Mexico's Aging Rebels
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Mexico's Aging Rebels The first generation of Zapatistas looks back
By Grant Fuller and Myles Estey
October 8, 2010
JUAN DIEGO, Mexico — In 1994, the Zapatista rebels put their
balaclava-clad faces on the world map. Indigenous peasants from Chiapas
disenchanted with the injustice of life in Mexico's poorest state, they
fought for equality, peace and dignity.
With the elusive Subcomandante Marcos as their reluctant leader, the
movement advanced slowly over the years. The Zapatistas have seen many
successes and improvements, tempered by constant challenges and setbacks.
A generation has passed since the armed beginning of the movement.
Zapatistas who were once rebels in their prime have grown older and are
starting to look back at how far they've come.
In the Zapatista village of Juan Diego, a 66-year-old farmer named Adan
(the majority of Zapatistas refuse to give their full names, and request
to be photographed with covered faces) said the armed struggle against
Mexico's capitalist system was worth the cost. "They're still screwing
us over because we're poor," Adan said. "But it's not as bad as it was
before because we've made progress and now we have a place to work."
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation recovered more than 600,000
acres of land from landowners who would hire indigenous peoples to work
their fields for next to nothing. Zapatista campesinos now occupy these
territories and work the land for themselves.
Even elders like Adan still contribute to the village's communal way of
life. Wearing bright blue pants and a cowboy hat, Adan rides a horse
along a dirt track every day to care for his livestock and cornfield.
"I'm getting up there in age," he admitted. "But I'm happy because we're
here, living in this place, this village. The landowners used to not
even let us step over here onto their land. But it's all different now.
We have what we didn't before: the land."
Of all the Zapatistas' demands for justice and equality, land rights was
always the most important. Although the Zapatistas now control scattered
plots of land, their territory is under constant threat from outside forces.
The Mexican military patrols regularly, and maintains a number of bases.
Pro-government paramilitary groups with alleged ties to political
parties continue to apply pressure, especially in certain communities. A
variety of factors, including the attention-suck of the drug war, fading
international support, the leadership's unexplained retreat from the
public eye and long-dormant negotiations with the federal government,
have left many skeptical of the Zapatistas' influence today.
Juan Pedro Viquiera, author of "The Indigenous of Chiapas and the
Zapatista Rebellion," believes that as the movement's original leaders
fade away, Zapatismo will go with them. In fact, he said the Zapatistas'
disappearing act has already begun.
"Since 2006, they've been practically undetectable as far as statistics
are concerned," Viquiera said. "You can't distinguish Zapatista zones on
a map, and entirely Zapatista communities don't really exist. What's
left are a few Zapatistas within some communities."
But in the hilltop former ranch house that now serves as Juan Diego's
autonomous school, Zapatistas, young and old, say they're alive and
well. Fifty-eight-year-old Pascal, an exuberant jokester with a passion
for the cause, said their focus is now on passing along the principles
of their struggle to the next generation to ensure community improvement
"My parents and grandparents believed the land is for the campesinos who
work it, and they taught us that," he said. "Now we have to teach our
children so that we're not exploited again. But we're happy with the
fight, and God-willing, I'll keep it up until we've made a new world for
my kids." This knowledge transfer has become an important focal point
for the first generation of Zapatistas.
Gustavo Esteva, activist and founder of Universidad de la Tierra, said
Zapatistas are actually well on their way to creating their "otro
mundo," as they call it in Spanish. In the autonomous schools, Zapatista
history is one of four subjects kids now study, ensuring that the torch
is passed from the first generation.
"You can go and see and talk with the young people in the communties,"
Esteva said. "Half of the population in Zapatista communities is under
20 years old, and that means that all their lives have been in the
Zapatista spirit, in the Zapatista world."
Armando, 87, is nearly deaf, but he still works in his cornfield,
immensely proud of what the Zapatista movement has achieved. He said he
and the rest of these aging rebels won't quit, despite the odds against
"I'll keep working until God says otherwise," Armando said. "We still
have to fight for our food, you know. But I'm good now. My parcel of
land might be small, but it's mine."
This story was produced for GlobalPost.
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