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Mary Ellen Sanger
Zapatistas

ME:
"Have you heard of the Zapatistas?"
HE:
"um, yeah -- they have something to do with shoes, right?"
ME:
"GONG! Try again - "Marcos" - Do you know who Subcomandante Marcos is?"
HE:
"The shoes again! She's the one who collected all those shoes, right?"

It is easy to be isolated by the chasms of a widening world that back us further and further into our own "safe" corners. There's so much going on in our world -- we can't possibly soak it all in. We tag names onto zones so that they are labeled and vaguely recognizable, but often we don't really know where Middle East, Far East, Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, South Pacific, South Pole, Central Asia, and Midwest begin and end. Somewhere out there.

The news has to be more quirky, interactive, entertaining or shocking than regular TV programming to even be noticed - and between "Survivor" and "The Sopranos" that's a tall order. And rushing about as we do, who has time to read more than the most boldface headlines, the winners on the sports page and two or three favorite comic strips? Even with the internet, the cyber-world is too wide, so we focus on those things we can process with our existing knowledge, places with names we can pronounce, and topics that don't challenge us too much because our own lives have their share of challenges. And there's nothing we can DO about the news anyway...

And how true is the news, now that we're talking about it? Is the Wall Street Journal truth? CNN? NPR? The Schenectady Gazette? Most doctors suggest choosing from the five main food groups for a balanced nutrition - but who has time to read/hear/surf/watch from a list of varied news sources? It's a full time job to adequately keep abreast of the subtleties of today's news.

I had not been reading the news for about ten years - a Harvard doctor advised that a life free of news-negativity might be best for overall health, most especially for the heart. And after ten years of newslessness, I had a great gaping hole in my knowledge of world events, but little doubt about the positive state of my overall health, most especially my heart. Then in my safe corner of Mexico, I found I was dodging consistent news of explosions large and small that landed on my front steps and started to rattle my door on its hinges. Chiapas. I had previous knowledge of her charms from a trip to San Cristobal some years ago, and I could pronounce most of her major cities fairly well. Something intense was going on there now.

Like unseen mosquitos buzzing around my ear in the dark of night, the themes of marginalization, militarization, globalization and polarization were starting to poke holes into the security of my daily life. I started reading post-Seattle literature on NAFTA, WTO, FTAA, PPP, IMF, WB, and EZLN. I had all the letters from A to Z. Then in 2001 the Zapatour - the March of the People the Color of the Earth - the March for Indigenous Dignity -- serpentined through Mexico passing through Oaxaca, and landed in the capital with a flurry of accompaniment and a ringing of voices. ¡Viva Mexico! And the jungles of Chiapas shouted, too - though the struggle is not for Chiapas. It is for dignity and against forgetting - for all of Mexico. A Mexico I live in, have been a part of, and a Mexico whose struggles I had ignored.


"La Realidad" (Reality) is the Zapatista command base tacked onto the ruffled shawl of dense jungle that drapes over Southeastern Chiapas. Accessible only after struggling with 10 hours of mud "road" from Las Margaritas (on the back of a transport truck with no seats), the community had no electricity and no running water, but had a little school full of well-used books from classic literature to geography, and a small health clinic that tried to keep up with the specific demands of a marginalized population. I arrived at sundown. The Zapatista welcoming committee received me warmly and led me past rough wood buildings adorned with vivid murals of Emiliano Zapata, El Ché, El Sup, and Zapatista women painted with wide, daring eyes. "Let's all make the rights of women a custom!" That first night I had only time enough to hang my hammock in a small cabin with a dirt floor, and find the latrine 100 paces away through a flickering curtain of fireflies. The moon was hidden underneath clouds that hung low around mountains whose mineral presence was magnetizing, even in the dark.

Early the next morning the schoolteacher arranged the children on the basketball "court" (read: space) just outside my cabin. Still half into my dream of red chickens and sneezing pigs, through the cracks in my door I could hear the teacher explaining to the children that someone had been coming under the cover of night to uproot the tiny fruit trees that the community had planted. Someone didn't want them to prosper. Someone didn't understand the rules of live and let live. Or someone needed fruit trees more than they did. But the community planned to continue setting out more fruit trees. It was not the first time they had met with opposition. "Children, if we believe what we do to be right, at least we will be at peace with ourselves. I hope those who are taking the trees really, really need them." He advised that they would be watching for the tree-snatchers at night, hoping to catch them and ask them to replant the trees they had taken. One little boy supported the teacher in a brave, if small voice: "I can't wait to eat a juicy plum from our own trees!" For one week I was an observer in this reality where uprooted justice is met with vigilance and hope. The Army surrounds La Realidad at a stone's throw, but the message of the village is painted in bright colors that chant strong, guided, peaceful resistance. The women bathe in the river and sing. They gather water in the morning and chat, holding children close. The autonomous schools have their own curriculum to make up for the lacks they perceive in traditional governmental education. They teach children the importance of the land and the importance of honest and dignified communication, to reach toward personal and group creativity, and offer them a rich historical worldview that does not paint "conquest" in pleasant hues of progress. A future with dignity is possible, they say. Old Anselmo brings us bananas and corn, and as his earth-colored fingers grab onto a stub of saved cigarette, he wheezes out stories of life and death and hunger and plenitude. I observe timid children who bloom when drawing pictures of their happy lives, with masked heroes in the background. I observe a hidden corner of the world that gives face and breath and weight to a popular democratic movement that strains to add its voice to the noise of a larger world run amok for the lopsided power of the free market. Reality.

The children do not draw guns in their pictures. Their masked figures are named and friendly. The Zapatista movement that came out of hiding in the jungles of Chiapas and rose up in arms on January 1, 1994 has been non-violent since January 12, 1994. Their cause is participatory democracy, recognition of the multiplicity of ethnic resources in Mexico, and dignity for all. Their children do not draw enemies or uprooted trees. They draw rays of the sun, clouds, lots of dogs and mules, and happy faces. They are vigilant, yes. As they are hopeful. La Realidad was then, a community without electric light but with a penetrating light of hope. They have since installed a large generator that should illuminate their homes at night. They expect that their children will continue to generate the hope they need to add brighter light to their future.
In La Realidad I bathed in a small whirlpool of cool, refreshing water, surrounded by giant ferns and tree roots.

It was quiet, quiet, but the rushing water was deafening. You might want to peek in on Chiapas and Mexico, now that you know them a little bit. They may seem quiet, quiet at times, but listen for their roar for recognition - it, too, is deafening. And as refreshing and right as cool water tripping over ancient roots.

"There is a story that when Michelangelo sculpted his statue of David, he had to work on a secondhand piece of marble that was already full of holes. It is a mark of his talent that he was able to create a remarkable figure that took account of those limitations. The world we want to transform has already been worked on by history and is largely hollow. We must nevertheless be inventive enough to change it and build a new world."
"Take care and do not forget that ideas are also weapons."
(Subcomandante Marcos)
© Mary Ellen Sanger
mesanger@hotmail.com

author bio:
Mary Ellen has lived in Mexico for the past 16 years, working through tourism to promote understanding of the country she has adopted. Since dropping out of tourism two years ago and dropping into rural Oaxaca, she promotes Mexico now through freelance writing and translating.
La Realidad

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