San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico—The end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of the EZLN (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and the 20th anniversary of the Jan. 1, 1994, rebellion, when the Zapatistas went public. The double celebration was part of a new moment in the Zapatista resistance and struggle for autonomy—the experience of the Zapatista Little School (la escuelita zapatista).
When has any social movement facing “bad government” on the federal, state and local levels, as well as continual threats from paramilitary groups, chosen to open their doors to thousands of social activists from Mexico and countries around the world to come and live with the Indigenous communities in resistance and learn about “Freedom according to the Zapatistas”?
Between 1,000 and 2,000 students (we, the social activists who had come to Chiapas to participate) traveled from San Cristobal to one of five regions of the Zapatista territories. I arrived at the Morelia region (Caricol 4) with several hundred others in a bus caravan. We were greeted by hundreds of Indigenous Zapatistas from dozens of communities. Each of us was met by a guardian who would be our individual tutor-teacher-companion for five days.
The next morning was a large assembly where more than a dozen Zapatista teachers explained the central concepts of autonomy for the Zapatista communities including: (1) Councils of Good Government (Juntas de Buen Gobierno) at the regional level as well as municipal and local governing bodies, all independent of the Mexican government. (2) Construction of an autonomous education system. (3) A healthcare system including centers in many of the communities and larger clinics, staffed with community members who had taken workshops on different aspects of healthcare. (4) The role of women who make up 50% of all the different commissions, from governing bodies to education and health commissions. There is an insistence on full participation of women in all the administrative work which the Zapatistas strive to implement. (5) Collective work on recuperated lands from the 1994 rebellion.
After the assembly came the heart and soul of the Little School, which was to experience the life and labor of the families in the community for three days. I lived in San Miguel, a Tzotzile community.
Although the Zapatistas have striven to implement equality of women in all administrative tasks, within the family there remains a strong sexual division of labor. In my family, the women were the first up, grinding corn, building the fire, and preparing the breakfast. They cared for the children while cleaning, collecting firewood, going for water, washing the cloths in a nearby stream, preparing lunch and later dinner.
With our guardians we had study sessions on “Freedom according to the Zapatistas”: two books on their autonomous form of government, one on the participation of women in the autonomous government, and one on autonomous resistance. These books were not written by intellectuals, Subcomandante Marcos or others. Rather, the experience and thought of members of the Indigenous Zapatista communities in resistance was recorded, transcribed and presented. (Books in Spanish can be found at: www.proyectoambulante.org/ index.php/noticias/nacionales/item/2612-cuadernos-del-curso-la-libertad-segun-l-s-zapatistas).
Discussing the book with my guardian was insightful. He has lived this autonomy and added his experience to the books. Living with a family and having a chance to listen to a father speak of conversations with his grandmother about the conditions of near slavery for the Indigenous 100 and more years ago, as well as stories of his own life when he grew up without access to schools, gave me a feeling of what it means to struggle and live in autonomy today in the Zapatista communities.
Three moments standout for me in my experience at the Little School: (1) The incredible self-organization and self-discipline of the Zapatista Indigenous to build and live in their communities, and to be able to carry out the Little Schools for thousands of participants. (2) The creativity in practice and thought of the communities recorded in the four books of the Little School—the voices from below in reflection. (3) What cannot so easily be expressed in words, but can be felt in one’s heart, is when the experience of Zapatistas constructing their “new world,” their freedom and dignity, is before all of one’s senses while living briefly in their communities.