4 things feminists can learn from the Zapatistas


Photos taken by Juliana Britto Schwartz

Tuesday of this week marked the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, a short moment with a long legacy of struggle for indigenous rights. The Zapatistas–also known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or the EZLN–are a movement of indigenous people fighting against the effects of neoliberalism, particularly the privatization of land and other natural resources. 

Their movement first became public on January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) went into effect. The EZLN understood that NAFTA would increase the inequity between rich and poor, and continue to direct the natural resources of Chiapas (their home state) out of the hands of Chiapanecos, and into those of the rich and powerful. So, it was that, twenty years ago, Zapatista activists seized towns within Chiapas, freeing prisoners and burning down police and military buildings. With these actions, the EZLN brought the world’s attention to the plight of indigenous populations around the world, and highlighted the life-and-death effects of globalization on the world’s marginalized.

In their continuing struggle for justice, the EZLN made a concerted effort to raise awareness about the status of indigenous women. In 1994, Comandante Ramona, one of the movement’s most famous women leaders, created the “Revolutionary Law on Women,” which was voted into practice by the EZLN. The law made it clear that women had the right to reproductive autonomy, political participation equal to that of men, equal pay, education, and freedom from domestic violence. Later that year, the movement presented a list of 34 demands to the Mexican government, one of which outlined a series of actions to be taken to ensure the welfare of women.

Unfortunately, since its first public action, the movement has been on the defensive, fighting increasing persecution by the Mexican government.  But the Zapatista struggle continues, ever as relevant, if not as strong. Here are a few things we can learn from this inspiring movement.

DSC_11621. There is another world.

The Zapatistas took a look at the society they lived in, decided it wasn’t working for them, and started a new way of living. They currently maintain various autonomous communities, under their own systems of governance and their own independent schools. According to Gustavo Esteva at Upside Down World,

“They are, in fact, living outside the logic of the market and the state, beyond the logic of capital, and within a new social fabric. This does not imply, of course, that they have escaped the capitalist social fabric that defines Mexico and the world, the unravelling of which, as the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona states, requires weaving another social and political fabric.”

What does this mean for feminism? That if we can imagine a world where patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism and the like are gone, then it can exist. We’ll get there.

2. You don’t have to be powerful, privileged or popular to change the world. In fact, real change often happens from the bottom up. 

The Zapatista movement sprang from some of the world’s most marginalized people: indigenous people living in Mexico’s poorest state. These people had extremely limited access to formal education, health services and land ownership, yet their actions had a lasting impact on our world. Esteva notes their impact within his article,

“All over the world, we can observe gestures, changes, and mobilizations that seem to be inspired by the Zapatistas. To find a political initiative with comparable global repercussions, one has to travel far back in history. As the Zapatistas themselves have already noted, what today looks like Zapatismo, walks like Zapatismo, speaks like Zapatismo, and appears as a form of Zapatismo, is no longer in the hands of the Zapatistas.”

IMG_41123. We must challenge systems of oppression even within our own social justice movements.

As mentioned earlier, the EZLN is a feminist-leaning movement that has demonstrated that it is self-aware when it comes to the welfare of women. The movement has made several steps towards ensuring gender equity among its people. If you walk through Oventik, one of their autonomous communities in Chiapas, you will see many murals of women working alongside men. Of course, the EZLN is very far from perfect and gender equity is always a work in progress. Within any movement, we need to keep pushing each other forward, while acknowledging successes on the road to justice.

4. The road to justice is long

The Zapatistas originally formed in response to the creation of NAFTA. They have now been around for over 20 years, and NAFTA is operating as strong as ever. Indigenous activists have suffered greatly for this cause, and will continue to suffer. But that does not mean that the struggle has not been worth it. The same is true for other movements for justice, in which we have to celebrate small victories on the road to success. But twenty years of indigenous resistance is certainly a big victory, and it must be celebrated.

“In the committee we debated all afternoon. We searched for the word in the tongue to say SURRENDER, and we did not find it. It has no translation in Tzotzil and Tzeltal. Nobody remembers that the word exists in Tojolabal or Chol.” –Surrender does not exist in true language, Subcomandante Marcos [1]


Latinas Feministas: Lorena Cabnal

96ee0a3b286e0ab66e722794b16d9276_biggerJuliana is amazed.

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

Read more about Juliana

Join the Conversation