• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— "I wanted to hear what they had to say. And what they're saying in there really makes me think," she half-shouted over the music. "Now I realize the Chiapas people don't really have the means to make themselves heard because the government doesn't take them very seriously. They're crying for help. Just because they don't have money or good houses, they're still Mexicans, and we're all equal here."

* * *

Half an hour has gone by.

"They need this time together," says Margarita, Juan Bañuelos's wife, who teaches at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Tijuana. "They have been facing crowds of people like us all day. They weren't expecting your request."

Margarita says she and Juan visited Chiapas about 17 years ago. "We saw the misery then. Their world is so...different. And last week, when they arrived in Tijuana, they were barefooted, with only the clothes they had on their backs, and a lot of their clothes have been handmade and are very worn with use, and you could see where the women sewed, resewed, and resewed. That makes your heart just cringe. I don't care whether you're a rightist, a leftist, or centrist, the bottom line is that we're all human. It's a moral issue."

She says that when the Zapatista uprising erupted on January 1, 1994, she and Juan could identify with what was going on. But it was the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, in which 45 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed by paramilitary gunmen, that propelled them into action.

"I started to cry. I told my husband, 'It is useless to shed tears. That doesn't help anyone. We need to become much more actively involved.' So we educate people. We show videos. Some people express fear because the Mexican government in the past has been very repressive. But I think since the establishment of the Iberoamericana human rights organization in Mexico City, people are taking more risks. Still, there is a great degree of fear."

"We don't like to talk about violence, because we're a pacifist group," says Margarita. "I square that with supporting [the armed Zapatistas] because they have tried for many years to be heard and to have their needs met, and they haven't been met. They took up arms for eight days in 1994. Five years ago. They haven't fired a shot since. One forgets that. But yet there are still 60,000 Mexican military personnel in the state of Chiapas.

"I hope the government sees this worldwide consulta as a big exclamation point. As a neon sign. A rattling of the drums," she says.

The door opens. "Okay," says Juan. "They say okay."

Three of them -- men only -- sit together on the small stage in the little white-walled conference room next door. Sounds from Calle 10 and from the upper reaches of Revolución drift up through the windows.

"My name is Oscar," says the first man. "I am 45 years old. I have 8 children. All of us here are Tzetzatl people."

"My name is Lucas. I am 20. I have no wife. I decided to join the Zapatistas when the needs became too bad. Our health, our lives were so unhappy, we all decided to join the struggle. We are not soldiers, but we support the army."

"My name is José Carlos. I am 22. I have three children. We are campesinos. We grow maíz and frijol. I have no animals. No burros."

Maybe because he is the oldest, Oscar talks the most. They can't say anything about the Zapatistas' military policy. But he tells how this struggle started as their own local problem and is now, he believes, a national problem.

"Our army arose because we indios were forgotten by the government. We felt that we didn't have education, hospitals, and did have so many problems. And we wanted to govern ourselves, we Indians. Because the tradition of our ancestors is that each pueblo -- village -- determines how it wants to govern itself. We select our leader in each community.... So we decided to fight for the autonomy of the indigenous peoples. We want the government to respect our autonomy.

"There are 56 ethnic languages within Mexican territory. All [ethnic minorities] have the same problems that we have in Chiapas. Forgotten people. The Tarahumara people, Mixtecas, Zapotecas..."

Oscar says Tijuana is different from anything he's known before. After weeks of canned donated food, they are all looking forward to getting back home. "I miss my fresh tortillas, my frijolitos," he says. "They're not as fresh up here." The others nod. For the first time, they saw sandwich bread. They were offered spaghetti, hot dogs, hamburgers. The hamburgers they never could eat. "But the emotion people have shown toward us here gives us hope to go home with," he said.

"Before the Zapatistas were almost a myth," says Celith, who also teaches at Universidad Iberoamericana. "But now here they are. Real people. Even my boyfriend had always said, 'I don't care. You do whatever you want about them. That's your trip.' But then he met them. Saturday, he said, 'You know what? I think otherwise now. I really see the problem. I see that there has to be something done.' "

As we're leaving, I think of Mr. Hernández, the cab driver, and his criticism. I ask José Carlos why he and his comrades always wear the pasa montaña, the face mask.

His eyes study me for a long moment. "We have our reasons," he says, warily. "One is, your photographs might be seen by the Mexican army. They may recognize us when we return. We can't trust the government."

Second, he says, Zapatistas have decided on principle not to take their masks off, as a protest, since the government backed down from things they agreed to in 1996 in the Accords of San Andrés.

And the third? "Nobody has cared to see our faces over the last 500 years. What difference does the sight of our faces make now? If you didn't care before, why would you care now?"

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close