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Meeting Marcos at Huixquilucan

About the author
Bernardine Coverley spent six months as a volunteer for a Mexican conservation charity and has visited Mexico several times before and since. She has worked as a tutor and materials writer for adult literacy projects, and now works as a gardener, tree-warden, and wood-planter.

Three small girls adjust red paisley neckerchiefs before singing a welcome to the pipe-smoking man in army fatigues and a black balaclava. He sits at a table flanked by two old men, one wearing a grey poncho, the other a cowboy hat. Behind the girls a crush of men and women clutch notes for the speeches they are about to make.

The children are from Huixquilucan, a settlement just outside the creeping sprawl of Mexico City. The man in the black balaclava is one of the most famous figures in Mexico.

He calls himself "Marcos" – subcomandante Marcos, and his movement the Zapata National Liberation Army (EZLN, or "Zapatistas", in tribute to Emiliano Zapata, the hero of Mexico's early 20th-century revolution). Since 1 January 2006 – twelve years to the day since he stepped out of a forest in the southern state of Chiapas into world history – Marcos and a caravan of organisers and supporters have been touring the country in advance of the 2 July 2006 national elections, in what they call "the other campaign".

The Zapatistas are not a political party and do not seek election – they aim rather to put issues of social justice, equality and the rights of Mexico's poor and indigenous people onto the public agenda and make them impossible for politicians to ignore. Their sideways subversion of official politics is reflected in Marcos's adoption of a jokey new persona, Delegado Zero. A T-shirt destined for my son in England has Delegado Zero emblazoned in red on the front, and the text of the "sixth declaration" – the most recent Zapatista manifesto – on the back.

The "other" campaign, the zapatour, includes a dialogue in small towns and villages with the poorest people from each Mexican state, who often belong to one of the country's indigenous groups – Maya, Zapotec, Otomi and many more. The meeting at Huixquilucan is the second such dialogue today.

The stage is in the middle of a grassy field. Both it and the crowd of several hundred – including about 500 people from several indigenous communities in Huixquilucan – are covered in tarpaulin in protection from the rain. The Zapatistas may demand regional and political autonomy for indigenous people, but a Mexican flag hangs over the stage and everyone stands to attention when the event opens with the national anthem. The Zapatista's own anthem follows. Then it is time to talk.

Marcos's elderly, straight-backed comrades to left and right speak first. The queue at the microphone is lengthy. The words "ecology" and "discrimination" are prominent, while other speakers voice specific grievances over police arrests or plans to compulsorily purchase land for a private airport. A woman pays faltering tribute to the death in January 2006 of the charismatic Maya comandante Ramona, and a man leaps on to the stage to make a passionate declaration in the Otomi language.

The stewards wear white T-shirts with a red star. One regularly pokes the sagging tarpaulin above Marcos's head and shoots a lake of water onto the ground behind him. It's wet and chilly but the crowd is patient. I ask my companion Elena – volunteer photographer for the "other campaign" and the EZLN magazine Rebeldia why there are no police here. "Don't worry, there are, just looking like civilians", she assures me.

All this time, Marcos has said nothing. He listens like I've never seen anyone listen. He occasionally leans forward to make a note, or stands to shake hands with well-wishers. After everyone has had his or her turn, he comes to the front of the stage, removes his trademark pipe (but not his trademark balaclava) and begins.

Marcos's speech is a mixture of the pedagogic ("We need to see all these problems we have heard about today as a whole. It is the system that must change"), the polemical (criticisms of the "the rich" and "foreign capitalists") and the poetic ("We are the guardians of the mountains and the forests and the rivers"). At the last, a shout goes up: ¡Zapata vive!

Also on openDemocracy about the run-up to the Mexico elections on 2 June 2006:

Yadira Hidalgo, "Atenco's agony: Mexico's other campaign"
(13 June 2006)

Between Huixquilucan and justice

Elena and I are given a lift back into the city. The proximity of this stage of the zapatour gives her a rare break at home. In the back seat, her colleague Victor loads the evening's photos into his powerbook; some go to the liberal daily newspaper (and the only one with regular and detailed coverage of the EZLN) La Jornada.

Elena shows me tomorrow's schedule: a public meeting, a rally with local supporters, and two visits to activists held in jail for what the EZLN considers political reasons.

In this pre-election atmosphere, the administration of Vicente Fox and his Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party / PAN) government is – the police attack on 3-4 May on unlicensed flower-sellers at San Salvador de Atenco, in which a teenage boy was killed, aside – largely avoiding confrontation. (The previous government, dominated by the Partido Revolucionario Institucionario [Institutional Revolutionary Party / PRI] that had ruled Mexico since the revolution, bombed villages in Chiapas after the Zapatistas briefly occupied the regional centre of San Cristobal in Chiapas in 1994).

The relative calm spreads confidence and solidarity: the zapatour arrived in La Barranca to find environmental activists chaining themselves to ancient willow trees to prevent logging, and a wealthy family sending out silver trays of food for the activists before driving up to tell Marcos: "We support you."

But a united front has its limits. Huixquilucan is an hour's journey from the biggest city in the world, one that needs water for its 25 million inhabitants. A concession has been granted to the Spanish company Barcelona Water which has led to the destruction of local woods. The small farmers of San Juan Yautepec in the vicinity of Huixquilucan are angry that they were evicted by property developers Bosque Real for a pittance, only to see their land resold to "millionaires".

Carlos, another Zapatista supporter, tells me about teaching in an indigenous village where there was no electricity and the only place for him to sleep was on the classroom tables above the damp floor, surrounded by croaking frogs. These are the people who Marcos talks of when he says: "We must transform from within. We are for everyone, but we begin with the jodidos."

I wanted to check what exactly this word, jodido, meant. The "why-were-we-born people", said Elena; "those who have nothing, no resources to help themselves", offered her husband, Rodrigo. Carlos could not resist adding his own interpretation; "It comes from 'to be a nuisance'. The jodidos are those who are a nuisance, who disturb us".

The children, the poor, the indigenous who sang and spoke for Marcos at Huixquilucan want a future for themselves where they can no longer feel themselves to be, or be classified as, jodidos. The stakes, already high, have been sharpened by the police assault in Atenco, the death of Francisco Javier, and the arrest of scores of their supporters and colleagues. The EZLN reaction was to suspend the "other campaign". Marcos and the zapatour wait in Mexico City until the detainees are released. Marcos asks: "If the elections are held in the midst of social agitation overseen and monitored by the army and police, then where is voting freedom?"


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