War Against Oblivion

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 Sanborn’s 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. ”Zapata‘s 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 government‘s 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 Mexico’s 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 Zapata‘s 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 Zapata’s 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 nation’s 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.


Never losing the thread of history, Marcos and the comandantes compare Fox to Francisco Madero, the president who betrayed the first Zapata by neglecting to return the stolen village lands for which he fought. Like Madero, who took power from dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1911 to ignite the Mexican Revolution, Fox is a wealthy rancher who claims to have brought democracy to Mexico.

At the recent Zocalo rally, however, the historical battle lines got a bit blurred. The EZLN, in its declaration issued January 1, 1994, announced that it would soon take the capital of the country, ”overwhelming the federal army on its way,“ but in the Zocalo it was as much protected by that army, federal police and rooftop sharpshooters as it was by the so-called ”civil society,“ a broad-based amalgam of Mexican citizens who stand outside the political parties and have often marched at the Zapatistas‘ side over the past seven years of their rebellion.

As might be anticipated, the insurgents’ arrival upset Mexico City‘s elite. ”They are coming to stir up the poor classes -- who knows what can happen? I’m telling my family to stay inside,“ worried 90-year-old tycoon Juan Sanchez Navarro, who made his fortune selling Corona beer to North Americans and is considered ”the ideologue of the impresarios.“

With 20 million inhabitants, the greater Mexico City area is the most populous urban swatch on the planet, and one of the poorest. It is also the most Indian city in the Americas, with a concentration of a million-plus indigenous people living in and around the capital, who work at menial jobs and suffer the brunt of big-city racism. Their presence provides the EZLN with the ready-made constituency the rebels need to pressure the Mexican Congress into passing a long-awaited, landmark Indian-rights law.

The measure, which would grant Mexico‘s nearly 60 distinct indigenous peoples limited political, judicial and cultural autonomy, was sent on to Congress by Vicente Fox soon after his December 1 inauguration, after years of being bottled up by ex-President Ernesto Zedillo, whose own representatives had signed off on the Indian-rights accord in 1996.

The EZLN, along with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which represents most of the Indian nations, has vowed to camp out in Mexico City until the law achieves constitutional status.

It may be a long stay.

Even if the Indians carry out their threat to surround and lay siege to the monumental edifice that houses Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, it is doubtful that the legislature will approve the rights bill in the next session of Congress, beginning March 15 -- at least in a form acceptable to the EZLN. Indeed, leaders of both Fox‘s National Action Party, or PAN, and the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which roughly split the Chamber and the Senate, have thus far refused even to grant the ski-masked rebels an audience. Because the Indian-rights bill contains constitutional amendments that require a two-thirds majority, the measure seems doomed to go down in flames without substantial PAN-PRI support.

The defeat of the Indian-rights law is sure to pique the Zapatistas and their allies -- at the CNI’s third congress, last week in the western mountains of Michoacan state, several thousand Indian representatives voted to declare their nations autonomous should the rights bill be rejected by the federal government.

Defeat of the Indian-rights law will also damage Fox, who has staked his political credibility on achieving peace in Chiapas. A declaration of ”autonomy from below“ by militant Indians in the absence of congressional approbation, could also broaden the band of brushfire conflicts between Mexico‘s approximately 10 million underclass Indians and the Fox administration for the next six years the new president occupies Los Piños.

After weeks of dusty, colorful, history-drenched passage through Mexico, the roadsides lined with chanting supporters, on a journey that ran the emotional gamut from festive to poignant, the next chapter of the Zapatistas’ self-declared ”war against oblivion“ will be played out by men in suits in the dim, brown corridors of Congress, where Indian rights will inevitably become a political football to be bartered for such items as fiscal reform, and upcoming governors‘ races in Yucatan and Tabasco states.

One likely scenario: Backroom deals between the PAN, the PRI and the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) will so alter the Indian-rights law that the Zapatistas will no longer recognize it.


Bound by principle to defend an agreement they signed five years ago with the federal government, the Indians will reject any compromise text crafted by the political parties, a position that will hand their adversaries -- and President Fox is among them -- a golden opportunity to paint the rebels as intransigent. Such a label was once attached to the first Zapata, betrayed and assassinated by the Mexican government 82 years ago this April 10 -- a date that looms as the next watershed in this high-stakes standoff between Mexico’s Indians and their government.

John Ross, the author of The War Against Oblivion -- Zapatista Chronicles, has been both weathered and enriched by the Zapatistas‘ march through Mexico.

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