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“Gracias Compañera”: Inside Mexico's International Zapatista Feminist Summit

“Gracias Compañera”: Inside Mexico’s International Zapatista Feminist Summit

The women-only gathering in the Chiapas highlands lures women from around the world to fight the patriarchy, and rail against femicide.

Michelle Janikian // Feb. 3, 2020

It’s a spectacular drive through Southern Mexico to Carcol Morelia, the site of the second International Encuentro de Mujeres Que Luchan (Gathering of Women Who Struggle), a three-day feminist summit hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (or EZLN, its acronym in Spanish). I crane my neck from behind the steering wheel to see the grand mountain views of the Chiapas highlands. When we’re close, two and half hours from our home base of San Cristóbal de las Casas, we start seeing EZLN signs on the side of the road, while Zapatista Radio becomes the only clear station, playing a mix of revolutionary speeches and classic Mexican tunes.

The Zapatistas are an indigenous rights movement in Southern Mexico. Although they began in 1983, they hit the world stage in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1994, the same day the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. Three thousand armed revolutionaries in black ski masks—about a third of whom were women—seized towns and cities throughout Chiapas, including San Cristóbal and Ocosingo, as they declared war against the Mexican government.

The Zapatistas believed NAFTA would increase inequality for indigenous people in Chiapas, who comprise about 30 percent of the state’s population. In their declaration, the guerrillas called for “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace”—all basic human rights that indigenous communities in Mexico have often been excluded from, especially before 1994.

The Mexican Army retaliated in the early days of January 1994, and both Zapatistas and local Chiapanecos suffered casualties from the conflict. Although the guerrillas lost their grip on the cities and fled into the mountains within days, the fighting didn’t stop in the Chiapas countryside until February 1995. The Mexican Army eventually left the Zapatistas alone, allowing the government to pursue a more “diplomatic” approach.

Today, Zapatistas still exist and live in self-sufficient communes that they call “caracols” around Chiapas. Although they’ve never disarmed officially, they now focus on bringing light to human and indigenous rights violations in Mexico and abroad, and they still strongly oppose economic globalization and what they deem to be Mexico’s flawed political system. 

The Mujeres Encuentro (Gathering of Women) upholds that same revolutionary spirit, but this time focused exclusively on women’s issues in Mexico, Latin America, and around the world. When my friends and I arrive, we’re flagged down by Zapatistas who have us register before entering the caracol. Women with red bandanas covering half their faces take our passports and ask for our details before giving us name tags to wear around our necks. We’re told over 3,000 women from 49 countries have already arrived, and that number will grow to over 4,000 by the weekend’s end. When we pull away it’s the last time we see men for 48 hours; they’re not allowed within the gathering this weekend, Zapatista or not.

After we park and pitch our tent, we walk into the summit grounds, a large grassy outdoor space nestled in a small valley between the mountains. As we enter, we walk under a large yellow sign that says “Bienvenidas” and I realize how little I actually see, hear, or am able to speak Spanish in the feminine plural on a daily basis. Throughout the caracol are wooden buildings, many covered with Zapatista murals and mottos like, “Para todos todo, para nosotros nada (For everyone, everything. For us, nothing)”. Female Zapatistas in combat gear with their faces covered by black ski masks circle the perimeter with handmade bows and arrows, protecting the community, which now includes all of us.

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The theme of this year’s summit is feminicidio, Spanish for femicide, or the murder of women based on their gender. Although a huge problem worldwide, Latin American women have been in particular jeopardy. For instance, the UN has declared Mexico as one of the most violent countries in the world for women because not only are about 10 women murdered per day, but women are also killed in a more violent fashion than men, and their deaths are solved less than 10 percent of the time, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

“All over the world women are still being murdered, disappeared, abused, and disrespected,” states the Zapatista communiqué announcing the women’s summit. “This year the number of women raped, disappeared, and murdered keeps rising. We as Zapatistas see this situation as very serious, and that is why we organized this second gathering around one theme only: violence against women.”

The communiqué is written by one of the many Zapatista leaders, Comandanta Amada, in a poetic fashion that is distinct to the revolutionary movement: “They say that now there is more awareness about respecting women. But we are still being murdered…with more and more impunity. With more and more macho men who get away with it, without punishment, as if nothing had happened, as if murdering, disappearing, exploiting, using, assaulting, or disrespecting a woman was no big deal. We are still being murdered and they still ask us, demand of us, order us, to behave ourselves.” 

This sentiment is echoed in all the talks I hear at the gathering. In the main tent, I listen to a woman from Oaxaca stress the need for communities to learn how to use their natural resources to take power away from our capitalist, patriarchal society. In a neighboring tent, I take a moment to reflect on a wall covered in poster board where victims of sexual abuse can name their attacker and give identifying details to prevent other women from getting hurt. There’s almost no free space left for new names.

Later, I listen to a series of flash presentations where women have three minutes to talk about feminist projects they’ve started around Mexico and the rest of the world. Folks who host safe spaces for women to create poetry, art, theater, and even graffiti and hip-hop present their projects and invite others to join. Women in the group suggest a call to action to create a network of actors to warn against sexist casting calls in Mexico City is suggested; they also stress the need for legal abortion access for Latin Americans and an end to sexual assault. 

The beautiful thing about the summit is that it encourages women to connect and organize—a hallmark of the Zapatista’s mission. After every talk and workshop, speakers thank their compañeras for listening, share their social media handles, and hand out notebooks for listeners to fill in their contact info. The idea is that women can only become stronger when we create networks to support each other.

I wander around the camp, perusing crafts, diva cups, plant-based tinctures, and female-centric sex toys that attendees have brought to sell. The sun is strong even though it’s hardly 80 degrees in the mountains, so I take refuge in the main hall and listen to some feminist folk songs, speeches, and poetry. There’s an epic view from up here. Behind all the women connecting with each other, talking, taking notes and pictures is backdrop of pine tree-covered mountains that fade silently into the distance.

My introspective moment is interrupted when a woman comes onto the loudspeaker to announce, after great interest yesterday, there will be a 4:20 circle next to the green tent. My heart races, my interest is so personally piqued. I check my phone, it’s just after 4PM now.

I find a woman holding a small sign made from a piece of notebook paper that just says “420” in bubble letters. There are only a few other folks standing around, but we all make eye contact and smile excitedly in that secret code way that only stoners whose eyes meet in public understand.

By 4:20, there are maybe 30 people sitting in a lopsided circle next to a tent set up for child care. The late afternoon sun is glaring straight into half our eyes, but we’re all excited to link up. Everyone laments that they didn’t bring any weed, but we all abstained because the Zapatistas voted to ban drugs over 20 years ago—including cannabis and alcohol—as a way to prevent violence and illness in their communities. So instead of passing joints, we pass stories.

The circle starts off small and personal as we go around introducing ourselves, our names, ages, and why we’re here at the 420 circle. Women share the same reasons that you hear all over the world, that they use weed to calm their anxiety, to ease another medical condition, or to just have fun. The circle grows rapidly and the things we share evolve into more serious issues women face when it comes to cannabis, such as the stigma against female consumers or the widespread sexual abuse in “trimmigrant” situations in California and other West Coast states.

The conversation emphasizes the need for more cannabis education and public information, alongside the more pressing issue of a comprehensive legalization and regulation plan in Mexico that includes home growing and locally owned businesses. People fear big corporations from Canada and the US coming in and dominating the market when so many Latin Americans have put their lives at risk—or lost them completely—for weed. By 5:50 the sun is going down and I need to head to my tent for more layers. The circle grows to about 100 people at its peak and is still finishing up when I slip away, chilly. 

That night I throw myself into a powerful dance circle and then stumble upon an LGBTQIA meet up. They discuss lesbian issues, then march around the caracol chanting to bring attention to their cause. The moon is a low hanging sliver that distracts yet connects many of us with its mystical, feminine glow.

The next morning there’s yoga in the grass, followed by a large self-defense class. Then, more workshops and talks. I learn some LGBTQIA inclusive sign language (as well as some Mexican curse words) from a sign language interpreter, and then witness a massive demonstration for victims of femicide that brings tears to almost everyone’s eyes. In a large spiraling circle that encompasses the majority of the main lawn, women pound their fists into the dirt to the sound of drums and scream through their pain. When the drumming stops, they lay still or sobbing in the grass, representing their fallen sisters, friends, compañeras. 

The demonstration continues and causes all of us to stop and reflect, to remember we’ve all experienced those horrible moments that have become normalized for women: the fear, the pain, the not good enough, the inequality, the frustration. But this weekend is inspirational, as we have the opportunity to meet so many women who have had the same reaction to those feelings: to fight. And through connecting and organizing amongst each other, our fight only grows stronger, and our future as women, more hopeful.

Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends and education. She’s the author of “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms”, writes a column for Playboy about psychedelics and cannabis and has also contributed to High Times, Herb, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue.

Photos by Ola Synowiec

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