Background: Zapatistas, a 25-year transformation

By Herman Bellinghausen

Photo from the first Zapatista Women’s Encuentro.; from the blog Atenco Somos Todas.

The theory of the gourd

They made us believe that Mexico was a sort of large, mature, shiny and solid gourd for export. The government headed by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, obsequious and gallant, extended the gourd on a silver platter to the gold partner, and from there to the global free market in the northern hemisphere. How smooth and shiny the gourd, also called a snout, looked. And then, at the appointed date and time, the champagne’s plop became a gulp of thunderous disbelief in the throats of the celebrating rulers. On New Years Eve 1994 the precious gourd cracked. An inopportune crack that burst into a complaint of unprecedented eloquence, a “today we say enough” shouted with rifles in the fist and badly covered faces from the last corner of the country, in the mountains of Chiapas. Through the crack, the words of the First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle and the incomprehensible images of a campesino and insurgent army that occupied the seats of government in some cities of the sprouted uncontrollably. It was a declaration of war with all its letters. And that army “that couldn’t be” announced that it would advance to the capital of the Republic to overthrow the bad government, based on Article 39 of the Constitution and taking refuge in the Laws on la War dictated in the Geneva Convention. It seemed like a joke, a bad dream. Many would have wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. Through the cracking of the gourd, the indigenous peoples finally appeared, claiming their place in the nation and in History. Even now, it seems incredible what they achieved in one night, when they declared:

“We are the heirs of the true builders of our nation, the dispossessed. We are millions and we call upon our brothers and sisters to join this call as the only path to not die of hunger given the insatiable ambition of a 70-year old dictatorship led by a click of traitors who represent the most conservative and sell-out groups. They are the same ones who opposed Hidalgo and Morelos, the ones who betrayed Vicente Guerrero, the same ones who sold more than half our soil to the foreign invader, the same ones who brought in a European prince to govern us, the same ones who formed the dictatorship of the Porfirista scientists, the same ones who opposed the oil expropriation, the same ones who massacred the railroad workers in 1958 and the students in 1968 and they are the same ones who today take everything away from us, absolutely everything.”

And to the people of Mexico they said:

“We, honest and free men and women, are conscious that the war we declare is a last resort, but just. The dictators are applying an undeclared genocidal war against our peoples for many years. Therefore, we ask for your decided participation supporting this plan of the Mexican people who struggle for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until achieving these basic demands of our people by forming a free and democratic government in our country.”

No one had dared to speak to the State like that in decades, and in the case of indigenous peoples, in centuries. The name of the insurgent group: Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, its initials in Spanish), would remain forever tattooed on the skin of the Mexican State. Indigenous peoples, they immediately specified being Tsotsil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol Mayas, and also Zoques. From there they could be any of the native peoples of Mexico. They woke up with a bell ringing, and with it they awakened the entire country, and also the world. 

You know what? Mexico turns out to be the country with the largest Native population on the continent: at least 25 percent of the total in the Americas. They number many millions, perhaps twenty million or more, although officially the censuses lower the numbers in a sort of statistical genocide, forever a characteristic of the method. And even so they are still the fourth part. 

President Salinas, still pale days after the New Year in that long January of ‘94 and visibly diminished, would declare that the indigenous people who were disaffected with the regime were only a few, that they came from a few Highlands municipalities and that the situation was already being addressed. Aha, deploying thousands of military personnel in the region, kilometers-long convoys loaded with troops, airplanes, tanks and helicopters that shot at and bombarded a target that had vanished. Just as they appeared out of the night, they returned to it. The jungle swallowed them up. Now, the government was at war with indigenous Mexicans, whose reasons sounded convincing, at least so that everyone would turn to look. Through the crack in the gourd a bath of reality would continue to emerge like a light (Carlos Monsiváis would admit that “the Zapatistas taught us to speak with reality”) that no one could contain; to the contrary, it grew. The cracked gourd shed a new light, very new, on the national debate and on a brand new central actor: the Native peoples. Moreover, it seemed like the resurrection of the libertarian dream that had buried the Berlin Wall a few years ago when the cracks finally brought it down. If Leonard Cohen sang that that the cracks are where the light enters, the indigenous glow came from the interior of Mexico itself, “deep Mexico,” and no one could say that he had not seen it. 

As much as there is to go in 2019, for the full vindication of the Native peoples, the arch opened by the neo-Zapatistas of Chiapas has knocked down like cards a number of prejudices, denials, discriminations and impunities. Today, explicit racism, discrimination against indigenous women and discrimination against Native languages are visible and “politically incorrect.” It doesn’t mean that they no longer exist, but the margins for the hypocrisy of the majority society were narrowed. The gourd was definitely broken.

Comandanta Esther in San Lázaro. Photography of Pedro Mera, 2001/CUARTOSCURO

Never more a Mexico without her peoples

The wake of the uprising, its impact on the country’s Native peoples, is a matter little addressed by analysts. It will be remembered that the surprise of that New Year had already been announced. In the middle of 1993, national media and international agencies reported the federal Army’s clash with some kind of guerrilla in the Ocosingo canyons (Cañadas), near Chalam del Carmen, at the gates of the Lacandón Jungle of the Tzeltals. The government immediately minimized it; the Army denied the existence of guerrillas, and did so without counting that the new Secretary of the Interior had governed the state [of Chiapas] autocratically until a few months before. The State supposed that the situation was under control. There would be elections the following year and the Cardenistadanger seemed averted when the left joined the electoral system and remained at its “real size.” No one foresaw that the winds of change would come from far below. When did the Indians here represent a real challenge for the State? They were clients, nothing more. 

But the unforeseen winds did come blowing down there. In the Autumn of 1993, chance, if it exists, took me from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to the Tojolabal cañada (canyon) of Las Margaritas, to a community, then semi-remote, called Cruz del Rosario, to visit some coffee fields. Not me, my companions. I was “wearing a cap.” And we’re going there in a pickup truck with cañada bars inside. In Cruz del Rosario, our host, a Tojolabal resident, told us about his quetzal hunts in the mountains, how much he sold them for, especially alive. With the same lack of modesty he narrated the movement of “guerrillas,” who came from the direction of Tepeyac (Guadalupe Tepeyac, which would become famous in a few months) and who were known to have two commanders: one tall, a little redheaded; another short, “indigenous but not from around here.” With time, it would be easy to deduce that he was talking about Subcomandante Pedro and Major Moisés of the EZLN. I don’t remember that he approved or disapproved. 

A peculiar nervousness prevailed everywhere. In San Cristóbal and Ocosingo the caxlan (non-indigenous) merchants suffered apocalyptic visions. Days later in Jovel, during the 20th anniversary of the Rural Association of Collective Interest (ARIC, its initials in Spanish) snubbed by the Salinas government to which its leadership had surrendered, the powerful organization of indigenous producers, still undivided but already diminished, was getting chills. “They are taking our young men from us” caxlan leaders and advisors lamented with galloping paternalism and baseless political calculations. 

Signs of “something” serious abounded. More and more radically indigenous in its orientation, the diocese headed by Samuel Ruiz García lived under siege, the “authentic” coletos [1] and cattle ranchers of the region brought their desires to the bishop, to his parish priests and catechists, to the liberated communities, to the new Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center, which today we nickname Frayba. The internal commotion was evident in the historic organizations and unions (National Campesino Confederation [CNC], Independent Central of Agricultural Workers and Campesinos [CIOAC] and the ARIC). The “traditional” Catholics of San Juan Chamula had barely laid down their criminal weapons against the “Protestant sects,” with which they provoked the exodus of more than 30 thousand Chamulans to San Cristóbal and the border. Meanwhile, the web of secrecy grew in the barrios, cañadas, schools and convents. 

After the almost autocratic rule of Governor Patrocinio González Garrido until a few months ago, when his political cousin, President Salinas, shortened his reins by bringing him to the Interior Department, Chiapas seemed to be without a government or having it somewhere else (a recurring syndrome in the state). 

Nothing permitted foreseeing the size of the impact that three months later the irruption what turned out to be the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) would have. Immediate, profound, worldwide, it surprised the insurgents, the Catholic Church and the government. The media was ecstatic. The weeks after January 1, 1994 revealed a vast movement, organized and disciplined, full of meaning, of ideas and experiments, of unprecedented political gravity and humor. Its base, its all resided in the telluric force of thousands of masked and armed indigenous people in rebellion. 

Many were the unforeseen effects of the rebellion that mobilized multitudes in the entire country, generated solidarity networks of a new kind and inspired rivers of ink, photography, video (on the then incipient Internet, the EZLN’s communiqués were translated the same day into English, Italian, German, French and other languages), whose messages led to the creation of musical genres and propaganda arts that Europe and the Americas turned to see with astonishment. 

Less evident, ignored by everyone, the greatest impact occurred in the Native peoples themselves. Communities and individuals throughout Mexico learned that it was possible without fear. They embraced their languages. Women learned to be alluded to as never before. Young people glimpsed another possible modernity: a world where many worlds fit, where they fit. The mountains and the Lacandón Jungle were open to an evolving experience of government and struggle. The rebels legitimized themselves in their actions and their language. With the word on their side, the indigenous people took the lead for the first time in the history of Mexico.

Diego Rivera, Paisaje zapatista, 1915

A very different country

There are triumphs that seem like defeats: the student movement of 1968, the 1988 fraud and the strike of the General Strike Council in 1999. As distant as ‘94 may seem in 2019, that Mexico of capitalist pillage, liberal glee and reality baths is still here, sudden and brutal. That event gave rise to new social dreams. Also to an internal “low-intensity” war,” which, mutatis mutandis, continues today in those same mountains of Chiapas and in many mountains and plains of the republic. The government of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León inaugurated the modern era of massacres and killings, and renewed the word genocide. Since February 9, 1995, the route that the State traces is to contain militarily, besiege and, above all, systematically betray its agreements and commitments. It grants the indigenous people the status of enemies of the State. In June 1995, we saw the first blow in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero. [2]

Thus, a fratricidal counterinsurgency is methodically constructed among Chols in the northern zone of Chiapas, while dialogue with the rebel comandantes in the Tzeltal jungle and in San Andrés Larráinzar. The dead are piling up to block the dialogues, but in April 1996 the first few agreements were signed. Participation in the dialogues of representatives of the indigenous peoples from all over the country was notable. Whether the government liked it or not, the issue was national and had to be reflected in the Constitution. Zedillo decided not to comply, blatantly. He sharpened the counterinsurgency and extended it to Chenalhó in the Tsotsil region. More deaths, until reaching the Acteal Massacre on December 22, 1997, and then, during 1998, the deaths of El Bosque right there in Los Altos, El Charco (Guerrero again) and the offensive against the Zapotecs of the Loxichas region in Oaxaca. 

It turns out that the Indians matter, and to the State but not for the best reasons. Again and again Zedillo attempts to pass over them, ignore them, deny them. He leaves Chiapas militarized and delivers the government to twelve years of the confessional right, even more impotent for confronting the challenge of the indigenous peoples. However, the “war” against organized crime unleashed by Felipe Calderón Hinojosa in 2007 has as its first effect militarily and para-militarily cornering, not just the rebels of the south and southeast, but also a good part of the Native peoples. That paralyzed self-government projects and national movements like the National Indigenous Congress (Congreso Nacional Indígena), founded in 1996 under Zapatista inspiration. Few perceived it, the media didn’t record it: Calderón achieved reaching 2010 with the country in flames and the Indians cornered. In Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chihuahua and Chiapas community members continued dying, and the hundred-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution could not be the bell ringing that many expected, somewhat like 1992, when the celebratory failure of the 500 years stirred the definitive eruption of the continental indigenous peoples. 

A quarter of a century after the Zapatista Uprising, and in view of its innumerable consequences, it’s evident that much has changed. The peoples rose up in the cultural, organizational, symbolic and even the linguistic sense. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a feverish literary writing in Mexican languages has been unleashed in the country, with works and authors that deserve a place. That didn’t exist 25 years ago, nor was it predictable. Literature as a sign of life!Today, the State presents itself as liberal as those before, nationalist, and once again encounters the inescapable stone of the indigenous peoples, their rights, territories and their own governments. Andrés Manuel López Obrador promises to develop, not repress; to consult, not impose. For him, the poor are first, and as the Indians are “poor” par excellence, then the Indians first, who would stop being poor. It’s just that the State’s projects and the global capitalist tendency continue demanding that they stop being Indians: language and embroidery as folklore, without territory or their own government, as always. But it’s been 25 years ago that to the Native peoples things stopped being “as always.”


Originally published in Spanish by the Revista de la Universidad de Mexico in its Abya Yala Dossier (The University of Mexico Magazine), April 2019. The original can be read here:

Re-published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

Translator’s Notes:

[1] Authentic coletos are residents of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, who were born and raised there. They strongly opposed the Liberation Theology of Bishop Samuel Ruiz García and his consequent “option for the poor” and actively organized against him. 

[2] On June 28, 1995, the Guerrero State Police massacred 17 campesinos from the Organización Campesina de la Sierra del Sur (Southern Sierra Campesino Organization) at a place called Aguas Blancas.

Editor’s note on the Background:Zapatistas, A 25-year transformation,” from 2019, by Herman Bellinghausen reflects on the long liberation struggle of Indigenous people marked by the 25th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. In 2021, the EZLN is in the 27th year of struggle and organizing. Bellinghausen’s piece provides analysis and background to understanding Zapatismo. This is especially crucial in this historic year, when they EZLN has announced their initiative to take Zapatismo across oceans and continents. The Chiapas Support Committee will occasionally publish longer pieces to help us learn and reflect on the roots and history of Zapatismo and to dialogue and to deepen our imagination and our own way of thinking and organizing on U.S. terrain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: