Friday, February 8, 2013

Oventic and Zapatista Art

Women in rebellion.
In Chiapas, the Zapatistas have resurged. My friend Arnulfo managed, accidentally, to be part of the occupation of Ocosingo on Dec 21, the last day of the Mayan 5000 year calendar. During the first decade of the 21st century, the Zapatistas have kept a very low profile. Kinoki and Casa del Pan are two San Cristobal restaurants with impromptu movie theaters. You can see documentaries and outright propaganda films on a variety of subjects including the 900 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. I've seen several documentaries on the Zapatistas and the mass slaughter in the town of Acteal by government sponsored paramilitary soldiers. I've also talked with people who work at a Zapatista-friendly restaurant called Tierra Adentro. One waiter was actually present during that attack when he lost several of his family members.

From this background, I can understand the reticence of the indigenous people in Chiapas to trust anyone who might have ties to the Mexican government, or with the US government since it tends to back the Mexican government. And as we all know, every issue is vastly more complex than can be easily understood by an outsider, or insiders for that matter.

The Zapatistas were a military, violent, overthrowing kind of group in the beginning, back in 1994 when they took over several cities in Chiapas. But they have much more effective tools than guns these days. Now they use art and video cameras to expose the Mexican government. If tanks or troops show up, everyone dons a mask and the women, with babies in their rebozos confront the soldiers directly. Men climb trees or buildings and using video cameras record the scene from many angles. No one carries a weapon.

The government has, predictably, responded to the Zapatistas by increasing its military presence and by building a major new highway to encircle the Lacondon jungle. Personally, I'm rather grateful for that road. It allows tourists much easier access to the ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and has increased tourism for the Lacondon people, about 600 of whom survive to this day with their old language and customs intact. But it also allows fast response by the military into the Lacondon jungle from the fancy new bases built within the last decade near all the cities the Zapatistas had occupied.

Apparently, the sheer number of people who quietly showed up on Dec. 21st in those occupied towns took the government by surprise, which also indicates how poor their spy network must be. Over 100,000 people marched in those peaceful demonstrations, and the government never saw it coming.

A couple of days ago, Arnulfo asked me to go with him, his visiting brother (a doctor from Germany) and the doctor's friend Josef to Oventic, a Zapatista village high in the mountains northwest of San Cristobal. Unfortunately his brother got a stomach virus and couldn't go with us. We opted to take a taxi. One way, the trip is 120 pesos, or $10 US.  The trip is an hour each way, which made that $10 quite a bargain.

The incredibly rough country where the Zapatista community
of Oventik is located. 

Arnulfo had been told that we needed to bring our passports and other ID or we wouldn't be permitted into the compound. When we arrived, a man with a ski mask sat in the shade of a guard station on the other side of a locked metal gate. It was clear after a few minutes that Spanish was not his first language, and maybe not a language he could speak much at all. After a while a group of men, varying in age from early twenties to sixties showed up at the gate, all of them masked, and with great difficulty, took our names, the numbers on our passports, and wrote down the answers we gave to their various questions like what we did for a living. Then they walked off down the hill and entered a building on the left side of the muddy dirt road. After a while they all came out again, and drifted into a building on the right.

Meanwhile, I spotted a man I knew from San Cristobal inside the compound with a couple of American tourists. I called him over to the gate. Cuatemoc teaches Spanish to the people of Oventik several days a week, and explained that the group of men were the Zapatista governing committee. They were deciding whether or not to let us in. Eventually they did allow us inside, and we were given what I thought was a guide. She was more of a chaperone. She wore a bandana across her nose that covered the lower part of her face. Almost everyone else wore a full face ski mask or a bandana. This young lady spoke so softly I could barely hear her. After a while, it became evident that she didn't intend to, or couldn't, tell us anything about the Zapatistas or the village. She was just there to keep us on the straight and narrow road that led down the hill to the school where a group of men were working. We weren't allowed to photograph a person but could take pictures of the buildings. They had a clinic, but we weren't allowed to go inside, or talk to anyone. The whole trip felt like a waste.

The three of us walked down the paved road to the next little village, maybe a kilometer away, got some drinks at the only store, and waited for a combi to drive by. After about an hour we hailed the first empty cab and went back to San Cristobal.

Later, I saw Cuatemoc on the street in San Cristobal. He explained that our lack of welcome was because we'd showed up on a weekday when school was in session. If we were to come back on a weekend, we would be able to go everywhere, into all the buildings, and people who speak better Spanish would explain things to us.


Emiliano Zapata, extraordinary revolutionary.

Maize is sacred to the Mayans,
and equally sacred to the Zapatistas,
each kernel represents an individual
in this painting on a door.

Equality is very important to the Zapatistas,
women enjoy political and economic equality with men

The caracol, or snail is the analogy for the Zapatista
political structure, starting in the middle with truth
and winding its way out. 

With health, education and peace,
another world is possible.


The Zapatistas believe in living IN nature,
not manipulating it.

A big part of Mayan religion is
Madre Tierra, the Earth Mother.