Why Did Chiapas Revolt?

By Simpson, Charles R.; Rapone, Anita | Commonweal, June 3, 1994 | Go to article overview

Why Did Chiapas Revolt?


Simpson, Charles R., Rapone, Anita, Commonweal


In Mexico's state of Chiapas, the resistance to economic development without social development has found a popular voice. It is the voice of a Mayan peasant force, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which appeared in San Cristobal de las Casas and a handful of other places in Chiapas on January 1, 1994. In their Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, which accompanied their appearance, the EZLN wrote:

We are the product of 500 years of struggle: first against

slavery, in the war of independence against Spain, then

to escape being absorbed by North American expansion....

we have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent

roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no

food, no education, no right to freely and democratically

choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests,

and no justice for ourselves or our children.

But we say it is enough! We are the descendants of

those who truly build this nation. We are the millions of

dispossessed, and we call upon all of ourbrethren to join

our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!

In their declaration, and in their subsequent communications, the EZLN rejected a system of development where two of every three people in a population of over 3 million never complete primary school. It said "no" to electrification in which the rivers of Chiapas supply power to Mexico City, but a third of Chiapans are without electricity. It rejected a distribution of wealth in which 0.2 percent of the population--billionaires owning supermarket chains and speculators in telephone stock--are richer than half the people of Mexico combined, while half the people in Chiapas have houses with dirt floors. It deplored an economy in which 20 families in Chiapas monopolize the best land, exporting cattle to the United States, while 1,032,000 Indigenas possess 823,000 hectares, less than a hectare a person. It denounced a pay scale in which 80 percent of agricultural workers cam less than the minimum salary per day, under five dollars, resulting in 88 percent of indigenous children having growth retardation from malnourishment.

According to Major Sergio of the EZLN, "We want our children to study, to be able to leave, and go to the university." But in his part of the Selva Lacandon, the schools are closed eight out of ten months for lack of teachers. "The government was not going to respect us, and so the armed force began to grow. They obliged us to take the position we take. To meet our needs we must sell our land. And who will buy it? Those who have money. Our children are going to have to return to the slavery of the finca and the patrones who pay them only two pesos a day."

What has been the process of modernization in Chiapas?

Chiapas does not have a bucolic history. It is part of a region which was depopulated through recurrent plagues of European diseases from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, a tragedy made worse by the encomienda system which granted Indian land to the Spanish and concentrated the indigenous population in villages obliged to pay taxes in crops and forced labor. In this roadless and mountainous terrain, both harvest and ladino landowners were carried on the backs of Indian porters, people being cheaper transportation than horses.

Nonetheless, the colonial period, whose racial caste system was unaltered by Mexican independence, left two positive results. The first was the identification of the Catholic church with the suffering of the indigenous population. The second was a solidarity among Indians which identified life with the continuity of community and culture, linking both to the fields which made life possible. Today, this syncretism can be seen in the Mayan crosses on Lacandon hills, a Christian cross with pine branches added as a reference to the four directions of Mayan cosmology. …

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