San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico — Last Sunday, after years in their Chiapas stronghold, the Zapatistas hit the road. With 20,000 indigenous people gathered in San Cristóbal de Las Casas to send them off, Subcomandate Marcos and 24 other ski-masked Zapatista leaders boarded a bus and began the ZapaTour — a two-week journey to Mexico City where they will press the Mexican Congress to pass a bill protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. The ZapaTour — a caravan of Zapatistas, several thousand Mexican and international supporters, and hundreds of federal police — is a cross between a rock concert tour and the Freedom Rides of the American South.
As the delegation left San Cristóbal early Sunday morning, indigenous men, women, and children filled the streets, touching the hands of each member of the caravan. Traditional rainbow-colored hats sat atop ski masks, and well-wishers pressed fruit and flowers into the hands of the travelers. As the 50 vehicles made their way to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas, the road was lined with supporters waving white flags, holding up peace signs, and sending prayers for a safe journey.
The Zapatistas first came to world attention when they seized the colonial city of San Cristóbal and five surrounding villages on January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. In the past seven years, the Zapatistas have grown from around 50 people to several hundreds of thousands. They have created five autonomous regions in Chiapas. In each, land use, health care, education, and all aspects of community life are run without government intervention. Through Marcos’s communiqués, published in books and newspapers worldwide, they have built an international support base and helped inspire the protests against corporate globalization in Seattle, Prague, and Davos, Switzerland.
In the plaza of San Cristóbal, foreign observers gather. Three hundred Italians in white jumpsuits from Ya Basta!, a Zapatista-inspired protest movement are here, they say, because the Zapatistas have given them hope for change in their own country. “As the Zapatistas wear their ski masks, we wear these white suits, as symbols of the invisibility of the poor,” says Luca Casarini.
For Mercedes Marquéz, a Mexican American from Los Angeles, Marcos’s words and the caravan resonate 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.
But as the caravan leaves Chiapas and heads north, it is likely to face opposition. While the majority of Mexicans have said they support the caravan, many see it as a direct challenge, not just to President Vicente Fox’s new government, but to the international free-trade policies that the Zapatistas say have had a devastating effect on poor people worldwide. The governor of the State of Morelia has vowed to stop them before they reach Mexico City. Already, as they enter Oaxaca, the first shouts of “Go Home!” can be heard among the cheers. “We will respond to their insults with dignity,” says Lorenzo, a delegate from the Zapatista community of Tenexapa. “We don’t need to argue. Our presence is the best answer we have.”
Next: the press wars between Marcos and Fox; Subcomandante Marcos’s notoriety; cheers and jeers from the communities in Juchitán, Oaxaca, and Puebla.
Solidarity groups on the road:
Little Yellow Schoolbus for Peace
Official site (in Spanish):
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional: Zapatistas’ site
The entire series:
Part 2: Public Relations War
Part 3: Road Kill
Part 4: Indigenous Woodstock
Part 5: Cult of Personality
Part 6: Rebels Enter Capital
On the Road With the Zapatistas is a two-week, on-the-scene series that will chronicle the historic trek of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas from the Lacandon jungle to Mexico City to demand rights for indigenous peoples.
Until now, the Zapatistas have refused to meet with President Vicente Fox or his representatives unless the Mexican government meets a set of demands: to pull back troops surrounding the Zapatista strongholds, to release Zapatista prisoners from Mexican jails, and to pass an indigenous rights bill. President Vicente Fox, who defeated a party that ruled Mexico for 70 years, has made some overtures to restart peace talks. The Zapatistas remain wary.
The march has divided the nation between those who support the Zapatistas’ demands and those who see them and this trip as a national security risk. These dispatches from the frontlines will keep readers apprised of opposition, support, and other encounters along the road.