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From Fire to Autonomy: Zapatistas, 20 Years of Walking Slowly

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page.

Speaking in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, on a cold drizzly New Year's Eve, the Zapatista Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd: "Twenty-five or 30 years ago we were completely deceived, manipulated, subjugated, forgotten, drowned in ignorance and misery." She was communicating the official words of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on the 20th anniversary of their rebellion, when thousands of indigenous people rose up in arms, took over dozens of major towns and villages in this southern state, and declared "enough is enough, never again will there be a homeland that doesn't include us."

Comandante Hortensia went on to explain how over the past two decades, they have constructed their own autonomous government, complete with their own health and education system, based in the indigenous traditions of their ancestors. Despite the continual efforts of the "neoliberal bad government" to displace them from their land, the Zapatistas have successfully recuperated thousands of acres of land on which they have constructed communities that are governed "from the bottom up." Community members participate in rotating government positions that operate under the democratic principle of " mandar obedeciendo" (commanding by obeying).

The Mexican government has attempted to introduce social programs with the goal of co-opting and dividing the indigenous population in Zapatista areas. However, the indigenous rebels, who reject all forms of government handouts, have successfully resisted co-optation. If you ask a Zapatista how many are in the ranks, they will just respond " somos un chingo," which loosely translates into "there are a whole lot of us." Official estimates put their numbers at 250,000 people or roughly 10 percent of the population of the state of Chiapas.

Zapatista communities are spread throughout the large southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which includes coastal, mountainous and jungle regions. They have created five Caracoles, which are the centers of "good government" and points of coordination for the Zapatista health clinics, schools, community banks and independent media projects.    


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