Freedom According to the Zapatistas

Freedom According to the Zapatistas
These signs were posted as we entered Zapatista territory. Top sign: "In agreement with independent local and municipal authorities, it is prohibited to traffic illegal vehicles, grow illegal drugs and assault the citizens." Bottom sign: "You are now in Zapatista Rebel Territory. “Here the People Rule and the Government Obeys” Photo by Patricia Wells Solorzano

By Patricia Wells Solorzano

(Author’s note: In August 2013, after years of little news from the Zapatistas, the Escuelitas Zapatistas (little schools) took place in Zapatista territory. Some people were invited through social justice networks, others through friends of the Zapatistas and others applied to attend the Escuelitas online. More than 1,700 people descended upon San Cristobal de las Casas and the Center for the Study and Research of Indigenous Languages and Pedagogic Research [CDECI]).

Day 2: Caracol Morelia

I remember feeling tired and wanting a moment to think about everything that I had just witnessed. I wanted to be sure to remember everything, as I sat down on one of the benches with my guardian in the centro comunitario (the community center). Hundreds of us had traveled for hours from the CDECI in San Cristobal de las Casas to the Caracol Morelia; we arrived in the wee hours of the morning and slept on wooden boards and wool blankets. In the morning, we drank coffee with tostado/thin crispy maize tortillas and pozol (cornmeal mush mixed with warm water). Afterward, we were asked to gather at the centro.

The representatives of the buen gobierno (the good government of the people) of this caracol welcomed us and spoke of different aspects of life in the caracol. All of us were listening intently because we had traveled from so far, some from halfway around the world, to discover what the Escuelitas were about. Afterward, a few of us retreated to the open-air center, where a cool breeze blew. We were waiting to be taken to the villages.

The heat and humidity of the jungle caught up with me, I began to feel a little sleepy when a Zapatista friend of my guardian sat down to rest with us. After a little small talk, he asked me in Spanish “Usted que piensa de todo esto? What do you think of all of this?” Had he not asked that question, I might never have remembered my childhood days in Mexicali.

Each weekend, my family would travel 25 miles south and cross the border into Mexicali to stay with my paternal grandmother. There was a stark contrast between the two worlds. In Mexicali, many indigenous people lived on the streets begging for coins or food. Having been inculcated into the Catholic religion from a young age, it was puzzling and confusing to me how God could allow such poor people to suffer like that. Many times I watched elderly women and men with no legs and sometimes no thighs, dragging themselves on dingy carts, begging for mercy. I asked my father for the first time (but not the last) if there really existed this being they called God.

And now? My Zapatista sisters and brothers spoke with me and looked at me straight in the eyes. We were equal, no differences, we were just human beings coming together to share. As I continued to respond to the Zapatista’s question, I wasn’t even aware of how I felt until my voice cracked. I was extremely moved and proud to be included in this forum of ideas, of sisterhood, brotherhood and a new world that I could never have imagined. He understood as I spoke of this proud feeling, as if my paternal Yaqui grandmother and my maternal Tarahumara grandmother were sitting there next to me. My family had arrived and we didn’t need anyone’s permission to be. I felt close to them at that moment. The Zapatista listened intently and apologized for making me cry, to which I answered that these were tears of joy. He shook my hand, smiled (I could tell) and went on his way.


Comandante Ana María wrote something which encapsulates the meaning of Zapatismo:

Behind our black mask
Behind our armed voice
Behind our made up name
Behind what you see of us,
Behind this, we are you
Behind this, we are the same simple and ordinary men and women
Who are repeated in all races, painted in all colors,
speaking in all languages and living in all places,
Behind this, we are the same forgotten men and women, the same excluded,
the same accused, the same persecuted, the same…as you
Behind this, we are you

Students learn Zotzil and Spanish, so as to not forget the “way of the ancestors.” Photo by Patricia Wells Solorzano
Students learn Zotzil and Spanish, so as to not forget the “way of the ancestors.” Photo by Patricia Wells Solorzano

In an interview with Truthout, an alternative online news and analysis Web site, renowned environmental activist Gustavo Esteva notes that the Zapatistas decided to rise out of the shadows because “the indigenous tribes had been stripped of their lands, their water rights and livelihood. They were dying like flies, of hunger, of diseases… there were no children in the villages because so many had died. [In response] people had the sufficient dignity to begin military training. With wooden guns [on January 1, 1994,] the Zapatistas captured the attention and imagination of the world. Celebrating 20 years of struggle, the Zapatista world has changed more than the indigenous people of Chiapas, it has inspired hundreds of thousands of people from throughout Mexico and the world, to begin and to keep on the path of social justice.”

Currently, Zapatistas face repression due to the recent influx of drug cartel members arriving in the northern towns of Chiapas to begin to destroy communities. This is part of a concerted effort by Mexico, the United States and Chiapas to get rid of the people who fight back and won’t leave their land and homes. This huge campaign (including the killing of the teacher Galeano and the destruction of Caracol La Realidad) seeks to push back the borders that were established 20 years ago, when the Zapatistas took the territories and made them fruitful. It’s like the movie Avatar.

For more information about the Zapatistas, check out the following resources:


Patricia Wells Solorzano is a well-known musical artist in the Fresno area. Contact her at


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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