Ok, ye, excuse the extreme deeeeelay. Here it is…part deux,
La Escuelita (The little School) (12-16th August 2013)
Watching people leave for the escuelita made me very sad and jealous as I really felt I’d missed up on a great chance which I don’t know if I’ll get again. Im not alone I heard, as some groups close to the Zapatistas also felt they should have been invited. The indications on their website were anything but clear as to how to be accepted. In the end many folks coming from abroad were given invites as well as many Mexicans as they wrote to the general email asking to be invited. I had presumed it would only be groups working closely with them so I counted myself out ( It was never officially said that you could ask to be invited). oh well. Now they’ve announced 2 more rounds of escuelitas but Ill be home at Xmas when they are taking place (get online quick if yer interested) . It’s a huge amount of work on the part of the Zapatistas and they only asked for donations from all participants to help cover costs. They seem to be planning the second level of the escuelita too…who knows, maybe next summer it might be my turn! 🙂
But the good thing about waiting a while to write this blog entry is that it gave me time to get over my great sense of disappointment and ask a friend if I could interview him to share in my blog a bit of his experience of the Escuelita. Figure I should include something in this entry on it! So here goes….
The Escuelita has definitely been a momentus event as much for the participants, and maybe even more for the Zapatistas. If I’m not mistaken, it’s probably been the first time in history that such a large autonomous group have opened their doors to share their learnings with the outside world in this way.
So, here’s the highlights of my friend’s experience during his time at the Escuelita (let’s call him Joe, as he said he’d rather not have his real name mentioned).
The trip there Joe said was pretty exhausting for most, as 4 out of the 5 caracoles are quite a few hours away, and between the loading up of the buses of a couple of hundred students to each one, and then forming convoys to travel together on the road, most folks arrived in the early hours of the morn after between 5-8 hours travel or more! Joe just wanted to collapse on whatever floor or bench and just sleep but they were greeted by quite an overwhelming site. As they entered, all the Zapatistas gathered there with their balaclavas on, clapped them all as they entered welcoming and congratulating them for having arrived. It was quite emotional he said, and felt very humbled wondering who was he to deserve such congratulations when it was they who had struggled for 20 years to have got this far. Either way, from here on in, he felt a strong sense of responsibility, to communicate afterwards the Zapatista learnings to the wider world.
After only a few hours sleep, class at the Zapatista Escuelita began. The format on day one he said, was in short lecture, whereby individual ‘compas’* gave them short talks on themes to do with the four printed books they were given which were called ” Autonomous Government I & II”, “Womens’ participation in Autonomous Goverment”, and “Autonomous Resistance”. Fighting back the sleep, Joe listened attentively as they explained the basics of how they organise their caracol structures with some priceless low-tech diagrams and maps held up by three Zapas while the speaker talked.
They had already been assigned personal tutors from the families with which they’d be staying for 3 days. They’d be working with their families in the morn with farmwork mostly, and reading, studying and conversing with their tutors in the afternoons. The last day they’d return to the caracol for some last talks, and take their buses back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
My friend Joe went to Caracol La Garrucha about 5 hours from San Cristóbal de las Casas, where he and I both live. But after reaching their autonomous government hub, all participants were then taken to their respective families the day after. Some were more than an hour or two away. All in all, a lot of travelling was done by participants giving a real sense of how rural some of these families and communities live!
And so things kicked off with Joe staying with a family and his very dedicated botán (tutor) who was determined to have him finish reading his 4 books in 3 days (!!), because he didn’t realise the students were able to take the books away at the end, so he was worried that Joe wouldn’t get all his studying done in time! Joe found the books were very self-critical and easy to read, though detailed on how progress has been made on the topics discussed, mentioning lots of trial and error examples on the Zapatistas’ path to autonomy. (I hope to nab them off him afterwards for a gawk!) They read and discussed many interesting topics during the 3 days, such as how the Zapas had developed their own organising and decision-making structures. The five caracoles (or regional organizational centres) can all independently make their own decisions, even though they have previously all decided certain basic guidelines together. The Zapatista communities are separate from their military wing (EZLN), but when the caracoles were formed in 2003, the communities themselves decided that the EZLN would no longer take military action unless the communities asked them to. In this way, they follow they own maximum rule of ‘ Aquí el pueblo manda y el gobierno obedece’ (Here the people govern and the government obeys).
The books also cover how they have lived their resistance and what this means in practical terms, how women’s rights have been progressing in their communities, and specific examples of projects such as how some caracoles have been working micro-credit systems called Banapaz, plus much more! (I hear they are in pdf form now but still in Spanish. Maybe soon they’ll get translated. Will post more when I find out more! )
Joe talked with his tutor a little about his personal experiences and how he found life after joining the Zapatistas. His tutor said that things were mightily improved even though he had to move far from his original community, to get some land to cultivate with his family. Originally it was his father who’d secretly started going to Zapatista meetings near his community since 1983. This was how the Zapas worked for quite some time right up to the uprising in 1994, because there was serious crack downs by the government at different stages and some key figures were killed over the years before the Zapas became known on the international stage.
Looking at their humble house and lifestyle, Joe wondered how bad things must have been beforehand as to him, things still looked incredibly basic and hard, but at least now, most Zapatista families have access to cultivate a lot of what they need, though when crops fail, supplies are short but everything is shared out as equally as possible between communities when others need it. Being autonomous means they don’t accept a penny from the government at any stage, although they do have some links with external groups for funding for specific programmes, such as health, education and communications development. In 2012, official reports still gauge that 50-60% of children suffer from malnutrition in Chiapas. It’s hard to get figures from Zapatistas to compare as they don’t really share out these figures much, but they claim to be faring better than the most marginalised indigenous communities.
This is where indirect means of wearing down Zapa communities has come into play. Sometimes Zapatista families live right next door to others in their communities which can cause direct conflict or sometimes they just try their best to keep out of each other’s way. But the Government has not missed an opportunity to accentuate these situations since 1996, the year in which the San Andrés Peace Accords were signed but never kept. There are ample cases of the government indirectly arming neighbouring communities (mini-paramilitary groups such as El Ejercito de Dios (The army of god) ) and pitching them against the Zapas to take lands off them to make it look like an internal conflict among indigenous folk (article on recent conflict here in Spanish). Yet as one Zapa at the CIDECI Escuelita talks, simply pointed out, why do these other indigenous groups always try to take lands off the Zapatistas while right next door, there might be massive fertile farms owned by rich landlords? It’s a bit suss to say the least! Another example is how Governments have chosen to very strategically distribute funds and particular government projects to areas that border with Zapa communities, thereby creating more visible inequalities giving to those that support them, and tempting many poor Zapatistas to take the easier short-term route of receiving financial support for their families to eat, for education or health. If a Zapa family decides to accept any sort of government funding, they automatically must leave they Zapatistas. Over the years, many indigenous folk have left the ranks of the Zapatistas probably finding it too hard to continue in such a long-term struggle, when they could get some immediate benefits for malnourished sick children. Many families have been divided in this way. Some may still keep some contact even if some have left the movement, but others may never see each other again. One Zapa girl I met once fell in love and married a non-Zapa and left the movement as indigenous tradition has it that she must go and live with his family (he didn’t want to join the Zapas obviously).
At the craic of dawn, the families and their guests were waking up to have some breakfast and head to do the farm work. From around 7am until 11am thei participants mucked in with whatever work was needed with their families. In terms of division of labour, it’s all still very traditional says Joe, with the men heading out to tend the fields of corn and beans mostly, while the women stay close to the house tending the chickens, rabbits, looking after the kids, collecting firewood and preparing the meals. Joe had never done farm-work before but enjoyed it quite a lot. I heard from some other participants that some found the work very strenous and city folk ain’t used to that level of sustainability as so to speak.
Their generosity also overwhelmed Joe and he mentioned how they’d sacrificed 2 cows in their honour to have a huge feast for all their visitors. All the participants were invited to the slaughter and they watched how 15 men skinned and sliced up the carcasses in 2 hours. All the participants were fed incredibly well with all local organic traditional produce, with freshly-made tortillas, vegetables and beans (their daily staples), and a delicious beef stew on the night of the feast held in their honour.
As Joe got to know his family over the 3 days he realised how proud they were with what they have achieved with their movement, and how much their struggle has given them a sense of dignity and a ownership over their own lives, cultures, and futures. And in the end, this has given them an incredible sense of self-belief, something so many indigenous people lack. He was even more amazed when his tutor thanked him for coming to learn about his struggle and said that if there was any way that he could help whatever struggles Joe might be involved with at home, he offered to do what he could. That sense of not being victims but very active players in their struggles and being equals to those visiting, spoke miles about the process of self-awareness that these generous-hearted Zapatistas have gone through to build their new worlds. These are their gems of inspiration that continue to give hope and courage, to help the rest of us break our own chains of fear and keep on fighting to create a myriad of alternative worlds for dignified living.
I have to say, the format of their mini-course was astoundingly novel whereby the emphasis is on living the experience to learn from it. There’s nothing like seeing and smelling a reality for it to sink in. I think most participants managed to take a little magic away in their hearts which they can treasure and find endless amounts of inspiration from. And if we could all imagine alternative forms of educating ourselves and our children outside the system? Oh the possibilities!!
And to the last piece….right after the 5 days of the Escuelita, all the students came back and there was 2 last days of a gathering in San Cristóbal….this is what I wrote during those 2 days…..
* short for ‘compadre’ which means friend but in this political context, it refers to a fellow political comrade.
“NUNCA MAS UN MEXICO SIN NOSOTR@S” (Never again a Mexico without us)
National Indigenous People’s Congress, CIDECI
It was great to be able to do a bit of interpreting and translating and feel useful a this event, as I haven’t really found any sort of proper niche here with my activism really. It’s all still weird and new,inspiring but terribly frustrating. I came with a set of ideas of what I wanted to be involved in, but mostly they haven’t worked for many reasons. I find I have to find new ways and listen more to what the movement needs here, as opposed to what I think I need. Interpreting isn’t my first love, but I really liked being able to share the passionate words of some of the speakers to a wider audience.
Apart from those who came to present their declarations representing their communities, most of those present there seemed to be more urbanites between 20 and 30. It was quite an eclectic mix to watch the merging of many worlds during these 2 days, with anarcho-punks selling homemade patches, pamphlets and stickers beside indigenous women selling their wonderful weaves.
The morning and afternoon was filled with short declarations from a vast array of indigenous communities across Mexico all resisting in different ways, sharing their situations in which all denounced the involvement of the corrupt government in giving away their ancestral lands at different stages during the years since the conquest started, to mostly foreign transnational companies that are displacing them to exploit their natural resources and leave their territories devastated from contamination. The sharing of their heartfelt stories is an important part of this gathering, for them to feel heard and share their plights with so many other indigenous groups, as well as the international public baring witness to take their words, their struggles further afield. I noticed mostly men spoke, but many women also represented their communities, and some young people. Many speakers spoke passionately and elevated their voices which sometimes got a little sore on the ears over the loudspeakers.
Many declared themselves as autonomous communities (apart from Zapatistas), starting to create their own education systems, feeling that state education goes against everything that their culture means to them. Some have even created their own community policing where government policing has completely failed to protect them from narco-traffickers or paramilitary groups, or worse still are in cahoots with them or discriminate or treat them bad directly. (more here ).
They talked about Canadian mining companies, national and international agri-business, huge hydroelectric dam projects. It’s the same story the world round. Many mentioned all the judicial proceedings that they have been involved in to try and gain legal rights over their ancestral lands, but none have had overall victories, and very few partial successes, where small fractions of their territories were given back to them. Many talked of how organised-crime is working hand-in-hand with the Government to undermine their resistance efforts, or very openly displace them, threaten them, are responsible for disappearances, the killing many of their comrades, making false accusations against their leaders to imprison them among other tactics.
One terribly dirty tactic mentioned by one group, that stuck in my mind was one used by the Mexican Government over the decades to pitch indigenous communities against neighbouring mestizo communities. In one case mentioned, the government spread misinformation to the communities saying that the indigenous communities who were fighting to preserve their lands against a mining company didn’t even want to let the mestizo farming communities have access to water or land. In this way, the Government got these mestizo farming communities to go against the indigenous struggle as they felt they were jeopardised and might be driven off their lands too by the indigenous.
What came through loud and clear in all of the testimonies is the absolute importance of the land to all these communities. Their ancestral lands, is their mother, Pachamama, Mother Earth, and to take that from them and destroy it is like sticking a knife in their hearts. It is their identity, their culture, their spirituality, their history, their community, their source of food, their shelter, their everything. There is no separation between them and the earth. This is a concept that we westerners, city-slickers, whiteys, gringos etc can accept at a logical level, but not an emotional or spiritual one. And that’s what we lack to truly make a leap towards creating new worlds. When these indigenous communities loose their lands, they know they have lost themselves, and that’s why they struggle so relentlessly.
I had been expecting some more reflective political analysis talks, with some famous speakers perhaps (I did get to salute Hugo Blanco, prominent Peruvian peasant leader, x-guerilla and all-round revolucionario 🙂 ), but it was more of a baring witness together to so many struggles all over Mexico, with a few other latino countries thrown in, namely Guatemala, Colombia and Perú. I did learn a lot about more struggles but it was hard to gauge what to do with so much more information in practical terms. I’m not an indymedia person who’s main aim is to spread the word. I want to know other things that I can personally do about these things; what actions I can personally take. But I didn’t get much of a feel for that, other than I still have more to learn and read. Mexico is so big too, that visiting most of these struggles is a feat in itself while working full-time, not to mention the dangers involved in some cases.
Sometimes all these endless terrible stories of injustice overwhelm me. I can’t keep up with all the latest terrible details. It’s good to reflect, to understand more, but then to do something with that knowledge. I’ve never been a passive political-theorist-type! So far now, this blog entry is one active step, but I need more. Some personal-life decisions, but I need group organisation for action which I still lack here. I’ve found it hard to be part of some group here for various reasons (will try write more on that soon to help me think too!). Gotta keep trying. I’ll let ye all know how that pans out for me.
All in all though, it was good to be able to live some moments with the Zapatistas this August. They put so much work into organising things. I could probably write more, but I’d never publish this month-late article already, but if you’ve any questions or want more detail on something in particular, just shout and I’ll get on to it if I can. (or let us know if I’ve missed some terrible mistakes/errors etc….tired now finishing this up! , g’night!)
You can find another interesting article in english on these Zapatista events here.