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.
Communication technology has arrived in the Lacandona jungle. The Internet café, Cyber-Pozol, is the only public Internet in the Patiwitz Canyon, or for that matter in all of the territories in resistance. In the café cooperative Smaliyel you can also find Zapatista music, videos, bandanas, handicrafts, sweets, gasoline, and food for sale.
Smaliyel is in the Caracol Resistencia Hacia un Nuevo Amanecer (“Resistance Toward a New Dawn”), in the first rebel zone opened to journalists in 1994. From here the whole world learned about the indigenous people who had taken up arms, the insurrection, their motives, and their sorrows. Today, more than 10 years later, the panorama has changed.
When journalists first came to La Garrucha, there was no Internet—there wasn’t even electricity. There was no autonomous clinic with dental equipment, no autonomous laboratory, no ambulance. The school didn’t function, and a library was unimaginable. After the assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the future turned cloudy, the region was closed off, and the spotlights moved away from the mountains of Chiapas.
Miguel, three years old, is strolling through the Zapatista shop and declares that Spiderman “is a compa” (compañero, or comrade). When the daily convoy of state soldiers passes, Miguel, now transformed into Spiderman, throws his webs at the soldiers from his hiding place in the bushes. His mother scolds him and he tells her he’s going to tell the Good Government Board on her.
The military patrol that Miguel sees passing by doesn’t exist according to the government. But for the entire time we were here, it passed by four times every day. A convoy of trucks full of soldiers with their weapons in combat position is routine in these militarized lands.
Moises, the same Tzeltal man who met the press 10 years ago, is now an autonomous filmmaker. He takes videos with his mini-camera that are later edited on an Apple Mac. He is currently finishing work on a video about Zapatista women, and a building is under construction that will soon house a media project.
As in the rest of the territories in resistance, there is a vaccination campaign in the villages. Mothers with children in their arms line up at the autonomous clinic, opened in 1995. The International Red Cross had been working in the community of San Miguel since 1994 until it left the zone recently. “They say there is no war here, that there need to be deaths here for them to stay longer,” village residents tell us. Previously, the vaccination campaigns were run by the international agency. Today the Zapatistas run them and the Red Cross only works in a few communities.
With the aim of organizing health services for all Zapatistas, in this zone families carry a health pass that identifies them as Zapatistas. This allows them access to free consultations and free medicine at the clinic. In the small but functional clinical lab, specialist health promoters work on blood analysis, urine tests, tests for parasites, and other basic tests. “What we do most is test for malaria and TB, because these are widespread illnesses in this zone,” explains one of the lab workers.
The clinic is painted in Mexican hot pink and is decorated with murals about the resistance. “Here blows the wind of hope, life, and dignity,” is written on a mural depicting a snail (caracol) and the face of Zapata. Recently painted, the autonomous health center handles about 30 consultations a day. The most common illnesses in the Tzeltal jungle are parasites, malaria, skin infections, and tuberculosis. They also have a dental office, a pharmacy, and, more recently, hospital rooms. Just as in other Zapatista clinics, indigenous members of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) are also treated by health workers. “We charge the PRI members 25 pesos for the consultation and medicine to recover some of the cost.”
The four autonomous townships in the Tzeltal zone are Francisco Gómez, San Manuel, Francisco Villa, and Ricardo Flores Magón. All of these have autonomous health services, and in Francisco Gómez alone 78 health promoters treat basic illnesses in the villages. In spite of these advances, the Good Government Board, “El Camino del Futuro” (“The Way of the Future”), admits that the situation is still far from ideal. Francisco Villa, for example, does not have a clinic or even a pharmacy, and its general development is very much behind that of Ricardo Flores Magón. It is the job of the Board to even out development.
The main clinic in the zone is supported by an Italian organization and the ambulance was donated by Doctors Without Borders. The promoters are not paid a wage and are only supported by being given food. Often, say the autonomous authorities, many promoters do not attend courses because they do not have money for the journey. “They provide a service to the community, but we think they need to be supported more in their work.”
To resolve this and other problems there are health representatives in each of the four autonomous townships who meet every two months to coordinate the work in the zone.
Even with the delays in building schools and training promoters, there are now four townships with autonomous education in their communities. The members of the Good Government Board say, “Our education comes out of the thought of the people. Nothing comes from outside, and it’s not like state education where indigenous history is not respected.” The communities in the Tzeltal jungle have two learning centers for educational promoters—one recently opened in the community of La Culebra in the autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magón, and the other in La Garrucha in the township of Francisco Gómez.
Julio, who comes from Ricardo Flores Magón, explains the meaning of Zapatista autonomous education. “We’re looking at how knowledge relates to the 13 demands of the Zapatista movement. It’s not that someone from outside tells us how to make this link. We are the ones who live here, who suffer and struggle here, and so we’re the ones who know how everything is related. The people have the knowledge. They know many things, and from there consciousness and knowledge is rescued and redeemed.” He explains that one of education’s main aims is to strengthen indigenous identity and respond to the needs of the people. “It’s not a question of teaching indigenous people to be indigenous—we know that already. What we need to know is our history, our past … that’s what real education is for.
“In our schools we also study the national situation, our struggle, the life of our people. The goal of our education is never to depart from the politics and the path of the Zapatista struggle, and to maintain respect for the communities—their language and everything. Our education promoters reflect on the problem of the displacement of people in Montes Azules, the government’s plans for Plan Puebla Panama, the problem of genetically modified seeds, exploitation by factory owners, the government’s political counter-attack, the resistance of our people, the San Andrés Accords, the war of low intensity, the government’s manipulation by buying communities with aid programs such as Procede or school meals or agricultural grants. All of these issues are looked at in our autonomous schools.”
Education promoters are chosen by the people, who ask them if they want to participate. “You can agree, but also you can say no because you have other work and duties, because autonomy involves other work, not only education,” explains Hortensia, an education promoter. She explains that there are promoters who start out and don’t know how to read and write, so they begin at zero. “Some are really happy to be promoters and here they grow and learn and later return to their villages. There are also voluntary promoters who are not elected by the village but come of their own accord. There are some who don’t know anything—the Spanish language, nothing, and here they learn everything.”
Like in other indigenous areas, Zapatista and non-Zapatista, women still suffer inequality. Most of the promoters and students in autonomous schools are male because, as Hortensia points out, “It’s hard to make a change. In our villages, women promoters who leave the house to take courses are still the butt of jokes in the villages, and so are their parents or husbands, like, ‘why did you let your daughter go, she’s up to no good,’ and other made-up stuff, because it’s just not the custom for women to leave their villages. But this doesn’t get us down even though they make fun of us or say we’re doing things that we aren’t doing. As promoters we have to continue with our work. We have to work hard to see how far we can get, because it’s our right. If we leave our work it means that the taunting has defeated us.
“The Zapatista women are the first to come out to defend their community when the army enters the villages. They are on the frontline, so if they’re capable of defending the community then they’re capable of studying. We can’t keep our mouths shut about this situation because if we do, things won’t change. We’re creating a very different kind of education.”
And it was, in fact, a woman, Rosalinda, who gave the speech on the first anniversary of this Good Government Board: “No longer do we need to ask permission to govern ourselves. Already we see what we can do, and we see that in this first year of work we have learned a lot. We stand here firm. We are not going to sell out,” announced the only woman in the autonomous government here.
Bicycle Rental and Shoe Shop
The Caracol Resistencia Hacia un Nuevo Amanecer recently received a donation of bicycles. Now an autonomous workshop rents out and repairs bikes and the money goes to the autonomous township.
A shoemaking workshop has also been operating for several years. On the walls there is a huge mural of Zapata with an open book, in which you can read “Imagination, creativity, informality, improvisation …”
In front of the third Zapatista Caracol, you can see an old machine for grinding coffee, and, to one side, the peace camp visited year-round by hundreds of people from all over the world. Three women’s cooperatives, a dormitory, two warehouses, the health clinic, a school, and a library make up the buildings.
The Zapatistas are building their autonomy, a process that Julio says “comes from our history, our own customs, our own system of justice, our own cultivations … A process that’s like walking alone. We know how to walk, and although we may make mistakes, they’re our own mistakes and not those imposed on us.”