The Zapatista rebels in Mexico began a dual celebration in the dark hours of the end of 2003. Besides marking the beginning of a new year, Mayan insurgents observed the 10th anniversary of their armed revolt in the southern state of Chiapas. Fireworks, speeches and dancing to dawn, punctuated the night.
A decade before this celebration, soon after midnight and moments after NAFTA went into effect, the indigenous soldiers took over several towns. NAFTA signaled the end to the centuries-old economy and culture of the original inhabitants who survived by toiling the land to grow corn. They feared -- and it has proven to be true -- that global corporations would flood the Mexican market with cheaper, genetically altered produce, giving the final deathblow after years of oppression to those whose birth right to the land dates back to a time well before the invasion of Cortez.
San Cristobal de las Casas, the most important municipality captured, is a classic 16th century colonial town nestled in the trans-volcanic region of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The Zapatistas also successfully attacked the military instillation north of San Cristobal, although heavily out armed. Zapatistas who previously joined the Army and security police volunteered to work during the holidays giving the post commander the false impression that there were adequate troops for defense. This strategy momentarily gave the peasant soldiers an advantage against automatic weapons, helicopters and the like. In a matter of days the Mexican Army regrouped and took San Cristobal.
Since that fateful revolt, starting in the crispy cold obscurity of Jan. 1, 1994, Mexico has experienced a tense truce. When president Fox broke the political strangle hold of the dominant PRI political party in 2000, the Zapatistas clung to a hope that their demands for constitutional rights would be honored. Based upon President Fox's declarations the commandantes caravanned to Mexico City only to be thwarted by Fox's own party. Although a constitutional amendment declaring indigenous citizens' rights did pass, it was watered down and effectively had no power. The San Andres accord signed by the Zapatistas and Mexican government granting civil rights and autonomy after the ceasefire was not honored.
Now pockets of Mexico are walled off from the rest of the politic. In these regions local control is exercised. The Mayans insist that the autonomous zones and the fight for peasant rights is not limited to rights of indigenous people but to all citizens of Mexico that have been ostracized by the establishment. They take no money or assistance from the Mexican government and have banned together to provide those essentials of health, food, and education so long deprived to them.
Beginning on Dec. 27 of this past year, I spent a week at the Zapatista highland compound, known as Caracol Dos, with the "Schools for Chiapas Delegation for Peace." I rode with other delegates for an hour on a mountainous twisting road from San Cristobal to its location.
Forty-seven delegates showed up to help the schools make some income during the festival and learn more about the movement. We had private meetings with many of the Zapatista leaders. The delegates fascinated me. I was the only delegate in his fifties to travel to the low intensity war zone. The others were mostly young college and grad students. It was like a throwback to the 1960s. Rather than spending their holiday on the beach, they travel as bohemians looking for places and causes in which they can help the oppressed. The young workers were from the US, Canada, Sweden, Brazil, Australia and many other parts of the world. Their motivation was simple and pure. We slept in two rooms on concrete floors. Everyone cheerfully worked together. The delegates made meals in a kitchen with a dirt floor. The compound existed in a cloud forest so rain and mud were a continual companion. I will never again tell a Generation X joke.
The two most important goals of the Zapatista autonomous government are health and education.
A clinic is open 24/7 staffed by volunteers who work for free. Now micro clinics exist throughout the region. The workers must leave their duties at the clinic to work a second job to survive.
The education for Chiapas provided by the Mexican government is pitiful, (as indicated by a recent report by the World Bank). Besides being open only on an irregular basis, there is little teaching or supervision. The teachers attempt to convince the children to leave the traditions of their culture. Now the autonomous people run their own secondary school. Just like the ones who man the clinic, the teachers work long hours without pay. They make what little money they need to survive by weaving and sewing at night. The products of their nightly efforts are beautiful, simple works of art. One repeating theme in the art work of the Zapatistas is "Liberty through Education." Unfortunately they have little market for their products in the mountains of their homes. The infrastructure in the Sierra Madre just doesn't afford much opportunity for these people to discover an alternate method of making a living.
My first impression before coming to Caracol Dos was brought about by a request from the Zapatistas to not bring candy or trinkets for the children because they didn't want them to learn to beg. Liquor, drugs and weapons are banned from the compound. I do not know what will eventually happen to these people claiming their independent rights to a life with dignity. I am sure that they will unfalteringly follow the creed set by their name sake, Emiliano Zapata, the people's revolutionary of the early 1990s: "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."
Blake Bailey is a lawyer, photographer and novelist from Tyler, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.blakebailey.com.