I am descended from rebels. Historically and genetically. Historically, Croatia has a long history of insurgency. It has resisted the infiltration and occupation of many invaders. The long list includes the Romans, the Venetian Republic, Hungarians, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Ottoman Turks and the German and Italian armies during WWII. Let us, of course, not forget the communists who held Croatia in a vise-like grip for the latter part of the 20th century.
And this is how I am genetically descended from rebels. My father did not believe in communism. He wanted a free democratic Croatia. And so in 1961, he left his village in Hecergovina in the former Yugoslavia with two friends. They walked for three days straight, stopping only to sleep or to hide from the authorities. Finally, they reached Trieste, Italy where they requested asylum. My father spent a year in a refugee camp in Italy awaiting the U.S. to accept his paperwork. His friends went on to France. Finally, in April 1962, the U.S. government granted my father political refugee status. He was free to come to the United States.
That could have been the end of his rebellion. But it wasn’t. My father continued to believe in a free Croatia. He marched in Croatian national pride parades. He invested in the Croatian community by participating in the church, the community and the Croatian school (the one where I missed all those Saturday morning cartoons..!!). But he also invested in the Croatian people. He sent money back home, he pressed the U.S. to stop doing business with Yugoslavia, he passed out leaflets and he helped the diaspora find jobs and homes. Because of this involvement in the community and the stipulation on his asylum to not be involved in overt acts against the U.S. or Yugoslavia, we had many visits from the FBI. Hence, my abilty to spot a FBI agent… And my desire to add meeting rebels to my bucketlist.!
Throughout my youth, I was inundanted with ideas of resistance, rebellion and freedom from tyranny. And so my fascination with revolutionaries around the world was born, including the U.S.’s from Britain. But also groups as farflung as the Irish revolutionary army (IRA), the Basque nationalist and separatist group ETA, even the Quebec sovereignty movement in Canada peaked my attention.! If it smacked of rebellion and unrest and the formation of a new country – it had my attention. Not that I condoned violence, it was the romantic rhetoric that made me swoon.
So in March 2010, when I signed up for my Chiapas study abroad class, I was pleased to discover we would be meeting with the Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico.! In fact, I was excited.!! However, almost every single other person in my life expressed interest ranging from complete disinterest as in “Who are they?” and “Who cares” to “Omg – you are going to get yourself killed.!” But I was not nervous, I was thrilled to go. Ok maybe I was a little nervous. But I had technically grown up around ‘rebels’ my whole life. So I figured, I would be fine.
The day finally came to see the Zapatistas. We took our bus to one of their villages in the Chiapas highlands. We arrived at the village fairly early. A letter had been sent ahead of time announcing our visit. However, the Zapatista villages are considered an autonomous region of Mexico; therefore, when we arrived we had to hand over our passports for approval. It was exactly like entering a foreign country. We were allowed to enter the village, but were only escorted to an administration building. Apparently, there was some confusion with our admittance because two students were carrying passports from Colombia and one from the Ukraine. Initially, the Zapatistas seemed confused by this, but we were able to explain the discrepancy to their satisfaction.
On a side note, while we were waiting to be admitted many of us required the use of bathroom facilities. Since we were not allowed to go into the village technically, we were led behind the small la tienda on the roadside. So remember how I waxed profusely about the amazing bathroom at Ocosingo. Yeah, this bathroom was the exact opposite..!! First, we had to walk through a maze of dirt, refuse, discarded metal and chickens..!! Yes, I said chickens..!! Have I mentioned I’m a city girl who is afraid of birds in general. Let alone chickens. Did I mention me and my classmate held hands.! Then of course, the bathroom was an outhouse on stairs..?! With chickens outside clucking.! Oh well…I digress…
Once our visit was approved, our passports were returned to us. We were then taken to a building that appeared to be a schoolhouse or meeting room. Three Zapatista rebels, two men and a woman, sat at the head of the room and told us their story. Basically, the Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group located in Chiapas. The group is made up mostly of rural indigenous Maya, though their leader and main spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, is not Maya. The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer and leading figure of the Mexican Revolution.
The Zapatistas have led a war or rebellion against the Mexican state since 1994 when NAFTA was signed. They were concerned that NAFTA would bring about a larger gap between the rich and the poor. However, since their 1994 uprising was squashed by the Mexican army, they have refrained from using weapons. The Zapatistas, or EZLN, now have adopted a different strategy that attempts to gain both Mexican and international support. They have started an internet campaign to explain their intentions and bring about more awareness to their plight. As well as, invite outside groups such as my study abroad class to hear their history and their requests. This change in tactics has garnered greater support from a variety of NGOs and other organizations. It has also created increased attention among the media.
Among the Zapatista requests are indigenous control over their resources, especially their land. Since 1994, they have been creating autonomous municipalities in Chiapas. In fact, San Juan Chamula discussed in an earlier post is one of these autonomous municipalities. They have their own police force and the Mexican army is not allowed to enter. Also, on our drive to Agua Azul and Palenque, we had to pay fees to enter to both the Mexican government and the Zapatistas as part of this autonomous agreement. The Zapatistas also believe in a bottom-up approach to politics rather than a top-down. That is why they believe the Mexican government and NAFTA are flawed. Power should come from the people according to EZLN.
At the end of their speeches, there was a question and answer session. I even got to ask a question about women’s rights among the Zapatistas.! The Zapatistas actually have a Women’s Revolutionary Law which declares women to be equals among men.! The meeting was definitely a top ten moment in my life. After the Q and A, we were allowed to tour the village and take photos. The buildings were amazing with many painted in bright and colorful hues. There was also a small shop that sold clothes and I picked up a beautiful purple embroidered blouse or huipil.
Upon leaving, the Zapatistas asked us to tell their story to the outside world. That was their only request of us. That visit was an amazing experience.! One I will not soon forget. The genuine struggle of the people brought to mind many revolutionary stories I have heard throughout my life and my schooling. The basic rights of a people to govern themselves and their land. Is it too much to ask for? Or is it too much not to ask for? Only the heart of a rebel knows the answer for certain. But it appears the Zapatistas and my father came to the same conclusion that it was too much not to ask for their freedom. Only time will tell whether a rebel heart beats within me….