Searching for Zapatistas

Catedral de San Cristoba
Catedral de San Cristobal

I arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas after a 12-hour bus ride through some of the windiest roads I have ever traveled. It was about midday but the cold mountain air of the southern Mexican town easily pierced my layers of clothing as I made my way towards a big trashcan. The road and stale bus air had been turning my stomach for hours and its contents now wanted out. I stood over the trashcan for a few minutes -- eyes tearing in anticipation -- before convincing the previous night's meal to complete its digestion.

Feeling better, I gathered my backpack and left the station. Outside, my traveling companions were waiting: my sister, two brothers, and a friend now living in Oaxaca. They mocked me a little but were glad I wasn't sick. We hovered in the station plaza a few minutes until deciding to walk the streets and find a suitable (cheap and clean) hostel.

Four or five blocks later we walked by an electronics store where a dozen children crowded the narrow sidewalk, hypnotized by the television sets turned on to attract customers. It was the kind of surreal scene from 1950s America when people gathered around television stores to watch breaking news on the Soviet threat; in our modern era it was a reminder of the cultural gulf that exists between many peoples of the world.

Two blocks farther down the street was the town's main square, a patchwork of geometric green shapes crisscrossed by pathways and anchored by a large, central stage. Below the arcades of the colonial buildings enclosing the square, Mayan women sold their wares, their faces resembling reliefs and frescoes on Mayan temples, as they offered to slash their prices. It was impossible not to buy anything from these women as they cradled their newborns in the cold.

Subcomandante Marcos

I bought a doll of Subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking Zapatista leader who enjoys a Che-like status here. It was difficult to believe that the merchants, musicians and tourists now stood where a decade earlier masked insurgents roamed.

On January 1, 1994, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (known as the EZLN or, simply, Zapatistas) chose this town to make a stand against the Mexican government's Indian policies and brought international attention to the plight of the country's large indigenous communities. I still remember the images from 1994 when the Zapatistas took over the town, and the square not 20 feet away was crowded with masked men and women holding rifles and machetes.

Now I possessed the leader of those men and women in my hand, made of colorful fabric and holding a crude wooden gun (but no pipe). Before I could put the doll away a young girl offered me another doll, this one of Marcos and a woman on a horse. It was hard to say no because I spend twice as much on a beer at a cheap bar, but Mexico has a way of making you ignore poverty and I walked away from the girl.

Crunchy Tourists

After sticking our heads into various hostels to inquire about prices, we picked one a few blocks from the square which was very clean, as hostels go. Our neighbors on one side were a group of young Swedes, and on the other a family with young kids (Canadians, I think). Downstairs was a Belgian who, I was told, had spent the last 20 years traveling and living throughout the world.

The great Peter Forsberg

That night, I returned to the hostel after spending most of the day trying to get lost in the town. The Swedes were having a blast, their empty bottle of tequila displayed proudly on the table as if it were a trophy. We quickly began talking and after indoctrinating me on the greatness of hockey player -- and fellow Swede -- Peter Forsberg, they told me of their school project as Peace Watchers.

Four of them were in Chiapas as part of a school program to study Mexican indigenous culture, which included acting as Peace Watchers between the indigenous groups and the Mexican military; the other two had quit their jobs and planned to stay in Mexico as long as their money allowed them. Magnus Torsne, one of the students, described his job in the villages as "human shields, but not that dangerous." The theory was that as long as foreigners were living in a village the military and police wouldn't cause trouble. And as long as these Swedes were in them they didn't.

These Swedes were representative of all the other tourists I met: unkempt young people with bulky backpacks and idealist minds. There were so many, in fact, that most restaurants, tour guides, merchants and hotels catered to these frugal and conscientious tourists. Vegetarian and "natural" foods were easy to find; companies offered tours of remote jungle villages; affordable hostels far outnumbered luxurious hotels.

In the Jungle!

In search of masked revolutionaries like this person. Where were they in Chiapas?

If not for the Zapatista uprising, it is unlikely many of these young tourists would have thought about Chiapas. Like them, my presence in Chiapas was also the result of the Zapatista uprising. I was lured by the hope of seeing a real-life revolutionary movement in person; a desire to see first-hand what will be in history books years from now.

Once there I fell in love with the town and surrounding natural beauty, but the reason I'd sat in a bus for half a day was to see a masked revolutionary coming down from the jungle. But there were none. I don't know where or how I was expecting to find them. Perhaps a central office for a revolutionary movement? Or tours of their jungle hideouts?

Eventually I swallowed my pride and asked a stupid tourist question to Pedro Pale, a shoeshine in the square. "So, uh, where are the Zapatistas?" He just smiled at me but I knew what he was thinking. Unfortunately, this was a common question for Pedro.

"In the jungle," he replied. The jungle! Of course! I guess a stupid question deserves a smart-aleck response.

Originally from a village in the jungle, Pedro moved to the city shortly after the Zapatistas did. He was young and knew little of the Zapatistas so I asked him about the overabundance of neo-hippie idealist tourists in town and expected to hear resentment in his answer. But he seemed very happy with it, noting they brought money into the town -- and into his pocket. This seemed to be the prevailing attitude of the city's inhabitants.

By now I doubted whether I would run into a Zapatista. I hadn't looked hard, but I had not expected to, either. The next morning, however, we wound our way though the jungle en route to the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. Just outside of San Cristobal we crossed a small military checkpoint, with sentries posted at either side of the road, machine guns in hand.

rush hour
Rush hour in San Cristobal

By the time we reached the second or third town past that checkpoint, we were greeted by a huge billboard proclaiming the town was under the control of the EZLN. Subsequent towns greeted visitors with similar white billboards. I thought back to that checkpoint and now it seemed more of a border crossing, demarking the areas controlled by the Mexican government from those controlled by the Zapatistas.

As we continued our journey, we saw that crops of corn, banana, and coffee surrounded the small homes of these jungle-dwellers and lined the narrow road. Those living next to the road used the opportunity to set-up small stores and they could be heard speaking in their native tongue. These were the indigenous people forgotten by the government and remembered by the Zapatistas, and they appeared to be living much in the same way they would have generations ago. There were few signs of a fresh water or electrical system.

Whether they knew it or not, the communal land they were cultivating was the major impetus to the Zapatista uprising. Before NAFTA, sale of their land was prohibited by the constitution, which foresaw a time when deceptive or illegal methods might be used to obtain it. But NAFTA required repealing the very constitutional article protecting communal land. With that land rich in petroleum, natural gas and minerals, the EZLN struck preemptively in defense of the land.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Four tourists heading back to the bus station

Back in San Cristobal, I saw the town with open eyes for the first time. Everywhere I turned I saw a Zapatista. Local townspeople were Zapatistas, as were the women selling their goods. Pedro was a Zapatista and in a way, even the young and dirty tourists were Zapatistas. I was a Zapatista.

I saw that Zapatistas and tourists were working in a symbiotic relationship even if neither knew it. The international attention drawn by the Zapatistas has attracted scores of tourists from throughout the world. Luckily, it has not drawn the ones that go to Cancun for Spring Break, but ones eager to learn about a different culture. Now, because of their status as foreigners, they are forcing the Mexican military to keep a distance from the Zapatistas, allowing them to continue their work in remote villages. Economically, they are contributing to the town and helping maintain the traditional crafts. Young entrepreneurs from throughout the country and world have set up small businesses which may someday contribute to an economy not centered on tourism.

I never encountered the masked, gun-toting revolutionary I had come seeking. What I found instead was the Zapatista mentality in the tourists and merchants in the town: the clothing vendor in the market; the woman selling organic fair-trade coffee in a plaza; the Swedes there to keep the peace. All of them were helping maintain the traditional ways of the Indians in a non-exploitative, non-imperialistic, non-paternalistic way.

I felt so incredibly stupid for ever having expected Zapatistas to fit into my stereotype. I -- who so often criticize media-perpetuated stereotypes -- had fallen for one without even realizing it. But being there, the media portrayal made no sense at all, for how long would a man with a ski mask last in town before being disappeared? Not very long, I thought.

Even though they receive scant media attention now, Zapatistas are alive and well in Chiapas. The Mexico City protests which once drew hundreds of thousands have decreased, and the annual Paris protest now draws a handful, not hundreds. But many people still care and the Zapatistas are still helping the people they rose to defend, whether anyone cares or not.

Arturo Perez is a 23-year-old editorial intern for WireTap.

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