Film, Discussion Looks at Zapatista Uprising in Mexico

A Film and Discussion at The DAAC in Downtown Grand Rapids Looked at the Zapatista Uprising

Tuesday night, The Bloom Collective held a showing of Zapatista at the DAAC in downtown Grand Rapids. Zapatista is a 1999 documentary film about the first 4 years of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, from 1994 to 1998. The film features interviews with Subcomandante Marcos, Noam Chomsky, and many others. It has been much heralded over the past decade for its accurate and moving portrayal of the post-NAFTA struggle in Mexico and the work of the Zapatistas during that time.


Following the film was a discussion led by a college graduate who studied in Mexico through the Mexico Solidarity Network (MSN). To begin, a brief update on the last ten years in Mexico was given: The Zapatistas decided they did not need the government’s permission to be autonomous and began their own municipalities throughout Mexico. Since the filming of the movie, efforts have shifted to focus on schools and health clinics. In 2005 the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) released the Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle to initiate a new step in their struggle, to united with “workers, farmers, students, teachers, and employees… the workers of the city and the countryside.” During the 2006 presidential election, the Zapatistas ran “The Other Campaign, ” in which they dismissed the candidates from the two major parties (Party of the Democratic Revolution [PRD] and the National Action Party [PAN]) and began their own tour of the nation, talking to people and listening to their needs.

Women and the Zapatistas

Groups such as MSN have become an opportunity for those living in Zapatista communities to sell their artisanry directly to the consumer, thus avoiding the “middle man” and ensuring a fair price. This has been particularly empowering to women, who are then able to work out of the home and avoid being harassed or degraded in public.

Government Harassment and Targeting

The film mentioned that the Zapatistas do not hold bank accounts – this has changed in recent years, and these bank accounts have become a way for the government to target the Zapatistas. When Zapatistas Fair Trade Coffee co-ops were formed, government owned coffee co-ops would spring up nearby, selling the coffee at a cheaper price and thus undercutting the Zapatista’s coffee sales. Government agents have been known to appear at the Zapatista communities, supposedly searching for marijuana plants – a completely unfounded claim, as the Zapatistas do not allow drugs or alcohol in their municipalities.


Following the update, questions were asked by various filmgoers. Although a good turnout of about thirty people attended the film showing, only a small handful stayed for the discussion. One person asked if any humanitarian laws applied/were enforced in Mexico. Although United Nations measures have passed over the years, they are not effective as there is no system in place to enforce these (and the United States is a powerful member of the UN). Human rights observers have gone to Mexico and documented the situation, which has resulted in enough pressure to shut down government bases.

Discussion turned to NAFTA’s effect on corn production. As of 2008, there are no tariffs on corn coming in to Mexico, making corn from the U.S. and other countries cheaper to buy in Mexico than Mexican corn (which is a huge industry in the country). Because farmers can no longer sell their corn at the price of production, many have moved to cities to find the legendary NAFTA jobs, that don’t really exist.

The narco industry was brought up next, termed “insane” by the discussion facilitator – “narcos run the state now,” as drug lords have infiltrated PAN. U.S. aid has been given to fund the Mexican army, which helps bring drugs to the U.S. Narcos also buy their weapons from the U.S., due to lax gun laws in Arizona and Texas (the facilitator noted that border patrol does not care what goes in to Mexico.) The contradiction of “fighting the drug war by looking for pot plants in Zapataista communities” while this narco situation continues was noted.

The film gave the historical context, and the discussion was useful to gain an understanding of current events in Chiapas, Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico.

Zapatistas: Making Another World Possible, Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006

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John Ross’ Zapatistas: Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006, provides an important and valuable history of the Zapatistas’ actions since 2000. The book essentially functions as an extension of Ross’ previous book, The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles, expanding on his previous coverage of the Zapatistas and bringing it into the current era. Ross, who has followed and reported the Zapatistas since they rose up on January 1, 1994, provides a detailed and highly readable eyewitness account of the movement. Even to those who are not familiar with the Zapatistas’ history and actions over the past twelve years, it is easy to jump right into Ross’ account of the most recent period of the rebellion and understand immediately why the Zapatistas took up arms and how the Zapatistas have become a major influence on movements from the left around the world, especially in movements aimed at building alternatives to corporate globalization. Much of this influence–aside from the glamour that radicals in the west like to assign to brown-skinned radicals with guns–has come from the simple fact that while lots of us talk about autonomy, solidarity, and organizing “from below,” the Zapatistas are actually doing it. They are defending their land, establishing alternative governing models, and attempting to organize the people who are forgotten in Mexico.

The period covered by Zapatistas, 2000 to 2006, was a period that marked a significant shift in the approach by the Zapatistas. While the period began with the prospect of the passage of an Indian rights law supported by Zapatistas, the Zapatistas and other indigenous peoples received yet another reminder that the government does not work for them. Despite massive mobilizations out of Chiapas to Mexico City as part of the “March of the People the Color of the Earth” and some support in Congress for the law, the government passed a bill that the Zapatistas refused to recognize or support, instead terming it “Indian wrongs.” Following this experience, the Zapatistas engaged in considerable internal reflection and refocused their efforts on building autonomy, establishing new governing structures that aimed to be both responsive to the people and to make the Mexican government obsolete. As part of this work, the Zapatistas launched The Other Campaign in 2006, organizing an extensive tour of Mexico to communicate with all of the people “down below” about the prospect of building an anti-capitalist movement that could overthrow the government. Ross covers these events, relying on both his own direct experiences as well as consulting the statements of the Zapatistas and other relevant sources. All told, Ross assembles a comprehensive chronicle of the period.

The book ends with the period immediately after Mexico’s July 2006 elections, when massive numbers of people took to the streets to protest the fraud that seemed likely to hand the presidency to Felipe Calderon. Reading the book now, it is clear that this is indeed what happened, but Ross’ comments as the event were unfolding offer interpretations that seem consistent with how the Calderon presidency has functioned thus far. In the midst of confusion over the election, Ross wonders where the millions left out of the political system in Mexico will find their place–will they join the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign or will they establish a new movement. Either way, Ross concludes by writing that “the metabolism of revolution in Mexico is precisely timed. It seems to burst from the subterranean chambers every hundred years or so–1810; 1910; 2010?” As actions continue in Mexico, from the massive social uprising in Oaxaca to continued organizing by the Zapatistas, such a prediction seems plausible. For those of in the North, the central question raised by reading Ross’ book is how can we act in solidarity with the Zapatistas and how can we build similar movements “from below” in the North? While the book gives no easy answer to these questions–and indeed could not–it is clear that learning from the Zapatistas, we must listen–listen to them, listen to those “down below,” and listen to our hearts–and to always remember that another world is possible.

John Ross, Zapatistas: Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006, (Nation Books, 2006).