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 do not come here frequently, the few visiting this place has a proper interest in getting to know the history of the rebel army, and the villagers protect their home by checking every tourist for their intentions and passport. We park our car in front of the gates of the main area of Oventic, where a woman welcomes us, whose 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.
The ELZN and the NAFTA agreement
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 than a leftist group inspired by Marxist ideology. The EZLN is standing up for the largest group of marginalized people in Mexico. The indigenous communities represent more than 20% of the Mexican population, 13% of those alone in the state Chiapas.
The village of Oventic
Oventic is the capital of the community and its heart consists of a local school. The classes 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: They wish for 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 and with a fair price system. The winning marge goes directly into building the communities and improving development. The farmers are convinced that the land is owned by the ones cultivating it, not by the ones acquiring land with a deposit on the bank.
Our tour is guided by a masked, young man who introduces us to the buildings on 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 we are not allowed to take pictures of the villagers, and many questions we have remain unanswered.
Mexican history and the scars of colonialism
This sign marks the entrance of the village, its message could not be clearer. Since colonial times, the marginalization of indigenous communities and the population living in the central areas of Chiapas has left deep scars on the population there. Land grabbing has become a common practice in Mexico, companies and landowners buy massive amounts of land. The people living in those 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. As an act of resistance, they started to declare their own autonomous areas within the Mexican state.
The ideology of the Zapatistas
Women gain a particular role within the communities. What we define as indigenous feminism is a movement that has formed itself within the Zapatista. 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, in their eyes, 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 ours. In the nearby town, San Cristóbal de las Casas, we find a university, in which a monthly periodical is published in the name of the Zapatistas. The foreign economic issue that falls into my hands discusses the international politics Mexico should align with. It criticizes the 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 and the consequences of resource extractivist in Latin America, it is a rather dark outlook. The ravine between the two ideological debates of capitalism and communism, even if both contemporary economic systems are neither fully one nor the other, seems to be a never-ending story. Apparently, you can either be on one side or the other.
The Mexican state and political influence
Autonomy is the main desire of a community, whose 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, did not show the desired results. However, change is ahead. In 2016, the group announced the first running of an indigenous candidate for the Mexican presidency. It is an official acknowledgment of the group and an attempt to gain political influence. Their fight for rights within the government by taking power and not by building loopholes of power within the state seems to grow ever since.
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 are liberations, autonomy, the fight against the system of neoliberalism. It represents the longing desire to free oneself and 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 politically active youth. From this perspective, the rebellion of the communities against their political and economic oppression has only just begun.