Zapatista Women’s Encuentro

Just after midnight on January 1, 2008, the 14th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising began and the caracol of La Garrucha was alive with celebration. We watched from the top of a refurbished school bus as a mass of bodies danced below a sky littered with stars. 

The celebration also marked the end of the third Encuentro (Encounter) of the Zapatistas with the people of the world and the first Encuentro of Zapatista women and the women of the world. From December 28, 2007 to January 1, 2008, women from around the world gathered in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, home to the Zapatistas. Why a women’s encounter? “Because it was time,” repeated the voices of the masked women speaking before an audience of women from Zapatista support bases across Chiapas, as well as from social movements in Mexico and the world. 

The revolutionary indigenous movement of the Zapatistas erupted in an armed uprising on January 1, 1994. However, as was heard throughout the Encuentro, “the struggle began before and continued after.” And it is important to remember that in 1993, clandestine Zapatista communities and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), experienced an internal uprising of Zapatista women who implemented the following Revolutionary Law for Women: 

  • Women, regardless of their race, creed, skin color, or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle, in the place and to the degree their willingness and ability permit 
  • Women have the right to work and receive just pay for their labor 
  • Women have the right to decide the number of children they will bear and care for 
  • Women have the right to participate in community affairs and hold political office if they are elected freely and democratically 
  • Women and their children have the right to primary medical care 
  • Women have the right to education 
  • Women have the right to choose their spouses and not to be forced into marriage 
  • No woman may be hit or be physically abused either by relatives or strangers. Rape assaults and actual rapes will be severely punished 
  • Women may hold leadership positions in the organization and hold military rankings in the revolutionary armed forces 
  • Women have all the rights and obligations set by the revolutionary laws and obligations 

Zapatista women arrive for plenary session – photo by Tim Russo

In La Garrucha we joined over 3,000 people to listen, observe, and celebrate with these rebellious Tzetzal, Tzotzil, Chol, and Tojolabal Zapatista women. Dressed in the traditional colors, some 200 Zapatista women filed in and out of the auditorium in a rainbow of resistance for each of the 4 daily plenary sessions. 

Voices from different autonomous Zapatista regions offered testimony of their resistance. Representatives from the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Councils), education and health promoters, com- andantas of the EZLN, and support bases of young and old, told how Zapatista communities, and women in particular lived before the uprising and how they live now, how they resist the violence of the mal gobierno (bad government), and what their rights and responsibilities are within their movement. 

We traveled to the Encuentro in a caravan of some 150 people from Mexico City organized by Mujeres y La Sexta (www.mujeresylasexta. org). Most of us, like many of the other non-Zapatistas who participated in the Encuentro, were adherents to the Other Campaign, or its international component, the Sexta International. With the release of the Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle in June 2005, the Zapatistas initiated a national plan to unite struggles “from the left and from below.” A delegation of EZLN comandantes traveled across Mexico in 2006 in the first wave of this Other Campaign, to listen to the voices of those who struggle against capitalism and neoliberalism in all its forms and to create new political spaces. 

The days were filled with talk of the concrete measures Zapatista women and girls had taken to organize for self-determination, liberty, democracy, and justice in their own communities. Their voices were amplified by reflections of a collective experience. The lessons of the Other Campaign filtered through the plenaries like the fingers of sunlight through the wooden slats. They told us that in order to build a world in resistance, a world in which many worlds fit, we must listen and we must organize. As Comandanta Hortencia said, “To organize, we must identify why and for what.”

Companera representante in the caracol of La Garrucha on December 30th, 2007 – photo by Tessa Landreau-Grasmuck

The Zapatista women apologized for their Spanish, which is not their mother tongue, and for their lack of education. “Before, we did not know how to read and write, and now we have learned, and send our daughters to learn too.” The elder Zapatista women told of their experiences before the 1994 uprising. It was a dark time when women were sexually exploited by land owners, frequently mistreated by their husbands, and silenced by their communities. They told of how they organized clandestinely, wearing certain colored shirts or bracelets to notify each other about meetings that would be held quietly in the night far into the jungle. Since then, there have been many advances in Zapatista communities and women continue to take more positions of responsibility.

 The voices of Zapatista youth punctuated the plenaries with hope and solemnity. “Without the organization, I would not be alive,” said Marina, a well spoken 8-year-old girl. “I would’ve died of a curable disease.” 

Despite the advances made thus far, the compañeras know that there is still a long and difficult road ahead. In the past six months Zapatista communities have faced heightened military and paramilitary aggression. In the conversations held around tables at meal times, people spoke of the recent shift in tactics of governmental repression. Rumors and propaganda incited by paramilitary provocations between Zapatista and non-Zapatista indigenous communities were creating violence and conflict that allowed the paramilitary to appear blameless. National and international civil society whispered of the strategic retreat of the Zapatistas. 

“I’m calm in my struggle,” proclaimed Elisa, echoing words repeated often during the Encuentro; “There is no other path.” For those three days, men were given a decidedly secondary role. The com- andantas ran a tight ship in enforcing the rules posted on multiple signs throughout the gathering indicating that men were not allowed to represent or translate or sit inside the auditorium. Instead they were offered the tasks of cooking, childcare, cleaning the latrines, and hauling firewood.

Zapatista women listening during the encuentro – photo by Adolfo Lopez, Chiapas IndyMedia

The Zapatista women emphasized a dynamic relationship between rights and responsibilities. As young white feminists from the U.S., we joined many other second and third wave feminists who’d been taught that women’s liberation means equal rights, that it is a movement towards independence and self-determination. Our politics of feminism and solidarity were perhaps tested, seeing the women of this indigenous Zapatista movement declare their rights as integral to their collective responsibility for the well-being of their community. By having a women’s Encuentro they sought to have their voices heard and not spoken over or marginalized. But when questioned about whether this was the beginning of their own women’s movement and if they wanted to create more women-only spaces, they emphasized that the movement included their brothers, husbands, children, elders, everyone in the community. This appeared as something distinctly different from women’s liberation; more like collective liberation. Or better yet, Zapatismo. 

When asked what non-Zapatista communities could do to support their work, the Zapatista women replied “Organize yourselves.” On the final day, international women responded. Women from the Other Campaign, Via Campesina, and students also addressed the Zapatista women. Letters were read from political prisoners around the world. In the afternoon, Trinidad Ramirez, holding her machete high, spoke for the rebel farmworkers and political prisoners of Atenco. “We are not capable of abandoning our sisters,” she told the crowd, teary eyed with her testimony of trauma and unbreakable resistance. 

We watched this collective resistance from the top of our bus on New Years Eve. Midnight was met with silence to honor the fallen martyrs of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The comandancia climbed onto the stage and people took off their hats. Fog swept over the caracol as we sang the Zapatista Hymn and embraced strangers and friends. The dancing picked up again and lasted all night. As the sun came up on another year of struggle, we carried with us a tiny piece of our responsibility to build a better world: to go home and organize. 


Tessa Landreau-Grasmuck is a writer and activist from Philadelphia currently working on a children’s book about Mayan spirituality and struggle. Cory Fischer-Hoffman is an organizer with the Student Farmworker Alliance and is working on an MA degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Kansas. Kaya Weidman is a farmer and activist from Upstate New York. Mandy Skinner is on the board of ENGAGE, an organizing network for students.