Indigenous Identity at the Margin: Zapatismo and Nationalism


Xun Mesa, president of one of the numerous new indigenous organizations in Chiapas, fields a question from the audience in the Friends meeting hall in Austin, Texas. To an inquiry about the Zapatistas he responds, "No, we do not know who they are. They came, made their list of demands and then they left. But we are with them because those demands are ours too. It is why I am here now. Without them, we would not have a voice."

His mountainous village, Tenejapa, is far from the rebel stronghold in the Lacandon rainforest. Yet those distant displaced Tzeltals, Tzotzils, Chols, Mixes, and Tojolabals off at the margin of the indigenous world are at the center of the struggle for native rights in the region, the nation, and the continent. The jungle frontier, the ethnic borderlands between large landowner and Maya peasant, and the periphery around Chiapas urban centers form prime places of recruitment for a war against marginalization the the point of oblivion. This displaced sector of Maya peasants, most of them in the eastern part of the state, has come together to oppose the policies of Salinismo. After five centuries of divide-and-conquer techniques to keep indigenous Mexicans isolated from each other and from participation in the State, the margin has come to the center as a coherent movement across village, language, and ethnic lines.

The reunification of indigenous consciousness at the margin has not only revitalized national identity, it has infused it with an indigenous consciousness. As the marginalized Mayas have discovered their collective identity as "Mayas", a tern new to them, so also the "Indianness" of Mexicans has been exposed, as these Mayas join their ethnic cause to one of indigenous rights. This is why Zapatismo signifies far more than what it has accomplished in military or even strictly political terms. It has forced the entire nation to reflect upon the neglect and abuse of indigenous people, those who make up half the mestizaje equation, the hidden half of Mexico itself.

This article examines the seemingly contradictory issue of indigenous and national identity (rather than the Zapatistas' actual actions or specific platforms of reform), because this issue is central to understanding why this revolt is so distance from past events in Mexico and from the recent violence in Guatemala, another Maya region with many ostensibly leftist nations, has treated indigenous rights as an attack upon national sovereignty, national identity, and racial unity. Mexico's often quite successful efforts to acculturate its indigenous communities stems from the belief that only by eliminating such differences can a coherent nation be built. Yet such a project involves both a denial of the indigenous contribution to the nation and its mestizo identity, and of the fact that such ethnocidal efforts go against the social contract of the revolution.


The taking of San Cristobal de Las Casas on the first of the year was rich in the symbolism that speaks to this issue of nationalism, identity and ethnic pluralism, and begins to unmask this fragile denial of the Indian. The once-powerful colonial center of Spanish domination of the Chiapas Mayas, San Cristobal also was the home of Bartolome de Las Casas, defender of indigenous rights. Today the town, still noticeably overt in its racism against "Chamulas" (as the non-Indian inhabitants often call all Mayas), is half-financed by the tourist industry, viable until the revolt in great part because of the ethnic attractiveness of the indigenous people of the region. They are an attraction because they have not experienced much acculturation, in part because Chiapas has not been developed or otherwise seriously impacted by the Mexican revolution, thus allowing colonial inter-ethnic relations to persist. Part of those relations involves the marginalization of the Mayas, which largely prevents them from profiting from the tourist industry that is attracted to them. The Zapatista capture of the town, which has over a million visitors a year, attracted tremendous attention. No other town in Chiapas would have drawn so much media notice (or been so attractive for reporters), and the available anthropologists were more than willing to expose the terrible economic conditions, the abuse and mistreatment of Mayas everywhere in this quaint town.

All of these contradictions have suddenly linked up into the global information net. Chiapas has become a way of talking about injustices against the "forgotten" Mayas; about the failure of Salinas' efforts to protect the rural poor from the structural adjustments for NAFTA; about the betrayal of the revolutionary and constitutional commitment to agrarian life. The symbol of Zapata, a poor mestizo who gave his life for indigenous agrarianism and gave birth to the post-revolution ejido land collective, has great power nationally because of his hero status. He is figure only recently discovered by Chiapas Mayas (and for many in historical highland communities he is still undiscovered). After all, indigenous Chiapans have only recently had literate leaders able and willing to reveal the content of the Mexican constitution.

In other words, those Mayas involved with Zapatismo have only recently begun to identify themselves as members of the Mexican nation, at the same time as becoming aware of their ethnicity as Mayas. In the symbolic storehouse of Mexico's political heroes, Zapata becomes for the Maya the nationalist hero of indigenous rights, a kind of post-revolutionary "saint", a de Las Casas of this century, with a gun.

Maya identity in Chiapas (like Guatemala) has always been based primarily on the township, the municipo. So marked was the endogamy and mutual mistrust, so local the power issues, that the idea of larger identities (Maya, Mexican) was weak and unimportant.

For example, in the township of Chamula, the Mexican nation was traditionally viewed as an alien place of foreigners hostile to things Chamula. Although members from different townships mix in some labor situations (such as seasonal work on plantations), in the home village they are only with their own. For these villagers, intracultural differences arose from distinct "barrios" or sections of the township, and the different hamlets in it. The related households, the waterhole group, the hamlet, and the village were the limits of salient identity for Highland Mayas, and still are of many who remain there.

My suggestion here is most of the Zapatistas come from populations of the displaced, those who have fled or been driven from their township, and who have come to form another kind of social identity. Marginality has led to affiliations with others not from the same town or region, through participation in the transvillage social order of ejidos (the Mexican land collective), church membership or opposition parties. Thus identity is shifting from the prior localist perspective to a growing national identity, forged from the mixing of the indigenous, and from a shared experience of the ejido, or a multiple - township community like it.

It is also a growing sense of Mayaness, a growing indigenous consciousness at the level of the region and the nation. So exile from the homelands has promoted a nationalism and a pan-Indianism at the same time. This explains perhaps why the Zapatistas have never promoted native separatism. Invoking patriotism and respect for the agrarian sector, the Zapatistas seem to have struck a chord, in the borderlands and in the center as well. It is a revitalization movement from the edge, seemingly more Mexican than the Mexicans, an appropriation of the former's enemy's ideal, symbolized by Zapata, betrayed in the failure of the revolutionary reforms to transform Chiapas. It seems Mayas are expressing faith in the nation, even as they demand Salinas' resignation. I have previously called this ability to use the symbols of the dominators for alternative purposes "appropriating the enemy," the ability to use the very imagery of political legitimacy to expose the illegitimacy of those in power (see J. Scott's Weapons of the Weak).

For those Mayas still residing within their highland townships, identity lies with the townships, even for those who have suffered from the increasing economic inequalities of the last two decades. The compelling sense of community is periodically reiterated in group rituals, regardless of the level of inequality. But for those exiled by religious conversion, political affiliation or the quest for new lands, identity has shifted away from the town and towards the nation. The agents of change include alternate religious groupings (both reform Catholic and Protestant), labor and peasant organizations, and opposition political parties. All of these forms of alternate organization give rise to two forms of identity - national and indigenous - that remained secondary in the traditional configuration. To be a "Mexican" and to be a "Mayan" were identities developed on the margin.


To illustrate this I want to provide an example from a jungle ejido community located not for to the south of Guadalupe Tepeyac, the current "rebel base" of the Zapatistas. The experience of the marginalized Chamulas who founded this colony, and the conditions brought about by the last decade of change, help to delineate the Zapatistas' source of support, and the significance of these two seemingly contradictory identities in the formation of "Zapatista" consciousness.

Nuevo San Juan was Chamula's first Margaritas jungle colony, founded in 1964 largely by political and religious exiles from the home municipio. An entire hamlet of catequista reform Catholics (a la Bishop Samuel Ruiz, though this preceded him) broke from the Chamula cabildo (with its PRI-backed, cacique-chosen president) over the issue of excessive taxation. Political intimidation drove them into exile. So they came looking for coffee-land on the wild frontier, k'ixin osil ("hot country" as they call all coffee-growing lands.)

The leader sought land not just for corn bur for coffee, because he knew there was money in it. As with most Chamulas, he had seen its profitability close up. It happens that the southwestern part of the Lancandon comes up against a large range of mountains, so the cooling effect allows coffee to grow at the bottom of the rainforest, for about 50 kilometers out at its farthest point. Here he sought a paradise of community and prosperity. After an initial period of corn farming and raising pigs, the community began to plant coffee. Thus they were able to maintain their subsistence ideal, in abundance, and have a cash income from a product that contributed to the national balance of payments.

Arguments have raged about the value of peasants in the capitalist system, whether they are vestiges of the past economic system or a peculiar part of a current one, and whether they are dead weight on the otherwise profitable landscape of development. Such approaches fail to note the ability of peasants to make a profit, when given the opportunity and when bound together by an indigenous agrarian cultural order. The Chamula colonists produce a product they once only picked, and thus raise the value of their labor many-fold. The income in 1979 of Nuevo San Juan ejidatarios was an average ten times their highland cousins'. At that time coffee prices were stabilized by INMECAFE, who paid more than the speculating "coyotes", for those who could afford to wait for the government's incremental payments. Income is down now, since price supports have ended and the current coffee price is low. But even at half the 1979 price, livelihood is easily secured. Even though coffee production is but half what it would be under ideal technical conditions (including costly and dependency-causing inputs like fertilizer), it is a far more sustainable level of production. In inflation-prone economies, in fragile lands, slow and steady wins the race.

These native farmers, moreover, do not degrade the rainforest environment as they would if they raised corn for sale, because their coffee likes shade. This allows for a relatively intact ecosystem to which coffee is an addition, not a replacement. Because they remove only one niche (the bush) and replace it with coffee, the rest of the jungle remains whole and self-sustaining. Corn is only planted for use, not for sale (with a percentage always going to the deer and the wild pigs), on a seven year cycle (ideally). The milpa fields are occupied one or two years, then allowed to grow back, so that some of the forest is kept immature and at different stages of successional growth. This actually improves the health of the jungle plant system and is appreciated by the wild game as well.

In 1983 the Chamulas were hosts to indigenous refugees from Guatemala. While their mestizo neighbors set up camps for refugees, the Chamulas took them into their house compounds, assigning two families to each ejido member. Up to this point, even as exiled colonists the Chamulas had maintained their township ethnicity, even down to the signature wool ponchos and their monolingualism. But with the arrival of a permanent, dependent population who could fit right into the coffee system (as cheap labor, just as also occurred on the Chiapas South Coast), the community was faced with a new force for cross-indigenous integration. The response of the ejido was to convert from new Catholicism to evangelical protestantism (aided by the highland Chamula evangelicals) and create a protestant church just for Chamulas. I read this move a a way of marking class-like distinctions to mark off the ejido owners from their indentured workers, especially in an atmosphere of rising coffee profits. The alternative would have been the loss of village-based identity, a pan-Indianism without the companion of national identity (since the refugees see themselves as Guatemalans.) If we were to imagine ejido integration under conditions of equal wealth (or poverty) and same nation, the alternative would be more in keeping with many of the ejidos that now support Zapatismo.

Like the cities of the villages back in cold country, these Chamulas had the advantage over the Tzeltal and mixed communities to the west and north, in having control over a source of wealth that benefitted greatly from the labor of others. By contrast, most of the marginal colonists had no relevant agricultural skills to apply to their new lands, since coffee does not grow that far away from the mountains, except the extensive cultivation of corn (which can be done anywhere). This is how they gained a reputation as forest-torching, tree-chopping destructive peasants of the ever-shrinking Lancandon forest, never mind the cattle interests that come behind and displace them. In this way the largely Tzeltal colonists came to serve as the first wave of the destructive process that turns pristine jungle into useless hardpan in a dozen years or less, and makes capital-intensive cattle ranchers a fast buck (nations describes this in detail). Having no cash product made them not only poor, but also prey to further displacement.

Nuevo San Juan got its definitive land title in 1983 because of sustained bribing of the Agrarian Office. The poor Tzeltal milperos couldn't raise that kind of money, because no one taught them how to raise a cash crop inside the jungle. They needed agricultural extension services, attuned to the ecosystem they were colonizing, to teach them how to produce without damaging the system of production.

But the economic policies to reach Chiapas did not promote new and diversified rainforest products, but rather cattle, even in the indigenous ejidos. Loans made it easy to acquire them, such that the ejido had to limit the number of cattle allowed, in order to keep them from displacing the coffee fields. The temptation for a quick profit is enduring. At very low densities the beasts do not lasting damage, if they are in confined areas. But it becomes difficult to keep densities low when financial demands increase. Cattle ultimately spell death for the rainforest. In one sense, the battle between plants and animals in the productive ecosystem reflects the battle between sustained forms of eco-systemic relations and the short-term "quick-fix" ones.

Until now it seemed that the government would be willing to sacrifice Chiapas' rainforest (minus the biospheric reserve), in order to finance the cattle industry, a PRI bastion of political support. The Lacandon rainforest was succumbing not to economic rationality, but to a political reality far less sensible from an economic standpoint. Profit had to be kept away from the peasants, so they would not become organized. This became especially true with the political opening of the last two presidencies. The more open the democratic process, the tighter the political control had to be, especially in the colony-like hinterlands. In this environment, economic empowerment of the poor and indigenous would be irrational, since the goal is not so much profit per se as its concentration for use in politics (what George Collier calls the "politics of exclusion").

This is why the mainstay of Zapatista support lies in rainforest ejidos further in from the Guatemalan mountains, and among peasant settlements in the contested lands of Ocosingo and Altamirano. While there is of course some support from the marginal corners of the highlands, the jungle ejidos are a documented homeland for the rebel masses. These rainforest colonists need more land, because of population growth and their failure to create a sustainable adaptation. This is the economic basis of their desperation, since additional land is no longer even a promise. Salinas made certain of that in 1992 with the quiet rewriting of Article 27 of the constitution (the Zapata-inspired agrarian reform laws), which ended land reform and allowed existing ejidos to be transformed into private landholdings and commercialized.

To those whose future depends upon official recognition of a land title, to those who are driven to seek additional lands, the changing of Article 27 is a traitorous act. It is an abandonment of the very rules that protect agrarian life, even if the real effects will not be felt for yeas. This and other reforms expressed a symbolic violence against agrarian livelihood as part of the preparations for NAFTA. This is why NAFTA became symbolic of betrayal, and invited a nationalist revitalization movement to reclaim the lost ideals of the revolution. NAFTA became a target not because of what it would do, but what it communicated politically: the death of the indigenous way of life.

For those who came to realize these connections, armed resistance has become a viable option. It resolves the contradiction in the double identity that the ejidos provide Mayas - nationalist and indigenous - for in this instance Salinas betrays both. True patriotism becomes symbolized by Zapata, the uncorrupted hero who was sacrificed, the defender of the landless Indian. The post-revolutionary santo becomes a bellicose version of the landless Indian. The post-revolutionary santo becomes a bellicose version of the bishop-saint Las Casas or the current Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Like the Marcos figure (the charismatic Zapatista subcommander and spokesperson), he is the non-Indian patriot defending indigenous rights, especially land rights. Like Galindo, the Ladino who led the 1869 Chamula uprising, he is the mestizo hero who suffers for the sake of the Indian. Zapata becomes the image appropriated by indigenous Mayas to begin a dialogue on Indian rights and political reform.

With this discussion I hope to sensitize people to the significance of the revolt in joining nationalism to indigenous identity rather than calling for separate indigenous nation status. Clearly this is a call for ethnic pluralism within Mexico, not for secession. The latter position would surely have alienated Mexicans, while the former has captured their imagination and spurred a movement for electoral reform and indigenous rights. This kind of support by the urban center for the marginal indigenous is unprecedented in Latin America. It may serve as a new kind of model for ethnic pluralism in he hemisphere. However, some serious concerns remain, some of which I will discuss here.


The Zapatista hostility towards government development efforts, typified by the Solidarity clinic at Guadalupe Tepeyac, stems from their use as political patronage. Zapatista demands for more schools and teachers, hospitals with medicines and staff, and economic programs, run the same risks if they are delivered through official party channels. Programs like Solidarity were destructive of local independent initiative, because the managers insisted upon using their own organization, which was tethered to the party. Without the kind of reforms that would allow for greater political independence in local regions (also a rebel demand) and a commitment from the ruling party to support it (difficult to imagine at this time), the only form of development programs likely to get funded in Chiapas would follow the Solidarity pattern of patronage. This would only help those now in power and foster a kind of dependent development.

In addition, the development trajectory I have experienced in Chiapas generally discriminates against the Maya. The educational curriculum is almost exclusively in Spanish, and discusses non-indigenous issues and ideas. Health care is top-down and unreceptive to indigenous curing practices and beliefs. As I have noted, economic development encourage short-term solutions, often at the expense of the ecosystem's long-term viability. It will be hard for the Zapatistas to change these entrenched development attitudes and replace them with ones that respect Maya culture.

Mexico is currently in a terrible recession. Growth this year was reported in El Financiero to be about 1%, despite all the ballyhoo about Salinas' financial wizardry. Mayas are not the only marginalized people and Chiapas is not the only impoverished state. Recent protests in Chihuahua, tight security in Guerrero, and protests in many parts of Mexico reveal widespread discontent. If Salinas provides massive aid to Chiapas but does nothing for these other areas, resentment may build against the Mayas of Chiapas. The PRI may even be seen as rewarding violence, inadvertently encouraging more revolts, which may enhance the military budget and increase militarization. It was widely noted that the Mexican army is under-prepared for fighting the Zapatistas. Rewarding the army with new funding will not be widely appreciated either.


There is no doubt the presence of the media helped curb the Mexican army's abuses against both Zapatistas and the civilian indigenous population. (The Army's initial willingness to show the media the executed rebels in the marketplace of Ocosingo shows how unaware they were of the media's power early in the revolt.) My concern is that when the conflict is no longer "news", especially after the August presidential elections, media attention may fade, and the repression will again increase accordingly. The genocidal Guatemalan approach to rebels in indigenous areas no doubt has not been lost on the Mexican military. Only sustained attention towards this area can guard against this "solution".


Since the uprising, some 30,000 Mexican peasants and other rural landholders have fled the conflict regions, many of them from the coffee-growing belt above the border with Guatemala, others from towns gone over to the rebels. Some ejidos near the border now have only refugee Guatemalans living there. Their economic and political patrons, the indigenous ejidatatios, have left them behind. COMAR (Mexican Committee for Aid to Refugees, a UNHCR-funded organization) has instructed them to stay in their camps. Some express fear of getting caught in the middle, or having the army do to them what was done in Guatemala in 1981-1983 in the name of counter-insurgency. They are not taking sides, it seems, just hoping for peace. They are not warm to the idea of becoming refugees twice over.

Since the initial false claims by Mexico that the Zapatista leaders were from Guatelama, there has been a cloud over Guatemalans in sanctuary within the state. There are over 50,000 Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas, including those in the refugee camps; the workers indentured to fincas, plantations and ejidos; and "no oficales" hidden within the urban populace. A quarter-million Guatemalans fled a terrible situation of state and rebel political violence in 1980-1984, with massive abuses perpetrated by the army forcing whole villages across into Mexico. While a fraction have returned home, most remain in refugee camps or have gone elsewhere in Mexico or beyond. They remain very vulnerable to human rights abuses, given their double identity as "Indian" and "foreign", and the revolt has made them targets of violence. I have no direct evidence of inordinate abuse since the revolt, but certain news is ominous.

Reports suggest the return process for Guatemalan refugees has been stalled, and it has become harder for refugees to move about even in the state. Refugees abandoned by their patrons are not allowed to join them in a regional camp such as those in Comitan and Margaritas. These refugees - isolated, without income, politically suspect - live precariously in the rainforest ejidos or hidden in the towns and plantations of Chiapas.

The recent assination of the PRI presidential candidate has increased the national sense of tension and political crisis. In Chiapas, tensions are also on the rise. The Zapatistas have stopped their consideration of the peace plan and prepared for renewed fighting because of the build up of troops in the Altamirano and Ocosingo regions. They have declared that the government is using the murder of Colosio as an excuse to mave against the Zapatistas, a claim that becomes more credible as the assination plot unravels. Back in San Cristobal, the uprising has emboldened the Mayas in the market place, and they are no longer listening to the orders of the non-indigenous town officials whose job is to tell them what they can sell and where. Indigenous organizations are flourishing, strengthened by the political cover of the Zapatistas, and the new political atmosphere. However, the attention given to the negotiations by Mexicans and the media, and the apparent political "spring" for the indigenous have created a forceful reaction. Arms sales in San Cristobal are brisk. A group of some 200 "real" San Cristobal elites are reported to have formed an organization to fight in defense of their ancient privileges, a move that mirrors the new death squads begun by the ranchers to the east, ranch hands fighting against the wave of indigenous land seizures that has followed the revolt. The process of polarization along ethnic and class lines moves at a frightening pace, and the government is going to have to carefully and judiciously intercede or Chiapas may revert to its Central American origins. Resolving the Chiapas crises without violence and with sustainable alternatives for agrarian development and indigenous political rights is the great challenge Mexico faces, with the stakes being no less than the national identity and international reputation of this most important of our Latin American neighbors. Also in the balance may reside the future of indigenous struggles for rights in the Americas, and the lives of many marginalized Mayas.

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