Encarni Pindado

We arrived in the city of San Cristobal, in Chiapas, Mexico, on a drizzling December evening, with temperatures in the 50's. There is a quiet, small town beauty to San Cristobal, although the narrow downtown streets were teeming with both sharply dressed and bohemian tourists in the bustling cafes and outdoor artisanal markets. Christmas has passed, but colored string lights and mangers still adorn the city, and by the town square, there is a giant slide made of artificial ice, which no one seems interested in sledding down. It’s almost hard to believe armed fighting took place on these streets 20 years ago.

In the early morning of New Years day in 1994, Juan Carlos Gómez Aranda, a government official in the state of Chiapas, in the South of Mexico, received a phone call from a friend: an armed group had risen and taken over various municipalities.

As Aranda told the story to the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, he asked his friend if it was a joke. April Fool’s Day, which in Mexico happens in December, had passed. The Zapatista Army Of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish), made up of rural indigenous peoples, had risen, declaring war against the Mexican state, demanding, among other things, autonomy, better living conditions and that the natural resources extracted from Chiapas benefit the people of Chiapas. It sent shockwaves through the continent.

They called themselves Zapatistas after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican revolution. Not since Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in the ‘60’s, had a revolutionary character with such charisma and mystique as EZLN spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, an intellectual from Mexico City, appeared in Latin America. And in Mexico, a predominantly mestizo country where you still turn on the television and see mostly white faces, suddenly on the news, you had balaclavas revealing only indigenous eyes staring back at you on the screen, screaming “Ya basta!” or “Enough, is enough!”

After nearly two weeks of combat in various locations, including San Cristobal, and an estimated 145 deaths, a ceasefire agreement brokered by the Catholic diocese in San Cristobal was declared. The Zapatistas retreated into lands they had reclaimed, and the Mexican army surrounded their territory with bases—where they remain today in an uneasy arrangement.

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We were not entirely sure what to expect as we headed into the highlands to find a Zapatista community called Oventic. It was a two hour ride, so high up the Sierra Madre mountain range that we were eventually engulfed by a thick fog. There was a dreamlike quality as we eventually approach silhouettes of men and women made faceless by masks and scarves.

Among the visitors to Oventic, there was a tangible sense of nostalgia for the days in which the EZLN was more of public force. Like Che Guevara, Sub Comandante Marcos’ balaclava clad face has been printed onto hundreds of t-shirts and made into dozens of puppets sold at shops and by street vendors. The big question that floated in the air on the twentieth anniversary of the armed uprising was whether or not it changed Mexico, or the lives of its indigenous population.

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Zapatista communities use murals to illustrate their their history. Photo by Encarni Pindado

When we arrive at the gates of Oventic, there was plenty of what jokingly gets called "zapaturismo"—revolution tourism. Selfie photoshoots in front of EZLN signs abound; the gift shop is packed. It was strange being in a community where there is still so much tension with military and paramilitary groups, yet such a celebratory feel.

But there were also plenty of activists who had just graduated from the first round of the Escuelita Zapatista- “the little Zapatista school” a brand new EZLN project in which activists from Mexico and the world are invited to live in Zapatista communities to learn about the EZLN’s autonomous education, health and politico-economic programs. The EZLN has reported that it’s been a success—the courses, which are free of charge, have filled up rapidly with thousands of students, and San Cristobal is buzzing with enthusiastic activists of all ages and parts of the world.

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Zapatista dolls and other souvenirs are sold all over San Cristobal de las Casas and other Chiapas cities to tourist and what is locally called "zapaturismo." Photo by Encarni Pindado.

While the movement has become quieter in recent years, the Zapatistas’ impact on Mexican politics is undeniable. Not only did they bring the long overdue issue of indigenous discontent to the table, shortly after the uprising, Mexico’s already weakened one party system fell apart. The PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years, lost national elections for the first time in 2000, and the dent the Zapatistas made was pivotal in causing the ‘perfect dictatorship’ to crumble.

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“It was the end of the one party ‘perfect dictatorship’ if you will, and they had a lot to do with it” said Dudley Althaus, a reporter with the Houston Chronicle at the time, who covered the Zapatista uprising from its beginnings.

The Zapatistas influence was not just strictly political. Class and race are powerful definers in Mexico, and to this day, in rural regions like Chiapas, the racism brought about by colonization is still very much part of the landscape — creating a caste-like system. Women’s rights activist Marta Figueroa moved here in the 80’s. She remembers visiting a hospital for livestock in the city of Ocosingo when she first arrived, and then later seeing another hospital for indigenous people. The hospital for livestock was “huge, with tiles and hot water,” but the hospital where indigenous people of the same area were treated was about the size of the small office she received me in, with little equipment. “You could cure a cow, but you couldn’t help a woman with a difficult pregnancy, ” she said. Today, the EZLN runs two hospitals and twelve clinics, with some help from international organizations.

Today Figueroa is critical of certain aspects of the EZLN—namely, that issues of sexism have not been addressed nearly enough. But she says the Zapatistas achieved something absolutely necessary, which no one was able to do before them: putting indigenous rights on the table. “Not even when Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace prize where indigenous rights on the agenda, not on a national level and not on a global level,” she said.

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Víctor Hugo López , president of the human rights organization Fray Bartolome De Las Casas, which has been monitoring the region since the 80’s, has stated in various interviews that in the areas where the EZLN is present, violence against women has decreased, as have homicide rates, drug use. Alcoholism—a plague on the community—is also down. Alcohol is forbidden in Zapatista areas.

After years of covering the uprising, Althaus has no doubt that they were successful.

“They got what they wanted…what they were asking for was roads, schools, electricity, water…basic services which they did not have,” he said.

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One of the shortest short stories ever written in the Spanish language, by Guatemala’s Augusto Monterroso, is simply one sentence long: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” The phrase has been used in Mexico to reference the exasperatingly unchanging nature of Mexican politics. The Zapatista cause resonated with a large portion of Mexican society, but the movement never spread nationally, as originally intended. The agreement initially reached between the Mexican government and the EZLN fell apart, and the Zapatistas continue to issue communiqués criticizing Mexican politics and current state of affairs. Human rights groups accuse the army and paramilitary of threatening, intimidating and robbing Zapatista lands, and last year tens of thousands of Zapatistas silently marched into the city of San Cristobal.

Many argue that the conditions that gave birth to the Zapatista movement are back in Mexico, or perhaps never they really left. After a twelve year hiatus, the PRI is back in power with President Enrique Peña Nieto. He has embarked on controversial and divisive reforms, such as the energy and education restructuring. Despite promises of economic growth, the number of people living in poverty has risen, and 45% of municipalities in the country live in marginalized conditions.

This week, Jaime Martinez Veloz, commissioner for dialogue with indigenous peoples, promised that 2014 will be the year in which there will be discussions for a new law enacting Zapatista demands from two decades ago. While the political dialogue may be encouraging, the reality is that as Mexican poverty rates increase, Chiapas continues to be one of the poorest states in the country. An estimated 70% of indigenous Mexican households nationwide live in poverty, and 1% live in extreme poverty. Only 24% of indigenous Mexican children finish grade school. The rates of preventable diseases in these communities are equally staggering. In a recent communiqué, Subcomandante Marcos lamented, “It is as cold as it was 20 years ago, and there is a flag that lends us warmth, the flag of rebellion.”

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Poverty rates only tell a part of the story of the successes and failures of the EZLN. As one activist I talked to put it, “There is a poverty index—but is there such a thing as a dignity index?” In a place where once indigenous people had to get off the sidewalk to allow non-indigenous people to walk, López, the human rights activist, said in a statement to Excelsior news that “Today the indigenous people have a knowledge of their history, and they don’t negotiate their rights.”

After waiting in the fog to be admitted, we entered Oventic for a night of dancing, celebrations and food. The grounds were covered with several hundreds of people, including a sea of enthusiastic young Zapatistas from neighboring communities, faces covered. The men wore jeans and sweaters; the women wore beautifully embroidered traditional dresses and shawls. Some of them were so young, they didn’t live through the uprising.

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Thousands of Zapatistas from different communities, sympathizers and tourists celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista upbringing in Oventic, a Zapatista community. Photo by Encarni Pindado.

A large crowd of Zapatistas gathered under the rain, right before ushering in the New Year, to listen to a woman named Comandante Hortensia give a speech. “Twenty years ago, we had nothing…and we said enough is enough,” she said. “We are no longer going to wait for anyone to fight for us.”

At the crack of dawn we embarked on a two hour cab ride back to the city. The young driver told us his father is a Zapatista, and in 1994, when he left to go fight, he cried over what he thought was his imminent death.

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“But he had to go,” the cab driver said, then adding, with a grin, “now, we are proud.”

A Zapatistas walks during the 20th anniversary celebration of the Zapatista upbringing in Oventic, a Zapatista community. Photo by Encarni Pindado.