Zapatista Schools Open Doors in Chiapas

International solidarity in the classroom

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Over the last few years, the Zapatistas in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas have garnered very little media attention and been infamously secretive. But although they’ve shifted away from their militant stance of the 1990s and their national political campaigning of the early 2000s, the movement itself isn’t dead.

This summer the Zapatistas opened their communities to teach outsiders what it really means to be a Zapatista today—their day-to-day life and acts of resistance, and their struggles in maintaining autonomy.

From August 11 to 17, Zapatistas ran the first Escuelita Zapatista (Little Zapatista School), a week-long educational initiative where participants were immersed in the daily life of the Indigenous rebels. Nearly 2,000 supporters and activists from all over the world attended the school. It’s not clear why the Zapatistas chose to open their communities and inaugurate the school this year exactly, but it did coincide with the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Zapatista Good Governance Council and the five local governance systems called caracoles, created in 2003.

The Zapatista movement in Mexico is one of the 20th century’s most well-known Indigenous resistance movements. In 1994, hundreds of oppressed Indigenous peoples emerged from the hills of Chiapas to take over government buildings and city streets in San Cristóbal de las Casas and other towns in the state. They destroyed land deeds and renewed their struggle for land, autonomy and respect, continuing the movement led by Emiliano Zapata at the turn of the century.

Over the years, the Zapatistas have shifted from being an outspoken, rebellious, militant group to resembling more a cluster of closed, secretive communities, focused on strengthening their community life. They’ve developed their own food production, education and health care systems, and of course, their own system of governance.

“Their land is their revolution,” said Daniel Juarez,1 a filmmaker from Spain and student at the escuelita. “The word dignity exists in the community, and it means something,” he told The Dominion in an interview in San Cristóbal de las Casas, referring to the Zapatistas’ relationship to the land and their ability to provide for themselves.

Students of the escuelita were dispersed among the 38 autonomous communities in the five different caracoles (La Garucha, La Realidad, Roberto Barrios, Morelia and Oventic). They were assigned to a community where they stayed with local families. Because of the diversity amongst the caracoles and their communities, each person’s experience was a bit different.

For Alejandra Garcia, a Colombian PhD candidate in Sociology at the Universidad de Los Altos de Chiapas, this included riding in the back of a truck for 10 hours to reach the caracol of La Realidad, then the next day continuing two more hours by truck and one hour on foot to finally reach the small community of Santa Rosa de Copán, her classroom for the week.

One of the main components of the escuelita was participation in the agricultural work, food production and other daily tasks of the communities. In her community in La Garucha, Carolina Ponzanelli, a Mexican anthropologist, woke up at 6:00 each morning to work in the field and was assigned another community task in the afternoon. In her case, she was assigned to either grind corn or make tortillas. For each meal, they ate what the Zapatistas ate: tortillas and beans. At night, they slept in sleeping bags on a wooden base on the dirt floor, or in hammocks, common for homes in these communities. What many of the students learned was that being an autonomous Indigenous community involves a lot of hard work, perseverance and a strong communal structure—what Juarez calls “controlled freedom.”

Besides daily agricultural work, the escuelita also included more formal teachings of the history and structure of the autonomous government. At the beginning of the week, each student was given a study package, for the suggested donation of 100 pesos, which included two disks and four books: The Autonomous Government 1 and 2, Autonomous Resistance, and Participation of Women in the Autonomous Government. The books are written in plain language and each section includes suggested question-and-answer topics, which the students were encouraged to stick to.

Through the voices of many different authors, the books explain the long process of how the Good Governance Council came to fruition in 2003 (mainly through many community meetings and public dialogues) and what has been achieved through this new form of organization.

According to Lorena from La Realidad in the book Autonomous Government 1, “With the war in 1994, villages went haywire in terms of civil matters and civil structures of authority like commissioners and municipal agents. Problems and issues to resolve never ended, they always presented themselves, there were civilian problems and needs, but there was no one to control them, to resolve them.”

The Good Governance Council was established to address these issues. It assessed the needs of each community and organized new working principles in areas such as health care, education, agriculture, justice and human rights. In places like Oventic that have an active coffee trade, the council also oversees local commerce and trade.

One of the most important achievements for the Zapatistas is that each community, no matter how small or impoverished, has a health post and a school. The three main areas of focus for health care are midwives, herbal plants and medicine, and traditional bone healing, to which everyone has access.

Education in the Zapatista communities is seen as extremely important. The schools are distinct from state schools, where Indigenous languages, culture and history aren’t taught. According to the books, many communities did decide to keep some elements from the Mexican public school system, such as math, reading and writing. The major developments in the Zapatista education system happened in the area of history, which now includes the history of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and other social movements around the world, teaching in their native Indigenous languages, and methods of teaching and evaluation that are communal rather than focused on individual testing.

According to Garcia, it was also obvious that the Zapatista perspective on education is largely focused on the idea of learning for the sake of the community rather than the individual.

“Most of them don’t have official papers so they can’t go to university in the city, for example. But they find the idea of educating the individual to be strange, or useless. [For the Zapatistas] education should benefit the whole community,” said Garcia.

What was a surprise for many of the escuelita students was the role of women in the communities. The Zapatistas are reknowned for their progressive stance towards the role of women, encouraging them to take authoritative roles in the community in politics, education and health care. But according to Iliana Sosa, a teacher from Uruguay, her experience in a community in the caracol of Oventic was quite different.

“Even though women are called equal, they were the ones up at 5:00 every morning making tortillas while the men slept in…in addition to doing the other daily tasks for the community,” she told The Dominion.

Garcia had a similar experience in her host community in La Realidad. “Women can participate and are encouraged to participate in politics, but in the household there didn’t seem to be the same equality,” she said. “This is something deeply cultural, [and] it will take time for politics to change this. You could see the younger generations were a bit different in their way of thinking. But with the older generations, everyone had their place in the household.”

Though they opened their communities to strangers, the Zapatistas also took several precautions in preparing the school, one of which was the pairing of each student with his or her own Votán—the Mayan word for guardian. The Votán served as their protectorate, teacher, guide and information gatekeeper for the week. They also never left the students’ sides—not even to sleep or urinate.

“My Votán even slept beside me,” said Ponzanelli. This was a personal closeness that a lot of people struggled with, “especially some of the Westerners who are really independent,” she said.

But this degree of observation shouldn’t be a surprise. The Zapatistas are known for being closed and secretive. Generally, outsiders trying to visit one of their communities are asked for their passports and reasons for visiting before it is decided whether or not they will be let in. If outsiders are let in, they are assigned a guide who accompanies the visitors to certain areas and answers questions.

The Zapatistas’ caution about who enters their communities is a form of protection, as assaults by the state are always considered a possibility. Earlier this year, local media reported that the Israeli military will be brought in to train local police forces in the state of Chiapas—thought to be an antagonistic move against the Zapatistas in particular. This suggests that their suspicions of the state are warranted and their fight for autonomy still exists.

Back in the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Zapatista paraphernalia is sold in many shops and by most street vendors. From here, it may be easy to think that the movement is nothing more than another tourist attraction. Many locals are also skeptical of the movement. But the inauguration of the escuelita shows that the Zapatistas can still organize, mobilize and remain a vibrant political entity. Further escuelitas are planned for December and January.

Originally published at The Dominion Media Co-op.

  1. Some names have been changed. []

Kimberly Brown is a Canadian freelance writer and video journalist, with a background in anthropology, and is currently based in Mexico City. Read other articles by Kimberly.