Friday, November 28, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Three

Today we visited the Zapatistas.

At 9 in the morning we stuffed ourselves into taxis (4 people per sardine-sized vehicle) and headed north into the mountains. After about an hour of stomach-churning hairpin turns at ascending altitudes our driver pulled over to the side of the road.


He asked for our passports - we were entering new territory, after all (an adventure across a different border, if you will) - and disappeared inside a wooden building, passports in hand. A few more ski-masked faces peered out and looked at us, then disappeared into the building again. After a few minutes the men returned and opened the gate for us. We were ushered into a little room where four men in black Zapatista ski masks sat behind a wooden table, looking at our passports. They asked us to sit down - we did, and even the most talkative of us were quiet for awhile - then asked us our names, our professions, and our reason for being there.

It was both more and less intimidating than you´d think. I mean, they were wearing black ski masks, and definitely looked the part of rebel forces. On the other hand, below their masks they wore clothes just like the rest of us: sweatshirts, jackets, a pair of jeans. None of them carried guns (though no doubt they could acquire some quickly if need be - why else would there be such a guarded gate?). Various posters hung everywhere, some from other organizations, all calling for democracia (democracy), justicia (justice), libertad (liberty), and paz (peace) in different forms and in different catchy slogans. This may have been rebel territory, complete with deeply unsettling ski masks and hidden ammunition, but in the presence of these Zapatistas it was clear that we and they shared, first, a common humanity, and then - if the posters were any indication - common dreams.

Our identification seemed to check out, so we left the little room and entered another little room in another building. Here there were more benches to sit on - clearly they were used to receiving delegations like ours. Again, four people - two women and two men, pointedly (women´s rights being a primary Zapatista demand) - sat behind a desk wearing black ski masks. Again we introduced ourselves, and again the information of each person was written down. These Zapatistas keep meticulous records!

Introductions completed, they begain telling us their story. We had heard much of it before - we´ve been studying the Zapatistas intensively for over a week - but now we were hearing it through the black cotton of pasamontanas (espanol for ski masks). For a moment I retreated into memory, then returned to reality in wonderment: Two years ago I learned about the Zapatistas on a Mexico immersion class, but I never could have imagined then that I would someday meet these mysterious ski-masked rebels in person.

In the midst of more peace and justice posters two flags hung behind the speakers: the EZLN flag, black with a red star in the middle, and the Mexican national flag, red, white, and green with the snake-eating eagle in the middle. I wanted to ask why there were both flags, what each flag meant to them, but I waited too long and the moment was gone.

After our talk we walked around the village, or caracol (espanol for snail shell), as the autonomous communities call themselves. Nearly every building was painted in bright murals with Zapatista men, women, and children on them. Some even featured Zapatista animals as small as mariposas (butterflies) with Zapatista masks on their heads. I took lots of pictures of these buildings. We were strictly forbidden from taking pictures of any people, whether they wore masks or not.

There was a school - surprisingly large given the small size of the community (clearly education was a priority here) - and a health clinic, and a church, all clustered in this little Zapatista community tucked away in the pine-green mountains. We listened to another talk in the health clinic, then found our way into some artisan cooperatives where women sold handmade crafts and wove blankets and clothes right before our eyes. In one artist cooperative, I found (and bought) some poster prints of beautiful Chiapas-depicting artwork and some handmade Zapatista dolls for a self-arranged Zapatista nativity scene(photo to come in Advent! :)).

I was, I admit, surprised to find tourist-oriented stores in an autonomous community, but it was hard to be opposed to the vibrant art and clothing beind sold and, frankly, disseminated here. The clothing cooperatives were set up so that the women would get a fair price for their goods and would be cooperating, not competing, for sales. (What a concept!) As for the poster propaganda, well, whether you agree with the goals of the movement or not, you´ve got to hand it to the Zapatistas for their brilliant mastery of popular culture.

As we headed back toward the entrance to the community, I noticed one of the Zapatistas who had originally interviewed us sitting outside a building...without a mask. We made eye contact, but he made no move to put on his mask. Either the initial mask-wearing was part of an act, the playing of a part in an elaborate political drama, or he didn´t fear our recognizing his identity (identity protection - for both the individual Zapatista and his or her family - is, we´ve been told, a primary reason for the masks). Probably it was a bit of both.

Our time in Zapatista territory at an end, we found transportation - half of us in a taxi, half in the back of a pickup truck - and headed back to San Cristobal.


I have to admit, when I first heard about the Chiapas part of this semester program, I was skeptical. I mean, I was excited, too - the romance of visiting a new place! But I was a little afraid the program would get wrapped up in the romance of rebellion when I knew from even my own limited knowledge of history that rebellion rarely ended romantically. And, in part, I was right - there was little romantic about Oventic: people lived and worked, children learned, teachers taught, doctors treated patients, storekeepers sold their wares.

And yet the continued existence of that life, illuminated everywhere by brightly colored murals that told of the spirit of a people - their dreams, their values, their history, their heroes - all this spoke to us of the fiercely strong commmunity living in this place, a community where bonds were as tightly knit as any of the hand-woven clothes they made to keep visitors warm. I am no Zapatista. But I do want to be a part of a community as strong as the one we visited today.

Is that even worth hoping for, worth working for? I think Oventic gives us a glimpse of proof, pointing us toward the truth I saw in a Zapatista slogan today: Otro mundo es possible / Another world is possible...

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