A First Encounter with the Zapatistas
“Easily the Best Thing I Have Done in Two Years of Living in Mexico”
By Anna Gurney
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
September 1, 2005
In some ways arriving at the fourth meeting of the Sexta is similar to arriving at the Glastonbury festival. This sounds ridiculous considering we are actually deep in Chiapas, in a village where the people speak Tzeltal and some live in mud huts, but, as with all festivals in England, there is a wait to get in, a trudge through the mud to find a sleeping spot, people lounging around with guitars, and makeshift tarpaulin stalls. Obviously at this meeting, however, the people are not here to get wasted (there is no alcohol or drug use on Zapatista lands); this is a chance for NGO’s, cooperatives and minority groups to share information and tell the Zapatistas of their different ideas and suggestions.
This meeting is my first encounter with the EZLN – I’m not a reporter or member of any organization, just a sympathetic and curious British citizen teaching math in Mexico City – and the spectacle is amazing. They emerge from the jungle with their masks and uniforms and the crowd looks on. Obviously the main part of their show is Marcos, and wow, I am impressed. He doesn’t look fat to me, he looks great; younger and fitter than I expected, and yes, I’m a girl and I can’t help swooning a little. The mask is a great idea though, he’ll be looking good for a while if you can’t see hair (receding?), forehead (wrinkled?) or teeth (yellow?). It’s just the eyes. Throughout the whole meeting he looks awake and alert (doing better than a few of the unarmed insurgents in the front row). He makes notes, and he ignores the cameras. How he manages to ignore them I don’t know; at the side there is such a crush to get photos of him that the insurgent sitting on the end of the front row is buried by people leaning over him flashing away. Then the girls from the village make their way forward, giggling, to take a peek. It’s great; the shared obsession with this guy is uniting people, the indigenous with the city folk with the foreigners!
I’m not inspired very often, but I’m feeling it from Marcos this weekend. I made the effort to drive for two hours through potholes to get here, but I was drawn by the hype. He came here with proper motives and has stuck by everything he said, sure he pushes his image (the pipe!) and plays on the fame, but at the end of the day it is just a tactic that works to further the cause.
Enough already with the ranting about Marcos, and to be fair there was another male insurgent (who knows his name?) who was doing just as good a job of staying awake and taking notes. I have mentioned the staying awake thing twice now so I should just explain that these people were sitting listening to speaker after speaker in a hot tent, in ski masks for up to six hours at a time without moving from their benches. That’s tough.
The meeting began with a list of all 150ish organizations that were going to speak. That’s a long list. Many speeches offer support to the EZLN (and nothing to the government) and other organizations talk about vague plans such as promoting art and murals, increasing respect for gays and lesbians and punks, and caring for the plants and the animals and the water. There is definitely more idealism than practical suggestions, although I’ll be interested to see if they do manage to stop the Walmart in Patzcuaro.
At 3am, after many speakers, two breaks, some minor microphone problems, a game of bingo and a sing along, they announced we were finished for the day. On Sunday the meeting finally ended late in the afternoon, just before the first rainstorm of the weekend. I was hoping to hear an endnote explaining exactly what the EZLN were going to do with all the information, but by that time I guess the objective was to get to the car/van/pick-up and get out before the road out became a river.
I have been in Mexico two years and this weekend was easily the best thing I have done here; it was a Zapatista show, a visit to a beautiful place and a chance to hang out with good people who are animated about the good things they are doing. For me there were two real high points. Firstly, the moment where I had most fun was at 2am on Sunday morning when MC Loco performed. Picture the scene, this guy is in a field on a misty night in the Chiapas jungle. He is rapping for a group of EZLN comandantes who are sitting behind a table in a wooden shed wearing ski masks. We, the audience, are standing up on benches made from tree trunks with our hands in the air as instructed. It was fantastic…and Marcos loved it too, he even applauded. For me the experience was heightened by the fact that I was watching it all with an UNAM political science student who had some radical ideas. He was the first (and last) person this weekend to ask me whether I was prepared to pick up arms and fight for the EZLN. He seemed genuinely disappointed when I said probably not.
The other highlight was watching the commotion each time Marcos left the building. The women from the village rushed round to the back door to link hands and form two human chains. In this way they provided a clear path for Marcos, and a human wall, protecting him from the rampant photographers. It was great to see how excited the local girls were about doing this job; they were wearing their best dresses, and applying lipstick while they waited in position for him to emerge. As he left the building the crowd came alive. If you ventured in amongst the people, to try and get close, you didn’t even need to walk, you were just swept along in a sea of cameras.
When he calmly walked through the fence and left the crowd behind you could just see the backs of him and the other armed and uniformed Zapatistas as they walked off, further and further, into the trees. It is such a powerful image, with their masks, hats, and guns, there they go, disappearing into the jungle. As soon as they are out of sight they are gone, and everyone wants to know where, but no one does.
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