Portrait of a Zapatista Health Promoter Part II

Chronicles of Autonomy
No. 2

*In November, we began the story of Gabi a young Zapatista health promoter. Her journey continues here.

…The morning mist rises slowly, caressing the broad crowns of the trees that shelter the joyous awakening of birds of this hot and humid region. In the truck, health promoters excitedly share their experiences in the communities they visited. Some laugh at the new gossip, while others talk about their vaccine management skills, still feeling a bit insecure. It is only now that the differences in experience and knowledge are visible. During the visit, Gabi could see how one of the young promoters hesitated for a second to put the vaccine in the arm of a 6-month-old girl. When with trembling hands she finally managed to get the needle to pierce the arm, she did it with too little force. The mother could not contain the girl who jumped in pain with the needle hanging from her arm. Another health promoter managed to help contain the baby. The mother with her shy smile conveyed, “it’s okay, I understand, you’re learning”. She grabbed the promoter’s hand and looked at her affectionately, “Don’t worry my dear. Try again, don’t be afraid, this little girl won’t even remember it,” then she laughed. 

This time it worked. 

The fresh breeze sweeps through Gabi’s thoughts. She retraces the last two years of work. It was difficult — COVID19 complicated so many, many things. The EZLN decided to close the caracoles, and the communities had to use very strict health protocols to protect themselves. They took turns shopping and supplying the rest of the communities with basic supplies. The promoters were saturated with work. At the beginning there was no protective equipment, nor was there much information about the disease. Over time, they were able to have small training sessions; and they began to obtain donations for protective equipment along with materials to treat and educate patients. They even made tinctures and infusions using the ancient knowledge of medicinal plants and the human body. But they had also lost many compañeros and compañeras due to the disease, including some of the health promoters themselves. There was uncertainty caused by lack of information, and the gossip invented by partisans and official media was everywhere, in the communities and at the national level. As a result, it was extremely important to be able to receive informative talks, even in small groups. Treating and supporting patients was an even bigger task due to exposure that threatened even their own lives. 

But Gabi did not give up, it was her call, the communities needed her. She remembered those who were infected, and were no longer in their communities. She remembered cases of patients who did not even want to open the door, and she remembered the dead adults and young people who could not be treated. But she also remembered the groups of two or three health promoters working together in the medicinal plant gardens. She remembered how they communicated on the radio sharing recipes for the medicinal mixtures, talked about cases, and created safe care strategies. The communities protected themselves, took care of themselves, and did not expose themselves much. However, despite all the care strategies, there were still many, many COVID19 patients who needed help, thus it was necessary to accompany them in this terrifying process. 

Throughout this period of time, training more health promoters was not even possible. Just in the last couple months the health commissions have resumed the task of reorganizing, trying to find promoters who are still active in the communities. It is a difficult process, at times sad, but we must see where we are now, two years later, and what our priorities are in order to continue our fight. Gabi knows that this strong sense of community so present in the group and in the movement is a base of support for each and every person within it. Meetings, analyses, and talks have been taking place for many months already in order to select new promoters for each area of work, whether it be in health, education, women offices, productive projects etc., “All this to strengthen ourselves in this fight against the capitalist system. And so we go.” Gabi thinks aloud. 

It was complicated to organize training for the health promoters who had joined the commission recently. We live in a moment of war, not only because we are under attack by the government or paramilitary groups, but from new actors that appeared in this region and want to destroy Zapatismo if it does not obey them. During one meeting companeros y companeras shared their worries related to new organized groups in other places within Chiapas that appeared to usurp the discourse of indigenous peoples. In theory they fight for justice, land, territory but these are groups organized by the government to illegally take land using peasant’s discourse. “We know of them now; we know these are groups that have become a threat against the life of the Zapatista bases – they are the cartels”. 

Gabi had never imagined that armored cars would pass through her own community, all the while making agreements with the surrounding non-Zapatista communities; she never imagined that there would be kidnappings and disappearances of her compañeros; and she never imagined that the girls who walk to the Zapatista school only 5 km away would run the risk of being trafficked; she never imagined that her group would not be able to carry out the activities of their organization with freedom; or that  they would have to be so careful, choosing days and hours of work, roads to travel, or even excluding communities from medical attention due to roads that pass through towns belonging to organized criminal groups.

It comes over her now in a wave, just as she is trying to figure out how to show new health workers how to hold the needle for each type of vaccine. All of this conflict interferes in the ability to offer regular training to new health promoters. She is very aware that only with specific punctual workshops, daily practice, and health services in the clinics, can appropriate knowledge be obtained to serve the communities. She knows that apart from the dynamics of change on the maps from the new actors in the region, there is still the need of economic support to facilitate movement between the communities so that the promoters can safely reach clinics where they can attend a workshop or to patients; she knows that there is a need for new educational materials, including visuals for training, or for equipment that each promoter must have in their community’s clinic…Without that, how can they learn and attend to their patients? Gabi’s own life taught her that if a person is determined, she can learn from any kind of experience, even if there are no equipment or written materials. She, like the other older promoters, learned her craft as midwife in the orthodox style, not from books, but from supportive doctors who came to share their knowledge and practical skills while attending patients. One could call it, “raw knowledge” but it is the best way to learn, to understand, and to lose fear. 

Another obstacle, all of the work commissions have to look for productive projects so that they can cover the medical needs of these communities. In the case of her group, they decided to grow an organic garden and sell chickens to buy medicine for the patients, funds for gasoline, or tickets for public transportation. It is difficult to maintain these activities, in particular because all of the health promoters come from different, far-away communities. And because of the current situation it is not always possible. 

The van continues on its course; though the health promoters long for the morning sun to warm them, they know they need to leave the second community before the heat of the day arrives. The decision is based on the number of communities they need to visit today. In addition, the compañeros in this land of sugarcane production need to finish their work on the field before the heat of mid-day.

Upon arrival the truck parks under the majestic Ceiba tree at the small playground of the Zapatista primary school. The children are just arriving to their classes. They run curiously towards the truck, some shouting that they won’t attend their vaccination, or that they do not like it and would prefer to study today. Antonio, one of the most experienced promoters, tries to maintain order and a plan is made. The group of health promoters decide to play ball with the kids, betting on goals: those who don’t score will go for vaccination! The kids happily accept the proposal. Gabi decides to summon the entire team to create groups to accelerate the process and also to propose a brief review of the different vaccines and ways to apply them. There is not much enthusiasm, but everyone knows that some of the promoters need to improve their skills; here the entire group takes responsibility for one another’s knowledge.

“Let’s go, then” says Antonio, pointing to the main room of the school, and taking advantage of the fact that the children are still outside playing ball. The wooden school is small, but it has three classrooms each for different grades. There is also a meeting room for teachers that is used for assemblies, parties or in today’s case, vaccinations. In fact, there’s already a small line of women with children in their arms waiting outside the building. “Excuse us, compañeras. First we are going to review our materials and prepare for your vaccinations. Can you please prepare your vaccination booklets and try to line up according to the age of your child?” A young health promoter gives directions to the compañeras in a polite and calm voice. The women begin to talk among themselves about the ages of the children. The compañera Anita is convinced that her daughter is two days older than Rosalia’s girl. The debate begins and everyone participates between laughter and agreements about political events or family gatherings mixed with the times of planting and harvesting. The promoters enter the room unnoticed, their presence at this moment has no relevance to the history of the community. 

There is a single window on the weathered wooden wall. The promoters are already familiar with the dimly lit room, where the only light comes through the wide door. As the only entrance to the room, it cannot serve as a work space. Gabi, along with another colleague, arranges the tables under the window to prepare the vaccines. She opens the notebook containing information about each patient, and places a bottle of a water solution on the table. “Compañeros, considering that we have not had the opportunity to review the administration of the vaccines in the last two months, plus the fact that we have health promoters who did not have an opportunity to administer a vaccine more than 2-3 times, I think it would be important to do a short practice to gain confidence in our abilities so as to not hurt the patients. I think we should separate in pairs and start injecting each other with this practice solution of water, while recognizing the difference between each vaccine and their modes of administration. I remind you to be sensitive to the ages of the children as their bodies are different,” Gabi then leads the exercise. Everyone agrees, and there is no distinction between the more and less experienced. Here everyone participates in the much-needed practice. They laugh, and joke among themselves about their abilities and resistance to hold back tears and fears. Barbara – the young promoter who was unable to administer the vaccine in the previous community- is still afraid. She is on the team with a much more experienced partner. He is encouraging her with warmth and a loving smile. He jokes that she has to see him as she would see a pregnant cow that she is caring for at home. Between laughter and more laughter, the new promoters relax and manage to do the injections. To strengthen their confidence, Antonio suggests practicing further on oranges in order to represent the children who are going to be vaccinated. One of the compañeros brings a basket full of oranges from outside for the exercise. “That’s nice, ” says Barbara. “This is a safer place to do this exercise.” She pauses. “Well… it’s been a long time since we could meet because of the cartels on the road, and paramilitary threats and destruction. Maybe it’s the only chance to be together, to learn together…” 

There is silence for a moment. “Well, fuck the bastards” shouts Pedro. “Compañeros and compañeras, we should not give up our training, nor our service to the patients. In fact, I thought of another route to get to our caracol, and also to the communities living under the threat of criminal groups. Well yes, it will take more time to get there and more gas, and who knows where we will get money for it. But we can’t let ourselves be controlled by these bastards! What is this fight against, if not against the entire system of oppression?” 

At the end of the day, it is nothing new to them. Many present in the room have experienced violence against their communities, land dispossession, and the murders of their compañeros. But they have also experienced organization, strategy, forms of resistances, constant, and daily tactics of social change. Nothing changes in their efforts. The promoters feel the strength of their unity, they want to continue in their struggle and they know that they can do it. Now there is another enemy and it is necessary to create ways to continue with the work and question the system.

Someone knocks on the door. 

“We start our work here. Are you ready?” 

“Let’s hit it,” everyone responds.

Want to receive our weekly blog digest in your inbox?

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top