San Cristobal de las Casas is the capital of the state of Chiapas in the south of the United States of Mexico, on the border with Guatemala. A population of 90,000 at a height of a bit more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Restaurants, small hotels, a place that tourists with backpacks like. On the eve of the New Year of 1994, hundreds of arms Zapatistas gained control of the city in a battle with the militia and the police, and demanded that the government grant autonomy to the Indians, preserve the language and the culture of the Indians and register lands in the names of people who lived on them. After a few days, the Zapatistas retreated into the mountains and the rain forest. The federal government of Mexico responded immediately, appropriated control from the state government of Chiapas and sent in 40,000 troops that were deployed among the Indian communes, patrolling, looking for a confrontation with the Zapatsitas and for their mysterious high commander with the face covered by a scarf with a pipe peeking out of it – the leader’s symbol.
The Zapatistas, who arose in 1989 on the background of the growing unrest and poverty in Mexico, are not the only organization operating there, but they have received the most media attention. They cling to the demands of the oppressed Indians in Chiapas as the first stage of the struggle. From the outset, they have taken the press and public opinion seriously. They maintained a permanent demonstration at Liberty Square in Mexico City and conducted a well-reported campaign that reached from Chiapas to the national capital. In San Cristobal, they distribute maps marked with the locations of the army and the Indian villages and information booklets that document infringements of human rights and they paint huge portraits of Subcommandante Marcos and Che Guevera and depictions of the socialist struggle on walls in the center of San Cristobal and in the Indian village communes. Their demonstrations are held on symbolic dates. In 1996, they became a legally recognized political party, while maintaining an underground with iron discipline and strict compartmentalization. Support for the Zapatistas ranges from intellectual circles in Mexico City through the provincial capital to the villages in the mountains and the jungle.
Emiliano Zapata, after whom the Zapatistas are called, was a tenant farmer. In 1910 he headed a popular movement of tenant farmers and peons that shook Mexico in a huge revolution. The cry of the revolution was “land and liberty.”
A hundred years after the Mexican War of Independence, the tenant farmers were crushed under the burden of the landlords. Mexico was and organized country; the landlords made good profits. The internal storm brought to power Francisco Madera, the son of a landowning family, who proposed ideas of agrarian reform and political change. Zapata, to whom villagers would bring their daughters so that his seed would remain, was one leader, and Pancho Villa in northern Mexico was another. In 1913, Madera was assassinated at the instigation of a rebel officer called Victoriano Huerta because of the increasing insurrection. In 1919, Emiliano Zapata was murdered. The revolution was snuffed out in 1920 when Alvaro Obregon. That was the last major revolution in Mexico. The outcome of the revolution was the return of the large landholders, the rule of the church, the army and the politicians and the deliquescence of the revolution back into the old order. “The Death of Artemio Cruz” by Carlos Fuentes is a literary depiction of the corruption and fall of the revolution. This book is a key to profound despair of Mexican society, where the gaps are becoming ever wider and the ferment is giving rise to protest movements like the Guererro Negro and the Zapatistas. There are villages in Mexico that have expelled the representatives of the law and are not allowing them to return.
In February, 1996 an agreement between the government and the Zapatistas was signed at San Andreas. But the government’s heart was not in the Zapatistas’ achevement.
On December 23, 1997, just before Christmas, several dozen members of a paramilitary organization of the sort that Central American governments encourage arrived in a village called Aqtal, about an hour away from San Cristobal. They wore green uniforms and their faces were covered by black scarves. They waited until the villagers were leaving the Christmas Eve mass and began to shoot, killing 46 men, women and children. With their machetes, they hacked open the bellies of pregnant women and tore out the fetuses. The government blamed the Zapatistas.
“This is how all the paramilitary organizations in Central America behave,” said Frieda Vardon Espades, a girl with long hair and glasses from the open Zapatistas of San Cristobal. “They cut open the stomachs and tear out the babies. Vietnam veterans from the North American forces are the school for the Mexican army – the same methods that they used to scare the Indians in Guatemala.”
The office of the Zapatista Party, the FZLP (Frontera Zapatista Libertad Partia) was a room full of young people and posters. Three chairs in a room where there was more shade than light, Juleta Fernandez Gomez, the party spokeswoman, looked at me. She was young, with a stern face.
“The government has broken the San Andreas agreement and is demanding the Zapatistas to disarm without upholding the agreement. Chiapas has been a military zone since 1994 and since 1997 there has been an increased military presence. We want the army to get out of here, the disarmament of the paramilitary militias and a renewal of the dialogue. In the agreemetn the government undertook to support Indian culture and grant autonomy to the villages. We want to study in the local language, in our mother tongue. Fifty percent of the 4 million inhabitants of Chiapas are Indians. Only in the cities are there mestizos. The villages are Indian. We here do not want the new liberalism that will lead to the confiscation of Indian lands and their nationalization in order to sell the ejido (common lands) to private enterprise and foreign hands. The government, beginning in January 1998, has embarked on a military campaign of oppression. In Chiapas there are American and Israeli advisors who are helping the Mexican army. This is the way all the civil wars in the Americas work.”
I hoped that these were just baseless rumors about the Israeli of sticking its nose into any dirty war. The Israeli Embassy in Mexico is a large embassy. The two most important satellites of the United States, each in its own part of the world.
“I want to go to the Zapatistas’ villages. Where do I have the best chance of meeting Marcos?”
“The place that’s furthest away,” said Julieta, is a place called El Realidad. It’s about ten hours away from here.”
“And how do I get there?”
“You have to get to Comitán, and from there to Las Margaritas. At five in the morning a truck leaves from there to El Realidad.” She drew me a map so that I could find the truck in the dark. Piles of things in the high-ceilinged room. An atmosphere of siege, of urgency.
I went into the city. In the plaza by the cathedral children played ball opposite the huge wall paintings of the Zapatistas. I sat down at a cafe. Tourists, fruit vendors, shoeshine boys, small Indian girls selling dolls of Zapatistas on horseback, their faces masked. The restaurants were full and the sunshine was sweet. In the cafe next door, for a small sum, one could sit at a computer and send E-mail to the whole world.
A Volkswagen was parked in the darkness that was illuminated by yellow lamps. The driver awoke with a start and looked at me. “Las Margaritas,” I said. He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and gazed mournfully at the dark and narrow road. At 4:30 we circled the plaza of San Margaritas. A small truck stopped at the corner. The driver’s assistant opened the door to the back. Indians huddled on bundles.
A girl, a teacher in a village near Realidad, pushed into the driver’s cabin, which was already occupied by the driver, the driver’s assistant and a woman with two babies. I climbed into the back and looked for a place to stand. It was crowded. And cold. I was tired and morning looked very far away. I asked the Indian next to me how far it was to Realidad. Eight or nine hours. At five exactly the truck drove down a few streets and then stopped., taking on another 15 men and women. I leaned on the back door, staking out a place for myself, hunching over. The truck goes slowly, moving from the road onto a dirt track and stopping. The door opened, and more people crowded in. I was on the floor. The tiredness, the cold, the crowding. Wide skirts above my head, bodies pressing against each other in all directions. Like a drowning man sinking into heavy water. The truck again rolled along the dark dirt track, the voices were swallowed up behind. I stood up, balancing on one foot. The cold wind washed the sides of the packed truck. When the door opened to let in new passengers I jumped out. The driver was not listening to any complaints. The disdain for the crowded people, living sacks jiggling on one another. I stood by the passenger compartment.
“I’m going with you.”
“There’s no room.”
“There is,” I said and squeezed in next to the woman who was holding a baby. The teacher was holding the other baby. The driver’s assistant, a lad of 16 or 17, who came back after shutting the payload compartment, looked at the bit of the seat I was sitting on, shrugged, and sat down on my lap, his head touching the windshield. The driver shifted into gear and I felt a dampness spreading over my left leg, which was up against the young woman. The baby fell asleep smiling after the pressure on his bladder was relieved. The dirt proud climbed up into dark mountains. Five adults and two children in the front of the small truck and another 50 in the back. I dozed off. When I awoke, the truck had stopped to take on more people. I shook awake the hand that had fallen asleep and I moved my clenched knees. The left leg of my trousers was soaked with urine.
The sky turned from dark blue to a lighter blue over the mountains. Shreds of cloud crept over the deep valleys. The slopes were covered in a dense green forest of clouds and the road was a white mark on the mountainside. Orange and purple and crimson stalactites presaged the approaching dawn, coloring the creeping clouds below. I woke up when the small truck stopped at a village on the ridge. A small shop. Coffee shrubs with red berries. I got out of the cabin reviving my stiff limbs. The Indians urinated into the dense forest. We began to descend. The temperature went up at every turn as the sun climbed higher in the sky. When the truck stopped again to unload people at a junction between the road and some paths, the forest breathed the humidity of the jungle. Horses unloaded sacks of coffee by the roadside. Indians got off the truck with crates and sacks they had bought in Las Margaritas and loaded them on themselves in preparation for the trek on foot from the place where the dirt track crosses the trails that continue into the mountains. The Mexicans ripped Chiapas off Guatemala after the United States ripped Texas and California off of them in the last war between them (1846-1848). The truck twisted down in jagged curves to the next valley, wading through channels of mud left behind by the rain a few days earlier. Butterflies in the hot sun and a Mexican army camp camouflaged by greenery. The sentry stood in the watchtower, wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof vest, his rifle crossed over his chest. Along the way there were signs: “No entry of drugs and alcohol into Chiapas!” A new hospital building with two people sitting at the entrance doing nothing. A twist in the road, a short climb, a helicopter landing pad and a barricade. Soldiers halted the truck and pawed through the baggage. They did not ask for identity papers. I was afraid that the army would not allow entry into the Zapatista villages along the border, but I had gone through the main checkpoint – the one manned by the Border Police – in the dark, buried under the pile of Indians in the back of the truck.
Three young people who stood at the bottom of the slope stopped the truck. “Why did you come?” They were no more than 20 years old.
“To visit Zapatistas. To meet Marcos.”
“Do you have papers?” I took out my press card. They examined it. “Write why you have come.” I tore a page out of my notebook and composed a letter in Spanish. Two of them remained with me and the third took the letter and vanished beyond the bend. The earth was moist in the shade and mosquitoes and chiggers hovered in the heat. The young man came back. I scratched the bites. A jungle in the dry season. Malaria?
“Hello,” said a short, straight-backed man. “I’m Max. Put your things down in that house and hang up a hammock. You are probably tired from the trip.”
I was. I went into the long hut. A cement floor, a tin roof, wooden walls and solid wooden shutters. I stretched the plastic rope between two metal beams and hung up the hammock. Hungry dogs sniffed around and a line convoy of ants scurried from place to place. I took my shoes off and undressed, stretched out in the hammock and fell into a deep and troubled sleep.
The heavy heat of noon. Opposite the long hut stood lean-tos with low walls. There were more people in them, not Indians. They spoke rapid urban Spanish. South of the hut flowed a stream that came down from the green mountains to the big river on the border. Children paddled and women did laundry. Beyond the brook stood huts, their walls decorated with portraits of Che Guevara and marcos, a stocking cap covering his face and the pipe of the subcommandante sticking out of the mouth hole. In the field beyond boys and young men played soccer. Some of them were Indians and some looked European. Under the large tree that shaded the brook was a canopy of shade. Under the canopy of shade was a table where four young people were sitting.
“They told you that it is forbidden to take pictures of the men here, yes?” said a man in his mid-twenties. He was dark, with a round face, short hair and a beard. He was wearing fatigue pants and combat boots.
“I’m photographing the huts,” I said. They were whittling.
“What are they saying about the Zapatistas in the newspapers?” I was not a source of information. “Where are you from?”
“Are you for the Zapatistas?” asked a girl with short hair who was wearing a white T-shirt and shorts.
“I don’t know yet. I have to learn.” They regarded me suspiciously. “Where are you people from?”
“Germany,” laughed the boy. He spoke rapid Spanish with a Chilean accent.
“Spain,” said the girl. They asked about the Palestinian conflict; I asked what they were doing in Realidad.
“A work camp,” said a boy whose long hair was held back in a rubber band. He too wore green fatigues and combat boots. They looked at one another. The total surprise of meeting people who weren’t from the village.
“How much army did you see at the checkpoint?”
“I would estimate a company.”
“Did they search you?”
“But they didn’t arrest you?” – the suspicion.
I looked northward along the stream. Huts and field service structures in rows. A parade ground. Maximilian crossed the lawn, sat down beside me and gazed into the hot grass.
“The army is coming!” yelled someone. Maximilian disappeared into the shade of one of the huts. The roar of motors. Twenty-five young people burst out of the hut area and stood along the hot road. The company of army HumVees descended and drove along slowly. Soldiers behind the machine-guns, holding the weapons, helmets in the oppressive heat, bullet-proof vests zipped up. The young people photographed the vehicles and when the convoy had passed through the village they began to run after it, like a pack of trailing dogs. Spaniards and Italians and Germans and people from all over Central and South America. The Internationale. Were they provoking the army? Would the firing of a single bullet cause the situation to generate and newspaper headlines?
The revolutionaries returned to the village, perspiring. They went down to the creek to bathe. Maximilian returned to the lawn, signaling me to follow him. We crossed through the shade and the field where the young people were playing soccer again. We walked past the rows of huts with the huge wall paintings of Che Guevera, Emiliano Zapata and Subcommandante Marcos who gazed out with burning eyes and a smoking pipe on the green grass and the dense forest that descended from the mountainsides, embracing the small village and spreading over hundreds of kilometers to the north, south, east and west. On the northeastern side of the village was the parade ground, with a high, roofed stage overlooking it. Chairs stood on the stage. Maximilian and two others pulled chairs out of the raised hut and set them down in the shade. The Indians are the excuse for the Zapatista organization. I asked Maximilian about the Indians. The village was a group of Tujobal, 120 families who spoke an Indian dialect.
“Since when have you been Zapatistas?”
“In 1989, Indians came and made speeches in the villages about cooperation, about unified thinking in order to find the way and our needs. Our needs is that we are living here, we are poor farmers who are not paid for our work. We must be given a reckoning, the right to speak out, justice, freedom, democracy, health, education, work and independence from Mexico in Chiapas. We want possession of all the deeds to the land.”
“Do you want an independent state of Chiapas, or justice?”
“We want an independent state, because when the president was elected he revoked the ejido in several villages. We went to the government to ask for land and the government said that there wasn’t any – and that’s a lie – there is land!”
The ejido is a Mexican unit. An ejido can be an extended family, a neighborhood or a village. Everyone is responsible for everyone else. The origins of the ejido are apparently in the period that preceded the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This is the safety net that keeps Mexico’s poor alive – they give one another support. I asked Maximilian who had organized the village.
“The people here. We all decided to organize and resist. The women take part in the movement because they the right to participate and run the life of the community. we have an ejido commissariat run by a secretary, a chairman and a council of 12 who were elected by the entire commune.” Maxiilian was the local leader. He spoke in a low voice. I asked what they grew. “Coffee.”
“What is a kilo of coffee worth?”
“Two pesos.” There are more than eight pesos to a dollar in this country where inflation never stops. It costs 21 pesos to go by truck or bus from El Realidad to Las Margaritas where the red coffee beans are brought after they have been dried in the sun. A 50-kilo sack of coffee is worth 100 pesos. A ticket for the round trip costs 42 pesos. “We are trapped between loans and merchants who exploit the pressure. The army is between the villages. They advance in our direction all the time. On January 3 (1998), at 7:00 in the morning they stopped at the turn above the village and came down to comb the village. The men were still at home. They began to wreck the houses, searching for weapons.”
“Do you have weapons?”
“We have no weapons. We work in our ejido in order to support ourselves. They aimed their guns at us and asked where Marcos was. Marcos is the supreme commander – that’s what they told us. Helicopters circled in the sky. They tied up my deaf aunt, prodded her with rifles, ripped her blouse and pulled out her hair. I was working in te coffee plantation. When I came back, they arrested me and asked me where Marcos was, the rebels, the weapons. And when they saw that I wasn’t answering, they stamped on me. They knocked down my comrade and spilled the coffee beans he had gathered, poured boiling coffee over him and ripped up the tortillas and threw them on the ground. The young people arrived, and when the soldiers saw them – they were alarmed and left him alone.”
“Will you fight the army?”
“We don’t want war, but the government, which is not implementing the San Andreas agreements, brought more soldiers here, more helicopters and tanks. Therefore, the people are uniting. If there will be justice and freedom – there will be no need to spill blood.”
“And if not?”
“In 1995 the army came down to Guadelupatapilla, where the soldiers stopped you, to search for suspects. They are also searching here. When the army came – the people left. They built a hospital there – but no one goes there. Any place the army comes – the people leave. We are here and the light will come.”
“And the foreigners in the village?”
“They are independents. Peace observers. So that the situation does not degenerate into war. When there are people here from the city – the army does nothing, for fear of publicity. They are also the ones that did the paintings.”
I asked Maximilian and two others if I could photograph them. They covered their faces with scarves. Maximilian was the name of the Austrian emperor who, under the spears of the invading French legions and the aegis of Napoleon, was declared Emperor of Mexico in 1863. On June 19 1867, he was betrayed by his soldiers and captured by the soldiers of Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian who initiated social reforms, civil marriage, free education and freedom of the press, and separated the church from the state.
But in 1876 the next tyrant arose – Porfirio Diaz. Repression returned until the outbreak of the revolution of 1910.
We walked back to the center of the village. The heavy heat melted into the soft light of dusk. I sat on a low wooden bench with Judy, a young American woman of considerable dimensions from San Francisco who had come to document the revolution with her video camera.
“What did Maximilian tell you?”
“That they want independence.”
“Did you know that a third of the fighters in the movement are women? They were the ones who passed the laws against drink and drugs. They have an equal voice in the meetings.”
“And the foreigners here? Do you have any sense that the European ideologists are exploiting the just case of the Indians in order to fuel the first stage of the revolution?”
“The Indians decided themselves, in a meeting of the villages, to be part of the Zapatista movement. The women got a resolution passed that from now on they could marry whomever they wanted, and if they get divorced the children stay with them.”
“But if there’s a war here – the first to be hurt will be these villages. Isn’t ideology sacrificing these villages to the revolution?”
“They know this. They decided on this themselves.” We sat in the waning light and the mosquitoes buzzed around our feet. Marie, a French woman from the International Brigade, sat down beside us. Night fell and the forest melted into the village. A few yellow lamps glowed. We spoke Spanish. Marie was in her late twenties, brown hair down to her shoulders, a young, slim woman, a straight sharp nose and suspicious eyes. Judy suggested that we go to the nearest hut to have coffee.
“I can’t,” said Marie. “I’m on the second line tonight. If something happens, we all have to rush over there.” She was holding a flashlight. Here hands were white in the dark, waiting for the call that would come.
“As you like. We’ll be there.” Beyond the low wall, a fire glowed, and on it a metal bucket. Women sat around the fire. On the floor of the porch of the hut stood wooden benches where men and women sat. Two tables stood between them and the place where we were sitting. On the tables were pots. On the step that looked pout into the dark sat older women, playing with children. “Coffee?” asked one of the women, dipping enameled cups into the bucket. The coffee was lukewarm and not strong. “Are you hungry? Have you eaten anything?” In the pots were fried bananas. The woman put frijoles – brown kidney beans – into plates and served them with tortillas, thin rounds of cornbread. The village shares what there is. A young man strummed a guitar. The dark was illuminated by the red light of the waning fire. he sang about freedom, equality, the uprising. The hot night, the low buzz of the chiggers, the smell of the coffee cooking in the bucket on the fire, the revolutionary Mexican songs. I could understand the romantic attraction that brought young people from far away to the emerging revolution.
A shabby old bus parked by one of the huts, and the driver, a young Indian, rocked in one of the hammocks. I asked him if he was leaving. he said in the orning. In the morning I was on the bus. The driver’s assistant sold me a ticket. I looked at the ticket. The name of the company was: “The Union of the United – Land and Liberty.”
Perhaps terror achieves nothing, but a popular uprising – the bus stopped by the roadside, loaded sacks of coffee, gradually filled up. Women and men, small children and sacks of coffee. A clear, hot day. A checkpoint. The soldiers shoved the Indians and searched their bodies for weapons and explosives. I took out the camera. The officer raised his voice. I put the camera away. The Indians were treated more gently. Here, in their home, the Indians were not equal citizens. The bus went on its way, taking on sacks of coffee. The sun crossed the meridian towards the west. Again I was surrounded by Indians who crowded together, laughing. Gentle people. Workers of the land. The last stop was the warehouse where the coffee beans were stored in Las Margaritas. Two streets up stood the minibuses that traversed the distance to Comitan, to the bus station for San Cristobal da las Casas. A place where priests, Indians and leftists with good intentions are struggling for the rights of the Indians in order to establish the fundamental arguments for the human freedom and liberty everywhere.