Editor’s Note: This series of reports on the five Zapatista autonomous centers, or caracoles , by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez was first published in Spanish as a special section of the Mexican national newspaper La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2004, following a series of on-site reports by the author. On the 15th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the Americas Program is pleased to present readers with the only full authorized translation to English, by Americas Program director Laura Carlsen. There are many lessons to be learned from the nitty-gritty experiences of grassroots democracy and development from the ground up that are going on in these communities. As they face increasing hostilities from government armed forces and paramilitary groups, we will continue to cover their efforts in a follow-up series looking specifically at this latest stage of resistance.

It’s midsummer and the dawns and sunsets in Oventic are accompanied by a cold mist that shrouds the Caracol of Los Altos, home of the Tzotzil Zapatistas. This is a rebel region, a place of poverty and extreme marginalization, and also the Zapatista territory most visited by people from all over the world. In the first year of autonomous self-government, 4,458 visitors came here from across the globe.

It’s not a coincidence that this Caracol has had the largest number of visitors. It’s closest to San Cristobal de las Casas; from there you can reach Oventic in an hour along a tarmac road. And it’s not only the fact that it is so close that attracts civil society. It’s also because of the mystique of this zone, a special indigenous presence, a rebelliousness visible in every Tzotzil face.

This Caracol has the most buildings and is possibly the largest of the five Caracoles. It has a long central street running through it, where new buildings seem to pop up all the time—cooperatives, the offices of the autonomous municipality and of the Good Government Board, the health clinic, an auditorium, and dormitories. The road ends up at the basketball court and the Zapatista primary and secondary school that bears the name of SERAZLN for its initials in Spanish, meaning Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Education System of National Liberation.

The School

Josué and Ofelia are graduates of SERAZLN and currently members of its general direction. They explain that education is one of the demands of the EZLN, and since 1994 the Zapatistas have looked for a way of organizing education in their communities. In the beginning, they contacted teachers who worked in the state schools and invited them to participate in Zapatista-style education. More than 100 state schoolteachers came to the meeting, but it was hard to work with them, “not because the teachers didn’t want to work with us,” say Josué and Ofelia, “but because they were used to being paid.”

After analyzing the problem, the Zapatistas invited a group of young people to Oventic on Dec. 12, 1998. They were students who had not yet grown accustomed to earning salaries. Nineteen young people arrived that day who were convinced of the need for education, and agreed to receive training over the next two years before enlisting in the secondary school. At last, in September 2000 classes began in the primary/secondary school, supported by people from civil society who were called “companions.”

Planning for the courses was carried out collectively. There were endless meetings where people from all over the zone discussed the needs of the communities and planned the courses and study programs. The secondary school now offers classes in language, communication, math, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, the Tzotzil language, and production. In humanities, Josué explains, “It’s about the Zapatista philosophy. We reflect on our struggle, since the main objective is for the young people to finish their studies with a different vision for their lives … that is, that they don’t have an individualist life but that work for the collective good of the community, and they understand more about our struggle and who has dominated us and exploited us.”

The education coordinators explain that after three years of study, “We can see that there is a greater understanding of the reality of our lives, that there is a growing awareness, and that students leave with a different mindset. It’s not that they come here to be convinced about our struggle. What happens is that here they gain the tools to be able to recognize their rights and to stand up for themselves. Without a doubt, education motivates our struggle and strengthens the autonomy of our people.

“The Church tells us that we are poor because it’s God’s will. Official education tells us that there are poor people and rich people and that poverty is our lot. But that’s not so, and education helps us to understand this,” Josué states firmly.

Josué and Ofelia recognize that despite all their efforts there are not enough resources to educate all the people, but their dream is “that everybody has a chance to study, both indigenous and non-indigenous people, Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas. We all have a right to be educated.”

In Los Altos, when students finish their secondary education they are asked as part of their graduation what they can do to help their community. They choose to help in areas such as agro-ecology, primary education, working in the trade offices, working in pharmacies, etc. All are obliged to share with their community what they have learned, because if they don’t there’s no point to their training.”

Two classes of students have now graduated. In the first, of 21 pupils only three were women and only five women were in the second group of 19 pupils. This is still a small percentage, but Ofelia notes, “It’s progress in communities where previously women have not had the right to be educated. There are communities that still believe that women only exist to get married and raise children … that they can’t study or work outside the home. But little by little women are waking up and realizing that they have a right to take part in other experiences.”

And it is precisely through education that Tzotzil women are beginning to see other opportunities. In the study of humanism, Ofelia explains, “We see that women have rights, and we see the need to change some customs. So education makes men and women realize the importance of women’s work. This isn’t easy because people have to change how they think, but we’re making a start. Autonomous education is the basis of the consciousness of our communities, and arising from that we can change the situation of indigenous women, because they are capable of doing any kind of work, not only being mothers and making handicrafts.”

This is the only one of the five zones that began organizing its autonomous education programs with a secondary school (the other four started with primary schools). Josué explains, “First we had to train promoters or teachers for the primaries. Now some of those who graduated from secondary school give classes in the newly created primary schools.”

Over the years, the autonomous townships in the Los Altos zone—San Andrés Sacamch’en de Los Pobres, San Juan de la Libertad, San Pedro Polhó, Santa Catarina, Magdalena de La Paz, and San Juan Apostol Cancuc—organized primary education independent of each other under different projects. In the last year, since the advent of the Good Government Board, they have organized a single education system for the whole zone. Now more than 100 education promoters give classes in as many communities.

The problem in this zone is different from that of other townships, since here many official teachers abandoned the schools and the schools were opened again by the autonomous governments. Many other schools have been built in the meantime and more are under construction.

The secondary school was built through the U.S.-based Schools for Chiapas project, run by Pedro Café. This project faces many challenges and has had its problems. For example, for students to board at the school, “We need to feed them and there aren’t enough resources. There aren’t resources for all the school books and equipment we need.” To alleviate these problems, the secondary school also runs the Centro de Lenguas e Idiomas Mayas (Spanish and Maya Languages Center) that offers courses in Spanish and Tzotzil for foreigners, and the income from that is used to provide food for the students, who also pay five pesos a month and a kilo of beans every other week toward their upkeep.

The new system of autonomous education is not without its difficulties, but it is also a source of satisfaction and joy. “We are very happy because the secondary school graduates are now giving classes in our primary schools, because the Zapatista education system starts from below, because it is for all our communities, and because the situation isn’t as bad as it was before,” Josué and Ofelia point out. They add: “Autonomous education has to be for everyone, not only for indigenous people and not only for Zapatistas.” And not only for children. They also have an adult education system in this zone.

Josué and Ofelia explain that the aim is to change their conditions. “Our communities have an obligation to struggle for change because we can’t wait for others to come and take care of us, and in this sense, education is the most powerful weapon our people possess.”

Over 100 Health Consultations a Day in La Guadalupana

Anastasio, an elderly Tzotzil Zapatista, is the director of general health at the Guadalupana clinic—one of the first established by the EZLN. The clinic was founded on Feb. 28, 1992, before the armed uprising, with only eight health promoters.

Anastasio, who only has a second-grade education, says that it has been over 12 years since the community asked him if he would undertake the work in healthcare. He agreed to help the community and the movement and is now the director of one of the most ambitious Zapatista health projects.

Nothing remains any more of the small clinic that treated wounded insurgents during the war. But in its place there is now a hospital-clinic with an operating room, a dental office, a laboratory for clinical analysis, an eye clinic, a gynecology clinic, an herbal laboratory, a pharmacy, and hospital rooms. This clinic and two other health training centers in Magdalena and Polhó are training more than 200 community health workers who also work in their communities. Like other Zapatista promoters, none of them are paid, although the community helps them out by giving them food and supporting them during their studies. The promoters study anatomy, physiology, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments, and above all, preventative medicine, personal and collective hygiene, and vaccination.

The nearby state hospitals, Anastasio says, “do not take in those who are seriously ill; they would rather they died somewhere else. We take them in this clinic, whether they’re Zapatistas or not, and it’s only when we can’t help them that we take them somewhere else. That’s why we need an ambulance.”

The clinic relies on the support of doctors and students who help perform surgery and train the promoters. “But when no one comes from outside we have to get on with it ourselves, and so we study any medical books we can get,” says Lucio, a health promoter who left his community, his family, and his land to work full-time in the clinic for the last eight years. He says, “Before, we had nothing and many people died, most of them from illnesses that could be treated if caught in time. Many children died and because of this we began to organize our own healthcare, because you can’t expect anything from the government.”

Now there’s a clinic in all eight of the townships in Los Altos, as well as more than 300 community health houses that offer basic medicines. Appointments are free for all who support the EZLN, and others are only asked for a small contribution.

Anastasio explains that they are only able to perform minor surgery because they lack the equipment for major operations. “We’re trying to figure out how to resolve this problem because we just don’t have what we need. But we work with what we have; we can’t just give up because we don’t have everything we need.”

The clinic, with all its shortages, is one of the best-organized and equipped in Zapatista territory. It also treats Zapatistas from other regions—from the jungle and the northern part of the state. Government health projects have sought to undermine the autonomous health programs, to the extent that when a Zapatista clinic starts up, a government clinic is soon set up nearby. Anastasio says, “They do this to put pressure on us, hoping that people will go to them. But our people don’t go because they are treated badly in their clinics. They aren’t treated with respect and they aren’t given medicine. So they build these new clinics but they’re always closed. Our clinics, on the other hand, operate 24 hours a day and everyone is treated the same.”

Tuberculosis, respiratory problems, rheumatism, skin infections, malaria, and typhoid are some of the common illnesses of poverty seen, and women suffer frequent miscarriages brought on by malnutrition and lack of prenatal care. Lucio points out though, “Not so many people die as before. We have saved many lives, we take seriously ill people into the hospital, we promote vaccination, we train our health promoters, and in this way, we move forward.”

Coffee, Honey, and Handicrafts: Trade in Resistance

The Zapatista communities in Los Altos have set up two coffee cooperatives—Mut Vitz (“Bird Mountain” in Tzotzil) and Ya’chil Xojobal Chu’lcha’n (“New Light of the Sky”).

Mut Vitz was set up in 1997 with 694 members from the seven townships. Their coffee is certified organic and authorized for export from the port of Veracruz to Germany, the United States, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. Unfortunately, the cooperative has been unable to expand into the Mexican market except in the state of Puebla. The members don’t have equipment to grind and roast the coffee, so the beans are shipped whole. The Ya’chil Xojobal Chu’lcha’n cooperative has around 900 members, of whom 600 are refugees in Polhó. They have just begun to export coffee and are working to open up markets.

The women also work collectively to make and sell handicrafts. Famous throughout the world for their sewing and crafts, the Tzotzil Zapatista women, who before the war offered their goods for sale in the racist streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas, have now organized into cooperatives where they make and sell their products. The cooperatives Xulum Chon and Las Mujeres por la Dignidad (“Women for Dignity”) sell their textiles for fair-trade prices, earning income that forms an important part of the family economy.

Polhó: Seven Years Away From Home, Devastated by Violence

More than 9,000 refugees forced to flee paramilitary violence now live in Polhó. They survive without land to farm, and food and medicine are always scarce. The Red Cross pulled out of the zone, claiming that there is no longer a war and that they have a lot of work to do in Iraq. Here displacement has created new forms of resistance and autonomy. The people have organized their own education and health systems, cooperatives, and other means of survival.

In their first year of governing, the autonomous authorities throughout the zone gave two and a half million pesos to feed the refugees in Polhó—a substantial sum of money but still not enough to feed the thousands who for the last seven years have been dreaming of returning home. According to the Good Government Board in an interview following its first anniversary, it’s not easy to build autonomy and even less so in conditions like those found in Polhó.

We Didn’t Campaign: GGB

After a year’s work, the Good Government Board affirms proudly, “We’ve proven we have the capacity to govern, work, and identify problems. We’ve learned not to fall into the traps set by the government and political parties. Experience has shown that the first one to raise a fist will lose politically. We are holding on to the idea of resisting through peaceful means, although we know how to defend ourselves.”

The Board says that the most important lesson it has learned over the past year “is to negotiate, to coordinate the work of the Board with the townships. We know we can’t do it alone without the support of national and international civil society. We work from Monday to Sunday, 24 hours a day, and still we can’t catch up with everything. But we’re learning, obeying, and fulfilling our commitments. It’s not easy. Nothing is easy.”

“We didn’t campaign or hand out propaganda to get on the Good Government Board. The people chose us as honest people, and now we are committed. We don’t have a fixed term on the Board—if the people say that we are no longer doing the job properly, then they will get rid of us and replace us with others.
We dream that one day our rights will be recognized, that there will be a total change not only for indigenous people, but for all the poor people of the world. This is not over yet. Here other people will be born, and they won’t ask permission to follow their own path. That is what we dream.”