James Tracy: The Lessons of Zapatista Women Activists for Today’s Social Movements

The Lessons of Zapatista Women Activists for Today’s Social Movements
James Tracy, In These Times, February 1, 2016

The role of indigenous women in the Zapatista movement is little known.

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), made up of mostly indigenous peasants from Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, declared war on the Mexican government. It was the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed. Coming three years after the end of the Communist bloc, the Zapatistas offered a unique political perspective that combined indigenous perspectives with an organizing model called “leadership through obedience,” reflecting both anarchist and socialist political traditions. They became one of the major catalysts for the anti-globalization/global justice movement, and the Zapatista ethos offered an alternative to both stale, orthodox leftist party building and the expanding global neoliberal project. Quickly mastering the art of rebellion at the dawn of the internet era, the Zapatistas became a major source of inspiration for young activists, many of whom travelled from North America and Europe to directly work alongside the Zapatistas.

Hilary Klein was one of those young activists. She spent much of the 1990s working in Zapatista communities. Since returning, she has organized at Make the Road New York and currently works the Center For Popular Democracy. Her new book Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories is the first English-language study of the role of indigenous women in the Zapatistas.

Why did you go to live in the Zapatista base communities?

I didn’t go to Mexico intending to live in Zapatista communities. When I went to Chiapas in 1997, I was only planning to stay for about six weeks. I went as a human rights observer—responding to a call from the Zapatistas who were facing consistent attacks from the Mexican armed forces. The presence of outsiders often prevented these attacks and, when they did happen, at least we could document them and get the word out.

But once I got there, I was captivated by the Zapatista movement—the courage, the dignity, the willingness to take risks and the commitment to building something new. And I was particularly struck by women’s role in the movement. There were so many extraordinary women leaders, and Zapatista women had already achieved some pretty remarkable transformations in gender roles. At the same time, these things were still very much evolving. I felt like history was unfolding before my eyes. How could I leave?

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