After centuries of oppression, a few indigenous voices of dissent in Chiapas, Mexico, rose up to became a force of thousands – the Zapatistas. Hilary Klein’s Compañeras relays the stories of the Zapatista women who have overcome hardship to strengthen their communities and build a movement with global influence.
Zapatista women lead a funeral procession for a woman killed by Mexico’s federal police in Chiapas, Mexico, in January 2005. (Photo: Oriana Eliçabe/Flickr)
The following excerpt is from the introduction to Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories:
After visiting us several times, they began to explain the struggle: what they were fighting for and whom they were fighting against. They told us there was a word we could use to show our respect for each other, and that word was compañeros or compañeras. Saying it meant that we were going to struggle together for our freedom.
—ARACELI and MARIBEL, Zapatista women from the La Realidad region
In the 1980s, outsiders dressed as doctors or teachers arrived in Araceli and Maribel’s jungle community and began asking the peasants why they were paid such low prices when they sold their coffee or corn. These outsiders talked about the fundamental injustices between rich and poor, and about the mistreatment their indigenous community had endured for more than five hundred years. They said that women had rights too. Villagers like Araceli and Maribel took a risk and joined “the organization.” They attended secret meetings at night and recruited their neighbors. Some left home to live in the mountains and become insurgents – joining a scrappy indigenous army that was growing in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
On January 1, 1994, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, EZLN) captured the world’s imagination when it rose up to demand justice and democracy – taking on the Mexican government and global capitalism itself. The EZLN is named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and it took up his rallying cry of tierra y libertad (land and freedom). From its formation in 1983 until the 1994 uprising, the EZLN was a clandestine organization. Since that brief armed insurrection, the EZLN has become known primarily for its peaceful mobilizations, dialogue with civil society, and structures of political, economic, and cultural autonomy. During the decade leading up to and the decade after the uprising, women from the indigenous Mayan villages that belong to the EZLN experienced dramatic transformations in their lives, their communities, and their level of political participation and leadership.
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People around the world have been inspired by images of Zapatista women: Major Ana María wearing a black ski mask and brown uniform, leading indigenous troops during the uprising; Comandanta Ramona standing next to Subcomandante Marcos during peace negotiations with the Mexican government, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder; Comandanta Ester, draped in a white shawl with embroidered flowers, addressing the Mexican Congress to demand respect for indigenous rights and culture. The dignity with which these women carried themselves, set against a backdrop of centuries of racism and exploitation, embodies what the Zapatista movement has come to represent – the resistance of the marginalized and the forgotten against the powerful. Peasants turned warriors, mothers turned revolutionary leaders – dozens, hundreds, thousands of Zapatista women gather, tiny and dark-skinned, with red bandannas covering their faces and masking their individual identities, long black braids hanging down their backs, their fists in the air. They have marched, they have organized, and they have planted seeds – both real and symbolic. They have stood up to the Mexican army and to their own husbands. They have changed their own lives and they have changed the world around them.
From the civil rights movement in the United States to the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, from the campaign against apartheid in South Africa to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, women have fought side by side with men for their people’s freedom. Women have been important actors and made invaluable contributions to grassroots social movements and national liberation struggles all over the world.
Many of these, while not women’s movements per se, have created new opportunities for women and catalyzed changes in their lives. At the same time, women almost invariably face discrimination within their own organizations, and have often had to fight for women’s rights to be included in the vision of a just society. This dual and interdependent relationship between women’s liberation and social revolution illustrates that popular struggles cannot achieve collective liberation for all people without addressing patriarchy and, likewise, women’s freedom cannot be disentangled from racial, economic, and social justice.
The indigenous communities that make up the EZLN have historically confronted extreme inequality: economic, because of the legacy of colonialism and the concentration of land and wealth in Chiapas; political, because of their exclusion from state, national, and local decision making; and social, because of racism against indigenous people and the lack of basic services such as health care, education, electricity, and potable water. Women have also faced gender-based discrimination. In the words of Comandanta Ester, from a speech she gave in Mexico City’s central plaza in 2001, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous, and because we are women.” This history of marginalization serves as a backdrop for the striking changes that have taken place in Zapatista territory.
Today, the Zapatista movement has a presence throughout eastern Chiapas, with most of the EZLN’s support base living in rural indigenous villages. The Zapatista support base refers to the civilians – individuals and communities – who belong to the EZLN. The Mexican newspaper El Universal reports the Zapatista support base to be approximately 250,000 people, representing about 22 percent of the indigenous population of Chiapas.
Zapatista territory is not “liberated territory” in the traditional sense that a guerrilla army has complete control over a certain area. The Mexican military has an intense presence throughout the region, and within Zapatista territory there are Zapatista and non-Zapatista villages, and some that are divided between the two. There are clear boundaries of Zapatista territory, however, and this is meaningful because in this small corner of the world, the Zapatistas are experimenting with self-government that functions independently from the existing state and federal system, alternative education and health care infrastructure, and an economic system based on cooperation, solidarity, and relationships of equality.
A small Zapatista village might have a dozen families, whereas larger villages have a hundred families or more. Zapatista communities are organized into autonomous municipalities, which function as something like counties. Each autonomous municipality is made up of anywhere from a dozen to a hundred villages. The EZLN has drawn its own geographical lines, corresponding to where its support base resides and often defined by geography: all the villages along a particular canyon, for example.
The EZLN’s approximately forty autonomous municipalities are organized into five regions, which the Zapatistas call “zones.” Each region or zone is commonly referred to by the name of the five villages that house the Caracoles (previously calledAguascalientes), the seat of each regional autonomous government. Morelia, La Garrucha, and La Realidad are in the canyons that run eastward to the Lacandon Jungle, and correspond roughly to the official municipalities of Altamirano, Ocosingo, and Las Margaritas, respectively. Oventic is in the central highlands of Chiapas, near the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Roberto Barrios is in the northern zone, near the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
January 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and thirty years since the EZLN’s formation as an underground organization. Over the past three decades, the impact of the Zapatista movement can be seen at the local, national, and international level. Land takeovers carried out after the 1994 uprising – where large ranches were occupied by the Zapatistas and reapportioned to landless peasants – impacted the distribution of wealth in eastern Chiapas and continue to affect living conditions for those Zapatista communities farming on reclaimed land.
Most Zapatista villages are still poor, but have experienced some concrete material improvements. The Zapatista construction of indigenous autonomy has meant that rural villages in Chiapas have gained access to rudimentary health care and education, which they were previously denied. They exercise self-determination through autonomous village and regional governments, and generate resources back into their communities through economic cooperatives that organize the production of goods.
At the national level, the EZLN signed the San Andrés Accords with the Mexican government in 1996, which recognized indigenous rights and promised indigenous autonomy. The Zapatista movement arguably helped bring an end to seventy years of one-party rule in Mexico when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), which had monopolized state power since the Mexican Revolution, lost the presidential elections in 2000. And, through its national mobilizations and dialogue with other sectors of the population, the EZLN is also credited with the strengthening of Mexican civil society.
Around the world, the Zapatistas catalyzed a wave of solidarity that inspired a generation of young activists to organize for social justice in their own contexts. The repercussions of the Zapatista movement at the international level may be difficult to measure, but should not be underestimated. International gatherings organized by the EZLN fostered the burgeoning global justice movement. Events inspired or influenced by the Zapatistas include the World Social Forum, an annual global forum for grassroots activists and organizations, and demonstrations against global capitalism, such as the protests in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization.
Evo Morales, a Socialist and the first indigenous president of Bolivia, has often referred to the Zapatistas in his speeches and writings. Antiwar activists in San Francisco, trying to stop the second Gulf War in 2003, cited the Zapatistas as an inspiration. With its ideological critique of neoliberalism and its internal emphasis on participatory democracy, the EZLN was also a precursor to the Occupy and “We Are the 99 Percent” movements that emerged almost two decades after the Zapatista uprising. Perhaps most importantly, the EZLN offered one answer to the question of what the next wave of liberation struggles might look like after the end of the Cold War.
While the EZLN is rightfully known for these contributions, there is another, often less celebrated piece of the story. Women’s leadership within the organization is one of the most compelling aspects of the Zapatista movement. Zapatista women have served as insurgents, political leaders, healers, educators, and key agents in autonomous economic development. Women’s participation in the EZLN has helped shape the Zapatista movement which has, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. A woman who was abused as a teenager at the hands of a husband chosen by her father would later join a caravan of thousands of Zapatistas marching on Mexico City to demand indigenous rights. Along the way, she would meet with other Mexican women and urge them to fight for their liberation as she had. Compañeras documents these changes through the voices of women who lived them.
Copyright (2015) by Hilary Klein. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Seven Stories Press.
Hilary Klein lived in Chiapas, Mexico, for several years, where she worked with women’s projects in Zapatista communities. After she edited a book of Zapatista women’s testimonies to be circulated in their own villages, women in the Zapatista leadership suggested that Klein compile a similar book for an outside audience. Klein has been engaged in social justice and community organizing for 20 years.