Uniting North and South

Ten years later, the Zapatista struggle for human rights and land reforms continues. Now, American Indians are joining in greater numbers

By Karen Lynch
Navajo Nation, Native American Delegation to Chiapas
First Nations North & South

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Zapatista leaders gather in Oventic, Mexico, on the 10th
anniversary of the indigenous uprising.

DATELINE. Oct. 17, 2006


he thick early morning fog envelopes the community of Oventic (Oh-ven-teek), Mexico in the state of Chiapas. This Zapatista confluence, headquarters of the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) awakes from a night of rain, as many prepare for a celebration that is about to begin. It will be a New Year’s celebration to commemorate an indigenous rebellion that 10 years ago caught the world’s attention.

Back then it was and still is a cause mired with deep neglect of a people who united saying, “’Ya Basta’” (Enough)! A unified thousands of indigenous peoples marched into the city of San Cristobal de Las Cases, Chiapas on January 1, 1994, which coincided with NAFTA’s (North American Free Trade Agreement) implementation. Ten years ago and the struggle has been relentless. NAFTA’s dark shadow was envisioned to boost Mexico’s economy; however, the benefits have been unjust and unequal across areas of Mexico, especially in the south where the poorest people live, and predominantly indigenous people.

Zapatistas begin a procession in Oventic to celebrate the new Year and the 10-year-old struggle for reforms.

Concerned Mexican activists, sympathizers and peace groups from around the world, including the countries of Germany, Belgium, Argentina, Canada and others arrived on December 31, 2003, to the highlands of Oventic. Our delegation of Native Americans from the United States also wound its way through the mountains to Oventic bringing not only support but heartfelt solidarity.

The Zapatistas are not a tribe. They are Mayan indigenous people of Mexico. Zapatista symbolizes a peasant uprising more than 80 years ago that was led by Emiliano Zapata, an indigenous campesino (farmer). They are known by the black ski masks they wear, or a red scarf covering half of their lower face.

It is symbolic, yet powerful, that their faces are covered. It symbolizes equality or community that they are all the same. They choose to remain anonymous in the watchful eye of their government, the police or anyone not sympathetic to them as indigenous. It is their right to cover their faces.

The Zapatista struggle continues for land they live and worked on since time immemorial. Like their indigenous relatives from the North, the Navajo, they bury newborn umbilical cords in the earth. They refer to the earth as Mother. But like many indigenous peoples, settlers and outsiders have made claims to the land and many Zapatistas have been killed as a result.

They, too, are remembered on this cool morning as we head to a small church where a ceremony has begun. Here, Mayan traditional music blends with songs and prayers meant only for the Creator. Numerous lighted candles burn near the church’s alter. The incense of copal fills the air, incessant chanting in Tzozil or Tzeltal, and the rhythmic rattle of gourds mixed with guitar and drums calms the spirit. Outside, people arrive in Oventic unnoticing that a special rite is taking place inside the church. At least 20 Zapatista leaders are gathered clothed in white serapes tied with woven red belts, the tassels of long colorful ribbon dangle from their hats almost hiding their faces. Sacredness pervades. This sacred rite is honored and we pray for peace, for protection, the provision and nourishment from Mother earth.

Young members of the Zapatista movement take a moment to celebrate life in the southern Mexico highlands of Oventic.

To be among the Zapatista people, a quiet, shy and respectful people is witness to a culturally in-tune way of life. Their spoken language sounds different, unique and good to hear. The Tzeltal and Tzozil dialects spoken by them is their first language. Spanish is a second language. On this morning of the celebration we are greeted with, “buenas dias,” and toward evening, “buenas tardes or buenas noches.” Community residents have looked forward to this ceremonious day.

Hours later as we leave the church we make our way on a muddy trail to the main celebration. The religious assembly leads the way. They are followed by many. They arrive at the outdoor basketball court turned into an ampitheater where the festivities have begun. Taking their prayers with them, they take their place as special persons and become witnesses of this historic occurence. Their hearts settle as they listen to familiar Spanish music played by their local youth band, beating out cumbia rythms that carry into the early evening and between performances and into the early morning. Performers from local communities step on stage providing entertainment with a Mayan flavor. Girls dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, navy blue woven skirts, hand-woven or embroidered colorful blouses and gel-type shoes move to the beat of the cumbia. Speeches by Zapatista leadership take to the air as representatives from the EZLN welcome visitors to the celebration, thanking all for their support.

Our delegation received appreciative words earlier in the week when we met with two Caracoles (automomous Zapatista communities) as they are called in Mexico. The leader said that although they have been treated inhumanely, they are hoping to continue dealing in a non-violent way with the Mexican government despite that they’re in an armed struggle, “we are fighting for our indigenous culture. We live lives of poverty and exploitation and that is why in 1994, we raised our arms.”

Rather than subjecting themselves to government control, communities have chosen autonomy. “We are by ourselves,” he said, “and we are organized this way to demonstrate that we can do it.”

A female leader in one of the Caracoles expressed gratitude for our presence saying that as women, they have power to organize, and the fruits of their labors are becoming evident. They now have a woman’s weaving cooperative that sells handcrafted items in their Caracole. She said there should be one purpose in life, and that purpose is that “we are all one.” She encouraged us to tell their story.

On many levels this is taking place, said Native American delegation coordinator to Chiapas, Dr. Eulynda Toledo-Benalli, a member of the Navajo Nation and a representative of the sponsoring organization, First Nations North & South (FNN&S). She said that all who participated on this delegation are taking back this information to their communities. “It is also occurring through the written word, journal articles, cultural exchanges; and we are seeing positive change taking place within indigenous participants once they go on a delegation with us to Chiapas. This is evidence of our hard work.”

Since 1998, Toledo-Benalli has coordinated delegations to Chiapas and identifies with the cause wholeheartedly because of the connection “between nations in the north and south. We are relatives----literally, we have much in common with the Mayans,” she said. “They are Corn People and so are we. Our ties are being re-established as we unite as indigenous peoples north and south. The connection is imbedded in our traditional songs, prayers, and stories that teach about struggle, endurance, and going forward.”

She was particularly moved with the event of the prayer ceremony that was held in the church. This was very special she said. “It was a blessing of their New Year. It was their prayer and their ceremony. As indigenous people from the north, we also begin events with a prayer. If it was a Navajo Blessing Way ceremony, we would be honoring a new home. It is the same thing for them.”

With our strength and support offered and acknowledged by the Zapatista people, we also accept that there is much work to do. As we leave Oventic, other from different areas of the country and around the world are leaving as well. It is time that we head north and begin to tell their story.

The Native American delegation to Chiapas with First Nations North & South were: Dr. Eulynda Toledo-Benalli, Navajo Nation, New Mexico; Maurus Chino, Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico; Karen Lynch, Navajo Nation, Colorado; Waste’win Young, Standing Rock Sioux, North Dakota; Eli Wright, Standing Rock Sioux, North Dakota; Rainy Benalli, Navajo Nation, New Mexico; and delegation spanish interpreter – Cecelia Chavez, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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