Chiapas Ten Years Later

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Intro to STAC and the Situation in Chiapas
Trip to Chiapas
by Chris Arsenault November 5, 2001

The eight-hour cattle truck ride through poverty-stricken southeast Mexico left fifty-seven volunteers, seven from Canada, nauseous, tired and frustrated by the time they reached Guadalupe Tepeyac — a Zapatista community high in the mountains of Chiapas state.

However, on that warm Friday on July 27, 2001, the volunteer’s situation seemed slight when compared to that of the people of Guadalupe Tepeyac. Their town was destroyed by the Mexican army in 1995 and they have been refugees, struggling for survival, ever since.

The reason for the army’s campaign of destruction was, ironically, the same one that feulled the volunteer’s desire to help — the Zapatistas. On New Year’s Day, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army — with 2,000 poorly armed indigenous peasants — took over a quarter of Chiapas, beginning what The New York Times called, “The first post-modern Latin American revolution.”

“I wanted to learn more about the Zapatistas and their struggle for land, democracy, history and freedom from foreign exploitation.” said Paul Earle, a dreadlocked volunteer with Canadian-based Students Taking Action in Chiapas (STAC) and a third-year student at Trent University.

“A lot of Western activists talk about the problems in the South, caused by neo-liberal economics. I wanted to see the front for myself and get my hands dirty with people who are struggling every day.” said Earle.

A Little Bit of History

The Zapatistas were instrumental in kick-starting the new global movement against neo-liberalism. Before 1994, conditions in rural Chiapas were deplorable; one in four children died before the age of five, and most houses lacked electricity or running water (in an oil-rich state that produces 60 per cent of Mexico City’s hydroelectric power).

However, the Zapatistas chose January 1, New Year’s Day, for their revolution. It coincided with the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. The tri-lateral trade agreement forced the removal of Article 27 from the Mexican constitution, a clause that guarantees land to those who worked it. The Zapatistas called NAFTA a “death sentence.”

Back to July

For the beginning of the volunteer program, Canadian volunteers met up with volunteers from Mexico and the U.S., mostly young activists, and teachers, in Mexico City’s main square. Together, they boarded a tourist bus and drove twenty-four hours, along winding mountain roads, past small stores and huge ads, into Zapatista Chiapas to work and meet with revolutionary organizers.

“All of us must join and share in our struggle.” said Amos, the superintendent of autonomous schools for Zapatista- Chiapas. “It’s a struggle for conscience; to take from the injustices and make a new kind of education taken from our struggles and suffering,” he said.

The Zapatistas are creating a curriculum that teaches indigenous history, language, tradition and resistance. In time they want to open their schools up to the international community, so

anyone can get an education from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.
After four days of meeting with the community, bathing in waterfalls, talking politics and dancing with our indigenous hosts, the volunteers packed their bags and boarded three cattle trucks (eighteen people and all their luggage crammed on each one) heading for Guadalupe Tepeyac. Halfway through the bumpy drive, the trucks pulled to the side of the road. Mexican soldiers with machine guns boarded the vehicles, demanding passports. The army is always less than friendly toward volunteers helping the Zapatistas.

Fortunately, they didn’t want to raise an international incident by hurting us, so they had little choice but to let us pass. “I was a little nervous when they started yelling in Spanish,” said Corbett Hancey, a volunteer from Halifax . “But what I experienced was the mild side of the harassment people in these mountains face every day.” Massacres of entire communities are not unheard of in Chiapas. In December of 1997, paramilitaries killed forty-five unarmed children, women and men in Acteal as they left church.

The sun was setting when the trucks reached Guadalupe Tepeyac. A group of the village leaders greeted the weary volunteers with applause. “We understand the sacrifices you made to come here. Thank you,” said Aron. He a community leader sporting a soccer shirt and several silver teeth. “The army destroyed all of our houses, so we don’t have much to offer you,” he said apologetically.

The volunteers looked at him in awe. “How can he be apologizing to us for enduring these conditions for two weeks?” remarked Marina, a Trent student. “I wonder how he and his family have managed six years of fearing for their lives as refugees?”

Volunteer Duties

“We worked, carrying big loads of rubble, cleaning buildings and using ten foot poles to knock broken tiles off of roofs.” So said Rob Parker, a student at Saint Mary’s university in Halifax. “When people told me not to work too hard, I’d just look down at my t-shirt (with Ché Guevara's picture) and go grab another load.”

Most volunteers agreed, helping fix the town was the most satisfying part of the trip. The reconstruction will continue long after the volunteers go home; we donated 40,000 pesos — enough for the local people to build three schools.

When work finished for the day, volunteers passed the time drinking coffee, smoking harsh filterless cigarettes and discussing the future of the anti-globalization movement.
We also practiced organizing collectively to mirror the Zapatistas — a skill which took us a few days to master. The Zapatistas govern themselves by grassroots democracy. Every person over twelve can vote on issues concerning her or his autonomous community in a format similar to a protest spokescouncil. In some communities, land is owned collectively, in others, families control their own small farms.

The Townspeople

“I couldn’t believe how kind the people were,” said Paul Earle. “Three women were up at five every morning making our tortillas. Once, I was coming back from a swim when an indigenous woman carrying her baby came out of her house with piping hot corn on the cob. I couldn’t talk to her very well, because of the language barrier, but I thanked her and she smiled.”

Most of the people in Guadolupe Teyepac are still refugees, so we walked six hours to meet them where they were staying in La Realidad. They answered our questions and gave speeches while donning masks, a Zapatista tradition that illustrates the facelessness of the indigenous poor and, more importantly, protects “agitators” from state harassment.

“The government won’t recognize our autonomous schools,” said one student who didn’t give his name. “We need our own schools to teach our language (Tzotzil — an indigenous dialect) and culture.”


After the question session and photo-op, La Realidad burst into a multinational dance party. The students and teachers broke out a marimba (a huge drum-like instrument played by more than ten musicians) and we rocked the night away. Two worlds met that night and had a good time together.

The local people left around eleven that night — they had to walk three hours, with all the drums, to get back to their makeshift shelters. At midnight, the cattle trucks arrived to pick us up.

Before hauling myself on to the truck, I remembered something Paul Earle had said in a speech a few days earlier: “The Zapatistas are an inspiration to all of us. People in every country, of every nationality fighting for freedom can look to this small corner of the world as an example. The Zapatistas are winning what we are all fighting for. They did it with no education, no money and no help. Only hope. If they did this against all odds, than why the hell can’t we?”


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