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On the Road with the Zapatistas

by Tori Woodard

On February 24, 2001, twenty-three Zapatista commandantes and their military subcommandante Marcos left their secret hideout in the Lacandon jungle to tour the Mexican countryside unarmed for two weeks before entering Mexico City on March 11 to present their demands.

The Zapatistas invited supporters to join their caravan. We (me and Patrick Diehl, both from Escalante, Utah) were among the approximately one thousand people who answered their call. The caravan consisted of about 500 supporters from all over Mexico (most of them Indigenous), 200 from Canada and the United States, 200 Italians, and handfuls of radicals from Spain, Germany, Argentina, Ireland, France, England, and other countries.

Who Are The Zapatistas, And What Is Their Vision?

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) entered the annals of history on January 1, 1994, when they took over several government buildings in Chiapas. Their move was timed to coincide with the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The Zapatistas believe NAFTA will destroy their traditional communities. They acted to bring attention to the plight of Indigenous people in Mexico, who have been despised, rejected, marginalized, excluded from the life of the nation, and left to suffer in poverty, hunger and disease for 500 years.

The Zapatistas do not want to be poor any longer. Neither do they want to be underpaid workers in the factories of multinational corporations. They have a vision for a different future.

In the years since 1994, the Mexican army set up camps in the villages that support the EZLN and constructed a road through the Lacandon jungle along the Guatemalan border, trying to draw a noose ever tighter around the rebels. Many Zapatista rebels were imprisoned. Nevertheless, the Zapatistas gained tremendous support among the Mexican people and internationally, by using the Internet and because Subcommandante Marcos has become a “star.” Until the caravan formed, the public had seen Marcos only in televised video interviews, so his personal appearance in the caravan in towns and cities across the country thrilled hundreds of thousands of people.

In Fall 1996, the Mexican president signed an agreement with the Zapatistas (called the Accords of San Andreas). The Accords said three things: First, that the Mexican government will grant limited autonomy to the Indigenous people of Mexico, so they can conduct their own civic affairs, such as holding their own courts according to their customs (including religious customs). Second, Indigenous people may control their own development, which will be sustainable, rather than the destructive development that globalization would bring. Third, that Zapatistas being held as political prisoners would be set free. Since these Accords were signed, the Mexican government has done nothing to implement them.

On a more poetic note (and this movement is full of poetry), the Zapatistas see Indigenous people as the forgotten memory of the Mexican nation — the people who preserve color, song, and diversity in an increasingly monochromatic global economy. They are rebels with dignity, rebels for dignity.

The Zapatista vision offers local community autonomy as an antidote to globalization. Each community would have control over its internal affairs, its economy, and the natural resources that surround it. The Zapatistas demand that collective rights be included in the Mexican constitution. This is a major departure from the institutionalization of individual rights, both human and civil, that the international community now supports.

Because we do not have a better vision for getting our planet out of its current mess, Patrick and I support trying to implement the Zapatista vision, even while we have some reservations about it. In Chiapas, we saw what can happen when some Indigenous people do not conform to their community’s customs. Specifically, residents of Chamula, Chiapas who converted to Protestant fundamentalism have been expelled from their community and are now living in slums on the fringes of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The Zapatistas offer their vision as a solution to the problems not only of Indigenous people in Mexico, but to people everywhere, including the problems of environmental degradation caused by multinational corporations. While many people, perhaps most people, would be happy living in communities with strong traditional cultures, there will always be people who want out of the community. For the Zapatista vision to

be inclusive, we must have lots of communities and no stigma attached to people who leave one community for another. Fortunately, the Zapatista culture is open and additive, rather than closed or restricted, and they are open to dialogue about issues such as this.

The Zapatistas are committed to equality for women, and they invite international participation in La Lucha (the struggle). They stuck to their global vision during the caravan despite intense pressure from Mexican nationalists who criticized the international presence in the caravan, particularly the Italian Monos Blancos (white monkeys) who often provided security for the Commandancia.

Life In The Caravan

The caravan convened in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, on Saturday, February 24. As the afternoon wore on and darkness fell, truckload after truckload of Indigenous people arrived for the going-away rally. They all wore either ski masks (for which the Zapatistas are famous) or red paisley kerchiefs over the lower half of their faces. The rally was still going when we left at 11 p.m. We needed to get a little sleep before arising at 4 a.m. to join the caravan.

We were shocked and saddened to learn the next morning that the caravan had to leave most of these Indigenous people behind, as they could not afford to go on a two week trip. Who knows how much money the organizers had to raise to hire the eleven buses full of people from the communities around Chiapas that did take part in the caravan?

The caravan of approximately 50 vehicles (half buses) left the city before dawn on Sunday, February 25, driving in numerical order. Our Toyota truck was vehicle number 24. The departure date was timed to coincide with the February 26 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico. The caravan was also timed to arrive at the Fifth Annual National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in Nurio, Michoacan, on March 2. (Six thousand people attended that!) We were a ready-made demonstration, bringing a thousand people to every rally that local communities hosted for us.

It’s hard to convey in words the exaltation we felt as we drove through town after town and city after city between lines of cheering children and other townspeople. The people in Chiapas were especially euphoric. One journalist called the reception in Orizaba, Veracruz, a virtual apotheosis. Orizaba has a long history of labor organizing, so our stop there was intended to build an alliance between the campesinos (peasants) of Mexico and industrial workers.

Some towns set off fireworks when the caravan arrived. All had welcoming banners and an excellent sound system for the rally.

We had police escorts all the way. Freeways were closed so the caravan could use all the lanes. We were allowed to blast right past toll booths without paying a cent. Police held back traffic at all entrances to the freeways and other roads so the caravan could move through quickly.

But even with all that help, the caravan took forever to pass through each village because so many people lined the road. They crowded close to the vehicles, trying to physically transfer their good wishes to us and get in return a little of the glory of Marcos and La Lucha. We all held up “V” for victory signs to each other (a la Churchill, the hippies, and Nixon). In one town, a man reached out to touch my victory sign with his victory sign. I gave the next person a “high five”, then for blocks people held out their hands to touch mine in what became a soft, running handshake. Patrick and I were high for hours after that.

Thorns Among The Roses

All was not roses in the caravan. Our numerical order fell apart after the first day, and subsequently everyone kept passing each other trying to follow the Commandancia’s bus. Some vehicles were slower than others on the hills, so if you didn’t pass you would get farther and farther behind. If you got too far behind, the police would think all of the caravan had gone by, and they would abandon their posts and let traffic back onto the road. When that happened, the vehicles that had fallen behind didn’t know where to turn when we entered a town, and they had to deal with slow trucks and other non-caravan traffic.

At first we worked hard to stay behind one of the caravan buses — any bus, so that we wouldn’t lose the caravan. Then we found ourselves following buses who had to get repairs done, and buses who didn’t know where they were going any more than we did. Finally, we learned that the only driver who knew the caravan’s route was the guide car in front of the Commandancia’s bus. All of the other vehicles were expected to follow. Inevitably, some of us couldn’t follow because of red lights, pee stops, car problems, or whatever. Most of us ended up getting lost at least once a day. Each time that happened, the best way to find the caravan again was to ask the local people. It seemed that every taxi driver and bystander knew the route in advance, while no one in the caravan knew it.

This situation worsened when we entered states with governors who are hostile to the Zapatistas. There the cops messed with the caravan in as many ways as they could. Their favorite tactic was to separate the buses from the cars, often letting local traffic onto the road after the buses had passed by. A phalanx of cop cars prevented us from catching up with the buses, so that we fell behind and often missed our exit into the next town.

Sleep was also a challenge - we were not told where we would camp until after the evening rally, which usually didn’t end until at least 10 p.m. Getting one’s tent set up didn’t guarantee restful sleep, since the lights were never turned off and many of our fellow travelers thought night was the time to PARTY! We slept on an outdoor concrete basketball court with basketball being played next to us, on a lawn next to a soccer court with soccer being played all night, in several plazas with loud (and we mean LOUD) music playing all night, in a barrio with local buses roaring by, etc. Then, of course, we had to get up before dawn and line up behind the caravan buses so we wouldn’t get lost again.

Often we didn’t have time to eat. When the caravan rolled into a town, we never knew how long the rally would last or whether we had time to grab a bite before the caravan moved on. Fortunately, many host communities offered us free food. The richer communities provided whole meals (rice, beans and tortillas, sometimes with chicken, sausage or eggs). The poorest community provided coffee (served out of a plastic bucket) and rolls.

Twice we got up early to prepare oatmeal for about forty people. That was especially appreciated the second time, when some people said they hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. What caused that situation was an accident the day before. One of our buses lost its brakes and smashed into several cars and two motorcycle cops, killing one. The accident set back the caravan’s schedule by a day, and some of us ended up camping by the Commandancia near a river outside a hostile city where we had no host organization.

We were given bottles of purified water to drink at every stop, and we bought 5-gallon jugs of purified water to carry with us. However, in some villages there was not enough water for washing, including washing one’s hands. Several communities simply didn’t have water for one thousand extra people. (Just like the rest of the world, Mexico has appropriated all of its surface water and is drawing down its groundwater supplies.) At one stop, I passed up an opportunity to take a cold shower in what turned out to be the only showers available for two weeks.

The Zapatistas In Mexico City

Sunday, March 11, was the big day for which the caravan had been building support. A huge rally was planned in Mexico City’s central plaza (which paves over the ruins of the magnificent Aztec city that was razed by the Spanish conquistadores). That day the Zapatista Commandancia made one of the bold moves for which they have become famous: they left the security of their bus and rolled through the streets of Mexico City on an open flatbed trailer, followed one last time by the rest of the caravan. This was especially a surprise because security had been such a big issue for the last two weeks. Just the day before, Patrick and I opted not to attend a Zapatista rally because the people doing security would have taken away our little Swiss Army knives.

The media tried to co-opt the Zapatista momentum and subvert the big rally in downtown Mexico City. Mexico’s two major television stations publicized a huge peace concert which took place the same day. During the rally, one radio announcer told listeners that the Zapatistas would not arrive until 4 p.m., when, in fact, they had already arrived at 2:30 p.m. We spoke to several people who missed seeing the Commandancia because of that broadcast. Since the enormous plaza was nonetheless filled to overflowing in the biggest rally Mexico had seen in decades, one can only wonder how big it would have been without media interference.

After the historic rally, the Zapatistas spent ten days giving press conferences, touring Indigenous villages near Mexico City, and demanding to address Congress with their concerns. Although Mexico’s president Vicente Fox supported the Zapatistas addressing Congress, his conservative party (the PAN) fought the proposal vigorously. When the Zapatistas threatened to go home, Congress finally voted to let them speak.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2001 - for the first time ever - masked Indigenous rebels walked into the halls of Congress and presented a proposal to amend the Mexican constitution to protect the rights of Indigenous communities. In the audience were 150 Congressional representatives and Senators, 650 media representatives, and 100 guests, including many state governors and elected representatives. The session and its aftermath was broadcast live for seven hours by both major television stations, delivering the Zapatista message to millions of Mexicans.


One cannot write about the Zapatistas without commenting on Marcos, the Zapatista’s non-Indigenous military leader who has become an international star. The Zapatistas used his popularity to draw attention to the plight of Indigenous people throughout the caravan and the two weeks in Mexico City, but his role diminished once he had accomplished his mission and gotten the Zapatistas onto the floor of Congress.

Throughout our two weeks on the road, Marcos sat at the front of the Commandancia bus, waving at the crowds in his unassuming, sweet way, enchanting everyone who saw him. He dueled with Fox in the media as the caravan slowly wound its way through the mountains to Mexico City. He sat at the front of the flatbed trailer that transported the Zapatistas to the huge rally in Mexico City, but he left the rally seated in the middle of the bus. Ten days later, when the Commandancia was threatening to leave Mexico City if they could not speak from the floor of Congress, Marcos performed M.C. duties at what was expected to be the farewell rally rather than giving the keynote speech as he usually did.

When Congress relented at the 11th hour and invited the Zapatistas to address them, everyone expected Marcos to be one of the four Commandantes chosen to speak. The Commandancia let the media think that until the last minute. But when the historic moment came, Marcos was outside Congress leading the supporters’ rally while, for the first time in history, only Indigenous Mexicans addressed Congress, led by a woman, Commandante Esther.

What is Marcos’ appeal? There’s no doubt that he’s witty. He’s a brilliant analyst and strategist, and speaks to people’s heartfelt longings. His letters to the media show a disarming self-awareness. He made every uppity criticism of Fox and the PAN that others would like to make, and he did it better than we could. And he’s handsome — or at least his eyes are, combining the power of a guerilla leader with the sensitivity of a poet.

The fact that Marcos wears a mask has something to do with his popularity. The Zapatistas wear masks to symbolize their oppression, the fact that they are not recognized in Mexico. But because Marcos wears a mask, we can project into his eyes whatever we want. We can identify with him and imagine that we, too, could direct a successful insurrection from a beautiful jungle outpost. Since he is not Indigenous, we can pretend that we too could be accepted by Indigenous people and live with them in a close-knit community. We can imagine that we too could join the struggle for a better world (indeed).

What Did We Achieve?

The Zapatista caravan generated tremendous media coverage for the cause of Indigenous rights throughout its two weeks on the road and its two weeks in Mexico City. Reporters were assigned to the caravan for the duration, and performed amazing feats of daring, such as speeding to get good shots of the caravan from the front, then speeding to catch up after the caravan had passed by, and hanging out of their vehicles, filming the buses live from behind. Helicopters flew overhead whenever we approached a major city.

The Zapatistas returned home having accomplished their objectives. Virtually all of the Zapatistas in federal prisons, and many of those in state prisons, are being released. The Mexican army is withdrawing from the autonomous villages that support the Zapatistas. But most important, the Zapatistas and delegates from the CNI were able to present their vision for how to restore the rights of Indigenous people to the Congress and the nation. We were privileged to be able to help support the Zapatistas in their unprecedented transformation from a guerrilla army to a popular civilian movement that is showing the way forward, not just to Mexico, but to the whole world.

For more information about the Zapatistas, visit

Tori Woodard has been an activist for nearly twenty years (gasp!), concentrating on anti-nuclear issues, environmental justice, and bisexual rights.

Edited from dispatches by Lothlórien/RQ.