Zapatista Communities Celebrate Land Takeover

by Hilary Klein

On the morning of September 9th I got stuck in the mud on a dirt road in Chiapas, Mexico, in the heart of Zapatista territory. I was on my way to a party, a community party to celebrate the anniversary of the EZLN occupying the land abandoned by ranchers after the Zapatista uprising in 1994. The EZLN officially took over this land on September 9, 1997. Zapatista villages throughout the region were commemorating the anniversary, but the date is especially meaningful to the communities that actually live and farm on occupied land. I was on my way to one of these villages, called San Rafael, named for a guerrilla fighter killed in the uprising.

As I was wondering how I was going to get my car out of the mud by myself, I look up and coming around the bend I see a group of people in what appears to be a religious procession. There are about five men and five women, carrying flags, burning incense, and with hand-made drums slung over their shoulders. I ask them for help, but since there are many communities divided between Zapatistas and government supporters, I am always cautious with people I don’t know.

As soon as they say that they are on their way to a party to celebrate September 9th , I know they’re Zapatistas. The men hand the flags, the drums and the incense to the women and quickly push my Volkswagen bug out of the mud. They cheerfully wave goodbye and are on their way. Besides being very grateful for their help, I was touched by the beauty of this small procession. I am not a religious person myself, but watching them I felt that this day is sacred because of what is being celebrated, not because of the religious rituals.

For people who don’t live off the land, maybe it’s hard to understand what the land means to rural indigenous communities – culturally, economically, socially, and politically. I grew up in a city and before coming to Chiapas, I could not have imagined the depth of the connection that people here share with the earth.

The Zapatistas took up Emiliano Zapata’s battle-cry from the Mexican Revolution: land and freedom. Times have changed since 1910. The EZLN is an incredibly complex movement in an increasingly complex world. And yet, in the lives of the indigenous population of Chiapas, the demands of land and freedom continue to be pretty basic, pretty fundamental. What I have come to see and understand is that the fact that the Zapatistas are now living and working on the rich farmlands that used to belong exclusively to the big landowners represents a profound change in people’s lives. At least at the local level, it is one of the most significant and concrete achievements of the Zapatista movement.

I arrived in San Rafael around mid-day. The celebration was taking place in what used to be the ranch house. The walls are now crumbling, but the building is being put to good use as a community center, a cooperative store, and a place for meetings. Much of the party was like many other community celebrations that I have been to. During the day there was a soccer tournament; in the afternoon, bowls of chicken stew were dished out for everyone in the entire community; and at night, young people dressed in their best clothes danced until dawn to the pop tunes of a hired band, oblivious to the rain and the mud stirred up by their moving feet.

But it was not like any other community party, because the reason they were celebrating was obviously very present in people’s hearts and minds. I had several conversations with people, listening to them reminisce about what it was like when this very land used to be a ranch. Roberto talked about how they used to live up on the mountainside, trying to coax crops out of rocky ground that yielded next to nothing, and how they would look longingly down at the fertile valleys and wonder if someday they would have access to that land themselves. Mario told me that he trudged down that hillside every day to work on this rich land, but that for his sweat and his labor he was paid only 50 cents a day.

Juana described how she could not even go to the river to fetch water because the ranchers would threaten them and chase them away. Christina said that the women had to wake up every day at 2 in the morning and work all day making tortillas for the rancher and his family, and if they didn’t do their work well, they would be beaten. She also said that when it was coffee season, the women went to work in the fields also, working from dawn until dusk picking coffee and at the end of the day were given only a handful of coffee beans.

These stories sounded to me like things that might have happened in previous centuries, but people were talking about 8, 10 years ago. Jose told me that his father was one of the managers of the ranch, but the last straw was when he was told that they would have to work from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening every day plus half a day on Sunday. He joined the EZLN, stopped working on the ranch, and began actively organizing with other indigenous peasants. Jose’s father passed away this year, but Jose lives on the land that his father fought for.

The large landowners fled in 1994, but no one was too sure what would happen next — if they would put up a fight to get their land back, or if the federal army would invade the occupied land to drive the Zapatistas out. So the Zapatistas quietly planted their corn and beans on this abandoned but fertile land and bided their time. In 1997 they felt that the moment was right. In September 1997, the EZLN mobilized 1111 of its supporters on a march to Mexico City. Meanwhile in Chiapas, on September 9th, the order came to position themselves on the abandoned ranches, and the Zapatistas officially took over this land. Dozens of new communities were formed practically overnight, living proof and product of the Zapatista struggle. With so much public attention focused on the Zapatista mobilization in Mexico City, there was little the government could do about the land takeover.

You can imagine what it must mean to these people, after years of organizing and an armed uprising, that this land is theirs: the joy and satisfaction that they must feel to be working this land themselves.

The part of the celebration in San Rafael that was specifically devoted to the anniversary of the land takeover was the cultural program in the early evening. First they sang the Zapatista anthem. Next several children read poems and a woman member of the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee read a message from the military leaders encouraging the support bases to remain strong in their resistance.

But by far my favorite part was the reenactment of the land takeover itself. There was one group of actors representing the Zapatistas and others representing the government supporters who claimed to have legal title to the land. The leader of the government supporters was hilarious, drinking hard liquor (alcohol, by the way, is prohibited in Zapatista communities) and lying to his followers. Next on the scene were the troops of federales that had been called in to chase the Zapatistas off the land. The Zapatistas confronted them peacefully and all ended well. The grand finale was symbolically erecting the first houses of the new village.

The next morning I was on my way back from the party, and of course I got stuck in the mud again, it being the rainy season in Chiapas. Once again I was wondering what I was going to do when who should drive up but a member of the agrarian commission of the Zapatista autonomous municipality. His job is to coordinate the communities living on taken land.

I thought it quite marvelous that yesterday I should be rescued by a procession of people celebrating the anniversary of the land takeover and today by someone who spends his time overseeing the distribution of this occupied land. With his pickup truck we had no problem pulling my little car out of the mud. We shared a laugh and a hug and we both continued on our way.

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