The twentieth anniversary of the indigenous uprising in the southern Mexican state has just passed. On January 1 1994, the date that the NAFTA (North-American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect, the EZLN ( Zapatista Army of National Liberation) led by the enigmatic Subcomondante Marcos took control of the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and presented a list of demands to the Mexican government.
The translation below is of an article by Juan Carlos Perez Salazar entitled ‘Cómo el pasamontañas zapatista se convirtió en ícono turístico‘ published on the BBC Mundo site.
Of course, commercializing political icons and symbols is not a new phenomenon. Most prominently, the image of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is ubiquitous on t-shirts, mugs and countless other paraphernalia. I’m sure he rolls and rolls in his grave.
HOW THE ZAPATISTA BALACLAVA BECAME A TOURIST ICON
Welcome to the merchandise for Zapatista tourism consumption.
A phenomenon with a precise date of birth: the first days of January in 1994, exactly 20 years ago, when the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation occurred.
Emerging digital technology, the charisma and mystery of Subcomandante Marcos and the certainty – for many young Mexicans and foreigners – that it was a just cause, made what happened in a far-flung and poor corner of Mexico have a global impact.
One of the unexpected effects of this worldwide resonance is that thousands and thousands – above all young people – began to travel to Chiapas to find out more about the Zapatista phenomenon.
There is even a Wikipedia article under the name of Zapaturismo (Zapatista Tourism).
On the streets of San Cristóbal
All this is easily seen in a stroll around the narrow central streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the third most important city of Chiapas and where the armed uprising was concentrated two decades ago.
In the ‘tianguis’ (street markets), dolls of Subcomandante Marcos sell for 50 pesos, a little less than US $ 4. The same price gets you the figure of the late Comandante Ramona, who, as I was told by a follower of the Zapatistas, was the one who organised the capture of San Cristóbal.
Key rings of both comandantes are sold for 15 pesos.
The same person who explained to me about Ramona (and who prefers to remain anonymous) assured me that the Zapatistas do not profit from this nor have they authorised anybody to produce these goods in their name. He adds, however, that they don’t even try to stop it as it would be practically impossible.
In fact, in Caracol de Oventic (one of the Zapatista communities) there is a small cooperative store in which the same trifles are sold as well as mugs, shot glasses for tequila, notebooks and DVDs.
In San Cristóbal there are also more prosperous businesses, such as bars, restaurants and even clothes shops with revolutionary paraphernalia, above all of Che Guevara and the Zapatistas.
In 2010, the then tourism secretary of Chiapas, Juan Carlos Cal y Mayor Franco, joked that the subcomandante Marcos would have to be paid royalties for the promotion he had done for the state. It’s not just about tourism either. Following the uprising, the federal government has poured enormous economic resources into the area.
But behind all the ‘zapaturismo’ there is, evidently, a political interest. Besides the young, anxious for a just cause, Chiapas was visited during the 90s by diverse figures of the left including Oliver Stone, Eduardo Galeano, Jose Saramago and Danielle Mitterand.
Such was the global boom of zapatismo that it also contributed, and not just a little, to a new message for a left that came out of the 80s exhausted and weakened following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Paradoxically, part of this message was anti-globalisation. Furthermore, according to Luis Daniel Vazquez, a professor and researcher at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, part of the movement against globalisation has its roots in young people who met in meetings organised by Zapatista groups in Chiapas.
“One of the biggest meetings was the 1997 one, where various people who had already started to form anti-globalisation movements such as those in Italy and the United States met. Later the same people were involved in the 1999 demonstration in Seattle.”
“When you speak with the people who were behind this demonstration, they recognise that its origin was two years before, in the Chiapas meeting.
It’s also evident that behind the international popularity of Zapatismo is Marco and his immense media ability.
In the chapter dedicated to the zapatista leader in his book “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America” the historian Enrique Krauze states:
” The balaclava, of course, was an extraordinary invention, a symbol with all the advantages of a wonderful brand: distinct, simple, cheap, useful, reproducible as itself or on posters or t-shirts.
However, Marcos has said that it was improvised: the real symbol was going to be a red cravat, but the very force of the events dictated that it was the balaclava
And what do the “tourists” say?
I find Kevin Maloney and Mery Kelly, two Americans, in one of the typical zapatista haunts of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a restaurant in the heart of the city.
Kevin says that he came because the area is very beautiful but he adds that the subject of zapatismo is of interest to the whole American “democratic collective” (including the Democratic Party, he clarifies)
It’s something that Mery confirms: in the part of San Francisco where she lives, zapatismo is very popular. Almost on a par with Che Guevara.
In her visit, Mery has realised two things. Firstly: that racism is alive and well in Chiapas. The indigenous peoples continue to be the poorest and clearly occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder (not long ago, for example, there was a minor scandal in the city when a Guatemalan tourist was not allowed to enter a business after being mistaken as an indigenous person).
Secondly: the zapatistas have become a kind of “brand”. “People are buying the idea of democracy and autonomy, but doing it in a very capitalistic way, like purchasing t-shirts”.
“I’m nervous about the idea of meeting the zapatistas because I don’t know if my attitude will be authentic. I would like to visit them but, is my view going to be different from, for example, going to where there is another indigenous group and taking some photos? I don’t think so”, Mery concludes.
Perhaps in part to remedy this sensation, the EZLN is organising “zapatista schools” to which those who wish to know how they live in “autonomous communities” are invited.
Interest is maintained
Some of the people who, day to day, deal with this kind of “tourist” believe that many of them do have an interest that qualifies as authentic.
People like María Elena, who is responsible for the bookshop at the campus of the Autonomous University of Mexico in San Cristóbal, says that the flow of visitors looking for information about zapatismo has been more or less constant during the 20 years that have passed since the uprising.
They are mostly young foreigners. Some have even settled in Chiapas. “There are people that have stayed for ever. They get into something that they like. They come from Spain, Europe. I think they find a sense of meaning in their lives”
“Beto”, who has a hostel for cyclists, also believes that the influx of visitors has not decreased.
“A lot of people interested in the subject come… I don’t know if I’d call it ‘tourism’, they really come to participate to to learn other things. It’s not that they just go to visit the communities and take photos, they have a more authentic interest”.
“Some are researchers from other parts of the world, others are studying masters or doctorates in social sciences. The people that I have met here come informed, not like tourists”.
On the streets, it’s possible to distinguish some of them upon simple sight: dreadlocks, colourful pants. It’s a fascinating combination: people that arrive from abroad to take an interest in the problems of indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. Travellers of the world with a strong anti-globalisation stance.
For now, on my return to Mexico City, in my rucksack, apart from some books about zapatismo, loads of interviews and a slightly more rounded vision of a complex reality, I also have several dolls and keyrings of Marcos and the comandante Ramona to give as gifts.