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READ: The Zapatistas Have Been a Revolutionary Force in Mexico for Decades

Mayan rebels are still fighting colonialism—in the form of globalization—500 years after the European conquest of Mesoamerica.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why did the Zapatista Army of National Liberation attack government institutions in 1994?
  2. How do the Zapatistas see themselves as a continuity of a long history?
  3. What were Mexican government responses to the Zapatistas?
  4. What are the Zapatistas doing in Chiapas in an attempt to provide alternate, community-based services?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How do you think a Zapatista supporter would describe globalization? Would you agree with their definition? Does the Zapatista example suggest that there are limits to the globalization process? Do you think the Zapatistas will successfully resist globalization in the long term?
  2. What does the Zapatista example tell us about change and continuity over long periods of time? What has the Maya experience of the past 500 years been, according to this article?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Zapatistas Have Been a Revolutionary Force in Mexico for Decades

A large crowd gathers at a rally, some people holding up signs and some people holding cameras. Several people stand on a pedestal, one of whom is wearing a face covering, and around them are reporters with microphones.
By Andalusia Knoll
Mayan rebels are still fighting colonialism—in the form of globalization—500 years after the European conquest of Mesoamerica.
Note: This article originally appeared in Teen Vogue on January 30, 2019
It was New Year's Day of 1994. As dawn was about to break, a group of indigenous Mayan guerrillas launched a coordinated attack on cities and towns across the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. They called themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and wore black ski masks and red paisley bandanas known as paliacates.
Three people stand in a line. Two people are wearing red bandanas over their noses and mouths, and one person, mostly obscured in the photo has their arm around one of the people wearing red bandanas.
Image courtesy Andalusia Knoll
The United States had just signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to decrease trade barriers and increase business investment between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. It would also flood Mexico with imported corn, which the Zapatistas and other subsistence farmers believed would be their death, quite literally, and said so.
The Zapatistas, armed with machetes and antiquated rifles, took the municipal palace of the quaint mountain city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. It is estimated that between 600 and 2,000 troops, of humble farming backgrounds and largely between 18 and 30 years old, almost all indigenous Mayans from the state of Chiapas, participated and read a declaration of war from the Lacandon Jungle, proclaiming "Ya basta," which translates to "Enough is enough" (EZLN). They declared war on the army, the state and federal government, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had been in power for 65 years.
"We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism," their declaration read.
Their declaration of war was a last resort, but seen as necessary in order to achieve "work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace," they said. They took the name Zapatista from the early-20th-century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who said: "The land belongs to those who work it."
Unlike many revolutions in the Global South, these indigenous rebels never sought to take power and have always operated under the democratic principle of "mandar obedeciendo," which translates to "leading by obeying." Other key principles include "propose, don't impose," "convince, don't conquer," and the construction of a "world where many worlds fit."
The Mexican government deployed thousands of soldiers to Chiapas to combat this insurrection. Over the next 11 days, the Zapatistas engaged in battle with the Mexican army, and over 100 people, mostly Zapatistas, were killed in combat. Threatening to march on Mexico's capital, the Zapatistas forced the government to come to the negotiating table and a cease-fire was implemented on January 12, 1994. The Zapatistas' pipe-smoking, charismatic spokesperson known by his nom de guerre, Subcommander Marcos, said that they would stop using their weapons but that they would only give them up over their dead bodies.
Even though the Mexican government agreed to a cease-fire, they also armed paramilitary groups that operated outside of the law, violently threatening residents which led to thousands of indigenous people being displaced from their land, including those who were and those who were not aligned with the Zapatistas (Anderson). The conflict continued for years, and in 1997 a horrendous massacre occurred in Acteal, a pacifist indigenous community allied with the Zapatistas, at the hands of paramilitaries, allegedly trained by the army and funded by political parties. Forty-five indigenous members of the Acteal community who were praying in church were killed, including 21 women, nine men, and 15 children.
For years the Zapatistas met during mediated talks where they wanted to guarantee indigenous communities' collective rights. Prior to the massacre at Acteal, the government and the EZLN signed an agreement, known as the San Andrés Accords, which established "a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the State, based on the recognition of their right to self-determination and the judicial, political, social, economic and cultural rights that obtain from it" (San Andres accords). The government did not, however, adhere to the accords, which the Zapatistas took as an act of treason.
Several people set a table under a wooden shelter. Most are wearing handkerchiefs around their noses and mouths and are filling the table with a large feast. Behind them is a view of a lush, mountainous area.
Image courtesy Andalusia Knoll
The failure of the implementation of the San Andrés Accords in the 1990s and the passage of a subsequent law, which the Zapatistas considered much weaker, known as the indigenous reform, opened Mexico to mining in which indigenous communities' rights to reject these destructive extractive projects in their territories are limited. Mexico's new center-left president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is planning the construction of a passenger train and a fruit tree and timber corridor that would crisscross the Zapatista territory. Subcommander Moises announced that the Zapatistas are in complete discordance with these plans, which they believe will not bring any benefit to them (Moisés).
But this doesn't mean that the Zapatistas' revolutionary efforts were in vain.
Chiapas, the southern Mexican state that borders Guatemala and where the Zapatistas operate, is one of Mexico's poorest states even though it is one of the richest in natural resources. In the years since the Accords, the Zapatistas have built schools where there were none before and provide dental and essential medical services in communities where the people before had to walk many hours to get to a doctor. They are still greatly underfunded and lack resources, but the area has seen significant improvement.
In 1994 an indigenous revolution was a dream for the guerrillas who launched the attack; for Zapatista teenagers today, this revolution is the only reality that they know. Because of the Zapatistas, they have grown up in fully autonomous communities with their bilingual schools, workers and growers cooperatives, and independent health clinics and hold rotating volunteer roles in their government. They tell their own stories through media production, and women and men participate in the government as dictated by the women's revolutionary law (Marcos). This law was implemented shortly before the uprising in 1994 and guarantees that "Women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in the place and at the level that their capacity and will dictates." It also has clauses against forced marriage and in defense of women's rights to work and be compensated, to choose how many children they want, and to have access to health care and education.
Five musicians, wearing coverings over their noses and mouths, stand on a stage in front of microphones. Three are playing guitars of various sizes and two are holding notepads.
Image courtesy Andalusia Knoll
Fast forward to January 1 of this year. A group of teenagers, dressed in red with black ski masks, are dancing to the song "Latinoamérica" by the Puerto Rican rap group Calle 13. The lyrics in Spanish ring out through the basketball court they are on in the middle of the Lacandon Jungle: "You can't buy the sun. You can't buy the rain. You can't buy my life. My land is not for sale." One of the dancers holds a sign honoring the life of Subcommander Pedro, who was killed in combat during the Zapatista uprising in 1994.
This dance is just one of the dozens of cultural acts that are part of the celebration of the uprising's 25-year anniversary in La Realidad, one of the Zapatista administrative centers where they hold meetings for their autonomous government. Over 5,000 Zapatistas from all across Chiapas were in attendance this year, as well as a few thousand allies, both Mexicans and other international supporters who have been inspired by their anti-capitalist politics.
"More than 500 years ago, our grandmothers and grandfathers were not taken into account by the capitalist system, because for them they were not worth anything, and were just slaves of the bosses," said a young Zapatista, Berenice, who spoke on behalf of the autonomous government. "They gave up their lives, so that we, the new generations, can have better lives."
It is estimated that at 250,000 strong, the Zapatistas make up approximately 5% of the Chiapas population. They have five local government centers known as caracoles, Spanish for "snail," spread throughout the jungle, mountains, and rainforest regions of the state. Each caracol is a colorful rainbow of murals, celebrating women's and indigenous rights and denouncing multinational corporations and the army. The "meetings of the good government" are held at the caracol in each region's respective indigenous language, which includes Tojolabal, Chol, Tzotzil, Zoque, and Tzeltal.
Six years ago, the Zapatistas launched the "Escuelita," or Little School program, in which outsiders young and old spent a week living within an autonomous community and took the first-grade course of "Freedom According to the Zapatistas."
"The change we want is that one day, the people—the world, men, and women—[will get] to decide how they want to live and that no group can make decisions about the lives of millions of human beings," Subcommander Moises said on December 31.
An estimated 2,500 militants holding symbolic batons, instead of the weapons that they do still possess, cheered him on. His message was that they will not let the government invade their territory and all that they have gained in the past 25 years. "They think we're still ignorant and backwards, compañeros and compañeras. But we're here ready and willing to defend ourselves," Moises says. The supporters chanted back, "You are not alone."
Author bio
Andalusia Knoll Soloff is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City whose work has been published by Al Jazeera,Teen Vogue, Democracy Now!, VICE News, BBC, NBC, The Intercept, and Latino USA, among other outlets. Her reporting focuses on human resilience and dignity in the face of disappearances, state violence, land struggles and gender-based murders in Latin America. Knoll Soloff is the author of the graphic novel Alive You Took Them, about the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students.

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