In the country of Chiapas, in Mexico, over 25 percent of the population is indigenous. The Zapatistas formed out of a desperate need for reform and became a group of masked indigenous rebels who felt that “they had to cover their faces to be seen.” The initial foundation of what would become the Zapatistas began in the early 1500’s when the Spanish conquistadors began to colonize the Mayan region. Ever since then, the structural power in Latin America has disproportionately benefited politicians and corporations at the expense of indigenous people and their land. Thus, the mobilization of indigenous groups began under the oppressive model of global colonization and in 1983, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in the rural parts of Chiapas, Mexico. Initially formed by former guerrilla group members of the National Liberation Forces, the group evolved by building relationships with the established indigenous communities in Chiapas (Romero 2).
The expansion of global capitalism within the past five centuries has resulted in indigenous people losing their land to large-scale agriculture usage. One of the primary demands during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900’s was indigenous land reform. As a result, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, was implemented and it guaranteed “land for landless rural communities, as well as its prohibitions on the ownership of rural land by corporations” (Kelly 544). This article would give legal authority to take away land from large landholders and give it to rural farming communities and to prevent the further destruction of natural resources. From 1917 to 1988, “around three million households lived in over 28,000 rural communes called ejidos,” which are communal farmlands supported by the state (Kelly 543). However, in early 1990’s, negotiations for an experimental trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico were being discussed. This trade agreement, later known as North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was promoted as an opportunity to stimulate the economy, increase projected gains and jobs in each country.
Around the same time Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, proposed the elimination of Article 27. The elimination of Article 27 would ultimately agree to the terms of NAFTA’s Structural Adjustment Program which called for the privatization of land and resources as well as an emphasis on export production. The elimination of Article 27 was overwhelming passed by both houses of the federal legislature. This ended the redistribution of ejidos, which primarily benefited indigenous communities and also, “paved the way for a mass transfer of rural land from indigenous communities to multinational food corporations” (Kelly 544). For the people in Chiapas, the privatization of land will lead to the removal of 1.5 million people from their land and increased rates of deforestation (Citizens Trade Campaign 2).
NAFTA was eventually passed and on January 1st, 1994 the agreement came into effect. NAFTA was keystone element to the Zapatista movement because the implementation of the agreement would disproportionately affect their communities, resulting in more deaths within their communities and traditions. The Zapatistas could no longer stay silent about the genocide of their people. For that reason, the Zapatistas strategically planned to occupy 5 major towns in Chiapas and come out to the public eye to show their opposition to the Mexican government favoring national corporations over its own people. The Zapatistas occupied government buildings, burned official documents and presented the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle which declared war on the Mexican government and their objection to neoliberalism.
The following day, Mexican government responded by attacking The Zapatistas. After 12 days, both sides agreed on a ceasefire however, The Zapatistas suffered hundreds of casualties and around 145 deaths (Schools for Chiapas). In their 20 plus years exiting as an autonomous organization, the Mexican government has continuously taken a violent and ineffective approach to resolve any disputes or concerns the group presents to them.
The tactics used by the EZLN have been and continue to be wildly effective and inspirational to other movements as well. This largely stems from the fact that Zapatistas’ ideologies are rooted in autonomy, decentralization, and intersectionality, and the fact that they are, most of all, fighting for their right for self-determination and sovereignty. Because of this, they have often been labeled by outsider groups and the mainstream media as “anarchist” or “marxist.” However, the Zapatistas reject these labels, as being defined by a single ideology is limiting. In an article the EZLN published titled The EZLN Is NOT Anarchist, they stated:
“In order for us to make concrete change in our social and political struggles, we cannot limit ourselves by adhering to a singular ideology. Our political and military body encompasses a wide range of belief systems from a wide range of cultures that cannot be defined under a narrow ideological microscope. There are anarchists in our midst, just as there are Catholics and Communists and followers of Santeria,” (libcom.org).
Not defining their movement’s ideology was a purposeful choice that allowed the group to become more adaptable and inclusive. It inherently resists its oppressors by uniting people with radically different personal ideologies through shared experiences of oppression.
The Zapatistas also utilized a combination of both violent and non-violent actions to shape change. They were militant in the way in which they were armed to protect themselves from Mexico’s government. They also utilized more “violent” forms of direct action such as burning government documents. However, they also used non-violent tactics such as occupying land and space, and building their own community programs. The EZLN formed their own self governing towns, schools, and clinics that did not have to rely on the government to meet their needs. This again points back to their original ideology of autonomy, as most of their direct action tactics were actions that did not depend on the government at all for their success.
Yet another successful tactic and ideology the EZLN adheres to can be found within their maxim of “caminando preguntamos,” or, “walking we ask questions.” This implies a rejection of rigidity and of a “final destination.” As Argentinian activist Sirena Pellarolo reflected in a keynote address for an International Women's Day event at California State University, “caminando preguntamos” reflects an, “...attitude that promotes an alternative way of doing things, with no blueprints, with no maps, just the reliance on the wisdom of the community, as they believe that “entre todos, sabemos todo” (amongst all of us, we know everything).” These maxims reflect the knowledge that there is no final destination towards a just future because that future will keep evolving. Indeed, liberation is a process, and we must all be adapting to change.
Adhering to “caminando preguntamos,” the Zapatistas have changed much of their presence to accommodate our tumultuous times. They have a very active website and blog which allows them to define their own narrative and reach a larger audience. This is important as moving forward, the Zapatistas would be most successful if building alliances globally.
The Zapatistas movement is recognized for their inclusivity, intersectionality and improvements to their community in Chiapas. Their shortcomings largely lie in the political arena and their inability to reach an agreement with the Mexican Government. With that being said, much of the room for improvement falls on the part of the Mexican Government. Their many empty promises and their lack of cooperation is in no way placing blame on the Zapatistas themselves.
Everything that the Zapatistas have accomplished has been extra governmental and they haven’t been able to get any meaningful government support or backing. The movement serves as a role model for other indigenous groups who wish to achieve autonomy. With all the good they have accomplished in terms of health, education, self-governing towns, agriculture, art, and media, the room for improvement that would come from government backing could be tremendous. The EZLN has not yet secured constitutional rights for the Zapatistas. They haven’t yet gotten the Mexican Government to acknowledge them as indigenous in of themselves, rather than as a sub category. These failures have prompted the Zapatistas to detach themselves and create their own forms of government which is more than enough until the State decides to come to the table and make improvements.
Another common critique of the Zapatistas was that it was an armed struggle and not an entirely nonviolent movement, “Notably, while most Mexicans generally opposed the Zapatistas' use of violence, they did not oppose their goals.” There is always room for improvement when moving towards peaceful relations. A potential area for improvement would be for the Zapatistas to work with the Mexican Government to establish clearly defined regions and boundaries. This would help to unify Zapatista caracoles communities within Chiapas, allow them to thrive without governmental overreach, and continue towards autonomy.
Because gaining the support of the Mexican Government is key to achieving the Zapatistas’ remaining goals, sponsorship from other movements would help to put pressure on the State. Reaching out to other movements and creating global allies could potentially create a plethora of possibilities for the Zapatistas. The positive aspect of this critique is that the Zapatistas movement is still very much alive and working towards their goals. In a press release from May 2018 titled “Falta lo que falta” which translates to “Missing what is Missing” the Zapatistas display that they are very intune with areas for potential improvement. “Llegó la hora del florecimiento de los pueblos” translates to "The time has come for the flourishing of the peoples".
The Zapatistas’ ideology is based in an idea from their inspiration Emiliano Zapata who said that “the lands should be owned by those who work them.” This became the foundation of the Zapatista movement, to fight for land reform because it is the land they work and love. Since its inception, the group has evolved into an intersectional, holistic movement for indigenous rights. They have a school in each of the five regions where people of all ages can learn a range of things from reading to vocational skills. Every school has a community mural on the outside. The region collectively decides what they want to represent and then comes up with a design that everyone agrees on with input from all.
The Zapatistas are very active to this day. Each year, the Zapatistas organize conference-style discussion sessions on “indigenous autonomy, health, education, women´s participation and experience, media, art, culture and land where representatives from the five rebel Zapatista regions [take] turns speaking on their experiences organizing village life without help or permission from the federal government,” (Gibler).
Their leadership is called the good government council and is made up of representatives from each of the five regions who are elected and who advise the communities. One of the members, Jesús, writes that"the people make the decisions, we only propose; we don't impose." The group is very communal and takes all people into consideration. They are still working to right the wrongs in Chiapas and will continue to do so until there is peace and equity. Today’s activists can learn a lot from the the Zapatistas who were practicing intersectional organizing before there was even a word for it.
Fox, Jonathon. “Mexico's Indigenous Population.” Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, Mar. 1999.
Gibler, John. “Covering Their Faces to be Seen.” Banderas News. January 2007.
“Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group, MRG.
Heath, Hilary. “Mexico's Indigenous Population Continues to Face High Rates of Poverty.”Panoramas, Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, 15 June 2016.
Kelly, James J., "Article 27 and Mexican Land Reform: The Legacy of Zapata's Dream" (1994).
Scholarly Works. Paper 668. http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/law_faculty_scholarship/668
“NAFTA- "A Death Sentence for the Indigenous People of Mexico." (2001). Citizens
“Zapatista Timeline.” Schools for Chiapas, 28 Oct. 2015,
Romero, Raúl. “A Brief History of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.” ROAR Magazine, 1 Jan. 2014, roarmag.org/essays/brief-history-ezln-uprising/.