A reflection by Miriam Harder, an MCC Service Worker in San Cristobal, Chiapas, originally posted on her blog http://mtharder.wordpress.com/
Mexicans woke after their New Year’s celebrations on January 1, 1994, to a declaration of war on the government. The same day as the NAFTA agreement came into effect,. The EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) had taken control of five cities and towns in the State of Chiapas, southern Mexico. For 12 days there was armed conflict with the Mexican military until a ceasefire was signed.
Over the course of two decades, a movement, largely indigenous, had grown in the backwoods of Chiapas. Drawing on socialist, anarchist and Marxist ideology, fused with Mayan spirituality, the Zapatistas chose January 1 to stage this revolution calling attention to NAFTA which would only increase the gap between the rich and the poor, reform of the Mexican government which had been ruled by the same party (PRI) for 65 years, and more locally, land reform, community autonomy and an equitable dispersion of the profits to the people of Chiapas from the substantial amount of natural resources extracted from the state.
Overnight, a forgotten part of the country was brought onto the world stage and has been the inspiration of many revolutionary-minded idealists ever since.
Prior to arriving in Chiapas, I had a vague sense of the history and had seen some of the popular images, but nothing had quite prepared me for what I found when I arrived. The struggle still continues and there are clearly identifying Zapatista or Autonoma communities who don’t take any support from the government – even for education and health care – as it compromises the struggle. And there continues to be a significant military presence in some areas.
But what did this do to San Cristobal, the largest town in the area and now my home? The revolution turned a little visited area of the country into a tourist hot spot. There are pedestrianized walking streets lined with shops selling local and Guatemalan crafts, coffee shops serving lattes with highland coffee, wine bars, yoga studios … San Juan Chamula, just outside of the city limits, claims to be the most visited indigenous community in the world.
But the really interesting thing is the amount of NGOs that started here after 1994. According to one source, there are 350 in this small city, mostly working in some sort of project in the surrounding communities. The amount of young European volunteers (and a few from Canada and the US), speaking an impressive level of Spanish, is astounding. One result is that the amount of attention I receive, with my blond hair and pale skin, is minimal and making friends with a local is difficult. People are drawn to this place because of the contemporary revolutionary struggle. The charismatic writings of Subcomandante Marcos, philosopher and a leader of the ELZN, and international publicity campaign haven`t hurt the spread of the cause either.
People continue to be drawn to this place for the history and ideology it represents, but it doesn’t take much time visiting surrounding communties to get a sense of the complextity of the social fabric of the indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
One of the groups we work with are Las Abejas, a non-violent organization, with representation in 28 communties, who are struggling for the same goals and rights as the EZLN, but don’t agree with the use of violence in the process. There are also people identified as PRI sympethizers, who accept government services in return for their support of the PRI political party. These groups, whether in between communities or within communities, don’t appear to work together, nor get along. It is a much more complicated, messy context than just the indigenous people united as Zapatistas against the Mexican government.
Injustice still exists and basic rights are not equitably accessible to everyone in the state (or country). Chiapas continues to be one of the poorest states in Mexico, with high numbers of undocumented migrants going to the U.S. to work.
While I haven’t quite made sense of this world I am living in and have a poster on my wall purchased from the Zapatista store on the touristy walking street (Otro mundo es posible. Un mundo done quepan todos los mundos- Another world is possible. A world where all worlds fit. ), I appreciate the opportunity to learn about and experience the complexity of this place beyond the idealist propaganda broadcast to the world by international activists.