El Zapatismo and Our Visit to Caracol #4

By Maggie Schumann

In March, the Border Studies Program journeyed to Chiapas, Mexico to learn about how US policy has motivated and shaped migration from Mexico and Central America. One aspect of the trip was a visit to a Zapatista caracol, the seat of an autonomous and representative municipal government affiliated with the 1994 Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rebellion.  There are five caracoles, which means snail, in Chiapas where these autonomous governments, called Juntas del Buen Gobierno, or Meetings of Good Government, gather. Our opportunity to visit a caracol was a special one. You need a trusted connection to enter into their communities — after all, they are in rebellion against the Mexican state. The day we were scheduled to go, I happened to feel horrible with my stomach being turned over by an intestinal illness. However, I decided to go nonetheless, thinking that I would never have another opportunity to learn of the Zapatista uprising directly from its members.

I didn’t know much of the Zapatista movement before our visit, so instead I started reading about it afterwards. This is a bit of a summary of what I’ve learned: The Zapatista movement started publicly on the 1st of January, 1994 after ten years of planning in the forests of Chiapas. That day, January 1st, 1994 was chosen to be the same day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, came into effect. The Zapatistas protested against the neoliberal state and its capitalist projects, exemplified by NAFTA, that were robbing the indigenous people of Chiapas of their traditional livelihoods close to the earth. The Zapatistas in their trademark covered faces took control of over 500 territories in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the first weeks of January. The Mexican government’s response was both rapid and strong, and the Zapatistas retreated for the mountains. The peace talks that followed saw the efforts of the Mexican government to trade so-called development funds for the submission of the EZLN.  There was a cease-fire from the 12th of January that lasted for two years, until the signing of the San Andrés Accords, that were supposed to give more rights to the indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the Mexican government has never followed through on their promises. All the while, in those years the EZLN and especially its mysterious Subcomandante Marcos, fought a battle of public opinion and won the sympathy of the Mexican people and international activists.

In 2003, the Aguascalientes, centers of the Zapatista Army, were converted to be centers of municipal and autonomous government. Each one of the Aguascalientes became one caracol, a place where representatives of each community met in a Junta del Buen Gobierno. These governments served the same functions as state-sanctioned municipal governments but were autonomous and Zapatista. One of these Juntas, one of these governments, was the one we visited. The ten representatives that make up the Junta also spoke with us.

The Junta, remarkably diverse in both age and gender, described to us the history and politics of their work. The group described how they had been chosen by their communities. The appointment to the Junta lasts for three years, cannot be turned down, and requires that they travel to the caracol once per month to meet with the Junta for a week-long period. The representatives are not paid, but while they are away from home working in the Junta, their communities care for their crops and families. There is no campaigning. The Zapatista process of electing representatives made a great impression on me, especially as I have been interning with Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s Tucson District Office for the semester. The contrast between the Zapatista elections and our own couldn’t be more stark. The Zapatista way omits all of the competitivity, expense, and in this moment, pain, of political campaigns. We would likely have better representatives, too. However, this model is likely enabled by smaller communities in which all members know each other.

The Junta also told us a bit about their rules and initiatives in the Zapatista communities. For example, one set of rules regards alcohol in the Zapatista pueblos. Each Zapatista community prohibits all alcohol. If someone violates this rule, the first and second times they have opportunities to change their behavior. If there is a third time, the community meets to decide if they will expel the individual from the pueblo. This rule is one example of how communal decision-making is worked into their form of justice.

The Zapatista health centers are one of the Junta’s initiatives that seeks real, as opposed to neoliberal, development. Any member of the community can access medical attention at a Zapatista health center. If someone can’t pay for the medical services, she can pay with what she has, maybe corn, beans, or labor. Families only have to pay when the treatment is successful; if the family member dies, the family pays nothing. These examples of Zapatista rules, communal justice and initiatives for real, community-defined development are ways of governance I hope to dwell on for a long time.

Maggie pic 3

We stayed at the caracol for only one night. Too soon, we were leaving. But all of us carried the experience and the example of the Zapatistas into our studies and our lives afterwards. For one student, the visit to the caracol challenged her Quaker and pacifist identity. For me, the visit showed the power of local government and the merits of working outside of the system of official government to enact change. Someone said to us when we were in the caracol that our task was to reimagine and reconstruct Zapatismo for our own communities. For now, I am continuing in that thought experiment, bearing in mind the “Mandar Obedeciendo de EZLN / Obeying Mandate of the EZLN:

  •    Obedecer, no mandar / To obey, not order.
  •    Bajar, no subir / To lower oneself, not raise oneself.
  •    Proponer, no imponer / To propose, not impose.
  •    Convencer, no vencer / To convince, not conquer.
  •    Representar, no suplantar / To represent, not supplant.
  •    Servir, no servirse / To serve, not serve oneself.
  •    Construir, no destruir / To construct, not destroy.”

Sources and additional readings:

“The Zapatista Uprising: The Best Post-Modern Revolution.” http://vivatropical.com/podcast-mexico-zapatista-post-modern-revolution

Mexico Solidarity Network. “Zapatismo”. http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/node/317

Hayden, Tom. The Zapatista Reader. Nation Books, 2009.

Grant, Will. “Struggling on: Zapatistas 20 years after the uprising”. BBC Mundo. 1 January 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25550654

All photos by Jacob Wilson and of murals at the Zapatista caracol.

Through it All

Nogales: Through it all

The first day of our semester we went to Nogales, Arizona to have our first experience in the shadow of a wall. A wall that metaphorically you can find, more like a concept that signifies separation, along the whole border between the US and Mexico, and that physically exists for four miles in southern Arizona, dividing the Nogales of the United States of America from the Nogales of the United States of Mexico.

Julian wall

For me, this experience gave me a frame of reference for the whole of my time in Ambos Nogales and even for my entire semester with the Border Studies Program. I came as an American, ignorant, someone who had only flown in a plane to La Ciudad de México and had never crossed a border so obvious and explicit, so strong and impotent, so transcendent. A border where you don’t even have to show papers on one side, but on the other you have to wait for an hour, carry suitable identification on your person, and undergo scrutiny at multiple checkpoints to cross back.

Julian Wall 2

Today, the wall is made of tall bars in place of the solid barrier that used to divide the land it sits on. Standing next to the wall, I felt the magnitude of that day. I was standing on top of a small hill, and at the bottom was México. It was cool, one of the special days for me before the heat of the spring arrived in Tucson. I looked through the bars, looking down at everything below me: everything under the colossal power of the United States of America, everything under the privilege with which I came and with which I come today. Through the bars, México looked like a zoo, a jail, an exhibit: trapped. I felt the wind blowing through the bars and saw the sun rising between two of them. Even a wall this tall (12 feet) cannot combat the natural forces of Mother Earth, just as it can’t combat migration which itself is a natural force, an inherent behavior of human beings. I also felt the presence of the cameras mounted on the tower pointed at México. I felt like as if of my movements were being recorded, as if the officers in the Border Patrol truck with the tinted windows were watching me.BP Tower Julian

Today it’s very easy to identify which side you’re on based on what surrounds you. On the US side there are Duty Free stores, wide streets, and corporate fast-food joints. On the Mexican side there are cheap pharmacies, dental clinics, and street vendors selling tacos in the crowded and narrow corridors surrounding the Port of Entry. But time is impermanent, and things have changed a lot here. I remember hearing stories of parties in the central plaza of, what for many years used to be named, Ambos Nogales, where residents from both México and the US would visit family and celebrate their shared city. I remember hearing stories of Mexicanos passing Cuban cigars and alcohol through doors and windows to the US side during Prohibition. Things have not always been how they are today. The land has a memory of millions of years without a wall cutting through this small spit of immense desert. And there is a future here: the possibility of change.



I have spent a lot of time now on these two “sides” of this small area of our world. I have stood next to the monument to José Antonio – a fifteen-year-old boy who was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent through the bars of the wall – and imagined the impossible task of throwing a rock over it – the official reason for such a use of force. I have heard stories of people climbing up alongside buses, falling off the wall at night onto the other side, breaking knees or legs and getting to Tucson in need of medical care they cannot legally seek out. I have heard of the 50-foot wall and the 51-foot ladder, a common symbol used to describe the worthlessness of building more or taller walls because people who want will always find other ways to cross this 2,000 mile-long stretch of Borderlands.

Maggie, one of the compas of our group, ruminated once about the “coexistence of normality and injustice”. This refers to the idea that, day after day, it’s possible to forget what has happened that was unjust in the specific moment in which it happened. Through it all, life goes on, and even such a significant thing as the wall becomes “permanent” with a little bit of time. One day, a little boy called to me from a school on the Mexican side as I was standing in the US: “Hi! What is your name?” For him, this was a normal day. But while life goes on with this temporary understanding of Ambos Nogales, the struggle also goes on. The struggle against this separation between human beings, and the denial of the right to work, the right to eat, the right to live. The right to our own land. Both sides. All of it.

Julian Chinga la Migra.png


Julian Cranberg