We are in Mexico, in a village called Oventic, hidden between the mountains of Chiapas where it is protected by a dense forest and can only be reached by hours of driving on long, thin roads, up and down, curve after curve. Oventic is one of the five official caracoles of the Zapatista followers, otherwise called the EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional).
Tourists are not seen frequently here, the few visiting this place have a proper interest in getting to know the history of the rebel army, and the villagers protect their home by checking every tourist for intentions and passport. Our car is parked in front of the gates of the main area of Oventic, where we are being welcomed by a woman who’s mouth and nose are covered with a black scarf. This scarf is a symbol of the EZLN, rumors tell it represents the mistrust of the community against authorities and outsiders.
This mistrust dates back to the historic roots of the movement and is much about the ethnic identities the Zapatistas represent. As descendants of the Zapatista movement during the Mexican civil war and the fight against the regime in the seventies, the EZLN proclaimed their fight for autonomy with the Mexican national government in 1994, on the very same day the North American Free Trade Treaty (NAFTA) came into effect. Why was that date chosen? The ideological positions of the communities are quite clearly oriented in contraposition to neoliberalism by promoting libertarian socialism. But it is more then a leftist group inspired by Marxist ideology. The EZLN are standing up for the largest group of marginalized people in Mexico – the indigenous communities, representing more than 20% of the Mexican population, 13% of those alone in the state Chiapas.
Oventic is somewhat the capital of the community, its heart consists of a local school. The classes given there are mostly about agriculture in Mayan (indigenous) tradition, how to garment clothes, how to set a price that protects the community, the ideological-political fundament and the historic roots of the indigenous population and colonialism in Mexico. All comes under one roof: Economic empowerment by selling the agricultural goods produced in the region, such as coffee, beans and cacao. The aim of the production is to export the products independently of the Mexican government’s national rules, with a fair price system and the winning marge going directly into the communities and their development. The farmers are convinced, that the land is owned by the ones cultivating it, not by the ones aquiring the country with a deposit on the bank.
Our tour is guided by a masked young man who introduces us to the buildings among the road. Walking through the wide streets, we can read the slogans, engage with the craft stores and examine the local goods, such as garments, jewelry and coffee made in Mexico, Chiapas. We can buy the products, we can take pictures of the buildings, but it is prohibited to take pictures of the villagers, and many questions we have remain unanswered.
This sign marks the entrance of the village, and its message could not be clearer. It addresses the fact, that since colonialism, the marginalization of indigenous communities and the population living in the central areas of Chiapas continues to leave their scars on the population. Land grabbing has been a practice in Mexico, where companies and landowners take over land by using their monetary power, and the people living in those bought areas are enforced to leave and leave behind everything their ancestors and they themselves have worked for over their course of life. For the EZLN these practices are a direct effect of neoliberalism, which gave incentive to declare their own autonomous areas within the Mexican state.
A particular role within the communities is attached to women. Indigenouse feminism is a movement that has formed itself within the Zapatista communities. During the times when the Zapatistas were still a guerilla movement, they were the first to introduce the agenda of women’s rights and liberation of women on the forefront. Emancipation is the central concept for the EZLN, not only from the rules of capitalism, the national government and the patriarchy – but from the poverty they have been designated to by the system.
Some questions we have cannot be answered by the villagers of Oventic, and the historic walls of the schools and the murals depicting the ideological mindset of the Zapatistas leave just enough interpretation room to realize the differences of their education to those of mainstream schools. In the nearby town, San Cristóbal de las Casas, we find a university, who represents members of the ELZN and where a monthly periodical is published in the name of the group. The foreign economic issue that falls into my hands discusses the international politics Mexico should align with – criticizing cooperation within NAFTA, with the US and the European Union. China is supposed to be the liberator, the world power that would not interfere with the autonomy of the community. Considering the reality of Chinese expanding investments worldwide, it is a rather dark outlook. This also shows, that the ravine between the two ideological debates seems to be a never-ending story, where you can either be on the one side or the other.
Autonomy, that is the main desire of a community, who’s rights and economic development have been second ranked by the previous corrupt and elitist governments. The armed conflict in the 1990s and its after-events during the last 20 years have not shown the desired results, but change is in its way. In 2016, the group announced the first run of an indigenous candidate for the Mexican presidency, which is an official acknowledgment of the group and an attempt to gain political influence. The change, to fight for rights within the government by taking power and not parallelly by leaving power seems to grow ever since (interesting to catch up on the book by John Hollaway: How to change the world without taking the power).
Our visit to this small, somehow weird and somehow inspiring place is almost over. We have learned much about the communities’ reality, one that is hidden behind the vibrant life in the cities, far away from tourist attractions and industrial hot spots in Mexico.
But being hidden does not make you invisible. The Zapatistas’ ideological power and the values they stand for, liberation, autonomy, the fight against the system of neoliberalism and the longing desire to free themselves and find empowerment is as prominent as ever in Mexico. The symbols of the Zapatistas are widely spread among young Mexicans and the group receives much support from the intellectual and active youth. From this perspective, the rebellion of the communities against their political and economic oppression has only just began.