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Finding the Zapatistas was no easy task.  For two days in San Cristobal I felt like a pinball, bouncing between shop-owners/bus-drivers/fellow-travelers asking the same question in different ways, and this was after having exhausted Google of all possibilities weeks earlier.  Finally, after many raised eyebrows and “why would you want to go there?”s, I had found myself the name of one of the five Zapatista communities, and the one driver in town who went there on a daily basis.

I met the driver at the pre-discussed 7:00am, and by a very Mexican 8:30 we were off.  My three fellow passengers wore traditional Mayan garb and seemed genuinely happy about the foreigner in their midst, which was encouraging.  They even let me have the front seat after gawking at my height for a few minutes.

We passed the hour-long winding jungle drive in silence, my head a mess with questions:  What was I doing here?  What right did I have to go poking around a foreign country looking for one of its most marginalized people groups?  What if it wasn’t at all what I expected?  What did I hope to accomplish?

To which my head responded:  In 2007, when Mexican media moved its focus from the indigenous struggle in the south to the drug cartels in the north, the Zapatistas turned to the public in order to stay present in the world’s consciousness.  They actually invited foreigners to visit and to take word of their situation back home, thus maintaining the public support that prevents the Mexican government from quietly selling off their land to foreign companies.  I’m not sure if scruffy Canadian backpackers were who they had in mind, but that’s what I had to offer.

As for what I expected?  The Zapatistas are a shining success story of indigenous self-determination and fair trade enterprise, both things that I truly believe have the power to change the world.  I wanted to learn from them, or at the very least pay my respects to an inspiring people.

We crested a hill and were quite suddenly greeted by this:


In retrospect, I think this sign serves a double purpose.  It intimidates, certainly.  But for those inside, who have experienced horrific violence at the hands of the government, it is also a comfort.  And a reminder of hard-won battles.

Besides the sign, a locked iron gate is all that can be seen from the highway.  In a little brick kiosk at the end of the gate stands a man wearing a black balaclava.  Despite being a tad unnerving, the black balaclavas are worn in all Zapatista interactions with the outside world as a sign of solidarity with each other.

The faceless guard asks me for my passport.  I give it to him.  He looks it over and writes my name in his log book.  “¿Organización?” he asks.

Shoot.  I had heard that visitors were rarely admitted without being part of an explicitly Zapatista-supporting organization (of which there aren’t any in Canada).  He sees me bite my lip in hesitation.

“Why are you here?” he asks.

“To learn about fair trade coffee and indigenous autonomy.”  This is true, but I’m also totally going for the buzzword approach.

He looks at me suspiciously, then says in Spanish, “it’s pretty early in the day, how did you get here?”

“Uhh…that guy,” I respond, pointing down the highway where the car has long disappeared.

The guard raises his eyebrows then, assuming a person with malicious intent would have come better prepared, swings open the gate for me to enter.

I am brought down a steep hill to what seems to be the Main Street of a regular village: houses, school, general store, a mechanic, and a ‘town hall’ sort of building.  The only difference is that each building is extravagantly painted with Zapatista imagery, explaining their history and declaring their independence.  I ask if I can take pictures, and am told, “Yes, please take pictures of our story,” (motioning to the murals), “but we do not take pictures of people.”

So, as promised to my balaclava-clad guide, the art of the Zapatistas:

Zapatista Autonomous Rebel High School
Language centre, classes in Tzotzil (local indigenous language) and Spanish

“The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of freedom.”  
-Simon Bolivar, South American revolutionary leader

Talk about identifying with the land (also, the sheep is a key source of food and clothing) 
“This is my people, a brave race who with a stone will bring down castles” and “There is no weapon more effective than truth of thought.”  It is immediately obvious that positions of strength in Zapatista art are just as regularly depicted as feminine as well as masculine.

Head office of the coffee co-op that serves as the community’s main income

Despite many attempts to categorize them as Marxist, the Zapatistas have always maintained that their philosophy is derived from their own Mayan culture rather than any Western political camp. I think the strongest evidence of this is the gender equality that exists within this world apart. I have visited isolated agrarian communities before, and one of their hallmarks is a sharp gender divide. Not so with the Zapatistas. From the brief time I spent there, men and women interacted (with me and with each other) on level ground.  They also frequently apply the use of the @ symbol at the end of words, a combination of the ‘o’ and ‘a’ that signify gender en español.  This was not an attempt to be ‘progressive’ or ‘feminist’ (as it would be under Marxism, or any Western order for that matter), but rather an uncontested fact of life inherent to Mayan culture and preserved in this community. This is not to say that the Zapatistas have created some kind of utopia, but rather to illustrate how much would be lost if cultures did not have the autonomy to preserve themselves on their own land.

So did I get what I came for? I can attest to the fact that there are communities in southern Mexico that have schools and hospitals with no government assistance whatsoever, thanks to the Fair Trade movement that they helped instigate. So yes, in that regard I did. I had fantasized (and even prepared some questions for) a sit-down interview with some community elder, and that will obviously have to be saved for another visit. But as I sat on the porch of the town hall, watching a regular family of four wash their truck (parents jokingly reprimanding their kids for being lazy and spraying them with the hose until an all-out soap fight broke out), I felt truly honoured to have witnessed a glimpse of life behind the Zapatistas’ gates.