After our passports had been collected and examined, our group was allowed through the gate and asked to enter the auditorium. The building reminded me of the barn where I used to work with horses: simple wood plank walls with no insulation, cracks of sunlight showing through; many poles holding up the rafters and the plastic roof. The floor was compacted dirt with dried pine needles scattered all over it—remnants from a past celebration. On the far side of the building, seated on a slightly raised stage, were four figures, two men and two women, faces obscured by black ski masks. A few rows of wooden benches were arrayed in front of them, and the prospect of crossing that wide expanse of dirt floor to seat ourselves in front of these silent figures was incredibly intimidating. They murmured to each other as we approached, and I wondered what they saw when they looked at us.
Once we were all seated at their feet, Teresa asked permission to translate. There were some details to work out, such as writing down all our names and where we were from on a piece of paper, as well as the questions we would like them to answer, if they were able. There was the surprise announcement that we would not be continuing on to La Magdalenas, which Cathy wrote about in our post for Day 06.
But then they began to speak to us, voices gentle, quiet, reserved. Their words, delivered so peacefully, struck me and etched themselves into my heart, and I will never forget them. This is what they said.
Words from the Zapatista Council of Good Government at Oventic:
The snail is the symbol of good government; snails move very slowly, with sure steps, and they can withstand anything. A snail also has the ability to listen honestly to all the places it travels, all over the world. Thus, the Council of Good Government does these things. The Council has helped to build education, health, agro-ecology, a coffee cooperative, and three women’s cooperatives in the Highlands area of Chiapas. All of these things are organized as part of the resistance to the bad government of Mexico.
Before we rose up in 1994, we were given 3 pesos (less than 30 cents) per kilo (2 pounds) of coffee. Now, thanks to the efforts of international organizations, we are able to sell our coffee for 35 pesos/kilo. Caring for the earth is very important.
The bad government in Mexico causes our children to receive poor education. They didn’t care about indigenous people at all before 1994. That is why we teach our own children what they need to know. It is international organizations that gave us the ability to do this for ourselves.
The cargo of serving on the Council of Good Government lasts for three years instead of just one. We always make sure there are an equal number of men and women serving. This way, we are balanced.
Oventic and the people are in a struggle over a bad situation. We, as EZLN [Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional], before 1994 when we rose up in arms, as indigenous Mexicans, were in the worst economic situation, the lowest social place. We were not included in the Mexican constitution, and as indigenous people we were exploited, oppressed, humiliated, and discriminated against by everyone. The federal government tells people that there is no poverty, that there are no indigenous people—but it is all lies. We are here, and we are in misery, in great poverty. We have withstood this exploitation for 500 years, since Christopher Columbus arrived. Before the invasion of the Spanish, we were united people. Our ancestors were prepared, enlightened, knowledgeable. But after the Spanish invasion, the Mexican people began to be destroyed.
Then, through the land owners, the capitalists took our land. We raised ourselves in arms in 1994 because we do not have our land in our hands—the bad government has it. The little land we have is the leftovers, in the hills, corners, unfarmable land. This is where we are living. Some of our people are living in the streets—millions—eating out of the garbage. They cannot find work.
This is why we know we are right. EZLN did not raise up for the pleasure of it. It was a bad situation that demanded it, for the people. We decided to struggle, because our ancestors struggled, but the government didn’t listen. Every time a people raises up to defend their rights, the military jails, assassinates, or “disappears” the leaders. For this reason, to keep their lives, the people decided to get their land or die for freedom. This is the only peaceful way.
We raised up in arms in 1994 to ask for a new constitution, where all can live together—men and women, indigenous and non-indigenous. There are eleven points to our demands, summarized in: democracy, freedom, and justice. We want better health, education, land, housing, jobs, justice, independence, freedom, equality, peace. These are our demands.
We presented these demands on January 1, 1994. For these reasons, we hoped you would be in solidarity with us. You can demonstrate your solidarity in many ways: what your political representatives do, what your military does, and what you do ideologically, culturally, religiously, etc.
The Mexican government was surprised in 1994—they didn’t know a group like us existed. They thought we were small, or from another country, outside of Mexico. For that reason, that is how we were able to speak out as a people. This is the reality of our lives. The government thought a few hours spent dealing with us would be the end of us, but it was not. We are here, and we are strong.
The government listened at first, and we had dialogues in San Cristobal and in San Andreas. That was where we signed the San Andreas Accords, giving us rights as an indigenous people and culture. But then the government rejected the Accords—they went back on their word. EZLN demanded, in peaceful ways, that the Accords be fulfilled, but the government began forming paramilitary groups all over. Men, women, and children of the EZLN were killed.
When we realized the government wasn’t listening anymore, we formed our own Council of Good Government. Because we signed the Accords, we don’t need the bad government’s permission to form our own councils to govern ourselves. Now, we have nothing to do with the Mexican government. Now, our Councils of Good Government do the work of the people.
We do not have a good life—there is no security. That is why we are resisting the government. We are resisting because we receive not even a crumb from the government—no salary. Here we are, working in a service of conscience, out of love for the people, to defend the people. We may be illiterate, but we have a commitment of love to our people, to defend them.
We are resisting the support of the government. They try to tell us that it is progress for women, sending us food and promising to put floors in our houses. It is shameful for us that they offer this, because EZLN did not form to ask for crumbs. We did not rise up in arms for a few bags of cement. That is not our demand, and we will not accept. That is our resistance. Everything the government gives away, we will not accept. There are many ways to resist, but they are all connected to everything.
A good life is a long road. We will have the good life when our demands are fulfilled.
Your visit, for us, is a great support, even though it is not economic. Your presence is a sign for us—a sign that we are not alone. When you come all the way here, it is an effort that you make for us. You know that the government says we do not exist, but you have come to see with your own eyes. You come as a witness from your country, and you carry our voice to your people. We do exist. Therefore, from us, thank you. We cannot go where you come from. We have no money. So we have created a place here, to receive you, so you can carry our voice. Your presence here is of value, because we are here, talking to one another. We do not have many words, but welcome. For now, that is my word.
- Zapatista companyera, Oventic Council of Good Government