Stitching Together a Better World by Victoria McNally

The 20th Anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising

Stepping into the Zapatista caracol of Oventic, surrounded by blankets of thick fog and continuous rain felt surreal. I was there in the mountains of the Highlands of Chiapas, along with more than 2000 Zapatistas and supporters from around the world in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN).  At the entrance is a sign reading, “Esta Usted En Territorio Zapatista en Rebeldía: Aquí Manda el Pueblo, y el Gobierno Obedece” (You are now entering Zapatista Territory in Rebellion. Here the people order and the government obeys), a clear reminder of the centuries long struggle of the indigenous of Mexico, and the the decades of tireless resistance by the companer@s Zapatistas who refuse to be forgotten.  

 That night people from all walks of life, from around the world, joined in the celebration, shared tamales and coffee,  sang the Mexican National Anthem and the Himno Zapatista (Zapatista Anthem), danced until dawn (literally) and listened as Comandanta Hortensia talked about the significance of the 20th Anniversary. She said, “We exist and here we are. The construction of autonomy and democratic practice continues and nobody can stop it”

Rumba a La Escuelita

By the next morning, what also happened to be New Year’s, those attending the third-round of the Escuelita: Libertad Según Los Zapatistas (The Little School: Freedom According to the Zapatistas) made our way to CIDECI (Universidad de la Tierra), a school in San Cristobal de las Casas which focuses on education of indigenous populations and building autonomy . Registration took place here, and it was clear to see on the faces of everyone waiting, the anticipation of finding out which of the 5 caracoles— or Zapatista centers– we would be assigned. Formed in 2003, the caracoles include: La Realidad, Roberto Barrios, La Garrucha, Morelia and Oventic.  I walked out of registration with the yellow necklace of Morelia: Torbellino de Nuestras Palabras (Tornado of Our Words).  The cost of attendance was only 380 peso, the equivalent of only roughly $28 dollars, and included food and lodging while with the compas Zapatistas.


By the next morning, it was clear the organization of the Zapatistas. Each caracol had their own line, and upon the arrival of the compas, names were taken, marked off on a clipboard which had each students name already listed, and within an hour, students were boarding vehicles and on their journey, into the heart of Zapatista reoccupied land. The trip to Morelia took 4 hours and upon arrival we were greeted with a line of votanes and votanas, who would be our companions for the duration of the Escuelita. My votana, a 17-year old girl from the ejido of San Pedro Guerrero, would translate from Tojolabal into Spanish (and vice-versa) when talking with the family (in other communities Tzotzil, Tzeltal or Chol, or a combination, were spoken), make sure I didn’t get sick, go with me to the bathroom, answer questions that I had along the way and most importantly laugh with me, whether it be learning words in Tojolabal or making tortillas for the first time.

 As we entered the caracol for the first time, side-by-side with our new companer@s, our votan(a)s, the feeling was indescribable. All of the Zapatistas surrounded each student as they walked in, with applause and music they played to accompany us into their caracol, and into their lives. The rest of that day we spent listening to the teachers of the community as they told us the truths about the organization, despite what the media has often said. The most energizing part was that they were so transparent. Not only were they telling us about all of accomplishments that they had reached in the last 20 years but also the failures. One teacher said, “20 years ago we threw political parties into the garbage. We are trying to better our systems of health, education and government. We understand that there is still a lot that needs to be done, but we know that we our fight will continue on”. 

 Later that day, I saw my votana for the first time when she took off her pasamontaña to eat with me in the evening. This idea of the Zapatistas always covering their faces quickly disappeared. It should be noted, that the Zapatistas only wore the pasamontañas (the black mask) or paliacate (bandana) when traveling in the open or when people were taking photos or video. However, when in the communities, they never wore them. The rest of the night was spent really getting to know each other, as we prepared to depart to the community where we would spend the rest of the time: Ejido San Pedro Guerrero. As mi votana walked me to my dormitory for the night, waiting until I had laid down and ready to sleep before leaving, I knew the lessons that I would learn on this trip, were bigger than I understood at the moment.. 

 Ejido San Pedro Guerrero

The next day, nearing evening, open air trucks came from each ejido– or communal land– to pick us up and take us to meet the family and the community that would become our school and home. Only 7 students total went to this particular ejido, making the experience with the community very intimate. The trip took about 2 hours along very rustic, often muddy roads, and by the time we reached San Pedro it was pitch-black. As we walked towards the only light shining, which happened to also be the church and gathering place, we could see the whole community gathered around waiting to welcome us. As soon as we sat down and introduced ourselves they began their presentation, which they must have worked for weeks on. Not only did some of the men, who spoke good Spanish or as they called it Castillo, talk to us about the history of the struggle that the Zapatistas suffered in particular San Pedro Guerrero, but the children of the community sang songs, acted out skits and told us jokes. It was honestly one of the most amazingly welcoming experiences I have had. The kids were, just like anywhere else, kids. They laughed constantly, were shy performing and acted goofy whenever possible. It seemed, kids too, knew so much already about the struggle yet seemed to view it as a way of life, not a reason to get them down.

 That night I met my family: Lucia*, a woman not much older than myself, her husband Felix*,their 4-year old son Pedro*, who would make me laugh for the rest of my time there, and 4-month old baby girl, Ana*.  Additionally, Lucia’s parents Juana and Don Hector and her sister Alexandra along with her 8-month old baby boy Francisco* lived in a house on the same piece of land, and were just as much a part of the family. We ate together and they welcomed me into their home, where I would sleep by 8 pm every night, as lights were scarce and work started early the next morning. It was clear from the beginning that this school was like no other, as the school in this case was the collective; the community and the maestr@s (teachers) were everyone who formed a part of the community. 

 Every morning, from the first to the last, started early, around 4:30am when the roosters started singing. Yet, waking up was easy, I believe, because of a mix of both anticipation and really good conditions. Not only was I sleeping early, in a place where I was not being awoken by noises of the city but I was eating really pure food while I was there. The family would greet me, “Hola companera” and I would greet them the same, s’an in Tojolabal followed by breakfast, usually black beans and lot of fresh tortillas. But, then the work would begin, which always started with making the tortillas: grinding the corn, pressing the tortillas and cooking them on the comal, the flat griddle used to cook tortillas. The first time, I admit it took me awhile to understand the art of tortillas making…and I appreciate more than I ever did, the energy the women put into making piles of tortillas every day (while carrying their babies on their backs in rebozos), they really are the backbone that sustains the work done during the day.

 By late morning there was time set aside to study the books that we were given to us on the first day in CIDECI:  Autonomous Government I, Autonomous Government II, Autonomous Resistance and Participation of Women in Autonomous Government. And, even though my votana already knew the material from the books, she would read alongside with me, with eagerness to answer any question and find out any new information. Our study sessions would always be followed by a light snack of pozol, a cold drink made with ground corn.

The evenings were filled by going to the basketball courts where most people from the community would gather and watch the games– always women vs. women or men vs. men. For the people of the community, it was a time to socialize, for the students a time to reflect on each day and our experiences. However, it was also a time to talk with others from the community and to play with the kids, who were always more than willing to show us how to construct a building with old corn cobs or make us laugh pretending to fall into holes in the ground . The funniest time was when I was sitting with another student on a bench watching the game, and some of the local kids were on the other end. Each time we would look away, they would inch closer and as soon as we looked back at them they would scurry back, laughing the whole way. Then, as soon as I took out my books, that I was given on Zapatista Autonomy, the kids became so interested in seeing the pictures, eager to see if they recognized anyone on the covers or inside. It became these experiences of laughing and sharing everyday experiences that became the treasure of this whole trip.

The remaining days were filled with collective work, in particular making pan de canela (cinnamon bread), making tortillas, and taking beans out of their shells. These collective jobs are essential to the autonomy of the Zapatista communities, and not only are a safeguard of protection, but strengthen the fabric of the community along the way. There are no paid jobs and everyone shares in the benefit of the work done within the community. One day while I was sitting on the ground helping the women of the family sort a huge pile of beans with the smell of wood burning inside. The animals were running around outside with the sound of the Radio Insurgente–the independent, collective radio station run by the Zapatistas– playing on the small radio. At that moment I felt the full power of the collective effort, how far the Zapatistas have come, and the strength of the people sitting around me– especially these women. There is this strong, strong bond between women there of sororidad, or sisterhood and it shows in the trust that is expressed in everyday activities and in helping with the children. We learned about autonomy and freedom through such welcoming experiences like this, in communities, living their daily lives and experiencing the strong bonds that bind the whole. 

 La Despedida

On the last night in San Pedro, there was a farewell in the church which most of the community attended. That night, students and the people of the community took the time to extend a hand in appreciation for our time within the community and the shared experiences. The importance of what each of us had experienced was again reaffirmed. We had not attended the Escuelita to learn how to become Zapatistas, nor was staying to live in the communities ever an option, as Sub Marcos had made clear in his communications. What we had come to learn was the power of autonomy and collective work, and the reality that another world is possible, a world where many worlds fit. Our job, as the seeds of resistance and autonomy are to decide which aspects work for our lives and which do not, and to utilize those within our own communities and parts of the world.

 El Después 

A month after returning from Chiapas, I have begun to understand the most significant homework I’ve been given: figuring out how to transfer that knowledge to organizations and collectives here in my part of the world. The Escuelita taught me that freedom and autonomy are many things: it is taking care of the land because that is where our food comes from; it is the cooperative work of daily life that allows the Zapatistas to survive on their terms without any government help; it is the creation of an educational structure that works for and not against the people. Simply it is the ability to decide how one wants to live according to their own rules. Finally, I learned the power of acceptance, even of those who may hold very different values than my own. The indigenous neighbors of the Zapatistas, who they call priistas because of their acceptance of government (the PRI) help, often go into Zapatista communities to receive medical treatment or to resolve legal issues– despite their unwillingness to support the Zapatistas– because of the failure on the part of the government to provide them adequate services in their own communities. What do the Zapatistas do? They provide them services just like anyone else and see them all as coming from the same people, saying the priistas have just been corrupted by promises from the government. In their view, by fighting with the priistas they would only be giving themal gobierno (the bad government) what they want, a divided group.

 The Zapatistas wanted us to listen, watch, and share experiences in the struggle. Now, the mission is on us: that each of us, in agreement with our way and places, continue to organize, according to the context of our lives. So I will carry very close within me the experiences I lived alongside the compas and utilize them in my everyday life, whether it’s finding new ways to convert waste into living soil, buying locally or fighting for social justice around the world.

 Like the compas said on the day we left the communities, “No es un adios, es un hasta luego” (It’s not good-bye, it’s see you later). For those of us changed by the experience of the Escuelita, the connections will remain their as we spread the seeds of change across the world, in whatever ways we see fit, no matter how small they may seem.


 *names have been changed to protect privacy.