Rebel Dignity

Dispatches From the Zapatista Trek to Mexico City

"For over 500 years you acted as if we didn't exist. Now all of a sudden you want to see our faces?"—A Zapatista banner

History, remade: The rebels who declared war on the government seven years ago were welcomed right outside the governmental palace.
photo: Tim Russo
History, remade: The rebels who declared war on the government seven years ago were welcomed right outside the governmental palace.

Querétaro, Querétaro—Governor Ignácio Loyola had vowed to hang Marcos. As the caravan snaked along the deserted highway, surrounded by fields of nopal cactus and blue-green hills, a small band of supporters waved signs and shouted, "Querétaro is with you!" Then caravan bus number 38 lost control of its brakes, sped out of control along the shoulder, hit and killed a policeman, and wounded five other people. The driver of bus number 38 disappeared immediately, leaving some to wonder about the timing of the accident.

The incident requires the caravan to think seriously about security for the first time. The Zapatistas walk to each stage with only a few volunteers to hold back the crowd. There are no video monitors, press packets, or bodyguards. There's not a cell phone or laptop computer in sight. Although there are now 75 official caravan vehicles, only five federal police cars and seven motorcycles accompany the caravan.

After the crash on the highway, the Italian group Ya Basta! takes a more visible role as security, forming a human barricade around the Zap bus at each stop. Their presence has created problems for the caravan, leading some Mexicans to denounce the Zapatistas as "pure gringos."

"I think it's foreigners who started it all," said Betty Martínez, a schoolteacher in Querétaro. "How could they get the money to get those guns and to do this tour?" Some also criticize the Zapatistas' commitment to a place for women, atheists, gays, and transsexuals in their movement—proof, for Martínez, of "foreign influence."

This charge of foreign influence is a serious one in Mexico, a colonized country whose streets are often named after nationalist revolutionaries. The Zapatistas, in reply, stress that Zapatismo (named, after all, for the nationalist Emiliano Zapata) is rooted in a desire for a more inclusive Mexico. The difference is that the Zapatistas believe peace will require fundamental change, notably an increase in indigenous rights and autonomy for Mexico's 62 indigenous groups (approximately 10 million people).

Cuernavaca, Morelos—"It's time to save the machete and sharpen the word." With these words, on March 3, Subcomandante Marcos helped open the third National Indigenous Congress in Nurío, Michoacán. 3383 indigenous delegates and more than 5000 observers converged in the tiny mountain village for what one person called "the indigenous Woodstock." The delegates came from every Mexican state and represented over 42 ethnic groups. Children painted murals of masked men on horseback. Hundreds of vendors sold food, trinkets, ski masks, and pictures of the holy family: Che, Marcos, and Zapata. The large number of observers was testament, said writer John Ross, to the international importance of the congress. "As we enter the new millennium, it is the world's oldest people who are leading the global protest movement, for they have the most to teach and the most to lose."

The congress discussed everything from indigenous radio stations to child care spaces. The final declaration spoke, for the first time, in a unified indigenous voice, endorsing the caravan and calling for the passage of the San Andrés accords. But it went further, with seven additional proposals for indigenous land rights, languages, and decision-making bodies.

"We have waited our whole lives, for centuries, for this congress," said Hector Ramiro Canche Valladarez, a Mayan Zapatista from Quintana Roo, who is traveling with the caravan. "People in our communities are starving, they are without decent food or clean water. But we are also starving for connection and information."

As the caravan nears Mexico City, the crowds are larger and more frenzied. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party has asked for a private meeting with the Zapatistas. The PRI has tried to get involved, asking Fox to keep the caravan's welcome "apolitical."

"Why [is the government] afraid of a peaceful, unarmed march of marginalized Indians?" Marcos asked. Fox, for his part, has started a "Sign Up for Peace" campaign, encouraging Mexicans to add their signatures to a demand for an unspecified peace agreement.

Despite the pressure, members of congress have been mostly silent. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a representative from Fox's National Action Party, has said, "We're not going to negotiate with anyone with a sock on his head," a reference to the ski masks worn by the Zapatistas.

"For over 500 years you acted as if we didn't exist," reads a Zapatista banner. "Now all of a sudden you want to see our faces?"

"We are rebels, not revolutionaries. Political power poisons the blood and muddies the thought."—Subcomandante Marcos

Cuautla, Morelos—"We will walk with history, but not repeat it." Emiliano Zapata looms large in Mexican culture. His picture adorns murals, small stores, and personal altars. The rebel leader, who fought for tierra y libertad (land and liberty) for Mexican peasants, was shot down by troops led by a federal double agent on April 10, 1919, on his way to the capital to sign a peace agreement. On Friday, March 9, 2001, the Zapatistas claimed this history as their own, visiting Anenecuilco and Chinameca, the towns of Zapata's birth and death, and vowing that history "would not repeat itself" when the Zapatistas entered the capital.

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