Race Hatred and Class Warfare in Mexico's South: NAFTA Fuels the Chiapas Rebellion

Article excerpt

Mexico is a place of contrasts, where foreign visitors quickly learn to love it or hate it. In Mexico City the problems are high air pollution and a horrendous traffic system. The country's south provides a balance. In Chiapas, tourists easily learn to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the uniqueness of the handicrafts made by the Maya Indians. In addition, the colourful dresses of the Maya provide a welcome feast to the eyes. One of Mexico's favorite tourist destinations is the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas' third largest urban centre. The city sits on top of an Alpine valley surrounded by pine trees and breath-taking mountain views.

Most visitors to San Cristobal are foreign adventure-seekers, or hippie types who seem to be suffering from civilization overdose. They all have one thing in common: the opportunity to experience the beauty of a place hardly touched by the unforgiving hand of 20th century "modernization" is irresistible. The composition of the city's population -- a cosmopolitan breed of Ladinos (non-Indian Mexicans), foreigners, and Maya Indians -- seems to confirm its image as a peaceful tourist Mecca. The tranquillity is deceiving, and that is why in Canada and the United States the news of an armed incursion into the city by a combined group of Maya and poor peasants came as a surprise. However, given the history of the region, there is nothing surprising about the uprising

San Cristobal's apparent tranquillity often deceives the inexperienced observer, making it difficult to realize that the place is a chamber of suppressed cultural passions and racial hatred. Long time residents, especially those who have economic interests in the city, often argue that the city's racial problems have subsided in recent years, but even today it is not uncommon to see Ladino store owners chasing Indians out of their businesses with the help of broomsticks. Other Ladino residents tell visitors that the only reason they allow the Maya into the city is their unlimited economic value for the tourist industry. After all, "los canches" (the blonde ones) come south to see Indians.

Racism is not a new phenomenon in Mexico, nor is it limited to San Cristobal. Chiapas, like many other parts of Latin America with dense Indian populations, is a place with a long history of political, racial, and economic conflict. For more than four centuries, nothing has provoked more terror in the hearts of the region's ruling elites than the constant threat of Indian revolt. Obviously, the recent uprising by a combined group of Maya and poor peasants will only serve to fuel the fires of racial and class hatred in Mexico's south.

The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army or EZLN) declared war against the Mexican government and the North American Free Trade Agreement because of their lack of "land, food, freedom, and justice." During the first month after the uprising, the majority of the mass media seemed to agree that the revolt had resulted in "only" 107 casualties, but Mexican and international human rights groups and the Mexican Church publicly stated that the casualties may be in the hundreds.

The caste war of the Yucatan

One of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of the present rebellion is that it came almost 150 years after Mexico experienced its most serious Indian revolt. Historian Nelson Reed has referred to this revolt as "the Caste War of the Yucatan." The "Caste War," which began in 1846, almost resulted in the total expulsion of non-Indians from the Yucatan Peninsula. And, just like the present-day Maya, those who took part in the "Caste War" were bitter about the abuses and racism that they often experienced at the hands of the region's Ladino settlers and the authorities.

Chiapas' move to join the Mexican Federation in the early 1800s (after seceding from Guatemala) brought a certain degree of political stability, but it did not prevent the further development of violent, and often bloody, confrontations between the Maya communities and the Ladino settlers. …