Chiapas Ten Years Later

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Transgressing to Teach: Education & Insurgencey


Tammy Boyd and Tom Owens
University of Oklahoma

We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!

Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 1993
Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)

The takeover of the town of San Cristobal on New Year's Day 1994 stunned Mexico and the
world; equally stunning was the declaration of war (Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle) posted all over the town. While the conflict is primarily over political and agrarian issues, there is a significant educational component contained within the demands for indigenous recognition and autonomy that has come to be a defining feature of the Zapatista war. One very useful way to view this educational component is through the lens of emancipatory/liberatory educational theory.

There are several ideas that come from bell hooks' writing - and the writing of other emancipatory educators like Paulo Freire - that focus this lens for viewing the various educational demands of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional/EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army), or Zapatistas. First, education should encourage students to think about the political effects of education and not simply be the ingestion of information; it should liberate students and allow them to participate more fully in democratic society. Second, education should reintegrate people into history and reintegrate the person rather than perpetuate the mind/body dualism that makes this historical disengagement possible. Third, everyone's presence is recognized and valued. Fourth, students become the constructors of their own knowledge and communities. Finally, learning is cooperative, not competitive. "Engaged is a great way to talk about liberatory classroom practice. It invites us always to be in the present, to remember that the classroom is never the same" (hooks, 1994, p.158).

This paper will briefly trace the history of Emiliano Zapata and the "original" Zapatistas, then the modern-day Zapatistas. It will then highlight some of the more (in)famous Zapatista educational demands and conclude with how the Zapatistas, in fighting for the right to educate themselves, are in fact educating all of us.

History of the Zapatistas

Because they have been dominated and marginalized by colonizers and mestizos or ladinos (people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent) for 500 years, the indigenous peoples of Mexico - and in this case the Mayans in particular - have been perceived and construed as a people without history. In many cases it was this alleged lack of a historical consciousness that justified the treatment of indigenous peoples in Mexico. "Not only did the original inhabitants of the region lose their lands, but they have also been subject to centuries of fierce racism and discrimination on the part of the dominant Ladino society, which continues virtually unabated to this day" (Rosset and Cunningham, available on-line).

The end of colonialism and the introduction of statehood did not alleviate the situation. The continuance of haciendas (large landed estates) perpetuated the poverty and marginalization of companeros (farmer, villager). The children of this era, including Emiliano Zapata who was born in 1879 in Morelos in southern Mexico, learned early that they were surrounded by inequality and justice, centered on who controlled the land.

Although Zapata was a ranchero (small landholder), he was sympathetic to the plight of the companeros and frequently clashed with the existing oligarchy; he was elected president of the village defense committee in 1909. He was also greatly influenced by Francisco Madero's "Plan of San Luis," written in 1910; it called for "effective suffrage and no re-election" as well as the return of illegally taken lands to small proprietors. Zapata built on this political document, extending it to agrarian and social reform, and produced the Plan of Ayala in 1911. The gist of the document was that usurped lands would be returned to the rightful owners, one-third of the haciendas would be nationalized and anyone opposing the plan would have all of their property nationalized. Furthermore, democratic processes for state and national government would be put in place.

1911 was also the beginning of armed resistance by the Liberation Army of the South, commonly referred to as Zapatistas. In the political flux at the national level that ensued, with presidents coming and going by fair means or foul, Mexico came to be divided between Zapata in the south and Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa in the north. The three factions sent delegates to Aguascalientes in 1914 to try to come to terms, but the dialogue ended in deadlock (Carranza was in power with the Constitutionalist government at the time). Carranza eventually removed Villa from the north and in 1919 had a colonel assassinate Zapata; following his death, many Zapatistas surrended or retired, although a small group continued until 1920 when Obregon overthrew Carranza. Although some measure of Zapata's agrarian reforms were incorporated in the Constitution of 1917 - mainly Article 27 which stated that ejidos (small communal landholdings) would be recognized - the reforms never progressed as quickly as the Zapatistas wanted and they were never completed; the country quickly reverted back to its hacienda ways.

For all his focus on agrarian reform, Zapata was remarkably interested in education. He encouraged villages to build schools for its children (some established night schools for adults) and sought an educational system that would meet the needs of rural Mexico. Elementary schools would emphasize physical, manual and practical training; every state would have a normal school; the National University would be emancipated; and higher education would preference manual arts and industrial science. (Millon, 1969; Brunk, 1995). Zapata is credited with saying, "[education] is an initiative that past governments never wanted to make because it was convenient for them that the people remained eternally ignorant, so they could always be exploited" (Brunk, 1995, p.197).

As I stated earlier, the country quickly reverted to hacienda oligarchies, with little relief for poor villagers except the odd ejido. In the 1960's many villagers - mostly displaced indigenous farmers - were encouraged to migrate to the Lacandon in Chiapas, to establish ejidos there and grow corn and coffee. This effectively removed the poorest of the poor from the center of power. Unfortunately, the companeros were quickly followed into the regions by cattle barons, who quickly took the best tracts of land and displaced everyone else into the jungle. Clashes between the ejidos and ranchers and government began in the mid-1970's. Many leftist groups and missionaries flocked to the area in the 1980's, among them a Maoist-oriented student group which came to teach villagers and to train soldiers. Subcommandate Marcos, who is believed to be Rafael Sebastian Guillen, was one of those students.

This critical mass of ejidos and supporters in the Lacandon Jungle gave rise to the Zapatista community in the 1980's. The decision, in 1990, by the International Coffee Organization, to let coffee prices float, followed quickly by a ban on timber cutting, the revision (repeal) of Article 27 of the Constitution and Mexico's participation in the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, precipitated the Zapatista action. "In late 1992, the Zapatista community assemblies gave the General Command a year in which to prepare the war" (Bardacke et. al., 1995, p.12).

On January 1, 1994 the Zapatista Army entered San Cristobal just after midnight and pronounced the Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle from the government palace balcony. After fighting their way back to the jungle, the Zapatistas remained silent, except for their communiques. After bombing the jungle proved fruitless, the government asked to negotiate with the Zapatistas in San Cristobal. The dialogue resulted in state promises to meet the Zapatistas' demands (Serrill, 1994; Cockburn and Murray, 1994), but Salinas would not ratify the agreement and the Zapatistas rejected the government's "peace proposal." The following year the Zapatistas and the government met in San Andres and signed a series of agreements. To date, the government has not upheld its end of the bargain (Bardacke et. al., 1995; Holloway and Palaez (eds.), 1998).

The Zapatistas are interested in dialoguing with civil society, not taking over the government. They want the state to take responsibility for its actions, to be held accountable; they do not want power (Bardacke et. al., 1995). "The Zapatista movement supports autonomy within, not against, Mexican society - a point dramatically symbolized by the flying of the Mexican flag at virtually all Zapatista gatherings" (Cleaver, 1998, p.623). One of the things they want the government to be held accountable for is education.

(English Translations of) Zapatista Educational Concerns and Demands

Chiapas: the Southeast in two winds, a storm and a prophecy

Education? The worst in the country. Seventy-two out of every one-hundred children do not finish the first grade. Half of the schools go no higher than the third grade, and half of them have only one teacher to teach all the courses. The true drop-out figures are even higher, as the children of the indigenous people are forced to enter the system of exploitation in order to help their families survive. In every indigenous community it is common to see children carrying corn or wood, cooking or washing clothes, during school hours. Of the 16,058 schoolrooms in Chiapas in 1989, only 96 were in indigenous areas.
Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle

We now ask for your committed participation and support for this plan of the people of Mexico who struggle for work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom,
democracy, justice, and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until we win these basic demands of our people, forming a free and democratic government.

EZLN demands during the initial dialogue with the Mexican government

Twelfth. We want the illiteracy of the indigenous peoples to come to an end. For this to happen we need better elementary and secondary schools in our communities, including free teaching materials, and teachers with university education who are at the service of the people and not just in defense of the interests of the rich. In the municipal seats there must be free elementary, junior high, and high schools; the government must give the students uniforms, shoes, food, and all study materials free of charge. The larger, central communities that are very far from the municipal seats must provide boarding schools at the secondary level. Education must be totally free, from preschool to university, and must be granted to all Mexicans regardless of race, creed, age, sex, or political affiliation.
Twenty-ninth. Indigenous women's petition:

(10) Schools must be built where women can receive technical training.

(11) There must be preschools and day-care centers in the rural communities where the children can have fun and grow up strong, morally and physically.
Response to the government's peace proposal
Ninth. Among the national indigenous demands of the EZLN are the following:

(2) A full course of free public education for all indigenous communities.

(3) That the languages of all indigenous communities be given official status, and that instruction in them be obligatory at all levels of education.
...the Zapatista Army of National Liberation says NO to the request that we sign the government's peace proposal. The dialogue of San Cristobal is at an end....

San Andres Agreements -

Document 1: Joint declaration that the federal government and the EZLN shall submit to national debating and decision-making bodies.


Third. The responsibilities that the federal government takes on as commitments that the Mexican state should fulfill with indigenous peoples in their new relationship are:

(4) Promoting the cultural manifestations of indigenous peoples. The state should promote national and local cultural policies of recognition and broadening of the spaces of indigenous peoples for the production, recreation and dissemination of their cultures; of promotion and coordination of the activities of institutions dedicated to the development of indigenous cultures, with the active participation of indigenous peoples; and of incorporation of the knowledge of different cultural practices into the study plans and programs of public and private educational institutions. Knowledge of indigenous cultures is national enrichment and a necessary step in eliminating misunderstandings and discrimination towards indigenous peoples.

(5) Ensuring education and training. The state should ensure for indigenous peoples an education that respects and takes advantage of their knowledge, traditions and forms of organization; with processes of comprehensive education in the communities that broaden their access to culture, science and technology; professional education to improve their development prospects; training and technical assistance that improves the production processes and quality of their goods; and training for organization that raises communities' management capacities. The State should respect the educational activities of indigenous peoples within their own cultural space. The education provided by the State should be intercultural. Impetus shall be given to the integration of regional educational networks that offer the communities the possibility of access to the different levels of education.1

As you can see, despite being an agrarian-based political movement, there is a significant educational component to the Zapatista demands. The primary issue for the Zapatistas is the wholly inadequate educational infrastructure in the Chiapas currently; even for children who want and are able to attend school, many have no opportunity to study beyond the third grade, especially if they are indigenous. Such a low level of education is not enough, by most international standards, to provide basic literacy and numeracy; you need at least four years of education, and most multinational aid organizations prefer six (see Inter-American Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Bank). Indeed, many of the calls for improving the educational system in Chiapas are motivated by concerns about illiteracy, especially among the indigenous populations. That brings us to our second - but by no means secondary - issue, the provision of specific educational opportunities for indigenous peoples.

These concerns center on multi-lingual and multicultural education; indigenous peoples want their children to learn their language and culture. Moreover, they want their history taught and they have worked hard to reclaim and record it (Benjamin, 2000). Additionally, many indigenous students are effectively barred from participating in education because they are non-Spanish speakers. A third issue for the Zapatistas is training and qualifications for adults. Central to this is increased access to science and technology in order to be competitive in agriculture; this has become critical for indigenous populations' survival with the removal of subsidies for coffee prices (they have been allowed to float freely) and the influx of cheap American corn with the inception of NAFTA. Also, they have had no real opportunity to participate in the recent oil boom (van der Haar, 1995; Bardacke, et. al., 1995). Despite their commitment to reforming civil society, dialogue with the government has proven fruitless so the Zapatistas and their international supporters have embarked on several educational initiatives of their own.

Educational Initiatives by (and for) the Zapatistas

The Zapatistas were always an organization dedicated to educating the displaced villagers - indigenous or otherwise - in Chiapas. Even before the invasion of San Cristobal, the area of the Lacandon Jungle occupied by the EZLN was a place where people with no schooling could go to learn (Bardacke, et. al., 1995). In an interview with Geneve Maxwell Gil, Comandante Ana
Maria talked about learning from the Zapatistas.

I joined when I was ... fourteen years old. Some companeros, who had more experience, taught us the alphabet. They taught us to read and write, and after that they taught us to fight. Later on, they also told us something about politics, how to communicate with the people and to tell them the reasons for our struggle (Gil, 1999, p.26).

The Zapatistas have also been active in the building and staffing of libraries and schools, not to mention women's centers and clinics, in the absence of state and federal assistance in Chiapas.
Following the declaration of war, one of the first things the Zapatistas did was to boycott the government, and this included boycotting state schools and schoolteachers; education in Chiapas had always been substandard or nonexistent. In response, they established their own schools and asked villagers to elect their own schoolteachers (Blackwell, 1995). These teachers were frequently chosen for their Spanish language ability - not their teaching skills - but the villagers' desire to learn and communicate could not be denied. In response, the government established the Indigenous Community Instructor Project to provide emergency and continuing education and training for the newly elected teachers in Chiapas. They eventually organized into the Union of Teachers for New Education (UNEM) and articulated a twofold objective: "... the preservation of indigenous cultures and the acquisition of skills that would be relevant to the everyday life of indigenous communities" (Vargas-Cetina, 1998, p.150). The UNEM has a large number of partners, particularly non governmental organizations (NGOs), and works globally to develop locally (in keeping with the Zapatistas' efforts to reform, rather than remove, state and national government).

The Zapatistas and the indigenous peoples of the Chiapas also enjoy private aid. The organization "Schools for Chiapas" states its mission is "cooperating with the Maya peoples' efforts to build dignified schools while promoting social justice" (Schools for Chiapas, 2000). In one of their recent newsletters they noted that the Primero de Enero (First of January) Zapatista Autonomous Rebellious Secondary School (ESRAZ) had opened with 140 students; the school was built, and the local teachers trained, by "Education Caravan for Peace" volunteers as well as local residents. The group is currently building its second junior high school and offers individuals unable to come to Chiapas, but who want to help nonetheless, the opportunity to buy Zapatista bonds ($5.00 each), contribute money ($44.00/month) or provide school supplies to the Individual Indigenous Scholarship Program (Schools for Chiapas, 2000). Finally, "this summer people from around the world [were] invited (for the first time) to participate in formal language classes inside of Zapatista territory in Chiapas, Mexico" (Schools for Chiapas, 2000). Native speakers taught language classes in Spanish or Tzotzil during five-day intensive sessions; the classes were held in Oventic, Aguascalientes II and all profits were used to support schools.

Last, but not least, we cannot forget the "Zapatista effect" stemming from their on-line efforts. The communiques from the EZLN not only go to local, national and international news publications, they are also posted to the Internet within a few hours of their publication; they are usually translated into English and other languages by the next day. "The direct communiques were - and still are - a hedge against increased government repression" (Halleck, 1994, p.32). It should be noted, however, that the EZLN plays no real direct role in this Internet proliferation; even if they had the technology, the lack of energy and communications infrastructures in Chiapas makes posting such a large volume of work on the Internet difficult, if not impossible. Many of the most informative sites - particularly the "lanic gopher" at the University of Texas, Austin which provides a chronological history of Zapatista communiques - are actually maintained in the United States. The presence of the Zapatistas in cyberspace is worrisome for many, particularly at the nation-state level, because the emancipatory potential of the Internet (and independent sources of information) is upsetting the traditional balance of power. The most dramatic development has been the increase in organizational capacity for the Zapatistas and the links to other social movements also on the Internet (Cleaver, 1998). Not only have the Zapatistas learned of the student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and publicly stated their support of the students - in several communiques (Lindsay, 1999) - but there are also Internet groups such as the Irish Mexico Group. Predictably, the Mexican government (and others) are scrambling to put counter-insurgency efforts on-line, as well as trying to establish policy to regulate Internet traffic, but at this point they are still playing catch-up. Nor is the government the only entity opposed to the Zapatistas. Many villages are split between pro-Zapatista and progovernment factions, and thousands have left Chiapas out of fear of the Zapatistas (Blackwell, 1995; van der Haar, 1995; Holloway and Pelaez (eds.), 1998).


In dialoguing with the government about issues of concern for themselves, the Zapatistas have not only educated the villagers of Chiapas, they have educated the nation and the world. They have, in good faith, tried to work with the government to improve the living standards (and educational opportunities) of the poor in Chiapas; furthermore they are adamant about such reforms extending to the whole of Mexico. Finally, not only have they not once sought political power for themselves, they have demonstrated their commitment to historical reintegration and valuing everyone's presence, whether indigenous or not. They have worked hard to build their local communities and (re)construct their own history and knowledge. They seek, not to overthrow global capitalism and modern nation-states, but rather to view them in a new way and with an emphasis on the local community (Vargas-Cetina, 1998). In their drive to be participatory, to work and learn cooperatively, they are not only educating and liberating themselves, they are educating and liberating all of us.ENDNOTES

1. From Shadows of Tender Fury, Monthly Review Press and "United States Institute of Peace Library" found at A complete (as best as I can tell) list of EZLN communiques (many of which also address education but which are too numerous to include here) can be found at
Bardacke, Frank; Lopez, Leslie and the Watson, California Human Rights Committee. (1995). Shadows of tender fury: the letters and communiques of Subcommandate Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Benjamin, Thomas. (April 2000). "A time of reconquest: history, the Maya revival, and the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas." American Historical Review, 105(2), 417-450.
Blackwell, Ben. (27 October, 1995). "Divided by war, united by lessons." Times Educational Supplement, 14.
Brunk, Samuel. (1995). Emiliano Zapata: revolution and betrayal in Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Cleaver, Jr., Harry. (Spring 1998). "The Zapatista effect: the Internet and the rise of an alternative political fabric." Journal of International Affairs, 51(2), 621-641.
Cockburn, Alexander and Murray, Kieran. (18 March, 1994). "A fistful of promises." New Statesman and Society, 7(294), 20-22.
Gil, Geneve Maxwell. (1999). A Freirian revolution on-line and in the jungle: Zapatistas in the public sphere. Master's Thesis. Austin, TX: University of Texas.
Halleck, Deedee. (September-October 1994). "Zapatistas on-line." NACLA Report on the Americas, 28(2), 30-32.
Holloway, John and Pelaez, Eloina. (1998). Zapatista! Reinventing revolution in Mexico. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.
hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Lindsay, Bruce. (October 1999). "Students strike in Mexico." Arena Magazine, 23.
Millon, Robert. (1969). Zapata: the ideology of a peasant revolutionary. New York: International Publishers.
Rosset, Peter with Cunningham, Shea. (n.d.). "Understanding Chiapas." Food First Action Alert. Available on-line at
San Andres Agreements. (1996). "Document 1: Joint declaration that the federal government and the EZLN shall submit to national debating and decision-making bodies." Available on-line at
Schools for Chiapas. (May 2000). "Schools for Chiapas Update." Available on-line at and
Serrill, Michael. (14 March, 1994). "Score one for the Indians." Time, 143(11), 44.
van der Harr, Gemma. (June 1995). "A background to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas." European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 58, 118-121.
Vargas-Cetina, Gabriela. (1998). "Uniting in difference: the movement for a new indigenous education in the state of Chiapas, Mexico." Urban Anthropology, 27(2), 135-164.


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