Annual Delegation Visits Zapatista Regions, Witnesses Building of Autonomy
By: Todd Davies
This year’s Chiapas Support Committee delegation to Zapatista Territory happened in March, as it has for the past three years. Seven delegates, all of whom currently reside in California, represented the CSC as we traveled to three Zapatista Zonas (autonomous regions), including the Selva Tseltal (Tseltal Jungle) region, which is the target of most of our fundraising projects. This was a special trip because it offered our first visits to schools that have been built with funds raised by the CSC as part of a three-year education project. The Good Government Council (Junta de Buen Gobierno, or JBG) of La Garrucha directs the education project, the Caracol (regional headquarters) of the Selva Tseltal. Others who helped organize and conduct the delegation were Carolina Dutton and Michael Kozart of the CSC Board.
Our delegation began with a visit to Oventik, which is the caracol for the Highlands Zapatista region near San Cristóbal de las Casas. Zapatistas and their supporters in this region have been taking extra security precautions since 2009-10 when the government released prisoners who had been involved in the 1997 Acteal Massacre, which killed 45 Zapatista-sympathizing members of the Catholic pacifist group Las Abejas and created thousands of Zapatista refugees from the Official Municipality of Chenalhó. Many Zapatistas still live without adequate food and shelter in the refugee camp of Polhó, close to Acteal. We have visited both Acteal and Polhó on recent delegations, but this time we had a long meeting with the JBG in Oventik and heard how the Tzotzil-speaking Zapatistas of the region are coping with continued harassment from the state and federal governments and local paramilitaries who want to take over Zapatista land. In Oventik we bought artesania produced by Zapatista collectives to bring back and sell at community events. Selling these Zapatista fair trade goods in the U.S. is one way that we support the Zapatistas, and the proceeds allow us to continually buy more during our visits.
Following visits with three organizations in San Cristobal (SIPAZ, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, and CIDECI/Universidad de la Tierra), we traveled to the Tzotz Choj autonomous region and stayed at the Zapatista hotel at Agua Clara. This is another hot spot in the conflict with the “Bad Government”, which wants to develop this and nearby areas such as Agua Azul into major tourist destinations. Agua Clara is an idyllic spot for river swimming and sunbathing, and is an affordable option for overnight stays just off the road between Ocosingo and Palenque as well as being a way to support the Zapatistas.
Following Agua Clara, we traveled to our main destination: the Selva Tseltal autonomous region. The region’s JBG in La Garrucha briefed us on progress made during the first year of the education project that we are helping to fund in the region. The JBG had recently been restructured in this region in a way that allows it to work together as a team, but with some division of responsibilities among members of the Junta. Members of this turno (shift) of the JBG, who represent all four autonomous municipalities in this region, rotate with two other turnos every ten days. They spoke with enthusiasm about the structural changes that have taken place, as well as about the progress being made in education.
The CSC had recently sent the second installment (100, 000 Mexican Pesos) of a MP300, 000 commitment to help with education in each of the four autonomous municipalities (municipios) of the Selva Tseltal. On this trip, we mainly learned how funds from the first installment had been put to use. These projects included two new one-room schools in the municipio of Francisco Gomez, a general equipment purchase for all existing schools in Francisco Villa, three new schools in Ricardo Flores Magón, and one new classroom in an existing school plus a new school in San Manuel.
The delegation traveled to San Manuel, where we have had an hermanamiento (sister relationship) for the last decade. This allowed us to see old friends, but also to see the new schoolroom and schoolhouse that funds raised by the CSC had made possible. We learned about the various levels in the schools, and about the four subject areas for children between 5 and 12 years old: language (Tseltal and Spanish), math, history, and vida y medio (life and means – natural science of the local environment and ways of living). Children are building local history through listening to the stories of local ancestors. I was glad to see that the pharmacy of the clinic in Emiliano Zapata (the headquarters of San Manuel) was well stocked and to learn that the Health Promoters there are now getting good training and regular visits with volunteer doctors from around Mexico.
After briefings with the Education Promoters and the lead Health Promoter in this municipio, as well as a wonderful fiesta that took place that Friday, we ended our visit to San Manuel with a celebration and lunch in 8 de Agosto (August 8), the community where the new schoolhouse had just been built. We met with children and their families who were attending the Comandante Hugo School, and heard music sung by formadores (trainers of the education promoters). Many Zapatistas in San Manuel are Tzotzil-speaking refugees who have come here from Chenalhó, and we heard songs that movingly told of the Acteal Massacre. Following this joyous occasion, many of the compañeros/as joined the truck taking us back to Ocosingo, accompanying us on a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Toniná. Delegates and our Zapatista hosts climbed the steps of Toniná together as we listened to a guide tell about the history of this amazing site.
This article first appeared in the Chiapas Support Committee’s Newsletter, Chiapas Update. See: http://www.chiapas-support.org/Chiapas-Update-Sept-2012.pdf