Riding from Ocosingo to La Garrucha I found myself crowded onto the back of a tightly packed truck along with about 15 indigenous campesinos and Elena, a nun who was acting as my escort. Several of the younger men straddled the side of the truck as we flew over the winding dirt road at a pace I have never seen outside of Mexico. The ride was friendly as one of the men shared 3 six packs of beer with the other men (women never drink, I gathered). Finally arriving at our destination, Elena and I shouted "!Baja!" at the driver and disembarked.
La Garrucha is a small town, too small to appear on any of the tourist maps. Some 300 people live here, perhaps 70 families, all of them Mayan. There is not a single store in La Garrucha, and I think it might be the first time in my life I've been in a populated area where there are no advertisements for Coke or Pepsi ("Free at last!" I think to myself). As we got off the truck a bevy of 3 to 8 yr. old boys rushed to greet us, excited by the presence of visitors. Elena helped organize the chaos. "Help him carry that. Isn't that too heavy for you?" "No, it's not heavy," answered one boy, obviously straining a bit with the load.
La Garrucha is situated more or less in the middle of the state of Chiapas, a few days hike away from the Guatemalan border. The surrounding mountains are densely covered with an abundance of plant types--pines coexist with palm trees and a variety of deciduous types. A nearby stream passes between rolling hills while larger mountain ranges loom in the distance. In the mornings thick clouds rise from the hills, leaving the jungle partially eclipsed behind numerous screens of well-defined gray. It is beautiful, to say the least.
This is Zapatista country--not the Lacondan rainforest where Subcomandante Marcos and his army bides its time during peace talks with the government, but the rural countryside where the indigenous people who support the Zapatista rebellion live. In this community almost all of the families support the Zapatistas. The few families who don't (there are five) fly white flags over their houses and live a little separate from the rest of the community. They do not take part in any community activities, even withholding their children from school and avoiding previously attended church masses. They sell beer and soft drinks and corn tortillas to the soldiers at the nearby La Garrucha army base for very high prices--they receive a peso for every tortilla, while standard prices run a peso per kilo, about 30 tortillas. No one talks with them.
Escorted by 20 or so boys, Elena and I approach the simple concrete complex which will be my home for the next 10 days. "!Buenas tardes!" she shouts, "Did the soldiers come today?"
"No," responds Renaldo, another one of the workers in this church-sponsored peace encampment, "none came today." I find out later that two days before three soldiers--one armed with a pistol, the other two with radio equipment--walked through the community and even onto private church property. They claimed to be on a friendly visit, and even proposed a basketball game between the army base and the community, but they refused to leave and took a lot of notes. There was some speculation that they had hoped to provoke some sort of incident which would then justify bringing in the rest of the soldiers--all of whom were undoubtedly on alert. The soldiers left after about an hour, but not until provoking quite a bit of fear on the part of the community. "The men are meeting right now to discuss the situation," Renaldo tells us.
This group of Mayan-Mexicans makes all of their decisions in collectively held meetings (men only). All can talk, but then majority rules. This indigenous tradition goes back centuries, perhaps (among the peasantry at least) even before the Conquest. This is the governing body which controls Marcos' army, the EZLN. This is the civilian base which chooses Comandantes who then negotiate with the government and give orders to Subcomandante Marcos. I had never heard of a guerrilla movement which was actually controlled by a democratic structure (except maybe in pre-Franco Spain), but here it was, and they were having a meeting right over there, on the other side of the encampment. It turns out to be a fairly common occurrence. The encampment isn't really much to look at, but even so it serves as something of a village center. There is a building made of concrete whose two rooms serve as a school, a second building with an open area (used for meetings) and another room we use for sleeping, a kitchen with a roof made of thatched leaves, and a basketball court which is in almost constant use. None of the other buildings in La Garrucha are made of concrete, all of them are simple huts with thatched roofs, the same as our kitchen. At times one sees smoke slowly seeping through the dried palm ceilings as the women inside use their wood stoves to cook.
I meet the other three people who I will be living with for the next ten days. Renaldo is a former philosophy professor who now works in the Mexican parliament for a liberal deputy. Juanita, or Juan as we usually call her, is an indigenous activist from another state in Mexico. Patricia, with a job as a graphic designer, has the only non-political byline. Although the peace encampment is sponsored by the Catholic church, none of them are Catholic. All of them have come here in an effort to protect the people of La Garrucha from the abuse of the Mexican army, the idea being that if someone from "the outside" is around the army will have to tread more lightly. Failing this, at least the press can be notified.
As an "international" my presence has an even higher profile, and I've been sent to La Garrucha specifically because of the fear raised here by recent events. About a week before the "friendly" intrusion into the community and onto peace encampment land, the army decided to detain and question a member of the community. The army base is actually located on community lands, directly between the village and their communal lands, and subsequently the men have to walk around the military base in order to work their fields. This day for some reason the army decided to stop one of the men. "You're a Zapatista, aren't you?" "No," responded the man. "Don't lie to us! We know you're Zapatista! Who's your community representative?" After about an hour of such questioning, they let the man go. The townspeople are very afraid of the army, and a rumor floats through the village that an army commander threatened to attack La Garrucha during the questioning, though when I talk with the man himself he denies ever having said this. The townspeople are particularly on edge right now because a third round of peace talks is about to begin between the government and the EZLN, and there is a great deal of concern (to put it lightly) as to what will happen if the talks break off.
The next day I begin what becomes a usual routine. While Renaldo and Patricia spend their time in the classroom, Juan and I deal with the consumptive aspects of our stay--preparing food, boiling water, etc. Actually I believe we spend most of our time simply tending to the fire in the wood burning stove. The walls to our kitchen are only three feet tall--being built as a way to keep the pigs out--and therefore offer no protection from the wind. Our fire seems especially sensitive to every shifting breeze. Still, the open view allows one to look out over the village and beyond toward the distant mountains. The beautiful palm-roofed huts nestle together in little clusters of about five houses, each group closely surrounded by a wooden fence. Within fence boundaries, each "yard" is well packed with corn, thus furnishing each set of houses a field of lush green life to rest within. Corn is the main crop grown by the villagers, both around their houses and on the community land, and they sell the unused portion to get whatever small amounts of actual cash they might receive. The village owns a few pigs and chickens and cattle, but beyond that they must rely upon the prices they're able to get for corn.
Juan and I have the afternoons free, and we usually go bathe in a nearby stream used by the villagers for the same purpose. On any given day, anywhere from two to eight children might decide to accompany us, and so the little rivulet rapidly becomes a site of screaming and splashing and mayhem. While I tend to focus on water fights, Juan spends her time engaged in teaching the littler ones how to swim. She holds their arms up out of the water and pulls them along a bit while giving them instructions. "Kick! That's it! Keep kicking!" Seeing the wild, face-bursting smile on 4-year-old Veronica's face as she moved through the water was worth my entire trip to Chiapas. Despite the fun, I was a bit nervous. Cholera had broken out recently in Chiapas, and most of the rivers were reportedly contaminated--another sign of the extreme poverty and suffering existing in the state.
On a different day I have another type of adventure at the swimming area. There is a second government encampment in La Garrucha, this one consisting of a tent and two men working for the government Commission on Human Rights. I run into the two of them one day when I went to the river. Renaldo, Juan and Patricia had already explained to me that these people were not to be trusted--in the past the Commission had issued reports stating that the army had committed no human rights violations whatsoever in Chiapas, despite ample testimony from survivors of torture, sexual torture/rape, and even the aerial bombardment of entire villages. Perhaps even more maliciously, many people doing peace or development work in Chiapas--their names being noted by the Human Rights Commission--have been severely harassed upon returning to their usual lives. People have had their phone lines tapped, they have received threatening phone calls--at home and at work--making reference to Chiapas, and some people have even been beaten up.
When I meet these two government workers they are as amiable and talkative as can be. First we talk about the weather, and how cold the stream is. Then they ask about my work, or rather they specifically ask if I am a lawyer or a journalist. They ask about which group I am with and how long I plan to be in La Garrucha. They even "jokingly" ask if I brought my ski-mask along to go join the Zapatistas. After checking me out as much as they can, they suddenly change the topic and (I think in an effort to further win my friendship) begin to talk about Michael Jackson and Madonna. They tell me that both MJ and Madonna are homosexuals (clearly a bad thing in their minds), that what Michael did to all those children was a terrible thing, and that both he and Madonna are ugly. As I am leaving they quickly add that the soldiers are "muy buena honda" ("way cool") and that I can come over to visit the Human Rights camp anytime. By the end of the interview I agree with the assessment of my companeros: "Son policia" ("They're police").
The last time there was direct fighting between the government and the EZLN, in February, the people of La Garrucha fled their town. The men went up into the mountains for a month while the women took the children to a nearby Red Cross outpost. The army went through the village and destroyed whatever they could. They burned clothes, killed livestock, and dumped out most of the community's grain. For some reason, they didn't wreck the water supply, as they did in other areas. Somehow none of the abuses that happened in La Garrucha ended up in the government human rights commission's report ("muy buena honda" indeed).
In some ways the people of La Garrucha have been lucky to face only the "stick" end of government counterinsurgency tactics. In other areas the government has initiated an aggressive program of essentially buying off the population through Centros de Accion Social (CAS). CAS offices give out food, supplies and credit throughout the state of Chiapas, but only to those groups which support the government. A number of peasant organizations, even those which were previously independent or openly supported the EZLN, have traded their freedom for fertilizer and in this way become members of government unions. A member of the independent State Democratic Assembly of the Chiapan People (Aedepch) is quoted in one of the daily papers as saying "We can't compete like this. We're losing our base. They give out material to build houses, money and farming supplies. We hold demonstrations and sit-ins" (La Jornada, June 16). In some areas about half of the population has become pro-government. Relations between those who opt for the government and those who favor the Zapatistas are extremely polarized. The two groups attend different church services and even schools have been forced to offer separate classes. Many worry about the possibility of violence between the two civilian groups, and the consequences if the army should then decide to "keep the peace" (in other words, to attack the pro-Zapatista side). Perhaps because of its small size, La Garrucha has no CAS office. The relative unity within the community provides a strong base to resist the intimidating tactics of the army.
The slow pace of daily village life masks the degree of tension which exists within the town. Every morning the men go off to work in the fields or cut wood while the women cook or go to the local water hole to fill a few buckets with water. In the afternoons the men play basketball or soccer while the women continue to work. There are long periods of time when nothing much at all seems to be happening. Army observation planes fly overhead four or five times a day, but the soldiers must get awfully bored. I read a lot and write letters to my friends. If I'm lucky the boys come interrupt my writing and pester me. They love to sing Zapatista songs (they know three, and repeat them often) and scribble "EZLN" wherever they can. Even if they can't really write, they can all scrawl out a shaky "EZLN." My favorite thing to do in La Garrucha is to play with these young boys. We kick a ball around, get involved in tickle matches (me against everyone), and roll over each other like logs.
The girls are much shyer and more difficult to engage. Even in the classroom Renaldo and Patricia note how difficult it is to get the girls to talk. While the boys go around shouting "!Yo! !Yo! !Yo!" ("Me! Me! Me!"), the girls generally stay together in a group and remain quiet. It is disconcerting to see gender roles so staunchly fixed at such a young age. One night the boys find a large toad and show it to me and Patricia. They begin to push at it with their feet in order to make it jump. Their nudges rapidly become more violent, and Patricia and I decide to rescue the toad before the boys kill it. We grab the toad and place it on the other side of a fence, much to the boys disappointment and apparent incomprehension. During the day they enjoy throwing rocks and mudclumps at the local pigs and dogs.
The EZLN, for its part, has clearly recognized the need to utilize the full talents of everyone in their revolutionary endeavor. Women occupy top positions within the civilian Zapatista hierarchy and command in the army as well. The EZLN consistently speaks out in favor of the full participation of women in community affairs, but as far as I can tell nothing like this has happened in La Garrucha. I watch as the men listen to a radio announcement by Comandante Ramona speaking about the struggle of women, but their faces remain impassive, showing neither pleasure nor displeasure. Nevertheless, I know that women like Comandante Ramona have come from towns like La Garrucha, that the feminism evinced by the EZLN is just as "indigenous" as the more conservative roles I witness here.
A few days into the third round of peace talks between the government and the EZLN, a Zapatista representative comes by to consult with the townspeople. In response to the social crisis which afflicts the people of Chiapas, in response to the poverty, the lack of schooling and medical care which the people of Chiapas confront, the government has suggested putting a number of state-run stores throughout the state. The men meet to discuss this proposal. They are worried. They feel that the government does not take the peace process seriously. They fear that the government wants war. The only social program in the area has been for road improvement, and the army uses a lot of trucks. Despite their fear, the men tell the EZLN representative to reject the proposal. Though they are desperate for peace, the survival of their community demands that they take more than a few risks.
Seen from the perspective of La Garrucha, the reasons for the Zapatista uprising become easy to understand. Beyond the fight against poverty and economic injustice, the Zapatistas are struggling to preserve an entire way of life. Throughout the countryside of Southern Mexico (and in many other areas as well) indigenous people have maintained a century-old system of cooperative economics and participatory democracy. Even in the face of extreme poverty, created through both historical conquest and modern big-business capitalism, the people hope to defend a form of community which is dear to them. The alternative, taking one's chances in the city, spells certain cultural suicide.
According to the EZLN, NAFTA is a "death sentence for indigenous people" because there is simply no way towns like La Garrucha, already on the brink of economic ruin, can survive the increased pressure from large-scale international competitors. Even within Mexico, indigenous people face a number of threats from "modernization," especially the recent change to Article 27 of the Mexican constitution. Article 27 had been a key pillar upholding campesino rights, recognizing the communal status of many indigenous lands and prohibiting private ownership of these lands. When former president Carlos Salinas rewrote Article 27, he mandated private ownership, thus permitting newly created private landowners, already under economic duress, to sell their lands to large-scale landowners and multi-national corporations. The people of La Garrucha, and in other parts of Chiapas, have decided that they do not wish to see their lives sold away a plot at a time.
My last evening in La Garrucha, by chance, coincides with a big town celebration: the Festival of San Antonio. Things are a bit easier in the village because a fourth round of peace talks has been scheduled to begin on July 4th. Although no settlement has been reached, things are likely to remain peaceful, at least for a while. To commemorate San Antonio the women gather outside of the church and wait. They carry silk flowers of fluorescent hues which somehow compliment the bright colors on their floral print dresses. The men appear from somewhere in the village and head toward the church, accompanied by a drum and a flute which play what I suspect to be an extremely old tune. Meeting, the two groups walk in a large circle three times before entering the church. Later there is a party with dancing, sugar cookies and coffee. Mostly the women dance with each other while the men merely watch, though as the evening gets going a few unmarried bachelors ask prospective partners to dance as well. A couple of children at the edge of the dance area move their bodies in uncertain patterns to the rhythm of the music. There is a brilliant canopy of stars shining above and La Garrucha seems happy, but I can't help wondering about the people in the neighboring army camp. Sometimes I think that people reject left-wing arguments because they refuse to believe in the existence of institutionalized cruelty. It makes perfect sense to me: lots of things become justifiable when someone is trying to kill you, and for some young guy in the Mexican army that's all the Zapatistas are--people who want soldiers dead. I wish those young men could be here at this party. I wish they could watch these children trying to dance. I wish they could eat a few of those cookies.
To participate as an international observer in Chiapas, contact the Centro de Derechos Humanos Frey Bartoleme de las Casas. They can be reached simply by going to the central cathedral of San Cristobal or by calling (967) 8-35-48. To send money to the people of La Garrucha, send checks and money orders to Gerardo Gonzalas Sigueroa, Chiapa de Corso #19, Barrio El Cerrillo, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, 29209, Mexico. Make all amounts payable to CONPAZ and specify that the money is to be forwarded to the community of La Garrucha.
Text copyright © Kerwyn Brook 1995
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