I am writing from a small building in a Zapatista Caracol (a former Aguascalientes) that has satellite internet. Amazing. Our first week here studying Spanish has been done largely in the context of understanding the history, culture, struggle and current events in the Chiapan highlands, jungles and villages. Yesterday we hiked up the side of the mountain to sit and look at an amazing vista of the mountain steppe and points dotted with small villages. Among them were military observation points and garrisions. We discussed the situation here and asked a lot of questions. The promotores here (they are called such in place of teacher, as they are primarily facilitating discussion) have worked with us in Spanish to discuss Zapatismo and our questions, around specific themes.
Today we met with a woman from a sewing collective and asked questions and discussed the formation, shape and challenges of the collective. Here I have experienced an intense commitment to collective and cooperative process, an engagement of all people in the zonas rebeldias (in rebellion, different than revolution) through democratic process. They strive for consensus but are clearly based on democracy here. The analysis we have learned is that all the work and activity here is not based on an end game ideology, rather it is a new an unfolding process where many, if not all people have a voice. Of course this is all in the context of incredible militarization of the region (70,000 soldiers and an estimated 30,000 paramilitaries) and the subsequent oppression.
An example of the oppression are the regular patrols on foot and on the roads by Mexican Military. They walk through the farms, villages, into buildings, pastures, homes and meeting spaces. They are fully armed, pointing their guns at people, and when confronted or questioned they reply that they are on a routine patrol. Normal they say. We watched several videos and watched some of the garrisons in action. To me it is incredibly intimidating (the people here name it as inflammatory and provocative) and at minimum very scary to have armed men, hummers, tanks and helicopters routinely, as in weekly travelling through the community. Of course I can not imagine this happening in any populated area in America, although our police and federal agents do make the effort from time to time. But here this has been going on for 10 years.
I live in a small dormitory with bunkbeds along with 6 other internationales. There are outhouses nearby and several snack stores. We are fed 3 meals a day. We do much of our learning in small groups, I am in a small group with a woman from Canada and we meet for two or three hours. We may meet in the community library when the secondary school students are not in session, on a knoll overlooking the outdoor amphitheatre, or in another space based on the theme of our discussion for the day (ie the womenś collective was todays location). We are doing some reading and some writing, but the emphasis here is not on grammar but on dialogue.
This is an intense, privileged and life’changing experience to be here. To be in the heart of the struggle in a zone considered to be internationalized but clearly very intentional. There is a requirement that persons who come here are vetted and come with a reference from a solidarity organization from their home country. This proces of accountability seems entirely appropriate. Life here is still very difficult despite all of the international press and popularity among the left. Nutrituion, food production, health services and education are all issues that continue to require attention. And of course this is in the context of Mexican government, NAFTA, Free Trade Area of the Americas, School of the Americas and ultimately USA business and corporate interests that seek to exploit and control this land and its people.
The place to start if you want to experience what we are experiencing is to develop relationships of solidarity in your home community, state, province, etc. Through that organizational, or collective experience and commitment, you are then positioned to be able to come here. This positioning requires some education, both self education and group education about the struggle here and in other liberation movements around the world. From this point an application to a recognized solidarity group (in the USA it is the Mexico Solidarity Network that has offices in Chicago, DC and Los Angeles) which will then forward your interest to the international zones (called Caracols, Spanish for snail) where a group of community leaders makes a decision on whether to invite you or not. This can take 4 to 6 weeks.
Tommorow I look forward to learning more about the religious and spiritual dynamics in these communities. I have not talked a lot about being a divinity student here, and I am probably not the first to come. We have not talked a lot about the relationship with Judeo Christian religions, although the former archbishop Samuel Ruiz was known as a supporter of indigenous rights and culture. He was removed when he was of retirement age, and although he hoped to finish out his days here, he was moved to Northern Mexico.