We Learn As We Go” – Zapatista Women Share Their Experiences


On December 29 – 31 women from all five Zapatista Caracoles (centers of resistance) gathered in the community of La Garrucha, Chiapas to meet with women who had come from all around the world to hear their stories of struggling, of organizing, and of participating in the Zapatista movement; and to share their own experiences. It was the Tercer Encuentro de los Pueblos Zapatistas con los Pueblos del Mundo - the Third Encounter/Gathering between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is best known for its brief uprising in January 1994. In addition to being a guerrilla army, the EZLN is a broad social movement; its principal demands include land and indigenous rights and culture. For the past decade or so, the EZLN has been constructing indigenous autonomy in its territory including its own government, health and education infrastructure, and economic institutions. Zapatista territory covers much of the eastern part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Hundreds, if not thousands, of villages in the Lacandon jungle, the canyon region, the highlands and the northern zone of Chiapas make up the Zapatista support base.
 
The Zapatistas have organized a number of national and international gatherings and mobilizations to dialogue with “civil society.” One of the best known of these gatherings was the Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism in 1996, seen by many as a key event for the worldwide movement against capitalist globalization.
 
This is the first time, however, that the EZLN has organized this kind of space dedicated to women’s rights and participation. At the First Encounter Between the Zapatista Peoples and the Peoples of the World a year ago, a panel of Zapatista women spoke. Though it was one of many panels on a number of different topics, this was significant because it was one of the only times that public space has been dedicated specifically to Zapatista women telling their stories. And it was during that women’s panel that the announcement was made of a planned gathering for Zapatista women and women from civil society to come together and share their experiences.
 
Approximately three thousand participants attended this recent women’s encuentro (gathering). For three days, women from different parts of Mexico and the world sat on rows of hand-made wooden benches, listening to the Zapatista women. There were perhaps 200 Zapatista women there, representing each of the five Caracoles, or Zapatista regions. The Zapatista women are Mayan, and speak different Mayan languages: Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Chol. The groups could be distinguished by their traditional outfits – the colorful embroideries on their blouses and the style of their hand-woven skirts differ depending on their language group and where they live. At the beginning of each two-hour plenary, the Zapatista women walked single-file into the auditorium.
 
La Garrucha is a small indigenous village two hours drive on a dirt road from the nearest city, and during the gathering it was overflowing with people. Almost every member of the community had people sleeping on the floor, tents set up in the patio, and hammocks hung from any available posts. Many families from the community had set up stands to sell food, music played until late into the night, and the whole community took on a festive air.
 
Changes that Zapatista Women Have Experienced
 
The Zapatista women touched on a series of topics and these guiding themes created a framework for an overall narrative: what women’s lives were like before the uprising, the changes that they’ve seen, and how women have organized and participated in the Zapatista movement.
 
When women talked about their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives, they described horrendous conditions: the exploitation that they faced living on the plantations and working for the large landowners, the violence and discrimination that they suffered as women in their own homes and communities, and the lack of access to health care and education.
 
Monica, a regional representative from the Morelia region, spoke of the triple oppression that Zapatista women have historically encountered: “We have suffered discrimination because we are women, because we are poor, and because we are indigenous.”
 
Amina, an older Tzeltal woman, described life growing up on a finca (plantation) called Las Delicias: “Before, our grandparents, our mothers and fathers worked for a patrón (boss/landowner). They treated us like animals. They didn’t care if we died from working too hard. We had to work in the fields, but we also had to carry the patrón’s cargo to the city because there were no horses and no roads.
 
“The women also had to go to work in the patrón’s kitchen to make tortillas. The patrón wanted them to start making tortillas at 6 or 7 in the morning. When the patrón would get up he would go to the kitchen and if the tortilla basket wasn’t full of tortillas, he would kick the women.”
 
Several women talked about how the landowners systemically raped the young indigenous women working on their plantations. Amina explained why one of landowners only wanted young women to work in his kitchen. “The patrón is bad, he’s very bad. The young women told their mothers and fathers that they didn’t want to go back to make tortillas in the kitchen anymore [because they were were being sexually assaulted]. The mothers went instead but the patrón said no, he wanted the young women to work in the kitchen.”
 
In contrast, women described the dramatic changes that they have experienced in the last decade and a half, primarily due to the Zapatista movement. “Before we didn’t have any rights; before we were not valued as women,” they said again and again. “But now we have rights as women. Now no one can tell us that we don’t have rights.”
 
Women talked about changes within their families: a decrease in domestic violence, the right to choose who to marry and how many children to have, and not being restricted to raising the children and working in the home.
 
Changes in the private sphere are directly linked to women’s ability to participate in public life. In the past, their fathers or husbands literally did not allow women to leave the house. Mireya, who described herself as a “young married woman,” said, “I got married after 1994. No one forced me to get married. I chose my own partner, because I recognized my rights. And my husband gives me the freedom to participate, in whatever work I want to do.”
 
Now women in the Zapatista movement serve as local and regional representatives, political leaders and members of the autonomous government, health and education promoters.
 
Women talked about different ways that they organized to achieve these changes. Forming women’s collectives was one example. These economic collectives – vegetables gardens, bread-making collectives, artisan cooperatives – have been an important source of financial resources which were invested back into the communities. But having an all-women’s space was also key for women to come to voice; the collectives acted as a springboard for their participation in other areas of the Zapatista movement. Rosa Isabel, a member of the Production Commission, explained: “Working together in the women’s collectives is where we get over the fear and embarrassment that we feel. We work together and we’re happy working together.”
 
Many women also recognized the importance of having role models. They gave thanks to the women who had come before them: las guerrilleras, las caídas, las primeras luchadoras – the women warriors, the women who have fallen in the struggle, the first women fighters.
 
There were some women in key positions of leadership in the EZLN since the beginning. Major Ana Maria, one of the first military leaders of the EZLN, was the military commander in charge of the takeover of San Cristóbal de las Casas on January 1, 1994. Comandanta Ramona, one of the early Zapatista political leaders, was part of the EZLN’s team of negotiators in the peace talks with the Mexican government, and was the first Zapatista to break out of the Mexican military’s encirclement of Zapatista territory when she traveled to Mexico City to help found the National Indigenous Congress in 1996. Ramona died of cancer in January, 2006 and is remembered with a great deal of admiration, respect, and love. This women’s gathering of Zapatista women and women of the world was dedicated to Comandanta Ramona.
 
In the early years however, these women were the exception, not the rule. They faced a great deal of machismo as they were forging a path for other women. When she was talking about how they organized themselves as women Comandanta Sandra, one of the primeras luchadoras herself, said simply, “No fue fácil. Nos costó.”“It wasn’t easy. It took a lot.”
 
Women also recognized that increasing their political participation is not something that can happen overnight. Rebecca, a member of the autonomous council, said: “At first we didn’t participate much as women. Little by little we began to participate more.” Other women talked about accepting responsibilities for which they didn’t feel prepared. Laura, a member of the Agrarian Commission, explained: “Before, they didn’t take us into consideration as women. Later they realized that we needed to have women authorities too, to strengthen our autonomy. Now, as women, we are conscious and we’re moving forward. We don’t know much, but as authorities we learn as we go, by doing the work.” And Daisy, a local authority: “A lot of times we’re still nervous and shy. There are still a lot of men who think that we can’t do the work.”
 
Sometimes however, men in leadership have pushed women to the forefront. The comandantas from Oventic explained how they came into positions of leadership. “When Comandanta Ramona left to seek treatment for her cancer, there was only one woman left in the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena (Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, or CCRI) in the region of Oventic.” The CCRI is the highest level of political leadership within the EZLN and is a fairly large body so it was significant that there was only one woman. “Even though we had passed the Revolutionary Women’s Law,” the comandantas continued, “there were no women.” The Revolutionary Women’s Law was created by thousands of indigenous women and passed by the EZLN in 1993. It states that women’s rights include the right to hold positions of political leadership. “So in May 1995 the representatives of all the communities held an assembly and we were asked to do this work. It was hard for us to accept this responsibility. None of us had ever held any position of authority in the organization [the EZLN]. But we knew the work was important so we accepted. And here we are.”
 
Rhetoric vs. Reality
 
One of the tensions in the history of women’s participation in the Zapatista movement has been the gap between rhetoric and reality. This is not unique to the Zapatista movement – it is a common contradiction in radical and revolutionary movements. Rhetoric about women’s rights is an important first step, and can open the door to real changes, but inevitably there is a need for the reality to catch up with the bold and impressive statements being made by the (usually male) leadership about women’s role in the movement. The Zapatista movement has been well-known for its women leaders and its promotion of women’s rights. Zapatista supporters were therefore often surprised when they visited Zapatista communities and found women largely still in subordinate positions. In a 2004 communiqué, Subcomandante Marcos recognized this shortcoming. “Even though Zapatista women have had a fundamental role in the resistance,” Marcos writes, “respect for their rights is still, in some cases, just a declaration on paper.”
 
This tension between rhetoric and reality was also present within the gathering itself. Listeners walked away from some of the presentations with the distinct impression that the women were describing conditions as they ideally should be, not as they currently exist.
 
The differences between the presentations made by each region were particularly interesting. The women from Morelia, where women have achieved a relatively high level of public participation, made some of the strongest presentations. While most of the women from the other regions read prepared statements, the women from Morelia spoke directly to the audience.
 
In the Garrucha region, on the other hand, there is a much smaller percentage of women who are active in their communities. Yet, listening to the women from La Garrucha, one would think that the situation of women’s rights and women’s participation is much more advanced than it is. Perhaps the women felt pressure to live up to the Zapatistas’ public image of women’s empowerment.
 
Women in the Highlands region of Oventic also have a limited level of participation. But the group from Oventic painted a complex and realistic picture, which seemed to reflect a decision to be more honest in their assessment. For example, they drew a rather dismal picture of the machismo that women still face in their own families. “When a woman gets married is when the problem begins,” said one, “because most husbands still don’t want their wives to participate.” There was sadness in their voices as they described women who never participate in their communities because “they can’t get rid of the ideas that they were taught since they were little.” At one point they said: “We didn’t bring any women agentas or comisariadas [types of local authorities] to this encuentro because there aren’t any.” This simple statement felt like a confession, a desire to acknowledge how much work there still is to be done. Their honesty allowed the audience members a real glimpse, a window into their day-to-day struggle to exercise the rights that they know they have but are often denied to them. Knowing the obstacles that they face, their determination was that more compelling: “We are not going to let women continue to live the same way our parents and grandparents did,” they concluded.
 
While the adult women conveyed how difficult it has been to get this far, the presence of young women and girls, strong and self-confident, was one of the most powerful manifestations of the changes that are taking place in the Zapatista communities. While the older women talked about the historic reasons that they don’t know how to read and write, young women read their declarations aloud before an audience of thousands.
 
One of the presentations which most moved and captivated the audience was made by Marialinda, a nine-year old girl. “I’m going to tell you about my own life and about my rights,” she started out, in a strong and steady voice. “As a girl I have the right to do all the things that I want to do.” At this point the audience broke into applause. “My parents have given me the right to study in the autonomous schools, so that I can learn. They’ve given me the right go out, to play, sing and dance because I think it’s necessary to have fun.” At that, there was a ripple of supportive laughter.
 
These young people who have grown up in the context of the Zapatista movement are like the harvest of the seeds planted by their grandmothers, mothers, aunts and older sisters.
 
Women’s Political Participation in the EZLN
 
As they talked about the obstacles they have faced and how they have organized as women, they were also telling the story of the Zapatista movement.
 
Two older women from the Caracol of La Realidad spoke in Tzeltal about the time when the EZLN was still a clandestine organization. “We made tostadas for the insurgents. We took food for them up into the mountains and there were no paths back then.” Others talked about recruiting people into the EZLN family by family, and having to meet secretively in the middle of the night.
 
Captain Elena, one of three female insurgents who spoke, talked about why women felt it necessary to leave their homes and go to the mountains to join the EZLN. She also talked about some of the ways that being an insurgent opened new spaces for them as women. “In the mountains, we learned things that we had never learned in our communities.”
 
Women participated in the uprising, and after 1994, in marches and other types of mobilizations, and stood up against the military when Mexican soldiers tried to occupy their villages. “During the San Andres negotiations,” the women from Oventic said, “we formed a human security chain to protect our comandantes.”
 
Many of the women who made presentations were part of the autonomous government. They talked about representing their community at the regional assemblies and their role in resolving problems. The Zapatistas are well-known for their philosophy of governing: mandar obedeciendo – lead by obeying. Rebecca, a member of the autonomous council, said: “As autonomous authorities we can’t impose our ideas, we can only present our proposals.”
 
Laura, a member of the Agrarian Commission, gave an example of her work. “Before, we didn’t have any land. Thanks to the EZLN, now we have land. We [the Agrarian Commission] work together with the autonomous council to resolve any land disputes on the occupied land.”
 
Women authorities also talked about their role in encouraging other women to participate more and protecting women’s rights. Several members of the Honor and Justice Commission described resolving family disputes, and acknowledging that women might not be treated as fairly if this commission was made up entirely of men.
 
Health and Education
 
The autonomous health care and education systems were developed, in part, in response to the extreme lack of access to health care and education in the indigenous communities.
 
Women health promoters described how common it was in the past for children to die from curable diseases; how the indigenous villagers lived far from the city and had no access to doctors or health clinics. Even if they could get to the city, they would often be denied services because of the extreme racism against indigenous people. Angelica, a health promoter explained: “Even if a member of our family was dying, or screaming with pain, they didn’t want to let us into the hospital.”
 
The women health promoters described how each community chose its own health promoters and how, at the regional level, they organized autonomous health clinics. The health promoters now give talks about preventing illnesses, and the autonomous health care system honors traditional medicine such as medicinal plants, parteras (midwives) and hueseros (bone-setters).
 
The women painted a similar picture in terms of education. Schools did not exist on the large plantations, where many of the indigenous communities lived and worked. And in the communities where there were schools, girls were not allowed to study. Eugenia, an education promoter, says: “The only right we had [as girls] was the right to take care of our younger brothers and sisters and work in the house. That’s why our mothers and grandmothers don’t know how to read and write.”
 
The autonomous schools were organized through community and regional assemblies, each community named educational promoters to teach the children, and the Education Commission found ways to train these community teachers.
 
 
The Other Campaign & Dialogue with Civil Society
 
The final theme of the encuentro was women and the Other Campaign. The Other Campaign is the EZLN’s most recent mobilization and process of dialogue with civil society and so far has consisted primarily of Subcomandante Marcos and other comandantes traveling throughout Mexico to meet with different groups and sectors of society – especially the most marginalized – and listen to each others’ experiences.
 
Comandanta Dalia, who has participated in the Other Campaign, said: “Women of the Other Campaign, we know that you suffer the same things that we do, as Zapatista women, because we have gone personally to visit you where you live. You told us the pain that you feel as women and there’s no difference between your suffering and our own. You told us how you are mistreated by your boss at work. We met with housewives, workers, students, teachers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, sexual workers, day laborers, artists, all sectors of workers.” Her talk was also a call to action: “That’s why, compañeras, we need to organize – in your own neighborhoods, your own regions; wherever you are, organize.”
 
Of course most of the political work of the Zapatista movement is not done with a specific focus on gender. The EZLN is a broad movement working towards a more just society and its ideology encompasses women’s rights but also indigenous rights and culture; the right to land, housing, education, health-care; and self-determination for all oppressed communities. The Other Campaign is part of building this broad, long-term vision. As Comandanta Dalia put it: “The main problem is not the men, it is the mal gobierno (bad government). We have to struggle together, men and women, to be able to overthrow the bad government and the capitalist system.” While perhaps not recognizing patriarchy as one of the systemic roots of oppression, this statement speaks to the fact that the Zapatista movement is made up of whole families and communities who are trying to create the world today that we would like to live in tomorrow.
 
In the same spirit as the Other Campaign, this encuentro created a space to come together and listen to one another and, in doing so, strengthened both the members of civil society who came to participate, and the movement itself.
 
During the Zapatista women’s presentations, there was time for questions and answers. Many of the participants’ questions were actually statements – of support, respect, admiration, and gratitude to the Zapatista women for showing the world their strength and courage in the face of such daunting obstacles.
 
After the Zapatista women finished their presentations, there was time for other women to share their experiences. Several letters from female political prisoners were read aloud, and women from a wide range of ages, cultures, and political backgrounds described the conditions where they live and the work that they are doing. The first presentation was made by the Via Campesina delegation, with representatives of campesino movements from all over the world.
 
Too often, women’s spaces are seen as something marginal, separate from the rest of the movement’s work. But this encuentro seemed to give the Zapatista movement and its supporters an injection of energy and enthusiasm. Women’s contributions are important for their own liberation but also for the movement as a whole, and this event was an important moment for the Zapatista movement.
 
The Encuentro and Women’s Space in the EZLN
 
The auditorium where the gathering took place was defined as a women’s space. Men from the press were allowed to come in to film or take photos, and men who wanted to listen could sit at the very back, or stand outside and listen.
 
Men’s role in the gathering was also explicitly limited. Signs which had been hung around the Caracol read: “In this gathering, men cannot participate as note-takers, translators, presenters, spokesmen, or representatives [of an organization]. Men can only work making food, sweeping and cleaning the Caracol and the latrines, taking care of the children, and carrying firewood.”
 
The men present at the gathering expressed a wide variety of responses. Some men, who did not know ahead of time that their participation would be limited, were obviously upset and said, huffily, that if they had no role to play there, then they might as well go home. Others took it quite good-naturedly. One said that he was more than happy to be there and take care of the children. Another reflected that perhaps it was a gentle push from the women, a way of encouraging the men to talk amongst themselves about masculinity and machismo. And men as well as women were inspired by the gathering. At the end of the encuentro, one man told me, “This is the first time in a long time that I have felt this excited about the Zapatista movement.”
 
The sign that specified what tasks men could perform during the event concluded: “On January 1, things will return to normal.” Many visitors read this as ironic, or even sad. There was some irony in it, and it speaks to the gender norms that are still prevalent in the communities. At the same time, acting as an incubator is actually one of the ways that the Zapatista movement has been able to shift gender norms: in particular spaces that are specific to the movement, people experience different gender relations, which then permeate other areas of their lives. For example, in the Zapatista insurgent camps, all domestic tasks are shared equally amongst men and women. For the men, it is invariably the first time in their life that they have made tortillas. When young men and women insurgents decide to leave the Zapatista army, they go back to their “normal” lives in their communities and yet, the social relations between men and women have been changed irrevocably. Likewise, after this women’s gathering, when things go back to “normal,” what is “normal” will not be the same as what it was before the gathering.
 
This encuentro says much about the evolution of women’s participation in the Zapatista movement. In its early years, the EZLN, like many other revolutionary movements, saw the importance of women’s participation, but for the sake of strengthening the movement, rather than to promote women’s liberation as a goal in itself. “Compañeras, the revolutionary struggle needs you..!” As time went on, the EZLN began to recognize the importance of women having their own spaces, their own voices, and real leadership within the movement.
 
This is not an uncommon process. During the encuentro, I was talking to a member of the Via Campesina delegation, a Brazilian woman representing the Landless People’s Movement (MST) and she nodded thoughtfully and said in Portuguese, “yes, it’s the same process that the MST went through.”
 
This women’s gathering represents how far the Zapatista movement has come in valuing women’s voices and participation. It is difficult to imagine an event like this taking place even a few years ago.
 
It was also a key step in moving this process forward. It was clear that this encuentro will result in a more solid recognition of women’s rights in the Zapatista movement. And for the women who participated in the gathering, the experience of organizing and preparing for this event and then speaking before thousands of people will no doubt increase their skills and self-confidence. They are stronger leaders now, in their own eyes and in the eyes of their communities.
 
As the gathering came to a close on the afternoon of December 31st, the atmosphere of support and solidarity, admiration and inspiration reached a climax. Every woman in the auditorium was on her feet, the applause was long and thunderous, and the electricity in the air was palpable.
 
That evening, the party lasted well into the night. Comandanta Rosalinda and Comandante Omar read a communiqué to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, hugs were shared to celebrate the new year, and the dancing continued until dawn.
 
On January 1st, the women from civil society began packing up their tents and sleeping bags and turning their thoughts towards home. The Zapatista women got into their trucks and, ski masks on, hands waving good-bye, drove back to their communities. Each with hearts full of memories, and I believe, each with a renewed commitment to continuing the struggle in their own place.
 
 
Contact information:
Hilary Klein
767 Capp St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
email: [email protected]
 
 
Hilary Klein lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has worked as an activist and community organizer on a number of issues including immigrants rights, affordable housing, and violence against women. She lived in Chiapas from 1997 – 2003 working with women’s cooperatives in Zapatista communities and is currently working on a book about women’s participation in the Zapatista movement.
 

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