After an hour long hellish cab ride through the spectacular central highlands of Chiapas we finally arrived at the autonomous Zapatista community of Oventic. I really wasn’t sure what to expect but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had talked my friends Glenn and Dixie Dixon of Vagabondians.com into going with me as chaperones on the adventure. As you approach Oventic you can see that you are in for something a little different. There are signs of the Zapatista movement all over Chiapas but this place is thick with them. When the driver stopped there was no obvious place to go. When I asked he pointed to a non-descript gate with guard shack on either side. We had arrived.
Entering Oventic is not that straightforward. We stopped at the guard shack and were met by two women wearing traditional Mayan clothing and scarves hiding their faces. They motioned for us to approach the gate and apparently wait. After a few minutes two men with clip boards wearing “balaclava” type ski masks approached and asked us what we wanted. We explained that we just wanted to see the village and take some photos. They asked for some information regarding professions. I tried to explain that I was retired but apparently that doesn’t translate here so I recanted and told them I was a writer and a photographer. That seemed to go over okay then they asked for our passports. After writing down our information they disappeared.
Although mostly nonviolent and defensive against military, paramilitary, and corporate incursions into Chiapas the Zapatista uprising has occasionally been armed and active. On the morning of January 1, 1994, led by the charismatic Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatistas (EZLN) declared war “against the Mexican state.” 3,000 armed rebels seized towns and cities in Chiapas, Mexico including San Cristobal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Huixtán and Oxchuc. They freed the prisoners in the jail of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and set fire to several police buildings and military barracks in the area. They wanted to use their rebellion as a platform to call attention to their movement and to protest the signing of NAFTA, which the Zapatistas believed would increase the gap between the rich and poor people of Chiapas. After several days of intense fighting, leaving dozens of rebels, soldiers and civilians dead a cease fire was negotiated. The cease fire remains in effect but there are still many tensions in the area. During the skirmish foreigners were not targeted, none were killed and from what I have heard from people that were here then, foreigners were welcomed as witnesses to the insurrection.
After half an hour or so one of the men that was interviewing us earlier came back and escorted us into the village. We were allowed to take pictures. The people were busy going about their daily routines but friendly. I could even detect a sense of humor in our masked escort. There were a few stores, a small restaurant and small Zapatista radio station. Almost all of the buildings had intricate Diego Rivera like murals depicting scenes of Zapatista life, themes and struggles. Many of the murals had images of snails on them.
Snails or “caracoles” represent organizational parts of the autonomous Zapatista communities. There are founding five independent “rebel territories,” including Oventic. These “caracoles” are host to the five Zapatista Juntas of Good Government, schools, hospitals and women’s collectives. Zapatistas believe that people that work the land should own the land, a “bottom-up” instead of “top-down” government and that women, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in any way that their desire and capacity determine.
Although they very strictly control entry into the village at no point was I made to feel unwelcome. Unlike many other Mayan villages in Chiapas there were no street vendors or people asking for money. I had the impression that these people want the outside world to know their story and showing people around their picturesque little village is a way to do that. All in all it was a good adventure and an interesting insight into a complex movement that I know little about.