The Lessons of Zapatista Women Activists for Today’s Social Movements

Source: In These Times

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), made up of mostly indigenous peasants from Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, declared war on the Mexican government. It was the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. Coming three years after the end of the Communist bloc, the Zapatistas offered a unique political perspective that combined indigenous perspectives with an organizing model called “leadership through obedience,” reflecting both anarchist and socialist political traditions. They became one of the major catalysts for the anti-globalization/global justice movement, and the Zapatista ethos offered an alternative to both stale, orthodox leftist party building and the expanding global neoliberal project. Quickly mastering the art of rebellion at the dawn of the internet era, the Zapatistas became a major source of inspiration for young activists, many of whom travelled from North America and Europe to directly work alongside the Zapatistas.

Hilary Klein was one of those young activists. She spent much of the 1990s working in Zapatista communities. Since returning, she has organized at Make the Road New York and currently works the Center For Popular Democracy. Her new book Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories is the first English-language study of the role of indigenous women in the Zapatistas.

Why did you go to live in the Zapatista base communities?

I didn’t go to Mexico intending to live in Zapatista communities. When I went to Chiapas in 1997, I was only planning to stay for about six weeks. I went as a human rights observer—responding to a call from the Zapatistas who were facing consistent attacks from the Mexican armed forces. The presence of outsiders often prevented these attacks and, when they did happen, at least we could document them and get the word out.

But once I got there, I was captivated by the Zapatista movement—the courage, the dignity, the willingness to take risks and the commitment to building something new. And I was particularly struck by women’s role in the movement. There were so many extraordinary women leaders, and Zapatista women had already achieved some pretty remarkable transformations in gender roles. At the same time, these things were still very much evolving. I felt like history was unfolding before my eyes. How could I leave?

So I decided to stay and work with women’s economic cooperatives in Zapatista communities. I ended up being there for six years instead of six weeks.

What about the Zapatistas captured the imagination and attention of radicals in North America and elsewhere?

It’s important to remember the historical context. The Zapatista uprising was in 1994—at the tail end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, capitalists were claiming victory and “the end of history.” Activists and organizers around the world knew that wasn’t the case, but for my generation, it felt like there was a collective question in the air—of what a new wave of liberation movements would look like. The Zapatista movement stepped onto the world stage right at that moment and was one particularly inspiring answer to that question.

Images of the Zapatistas have always been striking—indigenous peasants with wooden rifles declaring war on the Mexican government; with their faces covered by black ski masks or red bandanas, they symbolically became the face of the faceless, the voice of the voiceless. Many people were touched by a movement that was so specific to its own context—peasants in southern Mexico calling for land and indigenous rights, while at the same time being so universal. The Zapatistas presented 11 demands that people all over the world could relate to (work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace), and they identified global capitalism as the common enemy—whether you’re a worker, a student or a housewife, young or old, living in the city or in the countryside.

Continue reading