“The voices of indigenous people in Mexico have been either passively ignored or brutally silenced for most of the last five hundred years. Indigenous lands and resources have been repeatedly stolen and the people themselves exploited under some of the worst labor conditions in Mexico. The official policies of the Mexican state have been largely oriented toward assimilation, with only lip service given to the value of the country’s diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage.” – Harry Carvey Jr., “The Zapatista Effect”, 1998.
Mexico has an indigenous population of 15%, most of which is concentrated in the southeastern states. There, a notable 50% of the population is indigenous and has remained relatively removed from Mexican society, preserving their cultures and languages (there are up to 364 different spoken dialects) since the Spanish landed on their shores 500 years ago (Who are the Zapatistas 2014).
This region of Mexico is also notably characterized by a general low-quality lifestyle that the majority of its inhabitants share. Most survive on minimum income, live without electricity and running water, and have difficulty accessing education and healthcare – 15,000 people die each year from diseases that are easily curable with modern medicine (ibid.).
Perhaps, with these factors in consideration, it is not surprising that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a guerrilla military group, who has declared war on the Mexican government, developed out of Chiapas (Sanchez 2012). Though, also surprising, despite housing this active army, Chiapas is the safest state in Mexico (Who are the Zapatistas 2014). So why does the media portray the EZLN in such a negative light?
So who are the Zapatistas?
Labeled internationally and portrayed by the media as a violent guerrilla military group, recognizable by their masked faces, the Zapatistas are not like other guerrilla armies in Central and South America (Sanchez 2012). Their use of force in 1994 to capture several urban centers in Chiapas, was the first and only time when they actively used combat, however, this premier uprising has given them a negative reputation which has followed them throughout their 40 years of existence. Otherwise, they have “embraced pluralism, eschewed Marxist rhetoric, maintained a relatively horizontal organization structure, and even introduced a revolutionary law on women” (Johnston 2000).
The Zapatistas were developing as a rebel group since the 1980s, in response to the economic changes that were taking place in Mexico throughout this time, but their movement came to a head in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. This allowed for trade between Mexico, the United States, and Canada to be tariff-free (North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)), and for the Zapatistas, it became yet another symbol of the colonization of indigenous lands (Imison 2017).
Following the signing of NAFTA, the EZLN took over several public halls throughout Chiapas in an uprising that lasted 11 days and which took the lives of 300 people (Godelmann 2014). The San Andres Peace Accords were negotiated, and a ceasefire was agreed upon; however, to this day, their goals are in opposition to the Mexican government’s (ibid.). As of 2005, the Zapatistas agreed to be non-violent and are more known now for their conversation with the media and civil society than for engaging with militia (Klein 2019).
The Zapatista militia developed out of the landscape of post-colonization and Mexico’s independence from Spain roughly 200 years ago. Their namesake is derived from the iconic revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, who fought to achieve Mexico’s independence and who fought for the belief that “the lands should be owned by those who work on them.” (Gilbreth 1997; Godelmann 2014). The incentives behind this revolution still prop up the Zapatista movement today and its two main objectives.
Along with revamping the political system in order for it to be more democratic, their goal is to ensure that, particularly the indigenous communities’ lands and dignity are restored to them, providing the entire population access to basic human needs and rights: “freedom of expression, the right to organize, freedom to set prices for [their] produce” (People without Faces 2016).
Why are the Zapatistas going to Spain?
Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lópes pledged that the year of 2021, the 200th anniversary of the independence of Mexico from Spain, would be dedicated to remembering and addressing the country’s past – in May, Obrador asked for forgiveness from the Mayan community, in regard to the violation of their human rights under colonial rule (The Guardian). He also requested an official apology from Spain and the Vatican concerning the arrival of the conquistadors 500 years ago – which Spain refused to provide, promoting the need for a more “constructive perspective” (BBC 2019).
The Zapatistas are also honoring the 500th year anniversary of Mexico’s colonization by the Spanish by sailing to Spain. Traveling by boat for an expected three months, following the path of the original journey taken by Hernån Cortés when he first set sail to explore and conquer what is now Mexico, five women and two men (Lupita, 19; Carolina, 26; Ximena, 25; Yuli, 37; Marijose, 39; Bernal, 57; Darío, 47) will go on “an odyssey that has everything to do with defiance and nothing to do with a rebuke,” as they told The Guardian (Agren 2021; Enlace Zapatista).
When the ship reaches the shores of Vigo, Spain, they plan to travel to Madrid, meeting and celebrating with people there who also “fight, resist and rebel” along the way (Zapatista Women Will Go to Spain… 2021). If Spain does not allow them entrance, they will wait on the shore holding a banner that reads “Awaken” (Enlace Zapatista). Then they will continue their tour of Europe, meeting with NGOs to discuss solutions regarding human rights and social justice.
The Zapatistas are speaking to the problems that people in post-colonial communities around the world are vocalizing. The EZLN’s struggle merges with so many others: indigenous peoples’ resistance, women’s rights, environmental issues, and more. Their dedication to being seen and heard on an international scale is noteworthy, and it will be interesting to see how their voyage to Spain progresses and what they will do next.
For Further Reference
- Agren, David. “Zapatistas Set Sail for Spain on Mission of Solidarity and Rebellion.” The Guardian, 4 May 2021, www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/04/zapatistas-set-sail-for-spain-on-mission-of-solidarity-and-rebellion.
- “Brief Historical Background to the Zapatista Movement.” Juneteenth, Hemispheric Institute, 1 Sept. 2010.
- Cleaver, Harry M. “The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 51, no. 2, 1998, pp. 621–640. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24357524. Accessed 16 June 2021.
- Enlace Zapatista, enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/.
- Gilbreth, Chris. “Culture and the Struggle for Civil Society: Understanding the Zapatista National Liberation Army.” Simon Fraser University, 1997.
- Godelmann, Iker Reyes. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.” 30 July 2014, www.internationalaffairs.org.au/news-item/the-zapatista-movement-the-fight-for-indigenous-rights-in-mexico/.
- Imison, Paul. “How NAFTA Explains the Two Mexicos.” The Atlantic, 23 Sept. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/nafta-mexico-trump-trade/540906/.
- Johnston, Josée. “Pedagogical Guerrillas, Armed Democrats, and Revolutionary Counterpublics: Examining Paradox in the Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas Mexico.” Kluwer Academic Publishers, vol. 29, 2000, pp. 463–505.
- Klein, Hilary. “A Spark of Hope: The Ongoing Lessons of the Zapatista Revolution 25 Years On.” NACLA, The North American Congress on Latin America, 18 Jan. 2019, nacla.org/news/2019/01/18/spark-hope-ongoing-lessons-zapatista-revolution-25-years.
- “Mexico Demands Apology from Spain and the Vatican over Conquest.” BBC News, 26 Mar. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-47701876.
- “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).” International Trade Administration, www.trade.gov/north-american-free-trade-agreement-nafta.
- “People Without Faces.” People Without Faces Documentary, Boomstarter, 22 Aug. 2016, zapatista.ru/en/.
- Sanchez, W. Alejandro. “Defining Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation.” E-International Relations, 26 Oct. 2012, www.e-ir.info/2012/10/22/defining-mexicos-zapatista-army-of-national-liberation/.
- “Who Are The Zapatistas?” Youtube, Schools for Chiapas, 11 Oct. 2014.
- “Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later: How Indigenous Mexicans Stood Up Against NAFTA ‘Death Sentence.’” Performance by Amy Goodman, Youtube, Democracy Now, 3 Jan. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTzC_QqSqwc.
- “Zapatista Women Will Go to Spain: There Is No Conquest, We Don’t Want an Apology, We Continue in Rebellion.” Schools for Chiapas, 9 Oct. 2020.
Updated, 23 December 2021