 years after the armed uprising of 1994, “women are now governing in all areas”, said an indigenous woman who, along with two compañeras and three men, participated on Tuesday afternoon in a videoconference transmitted through the Internet. She added that “without our participation there would not be a government of the people, but of men; our participation in the three levels of self-government is an achievement, a very great conquest, thanks to the organization of the EZLN, which made ​​us open our eyes, and women from clandestinity were insurgents and milicianas”.

She said that “our achievement is something which had not happened in 520 years, despite struggles such as the Revolution of 1910, in which many women participated, but they were not taken into account”. Another Zapatista, also with her face covered with a balaclava, said that “before we did not have the freedom to participate because the bad system gave us the idea that women are not worth anything, but the EZLN have taught us we have that freedom and that right, and we have to convince men not to follow the bad example”. IMG_0106

On the theme of women and autonomous government, one participant said: “Now we govern together with our Zapatista compañeros in collective work, in the autonomous municipalities and in the JBGs of Oventic, La Garrucha, La Realidad, Morelia and Roberto Barrios”.

The classes in freedom and autonomy, which will end on August 16th, continued today behind closed doors in the Indigenous Training Centre (CIDECI) Las Casas, based in this city and in the five caracoles.


Autonomous government, the first class in the Zapatista Escuelita

Tacho and Davidvotans of González Casanova and Adolfo Gilly

**Propose, do not impose, represent, do not supplant, are the rules of the JBG Foto

Comandantes David and Ismael of the EZLN, during the first day of classes in the Escuelita Zapatista, which is taking place in CIDECI in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Photo: Victor Camacho

Elio Henríquez, Correspondent

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, August 12.

Attendees at the Zapatista Escuelita who are assigned to the Indigenous Training Centre (CIDECI) Las Casas, located in this city, started classes with the assignation of their respective votán – a word which, according to the Zapatistas, means the method, the plan of study, the teacher – who will teach them about the first subject, which is autonomous government, part one.

Among the students who began activities on this site are the former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Pablo González Casanova, and the writer and historian Adolfo Gilly, who are assigned as votans the comandantes Tacho and David. Other participants are the researcher Neil Harvey, the writer Gustavo Esteva, the academic and researcher Sylvia Marcos, the rocker Francisco Barrios Mastuerzo, and Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, formerly of the Concord and Pacification Commission (Cocopa).

During the first day, the autonomous authorities stated in a videoconference that the Zapatistas are building autonomy “because we do not want what has been happening for more than 520 years to happen again”. They explained that in the headquarters of the five Good Government Juntas (JBGs), for those who are interested in visiting, they have to “keep track of where they come from and who they are”; “that is the work of the vigilance committee, because we cannot allow the bad government to come in”.

An indigenous masked woman and two men explained during the videoconference that there are also internal committees in the JBGs “to monitor their government. We are not saying that in the JBGs we yet know how to govern well, sometimes we are building, so we must be vigilant and not fall into what has already happened in other years; what we are doing is so the people will be prepared not to fall into what happened for many years, this is why we say that the people are watching their government”.

One of the indigenous said that the autonomous authorities “must give clear accounts of how and where money is spent”, which is monitored by the respective committees. ”Before, they were accountable but there was no one to endorse or approve, now we are organising more and more”. “In the preparation of accounts there is a vigilance commission, which when the JBG takes money out checks that it is as reported and does the same when money comes in. The commission has to check the inputs and outputs, it is a way of controlling our few resources so that the people have no doubts”.

In addition, he said, “it is the duty of the authorities to monitor whether all the areas of work of the autonomous municipalities are functioning well: Education, health and collective work”. He added that “it is also a duty of the authorities to watch over the recuperated lands, because they belong to the people and were reclaimed in 1994, and also to balance the resources for projects for those who come the JBG to take to the municipalities”. The indigenous Zapatista noted that laws and regulations implemented in their areas of influence are under the seven principles, including “propose, do not impose, go below and not above, represent and do not supplant. This is what we take care of within the five JBGs which the people have, not to give up these principles, even though each zone can also have its own rules”, according to their own conditions. 111 ricardo mendoza vanguardia david

According to one of the participants on the course, which began on Monday and will end on the 16th, after the first break at midday each votán took charge of their respective student at CIDECI. For the Zapatistas each votán is a “guardian and heart of the people, guardian and heart of the earth, or guardian and heart of the world”. Subcomandante Marcos said in a communique that “over several months, tens of thousands of Zapatista families have been preparing to receive those who come to Escuelita. Along with them, thousands of indigenous Zapatista women and men have become a votán, at the same time individual and collective”. The votán is, he said, “the vertebral column of the Escuelita. It is the method, the timetable, the teacher, the school, the classroom, the blackboard, the notebook, the pen, the desk with the apple, the recreation, the exam, the graduation, the cap and gown”.

The last contingent of people invited to the Escuelita departed this morning to the Caracoles located in Morelia, Altamirano municipality, and La Garrucha, Ocosingo; they were seen on their way by TachoDavid and Zebedeo, among other comandantes.


Almost 1,700 Students depart for the Caracoles to attend the Little Zapatista School

** They come from many states and countries; González Casanova is among the special guests Foto

The former rector of UNAM, Pablo González Casanova, on his arrival at Cideci in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, where the commanders organise those attending the EZLN’s Little School (Escuelita), to transport them to the autonomous communities.

Photo: Víctor Camacho

By: Elio Henríquez, Correspondent

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, August 11, 2013

The almost 1700 students who will attend classes in the Little Zapatista School (Escuelita zapatista) starting this Monday departed for the fiveCaracoles on Sunday afternoon, coordinated by the General Command of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional,EZLN). More than a dozen commanders, among them David, Tacho, Zebedeo, Felipe, Ismael, Bulmaro, Miriam, Susana, Hortencia and Yolanda, coordinated the departure from the Indigenous Capacity-Building Center (Cideci) Las Casas, but none of them made statements. The students, coming from different states in Mexico and from other countries, started to leave by caravan at 3:00 o’clock on Sunday in small trucks and farm trucks towards the Caracoles located in La Realidad, Las Margaritas municipality; La Garrucha, Ocosingo; Roberto Barrios, Palenque; Morelia, Altamirano, and Oventic, San Andrés. Among the special invitees, who will be exempt from qualifications, who arrived today at Cideci are: the former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Pablo González Casanova; the actress Julieta Gurrola; the intellectuals and academics Gustavo Esteva, Sylvia Marcos and Paulina Fernández, as well as the rockers Mastuerzo and Rocko, among others.

“They understand what freedom is” 28CaracolesEscuelita

Subcomandante Marcos, who was not seen publicly, recently explained that they were invited “not as students,” because “according to our understanding, they understand well the meaning of freedom according to us, the Zapatistas. We invited them to make them participants in this joy of seeing that our step, although slow and confused, continues and moves towards a single destination, which is also theirs.”

The festive presence of the approximately 1,700 students from different countries has called to mind, among other meetings, the encuentros against neoliberalism that the EZLN held in the 1990s in the disappeared Aguascalientes, now converted into Caracoles.

From early on, hundreds of people from collectives and organizations and as individuals started to gather at the buildings of Cideci located to the west of San Cristóbal; by afternoon there were about 2,000 people between invitees and Zapatista support bases who would transport them to the Caracoles. With balaclavas (pasamontañas) over their faces, carrying radios and mobile phones, the comandantes –Tacho and David, principally– began the supervision and organisation of the departure of vehicles from 2:00 PM. Long lines of students formed to board the transport. By 8:00 PM the contingents had already departed for the five Caracoles, but were missing around 300 who were “left behind” –several would arrive by plane at the airport near Tuxtla Gutiérrez–, their arrival was expected this evening or early Monday morning. There were concerts in Cideci’s auditorium in the afternoon and evening.

Before leaving, all the students who will receive classes on freedom and autonomy in indigenous Zapatista communities, from the 12th to the 17th of this month, were given the books and instructive materials in the morning at Cideci Las Casas, where the University of the Earth (Universidad de la Tierra) Chiapas also operates. The learning materials consist of two compact discs and four books bound and illustrated with colour images of support bases, for the classes in freedom according to the Zapatistas, autonomous government 1 and 2, the participation of women in autonomous government and autonomous resistance.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada Monday, August 12, 2013

En español:


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: