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20th Celebration:
A Sober Reminder That Zapatismo
Is A Large Thorn In The Side Of Global And Local Capital

by Roberto Flores
Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico and Los Angeles, California

December 30th

Dan, a playwright friend and I flew to Mexico City, then to Chiapas. We headed to the 20th Anniversary of the Zapatista uprising being celebrated in all five Caracoles, but we were going to Oventic. From the Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas airport we took a taxi to San Cristobal. Although the road is new and shorter and I was sitting in the front, the curves on the winding road still got me nauseated. (It is important to note that even 20 years after the uprising, we still passed through two Federal Police roadblocks.) I had not been to Chiapas for seven years. That’s the longest break since 1994 when I first visited. I was there on January 5th of 1994, 20 years ago. After that I visited in 1995, 8/96-7/97, 2000, 2004, and 2007.

In 1994, the poverty was unbelievable. One could see oppression, poverty and malnutrition in the eyes and bodies of the Indigenous people. There was rampant alcoholism among the Indigenous population -- both women and men. The hatred and contempt for the Indigenous people was palpable. The detestation for any supporters of the Zapatista was thick and one couldn’t be too careful. There were sequestrations and torturing of NGO workers and death threats. During my one year stay in ’96-’97, even, my daughter Adela and I developed an escape plan because I too had been directly warned.

This time I noticed that there are still many Indigenous children selling artesania and clothing but their physical semblance seems much healthier. No Indigenous children, none, came up to ask for money. One can feel that, indeed, the Zapatista uprising was a liberating experience for all Indigenous people, Zapatista or not.

Because of the uprising, the Indigenous self-image and demeanor changed almost instantly. In 1994, during my first visit, I observed that Indigenous would get off the sidewalk to allow a mestizo or Coleto (white person born in Chiapas) to pass by. A short while after the uprising, one observed no such thing. People made room for each other. It is this feeling of equality that is asserted by the Indigenous and resented by the Coletos.

My point is that similar to the situation in the South after the Civil War in the U.S., the Zapatista uprising created political and economic openings for the development of Indigenous people and informally enhanced Indigenous rights but it didn’t change the minds and hearts of those who saw the Indigenous as sub-human and benefited from their racialization and exploitation. Therefore, there is now in Chiapas a reaction similar to the Jim Crow reaction that emerged in the South.


We arrived in San Cristobal about 2:30pm. Everyone who has been in San Cristobal for at least a day knows not to get on a taxi at that time of the day. It’s much faster to walk. At that hour businesses close, children are given a 2-hour break, and workers are out for their afternoon family meal. It is wall-to-wall traffic. Ironically, though, that crawling pace helped me observe the buildings, the people, the stores, many of which I had visited during previous visits, particularly during the 1-year stay between ’96-’97. My first impression was that a lot of money has been pumped into San Cristobal; that it has been in many ways gentrified. The many contradictions and perhaps unintended consequences of the uprising have developed a Zapatour industry that is now flourishing in San Cristobal.

We checked in to our hotel, Plaza Santo Domingo, at about 3:00pm. We would have gotten Posada Jovel but it was full. We were starving, so we agreed to drop off our luggage in our respective rooms, wash up, and go eat. We went looking around for some of the old spots but they weren’t any longer there. Instead we ended up at Tierra Adentro, a relatively new kind of new age, hipster, and sort of progressive place. As a business, they have hit a mid-point that caters to all types of tourists. Tierra Adentro has delicious albondiga soup, I recommend it. By coincidence, one of our contacts was there with some other friends. It was perfect. With their help we were now able to plan out the rest of the trip.

December 31st

Right before we left the hotel to go to Oventic, I got a call from a friend Cesar, from Mexico City, who let me know that a friend of his was also trying to get to Oventic and that her and her boyfriend would like to go with us since it was their first time traveling to Oventic. Luckily, she called as we were leaving and she happened to be across the street in the Plaza Santo Domingo area, the site of hundreds of Indigenous arts and crafts booths.

We met and walked about 6 blocks to the
combi (minibus) station, a couple of blocks down from the Mercado. We first tried to catch a combi but all the combis were taken. There was a long wait list and the next combi would get there in two hours. We then tried to get a taxi. Several taxis were refusing to go to Oventic and we wondered why. One taxi hesitated but finally said yes, but for 450 pesos. We thought it was too much so we got off thinking another taxi would take us for less. We were wrong on two counts: one, most taxis we asked would not take us to Oventic at all and two, the fare was 450 pesos. We must have asked 10 taxis before a taxi driver agreed to take us.

New Years Eve at Oventic

It was amazing. The communities were there in big numbers and so were the outside (national and international) visitors. One noticed that even within the Oventic Caracol (regional governance space), which is mainly Tsotzil, there was a vast variety of dress and traditions. Many collectives and cooperatives had their products on display and for sale. I bought a few things for my grandkids and was tempted to buy these beautiful Zapatista leather boots for a measly $45.00, which I didn’t have. One could tell that the Zapatista communities are much better off than in 1994.

From talks with friends that had been to the Escuelita (a week-long community-led school about the Zapatista process) in person, and from my own experience of having gone through Escuelita through video conference, it is my understanding that the Zapatista communities are much better off than the non-Zapatista communities. For example, most of the Zapatista Caracoles have medical clinics and invite their non-Zapatista neighbors to come and receive this service.

The drive back

As we drove back to San Cris, we were lucky to have gotten a taxi driver who was sympathetic to the Zapatista cause. We thought the taxi refusals to take us to Oventic a little strange but learned later that many of the taxi drivers, as with the Coleto community, were increasingly upset with the fact that Indigenous people now demanded their rights. They were upset that occasionally Indigenous communities set up roadblocks as ways to protest what they feel is unfair. Coletos are upset because Indigenous people now demand their rights. I could feel the urgency of the issue in his voice as he told us that, “They are now arming themselves.”

As I said, it seems like there is a Jim Crow-type of backlash to the gains made by the Zapatista uprising by a certain sector that benefited from the exploitation of the Indigenous population. The taxi driver related a symbolic story of a construction contractor who beat his Indigenous employee, as was customary before the uprising. He told us how, in his mind justifiably, the Indigenous killed the boss. “The Indigenous people are no longer tolerating any mistreatment,” he emphasized.


While the gains made by the uprising have been extended and taken by other non-Zapatista Indigenous people and progressive mestizos, we have also seen consistent attacks by the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD (the three largest Mexican political parties) and we have witnessed big ranchers utilize and organize death squads and mobilize constant incursions into Zapatista territories. The present reaction, however, seems to represent a more developed level of reaction that includes new forces and another level of coalescing of anti-Zapatista forces.

The losses to big landlords and to national and transnational capital incurred by the uprising were great. Transnational projects such as Puebla-Panama were halted. Access to rich natural minerals and oil that the Caracoles are sitting on has been on hold. The big ranchers have lost a significant amount of land that the Zapatistas recovered. The locals have lost resources and cheap (slave) labor and political and social control.

In the December/January issues of Desinformemosnos, there is a four-part interview of sub-comandante Marcos by Gloria Ramirez where El Sub confirms my observations. From what I heard and saw this time around, it seems to me, more than ever, that global capital, national and local wealth, and the local rightist coletos (racist whites) are planning to make a concerted and coordinated effort to dislodge the Zapatista communities at some point in the near future.

It seems likely that finance and global capital are waiting for the right moment to recoup Zapatista lands recovered during the uprising as well as reverse many of the political and civil gains. Up to now, the government has tried to lure them off the lands by offering housing and factory jobs which only a handful have taken.

The Zapatista lands are rich with natural resources, minerals, and oil, and key to finance capital plans to expand tourist spots with dams for electricity, lakes, and resorts such as were expressed in Plan Puebla-Panama. Chiapas is the richest state of Mexico in terms of natural resources.

The accomplishments of the Zapatista uprising and the building of autonomous communities inside a capitalist state has inspired and drawn in consistent national and international support. It is obvious that it is that support from civil society that has incubated the Zapatista experiment.

The escuelita, as a response to the constant request to explain how they are building autonomy and as a renewed effort to share the accomplishments of Zapatismo for humanity, is exactly what was needed to preempt any effort to reverse all the gains and keep an all-out attack at bay. The idea and concrete achievements of autonomy have and will continue to simultaneously reignite civil society's imagination (national and international) as well as provide some of the much-needed protection.

We recall that it is documented that one of the compelling reasons that the Mexican government offered a unilateral cease-fire on January 12, 1994 was because the Mexican stock market was in a free fall. Because of the presence of international society as well as from the reports put out by Mexican and international independent media, many investors feared that Mexico would become unstable. Investors that divested also feared that the Mexican army was poised to massacre its own Indigenous population.

Although extremely probable, a full-on attack on the Zapatista communities is not inevitable.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 16, 2014

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