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Solidarity Work with the Zapatistas
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, let us walk together. -Rose Gregoire (A leader of Innu resistance to militarization militarization of their ancestral land)
[Important Note: Right now (summer/fall 08) the Zapatistas are in urgent need of Peace Observors as Zapatista Communities are under attack by the Mexican Army as of late. If you speak Spanish, can observe for at least two weeks, can deal with camping in rustic areas, are at least 18 and have transportation to Chiapas, Mexico, go to the following links for more information on how to help. http://www.frayba.org.mx/observadores.php or http://enlinea.capise.org.mx/?q=node/31]
This page has ideas about how to go about doing solidarity work with the Zapatistas. Please read this article discussing the politics of solidarity work in Chiapas before deciding on what sort of solidarity work you would like to do. At the end of the article is a link to a page discussing options, organizations and links.
Important point: If you want to do solidarity work in Chiapas, it is important that you know Spanish. This means you can understand a Mexican when they are talking to you and you can respond in a relatively complete sentence AND said Mexican can understand you. Not knowing conversational Spanish is extremely impeding and frustrating when trying to work in Chiapas. Very few people know English there.
Born as a response to the US Governments tendency to fund and support wars and anti-socialist movements outside of our borders, Latin American solidarity work has become a staple for the American activist household. In the eighties, solidarity movements sprung up all over to support counties in Central America that were being devastated by out government's cold war offences. The tradition has remained strong through the years, as our government has not relented in its meddling and violence. This solidarity work has, in fact, been a huge resource for the Zapatistas. Unfortunately, middle-class America has generally not been socialized to understand what solidarity work means.
Many have had it with solidarity from the privileged. The following except is written by Sup. Marcos and is from “Chiapas: The Thirteenth Stele – Part Two: A Death.”
The Zapatista movement arose, among other things, in demand of respect. And it so happened that we didn't always receive respect. And it's not that they insulted us. Or at least not intentionally. But, for us, pity is an affront, and charity is a slap in the face…
I'm taking out of the chest of memories right now some excerpts from a letter I wrote more than 9 years ago: “We are not reproaching you for anything (to those from civil society who came to the communities), we know that you are risking much to come and see us and to bring aid to the civilians on this side. It is not our needs which bring us pain, it's seeing in others what others don't see, the same abandonment of liberty and democracy, the same lack of justice (...) From what our people received in benefit in this war, I saved an example of “humanitarian aid” for the chiapaneco indigenous, which arrived a few weeks ago: a pink stiletto heel, imported, size 61/2…without its mate. I always carry it in my backpack in order to remind myself, in the midst of interviews, photo reports and attractive sexual propositions, what we are to the country after the first of January: a Cinderella. (...) These good people who, sincerely, send us a pink stiletto heel, size 6 and 1/2, imported, without its mate… thinking that, poor as we are, we'll accept anything, charity and alms. How can we tell all those good people that no, we no longer want to continue living Mexico's shame. In that part that has to be prettied up so it doesn't make the rest look ugly. No, we don't want to go on living like that.”
That was in April of 1994. Then we thought it was a question of time, that the people were going to understand that the Zapatista indigenous were dignified, and they weren't looking for alms, but for respect. The other pink heel never arrived, and the pair remained incomplete, and piling up in the “Aguascalientes” were useless computers, expired medicines, extravagant (for us) clothes, which couldn't even be used for plays (“señas,” they call them here) and, yes, shoes without their mate. And things like that continue to arrive, as if those people were saying, “poor little things, they're very needy. I'm sure anything would do for them, and this is in my way.”
And that's not all. There is a more sophisticated charity. It's the one that a few NGOs and international agencies practice. It consists, broadly speaking, in their deciding what the communities need, and, without even consulting them, imposing not just specific projects, but also the times and means of their implementation. Imagine the desperation of a community that needs drinkable water and they're saddled with a library. The one that requires a school for the children, and they give them a course on herbs.
…If the Zapatista communities wanted, they could have the best standard of living in Latin America. Imagine how much the government would be willing to invest in order to secure our surrender and to take lots of pictures and make a lot of “spots” where Fox or Martita could promote themselves, while the country fell apart in their hands. …How much would Zedillo have offered in order to cover up the economic crisis in which he buried the country, with the image of his triumphal entrance into La Realidad?
The Zapatistas don't need charity…but then there are the folks of relative privilege who like to say "solidarity, not charity.” Solidarity, not charity? What does that mean, anyway? I suppose it means that “we who do not generally experience starvation, degradation and the violent oppression of the state want to be political allies with you in your struggle against oppression, we're not just here to pass you the free canned goods.”
Solidarity was until recently generally associated with the labor movement. In this framework, solidarity was an exercise among equals working for something in common. "Solidarity" seems to often now be used to mean something that people of the oppressor group (this is not to say that one oppresses because they are part of the oppressor group) exercise to be on the side of people of the oppressed group. Men's solidarity with women (aka feminist men), white people's solidarity with people of color (aka anti-racist white allies), etc. The dilemma is that, though "solidarity" was once used to signify a relationship between shared experience and interest, this current use of "solidarity" signifies a relationship between experiences that are explicitly and intentionally not shared. Further, because "in solidarity" is a descriptive for the person of the oppressor group, that person could easily slip into thinking that she's got good politics when she's actually behaving in ways that are kind of dictatorial or patronizing.
Therefore, to transcend these politics of solidarity, I try to look at it more as working for justice: an ethical commitment to the liberation of all peoples. The solidarity comes from our shared fight for justice.
I don't pretend to really understand what it means to be indigenous in Mexico. I don't go abroad to “help” some poor folks with charity or show them on how to fight their oppression. They have 500 years experience fighting this oppression. My experience, though similar in some ways, is not the experience of others and my answers are not necessarily transferable. I believe groups and people in resistance need other groups and people in resistance, and we learn for each other, to see each other and know we are everywhere, and then implement what makes sense in our own communities.
The US government and corporations effectively robs the people and impedes autonomous development in Mexico. To work for justice means to work with the people getting the shaft, to lay down your privilege and get you hands dirty.
And you will get dirty, if you decide you want to do some solidarity work in the communities. It will be like a long-term camping trip. You will shower in cold water and many of the communities are cold for a good part of the year. Most communities have only dirt roads.
Another important aspect of solidarity work is the time issue. Having been involved with some groups who host people to work in Chiapas, I know that coming for a couple months to work in a community is just not enough. If you have a month or three, consider being a peace-camper. These are the people who camp alongside threatened communities and report back to some of the NGOs. International presence is a deterrent for military and paramilitary harassment. Through Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, you can go on assignments for as few as two weeks. If you want to work on a short-term project in a community, the other option is to find out what is needed (email me for more discussion on this is you like) and then get together a work group that could go down and finish a project in a month or so… If you want to go and work in the communities or do solidarity work from San Cristóbal, (the large town close to the Autonomous communities) spending six or more months is a good time commitment. It generally takes a couple weeks to get placed and then a couple of weeks to be trained.
There is this term, “activist tourism.” Please don't embody this term in your solidarity work. Are you going because you will learn a lot and it's cooler than working for change in your own community? What do you have to offer the Zapatistas?
How Shall I get involved?...