By Nat Krieger
Editor’s Note: SDFP Contributor Nat Krieger is currently traveling in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.
What is human dignity, and where can it be found? There seem to be as many answers as there are questions. Bob Dylan had a “fat man lookin’ in a blade of steal, thin man lookin’ at his last meal…for dignity.” In a 1998 communique the Zapatistas asserted that:
“Dignity is that nation without nationality, that rainbow that is also a bridge, that murmur of the heart no matter what blood lives in it, that rebel irreverence that mocks borders, customs, and wars.”
Wandering with a Zapatista guide around the rain lashed EZLN caracole of Oventic you see almost immediately that you’re in a place dedicated to building human dignity, a zone of soft spoken autonomy and rebellion unlike anywhere this reporter has ever been.
Caracoles (snails) — that’s what the Zapatistas call the five autonomous zones they’ve carved out in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. They chose the snail as their symbol for its patience and endurance: “slow but strong.”
One-third of the entire Mexican army is now stationed in Chiapas with two new bases planted near either side of Oventic. Truckloads of Mexican soldiers, assault rifles at the ready, in brand new green fatigues and American helmets are a common site on the roads. Yet the two men guarding the entrance to what has been called the unofficial Zapatista capital are unarmed, nor is anyone seen carrying weapons within the caracole.
Although there was no one available to speak with, seeing the school buildings, workshops, and clinics, even if only from the outside, confirmed the EZLN’s gutsy and unprecedented gamble. Though the Zapatistas reserve the right to defend their autonomous zones with force, what started as a guerrilla movement has turned away from the armed struggle; in the words of a 2014 communique:
“…rather than dedicating ourselves to training guerillas, soldiers, and squadrons, we developed education and health promoters, who went about building the foundations of autonomy that today amaze the world.”
The Zapatistas have even endorsed a candidate in this year’s presidential election, a first for the group. Nominated by the Indigenous National Congress, Marichuy is a 57-year-old Nahua traditional healer and the first indigenous woman to ever run for Mexico’s highest office. The Indigenous National Congress represents many different First Peoples from all over Mexico.
“One world enough to hold many worlds.”
In huge contrast to previous movements of the Left, the Zapatisas have embraced diversity and listening rather than commanding. They have married this approach to rigorous self-discipline — there’s no alcohol or drugs of any kind allowed inside the caracoles. In their outreach to local communities, the message of personal development is a constant: transformation must start voluntarily, within each one of us.
The Zapatista model, forged in a furnace far more searing than most of us face in the U.S., can now show 24 years of steady, snail-like progress. As the resistance in the U.S. seeks a more unified way forward there is a model in the mountains of Chiapas, with an extensive online presence, waiting to be explored.
Read more about Nat Krieger’s travels in Mexico: