Back to On the Road with John Tarleton
Part I: Table of Contents
|1.||Table of Contents|
|III.||Glossary of Terms|
|IV.||Arrival in Santa Laguna|
|V.||A Zapatista General Assembly|
|VI.||Notes on Counter-Insurgency|
|VIII.||Domingo's Story, Part 1|
|X.||Antonio the Health Promoter|
|XII.||Domingo's Story, Part 2|
|XIII.||Santa Elena's Agricultural Calender|
|XIV.||At School with the Zapatistas|
|XV.||Enrollment: Rafael Ramirez Primary School|
|XVI.||Maria de Jesus's Story|
Part II: Preface
For five weeks I lived, worked, laughed, played and went to school with the Zapatistas while serving as a human rights observer in Chiapas's Lacandon Jungle. The community I lived in was deeply polarized, and I did not have access to the thoughts of those people who had thrown in their lot with the Mexican government and its Armed Forces. I could only observe their actions. If this story is incomplete in that sense, it will nonetheless be of interest to anyone who wishes to know more about the Zapatista Movement and its members. I use the phrases "Zapatista", "pro-Zapatista" and "Zapatista supporter" interchangeably throughout the story. As far as I could tell, all the members of the community I lived in were civilians. The only people I saw carrying arms during my time in the Lacandon Jungle were soldiers of The Mexican Army.
Part IV: Arrival in Laguna Santa Elena
LAGUNA SANTA ELENA, MEXICOLaguna Santa Elena is a village of roughly 300 people in Chiapass Lacandon Jungle in which tensions are strikingly demarcated by the white flags that fly high over the houses of government supporters.
Turkeys, chickens, ducks, dogs, horses and cows roam freely in an open thirty- yard wide grassy strip that runs through the middle of the village. Boys chase chickens with sticks while girls follow behind their mothers with buckets of well water balanced atop their heads. The faint sounds of reveille can be heard twice a day, at dawn and dusk, from the nearby military base.
Santa Elena lies in a cañada (a narrow, sunken valley) surrounded by 3,000-foot mountains. It was first cleared in the early 1970s by land-hungry settlers from Chiapas's central highlands.
The clay soil is hard and compact. The men have to walk an hour outside of the village to find good farming land. Scrawny cattle and bleached cows skulls are scattered across the common pastureland that lies on the lower side of the village. Lagoons form during the six-month wet season when torrential rainwater gathers in low-lying pockets of land.
The nights are cool and humid as a thick mist settles over the cañada. The sounds of small children coughing can be heard above the racket of barking dogs and crowing roosters.
I came to Santa Elena for five weeks as an observer for a Mexican human right's organization based out of San Christobal de Las Casas. Though they are some of the poorest people in Mexico, locals will often invite a visitor over to their small wooden huts to share a meal of big, soft, round black beans and steaming hot tortillas.
Santa Elenas pro-Zapatista civilians, like those in 25 other communities in Chiapas's conflictive zone, have requested human rights observers since the Mexican Army chased them into the mountains during the February 1995 military offensive.
The Campamentos Civiles por la Paz (CCP) grew out of that offensive. The offensive failed to crush the EZLN or to capture its leaders. But when pro-Zapatista civilians returned from weeks of hiding in the mountains, they discovered that their homes had been ransacked and the Army had set up bases in the middle of the villages.
Human rights advocates were later able to convince the Army to move its bases outside of the villages. Since then both Mexican and internationalist volunteers have served as campamentistas, providing a thin buffer between the Army and the pro-Zapatista civilians. Campamentistas pack in their own food rations while local families take turns supplying a daily fare of tortillas and sometimes eggs or coffee as well.
Santa Elena's campamento also serves as a Zapatista community center. The adults gather at the end of the day while their children wrestle in the grass and play with colored blocks and a toy xylophone.
Men wearing cowboy hats sit silhouetted in the darkness as they play dominoes and speak softly in their native Tzeltal tongue. The houses with white flags over them have all been rewarded with solar panels. And after nightfall, they glow intermittently like silver fireflies.
The Army left bad feelings in its wake. The pro-Zapatistas are certain that it would be back in the village if not for the campamentistas' presence.
The soldiers are fuckers, said 89 year-old don Marcos. When they had their camp in the middle of the village, they made us wash their clothes and give them coffee and tortillas.
Part V: A Zapatista General Assembly
A Zapatista general assembly is a humble but impressive occasion. Men and women participate as equals. They sit in the dark speaking Tzeltal in soft, unhurried tones. There is an occasional flicker of orange light when a man lights a cigarette. No one rushes to make themselves heard above others. Listening closely, one can detect Tzeltal's distinctive sounds; the hard guttural b, ch, j, k and p sounds, the softer sh and ts sounds and tik, the verbal suffix that signals the first person plural.
The participants come together as equal members of a community with a shared destiny. Issues are discussed not argued over. People search together for answers instead of looking to arbitrarily impose a plan. There are no leaders who make decisions in other peoples' names. That ended on January 1, 1994.
Anything and everything that affects the common good is discussed thoroughly; be it a proposed water-sharing project with a neighboring village, the poor health of a breeding bull, the Armys intrusions into one of the communitys lagoons, appointments to visit a traveling dentist, divvying up cabbage from the community garden, the arrival of a new sewing machine or the arrival of a new campamentista.
I was the main item on the agenda on my second evening in Santa Elena. Before the meeting, each one of the 30 or so men and women came up and greeted me with a firm handshake saying Buenas tardes (Good afternoon). I had left San Christobal de Las Casas several days before, taking a dirt road as far as La Sultana and then hiking mud- soaked trails over the mountains first to the village of Guadalupe Trinidad and then onto Santa Elena.
I was relieved to be out of San Christobal, an old colonial city that has become a quaint tourist stop where barefoot indigenous women hawk handwoven one-peso bracelets (pulseras) to camera-toting foreigners, and their bedraggled children roam through vegetarian restaurants sparechanging these same well-to-do tourists.
Domingo introduced me to the assembly. He is an articulate but soft-spoken man in his early 50s who serves as the liaison between the community and outside human rights organizations. I stood up and spoke in Spanish for a couple of minutes, thanking the people for graciously welcoming me into their community.
The audience looked at me with a reserved curiosity. I couldnt tell what they were thinking.
When I finished and sat down again, Domingo gave a signal and everyone applauded. Domingo then translated what I had said into Tzeltal for those who hadnt understood a word.
The women and men nodded their heads affirmatively. Things had been calm in Santa Elena for the past few months. But, I sensed that my presence was important to these people. Over the next five weeks I would learn why.
Part VI: Notes on Counter-Insurgency
Following the massive public outcry, both in Mexico and abroad, that halted the February 1995 military offensive, the Mexican government agreed to another cease-fire and resumed peace talks with the EZLN. The Army also changed tactics, seeking instead to win the hearts and the minds of the people in the conflictive zone. Its efforts have met with mixed success.
Over in La Sultana, the people remain 100% pro-Zapatista despite the Armys seemingly absurd pantomime of a social services agency.
The Army first offered (unsuccessfully) to supply free food. It then planted a thousand mahogany trees only to receive snickering reviews. The saplings were planted so closely together that none of them will be able to grow to full size in fifty years.
Later, the soldiers were turned down when they asked if they could come to church in order to present an image of The Virgin of Guadalupe as a gift. The soldiers then asked if they could attend a dance that was being held at the local school. And, the community once again politely declined their request.
Feeling sorry for the Army, the campamentistas in La Sultana made a list of things the soldiers could do to convince the people of their good intentions. Here were the Top 5 suggestions:
5.) Ask if they can come and play basketball with the local kids.
4.) Set up a diving board and rope swing down at the swimming hole.
3.) Install a video arcade.
2.) Dress up as little old ladies and walk through town selling bags of salted peanuts and sweet bread.
1.) Ask to serve as volunteers at the Campamento Civil por la Paz.
The Army has had better luck in Santa Elena. Working through ARIC, a pro- government peasant organization, it has distributed free food, free medicine, free lumber, free metal roofs and free solar panels to locals who support the PRI, the political party that has ruled Mexico since 1929.
Families are divided. People who have been neighbors for years no longer speak to each other. And, their children attend separate schools. According to Domingo, the score in Santa Elena is:
Pro-government families: 27 Pro-Zapatista families: 24
As time passed, I realized that the important question wasnt how many families were pro-government vs. pro-Zapatista. Instead, what I wanted to know was this: How is it that some people can be bought off while others, who are in the same situation, hang tough in spite of being surrounded by thousands of well-armed soldiers who could swoop down on them at any moment?
Part VII: Candlelight Readings
After the general assembly, I read some recent dispatches from Subcommandante Marcos by candlelight before going to sleep. Famed for his pipe and his ski mask, Marcos (or El Sup as he is popularly referred to) is at once a poet, a dreamer, a clown and a brilliant social critic in the same vein as Eduardo Galeano.
Marcos arrived in these mountains 14 years ago from Mexico City. Little else is known about his origins (though this hasn't kept the Mexican press from speculating at various times that he is a gay poet, a defrocked Jesuit or a veteran revolutionary who fought in Nicaragua and El Salvador). He speaks all four of Chiapass Mayan languages - Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal, and Chol - fluently. Locals say he used to attend dances in Santa Elena on feast days. One old-timer remembers taking toasted tortillas and coffee up to Marcoss camp years ago.
Since he led the daring New Years Day capture of San Christobal de Las Casas three years ago, historys first post-modern guerrilla leader has gone on to prove that the keyboard is mightier than the sword.
Marcoss writings appear on The Internet as well as in La Jornada, Mexico's leading left-wing daily. Eclectic, poetic and undogmatic, he is not the average guerrilla chieftain who can only communicate through the rigid truths of Marxism-Leninism.
Marcos and the Zapatistas have forsworn all interest in seizing political power. They have also refrained from the vanguardism that has plagued the revolutionary left for decades. They have instead called upon Mexico's emerging civil society to remake this countrys corrupt and foundering political system.
Zapatismo is not offered as an exclusive answer for all times and places but as only one example of creative and principled resistance. It is a vision that is at once inclusive, nebulous and universal.
And, in this vision the revolutionary struggle is no longer conceived as occurring within separate nations, nor, as a pyramid with an elite vanguard at the top nor a ring of concentric circles with the vanguard in the middle. It is instead a world wide web that transcends frontiers. And anyone who seeks a better and more humane way of living than that offered by Neo-Liberalism (the rapidly expanding system of unrestrained, globally- integrated, corporate capitalism) is, in a sense, a Zapatista. In Marcoss thinking, the EZLN is only one of many nodes on that web.
If you want to know whose face is behind the ski mask, it's very simple, he said. Take a mirror and look in it. (1*)
Marcos has been taunting the Mexican government for 39 months from his hide- outs in these mountains where the night is alive with the buzzing sounds of the jungle. Twice (January 1994 and February 1995) the Mexican Army has almost crushed Marcos and the rag-tag Zapatista Army underfoot only to be forced to a halt by national and international pressure. And thus El Sup has been able to continue carrying out his most important mission: Speaking Truth to Power.
While a cease fire and peace talks continue for the moment, the question that hangs over the jungle is this: How much longer will the Mexican government endure this embarrassing and unprecedented situation?
(1*) Yo, Marcos (p.15) as compiled by Marta Duran de Huerta. 1994.
Part VIII: Domingo's Story, Part 1
There were only six people living in what is now Santa Elena when Domingo arrived in 1972.
He is now a 52-year-old father of eight children. He became a grandfather for the fifth time three months ago. He farms corn, beans and coffee on a few hectares of land that he has cleared in the jungle. He also has two skinny head of cattle. He and two of his grown sons run a small general store that is lightly stocked with soft drinks, munchies and a few assorted knickknacks.
As the responsable for the Zapatista community in Santa Elena, Domingo was the first person I spoke with when I hiked into the village on February 27th. Domingo is more a facilitator than a traditional hierarchical leader. Calm and dignified, he speaks first at the Zapatistas general assemblies stating the issues that need to be discussed. He then steps back and lets the rest of the community join in the discussion.
One evening, a couple of weeks after I arrived in Santa Elena, I walked out to the edge of the village to listen to the chirping, screeching, buzzing, croaking, fluttering, twittering, warbling sounds that settle over the jungle at dusk. Domingo flagged me down as I returned and invited me over to his house. We sat down in his dark, unlit kitchen to a light supper of cabbage soup and tortillas.
Domingo talked about his early days as a pioneer on what was then Mexicos frontier. He has been neighbors for 25 years with some of the people who now fly white flags over their houses.
When we first came here, we walked for four days from Ocosingo carrying all our possessions on our backs. There was no road back then. The women were very tired when we arrived.
The land in Chanal (a small town in Chiapass central highlands where many of Santa Elenas settlers came from) was very tired. It didnt produce much, only a few shoots of corn here and there. And you couldnt raise coffee or cattle. Here, you can do all three and make enough money to live hear the whole year.
Before we came, we had to work on the coast part of the year clearing sugar cane or picking bananas. They paid us really cheap. We only made 30 pesos a week (US $7.50 in 1970).
There were only six people here when I arrived. They had been here for two years. With the eight of us who came, that made 14. After another 11 people came, we were able to apply to (the Ministry of ) Agrarian Reform for the title to this land.
They sent out a surveyor who measured the boundary between here and Guadalupe and Santa Marta and Santa Lucia. And later, we received title to the land.
It was hard work clearing the land. We solicited the government for basic things - clean drinking water and a metal roof for the school - and always it went the same, nothing.
We started protesting in 1980. We would march on foot all the way to Ocosingo. We would be gone four or five days with nothing to eat except pozol (a watery, flavorless corn gruel).
We talked to the municipal authorities in Ocosingo. Sometimes they would tell us they didnt have anything. And other times they would say, yes, yes. We'll have something for you in fifteen days if you will return to your village and wait.
I would tell the people this and that made me a liar! Thats because they never intended to give us anything.
Now they are offering us everything. They are bringing electricity and building new roads so they can move their soldiers around easier. But, they havent changed.
Everybody in this area was united with the Zapatistas in 1994. But when the Army came in the following year, some of the people fled and the rest of us stayed here.
The people who fled went to Ocosingo. They were afraid that they were going to die. They heard these reports that the government was bombing wherever there were guerrillas.
We didnt know if we were going to die or not. We were waiting for the bombs to fall but they never did. When the Army came into the village, we fled into the mountains.
We hid for 20 days. We ate the fruit on the ground. We didnt see any snakes and, Gracias a Dios, there werent any bugs!
When it rained, we put up tarps. The soldiers patrolled on the edge of the village but they never came up into the mountains. Well, who wants to die?
We returned to the village when the human rights people set up the campamento. Before we left, we closed up our houses. When we returned, the doors were all open.
The soldiers had taken everything - axes, machetes, blankets - they would need for their camp. They grabbed our biggest chickens, one in each hand, and took them off to eat. They only left us the little ones.
There were animals all over the kitchen eating the sacks of corn and beans that we had produced. We were left with nothing. Right now, we use one blanket for three or four children.
The human rights people told the Army that they couldnt have a base in the middle of the village. So one night the soldiers moved all their things over to where they are now.
At first, we had to ask the soldiers for permission to leave the village. They wanted to know where we were going and what we were doing. Right now, theres no problem. They stay over on their base. And we stay over here.
Ever since the Army came, they have been dividing the people. The people who went to (the refugee camps in) Ocosingo are all now government supporters. When they returned, they were accustomed to the government giving them everything.
The government gives them their food. It gives them solar panels. It gives them metal roofs. It sends people into the jungle with chainsaws to cut boards for them that they use for the walls and the rafters in their houses. The Priistas didnt plant much this year. They think the government is going to continue giving them everything.
The military base, which lays within a kilometer of the village, is a constant menace to the Zapatistas civilian supporters. Volleys of gunfire can sometimes be heard late at night as soldiers hone their night-fighting capabilities.
Though the government is content for now to dole out patronage, this could change any moment. If the Army goes on the offensive again, people like Domingo who dont have white flags hoisted above their houses could be in grave trouble. I marveled at his serenity and asked him what he thought about the future.
Who knows? He said, shrugging his shoulders. We are living from day-to-day. We are waiting to see what will happen next.
Part IX: The Cough
Hermanindos cough could be heard across the darkness that envelops Santa Elena at night. His was a dry, rasping cough that began deep in his tiny, congested lungs and repeated itself for a half-minute or more.
When I and two other campamentistas, Claudio and Vicki, went over to the little wood hut where the coughs were coming from shortly before midnight one night, we found a sick and exhausted family shivering on a hard, bumpy clay floor.
Hermanindos sister Manuela, and two of her brothers were lying side-by-side, barefoot and half-dressed, on the cold clay floor with only a thin sheet wrapped around them. Their soft, hacking coughs were intermittently punctuated by the hysterical, delirious cries of Hermanindos 5-year-old brother, Feliciano. He lay in the middle shaking with a high fever. The family had no medicine.
Hermanindos mother, Virginia, cradled him in her arms. She gently rocked the chubby 2-year-old as he began another round of dry coughs. A pair of candles filled the desolate room with a dim orange light.
Virginia had been up with her child for several nights. Her lined, haggard face sagged with exhaustion. She remained silent as did the father, Nicolas, who stood back in the shadows with his arms folded impassively over his chest.
Julio, Hermanindos 9-year-old brother, stood blankly on his feet over in the corner by the stove. He was the only one of the siblings who was not coughing. He was also silent; too distracted by his siblings to fall asleep and too exhausted to stay awake.
I later learned that this same family had donated a chicken to our camp earlier in the day so that we would have meat to eat on Sunday.
Claudio, who is a veterinarian by training, had come to Santa Elena in order to treat sick livestock not sick children. He had little in the way of medicine to offer. He went back to camp and returned with aspirin tablets. He spoonfed first Hermanindo then Feliciano, whose sore throat was so tight that he could barely swallow.
Claudio would return in the morning to administer penicillin shots that would at least partially relieve the childrens' suffering.
I stood and watched this raw misery with mute horror. I felt angry and helpless. I am accustomed to living with little; sleeping on the ground or in a hammock and eating beans and tortillas. But, I make sure that I have what I really need.
I went back to the camp and fetched my down sleeping bag. The children were going to be warm the rest of the night. This was a band-aid not a solution for their suffering. I had brought extra layers of thermal underwear with me. It was impossible to imagine returning to camp and sleeping snugly inside my cozy sleeping bag.
Later that night I fell asleep in my hammock wondering about the priorities of a world in which there is always more money for more soldiers, more bombs, more helicopters, but nothing for children who have the double misfortune of being both poor and sick.
Part X: Antonio the Health Promoter
Antonio is Santa Elenas health promoter. And he is almost without medicine.
He comes to his tiny, 9x12 foot clinic during the final two hours of the day to treat ailing villagers. Children run and shout outside amidst grazing horses. A soft, late- afternoon breeze blows through an open window. Antonio refers often to his well-worn copy of Donde No Hay Doctor ( Where There Is No Doctor ). The clinic doesnt have a solar panel, and he works quickly before darkness falls over the village.
The clinic has a single, wood-slat bed, a cabinet, a table, two benches and a couple of shelves which are lightly stocked with medicines for infected wounds and intestinal parasites.
There is nothing for the cough that is common among the children of Santa Elena. And, there are only ten 400-gram packets of Penosodina left for treating the fever that is also a common malady at this time of year. The government hasnt sent any medicine to Santa Elenas clinic in over two years.
So far, according to Antonio, no one in Santa Elena has died of illness. Thanks to God, he added.
Antonio is Domingos quiet, serious, 20-year-old son. He has been Santa Elenas health promoter for seven years. He finished fifth grade and would have completed sixth grade as well, except there was no teacher for his final year in primary school.
The community chose Antonio to be its health promoter in 1990. This was when the government still made medicine available to all of Santa Elenas residents. The village needed someone who knew the proper uses and dosages for the medicines it was receiving.
Antonio took courses in the jungle town of San Quintin for two years and then in San Miguel for another two years with the Mexican Red Cross. Since the conflict broke out in 1994, he has continued taking one to two courses a month at Zapatista facilities in the village of La Garrucha.
One of Antonios most important responsibilities is to pass along the new knowledge he acquires. Because there is so little medicine, he emphasizes prevention. He has taught his fellow villagers in recent years to wash their hands before eating, to cut their childrens nails and to keep dogs out of the kitchen.
Antonio had just returned from a three-day course in oral hygiene when I visited him. The course had been taught to Antonio and sixty other health promoters by a dentist visiting from Mexico City. Antonio brought back a bag full of plastic tooth brushes.
Were going to teach the children about brushing their teeth, he said.
Poor health, nonetheless, continues to plague Santa Elena.
Almost all of the children in the village are sick right now, Antonio said. When one child gets sick, he passes it to another and then another because they are all living close together. And then the illness goes to the next house and the next house all the way around the village.
Conditions worsen, he said, during the six-month rainy season that begins in May. Dirty water contaminates the wells. Diarrhea and vomiting are common even though villagers boil all their water. The cough also worsens during the months of torrential rains.
If someone is walking on the trail, Antonio said, or gathering firewood and they get soaked, they have to endure it. The rain is cold. And when they come home, they are infected with the cough and they pass it along.
Santa Elenas clinic isnt the only one the government has stopped supplying. According to Antonio, the clinics in the nearby villages of Ibarra, Guadalupe Trinidad and La Sultana have also been cut off for the past two years. Each of these communities is 100% pro-Zapatista.
The government now doles out medicine, like all the rest of its favors, through ARIC and the Army. According to Antonio, the local ARIC organization receives a small, five-kilogram box of medicines once a month from the government.
Sometimes their medicine lasts a week, Antonio said. But if a bunch of sick families show up for their penicillin injections, then the medicine goes in three or four days.
When the people from ARIC run out of medicines, they go to the Army base asking for medicine. And the soldiers give it to them.
And what about the Zapatistas? I asked. What will happen when the clinics last medicines run out?
For the Zapatistas, nothing Antonio scoffed. The government isnt going to send us any medicines. They want us to die of sickness.
Part XI: Vicki's Story
Vicki is a 42-year-old social worker in Mexico City. She works with alcoholics, drug addicts and victims of child abuse. She has been angry about the lack of justice in her country since she was a small child growing up on the southwest coast of Chiapas. Since the Campamentos Civiles por la Paz began in March of 1995, Vicki has served as a campamentista in six communities. Two of her four grown children also have volunteered as campamentistas. Vicki and I worked together as campamentistas for two weeks before she returned to Mexico City. During that time she shared her story, which begins and ends in Chiapas.
I experienced total hunger starting when I was 7-years-old. My father had 187 hectares (462 acres) of land. He planted rice and beans and fruits and vegetables. The soil is very rich where we lived near Tapachula. We had lots of fish and chicken and eggs in our diet. Then one day my father diedan aneurysm of the brain.
He didnt leave a will designating the land to my mother. Who thinks they are going to die when they are 40-years-old?
After that, my mother was a widow with seven children, And they were able to despoil us of our land.
Who? I asked.
The Priistas and the caciques. Ever since I can remember, the Priistas have been disgraceful. The only thing that has changed is that they have become worse.
Without our father to defend us, they were able to take all our land. We had nothing. There were seven of us, eight counting my mother. As the youngest, the suffering fell the most on me.
We each got two and a half tortillas per day. And some days we had beans and some days we didnt. Its this experience that gives me the courage to fight on behalf of the people who are being fucked by the system.
Im still hot-blooded when I see someone being treated unfairly. I cant stand back with my arms folded on my chest.
I sold bread on the train that my mother and older sisters cooked. Thats how we survived.
When I was 14 turning 15, I worked the cotton harvest for our brother-in-laws brother. He would hire Indians from Oaxaca, Sonora and all over Mexico to pick his cotton. When they would bring their loads in from the field, he would always give them credit for less.
If one of the Indians brought in 50 kilos, he would turn to me and say 'write down 42 kilos', even though I saw that it was really 50 kilos.
People in this country are always cheating Indians. When the Indians go to sell their products in the market, the coyotes (middlemen) always underweigh them or offer the Indians a bad price. They tell the Indians that if they dont like the price they are being offered, they can always carry their things back home with them.
In some areas people are organized so that they dont have to sell through coyotes. But, its difficult. When people organize themselves, the government tries to break up what they are doing.
When I was 15, I moved to Mexico, D.F. I lived in Colonia Obrera with a cousin of mine. It was a terrible neighborhood with drug addicts everywhere injecting themselves right out on the streets. Whenever I would leave my apartment, they would wave at me and call out: 'Adios morenita' ('Good-bye little dark one').
Ay! I was scared all the time. I ran everywhere I went because I thought they were going to follow me.
I got my first job in a pants factory. After that, I went to work in a restaurant. I also worked for commission selling medicine on the street. And, I took courses at night from 7-9 o'clock. I was making 700 pesos a week whereas in Chiapas I had been making 60 pesos a week. So, I was able to send money back to my family.
I married a Priista. He had money. But, I continued feeling the way I always did.* And my children are the same. I will always be with people who have nothing. (*Note: Vickis husband died in a car accident two years ago. He was 69.)
Vicki remains deeply concerned about the future of the people she has worked with in Chiapass conflictive zone. Though the government and the EZLN have been engaged in off-and-on peace talks for over three years, she has no confidence in a system that dispossessed her and her family.
The government has 14,000 more soldiers in Chiapas this year than last year. They are only pretending to negotiate. They are buying time. Their plan is to kill the Zapatistas starting with Marcos and then on down the line.
I dont think the Army is going to care whether someone says they are a government supporter or not. Because, these people are (eventually) going to be bothering the government for land. I believe they want to get rid of everybody here in the jungle.
Part XII: Domingo's Story, Part 2
Domingo planned to burn his three-hectare (7.4 acres) milpa in mid-April and soon thereafter plant the seeds that will provide the corn and beans that his family will live on for another year.
Domingo began clearing the milpa by hand in late January with his stainless steel machete. He leaves his wooden hut at dawn when the sun is just starting to burn through the morning mist that hangs low over Santa Elena.
He and his wife Maria wake up at 6 a.m. She heats up a breakfast of black beans, tortillas, and a soft-boiled egg and then prepares pozol, the flavorless corn gruel that will be his mid-day lunch.
Domingo and his family finished harvesting their two-hectare coffee plantation in January. They harvested 420 kilos of organic coffee beans and Domingo sold the crop to coyotes in Ocosingo for fifteen pesos (US$2.00) per kilo. He used the money to purchase clothes and shoes and boxes of sugar, salt, soup and cooking oil that have to last the rest of the year.
Its the only time all year we have money, he said.
Domingo walked for over an hour up and down steep mountain trails that are slippery and mud-soaked even during the middle of the dry season. Rays of light shot through the dense rainforest canopy. Invisible songbirds twittered high up in the branches overhead.
Domingo searches for flat terrain to farm in the narrow cañadas that formed millions of years ago between these rolling mountains. One of the words that signifies man in the Tzeltal language is swinkilel lum which translates literally as he who is the owner of his land.
He and his sons farm a site for two or three years before leaving it fallow and moving onto another site. The virgin red clay soil is richer and more porous at first than the hard clay soil back in Santa Elena.
But then: It gets tired, he said, and it has to rest.
Domingo migrated to Santa Elena in 1972 from his native village of Chanal in Chiapass central highlands. The weather there is bitterly cold and the land was overfarmed. The rocky soil could only produce a few feeble shoots of corn. The thin but nutrient-rich rainforest soil was a welcome sight.
We were happy, happy,"he said, recalling his first crop. When the kernel grows that fast, you look forward to planting.
Domingo shares the title to the land with two of his grown sons, Ramon and Antonio. The part of the milpa that remained uncleared was covered by a thicket of second- growth vegetation. Twenty-foot long vines hung down to the ground from young saplings.
Domingo crouched low and worked smoothly and efficiently. The wood was soft and moist from an unexpectedly wet dry season. It yielded easily to his razor-sharp machete. He would leave the trees to dry in the sun in order to later harvest them for firewood before burning the land.
Domingo expected to clear his land by April 15th. He would then burn the land on April 20th and plant his seeds on the following days. With rains, the first corn sprouts would push through the ground about eight days later. If not, he would do a second planting in early May.
Lets hope that the first planting comes up, he said. Thats the important one.
Domingo worked until mid-day and then stopped for a lunch of pozol mixed with lukewarm water. He sat in the shade looking out at his mornings work. He was working on this day with his son Ramon and three neighbors with whom he had exchanged work days. His two younger sons, Lorenzo and Benito, join him when they are not in school. Domingo would continue working until 3 p.m. before heading home.
The sun was high overhead and Domingo was still sweating from his mornings work. He was tired from years of hacking away at the jungle. But, he didnt even think about stopping.
We work in order to eat in order to live, he said. We have nothing extra for sale. If we don't work, we don't eat. Then we die.
Part XIII: Laguna Santa Elena's Agricultural Calender
Here is the agricultural calender that Domingo and the other men in Santa Elena follow during the course of a year:
JANUARY - Finish coffee harvest. Begin clearing land to plant corn and beans.
FEBRUARY & MARCH - Continue clearing land to plant corn and beans.
MID-APRIL - Burn cleared land. Plant seeds and hope for rain.
LATE-APRIL - First corn sprouts. If seeds fail to sprout, do a second planting.
MAY - Beginning of six-month rainy season. Begin clearing coffee groves. Replant old coffee trees with new ones.
JUNE and JULY - Heavy rains. Continue cleaning coffee groves, weather permitting. Also, clean milpas so that fast-growing weeds do not smother ones corn and beans.
AUGUST - Clear overgrown pastureland so that cattle can continue grazing during rainy season.
SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER - Continue clearing pastureland for cattle. Harvest corn and beans. The corn and beans will be stored and used for family consumption throughout the rest of the following year.
NOVEMBER - End of rainy season. Beginning of six-month dry season.
LATE-NOVEMBER - Begin harvesting first mature coffee beans.
DECEMBER - Continue harvesting coffee beans. The coffee beans are to be dried and later sold in Ocosingo for 10-15 pesos (US$1.30-2.00) per kilo.
Part XIV: At School with the Zapatistas
Humberto teaches 23 local children from the first to the fourth grade in a dimly lit, one-room schoolhouse on the eastern end of Santa Elena. His task is a difficult one: how to teach as many as six different subjects for each of the four grades at the Rafael Ramirez Primary School.
He makes his way around the classroom teaching for fifteen minutes apiece to each of the four grades. A jumbled, six-inch high stack of red, green and yellow, paperback textbooks stands on his wooden desk at the front of the classroom. He is able to teach one subject per hour to each of the four grades.
Public education is free and obligatory in Mexico through the sixth grade. The drop-out rate in Chiapas, however, is 60%. Class goes from 9-11:30 a.m. and then 12-2 p.m. Humberto also assigns roughly fifteen minutes of homework per night. The students parents, who are immersed in the daily struggle for survival and who are often illiterate themselves, remain uninvolved in their childrens' education.
On the first morning I visited the school, all the windows were open to allow light to penetrate the red-brick schoolroom. Like much else in Santa Elena, the schools are divided. The Zapatistas children attend this public school while the Priistas children their own, seperate school. Looking outside, there was a view of a muddy basketball court, the white flags that fly over the village and the dark gray clouds that form in the mid-morning over the nearby mountains.
Humberto is an earnest, energetic teacher who speaks fluent Tzeltal and Spanish. He was just back from a week-long protest by 10,000 schoolteachers in the state capitol of Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Humberto and his fellow teachers were demanding pay raises, better materials for their schools, and an end to the militarization of Chiapas. Their point was a simple one: How is it that the government always has more money for more bombs and more soldiers but almost nothing for its schools?
Humberto began teaching in Santa Elena in September. He is a first-year law student in San Christobal de Las Casas. After teaching from Monday to Wednesday in Santa Elena, he returns to San Christobal on weekends to take twelve hours of classes on both Saturdays and Sundays at the Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas.
Theres no time to rest, as he puts it.
After taking roll, Humberto was constantly on the move. One moment he was teaching multiplication and long division to third graders, then pattern recognition to second graders, then basic reading and writing drills to the three first graders who were in class. He moved over to the fourth graders a little while later and began reading out loud from the civics textbook.
Humberto hurried to complete the lesson. He didnt stop to ask questions or provoke a discussion about what the passage on Freedom of Expression meant. The students bent over their textbooks trying to follow along. They nodded their heads while Humberto continued reading in a loud, sharp voice.
The second and third graders laughed and giggled among themselves. The girls chewed on popped balloons and the boys practiced making farts with their armpits. The first graders squirmed and twisted behind their cramped, low-slung desks. Their bare feet swung idly from the hard, wooden benches where they were seated.
When Humberto finished reading to the fourth graders, none of them still understood the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, the origins of the Freedom of Expression and its development in the history of Mexico.
Humberto then instructed the fourth graders to answer the questions at the back of the chapter. All the questions were drawn word-for-word from the text. None of these questions required the students to reflect, think or argue about what they had just read.
When the students finished their assignment, they tossed their notebooks frisbee- style onto Humbertos desk. He quickly scanned to see if they had copied down the right answers, assigned a grade and advanced each of the students to the next section in the textbook. He then tossed the notebooks back to the students.
Its difficult, he later lamented. They read the words but they dont capture the ideas.
Part XV: Enrollment: Rafael Ramirez Primary School
The number of girls enrolled in the Rafael Ramirez Primary School drops off sharply after the second grade. Humberto, the students teacher, was uncertain why this was.
I wondered if the girls werent expected to return home in order to assist their mothers with cooking tortillas, collecting firewood, washing clothes, and carrying well water. Less is expected of boys the same age and they play freely throughout the day when they are not in school.
Part XVI: Maria de Jesus's Story
Maria de Jesus was the lone campamentista in Ibarra, the next village down the trail. Ibarra has abundant fruit trees that produce bananas, limes, chayotes and zapotes. There is a community greenhouse in the center of the village along with a bumpy, dirt-grass basketball court and a primary school.
Walking the trail into Ibarra, I caught a glimpse of Nuevo Ibarra. It had been hacked out of the jungle alongside a military base with a long airstrip. The landscape was dotted with tree stumps. White flags flew over each of the sixty or so wood huts.
I found Maria de Jesus reading in her hammock in front of the campamento, which also lies in the center of Ibarra. She was surrounded by a half-dozen small children. The adults were in general assembly. Their voices echoed from inside the one-room schoolhouse.
We sat down to a lunch of rice, beans, tortillas and fried chayotes. Afterwards, Maria de Jesus described how Nuevo Ibarra had come into existence.
When the Zapatista Rebellion began in January 1994, Ibarra was 100% pro- Zapatista. But when the government launched its February 1995 military offensive against the Zapatistas, many villagers - including most of the older people - fled to Ocosingo and affiliated themselves with pro-government organizations while living as refugees.
Meanwhile, a combative minority of 27 families stayed behind and endured the military harassment that followed. When the displaced Ibarrans in Ocosingo petitioned a year later to return to the village, they were told that they would have to pay fines for community obligations that they hadnt fulfilled during their absence. The displaced Ibarrans refused, and their former neighbors then told them not to return. By forsaking their community obligations, they had forfeited their right to use common ejido land. They were no longer considered apart of the community.
When the displaced Ibarrans showed up at the edge of the village with a military escort, they were greeted with rocks and machetes. The rupture between Zapatistas and Priistas was complete.
The Army wanted nothing more to do with the problem and backed off. Since that day 13 months ago, the displaced Ibarrans have lived on the edge of the military base in what is now known as Nuevo Ibarra.
Maria de Jesus had left her home in Mexico City five months before to see more of her country before resuming her university studies.
Since then, this stocky, dark-haired woman had wandered around Mexico like a vagabond - hitchhiking and riding trains - and had visited the mountainous southern states of Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. She had arrived in the Lacandon Jungle with 50 pesos (US$6.75) in her pocket and had since served as a campamentista in Ibarra.
Twice, she had gone to the nearby military base to confront the Army commander about his troops practice of raiding the locals banana trees and sugar cane plants. Emboldened by her travel experiences, Maria de Jesus was eager to return to Mexico City and resume her studies as a theater major at UAM Xochimilco.
I didnt go traveling in order to quit school, she said. I did it to reinforce my studies. I wanted to discover more about my country.
I knew there were problems - the economic crisis, poverty, the situation in Chiapas - here in this country. Thats always the case. But, I didnt comprehend how bad it really is. Now I know that much of what my teachers tell me is deficient.
Im the youngest child in my family. All of my older sisters have gotten married and had kids. So what Im doing is breaking the traditional scheme of things. When I told my parents what I was going to do, they were totally against it. They couldnt imagine it.
They thought it would be too dangerous, especially since I would be traveling alone as a woman. But I told them I had already made my decision. At the end, they started running around doing things for me in order to keep me from leaving.
Youre never alone when youre traveling. You are always meeting other travelers. There is so much pessimism and cynicism in the city. But when youre traveling, you constantly encounter good people.
When I was in Oaxaca City, I met this artist who let me stay at his place while I helped him work on these giant puppets. And when I was in the mountains of Oaxaca, I stayed with this old woman for five pesos per night and I helped her in the kitchen with husking corn.
Ay! It was precious. When youre high up in the mountains, you can see all the constellations at night.
I think my experiences here have been the most important. Ive learned alot about my individualism and my egoism. The people here have very little and share everything. If you dont understand how to share, the community wont have anything to do with you.
I want to return here in the future. Theres alot of people at my university who are doing projects in Chiapas. I want to do more than be a campamentista. I have so many ideas in my head now! I want to find out what other crops can be grown here. I want to find out which plants here in the jungle have medicinal usages.
This is a place that Im going to spend a lot more time at in the future.
Part XVII: Pancho's Story
Pancho completed secondary school in San Christobal de Las Casas and then returned to Santa Elena to work in the fields with his father and his two brothers for lack of money to continue his studies.
Now 29-years-old, Pancho has a wife, two daughters, 8 and 5, and a newborn son. He reads from the Tzeltal-language Bible on Sunday mornings at the villages small Catholic Church. He plays a mean fiddle at church dances. And, he blows a quick whistle when he referees late-afternoon basketball games down at the primary school.
With his tinted sunglasses, imitation gold chains, sandals, and namebrand blue jeans, Pancho is the most Ladino-ized of the local men. He is also strongly pro-Zapatista. He wants two things for his people: justice and modernity.
The government always announces how it is going to spend more money to help the campesinos. But thats all just for publicity. Here, we have dirty water, poor housing, poor diet and the people are sick with fever, coughing and diarrhea.
Those who govern this country have lots of money. Their families are well-fed. Their children have cars. They wear one pair of clothes one day and another pair the next day. And you know that they dont wash them. They give them to somebody else to wash. Here, the women scrub all the dirty clothes by hand. And they use the same well water that the animals drink from.
After the military offensive of February 9, 1995, we fled to the mountains. We set up a camp with blue nylon tarps and we slept on the ground. It was hard. The only food we had were herbs and chayotes ( a starchy fruit common to the area). What do you tell the children when they have nothing to eat?
We came down from the mountains one day when the soldiers left the village to go to Ibarra. There were five of us including my two brothers.
We returned to our houses to get food that the soldiers hadnt carried off. There was a little bit of corn and beans. We ground coffee and killed chickens to take with us.
We were down by the well when a red airplane flew over us. It flew around and around in circles. We crouched and hid ourselves. But they spotted us.
When the plane landed, we thought they were journalists. But, it was the Army.
Soon all these soldiers came running down the trail from Ibarra. They started firing at us. Bullets were flying everywhere right over my head. We took off as fast as we could.
My parents were crying when we got back. They thought I had been killed. But, Im still alive.
We all came back to the village after the human rights people came here. When we returned, we found that the Army had tossed all of our possessions out of our homes and burned them - blankets, clothes, cookpots, everything. How were we going to replace that? We do not have a lot of money.
The campamentos are important for us. The Army knows you are here. They talk with the agent from ARIC everyday and he tells them there is a campamentista here. And so they stay on their base. If there were no campamentistas here, then the soldiers would march into the village and begin bothering the people again.
The women still stay close to their houses. They used to go out into the jungle and gather fruit and vegetables. But now they are afraid the soldiers will grab them.
When the Army was in the village before, the soldiers walked from house-to- house asking for tortillas and coffee. They also gave us clothes to wash. What could we say when they asked? They were the ones who had the guns.
Part XVIII: Semana Santa
Semana Santa ("Holy Week") fell during the final week of March. The weather was finally turning hot and dry. Ordinary time stopped for four days. The normal divisions were suspended, and the whole community came together to celebrate its religion and its customs.
The Priistas and the Zapatistas were barely speaking to each other when they began Semana Santa preparations on Holy Thursday. Three days later, at dawn on Easter Sunday, they were laughing and shouting as they cross-dressed together inside a one-room schoolhouse.
Semana Santa celebrations in Santa Elena are at once solemn, entertaining and instructive. Too poor and too isolated to have access to the Entertainment Industry, the villagers have to make their own fun.
The people of Santa Elena gathered at the villages small church for three nights to watch the reenactment of the Biblical account of Jesuss betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.
The church is a simple 30 x 60 foot wooden rectangle with a 15 foot high metal roof. Three candles glowed at the front of the alter, which, was also crowded with palm fronds and images of The Virgin Guadalupe, Santa Elena and Bishop Samuel Ruiz (Tatic Samuel). The church has served for the past year as the only place where members of this divided community still come together.
When the people from ARIC returned from Ocosingo, they were reluctant to come to church, Domingo said. But then they started coming one-by-one. Now they are all back.
The men sat on the left and the women on the right. Their small, barefoot children chased each other in and out of the church. Catechists took turns reading from a Tzeltal- language Bible. And, the specter of Judass betrayal hung, literally, outside the church in the form of a scarecrow-like effigy that had been stuffed with dried banana leaves.
The Last Supper was reenacted the first night. An even mix of a dozen Priistas and Zapatistas sat at a table that was placed in the middle of the church. A white-robed Jesus symbolically washed his disciples feet and served bread and wine. The children squealed with delight and fear when Judas, wearing a cardboard mask, snuck into the church and sat down at Jesuss side.
The skits moved outside the next two nights and were performed under the clear, cool night sky. Jesuss crucifixion was reenacted on the night of Good Friday and his Resurrection the following night. Nearly 2,000 years later, the story of the Crucifixion resonated in this divided community.
The Friday-night skit began with Jesuss arrest on Mount Gethsemane. The Roman soldiers then paid off Judas, historys most infamous informant, and he fled into the darkness with his 30 pieces of silver.
Jesus was brought before the Pharisees (the Jewish high priests) and then the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate, who looked much like a Tzeltal Indian wearing dark sunglasses and a red scarf over his head, condemned Jesus to die and then washed his hands of the matter.
The crowd followed behind as the white-robed Jesus staggered across the churchyard carrying the burden of the Cross. When he arrived on the other side of the churchyard, he and the Cross were secured to a wooden grid that had been erected earlier in the day.
Two common criminals were crucified to his right and left. The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene wept below. The criminals asked forgiveness for their sins and Jesus told them that they would be the first ones to join him in heaven. He then cried out (in Tzeltal), My father, my father, why have you forsaken me? and died on the Cross.
The irony of the moment was not lost on Panchos brother, Eliseo.
We are all poor peasants, he observed. But the people from ARIC have changed their perspective. Now they defend the government. The government gives them their food, their hand-outs. And then it asks them, 'who are the Zapatistas? who are their leaders?' And thus they continue betraying.
They have their metal roofs and their solar panels. That is their 30 pieces of silver.
And then, all of the solemnity ended in Sundays drag party. 20 or so men and boys gathered in the morning at the school to rummage through a box of used womens clothing. They began whooping and shouting as soon as the first black-lace shawl came flying out of the box.
The boys dressed as little girls and the men dressed as nurses, overweight housewives and little old ladies. One man slung a teddy bear over his back and carried it like a small child. They all hid behind ghoulish, cardboard masks.
When the masqueraders were ready, they blew a horn and began parading through the village. They were celebrating the holiest day of the year by making fun of their own norms.
As they moved from house-to-house, the girls chased an older boy who wore a mask made of a bleached bulls skull. They tried to lasso the bull by the horns before it gored them. The masqueraders had neither tits nor make-up and they all wore black rubber workboots. The women of the village politely followed behind, pointing and laughing from a distance.
The masqueraders stopped at each house - both those with and without white flags - and asked for food and drink. They explained that they were lost travelers who were trying to make their way home. Upon receiving crackers and Kool-Aid, they danced a jig together to the tune of a fiddle and a guitar.
The fiesta continued until mid-afternoon. Watching all the weird, good fun everyone was having together, I felt as if reality had been turned inside-out. Is Laguna Santa Elena a divided community that happens to be united for a few days a year? Or is it a united community that just happens to be divided most of the time? After all, its residents share the same language, the same customs, the same blood, the same dirty well water and the same illnesses.
Could this unity continue into the rest of the year? Might the white flags be coming down at last?
No one I talked to thought so. The difference that divides the two sides is subtle but enormous. The Zapatistas are willing to risk their lives for their freedom. And their neighbors arent.
Things arent going to change, Domingo said, because they dont want to leave the organization that they are in. On Monday, we will be separated again. How else can it be?
Part III: Glossary of Terms
1.) PRI - Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Mexicos ruling party since 1929.
2.) Priista - A supporter of the PRI.
3.) EZLN - Ejercito Zapatista para la Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation).
4.) Zapatista - A supporter of the EZLN.
5.) Emiliano Zapata - A hero of the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution. He is a symbol of the Mexican peasants struggle for land and justice.
6.) Chiapas - Mexicos poorest and southeastern most state. It borders Guatemala and it has the highest concentration of indigenous people of any of Mexicos 31 states. The four main indigenous languages are Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal and Chol.
Chiapass history has been marked for centuries by great disparities in wealth between powerful caciques (see below) and the poor majority. Chiapas has abundant natural resources. It produces coffee, bananas, cattle and timber for export. It also produces 54% of Mexicos hydroelectric power. (1*)
Chiapas has experienced numerous peasant rebellions over the centuries, the latest of which was launched on January 1, 1994 by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN). The state has been in turmoil for the past three years. The Mexican government currently has an estimated 60,000 troops deployed in Chiapas including 25,000 troops in the conflictive zone. Many rural communities in eastern and northern Chiapas are divided between supporters of the government and the EZLN.
7.) San Christobal de Las Casas - Located in Chiapass central highlands, it is named for Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, the 16th-century champion of the rights of indigenous people. San Christobal de Las Casas (formerly Ciudad Real) was founded in 1528 and was the capitol of Chiapas until 1869. It is now a commercial/tourist center of 70,000 people. It has been a focal point of Zapatista-related political activity since 1994. The EZLN garnered international attention with its capture of San Christobal on January 1, 1994.
8.) Ocosingo - A town of 15,000 people that serves as a commercial center for the small farmers that inhabit the Lacandon Jungle. It was one of the towns captured by the EZLN on January 1, 1994.
9.) Cacique - A large rural landowner in Mexicos countryside who holds a disproportionate amount of economic, social and political power.
10.) Counter-Insurgency - A military strategy for fighting guerrilla movements. It encompasses standard military tactics and weaponry with psychological warfare designed to demoralize guerrillas and their supporters as well as a sophisticated effort to attract and co-opt a guerrilla movements social base of support through the provision of social assistance (schools, clinics, forestry projects, etc.) and economic favors. This strategy was first pioneered by the United States during the Vietnam War. It was later fine-tuned in Central America during the 1980s. It is sometimes euphemistically referred to as low-intensity conflict.
11.) ARIC - Associacion Rural de Intereses Colectivos (Rural Association of Collective Interests). ARIC began in the 1970s as an independent, popular organization that pressured the government to give Chiapass peasants greater access to credits and agricultural assistance. By the 1990s, its leaders had been co-opted by the government. ARIC now serves as a front for government counter-insurgency projects in the Chiapan countryside.
12.) The Conflictive Zone - This is an area covering approximately 7,000 square miles in eastern and northern Chiapas that was controlled by the EZLN following the January 1, 1994 Insurrection.
(1*) Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas by George Collier. 1994.
© John W. Tarleton 1997