By Patricia Wells Solorzano
(Editor’s note: Patricia Wells Solorzano, a well-known musical artist in the Fresno area, was invited to attend an Escuelita Zapatista in Chiapas, Mexico, in August. About 1,700 activists traveled there from Europe, Latin America and the United States. She was hosted during her stay by a Zapatista family. Due to security issues involving the Mexican military and punctuated by the daily overflights of U.S. manufactured drones, the names have been changed.)
Selva Lacandona: the largest mountain rainforest in North America, stretching from Chiapas, Mexico, into Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula
Zapatistas: indigenous movement that emerged on the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in January 1994, adopting the name of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata
Votán: guardian or guide
Tzotzíl: one of several groupings of Mayan people of Chiapas, numbering between 300,000 and 400,000.
Caracol: center of an indigenous community
Escuelita Zapatista: liberation school
Mal Gobierno: Official Mexican Government
Junta de Buen Gobierno: popular assembly that forms the structure for self-governance of each Caracol
Pasamontañas: wool mask
Las Escuelitas Zapatistas: La Liberación Según los Zapatistas
Several months ago, I got a phone call from a dear friend asking if I had received an invitation to attend the Escuelitas Zapatistas. I became curious to find out what this was about because the Zapatistas had not been in the news for quite some time. The words of a young Mexican immigrant sum up what most of the world thinks: “I didn’t know they still existed!”
For five days, I would stay with my host family and do everything with them—eat, sleep and work. But then, where was the Escuelita, the school part? No matter, I already felt excited about living with a Zapatista family and decided I would go. I had to raise the money for my flight, public transit and food, before and after visiting Zapatista territory. A friend and supporter of the Zapatistas let me stay in her home in San Cristobal de las Casas. Zapatista students of the Escuelitas like me were not charged a penny. In fact, we were all asked not to bring gifts or money of any kind to our host families. My votán Yazmín reminded me of this several times.
We registered a day before the trip at the CDECI, or languages school and hub for Zapatista activities, and received four textbooks. They contained firsthand accounts of “how” the Zapatistas accomplished the mission of freeing themselves from a relentless caste system and keeping the indigenous populations from starving to death. The stories were both fantastic and incredible, showing that people could come together, overcome their differences and work to build their homes, a community meeting center, a medical dispensary and rustic classrooms with a playing field and organic garden. Villages throughout Zapatista territory each have these civic projects to serve the population, making them a bright light in the south. The accounts in the book made me believe that we can build a better world.
Following a seven-hour journey from San Cristobal de las Casas, a caravan of at least 20 pickup trucks, packed with exhausted visitors, arrived sometime past midnight at the security gates of Caracol Morelia. There were hundreds of men and women Zapatistas, with pasamontañas on their heads, lined up and waiting for us in complete silence.
After a brief welcome, each of us was assigned a votán, or guardian, whose assignment was to accompany us at all times and translate the predominant language Tzotzil to Spanish and vice versa. My 15-year-old guardian, who was born and had grown up in Zapatismo, was a powerful individual, whose confidence and self-belief were unshakeable. This characteristic was evident in this new society, where values are redefined and humans mean more than money. Her greatest desire is to get an education and become part of the leadership in the Junta de Buen Gobierno. Without an education, you cannot be considered for any leadership office. Many women are now part of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, as they are called, which simply means self-governance.
Roberta: Daily Life and Civic Responsibility
Wife, mother and buena compañera Roberta would get up at 3 a.m., prepare coffee and posol (cornmeal mush) for breakfast and then leave to run the molino, or corn mill, for two hours for her neighbors and fellow villagers, then return home to continue with her daily chores. I was asked if I wanted to work with her or go to the milpa, or corn field, and work. I chose working with her because I felt run down and physically unable to make the one hour trek to the river bed.
Her chores were endless, and I realized then and there that I was not made to be a good tortillera—a highly undervalued skill. I grew to respect and admire Roberta’s multiple skills from making a paper-thin maíz tortilla, or tostado, in seconds, to wielding an axe for firewood, to managing the village molino. Try as I might to do my share of the work, a virus put me out for one day. But even then, I would shell fresh red beans for the day’s pot. To this day, I still savor my tostado con frijoles y hierbas—my thin maíz tortillas that we used as spoons to eat our beans and the natural herbs and vegetables of the jungle, sabor a Chiapas, sabor Zapatista!
One night, as we ate our delicious dinner that included fresh cooked chayotes from the vines outside, I looked up at a large plastic container with coffee, on the rustic table that had a Nescafé label on it. By this time, we were en familia (in family time); I felt welcome and we were all content. I asked Yazmín to ask Roberta or Moisés (husband) if they bought their coffee in the city.
Roberta, in her expressive and warm way said quickly, “Oh no!! We grow our own coffee, and we also grind it. The container I got from a friend.” I sat there for a moment and said, “So then, all you buy is sugar and salt?” She answered, “We buy salt when we need some.” It was an enlightening moment…if the Zapatistas can do this…then…. At the end of the week, a day before the return to the Caracol, I felt a strange longing and sadness, because I had grown to care for my family members.
The next morning all the visitors were ready and waiting to return to Caracol Morelia at 5 a.m. As the sun was coming out, we arrived back at the Caracol and assembled in the large community meeting center. Visitors were invited to speak about their experiences in the villages. Everyone was joyous, tired but “flying high” with what we had seen. One of the leaders of the May 1st Mothers of the Disappeared from Argentina gave a moving speech of world solidarity and hope that someday we can come together; she ended the testimonials with a “bang”; we cheered loudly and sang the Zapatista hymn together. But I had one more thing to do, as I had promised Yazmín that I would go with her to visit her school, which was a couple of miles away from the center.
Yazmín moved swiftly up the ravine and I could feel my heart pounding as I struggled to keep up with her. She reached the top and enthusiastically pointed. “Esa es mi escuela!” (That’s my school!) The director greeted us and called the students together to welcome us. About 70 girls and boys ages 13 to 17 lined up and stood at attention and introduced themselves. I stood there listening to them calmly, smiling and nodding…I knew they did not realize how extraordinary and powerful they appeared to me.
I introduced myself and spoke with them about my work in Fresno. I also spoke of the dwindling humanity and compassion that continues to erode what we once thought was a democracy—the abandonment and persecution of the thousands of homeless in Fresno and the exploitation of the immigrant community. I told them that they were a shining example of what society should be like: a world where children live and grow in peace, where your neighbors are there to help in times of need, where dignity and integrity are nurtured and become part of the national character and identity.
A part of me (a big part!) wanted to stay there in mountains, in their communities, because I knew that this new society is an answer to the future. Call it whatever you want, socialism, the ways of the ancestors or just being a good human being: When people cooperate selflessly for the good of all, the world is a better place.
The Zapatistas have created a better world amid the corruption, terrible repression and lawlessness. Zapatismo is truly an island in the stream. The descendants of the great Mayan civilizations once again have proven that they can build a better world, work in harmony with Mother Nature and share knowledge about survival from the ground up. We should take heed.
Future “Escuelitas Zapatistas” will be held in December and January. For more information, e-mail escuelitazapDicEne13_14@ezln.org.mx.
Patricia Wells Solorzano is a well-known musical artist in the Fresno area. Contact her at email@example.com.