Learning from Zapatista Women

By: Sarra Tekola

My research strives to understand and shift Western society so that we are not dependent on exploitation and extraction. So, it is critical I visit places and people who have created new societies to research how they did it. I recently visited the Zapatista community to learn how they changed their values, their ways of treating each other and the land, and how they created independent economies without recreating capitalism. Being indigenous, many of them did not need to unlearn, but rather resist the modern ways of being. However, patriarchy and hierarchy were systems of oppression they did previously struggle with, so I had many questions for them. While at the Zapatistas First International Women’s Gathering, I had the pleasure of talking with several Zapatista women. Due to my limited Spanish, it ended up being more of an interview – I wrote my questions and had a friend translate them. I want to share some of the things I learned and experienced.

The Zapatistas are an autonomous group of indigenous people leading agrarian livelihoods in Mexico. In 1994, they rose up, taking up arms against the government to fight for their own sovereignty. It was the same year NAFTA passed, and the Zapatistas foresaw the economic crisis that would follow when America’s GMO’ed corn flooded the Mexican market. Mexican farmers couldn’t compete. They lost their livelihoods and entire way of life, increasing migration to the United States.

The Zapatistas have essentially formed their own Nation within Mexico. They felt Mexico was on a dangerous neoliberal path and chose to broke away from it. They have their own government, military, banks, economy, food systems, water systems, and waste systems. On top of this, they operate from a non-hierarchal system; there are no leaders, no bosses and no one is famous. This class system is, in part, why they wear ski masks. The masks only reveal their eyes and birth names and identities are not shared. In this way, everyone is equal; even women have become equal.

Zapatista Women

Zapatista Women lined up in their traditional clothes and Zapatista uniform

Zapatista women have actually gone much further in their fight for women equality than we have in the West. This women’s gathering, above, was organized and created by and for only women. The Zapatista women put it on by themselves and Zapatista men supported by cooking food and watching the children. The Zapatista’s gender norms (or lack thereof) were also evident when we asked them what it was like to be a woman Zapatista. They could not answer the question and usually replied with, ‘what do you mean? There is no difference between a woman and man in the Zapatistas’. Work is shared, and the only gender differences they talked about were due more to biological strength differences than anything else.

Zapatista Women1

The women-only speakers on stage getting ready to perform

My visit and time was most eye-opening when I asked about their perspectives of the West. Many of the women I spoke to are farmers from the Global South; they are “Campesinos” whom most international development agencies would consider in need of aid or development (despite the fact that they are self-sufficient and not interested in western development). They replied that they felt bad for us; we were the ones in need of aid because we are oppressed compared to them. We have bosses who tell us what to do and our bosses own the fruits of our labor. We have to work long hours under a boss who dehumanizes us. The rich people and government have taken all the land and we have no space to farm and grow our own food. We do not own our own time so we do not have enough time to spend with our family.

One woman shared, “us Zapatistas are looking for the right formula so that nobody suffers anymore”. She went on to say that they live free without any bosses, free to grow their own food and live their own life without anyone telling them what to do or how to do it. She said she wants everyone in the world to have access to this freedom. She thinks about us in the City and feels bad because we are so exploited. She said the “Zapatistas fight for your freedom too so that you can know freedom like us”.

I was recently reminded of these challenges when I started looking into buying a home.  Having grown up during the economic recession and Occupy, I had a healthy mistrust of banks. I have made a conscious effort to make sure banks won’t control of my life by never taking out a loan or getting a credit card. I have bought every car and large purchase with cash, and don’t purchase things I can’t afford. I even worked and “scholarshipped” through both undergraduate and graduate school. I have vigilantly worked hard to have no debt. But in America, you have to create debt to buy a house or rent, or really do anything big.

I had received a three-year fellowship that gave me the stability mortgage brokers often look for. And, like the Zapatistas, I was tired of having a boss. Living with landlords, I have been harassed for composting, for attempting to grow food on my own property, for having patio furniture, for keeping my bicycle outside, for training and watching dogs at my house, and for letting friends sleep on my couch. I want to be free – I want to own my land so that I can do what I want, the way I want. There are many sustainable modifications that can be made to a house to use fewer resources, but I could not make these modifications because I did not own my own property. How can I be sustainable if I do not even have control of how I live? In order to fulfill my dream of owning my own land, I had to give up some of my freedom to the banks by creating credit and getting debt. This is exactly what the Zapatistas meant when they said you are not free in this system.

I was so shocked and humbled by my experience – it completely turned my worldview around. I thought I was the privileged one, that I had more “freedom” in America than they had in rural Mexico. Maybe they are right, maybe we are the exploited ones? I don’t know much about what is in the food I eat, and don’t have enough land or time to grow my own food. I also don’t own my own time and don’t get to choose how often I see my family and loved ones. Maybe we are the ones who cannot be free in this system.

Indigenous Corn

Indigenous Corn- What corn previously looked like

The Zapatistas have really opened my eyes up to how exploited we are in the West. They are a reminder of why we need new voices and ideas brought to the table in the field of sustainability. The field of sustainability often attempts to put pressure on individual actions, often only pushing for responsible consumerism (which, in my opinion, is an oxymoron). This is, in part, because of who controls the conversation. If it were the Zapatistas leading the conversation on sustainability, they would push for a world where multinational corporations don’t control everyone’s resources. They are striving for a world where all people experience true freedom, where they have time to grow their own food and spend time with family. To me, this is the true intersection of sustainability and happiness.


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