Lessons to Learn on the 25th Anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising

Hilary Klein

Twenty-five years ago today, the Zapatistas rose up in arms. Twenty-five years – it’s hard to believe! It’s been many years since the Zapatistas were the darling of the international solidarity scene, and many years since I’ve been back to Chiapas. But in the era of Trump – of white nationalist populism on the rise around the world, of migrant children dying in ICE detention centers, of countless other horrors, I believe that the Zapatista movement still has much to teach us – about having the chutzpah to take on state-sponsored terrorism and global capitalism, while having the wisdom and humility to know that no one has all the answers, that we make the road by walking. I believe the Zapatista movement has much to teach us about the enduring nature of this work and the patience that comes along with that understanding.

In the era of the Me Too movement (with all its successes, we still have so far to go!) I remain convinced that we have much to learn from Zapatista women. I feel lucky to have worked side by side with them for several years, witnessing and absorbing the quiet dignity of their resistance, their unflinching commitment, their combination of discipline and humor, militancy and tenderness. In the face of patriarchy’s ugliest manifestations, they took some truly remarkable strides towards collective liberation, showing us what is possible. A handful of Zapatista women in key roles of leadership, combined with a broad push from women in the Zapatista base, succeeded in changing laws, institutions, behavior and expectations around gender roles and domestic violence, and achieved a series of tremendous transformations for women in Zapatista territory.

In a moment of heightened polarization in this country, I appreciate the Zapatistas’ ability to remind us what we have in common. A group of indigenous peasants in southern Mexico succeeded in communicating to the world that yes, they wanted land reform and indigenous autonomy, but their vision of a just society was so universal that people all over the world, living in completely different contexts, felt included in their struggle.

As we face a daily barrage of hateful words and actions, I am reminded of the intertwined relationship between family, community, and political struggle in Zapatista territory, and what that can tell us about building social justice movements that are also a political and creative home – spaces where we foster community, where we treat each other with respect and dignity, where we collectively create some shelter from the storm.

In 1994, the Zapatistas were often celebrated for their creative use of the Internet to reach people all over the world. (The Internet was relatively new back then!) But anyone who has spent time in Zapatista villages can tell you that was a very externally focused strategy, that one of the strongest foundations of the Zapatista movement is the deep sense of community, the unquestioned assumption that the collective well being takes priority over the individual. So yes, let’s use new technologies to get our message out, but let’s not forget to build community, and to have rigor and discipline while we do some old-fashioned face-to-face organizing.

Hilary Klein spent several years working with women’s cooperatives in Zapatista territory and is the author of Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories.

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