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Dissident Women

Dissident Women
Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas

In this timely ethnographic study, nine Mexican and U.S. anthropologists examine the achievements of and challenges facing women participating in the Zapatista movement.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Fourteen

November 2006
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318 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos |

Yielding pivotal new perspectives on the indigenous women of Mexico, Dissident Women: Gender and Cultural Politics in Chiapas presents a diverse collection of voices exploring the human rights and gender issues that gained international attention after the first public appearance of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1994.

Drawing from studies on topics ranging from the daily life of Zapatista women to the effect of transnational indigenous women in tipping geopolitical scales, the contributors explore both the personal and global implications of indigenous women's activism. The Zapatista movement and the Women's Revolutionary Law, a charter that came to have tremendous symbolic importance for thousands of indigenous women, created the potential for renegotiating gender roles in Zapatista communities. Drawing on the original research of scholars with long-term field experience in a range of Mayan communities in Chiapas and featuring several key documents written by indigenous women articulating their vision, Dissident Women brings fresh insight to the revolutionary crossroads at which Chiapas stands—and to the worldwide implications of this economic and political microcosm.

  • Preface: Indigenous Organizing and the EZLN in the Context of Neoliberalism in Mexico (Lynn M. Stephen, Shannon Speed, and R. Aída Hernández Castillo)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Section One: Key Women's Documents
    • Women's Revolutionary Law
    • Women's Rights in Our Traditions and Customs
    • Comandanta Esthér: Speech before the Mexican Congress
    • International Day of the Rebel Woman
  • Introduction (R. Aída Hernández Castillo, Lynn M. Stephen, and Shannon Speed)
  • Section Two: Indigenous Women's Organizing in Chiapas and Mexico: Historical Trajectories, Border Crossings
    • Chapter 1. Between Feminist Ethnocentricity and Ethnic Essentialism: The Zapatistas' Demands and the National Indigenous Women's Movement (R. Aída Hernández Castillo)
    • Chapter 2. Indigenous Women and Zapatismo: New Horizons of Visibility (Márgara Millán Moncayo)
    • Chapter 3. Gender and Stereotypes in the Social Movements of Chiapas (Sonia Toledo Tello and Anna María Garza Caligaris)
    • Chapter 4. Weaving in the Spaces: Indigenous Women's Organizing and the Politics of Scale in Mexico (Maylei Blackwell)
  • Section Three: Rights and Gender in Ethnographic Context
    • Chapter 5. Indigenous Women's Activism in Oaxaca and Chiapas (Lynn M. Stephen)
    • Chapter 6. Autonomy and a Handful of Herbs: Contesting Gender and Ethnic Identities through Healing (Melissa M. Forbis)
    • Chapter 7. Rights at the Intersection: Gender and Ethnicity in Neoliberal Mexico (Shannon Speed)
    • Chapter 8. "We Can No Longer Be Like Hens with Our Heads Bowed, We Must Raise Our Heads and Look Ahead": A Consideration of the Daily Life of Zapatista Women (Violeta Zylberberg Panebianco)
  • References
  • Index

Shannon Speed is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

R. Aída Hernández Castillo is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Center of Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City.

Lynn M. Stephen is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon.


The public appearance of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1994 served as a catalyst in the organization of indigenous women in Mexico. Zapatista women became important advocates of indigenous women's rights through the Women's Revolutionary Law. This charter, written in consultation with Tojola'bal, Chol, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal women who were members of the EZLN, was made public on January 1, 1994, and has been of great symbolic importance for thousands of indigenous women in peasant, political, and cooperative organizations. Women from throughout Mexico have voiced their support for the demands of their compañeros (brothers and sisters in struggle) and the collective interests of their communities. Parallel to their participation in the struggle for land and democracy, these women have begun to demand the democratization of gender relations within the family, the community, and social and political organizations. Indigenous women have also developed and practiced strategies of everyday resistance. In some cases, they have been able to appropriate spaces in policy and decision making that previously had been the sole province of the state. Both through collective organizing and through individual actions in their daily lives, indigenous women have been confronting hegemonic ideologies that legitimate and perpetuate the subordination of women.


The women's organizing described in this book has taken place in two key contexts: the most highly developed and coordinated national indigenous movement for self-determination and rights in Mexico's history and the consolidation of the neoliberal economic model in Mexico. Here, we provide a brief description of the political, economic, and cultural context that led to the emergence of the EZLN in 1994 and its links to the neoliberal economic model implemented in the 1980s in Mexico.


Antecedents of the Zapatista Uprising


The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in Chiapas were marked by several distinct processes and events that were critical to the emergence of the Zapatista movement. Samuel Ruiz became bishop of the Catholic diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1960. In collaboration with Marist priests and nuns he opened up catechist schools, and by the early 1970s he had trained thousands of young, indigenous men and women in liberation theology. In 1974 the statewide Indian Congress organized by Bishop Ruiz with the help of Marist priests and nuns, schoolteachers, catechists, and advisers from the Maoist People's Union (UP), provided the first-ever forum in which 1,230 Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojola'bal, and Chol delegates from 327 communities came together to discuss issues of land, commerce, education, and health in their own languages (see Stephen 2002:115-119). Speeches at the congress called for indigenous peoples to unify across ethnic lines, to organize themselves, and to defend their own rights, rather than depend on others. Following the congress, a wide range of new organizations emerged, often under the banner of "peasant" rights and concerns. Outside grassroots organizers from various strands of the left came to encourage the formation of unions of ejidos, regional organizations composed of two or more agrarian reform communities that give its constituents more bargaining power as a group. Several of these unions made up primarily of indigenous members formed in Chiapas in the mid-1970s in areas that later became important sites of EZLN organizing (see Harvey 1998:81-82). As these organizations grew, so did the population in the lowland jungle, making it necessary for many communities to petition for extensions of their ejido land grants as new generations came of age (see Stephen 2002:120-124).


In 1980 several ejido unions combined to produce a larger and more powerful independent organization called the Union of Ejidal Unions and United Peasants of Chiapas (UU; also known as the Union of Unions). The UU, comprising 12,000 families from more than 180 communities, represented a new level of organization for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. In 1988 the UU joined with other organizations to form the ARIC-Union of Unions (ARIC-UU), which became the de facto subterranean government of a large region of the Lacandon jungle.


The anthropologist Xochitl Leyva Solano (2003) has argued that the emergence of the ARIC-UU resulted in political homogenization that was possible in part because of the absence of political parties in the region and the fact that its membership was almost entirely indigenous—unlike the composition of municipal governments in many other places in Chiapas. The UU-ARIC integrated four paths of change, "the Catholic faith, Guevarist and Maoist socialist ideologies, and an ethnic consciousness opposed to Ladinos [persons of nonindigenous descent]" (Leyva Solano 2003:164). Throughout the highlands and elsewhere in Chiapas, other types of indigenous organizations also prospered, among them writer's cooperatives, radio shows, theater groups, and history projects (see Benjamin 2000).


Mexico's adoption of neoliberalism began in the mid-1980s and was consolidated under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This economic system built on free trade policies benefited a few, but for the most part, it disadvantaged Mexico in relation to the United States; and most Mexicans, especially the rural poor, lost ground. In 1989, when the International Coffee Organization failed to agree on production quotas, prices fell by 50 percent. For the thousands of indigenous small coffee producers in Chiapas, the drop in prices was devastating. The inability of regional peasant organizations that had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s to resolve the problem convinced some to begin to listen to an alternative peasant organization, the Alianza Nacional Campesina Independente "Emiliano Zapata" (Emiliano Zapata Independent Peasant Alliance), or ANCIEZ, that was serving as a cover for the growing ranks of the clandestine Zapatista National Liberation Army.


Neoliberalism in Mexico and the Emergence of the EZLN


The 1980s, a decade of crisis and change in Mexico, culminated in the conditions that would impel the Zapatista uprising. Mexico's ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (Institutional Revolutionary Party), or PRI, had been able to maintain its hegemony for close to seven decades by developing a corporatist state that managed internal dissent through co-optation (and turned to coercion and repression when co-optation failed). Corporatism drew sectors of the population, in particular rebellious sectors, into the state project. For example, labor was drawn in through massive, state-sponsored unions; and indigenous people were engaged principally through the National Indigenous Institute (INI), whose goals were assimilation and modernization. However, the economic crisis of the 1980s left the Mexican state increasingly limited in its capacity to finance such social pacts (Collier 1994).


As in a number of other Latin American countries, neoliberal restructuring under way since the late 1970s was accelerated in the late 1980s. In Mexico, this program was carried out by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Mexico began to vie openly for a privileged place in the new global order. Through constitutional reform, policy changes were implemented to open markets (including privatization of sectors of the economy nationalized during the era of Lázaro Cardenas and the opening of Mexican markets to imported goods, such as grains, produced more cheaply in the United States) and to shrink the government's role in providing social services and subsidies. Together, these policy changes dealt a severe blow to many Mexicans, especially rural farmers, who depended on domestic markets to sell their grain and on state subsidies for production. Importantly, they signaled the end of the social pact of public welfare provided by the state that had been established after the revolution. Thus, the changes leading up to NAFTA brought Mexico into the emergent global order, ended decades of corporatist rule, and fundamentally altered relations between the state and civil society.


In late 1991 the Mexican government announced a forthcoming amendment to Article 27 of the Constitution calling for the end of land redistribution and the regularizing of all landholdings. As more than 25 percent of Mexico's unresolved land disputes were centered in Chiapas, the forthcoming reform was not welcome news there. For many, it meant the end of any hope of resolving social inequalities or injustices by petitioning the state for land reform. Soon after the announcement, a new peasant organization, the ANCIEZ, emerged in the Lacandon region, the highlands, and the northern region of Chiapas. It quickly began to pull people away from long-established regional peasant organizations and attracted interest from some catechists as well. Before going underground and reemerging as the EZLN in 1994, it held several large public demonstrations in 1992 to protest the revisions to Article 27, NAFTA, and the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Americas. According to the EZLN, in the intervening two years, communities working with the social organization of the EZLN voted to go to war and prepared to do so. The Women's Revolutionary Law was also developed and debated during this time. It was distributed simultaneously with the first Lacandon declaration of the EZLN.


On January 1, 1994, Mexico awakened to news of the Zapatista rebellion—a rebellion that in many ways had already taken place in Chiapas and now encompassed the rest of the country. Armed and unarmed troops of Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojola'bal, Chol, and Mam Indians from the central highlands of Chiapas and the Lacandon jungle had taken over five county seats in Chiapas. The group's name, method, and message invoked the spirit of the Mexican Revolution as it put forward a platform of work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. Twelve days into an armed confrontation between the very poorly equipped EZLN and the Mexican Army, the government came to the negotiating table.


Soon after the EZLN's public emergence in January 1994, demands for indigenous rights and self-determination began to take center stage in the Zapatistas' negotiations with the government and later grew to include a wide range of indigenous communities, organizations, and movements that eventually consolidated into a national network. The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 initiated a nationwide reassessment of the relationship between the Mexican state and indigenous peoples. On the government side, there were two rounds of peace talks that ended optimistically in February 1996 with the signing of the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture by the Mexican government and the EZLN. The accords recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to "develop their specific forms of social, cultural, political and economic organization," "to obtain recognition of their internal normative systems for regulation and sanction insofar as they are not contrary to constitutional guarantees and human rights, especially those of women," "to freely designate their representatives within the community as well as in their municipal government bodies as well as the leaders of their pueblos indígenas in accordance with the institutions and traditions of each pueblo," and "to promote and develop their languages, cultures, as well as their political, social, economic, religious, and cultural customs and traditions" (San Andrés Accords 1999:35). The accords further specify that the Mexican Constitution should "guarantee the organization of their own elections or leadership selection processes within communities or pueblos indígenas, recognize the procedures of cargo systems and other forms of organization, methods of representatives and decision making by assembly and through popular consultation," and "establish that municipal agents or other [local municipal] leaders be elected, or, when appropriate, named by the respective pueblos and communities" (35).


The euphoria following the signing of the accords was short-lived; it became evident that the administration of Ernesto Zedillo had no intention of implementing them. It was not until Vicente Fox took office in 2000—ending more than seven decades of PRI rule—that there was any movement in translating the accords into legislation. However, the outcome was a bitter disappointment to indigenous peoples throughout Mexico (see Sierra 2002). After a national bus tour by the EZLN that retraced Emiliano Zapata's entry into Mexico City, an address to the Mexican Congress by Tzeltal Comandanta Esthér, and an outpouring of national support for legislation of the 1996 San Andrés Accords, the Mexican Congress passed a greatly watered down version of the original accords that left most of the specifics regarding how indigenous autonomy might be realized to individual state legislatures. Comandanta Esthér's address to the Mexican Congress was a historical first—an indigenous women at the seat of national government addressing primarily nonindigenous officials on the topic of rights and citizenship.


The so-called Law on Indigenous Rights and Culture, approved in April 2001 by the legislative branch and sanctioned by the executive branch, places a series of restrictions on the demands of indigenous peoples for autonomy, betraying the spirit of the San Andrés Accords. Although Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities and Regions had been declared in December 1994, they did not become the heart of the Zapatista project until after the government failed to implement the peace accords it signed in 1996. Communities in Chiapas and elsewhere declared themselves Autonomous Regions and began to implement parallel governments and set up their own systems of education, health care, and agriculture. The declarations and experiments in autonomy at the local level in Chiapas connected to a larger national movement for indigenous self-determination and rights. This is an important part of the context of women's organizing in Chiapas in the 1990s.


After 2000, the Fox administration responded to the demands for autonomy and the broader international movement favoring multiculturalism by making a rhetorical commitment to the cultural rights of indigenous peoples. This "commitment" is manifested not only in legislative reform but also in a series of indigenista programs that combine old developmentalism with a liberal multiculturalist discourse having little to do with the real demands of indigenous peoples (see Hernández Castillo, Paz, and Sierra 2004). Borrowing a phrase from the Zapatistas, President Fox promised "Never again a Mexico without you" in the opening of his National Program for the Development of Indigenous Peoples 2001-2006.


In August 2003, the Zapatistas announced the creation of five caracoles (literally "spiral shells" but meaning points of communication) that are the seats for five Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Governance Councils). Each of the five juntas is composed of one to three delegates from each of the already existing autonomous councils in each zone. Currently there are thirty Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in Rebellion that are governed by the five juntas. Among other things, the functions of the juntas are to monitor projects and community works in Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in Rebellion; monitor the implementation of laws that have been agreed to by the communities in their jurisdictions; resolve conflicts and disputes resolution in their jurisdictions; and govern Zapatista territory in rebellion under the logic of mandar obedeciendo (rule by obeying), a keystone of "good" governance that holds that authorities are to carry out decisions arrived at by consensus, not make them. At the celebration for the new Juntas de Buen Gobierno, Comandanta Esthér—who addressed the Mexican Congress in 2001 urging them to implement the San Andrés Accords—captured the sentiment of other indigenous women and men who had decided to establish their own systems of government and justice:


Now we ourselves must exercise our rights. We do not need permission from anyone, especially not from politicians who only deceive the people and steal money. That is why, indigenous brothers and sisters of the people of Mexico, we are calling on all of you to enforce the law of the San Andrés Accords.

We have the right to govern and to govern ourselves according to our own thoughts in every municipality and in every state in the Mexican Republic. No one can prevent us, let alone imprison us, for exercising rights which we deserve. Now is the time to put the autonomy of the indigenous peoples into practice and to act on it throughout the entire country of Mexico. No one needs to ask permission for their autonomous municipalities. (ZNET/Chiapas Watch 2003)


Esthér's words mark the assertion of a system of government and laws governing people's behavior that is redefining the meaning of citizenship as a concept embedded not only in relations between the individual citizen and the state but also in collective identities, rights, and responsibilities determined at the local level and shaped by local ethnic and cultural conventions. Although the five caracoles are gathered under the umbrella of one system of regional government, local cultural differences may influence the way communities are governed, the way authority is constituted, and the specifics of local legal systems. Thus while all communities governed by the Juntas de Buen Gobierno must follow Zapatista revolutionary law (the Women's Revolutionary Law, the Agrarian Revolutionary Law, and others), the cultural forms through which these laws are interpreted can vary. For example, in the Tzotzil highland community of Oventik, the traditional authority of elders who assume civil and religious cargos (responsibilities) is honored. In lowland Tojola'bal communities, structures emerging from the ejido system have more weight in local governance (see chapter 5, this volume; Mattiace 2003b). For women who have often been excluded from traditional forms of government, newer hybrid political forms that involve men, women, and children in community assemblies as well as in formal committees and organizations offer avenues for increased participation. Although women may be empowered by these opportunities (see chapters 5 and 6, this volume), they may also find that discussions that arise on difficult issues, such as domestic violence, do not have the results they desire (see chapters 7 and 8, this volume).


The Zapatista rebellion and the emergence of national networks dedicated to the struggle for indigenous rights and autonomy have deeply marked the 1990s in Mexico in the larger context of economic neoliberalism. Within these two processes, indigenous women have emerged as creative political forces in Mexico, providing new models for governance, for conceptions of citizenship and rights, and for economic development and cultural autonomy. They are dissidents across many spheres of life. This book is dedicated to their spirit, leadership, and inspiring visions of how to build a better and more just world.




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