From Cleveland to Chiapas and Back Again


preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 23, 2007

My message this morning is that it is possible to build a better world, a world decidedly more fair than the one we live in today. In such a world no one will go without food, without shelter, without education and each community will be able to decide how to best meet its own needs. This may sound like a utopian dream but today we have the technology to make such a dream a reality. I know that such a world is possible because I have seen the seeds of it amid the indigenous communities of Chiapas and among the communities I am a part of in the United States.

Our reading this morning comes from Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, the primary spokesperson of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation. Marcos speaks of building such a world. He writes: “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live…This world was not a dream from the past, it was not something that came to us from our ancestors. It came from ahead, from the next step we were going to take.”

The Zapatista National Army of Liberation, usually just know as the Zapatistas or the EZLN, their initials in Spanish, are the armed part of a broader social movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Located in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, the Zapatistas have openly struggled for indigenous rights, autonomy and the possibility of a better world for the last thirteen years. Despite their name, the Zapatistas are primarily a non-violent movement. They have only taken up arms once and that was in January of 1994. Since then, despite being frequently attacked by paramilitaries and harassed by the Mexican military, federal and state police, they have not fired a shot.

The Zapatistas took up arms on January first of 1994 against the Mexican government for two reasons. The first was that January first was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA, took effect. The Zapatistas viewed NAFTA as a virtually death sentence for their rural communities. NAFTA included provisions in it that essentially outlawed the collective ownership of land, a practice of the indigenous of Mexico since before the arrival of the Spaniards. Without the collective ownership of land the Zapatistas feared that much of indigenous campesino culture would disappear.

The Zapatistas also objected to NAFTA because it placed small Mexican farmers in direct competition with the large agricultural combines of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and the other states that make up the corn belt. Corn is the base of the Mexican diet and the Zapatistas were afraid that the small farmers from their communities would simply be unable to compete with the cheap corn from the United States that would flood the Mexican market in the wake of NAFTA.

The second reason why the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 was that at time Mexico had been governed by one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, for sixty five years. For all intents and purposes Mexico was not a democratic country, it was a one party dictatorship, and the PRI did not practice democracy internally. Every six years presidential elections were held. The PRI always won them and the outgoing President always nominated his successor.

Rural Mexico is, in general, an impoverished place, more than half of rural Mexicans live in poverty, that is they live on less than two dollars a day, and the indigenous communities of Chiapas were among the poorest of the poor. In some parts of the state the poverty rate exceeds eighty percent. For the Zapatistas NAFTA was the final straw. They felt it was better to die on their feet than to starve to death silently in their communities.

The Zapatista uprising lasted a scant twelve days. They were able to seize control of about one third of the state of Chiapas but by January 12th the Mexican military was poised to go into the jungle and massacre the indigenous communities that supported the Zapatistas. At that point Mexican civil society, that is to say people like you and me, staged massive protests throughout Mexico demanding that the government and the Zapatistas solve their conflict peacefully. In the face of this the Mexican military was forced to back down. That left the Zapatistas in control of a small swatch of liberated territory, an area of which they have set up about implementing their vision of a better world.

I began working in Chiapas in the summer of 2000 when I took at two week trip there with the organization Schools for Chiapas to help build a school in one of the Zapatista autonomous communities. While in Chiapas I met my friend Roxanne Ukahri Rivas and in the fall of 2001 we started an organization originally called the Chiapas Peace House Project. Now called CASA or Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Acción, an acronym that roughly translates to collectives for solidarity and action, the Peace House was started to provide a physical space for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas to come, reflect and work with either indigenous communities or the social movements and non-governmental organizations that supported them. In the six years since we started CASA we have opened two centers, one in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca, and have hosted more than seventy long-term volunteers. Our volunteers have worked on everything from training indigenous campesinos to be human rights observers to mural painting and collective gardening projects.

In the eight summers since I started working in Chiapas I have had the privilege to watch the Zapatista movement’s vision for a new society unfold. My first trip to Chiapas was at the end of what I affectionately call “the bad old days.” 2000 was the last year that the PRI were in power. Since the cease-fire in 1994 the Mexican government has been conducting a low-intensity war against the Zapatista communities. Another way to describe low-intensity warfare is to call it civilian targeted warfare. In this counter-insurgency model the government gives arms and immunity to paramilitaries who attack indigenous communities. At the same time military and police units encircle the communities under threat. This allows the government to claim that it is not involved in the conflict, that the conflict is between different social organizations, while at the same time slowly starving the Zapatista communities of the resources that they need to thrive.

Prior to the ouster of the PRI, part of the Mexican government’s strategy was to harass, detain and deport internationals who came to Chiapas to either act as human rights observers or to offer the Zapatistas aid. I call that period the bad old days because back then if you wanted to visit the Zapatista communities you had to engage in complicated cloak and dagger operations, dodge military road blocks and generally operate under cover. If you did not it was possible that you would find yourself on a plane headed back to your home country with an order never to return to Mexico.

Today the situation in Chiapas remains largely the same. There is one important difference. The Mexican government has stopped harassing solidarity activists and human rights workers. Government officials came to the conclusion that the conflict in Chiapas and the Zapatista movement received a lot less attention if they simply ignored the presence of internationals. After the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 the deportations of internationals ceased. For us then the bad old days are those before Fox’s party, the National Action Party or PAN, took power. The Mexican government now tries to claim that really there is no conflict in Chiapas. But for the people of Chiapas the situation was not changed much. In fact it has probably gotten worse. The number of documented human rights abuses in Mexico have increased since the PAN took power.

When I went to Chiapas in 2000 I visited two Zapatista communities. The first was Oventik. An hour outside of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Oventik is probably the most visited of the Zapatista communities. Back in 2000 it often served as a launching point for other journeys into Zapatista territory. We spent two days there speaking with Zapatistas from the community and waiting to travel to the community of Francisco Gomez.

The journey from Oventik to Francisco Gomez took eight hours. We left in the middle of the night and traveled under tarps in the back of cattle trucks. It was one of the more intense experiences of my life. We had to try and circumvent at least three military roadblocks to get to Francisco Gomez. We were stopped at the last roadblock outside of Francisco Gomez. My heart sank and I know that most of the other people I was with were worried as well. We were pretty certain that we going to get deported or, at the very least, turned back. Instead the soldiers let us through.

Years later, talking with a Mexican friend, I found out why. Apparently she and the driver had told the soldiers that they were polleros, which is a Spanish slang word for human traffickers, and that we were undocumented migrants. Given that at least half of our delegation were white gringos like myself I have no idea why the soldiers believed my friend. Regardless, we were allowed to continue our journey.

In 2000 Francisco Gomez was a tiny little community. It had a population of maybe two hundred. The only way to get to the community was via a rough dirt road that bisected the hamlet. Like Oventik, Francisco Gomez is also an important Zapatista center. Both are what are now called Carcoles, which means shell in Spanish. Carcoles act as regional seats for the Zapatista autonomous government. Each Carcole coordinates the activities of approximately two hundred communities. Today most Carcoles have their own clinics, schools, meeting centers, cooperative stores and administrative offices. When I visited Francisco Gomez in 2000 the community was just in the process of building its school. We were there, in fact, to help them build that school. We brought with us a willing volunteer force and, more importantly, enough money to buy all of the concrete that was needed.

We spent two weeks in Francisco Gomez working along side and learning about the Zapatistas. We had a chance to watch them make decisions collectively. In their communities a general assembly of, depending on the community, all men or men and women is the policy setting agent. The general assembly elects leaders to enact the policies while the general assembly decides them. These leaders can be recalled if they overstep their authority, are unpaid, and usually only serve for a very limited term.

When I was in Francisco Gomez it seemed that the Zapatista experiment in autonomy was just starting. The communities still had much to do if they were to reach their stated goal of creating a different sort of society. Their infrastructure was still fairly rudimentary. A lot has changed in the following eight years.

This summer I had the opportunity to take my family to Chiapas with me. We went to Chiapas for two reasons. The first was that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had contracted with me and CASA to run a human rights delegation for them. The second was that I wanted Sara and Emma to have a chance to learn about the Zapatista movement first hand.

We arrived about a week and a half before the start of the delegation to attend the Second Encounter of Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World. About three thousand people from across Mexico and from around the world attended this meeting. The Zapatistas sometimes refer to their big meetings as intergalacticos because they hold that people will attend from as far away as outside the solar system. This summer’s intergalatico lasted ten days and consisted primarily of speeches by representatives of Zapatista communities and other progressive, usually rural, communities from around the world followed by a question and answer session. There were also ample opportunities for both formal and informal networking. It was an exercise in listening, achance to hear the voices of others from all across the globe. The Zapatistas want a world in which there is room for all cultures and peoples of the world. Their events usually attempt to bring somewhat disparate groups together to make common cause.

This year’s intergalatico was a opportunity for the Zapatistas to highlight the accomplishments of their movement over the last thirteen years. Discussions were held on such topics as the Zapatista government, education, health care, economic and justice systems. Representatives from some Zapatista communities also spoke about women’s rights and women’s struggles in the indigenous communities and the relationship between Zapatista communities and international solidarity activists.

During the ten days of the intergalatico the Zapatistas held meetings at the Caracoles of Oventik, Morelia and La Realidad–there are five Caracoles in total. La Realidad is in the heart of Zapatista territory and while all of the Carcoles are supposedly equal, La Realidad is clearly more equal than the others. It is larger and is the place where much of the Zapatista military leadership spends its time.

Sara, Emma, Asa and I arrived in Chiapas in time to participate in the second half of the Intergalatico. That meant that we missed the meetings in Oventik and travelled instead directly to Morelia. It was a three-hour trip in the back of old VW micro buses and pick-ups. When we were in pick-up trucks Sara and the kids got to ride in the cabin.

Travelling with a family was a very different experience for me. While there was far less of a chance of deportation than there was eight years ago, it was still challenging. Sara and I had to make certain that the kids had their needs taken care of at all times and I choose to do things differently than I would have had I been by myself. We brought a tent and went to bed early rather than staying up late to take part in the festivities–the Zapatistas love a good party and their events always feature a lot of dancing, art and, usually, a basketball tournament. I was unable to participate as much in the meetings as I had in the past.

On the other hand, bringing my family allowed for interactions on a different level than I had experienced in the past. Asa took on an almost celebrity status. He was probably the only white baby that a lot of the Zapatistas had ever seen. They were fascinated by him. Women lined up to hold him and Sara and I got to speak with them about their parenting practices. Babies, it seems, transcend all cultures.

The biggest challenge about traveling with my family was simply the travel itself. The trip from Morelia to La Realidad was not an easy one. We went as part of a caravan of intergalatico attendees. There were twenty one trucks in our caravan and each truck carried between twenty five and thirty people. For the most part the trucks were cattle trucks and most of us had to travel in the truck bed. Sara, Emma and Asa were given a seat in the cabin but there was not space for me.

The trip took fifteen hours, nineteen if you count the four hours we spent waiting in the sun for the caravan to get organized. The last eight hours of our journey were along windy dirt mountain roads long after the sun had set.

While it was a hard journey it was not all bad. We made friends with our fellow travelers and I got to learn a bunch of radical songs from across Latin America. I traded civil rights and labor movement songs for poetry and music from Mexican and Spanish social movements.

When we got to La Realidad we had the chance to learn more about the Zapatista autonomous communities. Of particular interest were the discourses on women’s rights and the Zapatista justice system. The Zapatistas have always had a good line on women’s rights. Unfortunately, it has often seemed like there was dissidence between their word and their actions. Prior to this trip I have rarely seen women in leadership positions within the communities. I believe this has been largely because of the traditional roles of women in indigenous communities.

This dynamic seems to have shifted. At the intergalatico women acted as spokespeople for their communities and were visibly part of the highest levels of the Zapatista government. It was a powerful change to witness.

The discourse on the justice system was also interesting because the communities had tried to really implement a form restorative justice. One story I heard about the justice system in La Realidad is about Coyote, a human trafficker who people from Latin America pay to help them sneak into the United States. It seems that people from La Realidad caught him in their territory. When they caught him he had a large number of migrants locked in the back of semi. He was smuggling them North so they could cross into the United States. When the Zapatistas caught them they been had been without food or water for some time. The Zapatistas gave the migrants a good talking to, fed them, and told them that it would be better if they went back to their own communities than if they tried to come to the United States. Many people die in the journey North and once they get to the United States there is no guarantee that they will find themselves in a good situation. The Zapatistas made Coyote refund the migrants their money, levied him an additional fine and sentenced him to a couple of years of community service. I am told he considered himself lucky that he was caught by the Zapatistas and not the Mexican government.

Now I realize that I am speaking very highly of the Zapatistas. It is true that I have a lot of respect for them and believe that the autonomous communities offer an important lesson to how the world might be different. I have learned through working with them that it is possible to build a different world. To have hope for a better world in this day is a powerful thing to have.

However, I do not mean to come off totally uncritical of the Zapatistas. Their role among the social movements in Chiapas and Mexico is complicated. In the last thirteen years they have both worked with and alienated many organizations I am sympathetic to and people that I am friends with. Their communities are far from perfect and they have the same human flaws as all of us. In some communities they have a long way to go before their discourse on women’s rights matches their practice. Nonetheless, their experience suggests that we can build a better, fairer world.

Sara, Emma, Asa and I returned to our new home in Cleveland Heights about two weeks before I started my ministry with you. Since then I have been trying to think about how my experiences in Chiapas apply to my work with you here. There are a couple of things that seem clear.

The most important is simply that the Zapatista dream of a better world can be a powerful inspiration. It is possible to catch glimpses of this dream now and again. The essence of Zapatismo is collective work, the practice that people work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals. I saw members from this congregation engaging in this type of mutual aid yesterday when many of you gathered to help an older member of the community scrape and paint his garage and tidy his yard so he could try to sell his home.

The second is that there are some interesting parallels between Chiapas and North Eastern Ohio. Both areas are suffering heavily due to shifts in the economy. Rural Chiapas is in crisis to due to the changes in trade that NAFTA has brought. Likewise, Northeastern Ohio is in the midst of deindustrialization as manufacturing jobs leave the area as a result of changes in technology and the availability of cheaper labor elsewhere. As a result, both areas are experiencing significant out migration as it becomes more and more difficult for some people to support themselves. Sometimes when I am out walking the dog or biking around town, I will see three or four homes for a sale on a single block. And just as Chiapas is one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Cleveland is one of the poorest areas in the United States.

Now I am not suggesting that we organize a revolution. However, I do think that the key to transforming our community is organizing and seeking new solutions to old problems. If we can find our own dreams of what is ahead perhaps together we can, one step at time, stretch to reach them. Our dreams might teach us how our society can be different and how we can build a more peaceable world, one in which there is room for many others.

May it be so. Amen and Blessed Be.

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