In Los Altos of Chiapas, the Lacandona Jungle, and the Tzotz Choj area, Zapatistas live alongside political adversaries who, unlike the rebels, accept government support. This has created division in communities and even economic migration from autonomous Zapatista communities. Nonetheless, the EZLN continues to forge a new generation of rebels.
OVENTIC, Chiapas – In a wooded spot of the autonomous municipality of Sakamch’en de los Pobres, in the Caracol of Oventic, the evening sun floods a shop where a Zapatista shopkeeper shows us the candles he sells to the area’s religious communities. The candles come in different sizes and colours, but for a peso ten of the smallest can be bought. Sweets are also sold (MX$1.50), along with buns (MX$1) and machetes (MX$55).
Oventic is one of the five Zapatista regions (or Caracoles), and is seen as the “Central Heart of the Zapatistas in front of the World”. Surprisingly, the Zapatista shopkeeper shares his name with us and has his face uncovered, showing himself to the camera.
A group of children enters the shop, chatting and giggling. They buy a sweet and run out when the Zapatista, called Alberto, starts speaking in Spanish, which he does with a certain difficulty. He tells us that, twenty years after the uprising, the demands of justice and indigenous equality have still not been met. “Our situation isn’t much better, but we are hoping that the lives of the coming generations will be”, he says.
Alberto was just beginning his 24-hour shift in the shop, from 5pm to 5pm the following day. Five workers take it in turns to do these shifts, sleeping in the shops to protect the products. He isn’t the owner of the business, and doesn’t receive a wage. He is a farmer and builder who was 25 years old when he joined “el sub Marcos” in the taking of San Cristóbal de las Casas twenty years ago.
The cooperative shop uses the profits obtained to buy products wholesale, which are then sold on at cost price to the shop’s clientele. They don’t discriminate, selling these products to Zapatistas, PRI supporters, or whoever else passes by. That way, everyone saves money and avoids the journey to the nearest city, San Cristóbal, which is an hour and a half away.
This collective project is one of dozens set up by the EZLN in each of its Caracoles ten years ago when it broke all relations with the federal and state governments (in response to continued aggression and the rejection of the San Andrés Accords). It is just one example of the sustainable and autonomous programmes of health, education, justice, and economy created in Zapatista communities.
El Universal went into three of the five Caracoles – Oventic, La Garrucha and Morelia – to take a snapshot of the lives of Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas in these communities.
In La Garrucha, inside the Lacandona Jungle, the hectic routines of health and education workers are very apparent. They are having meetings to prepare for the arrival of those invited to the ‘Escuelitas Zapatistas’ – schools set up to show hundreds of Zapatista sympathisers what has been accomplished in the communities.
In the Caracol, there is constant movement around the Clínica Comandanta Ramona – a clinic currently being built in the community. Specialising in reproductive and sexual health, this two-storey clinic will be the most important building in the area.
At the same time, just outside the Caracol, PRI activists build homes with concrete blocks given to them by the state and federal governments. Oblivious to the Zapatista movement, a group of youths unload sheets of metal – the future roofs of the new houses – from a trailer parked up on a dirt track next to La Garrucha.
In some Caracoles, Zapatistas live alongside supporters of political parties who receive government support. El Universal asks if these youths are Zapatistas due to their proximity to an EZLN community. The tall PRI leader of the group responds sharply “We’re not Zapatistas – we receive official support”. They then ask us to move on.
The following day, in San Juan Chamula, we speak to another young PRI supporter who receives government benefits. He says that the Zapatistas are “missing out” since “the government belongs to all of us. It’s for the benefit of our children [because], as you see, there’s no work around here”.
The EZLN, however, denounces government benefits as an attempt to prevent Zapatista expansion and sap the life out of their movement. In Oventic, for example, a Zapatista taxi driver says that “the government is trying to divide our communities. It has even divided families!” His co-driver adds, “The bad government thinks we like receiving help. But we don’t, because we are resisting [their domination and exploitation]”.
Migration under Resistance
In the Tzotz Choj region, near the archaeological area of Toniná, lays the Caracol of Morelia. Here, government-built housing can be seen in the distance, with their concrete blocks and metal roofs. Zapatista housing, in contrast, is built with wooden planks and is much bigger.
In a Tzetzal house belonging to Zapatistas, it is dinnertime. The monolingual tzetzal mother watches over the coffee and boiled chayotes while her oldest daughter holds a baby. The son is twenty years old and has previously left Chiapas in search of work. On his last journey, he worked in Cancún for two months as a builder and carpenter. “I had to go”, he says. “It wasn’t because I wanted to go”. Other Zapatistas have felt obliged to do the same, leaving for Cancún, Mexico City, or the US border.
Since the global crisis of 2007, the EZLN has shown concern about economic emigration, trying to regulate the exit of migrants – who are asked to authorise their journeys first with a ‘Committee of Good Government’ – the highest authority in the Caracoles.
The young Zapatista says that “the authority supports you for three months” if you ask for permission but, if you spend more time away, you lose your membership of the organisation. Sometimes, he says, people go for “eight or ten months” and the Zapatista communities no longer want to support them when they return because “they have not followed their orders”.
“Money corrupts” and it is difficult to live in a city, he says. “Here, in a village, if you want firewood you can have it [but], in the city, you can’t live if there’s no work. You have to worry about paying the electricity and water bills while, back here, no-one’s on your back like that”.
He has also observed how government social programmes like “Casa Firme” (Safe House) have divided communities. He claims “there are many who say that, if you have a lot of kids in school, they will give you more money – sometimes six or seven thousand pesos a month [around twice the minimum wage]”.
When asked if his family would continue to support the Zapatista movement, he said that they would “because we aren’t doing anything wrong – just as Zapata said a long time ago. The fight to help the poor was Zapata’s struggle, and that continues today”.
Behind the shop in Oventic is a primary school, named after Mexican guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas. Classes have finished, and all that remains is a blackboard with phrases and words on it: “Area: Social Sciences, Subject: Our State, EZLN, hierarchies, governmental, battle”. Due to the recent Escuelita Zapatista, the school has been closed for a few days.
Alberto has eight children ranging from one year old to fourteen years old. In the primary school of his youngest, eight ‘promoters’ of education – chosen by and trained within the community – teach a hundred infants. They live in the same place and receive food – but no wage.
When asked if the coming generations would continue to fight, Alberto assures us that they will – just “like us”. He says he tries “to be an example, as a father, that my children can follow. We will keep moving forward”. Today’s children, in his view, are seeds which will, at some undetermined and unknown point in the future, “bear fruits”.
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Laura Castellanos, published in Spanish at http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/caracoles-escuela-de-las-8220nuevas-semillas-8221-212040.html on Sunday 5th January 2014