Cuernavaca, Morelos — “It’s time to save the machete and sharpen the word.”
With these words, Subcomandante Marcos helped open the third National Indigenous Conference in Nurío, Michoacán, this past Saturday. The tiny mountain village was transformed as 3383 indigenous delegates and more than 6000 observers converged 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 Che Guevera, Marcos, and Emiliano 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 of the congress spoke, for the first time, in a unified indigenous voice, endorsing the caravan and calling for the passage of the San Andrés Peace Accords. But it went further, with seven proposals for constitutional recognition of the 10 million indigenous people living in Mexico, for their indigenous land rights, languages, and decision-making bodies. “We are the Indians that we are,” the final declaration read, “and we deserve dignity, respect, and liberty.”
“We have waited our whole lives, for centuries, for this congress,” said Hector Ramiro Canche Valladarez, a Mayan Zapatista from Quintana Roo. “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, and more blood has been drawn in this war of words. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, has asked for a private meeting with the Zapatistas. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, in power for over 60 years before Fox’s election, has asked Fox to keep the caravan’s welcome “apolitical.”
“Why [is the government] afraid of a peaceful, unarmed march of marginalized Indians?” Marcos asked, as the Zapatistas began a series of seven stops that will encircle Mexico City.
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. The two major television companies, Televisa and TV Azteca, which together control almost all the stations, sponsored a “Concert for Peace” the same weekend as the indigenous congress.
“There will be no made-for-TV peace,” Marcos said in Toluca, Mexico.
Despite the pressure, there’s at least an even chance congress won’t pass the San Andrés Accords anytime soon. Diego Fernández 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 the Zapatistas, the masks are an integral part of their identity and not a point for negotiation.
“For over 500 years you acted as if we didn’t exist,” reads one of their banners, “Now all of a sudden you want to see our faces?”
The Zapatistas are ready to enter the capital, not to sign any quick peace agreement but rather to solidify the broad base of support that has been building since they left the mountains. Their arrival in each city often has the feel of a religious revival as hundreds of thousands of people, from school teachers and taxi drivers to carpenters and anarchist punks, welcome the rebels. From the pouring rain of Ixmiquilpan to the hot sun of Orizaba, the crowds have called out, “You are not alone.” The accompanying buses are full to bursting, with people often sitting in the aisles or two to a seat.
“This popular movement is multiplying like stars in the sky,” said Comandante Zebedeo at the sacred indigenous site of Temoaya. Thousand of people roared back their approval, their shouts echoing in the night sky.
Next: Marcos and the caravans head for the land of Zapata.
Solidarity groups on the road:
Little Yellow Schoolbus for Peace
Official site (in Spanish):
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional: Zapatistas’ site
Part 5: Cult of Personality
Part 6: Rebels Enter Capital
Part 1: Mexico City or Bust
Part 2: Public Relations War
Part 3: Road Kill
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2001