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My Adventure in Zapatista Country

April 30, 2010

Alex Korsunsky, a sophomore majoring in sociology and anthropology with a concentration in Latin American studies, is from Salem, Oregon. He recently returned from a winter term off-campus studies program in Guatemala. This is the second in a series of essays about his experience.You can learn more about Carleton College's off-campus studies opportunities on its website.

Passing through the town of Huixtan on the road up to San Cristobal de las Casas from the jungle, we came upon a traffic jam. Traffic jams being something of an anomaly in rural Chiapas, the sudden stop surprised us, and we pulled over, spilled out of the van, and began asking around to figure out what was going on. The story emerged slowly, with many confused details, but it seemed that members of the autonomous community just down the road had decided to set up a roadblock. The Mexican authorities didn’t want to provoke the community by using force, and we were told that the roadblock was likely to end by five or six in the evening. We decided to wait. But our brief delay was quite lengthy: we sat by the side of the highway until nearly two in the morning. And so began our adventures in Zapatista country.

Although I liked to tell my friends at home that my Carleton off-campus program was taking me to visit a guerrilla army, the first few days in San Cristobal were enough to show me that the Zapatistas (technically the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) were not guerrillas in the way in which we usually think of guerrillas. While our meetings with EZLN supporters took place in rooms plastered with posters endorsing revolutionary causes around the world, and murals abounded with the infamous masked face of Subcomandante Marcos and other famous revolutionaries, the politics itself were surprisingly subtle, advocating self-determination, ethnic and gender equality, and freedom from economic and political exploitation. When they railed against neoliberalism and demanded radical change, they did so in reasoned and appealingly democratic terms. Meanwhile, whenever we went out on the streets of San Cristobal we found ourselves surrounded by people selling Zapatista key chains and posters, even t-shirts featuring Subcomandante Marcos. It seemed that, in addition to waging a revolution to defend the rights of poor and indigenous Mexicans, the EZLN was also doing its part to support Mexico’s tourism industry. Visiting what we came to describe as the “Zapatista outlet store,” or eating in restaurants with pictures of Che Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos on the placemats, it was sometimes difficult to see the Zapatistas as anything more serious than left-wing chic.

And so, in an effort to gain a perspective on the EZLN beyond the commercialized images of revolution in the tourist hub of San Cristobal, we paid a visit to the caracol of Morelia (one of the five administrative centers for the autonomous Zapatista regions). Visiting Morelia, we were told, would mean a four hour drive each way, with us making the trip in a single day and no guarantee that anyone there would be willing to meet with us. Nevertheless, everyone was eager to go.

Upon our arrival in Morelia, we were instructed that we would have to present copies of our passports to members of the autonomous government. We were ushered into a room, where we handed over our passports and were then instructed to state our names to a pair of men who would then determine whether anyone would be willing to meet with us. The men’s primary language was Tzotzil Maya, and, although we had not considered it before, we soon realized that our names were not going to be so easy for them to pronounce. Paulette, Blanchard, Korsunsky, Thronweber, Abadian-Heifetz – with each name, hopelessly forced into an impossible Spanish pronunciation, we smiled and tried not to laugh, warned in advance that laughter would be inappropriate. The men took a long time with our names, quite serious despite their obvious difficulty, and finally told us that we could wait outside until someone would be ready to meet with us.

And so we sat on the grass and waited. We had been given no indication of how long we would be there, only that they were was unwilling to rush and would see us only when they were ready and had finished their other work. We had arrived around noon, and by four or five in the afternoon we were beginning to worry that they wouldn’t see us at all. Word went around that we would have to leave before too long – although the Zapatista struggle has been mostly peaceful in recent years, the roads of rural Chiapas are still dangerous to drive at night, largely because of bandits who disguise themselves with the stereotypical EZLN ski masks.

Finally, just as we were approaching the point of returning to our vans, it was announced that they were ready to meet with us. The Zapatista ideology places a great emphasis on consensus, and on not acting without the accord of the entire group, and so rather than giving us a single speaker we would meet with the entire council. When we entered the council’s room, we were surprised at what we found – they looked nothing like the revolutionary junta we had imagined. No ski masks, no military fatigues, no weapons – just a dozen men and women dressed in street clothes. Even more of a surprise was that, when we asked them our first question – “What do you see as your main struggles as you carry forward into the future?” – the person who answered for them was not only a woman, but also clearly the youngest person on the council, probably no older than most of the students in our group.

The answers we received from the council were interesting and impressive, exactly what they were supposed to be. They were forceful, tolerant, and well-conceived. But far more important than the words – after all, we could have found the same speech in a book by a Zapatista supporter – was the way in which they were delivered. We asked about the future of the movement, about the challenges of the next generation – and instead of receiving the answer from a member of the older generation, we spoke to people who were themselves going to have to live the answers to their own questions. They answered us not only as lecturers, but also as peers and contemporaries, sharing their hopes for the future of the movement and also asking us to explain what we would do, what we believed our responsibilities to be.

Our interview was brief, no more than thirty minutes. We had to return to San Cristobal to avoid being out on the roads too late after dark. After only two questions, we returned to the vans and the second four-hour drive of the day. But nobody felt that the visit to the Morelia had been a waste of time. After having read and heard so much in the abstract – about the movement for indigenous rights, about the damage caused by neoliberalism, about the Zapatistas’ struggle – encountering people our own age whose realities were defined by and tied up in these conflicts allowed us to connect with the intensely human meaning of the subjects we were studying. 

Written by Alex Korsunsky '12