Part 5: Cult of Personality


Cuautla, Morelos — “We walk with history, but we will not repeat it.”

Emiliano Zapata, the symbolic father of the Zapatistas, looms large in Mexican culture. His picture adorns murals, small stores, restaurants, and personal altars. The rebel leader, who fought for “tierra y libertad,” land and liberty for Mexican peasants, was shot down by government traitors on April 10, 1919, on his way to the capital, on horseback, to sign a peace agreement called the Plan de Ayala. On Thursday, March 9, the Zapatistas once and for all 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 this weekend.

As the Zapatistas traveled their hero’s route, they were surrounded by the shouts: “Zapata vive! La lucha sigue!” (Zapata lives! The struggle continues!) Timoteo Adame, an indigenous man from Higuerón, had written a long letter to the Zapatistas, 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.”

One of Zapata’s two living sons, who still lives in the area, was not among those greeting the rebels. He has refused to comment on their march. 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?”

Congress has finally agreed to meet with the Zapatistas directly on Monday, March 12, the day after their arrival in the capital. Meanwhile, Mexico City prepares for the invasion of an estimated 1 million people who want to witness the caravan’s entrance into the city. Streets have been closed off, every hotel is full, and already, three days early, people have begun sleeping in the Zócalo, the city’s main square. Zapatista posters list the movement’s three conditions for dialogue and invite all of Mexico to the Zócalo on Sunday. And on every newspaper cover, on every T-shirt, Marcos’s masked face stares out.

For many Mexicans as well as foreigners, Marcos seems to have the extra-political appeal of a messianic leader. In one surreal moment in Iguala, Guerrero, a photographer for People magazine balanced on the shoulders of two Mexicans, screaming, “Marcos! Marcos! Marcos!” while beside her a writer for the communist Workers World Party screamed likewise. Marcos has begun to directly address the cult of personality that follows him everywhere he goes. “The question is not whether Fox and Marcos will meet,” he said in Chinameca, “but whether the poor and indigenous people will be able to live with respect and dignity.”

As the followers scream for Marcos and the government prepares for “peace,” the Zapatistas’ challenge is to keep the attention focused on their demands for constitutional recognition and on the indigenous people themselves. The danger, says Manuel Arcadia, director of the Mexico news bureau for the University of Arizona, is that if the Zapatistas refuse to sign a peace agreement because their conditions haven’t been met, the government will use the refusal as an excuse to step up its military actions against the group. The Zapatistas are not prepared militarily for a major war. Instead, they are ready to enter the Zócalo on Sunday, followed by a caravan of over a hundred vehicles, and declare themselves, by virtue of their arrival, victorious.

Next: The Zapatistas enter Mexico City. The international response. What happens next?

Related links:

The Zapatista Index

The Narco News Bulletin

We Are Everywhere

Solidarity groups on the road:

The NYC Ya Basta! Collective

Little Yellow Schoolbus for Peace

The Mexico Solidarity Network

Official site (in Spanish):

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional: Zapatistas’ site

Final dispatch:

Part 6: Rebels Enter Capital

Previous dispatches:

Part 1: Mexico City or Bust

Part 2: Public Relations War

Part 3: Road Kill

Part 4: Indigenous Woodstock

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.