Saturday, May 16, 2009

On the Women of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional

Part One

On January 1st, 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect and a group of ski-masked indigenous peasants came out of the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico with guns and a mission. Calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatistas! Documents of the New Mexican Revolution), or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the group took over the largest city in the region, San Cristobal de las Casas, as well as other cities in the mountains of Chiapas. Mostly forgotten in mainstream media stories since that day, the band to take San Cristobal was led by an unlikely military leader, an indigenous woman named Ramona. In the proceeding days, a mestizo man named Marcos would come to the forefront of the ensuing coverage as the charismatic spokesperson of the Zapatistas to curious Western media, but the work of the women of the EZLN did not end there. In this paper I will examine the role(s) of women in this armed revolutionary group as well as the implications of the work being done for activists invested in similar work in the U.S.

I would like to begin with a bit of background, though the scope of this project does not allow me to go into great detail I do think it is worthwhile to somewhat contextualize the EZLN.[i] Josee Johnston has referred to the Zapatistas as “a paradox”, on the surface they could be any number of armed guerrilla groups from Latin or South America, yet when one begins to read their writings it becomes clear that this group is not what one would expect them to be at all. The EZLN is engaged in what Gramsci has called a “war of position” where “counter-hegemonic organizations” do not co-opt the existing power structure for themselves, but instead “form a new historic bloc and build up the social foundations of a new state” (Johnston 7). The Zapatistas call this strategy building society “from the bottom and the left”. Their ultimate working goal is not personal or organizational power, but a total revolution, one which does not result in even more repression (as is the history in Mexico (Johnston)), but in “long-term change at the level of individual consciousness, state institutions, material structures, and civil society” (Johnston 7). Put simply, the EZLN wants to change the way the world works.

While it may seem that this revolution happened suddenly, it is important to note that the Zapatistas were active long before New Years 1994. Major Ana Maria has stated in an interview that “we had spent years struggling peacefully, we held marches, we had meetings, we went to the municipal palaces and the Government Palace, and we went to Mexico [City] to the National Palace of Mexico to shout, to ask, to agitate in front of the government. They never paid attention to us” (Johnston 43). The signing of NAFTA was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back, a treaty which the Zapatistas were convinced would continue a pattern of exploitation of the poorest areas of Mexico (Chiapas being the most poor of all the states).

In addition, before beginning the larger project it is important to point out that while Subcomandante Marcos is commonly portrayed as the leader of the EZLN, a more accurate description of him is “a white [or mestizo], educated male with a keen and witty communicative style – [who] emerged in the site of translation and mediation to become this figure of central significance” (Belausteguigoitia 103). A dynamic and memorable speaker, his talent for staging performances[ii] came in handy when reporters started desiring interviews, and so Marcos became a “translator” for the EZLN. But, says Comandanta Esther, “Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos is [just] that, a Subcomandante. We are the Comandantes, those who lead jointly, the ones who govern our peoples, by obeying” (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen 16). There is no one charismatic leader; the EZLN favors group control through consensus whenever possible. Representative leadership is organized through councils, with six different Committees (one for each of the indigenous language groups). From there 11 representatives are chosen to represent their districts on the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee – General Command, and “the CCRI is charged with making all of the tactical decisions for the EZLN's political and military arms” (Capozza). And while Marcos is clearly an influential figure within the EZLN, he does not hold a position on any of these councils.

In contrast, the less popularly known Comandanta Ramona was not only the leader of the New Years Day uprising and a writer of the Women’s Revolutionary Law, but also a founding member of the CCRI-GC and a diplomat to the Mexican government during negotiations for the San Andres Accords. And all of this, while struggling with the liver cancer that would eventually take her life in 2006. It would be easy to assume that such a woman is an aberration, the exception to the rule, yet in the case of the EZLN that assumption would often (but certainly not always) be incorrect. Indeed, Ramona was not alone in such leadership. In fact, one of the rather unique features of the EZLN is that women have had a prominent role in leadership as well as support groups since the beginning of the movement: in 1999 over 1/3 of the EZLN itself was made up of women (Capozza), and in the support bases that number is much higher (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen 76).

[i] For a more thorough reading on the background of Mexico and the EZLN, see: “Pedagogical Guerrillas, Armed Democrats, and Revolutionary Counterpublics: Examining Paradox in the Zapatista Unprising in Chiapas Mexico.” Josee Johnston. Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Aug., 2000), pp. 463-505.

[ii] “He was originally the military advisor of the guerrillas, but very early in the uprising Marcos proved to have exceptional communication skills. He began to ‘stage’ press conferences masked and adorned with a pipe and Zapata-style banderola with bullets that don’t match the model of his weapon” (Belausteguigoitia 100).