The Lacandón Commune, at 19 years

Photo: Fabrizio León, 1985 Coffee pickers carrying their harvest.

by Luis Hernández Navarro

Fabrizio León’s photograph taken in 1985 speaks for itself. With heavy bundles of coffee on their backs and the aromatic coffee orchards spread out to the mountainside in front of them, three indigenous Chiapanecan day laborers walk to drop off their load. It is the final push of the day. After the endless chore picking the cherries, they are on their way to leave their load with the landowner before the sun sets. It is a fruit harvested with blood and sweat, plunder and pain.

The story told by the image is far from anecdotal. That past is still present. It is etched in the skin and memories of those who suffered it, but also in their children and grandchildren. In her powerful book, Justicia Autónoma Zapatista: Zona Selva Tzeltal, Paulina Fernández Christlieb, wrote: For those who were born and worked in those farms, what still matters to those old men and women is the beastly treatment they were given, the whip lashes they received as punishment. They are the workdays of more than 12 hours without pay, the kilometers between the farm and the city to where they had to go, and from where they had to carry loads on their backs.

From the bitter experience of being born and working as laborers on farms and in the mountains, from the abuse of women by the masters of gallows and knives1, but also from the exodus to the jungle to build another future, was born the fury and the obligation to change things, the will to rebel against an order that was not only unjust, but also indecent.

In the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, mostly Tseltales, Tsotsiles, Choles and Tojolabales, set out to recover their lands, crops and lives. They occupied large estates; they formed cooperatives to market their coffee, cattle, corn and handicrafts without coyotes; they tried to form unions to negotiate better working conditions; they recovered their language; they sought to provide for themselves and their health.

Their audacity in stitching the social fabric of the resistance resulted in them to paying a very high price in blood, jail and police and military persecution. One example, among many more: in the summer of 1980, in Wolonchán, municipality of Sitalá, peasants unfenced and occupied thousands of hectares unjustly appropriated by cattle landowners. Juan Sabines Gutiérrez was governor of the state. In an attempt to put things in their place, on May 30 of that year, from the long guns of the forces of law and order came the fire that assassinated 50 indigenous people.

With the permanent harassment of the white guards2 of the landowners and gunmen in uniform, they had to undertake a modern-day ordeal to have the possession of their lands recognized. They futilely visited public offices and knocked on the doors of agrarian officials. They walked the paved road that connects Tuxtla Gutiérrez with Mexico City. All too often, the legal route proved useless to them. The legal route only served to deny them justice.

But many of these indigenous people looked beyond their immediate demands. Abraham López Ramírez was the historic leader of the Cholom Bolá Cooperative. In addition to marketing his coffee, he dreamed of establishing the Chol Republic. On the walls of his office hung a poster announcing the imminence of his wish coming true, printed years ago, at the time when the Franciscans worked in the region.

The mixture of old grievances and the unresolved struggle against them facilitated the conditions for the creation of a peculiar three-legged social animal in a good part of Chiapas: productive peasant organizations, the word of God and the instrument to defend themselves from the bad government and the Chiapas family, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). On January 1, 1994, these communities, in struggle for decades, said Enough is enough, and rose up in arms. They were not alone. The uprising connected with a deep national discontent.

At the end of 1995 a window seemed to open to address part of their long list of grievances, and to constitutionally recognize a new pact between the State and the indigenous peoples, which would admit their existence as such and their right to self-determination and autonomy as part of it. In this direction, on February 16, 1996, the San Andres Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture were signed.

The Mexican State never kept its word (it still has not). Instead, it approved a caricature of a constitutional reform that recognized the rights of the original peoples as long as they could not exercise them. Without asking permission, in silence, the Zapatistas dedicated themselves to putting into practice what should have been approved in the law: building autonomy. In August 2003 they announced the formation of good government boards and caracoles, as organs to govern themselves. Thus, the commune of the Lacandón was born.

It has been 19 years since then. Since then, on the margins of the party officials (partidistas, as they call them) and of the counterinsurgent action against them, they appoint their own authorities, exercise justice, self-organize agricultural production, take charge of the health and education of their support bases, develop art and sports, without accepting governmental resources.

With the memory fixed on the hell of what life was like on the plantations, the Lacandon Commune has brought up several generations of indigenous rebels. Despite the passage of the years, its emancipatory impulse and vocation is maintained with extraordinary vigor. Within its flexible borders, there is no exploitation like the one shown in Fabrizio León’s photograph. Many things have changed in the country and in the world thanks to it [the commune]. Still more will change.

This article was published in La Jornada on August 2nd, 2022.
English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. The expression in Spanish, señor de horca y cuchillo, refers to a tyrannical feudal leader who managed his serfs under threat of capital punishment.
  2. The Guardias Blancas, or white guards, in the history of Chiapas, were hired guns of local political bosses and landowners of the political machinery of the PRI. These groups have given way to a tradition of paramilitarization for control of land in the State, whose affiliations change with the party in power
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