The Lessons of Zapatista Women Activists for Today’s Social Movements

The role of indigenous women in the Zapatista movement is little known.

James Tracy February 1, 2016

(Visual Research / Flickr / Creative Commons)

On Jan­u­ary 1, 1994, the Zap­atista Army of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion (EZLN), made up of most­ly indige­nous peas­ants from Mex­i­co’s south­ern state of Chi­a­pas, declared war on the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment. It was the same day the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA) was signed. Com­ing three years after the end of the Com­mu­nist bloc, the Zap­atis­tas offered a unique polit­i­cal per­spec­tive that com­bined indige­nous per­spec­tives with an orga­niz­ing mod­el called lead­er­ship through obe­di­ence,” reflect­ing both anar­chist and social­ist polit­i­cal tra­di­tions. They became one of the major cat­a­lysts for the anti-glob­al­iza­tion/­glob­al jus­tice move­ment, and the Zap­atista ethos offered an alter­na­tive to both stale, ortho­dox left­ist par­ty build­ing and the expand­ing glob­al neolib­er­al project. Quick­ly mas­ter­ing the art of rebel­lion at the dawn of the inter­net era, the Zap­atis­tas became a major source of inspi­ra­tion for young activists, many of whom trav­elled from North Amer­i­ca and Europe to direct­ly work along­side the Zapatistas.

Images of the Zapatistas have always been striking—indigenous peasants with wooden rifles declaring war on the Mexican government; with their faces covered by black ski masks or red bandanas, they symbolically became the face of the faceless, the voice of the voiceless.

Hilary Klein was one of those young activists. She spent much of the 1990s work­ing in Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties. Since return­ing, she has orga­nized at Make the Road New York and cur­rent­ly works the Cen­ter For Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy. Her new book Com­pañeras: Zap­atista Women’s Sto­ries is the first Eng­lish-lan­guage study of the role of indige­nous women in the Zapatistas. 

Why did you go to live in the Zap­atista base communities?

I didn’t go to Mex­i­co intend­ing to live in Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties. When I went to Chi­a­pas in 1997, I was only plan­ning to stay for about six weeks. I went as a human rights observ­er — respond­ing to a call from the Zap­atis­tas who were fac­ing con­sis­tent attacks from the Mex­i­can armed forces. The pres­ence of out­siders often pre­vent­ed these attacks and, when they did hap­pen, at least we could doc­u­ment them and get the word out.

But once I got there, I was cap­ti­vat­ed by the Zap­atista move­ment — the courage, the dig­ni­ty, the will­ing­ness to take risks and the com­mit­ment to build­ing some­thing new. And I was par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by women’s role in the move­ment. There were so many extra­or­di­nary women lead­ers, and Zap­atista women had already achieved some pret­ty remark­able trans­for­ma­tions in gen­der roles. At the same time, these things were still very much evolv­ing. I felt like his­to­ry was unfold­ing before my eyes. How could I leave?

So I decid­ed to stay and work with women’s eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tives in Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties. I end­ed up being there for six years instead of six weeks.

What about the Zap­atis­tas cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion and atten­tion of rad­i­cals in North Amer­i­ca and elsewhere?

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber the his­tor­i­cal con­text. The Zap­atista upris­ing was in 1994 — at the tail end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, cap­i­tal­ists were claim­ing vic­to­ry and the end of his­to­ry.” Activists and orga­niz­ers around the world knew that wasn’t the case, but for my gen­er­a­tion, it felt like there was a col­lec­tive ques­tion in the air — of what a new wave of lib­er­a­tion move­ments would look like. The Zap­atista move­ment stepped onto the world stage right at that moment and was one par­tic­u­lar­ly inspir­ing answer to that question.

Images of the Zap­atis­tas have always been strik­ing — indige­nous peas­ants with wood­en rifles declar­ing war on the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment; with their faces cov­ered by black ski masks or red ban­danas, they sym­bol­i­cal­ly became the face of the face­less, the voice of the voice­less. Many peo­ple were touched by a move­ment that was so spe­cif­ic to its own con­text — peas­ants in south­ern Mex­i­co call­ing for land and indige­nous rights, while at the same time being so uni­ver­sal. The Zap­atis­tas pre­sent­ed 11 demands that peo­ple all over the world could relate to (work, land, hous­ing, food, health, edu­ca­tion, inde­pen­dence, free­dom, democ­ra­cy, jus­tice and peace), and they iden­ti­fied glob­al cap­i­tal­ism as the com­mon ene­my — whether you’re a work­er, a stu­dent or a house­wife, young or old, liv­ing in the city or in the countryside.

I’m think­ing of the Zap­atis­tas’ cre­ation sto­ry. The pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive was that a group of uni­ver­si­ty-edu­cat­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from the coun­try’s urban areas went to Chi­a­pas to orga­nize indige­nous peo­ple, but were trans­formed and orga­nized in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way by the peo­ple of Chi­a­pas. Were there sim­i­lar dynam­ics with the inter­na­tion­al­ists who came to sup­port the Zapatistas?

There’s a lot of truth to that cre­ation sto­ry. It’s over­ly sim­pli­fied, of course, but the Zap­atista movement’s abil­i­ty to draw from dif­fer­ent rev­o­lu­tion­ary frame­works, to adapt dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, con­tributed to it being such a com­pelling social move­ment, and so resilient over the years. In terms of the inter­na­tion­al­ists, it’s much hard­er to gen­er­al­ize because so many peo­ple from so many coun­tries spent time in Chi­a­pas. But it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see that rela­tion­ship evolve over time.

Right after the upris­ing, the Zap­atis­tas wel­comed any type of sol­i­dar­i­ty. They need­ed the resources, and they need­ed the pres­ence of out­siders — inter­na­tion­al­ists as well as sup­port­ers from oth­er parts of Mex­i­co — as pro­tec­tion against the Mex­i­can armed forces. But as the Zap­atista project of indige­nous auton­o­my became more and more estab­lished (the Zap­atis­tas devel­oped their own local and region­al gov­ern­ment, health and edu­ca­tion infra­struc­ture, and eco­nom­ic struc­tures based on coop­er­a­tion and sol­i­dar­i­ty), the EZLN made it increas­ing­ly clear that sol­i­dar­i­ty projects had to respond to the needs iden­ti­fied by Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties and to respect their leadership.

In the late 1990’s, a num­ber of groups stopped work­ing in Zap­atista vil­lages alto­geth­er because they weren’t will­ing to be told what to do by a bunch of indige­nous peas­ants. But oth­ers stayed on, and I think devel­oped a much health­i­er rela­tion­ship, one based on mutu­al trust and respect.

Before your book came along, there was­n’t much of an under­stand­ing about the role of women in the Zap­atista move­ment. Why was it that so many peo­ple’s under­stand­ing of zap­atismo stopped at Sub­co­man­dante Mar­cos?

Sub­co­man­dante Mar­cos was the spokesper­son cho­sen by the EZLN, and the Zap­atis­tas are very care­ful about what infor­ma­tion they share about them­selves. So in some ways it was their own choice that when most out­siders heard about the Zap­atista move­ment, it was through Marcos’s voice. Mar­cos is a bril­liant writer, poet­ic and artic­u­late, and suc­ceed­ed in reach­ing a wide audi­ence. But a cult of per­son­al­i­ty devel­oped around him that was not par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful. Sub­co­man­dante Mar­cos has stepped back, by the way, and the new Sub­co­man­dante is an indige­nous man named Moisés.

Infor­ma­tion about Zap­atista women was avail­able if you were look­ing for it, but you had to dig past all the stuff about Mar­cos. And I did think there was a real gap, not only in terms of infor­ma­tion, but real­ly in terms of Zap­atista women’s voic­es — that’s one rea­son I want­ed my book to be a vehi­cle for Zap­atista women telling their own stories.

How did your under­stand­ing of women in social move­ments change as a result of writ­ing this book?

I wouldn’t say that my under­stand­ing changed” so much as deep­ened and evolved. I had the incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty to wit­ness women’s lead­er­ship in the Zap­atista move­ment strength­en­ing over time and to see the inter­con­nect­ed rela­tion­ship between women’s increased polit­i­cal involve­ment and changes in so many oth­er areas of life — in the fam­i­ly, in health care, in edu­ca­tion. Some­thing that has also real­ly stayed with me are the par­al­lels between women’s involve­ment in the Zap­atista move­ment and oth­er social move­ments, in this coun­try and around the world. Very dif­fer­ent con­texts, of course, dif­fer­ent chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties, but so many of the same themes come up again and again.

In the Unit­ed States, fem­i­nism is again a sub­ject of intense debate stem­ming from (to name a few) cam­pus vio­lence, online misog­y­ny and even Hillary Clin­ton’s run for Pres­i­dent. Are there lessons peo­ple can draw from your book to deep­en this debate?

Def­i­nite­ly. In this coun­try, women’s issues are often framed as a very indi­vid­ual prob­lem. I think one of the most pow­er­ful lessons from Zap­atista women is that women’s rights and a people’s col­lec­tive rights are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. Zap­atista women have fought for their rights as women and their rights as indige­nous peo­ple at the same time. With cam­pus vio­lence, for exam­ple, for a long time, cas­es of sex­u­al assault were treat­ed as iso­lat­ed inci­dents. In Zap­atista ter­ri­to­ry, women addressed the prob­lem of domes­tic vio­lence by work­ing to change an insti­tu­tion­al­ized cul­ture of vio­lence. They includ­ed women’s right to live free of vio­lence in the Women’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Law, they fought for a ban on alco­hol in Zap­atista com­mu­ni­ties, and they have car­ried out ongo­ing polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and con­scious­ness-rais­ing about vio­lence against women. There might be some inter­est­ing lessons here for the women fight­ing to change the cul­ture of vio­lence on col­lege campuses.

As far as Hillary Clinton’s run for pres­i­dent, I think the main les­son there is that Zap­atista women pro­vide an exam­ple of what women’s lead­er­ship can look like with­out emu­lat­ing tra­di­tion­al mas­cu­line lead­er­ship or the exploita­tive pow­er dynam­ics inher­ent in capitalism.

Do the Zap­atis­tas still mat­ter today?

Absolute­ly. Even though the Zap­atista move­ment is not in the inter­na­tion­al spot­light as much as it was 15 or 20 years ago, it’s still alive and well (which is pret­ty impres­sive giv­en the counter-insur­gency waged against them by the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment for more than two decades). 

The Zap­atista project of indige­nous auton­o­my still pro­vides a mod­el of local and region­al alter­na­tives to glob­al cap­i­tal­ism. The Zap­atis­tas still play an impor­tant role sup­port­ing and inspir­ing oth­er social movements.

In Mex­i­co, for exam­ple, after 43 stu­dents from a rur­al teach­ers col­lege in Ayotz­i­na­pa were kid­napped and pre­sumed killed in Sep­tem­ber 2014, a protest move­ment erupt­ed against the government’s cor­rupt and vio­lent involve­ment in the drug war. The EZLN held a series of pub­lic events with fam­i­ly mem­bers of the 43 dis­ap­peared stu­dents and oth­er stu­dents from Ayotz­i­na­pa, many of whom refer to the Zap­atista move­ment as an impor­tant ref­er­ence point for them. And Zap­atista women — and their sto­ries of courage and dig­ni­ty — remind us that rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles can­not achieve col­lec­tive lib­er­a­tion for all peo­ple with­out address­ing patri­archy, nor can women’s free­dom be dis­en­tan­gled from racial, eco­nom­ic, and social justice.

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