Looking to the horizon: Three generations of Zapatista children

August 13, 2015

This study represents a succinct and reflective investigation into a number of historical experiences in which the main actors are children in Zapatista communities. In particular, it will focus on the importance of adult accompaniment and the political participation of youngsters as complete members of resisting communities, social movements, and political organisations.

Born out of the “20 Years of Zapatista Rebellion” Seminar, which took place at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (Unidad Xochimilco), this text was compiled with the help of numerous sessions, including those about: land and territory; education; economy; health; economy and cooperatives; gender; autonomy; and, of course, children and youngsters on the journey of Zapatismo. Some information from these sessions was included in the “Argumentos” Magazine (Number 73: “20 Years of Zapatista Rebellion: autonomy is life, submission is death”).

In light of the ‘Critical Thought against the Capitalist Hydra’ conference[1] called for by the Zapatistas in May 2015 (at the CIDECI[2][3]), this document is of particular relevance. During this event, for instance, a number of participants mentioned not only three generations of Zapatistas, but five. In the afternoon session of Tuesday 5th May, Sup Galeano asserted that the struggle of Zapatista communities could be summarised as an effort to present children with an option to be “one thing or another”.

A day later, three generations of Zapatista women spoke (through Commanders Miriam,Rosalinda, and Dalia; ‘support base’ comrade[4] Lizbeth; and ‘listener’ comrade[5] Selena) about the history of their struggle (as indigenous Zapatista women). Sup Galeano, meanwhile, stressed that “there are at least two generations missing from this discussion: the first (aged from 12-15) are those that will become promoters of education or healthcare, listeners, Third Comrades[6], or insurgents; the second (aged around 8) are the ‘defenders’[7] – the rebel girls who encapsulate four generations of the revolutionary struggle and are, for now at least, unpredictable”.

Biopolitical Devices in a Chiapan Childhood

According to Eduardo Bustelo (who follows the theories of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben[8]), death, poverty, and the normalisation of an adult’s control over a child’s life are the three biopolitical devices used within the capitalist system to oversee and manipulate the childhood construction of individual thought. The first, Bustelo asserts, is the most silent form, as it shows on a daily basis that youngsters can be eliminated (or ‘disposed of’) without legal consequences. Children regularly die, he says, of hunger, of preventable or curable diseases, and as victims of war. If they survive, meanwhile, they continue to suffer either physically or psychologically as a result of being exposed directly to many different forms of violence. The persistent objective of the powerful in the capitalist system seems to be the extermination of a child’s potential to escape from the type of education deemed acceptable to them. In short, it is a direct form of control which seeks to deny people the right to a dignified life and which is often represented in the expansion of a politics of death.

The second device used is poverty, as the majority of impoverished humans are children and the majority of children are poor. Consequently, youngsters are exploited, being forced indirectly into work whilst becoming malnourished or sick. And, because they are not involved in the economic processes of concentration of income, wealth, and power, they are discriminated against and excluded in a way that strengthens the ideological device of domination (aided by the concealment of the social relation between the exploiters and the exploited). Essentially, the powerful ensure, through their bio-political system of life regulation, that child poverty remains a major factor in avoiding the construction of democratic and egalitarian social relations.

The third device is the vertical and despotic relationship between adults and their children, which seeks to control their lives from the inside out right from the beginning. This dynamic, meanwhile, is accompanied by manipulative discourse which distorts a child’s understanding of reality. In short, childhood is the point at which the process of domination begins, and at which this subtle vertical relationship is concealed.

The Response of the Zapatistas

When the Zapatista uprising took place in 1994, death and poverty had long maintained a devastating presence among children within the indigenous communities of Chiapas. In particular, the so-called ‘poverty diseases’ ran rampant. There were cases of: intestinal, respiratory, and epidemic infections; child malnutrition; fever; and diarrhoea. Many children, meanwhile, died due to a lack of access to medical care – which had contributed to Chiapas holding the lowest figures for life expectancy at birth in the whole of Mexico. Furthermore, these figures only came from the official government statistics, which were based on birth and death certificates that simply did not exist in the indigenous communities of most municipalities (which had ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of marginalisation). Therefore, there is little way to know precisely how many Chiapan boys and girls entered or left the world in this period.

Consequently, the EZLN’s[9] declaration of war and its 11 demands in the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle were aimed not only at stopping the genocide of the indigenous people of Chiapas, but also that of their children. In other words, the group was fighting so that future generations of children could have a decent, dignified life (as Subcomandante Marcos explained to the young Miguel A. Vazquez Valtierra in March 1994).

In February 2001, Marcos dedicated the following text, in which he described the reality of Zapatista childhood, to the exiled children of Guadalupe Tepeyac:

There are nine cells that imprison the indigenous children of Chiapas and Mexico, and they are: hunger, ignorance, illness, work, mistreatment, poverty, fear, obliviousness, and death. Patricha, under five years old, died from a fever; Ismita, almost 10 years old, had the stature of a 4-year-old child as a result of chronic malnutrition; Andulio was born without hands because of a genetic abnormality; Pedrito was born in exile; and Lino was only a few hours old when he was expelled from his home by soldiers.

Later, in a 2008 interview with Laura Castellanos titled ‘Corte de Caja’, Marcos described how the case of Patricha had played a definitive role in his participation in politico-military organisation from around 1986, because this indigenous girl (who had brought food to the rebels when they were hiding in the jungle) had died in his arms on a riverbank when he was trying to help lower her fever. And such was the fate of young indigenous girls, he said. In the worst cases, they would die from curable or sexually-related diseases, and in the best cases they would be confined to the home, caring for younger siblings, making tortillas, or working in the fields. Historically, he explained, these girls had simply not been allowed to study or play.

Zapatista Children in the Context of a Low-Intensity War

Once the ceasefire had been declared and the peace talks had begun, the federal government was quick to establish military barracks and checkpoints in all indigenous communities suspected of harbouring Zapatista militants or being influenced by their ideology. Flyovers, patrols, and the presence of paramilitary groups suddenly became a part of the daily lives of children from communities in rebellion, while the ‘second generation’ (born after January 1, 1994) effectively grew up with military and paramilitary activity as a natural part of their existence.

This low intensity war expressed itself in a number of ways, from military mechanisms to social, political, economic, and cultural strategies. Zapatista children and youths were harassed, evicted, displaced, beaten, threatened, arrested at checkpoints, and attacked by both the federal government and their right-wing paramilitary groups, all with the purpose of discouraging adherence to the Zapatista project and weakening the social fabric and family unity of local communities. Understanding that Zapatista children were a fundamental part of the movement, the government effectively sought to “kill the Zapatista seed” (a slogan used during the Acteal Massacre in the Chenalho municipality on December 22, 1997, when 45 people were killed – including 14 children, 23 women, and 8 men).

At a young age, then, Zapatista children soon learned what it meant to survive in a context of war and a climate of repression, growing up as they would in the midst of a violent counterrevolutionary campaign waged upon them by the federal government. In spite of living inside an atmosphere of resistance, says Angelica Rico, these youngsters nonetheless learned to run, play, dance, sing, and laugh.

At the same time, though, the specific reality within which the new generations were growing up (as members of indigenous communities adhering to Zapatista ideology) meant that their psychological and social formation contained elements different from those who had grown up before 1994. They developed, for example, abilities that helped them to resist constant aggression, and worldviews that made them more resilient to the climate of violence surrounding them on a daily basis.

Therefore, when Zapatista children say they have no fear because they know how to defend themselves, we must be aware of the subjective and collective process of the development of a community form of mental health (which has transformed fear into a mechanism of self-protection and reduced the negative psychosocial effects of the low-intensity war of attrition). In other words, the State’s war on Zapatista communities (which, according to Ximena Antillón, seeks to create psychosomatic and emotional illnesses whilst paralysing and diminishing civilian participation in community acts of resistance) was not having as big an effect as the Bad Government hoped it would.

The collective work done to cope with the war has facilitated the emergence and strengthening of brave attitudes and critical thinking in children, and has thus helped to foster the formation of identities based on the Zapatista struggle for the fulfilment of ‘the 13 demands’ and their permanent resistance against the Bad Government. In the ‘Third Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World, the Zapatistas, and Comandante Ramona’ in December 2007, Zapatista mothers described (in ‘item 7’) how they were “resisting together with their children”. Here, they spoke of the courage shown by their children on two different occasions: when many men went to fight in 1994 and left most women and children behind in their communities; and when, soon after the establishment of military camps and checkpoints, they confronted the soldiers and shouted at them to leave.

Furthermore, the aforementioned Zapatista women stressed that children were able to do any activity or task, that they had the same rights, and that it was therefore necessary to give them ideas and teach them how to work with others in their communities. In essence, this point of view simply represented the adults’ recognition that children were their comradeswho actively participated in the creation and maintenance of different spaces of resistance and Zapatista autonomy, and who they had to accompany in their learning process. [We should remember at this point that many of the communiques signed by Subcomandante Marcos began with an assertion that he was writing ‘in the name of the children, elderly, women, and men of the EZLN’, showing that youngsters were considered to be a fundamental part of the organisation (as is also demonstrated in Zapatista communities themselves).]

“We treat them like children”

The type of ethical education given to Zapatista children became a lot clearer in January 2003, when the EZLN addressed a letter to the Basque organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). In this message, the subject was mentioned with special emphasis, as the Zapatista leadership sought to emphasise that new generations were educated on the basis of free speech, respect for the diversity of thought, and allowing their speech and comprehension to be guided by the heart.

And it was through the statements, letters, and stories issued by the EZLN (between 1994 and the communique of August 4, 2013) that the world could see how Zapatista adults conceived and treated not only Zapatista children but also those who sympathised with their cause. There were, for example, a number of stories directed at children or related to childhood, including: El Cuento del rabito de la nube, El cochecito abollado, La pedagogía del machete, El marxismo según la insurgenta Érika, Cuento de la piedrecita inconforme, Los diablos del nuevo siglo, El Andulio y el cuento de los abujeros, and El amor según el Andulio. With simple, playful, and direct language, these stories sought to narrate (without hiding reality but considering the age and knowledge of the reader) a number of different situations, events, anecdotes, ideas, or principles relating to the vision of the Zapatista struggle.

The creation of the Caracoles and the Committees of Good Government (Juntas de Buen Gobierno – JBGs) in August 2003, meanwhile, represented a strong prioritisation of activities related to health and education, with the active participation of children and young people (in addition to representing a new stage in the political organisation of the Zapatista communities). Almost ten years after the uprising, the children who had witnessed the invasive arrival of the military, the cynicism of the federal government, the lies of the political parties, and the paternalism of outside support, were now young people who knew that they could expect no real change from the state institutions and that it was they who had to assume responsibility for the educational and health work in their communities. They now took on the role of promoters of health and education, and began to decide what actions needed to be taken and how they could be undertaken, together with the coordination of the Good Government.

The majority of the health promoters were men between 15 and 30 years old, and they undertook tasks like: diagnosing and treating citizens; organising and participating in different assemblies and meetings aimed at strengthening healthcare in autonomous Zapatista communities; and learning more about how to correctly treat patients. Alejandro Cerdo describes this process in more depth in his book “Imagining Zapatismo: Multiculturalism and Indigenous Autonomy in Chiapas from an Autonomous Municipality”.[10]

As far as education is concerned, writes Bruno Baronnet, some communities began to name their own educators from 1995, seeking to train them up and establish their own schools. The average age of these educational promoters was 20 years old, and they were chosen and accompanied by adults so that they could responsibly carry out their duties. Again, they were mostly men (either single or with young children) who had studied at State primary schools earlier in the 90s. Between 1997 and 2000, children from Zapatista families were excluded from official state schools, so educational self-determination steadily grew as the promoters became the main actors in the autonomous education of local children. This process would then be further strengthened by the creation of the JBGs.

Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from a text originally written by Eliud Torres and published at http://subversiones.org/archivos/117457

Featured image via Jessie Eastland

[1] Referred to by Zapatistas as a ‘seedbed’ (or semillero) of thought

[2] Indigenous Centre for Comprehensive Training (Centro Indígena de Capacitación Integral) in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

[3] http://seminarioscideci.org/

[4] “Base de apoyo”

[5] “Escucha”

[6] “Tercios Compas” (i.e. the Zapatista media)

[7] “Defensa Zapatista”

[8] http://www.iep.utm.edu/agamben/

[9] The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)

[10] “Imaginado zapatismo, Multiculturalidad y autonomía indígena en Chiapas desde un municipio autónomo” in Spanish


About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
This entry was posted in Autonomy, Education, EZLN, Zapatismo, Zapatistas and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Looking to the horizon: Three generations of Zapatista children

  1. Pingback: Looking to the horizon: Three generations of Zapatista children | dorset chiapas solidarity

  2. Pingback: Looking to the horizon: Three generations of Zapatista children | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s