by By Elisa Benavides and Mariana Hernandez-Burg
In October, the Indigenous Government Council (CGI) and the communities that make up the National Indigenous Congress held the “National Work Assembly” on the grounds of CIDECI-UniTierra in Chiapas. (More info). Members of the Mexico Solidarity Network accompanied the assembly and the tour of indigenous communities that followed. Here is our report.
Participants began arriving on the 10th and 11th at the CIDECI facilities. On the 12th, organizers established work areas by themes, including Youth, Territory, Migrants, etc. The 13th was the main plenary session. After addressing the “calendar from above” (ie, the formal rules of the Federal Electoral Institute), the caravan of the CNI departed for the municipality of Margaritas. We arrived late and spent the night there, about 100 kilometers from San Cristobal.
The trip between San Cristobal and Las Margaritas is usually about two hours, but with more than a dozen buses and lots of smaller vehicles, travel times doubled. This would be the pattern during the coming days. Mechanical difficulties, extended greetings, waiting for the stragglers who needed to use the bathroom or eat, even one case in which a driver was tired of his job and threatened to abandon the caravan. The fact is that the days were long, sometimes ten hours or more. In Las Margaritas, comforted by a hot dinner offered by a solidarity collective from the community, we finally got to sleep about midnight.
From the 14th thru the 19th, an impressive series of mobilizations and public events were organized throughout Zapatista territory “as a greeting” to the IGC. During the trip from Las Margaritas to Guadalupe Tepeyac, we quickly realized we were in rebel territory. Two motorcycles managed by young people (men and women with the acronym “EMZ” on their shirts – “Motorized Zapatista Squadron”) began to accompany the vocera. Soon another motorcycle, then two more, and another two joined, surrounding the lead vehicles in a warm embrace. The motorcycles were joined by the “non-mechanical” cavalry, a series of horses and their riders. For more details and photos, visit: (http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx)
The cold and wet of the highlands were quickly left behind. In Guadelupe, the sun was bright and the atmosphere could not be more warm and lively. Not only because this population lives just 700 meters above sea level, against more than 2000 in the highlands where we began our journey, but because we imagine smiles of hope behind the pasamontanas, despite the grief and rage that overwhelm everyone by the unpunished murder of the Zapatista teacher Galeano. (Galeano was a widely respected teacher from the area, so beloved that Subcomandante Marcos assumed his name after his death. His murderers remain free, even though they’re identities are widely known.) Hope and joy give rise to a new stage in the struggle that communities have decided to follow by peaceful means, though without surrendering their weapons.
The leadership, provided by the generation that was born with the Zapatista uprising, characterized the entire trip, and began to become evident in Guadalupe. Thousands of young Zapatista were responsible for almost everything: resolving travel logistics, distributing water, assigning beds, attending to the sick, organizing receptions, taking photos, recovering lost suitcases, ensuring order and security. Thousands of young women and men raced up the steep hills, just for pure joy, at each change of the guard. It was the youth who managed the carefully planned political and cultural activities. To make it clear that they were born after the start of the millennium, they danced till dawn once their tasks were fulfilled.
The “masters of ceremony” in each of the political/cultural events were all young women. Women were also the vast majority of participants in the cultural activities – dancing, poetry, songs, different forms of theatre – although there were some men playing musical instruments, carrying messages or setting up the stage.
Another important feature of the receptions for the IGC and its spokeswoman: the EZLN and their support bases encouraged only women to take the stage, especially when the activities were “political”. At public events, the speakers were comandantas who form part of the General Command of the Zapatista Army, female members of the Juntas of Good Government, and other participants in various committees … but always women. The scenarios used for the presentation of the IGC and its spokesperson in the five Caracoles and Palenque were diverse, but in every event priority was given to the visibility of women. The CIG is composed of men and women, and they were fully supportive of their spokeswoman, but women always occupied the front seats. Women of all ages were the driving force behind public presentations of the IGC in Zapatista territory. They discussed their experiences, recommendations, and feelings. Many of the speeches are available at: (http://radiozapatista.org/?p=23254)
We arrived at the Caracol of Morelia, only minutes from Altamirano, on the 15th. Almost everything in this Caracol was rebuilt for the occasion, as the Zapatistas in the area feared the spaces at their disposal wouldn’t be sufficient. I find it hard to calculate the amount of money and work it took to prepare for 27,000 people. They simplified the explanation, saying it was the result of “20 years of collective labor.” During the welcome, the Junta of Good Government “Heart of the Rainbow of hope” in the Tzot’z Choj zone apologized for “not giving comfortable accommodation, better food or better service.”
A huge esplanade surrounded by buildings to accommodate visitors, places for the press, a clinic, cooperative shops, and baths, all covered with pine branches, and part of occupied lands from the original 1994 uprising, made for an imposing scene. One of the comandantas informed us, “Over there was the house of the patron.” Her father fled decades ago with wife and children after they’d suffered enough humiliation. She was a baby, but when she grew up she came to know the wife of the hacienda owner. The lady was dying and she asked forgiveness for having dished out abuse, confusing her with her older sister. The Comandanta forgave her to relieve her agony… in that moment of recollection, the mist seemed to confuse the ghosts of the past with threats from the present.
Or maybe not. Shortly after, Comandanta Miriam noted that in the past the hills held no interest for the bosses, and because of this, the the peons often took refuge there when they fled … there they could rebuild their lives. Now the land occupations have been awarded legal titles, an effort to displace the collective landholdings controlled by the communities: “Once again they want to take our lands and this time not only the good lands but they want everything, absolutely everything, including the mountains.” (Awarding individual land titles allows for mortgaging land which can then be lost in lean years.)
In each of the Zapatista population centers, one notes the daily evocation of historical facts, the continuous presence of the memory of those compas who have contributed to the work of creating different organizational levels. Despite the young age of organizers, militia members and support bases, the gratitude for those who began the work of organization is manifested through shouted slogans, and is preserved in the names of towns, clinics or schools.
For others, there is a place for all time in those territories: for the memory of the struggle, for the present with the word of the 156 councilmen and councilwomen of the 63 indigenous regions of the country, and for those “who wanted to attend but could not make it for reasons of health or other reasons”. The discussion of shared dreams and the construction of a common future unite them. And the immediate future is carefully protected: one of the companeras who spoke at the event almost fell from the podium and had to be rushed to a Zapatista clinic to give birth.
Crowds at the side of the road on the journey from the Caracol of Morelia to La Garrucha, deep in the jungle, seemed to be inhabited only by children with a few adult caretakers. Outside their schools, or next to the road, they watched as the contingent passed, applauding, waving and took pictures with cell phones. On the other hand, the Caracol was full of young people and adults. Yet, as in the rest of the tour, once the caravan arrived even more people joined. The huge signs of the so-called “Neutrals”, indigenous non-Zapatistas who declared their support for the CNI, who came out to support the spokeswoman for the IGC were particularly interesting.
It took some time, between the arrival at the Caracol, the accommodation of nearly 200 people who occupied the podium, and the wait for those who straggled behind. The master of ceremonies explained the reasons for the delay, and the order of the activities and speeches, which were not set in stone. Planned activities did not start until everyone arrived. It is noteworthy that despite the long wait, it did not dampen the joy and excitement that permeated the environment. All political acts included a few words of welcome by a companera from the Junta of good Government, and a speech by one of the comandantas. Sometimes they gave the mic to Marichuy immediately after the welcome, sometimes to the Commandanta, or another woman. The parents of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, family members of the assassinated teacher Galeano, survivors from Acteal, one of the mothers of the disappeared from the collective Eureka, and always to the Councilors, especially those whose communities face attacks by mining companies or other mega projects, also had their spaces.
In La Garrucha, the mic was quickly passed to the spokeswoman, but no sooner did she begin to speak than it began to rain, a very heavy downpour that lasted about two hours, nearly until the end of the speeches. It was hot, so some journalists removed their shirts for an impromptu shower. The podium had a roof, but the public was uncovered. Marichuy asked the master of ceremonies what to do, and they encouraged her to continue, ignoring the storm. Nobody moved from their seats, but everyone (except security) began to deploy umbrellas and large pieces of plastic that formed an immense roof supported by the arms of the audience.
Someone quipped that the rain was part of the scenery. A girl responded with a smile that the truth is that when they prepared the event, they discussed what they would do if it rained, and they decided to “go prepared”… in other words, ready to get wet. Marichuy’s speech was brief, that of the comandancia slightly less so, but later there was sufficient time for dance, music and poetry, all lovingly prepared. At this point the “neutrals” had already rolled up their signs, but even they stayed. Once finished with the formal dances and the rain, the Zapatistas continued to dance until dawn.
On the 17th, we were heading to Roberto Barrios, and shortly before arriving we made one of those stops that had become routine to pull together the dispersed caravan of buses. One of the drivers again took the opportunity to complain and insist on leaving his job, or, at the very least, go directly to Palenque, perhaps because “Palenque” sounds more touristy than “Roberto Barrios”. With some apparently preferring the “Nescafe” of convenience stores, rather than the organic coffee, the “wacax” (beef) and the “tuluc” (turkey) that were prepared for us in the Caracol, we planned to meet again the next day. It took a while to rearrange luggage and stuff passengers on other vehicles. With the sun going down, we finally arrived at the Junta de Buen Gobierno and the other facilities of the Zapatista Caracol where a welcoming party waited for us with fireworks, flowers and hand lamps. Presentations and speeches in the Caracol “that speaks for everyone” were brief, since most would be repeated the next day in the city of Palenque. And besides, the basketball court was ready for dancing into the night.
The central square of Palenque was packed when we arrived the morning of the 18th. The heat was melting us (now we were at 100 meters above sea level), and the militiamen were handing out bottles of water … those destined for the Comandancia had straws. This time the audience wouldn’t include mainly support bases – it was open to the public. As with all the activities, the cultural events opened with young artists from the communities. Marichuy kicked off the speeches with a report on the problems in registering signatures that are necessary so that her name can appear on the presidential ballots. Time was already short to meet this requirement. (https://www.congresonacionalindigena.org/2017/10/23/pronunciamiento-la-asociacion-civil-llego-la-hora-del-florecimiento-los-pueblos-sabotajes-obstaculizacion-la-obtencion-del-apoyo-ciudadano-maria-jesus-patric/) In spite of the difficulties, we’ll have to redouble our efforts, she said. The people who registered their signatures in the few hours that it was possible showed great conviction and hope. With or without credentials (at the beginning many were not clear about the requirements) everyone tried to be part of the process to get Marichuy on the ballots. Then they continued with the scheduled speeches, with the comandancia advocating a future for mother earth (https://actividadesdelcigysuvocera.blogspot.mx/2017/10/palabras-de-la-comandanta-amada-nombre.html).
As in the Caracoles, the content of artistic presentations and speeches was clearly anti-capitalist, but no one seemed surprised. In fact, the laughter and applause did not sound different, although perhaps a bit stronger.
From Palenque, we returned to sleep in CIDECI-UNITIERRA in San Cristobal, with a midnight arrival for buses slowed by multiple bathroom and food stops, and an earlier arrival for small vehicles in the caravan that opted for a quicker pace to avoid the fog and the obvious hostility of the ranchers of Ocosingo. The companeros from the Highlands, with their wool skirts, smiled with relief as they went to their dormitories. The next day they could dress in their regional outfits without fear of excessive heat.
While the entire route had been surprising and left the participants full of enthusiasm, Oventic would show that the “poder convocatoria” (power to convene) of the Zapatistas would exceed the “pure curiosity” mentioned in the welcome speeches at Palenque. Attendance in Oventic was extraordinary. The access road nearly collapsed, and vehicles parked on the side of the road stretched for kilometers.
All the Oventic events were open to the public. In fact, this was the first time in years the Caracoles were open to this extent. No one could remember such large crowds in the Caracol of Oventic. Almost every welcoming speech highlighted the novelty of the situation. Speakers welcomed the National Indigenous Congress, fellow adherents to the Sexta and alternative press, while almost always rejecting the “paid media”. The fog, aka the pasamontana de los Altos, was present during the entire celebration, which was especially emotional.
October 16 opened a broad political landscape in which 40 prospective independent candidates were registered in the Federal Electoral Institute. What distinguishes Marichuy from the other pre-candidates? Many characteristics could be mentioned. These notes are only intended to be a brief chronicle of her unveiling in Zapatista territory. However, it is worth reading a response based on ideas that were repeated along the route, and reiterated by Comandanta Hortensia in Oventic: ( https://actividadesdelcigysuvocera.blogspot.mx/2017/10/palabras-de-la-comandanta-hortencia.html):
“For us, the Zapatistas, and for many other peoples, the word and the sound and the glance that have value are those of the indigenous Council of Government and its spokeswoman María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, because none of them seek political power. They are in search of the people from below to organize themselves.
It doesn’t matter who wins or doesn’t win the nomination, or the election, because rich and bad governments are very accustomed to cheating, to participate in fraud, and to buy votes in search of power.
If you like the actions and lies of the political parties, so be it. If you don’t want to vote, don’t vote. If you like the tricolor of the PRI, the blue of the PAN, the green of the Partido Verde, the yellow of the PRD, the brown of Morena, or whatever color you can imagine, so be it. But no matter what, we call on you to organize, because what is coming is worse than what you are suffering right now.”
I want to conclude with something that caught my attention during this intense week. Many of the ideas that indigenous women expressed in their speeches seemed to coincide with the words of other speakers, although the speakers generally did not have the opportunity to hear each other. Some of the words were not widely known, as many different languages were spoken. Most of them mentioned machismo, exclusion, and the suffering that the poor and women are subjected to. This is not surprising. However, at the heart of their concerns seemed to be the future of the planet and its sustainability, their hopes, and their determination to defend the planet and themselves. Because, as Marichuy said: “all indigenous peoples are one, with the Earth as our mother.”