Zapatista Women Explain Things

In Compañeras, Hilary Klein focuses in on the period around the time of the Zapatista uprising, which kicked off spectacularly on New Year’s Day 1994, as “a watershed moment” when “a tremendous amount of change was compressed into a very short period.” The book follows the development of the women’s struggle within and as part of the Zapatista trajectory over the ensuing 20 years.

Review: Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories by Hilary Klein (Seven Stories, 2015)

You think you have read everything you need about the Zapatistas, and then something else comes along that is wholly indispensable to fully understanding the Chiapas rebellion. Hilary Klein’s new book Compañeras is the product of the author’s years of work on the ground in Mexico involving the participation of dozens of Zapatista women and is a much needed study focusing on the rebellion from a women’s perspective. It is impeccably researched, narrated in a direct and unpretentious manner, and tells a marvelous story. Compañeras, which presents for the first time in the English language in such a comprehensive manner the voice of grassroots Zapatista women speaking out directly, is unique as a document of women in struggle with a scope reaching far beyond Chiapas.

The genesis of the work began when Klein — a US-born social organizer based in Chiapas for a number of years around the turn of the century — was asked by the Zapatista women with whom she was working to compile a series of women’s testimonies to be circulated within their own rebel villages. Building on this popular project, the Zapatista leadership then suggested that Klein compile a similar book for people beyond Chiapas. The project gathered momentum and after a few years Klein had gathered the testimonies and interviewed dozens of Zapatista women of all ages from around the rebel area. For most of the interviewees, it was their first experience talking ‘on the record’ and thus we are given the privilege of hearing the voices of those rarely heard, but quintessential to the whole narrative.


We learn from these first hand accounts of just how appalling was the experience of an indigenous woman in the isolated rural backlands of the southeast of Mexico before the 1994 uprising. The women explain the circumstances that led them to joining the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Not only were they poor and indigenous, but the women were also positioned at the lowest tier of this marginalized society. A Zapatista called Celina explains:


“I used to think that only men have rights. I just did my work and was completely manipulated. I didn’t know anything. I was always at home and I thought the only thing women were good for was working in the house. When the organization [the EZLN] arrived, we began to wake up. I began to realize that life doesn’t have to be how I was living it. We heard that women can participate too.”


Considering the almost insurmountable challenges facing these women — existing under the triple oppression of class, race and gender — this could so easily have ended up an intersectional tale of caution. But instead it is an inspiring story of hope, accompanied by profound victories along the way.


The Before and After January 1, 1994


Klein focuses in on the period around the time of the uprising, which kicked off spectacularly on New Year’s Day 1994, as “a watershed moment” when “a tremendous amount of change was compressed into a very short period.” With women’s participation in the uprising — a reputed 40 percent of the front-line rebel forces were female — as well as a backbone of tens of thousands of women in the communities, the cause of women advanced exponentially in just a few years before and after the rebellion. Zapatista women explain how it seemed that several generations of change seemed to take place in a condensed time of revolutionary upheaval. From this period the “The Women’s Revolutionary Law” emerged, a document that captured Zapatista women’s demands. Isabel, an insurgent, explains the process that occurred among the indigenous women in opening up this space in their own society. It is worth quoting at length, as her words perfectly capture the dynamic agency of the women themselves in this accelerated process of change:

“We gave women a space to talk, to express their feelings, and how they wanted to change all this: life in the family, with their husbands, with their children. That was where the ideas came from: if things are this bad, we asked ourselves, why not change it? Change men’s ideas as well and find a way, as an organization to turn these ideas into a law. And that is how the Women’s Revolutionary Law was born: talking, venting, analyzing. It is not something from outside — it came from our own ideas, our experiences in our families, and communities, with our parents, our husbands, our children.”

The book follows the development of the women’s struggle within and as part of the Zapatista trajectory over the ensuing 20 years. The women tell of the exciting years in which zapatismo flourished (developing regional autonomy, providing a wake-up call for Mexico, inspiring activists globally), as well as reflections on the lean years (the dejection arising from futile peace talks with the government, the failure of the nationwide Zapatista Other Campaign to ignite Mexico from below). Compañeras provides an exceptional array of unique material as well as behind-the-scenes insights, like when Susana recalls how Comandanta Ramona — the most well-known female Zapatista up to her death in 2006, lamented how “it made her sad to see people selling her photograph because, she said, ‘I’m not fighting so they can sell my photo.’”


A theme emerges of women fiercely proud of their organization, the EZLN, but also aware that while “the Zapatista movement has done much to promote women’s rights — as Klein points out — changes do not always come easily, inside or outside the organization.”


Zapatista women are very careful about sharing their concerns they may have with outsiders, explains Klein, “understandably, they feel protective of their organization.” Nevertheless, Compañeras has space for protagonists to express their criticism of the movement. In a key section, one (ex-) compañera criticizes the attitude of men she encountered within the EZLN.


“Most men are not willing to see a woman surpass him. He is afraid of a woman giving him orders, afraid of a woman who is smarter than him. And even at the highest levels, they’re not willing to …”. Such sentiments seems to permeate the experience of Zapatista women as their deep loyalty to the EZLN, explains Klein, “brushes up against their frustration with a commitment to equality that has yet to be fulfilled and a vision of liberation that has has yet to be realized.”


Balanced with such misgivings, other compañeras talk of remarkable transformations. A group of Zapatista women give voice collectively during a regional women’s gathering in the rebel zone in 2001: “Thanks to the organization, we have opened our eyes and opened our heart. […] Thanks to the organization, we have found compañerismo and unity. We have also found respect between men and women. Our struggle is our liberation, because it gave us courage to participate and defend our rights […] Today there is hope and freedom in our lives.”

What Is Left Unsaid

We owe Hilary Klein our gratitude for the service of bringing the word of the compañeras to an English-speaking audience. Her selfless endeavor, the years traversing the arduous territory of Chiapas, interviewing, transcribing, translating and writing drafts — ten years labor of love — have allowed the flower of the word to be shared with us. Here is something that is not apparent in Compañeras but can be detected between the lines: the fun that accompanies Hilary Klein as she is embraced into the everyday life of the indigenous communities. A work, then, informed by joy and laughter amongst the compañeras.