MEXICO CITY -- When rebel martyr Emiliano Zapata and his ragtag campesino army marched into Mexico City in December 1914, at the apogee of the Mexican Revolution, the denizens of this capital were not crazy to greet him. Big, black newspaper headlines decried the smoldering-eyed Indian leader as an Attila and his peasant troops as Huns, and it was rumored that the Zapatistas were coming to eat small children. Panic buying emptied storehouse shelves, and decent families locked up their daughters, slammed closed the shutters and threw the dead bolt.
Actually, the first Zapatistas proved to be a bunch of country bumpkins, the highlight of whose invasion was to slurp hot chocolate at an elegant restaurant, now part of the Sanborns chain.
Mexico City was in a more hospitable mood to receive the hijos (children) of Zapata last Sunday, when two dozen comandantes of the largely Maya Indian Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which declared war against the Mexican government seven years and three presidents ago, were welcomed to the capital by a wildly cheering, hugely diverse throng. Zapatas struggle continues! and No estan solos! (You are not alone!), chanted jubilant supporters as the rebels rolled up from the south of the city on a flatbed truck to the great central plaza of the Zocalo. No estan solos!
The Zocalo crowd, an estimated 100,000 enthusiastic onlookers, was presidential-size -- about the numbers that the three major political parties drum out for the closing rallies of their presidential candidates. But, like their namesake, Zapata, who once turned down the presidency to go home to his village and farm, the insurgents charismatic spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, denies that the EZLN has any political aspirations. Speaking on a stage set before the National Palace, the federal governments official address, the Subcomandante insisted, We do not come to impose our word. We speak for no one except ourselves -- we are only one voice among many.
Accompanied by representatives of many of Mexicos 57 Indian nations, international supporters (their Italian security guards, known as the White Monkeys, and famous French global-phobe Jose Bove, among others), and tens of thousands of ski-masked young people (ski-mask sales have boomed since the EZLN recaptured front pages), the rebels three-hour-long ramble through the city to the Zocalo, the political heart of the nation, was the culmination of a 15-day, 3,000-kilometer odyssey from the jungles of Chiapas that packed public plazas all along a route that took the Mayas through the heavily Indian landscape of southern and central Mexico.
We who are the color of this earth have come to take our rightful place as Mexican citizens the Subcomandante pronounced in a poetry-laced keynote address, as an enormous red, white and green Mexican flag unfurled over the filled plaza and the pungent fumes from braziers of copal incense scented the gentle afternoon breeze.
In a tribute to their namesake, the marchers, in the last miles of their neo-Zapatista trek to the capital, followed the trail of revolutionary idol Zapata, with stops at his birthplace of Anenecuilco in Morelos state, where they were warmly welcomed by the elderly son and daughter of the first Zapata, and the Chinameca hacienda where he was gunned down by the Mexican army in 1919, a fratricidal act that many consider to have ended the near-decade-long revolution.
There were bumps along the neo-Zapatistas route. Some aging veterans of Zapatas struggle for land and liberty, such as 100-year-old Emetario Pantaleon, were suspicious that the Chiapas-based rebels had come to steal the glory of our general. A gathering at Zapatas tomb had to be called off when a man with a gun was spotted in the crowd.
We follow the road of history, but we are not going to repeat its mistakes, Marcos told supporters as the Zapatista comandantes were hustled off to a bulletproof bus.
Nervousness about the EZLN leaders safety has been pervasive since their caravan set off from San Cristobal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands last February 25. A bus accident in Queretaro, a central state whose governor had declared that the Zapatistas should be executed for treason, triggered fears of an assassination attempt, much as befell the first Zapata at Chinameca.
As had the troops of Zapata back in 1914, the ski-masked rebels holed up in the deeply Indian suburbs of Milpa Alta and Xochimilco before descending into the maw of the megalopolis.
As the EZLN drew closer to the center of political power in Mexico, its challenges to freshman President Vicente Fox sharpened. Fox, the nations first president elected from the ranks of the right-wing opposition in seven decades, is attacked by Marcos as a man with a long tongue who listens little. The president, a master at political marketing, kept up a steady drum roll of optimistic banter as the Indian rebels approached Mexico City, even inviting Subcomandante Marcos to hobnob at Los Piños, the Mexican White House. Nonetheless, the EZLN march through the city stole so much media attention from the president that Fox was forced to call off a celebration of his first 100 days in office.