Rebel Dignity

Dispatches From the Zapatista Trek to Mexico City

February 24, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico—The ZapaTour—a caravan of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) and several thousand Mexican and international supporters—is a unique event in both Mexican and international history: a cross between a rock concert tour, an evangelical revival, and the Freedom Rides of the American South. After seven hard years in the mountains of the Mexican southeast, 24 Zapatista rebel leaders set out on a two-week march to press the Mexican congress to pass constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and autonomy. Accompanying them were more than 35 brightly painted buses and 40 trucks filled with 1500 international and national supporters.

The ZapaTour left from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial city the Zapatistas first took by force on January 1, 1994. In the main plaza vendors sell everything from olives to small dolls wearing ski masks and carrying rifles. Sounds of Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Chol, and Tzetal, the indigenous languages of the area, mix with Spanish, Italian, and English. By the time the Zapatistas arrive,the plaza has swelled with more than 20,000 people. As the crowd shouts "EZLN!" the rebels ascend the painted wooden stage. A profound silence descends when Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos begins to speak: "Brothers and Sisters, indigenous and nonindigenous, we are the forgotten heart of Mexico. . . . We take to the road to say: 'Nevermore a Mexico without us!' "

Two hundred fifty Italians from Ya Basta! clad in matching white jumpsuits are here, they say, because the Zapatistas are leading the movement against the international free-trade policies that have devastated poor people worldwide. "As the Zapatistas wear their ski masks, we wear these white suits, as symbols of the invisibility of the poor," says Luca Casarini, a spokesperson. For Mercedes Marquéz, a Mexican American from Los Angeles, the caravan resonates with her experience as a civil rights lawyer for farm workers. "What most inspires me is that instead of coming to the United States to be exploited, these people are staying on their own land and creating change," she says. Many of the foreigners say the Zapatistas helped inspire their protests in Seattle, Prague, and Davos, Switzerland.

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.

Less than a year ago, the Zapatistas were isolated in the mountains, surrounded by an openly hostile military, still reeling from the massacre of 45 indigenous women and children at Acteal in December of 1997. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in power for 71 years, had vowed to wipe them out. Then, last July, Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN), was elected president with the promise of a new regime and a solution to the problem in Chiapas. The Zapatistas saw an opening and broke their silence with the announcement of the march to the capital.

The Zapatistas have staked their movement on the caravan. It is a one-way, 1900-mile trip. Once the masked rebels have entered civil society it seems unlikely they will return to the armed war in the mountains.


Oaxaca, Oaxaca—The buses travel as much as 10 hours a day. For food, the caravan depends on sandwiches thrown through open windows, and on the hospitality of the host communities. Often there's a marked difference between the enthusiasm of the crowds outside and the exhaustion of those on the bus.

Those who came hoping to get time alone with Marcos have mostly given up. Whether waving out the window or speaking to the crowd, the Zapatistas are building popular support along the road without losing the mystique that has followed them from the mountains. They are never seen without their ski masks and give only two brief press conferences during the trip. They have none of the let's-stop-and-chat feel of a visiting Bill Clinton.

It doesn't seem to matter to those who line even the barest stretches of highway to welcome the caravan—crowds of schoolteachers, construction workers, taxi drivers, housewives, and anarchist punks who wave white T-shirts as flags. Ten thousand people turn out in Juchitán; more than 30,000 in Puebla and Oaxaca. Parents hold tiny children in the air, so they can tell them, years from now, that they saw the Zapatistas on their historic trip. A few come to jeer, to yell "Go home!" The Zapatistas respond with silence, fists raised in the air.

As the number of people increases, so does the intensity of the press wars between the Zapatistas and the government. Fox wants the rebels to begin peace talks as soon as they reach the capital. At each stop of the caravan, the Zapatistas reiterate their conditions for talks: the release of all Zapatista political prisoners, the closure of seven of the 259 military bases in Chiapas, and the passage in congress of the San Andrés accords, an agreement reached between the Zapatistas and a government-appointed representative in 1996, which was signed but never sent to congress. The accords incorporate indigenous rights into the constitution, including some political autonomy.

"We want indigenous autonomy not in order to separate ourselves from the country and to add one more poor country to those which already exist in abundance," says Marcos. "We want indigenous autonomy because it is the only visible means of preventing this country from ending up in pieces and squandered."


"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


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.

Timoteo Adame, a 70-year-old man from near Anenecuilco, waited since five in the morning for the Zapatistas' arrival. He had written them a long letter, thanking them for reviving Zapata and asking that they ask congress to help fix the unpaved, impassable roads in his village. One young man held a sign: "Marcos is the son of Zapata, and I am the son of Marcos."

In Cuautla, where Zapata's tomb rests, an anonymous group calling itself the National Voice distributed a newspaper denouncing the "pretend Zapatistas" and declaring that Marcos belonged in jail, and not in Los Pinos, where President Fox resides. "We have a democratically elected president," said a taxi driver in Cuautla, who asked not to be named. "Who elected Marcos?"

Mexico City is preparing itself not for an election but an invasion of people who want to witness the caravan's entrance into the city. Streets have been closed off and people are sleeping in the Zócalo, the city's main square. And on every newspaper cover, on every T-shirt, Marcos's masked face stares out. For many Mexicans as well as foreigners, Marcos has the extra-political appeal of a messianic leader. Marcos has begun to directly address the cult of personality that follows him everywhere he goes. "I am just a mark," he said in Tepotzlan. "Nothing but a point, a mirror between worlds."


Mexico City—The Zapatistas did not, as some rumors had it, arrive in Mexico City on horseback. They did not, as some had insisted, march in on foot. Instead, they entered the Zócalo on the roof of the same white and green tour bus that carried them 1900 miles from the mountains of Chiapas to the Mexican capital. From the reaction of the crowd of about 100,000 they might as well have dropped from the sky. Shouts of "No están solos!" (You are not alone!) filled the plaza as the Zapatistas stood on the narrow, quickly constructed wooden stage and Marcos declared, "There is no more 'you' and 'us' because we are all now the color of the earth. And this is what they fear."

History did not repeat itself on Sunday, March 11, not the history of 1919 when Zapata was shot on his way to the capital, nor the history of 1968 when several hundred students were killed while protesting a few blocks north of the Zócalo. Instead, history was remade as the rebels who declared war on the government just over seven years ago were welcomed right outside the governmental palace. The Zapatistas have grown from a local military rebellion with international support to a still-expanding national and international social movement.

The Zapatistas have vowed to stay in Mexico City until congress votes on the San Andrés accords, which may take more than a month. In keeping with the spirit of the caravan, they will stay in a makeshift space at the National School of Anthropology and History.

Although some newspapers have ruminated on the possibility of "Marcos for President," the Zapatistas insist that they are not interested in political power. "We are rebels, not revolutionaries," Marcos said. "Political power poisons the blood and muddies the thought."

Some of the next big fights are already visible on the horizon. The Zapatistas have declared their opposition to Plan Puebla-Panamá, an international development deal signed by Fox that would create a corridor of tax-free high-tech and clothing factories from central Mexico down to Panama. They have also criticized the upcoming meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in April in Quebec.

Was the caravan successful? Certainly, the Zapatistas have returned to center stage nationally and internationally. But it is far from clear whether congress will pass the San Andrés accords, and what that might mean. If the Zapatistas renounce their declaration of war, they may channel some of the support of the caravan into a sustained social movement.

No one knows what is next, not even the Zapatistas themselves. But it is clear that, for the Zapatistas, the arrival in the capital is only one stop on the journey: "Those [in power] say we're few, we're weak, we're a photo, an anecdote, a spectacle, a product whose expiration date is near," said Marcos in the Zócalo. "We can be with or without faces, with or without arms or firepower, but Zapatistas we are; we are and always will be."


For an expanded version of this report, see "On the Road With the Zapatistas" by Rachel Neumann.

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