Remembering Mexico’s Zapatistas and their impact on grassroots indigenous politics
Image: Daniel Lobo via Flickr (creative commons license 2.0)

New Year’s Day. 1994. TV screens across the globe are flooded with images of indigenous activists sporting balaclavas and taking to the streets of the cities of Mexico’s Chiapas region. The world watches as Mexico pitches towards a political turning point.

The activists call themselves the Zapatistas, after the peasant leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. At their helm is a man whose rhetoric, wit and charm captured the attention of millions: a man named Subcomandante Marcos. 

More than 25 years later, Subcomandante Marcos has long since stepped aside as leader of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in order to make way for wholly indigenous leadership, but his legacy and that of the movement he helped shape will undoubtedly live on. 

Chiapas roots

The Zapatistas hail from Chiapas, a southern Mexican state, well-recognised as a hub for indigenous Mexican culture. Its capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, is home to one of Mexico’s largest indigenous communities to this day. 

To understand the issues that inspired the movement, one must look to this region’s tumultuous history—the scars which mark Chiapas today were forged during the Spanish colonial era. The Spanish conquistadores divided indigenous peoples in Chiapas into two categories: Mayan and non-Mayan. This divide remained long after Mexico gained independence from Spain and post-Independence elites regularly dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land to serve the interests of wealthy agribusinesses. 

“21.5% of Mexicans reportedly identify as indigenous and of this population, 79.3% live in poverty.”

The legacy of these rigid racial hierarchies is arguably reflected in the discrimination and social and economic inequalities many indigenous Mexicans still face. Take education, for example—despite the inclusion of the right to education in the 1917 Mexican Constitution, lots of indigenous Mexicans still struggle to access adequate schooling. This serves to perpetuate the lack of social mobility and professional inequalities that generations of indigenous Chiapanecas have experienced. 

Today, 21.5% of Mexicans reportedly identify as indigenous and of this population, 79.3% live in poverty. 

The rampant urbanisation of the 20th century and devastating impacts of deforestation on rural communities have driven this huge economic divide. The Lacandon Jungle, an area in Chiapas that lies at the heart of this story of indigenous resistance and uprising, exemplifies the trend. Once an area rich with resources, it was later destroyed by loggers, prompting mass indigenous migration from highland areas from the 1930s onwards, which in turn led to the fracturing of communities and their disconnection from indigenous ancestral lands.  

The path to revolution 

Over the centuries there have been numerous attempts to redress these inequalities. For example, in many ways, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 aimed to fix the land struggles which left many poor Mexicans, especially indigenous peoples, landless and trapped into working on estates managed by rich landowners. However, the revolution failed to solve agricultural inequalities and the later proxy dictatorship of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) continued to dominate local politics, causing growing rural poverty in Chiapas and leaving indigenous peoples struggling to access vital resources. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, another movement, the Liberation Theology, sought to further the indigenous cause. The movement emerged out of the Latin American Catholic Church and aimed to address repression in the face of dictatorships and increasing rates of poverty. It had a crucial impact on indigenous peoples in the region because churches were transformed into places in which indigenous activists could mobilise and organise. It also gave activists an entrée into global communist thought, prompting workers to form unions. These Liberation Theology era unions later developed into the core support base of the EZLN. 

Through the 1980s, anti-establishment networks became increasingly well-organised. The National Libertarian Forces (FLN), a group dedicated to helping Maya communities resist land dispossession, succeeded in mobilising support within the region’s indigenous communities and workers’ unions. The EZLN first emerged as Chiapas’ branch of the FLN and Marcos, despite not being of Maya heritage, was an early leader, rising rapidly through the ranks. 

In the 1990s, mainstream Mexican politics took on a decidedly neoliberal quality. But policies such as the foundation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and efforts to improve US-Mexico trade relationships left many Mexican farmers feeling abandoned or forgotten by national political leaders. In Chiapas, these feelings manifested in the growth of support for the Zapatista movement. In fact, the Zapatista New Year’s Day uprising of 1994, happened on the same day that NAFTA came into being. 

Ongoing influence 

The uprising was brief and relatively successful for the Zapatistas. On January 12th a ceasefire was called between the EZLN and the Mexican military. The activists pushed the government into making reforms such as anti-poverty programs which targeted wealth inequality in indigenous communities and the San Andrés Accords which granted indigenous autonomy in Chiapas. 

“Arguably the most lasting impact Marcos and the Zapatistas have had on Mexican politics is their role in promoting a greater level of indigenous consciousness”

Beyond the initial and local impact of the uprising on Zapatista members, its wider consequences can be seen in its mobilisation of indigenous peoples across Latin America. In the years following the 1994 uprising, indigenous groups across Mexico demonstrated and marched for their rights. 

Arguably the most lasting impact Marcos and the Zapatistas have had on Mexican politics is their role in promoting a greater level of indigenous consciousness, both within their country and on a global scale. By using modern tools, such as the internet and social media, the Zapatistas have successfully forged links with indigenous groups across the world and led to the development of transnational support networks and a greater level of indigenous consciousness among previously isolated and often tightly controlled indigenous populations. 

As historian Harry M. Cleaver, Jr. argued in his 1988 paper on The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric: “these indigenous experiences have had wide influence not only because the Zapatistas have brought them to the forefront of international attention, but also because these efforts have actually been successful at building networks among a diverse array of indigenous peoples.”

The EZLN continues to provide support and engage in activism to improve conditions for indigenous peoples across Chiapas and beyond. They run educational initiatives, farming programmes and continue to oppose neoliberalism using modern political techniques. While their initial uprising led to the foundation of autonomous zones of influence in Chiapas, their greater impact can be seen in the hope that they provided to indigenous groups around the globe. The scale of their legacy illustrates just how vital indigenous networks and transnational indigenous alliances are in the struggle for indigenous rights.  

Read more about indigenous politics from our Americas contributors here: BRAZIL IS FAILING THEIR INDIGENOUS POPULATION