Zapata Lives!: Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico

Zapata Lives!: Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico

by Lynn Stephen

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This richly detailed study chronicles recent political events in southern Mexico, up to and including the July 2000 election of Vicente Fox. Lynn Stephen focuses on the meaning that Emiliano Zapata, the great symbol of land reform and human rights, has had and now has for rural Mexicans. Stephen documents the rise of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas and shows how… See more details below


This richly detailed study chronicles recent political events in southern Mexico, up to and including the July 2000 election of Vicente Fox. Lynn Stephen focuses on the meaning that Emiliano Zapata, the great symbol of land reform and human rights, has had and now has for rural Mexicans. Stephen documents the rise of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas and shows how this rebellion was understood in other parts of Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca, giving a vivid sense of rural life in southern Mexico. Illuminating the cultural dimensions of these political events, she shows how indigenous Mexicans and others fashioned their own responses to neoliberal economic policy, which ended land reform, encouraged privatization, and has resulted in increasing socioeconomic stratification in Mexico.

Mixing original ethnographic material drawn from years of fieldwork in Mexico with historical material from a variety of sources, Stephen shows how activists have appropriated symbols of the revolution to build the contemporary political movement. Her wide-ranging narrative touches on the history of land tenure, racism, gender issues in the Zapatista movement, local political culture, the Zapatista uprising of the 1990s and its aftermath, and more. A significant addition to our knowledge of social change in contemporary Mexico, Zapata Lives! also offers readers a model for engaged, activist anthropology.

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Times Literary Supplement
Replete with interviews and historical sources; it is persuasive and extremely well researched. . . . The book is a remarkable testament to Stephen's scholarly persistence and the people she so clearly admires.

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Zapata Lives!

Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico

By Lynn Stephen


Copyright © 2002 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92764-3



The "Fields" of Anthropology, Human Rights, and Contemporary Zapatismo

The purpose of this chapter is twofold: to introduce relevant background information, and, more important, to locate myself within the context of my research in terms of my position in the international political economy, my relationship to those I work with, and my ethical responsibilities as an anthropologist—in other words, what is my role in the stories told in this book, and how and why did I take on the research questions I did? In addition, I argue in this chapter for a flexible understanding of anthropology, one that includes using the tools of anthropology to function as a witness and human rights observer, and communicating what we see as anthropologists in a variety of forums. I make this argument in dialogue with many others who have examined these questions.


Without a doubt, the most enduring legacy of the Mexican Revolution was the agrarian reform constituted under Article 27 of the Constitution that allowed for the formation of ejidos as collective entities with legal stature, specific territorial limits, and representative bodies of governance. Rights to ejido land most often went to men who petitioned or who inherited such rights; they then became ejidatarios, with voting rights in the ejido governance body.

Women's access to land rights was limited in Mexican agrarian law, primarily through their exclusion from being "heads of households" unless they were widows or single mothers. Helga Baitenmann has written (1997; 2000) the most detailed analysis of gender and agrarian rights in twentieth-century Mexico. As she documents, women and men did not become equal under the law until 1971 with regard to their ability to qualify for ejidal rights. The 1971 Federal Law of Agrarian Reform, Article 200, states that to receive land rights, people must simply be "Mexican by birth, male or female, older than sixteen or of any age if they are supporting a family" (Botey Estapé 1991, iii); under this law, women were no longer required to be mothers or widows maintaining a family to qualify for land rights. The law also allowed women to hold any position of authority (cargo) within ejidos, and called for the creation of Agro-Industrial Units for Women (UAIMS). These units allowed groups of women collectively to hold use rights to ejido parcels equivalent to those of one ejidatario.

But, a decade after women were finally granted equality with men under the law to receive land rights, the government began a process that ultimately resulted in the dismantling of the right to petition for land, and that aimed to promote privatization of land and of many other resources.

A series of 1980s measures aimed at privatization of government enterprises, a loosening of federal regulations to permit and encourage foreign investment and ownership, and the individualization of property and social relations between the state and its citizens found their logical conclusions in the 1990s reforms to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As viewed from Mexico, the purpose of NAFTA was to facilitate the entrance of U.S. capital into the Mexican economy. This was achieved through the privatization of national industry—airlines, telephones, mining, railroads, banks—and the lowering of trade barriers to allow U.S. companies into all economic sectors. Further, to allow U.S. products to compete in the Mexican market, Mexico eliminated price supports and subsidies to basic food items; this resulted in a decrease in the value of real wages, as people had to pay more for basic goods while their wages remained unchanged. Overall, NAFTA led to the acceleration of corporate-led economic integration between Mexico and the United States, benefiting a few but not most.

What were the results of NAFTA in Mexico? After the first few years, it became evident that public policy in Mexico focused much more on the needs of foreign capital and foreign markets than on domestic producers and consumers. During the first two years of NAFTA, it is estimated, more than two million jobs were lost as the country's productive apparatus more or less collapsed (Heredia 1996, 34). Small and medium-size businesses could not compete with foreign corporations, and local and regional businesses were being replaced by large U.S. firms such as Wal-Mart. Domestic consumer debt increased dramatically. The big winners after NAFTA were the owners of newly privatized companies. Privatization of national businesses led to massive profits for a small number of people. In 1995, "the combined wealth of Mexico's fifteen richest individuals was 25.6 billion dollars" (ibid., 35). Most of Mexico's population had to survive with very low wages and no social services. Two-thirds of the economically active population (25 million of 36 million workers) in 1996 survived on informal activities without access to social security, medical care, or insurance (ibid.). While some predicted that, with NAFTA, wages in the United States and Mexico would grow closer, this has not proven true; the minimum wage in most parts of the United States is twelve times higher than in Mexico. In late 1996, the U.S. minimum wage was at least $4.75 per hour, versus $0.41 in Mexico. In the Mexican countryside, wages were even less, often about $3.00 per day—the legal rural minimum wage, but in Chiapas and elsewhere only about half of the rural workforce receive the minimum wage. The rest get between $1.50 and $3.00 a day. Between 1994 and 1999, the minimum wage in Mexico lost between 22 percent and 24 percent of its purchasing power (González 1999).

Social polarization has become a trademark of contemporary Mexico. By mid 1998, although the average per capita monthly income was $75.00, in rural communities, it barely reached $37.00; in more marginal and indigenous areas, it was $18.00 (Cevallos 1998). In 1998, more than half of Mexico—50 million people—still lived in poverty, with incomes of about U.S.$3.00 per day. The 24 million people residing in rural Mexico in 1998 represented about 25 percent of the population, but two-thirds of those in extreme poverty (Gunson 1998). Those living in extreme poverty were often surviving on the equivalent of $2 per day or less.

NAFTA had a major impact on Mexico's rural population. It opened Mexico's grain market to U.S. exports in exchange for opening U.S. fruit and vegetable markets to Mexican exports. People in the United States can now buy more Mexican avocados at lower prices, while cheap U.S. corn is available to Mexican consumers. To facilitate competition from Mexican crops, the Mexican government eliminated price supports on most grains. This action had a strong impact on small farmers who sold corn on the domestic market and benefited from guaranteed prices more than double the international market price. As support prices were eliminated, farmers dropped out of the market and tried to find other ways to make a living.

One key aspect of preparing for NAFTA was announced by the Mexican government in late 1991 and implemented in 1992. At that time, reforms made to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution eliminated the government's obligation to redistribute land, and made it possible for collectively held land to be privatized. For those still hoping to solicit the government for ejido land, it was too late; the door had shut. For those interested in gaining access to some of the most productive pieces of collectively held land in prime agricultural, urban, and tourist locations, the door was opened. The piece of real estate at stake was equal to about 50 percent of Mexico's national territory.

A new bureaucracy was set up to carry out the reforms, the Agrarian Attorney General's Office, or Procuraduría Agraria. An army of new employees set out to Mexico's ejidos to offer information and—if ejidos agreed—to help them join a program to measure and map boundaries between communities and between individual plots. After all disputes were resolved (if they were resolved, often a major question), people in ejidos received certificates designating their rights to the land and outlining the precise location and measurements of their plots. The certificates could serve as a basis for conversion to a land title, if the individual so desired and if a majority of ejido members voted in favor of the individual receiving a title so as to sell his or her land. The process served to measure and codify as many plots of land as possible in relation to the individuals who worked them, in preparation for privatization. It also mapped those other lands held as collective resources, such as forests, pastures, and watersheds.

While many who watched this process pronounced it the final nail in the coffin of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, what I came to understand was that the process revealed new revolutions burning in the hearts and minds of rural Mexicans and, probably, many others; numerous responses to the end of agrarian reform and to the increasing social and economic stratification associated with NAFTA were bubbling beneath the surface of Mexican society. These revolutions had long and complex histories; many were silent and unseen. Silence that had been interpreted as agreement or indifference masked a different reality.

These other revolutions—perhaps ultimately to be seen as the revolutions of the twenty-first century—are tied to the 1910 revolution and its use as a framework for promoting nationalism in Mexico during the twentieth century. They are also, however, regionally based in their deployment of local histories to make the Mexican Revolution and nation belong to everyone, although in different ways in different communities.

During the summer of 1993, I worked in Oaxaca, my eighteen-month-old son in tow. I spent much time going to meetings called by the Agrarian Attorney General's Office, in which well-meaning staff explained to ejidatarios how the new program to measure land and provide certificates of land rights would benefit them by guaranteeing the security of their land. What unfolded in these initial meetings revealed in great detail the historical visions, divisions, and claims that ejidatarios had about their communities, themselves, and their relation to Mexican history, particularly to the Mexican Revolution. After attending more than a dozen such meetings, and settling into three communities where I followed the interactions between ejidatario men and women and agrarian officials from the Agrarian Attorney General's Office, I soon sensed that the process unfolding concerned much more than bureaucratic details. The act of mapping and measuring land brought up every kind of historical land dispute, pushed people to examine their historical relationship with the government, and highlighted the contradictions of government agrarian policies through time.


During this initial fieldwork, an elderly friend named José Martínez, an original ejidatario of Santa María del Tule, provided me with a historical map for understanding the end of agrarian reform. He also clarified beyond a doubt that he, and many like him, understood what was happening in the neoliberal restructuring of Mexico about to be formalized through the initiation of NAFTA that 1 January 1994. I spoke often with José that summer when I visited the ejido. Our mutual interest in the history of the ejido of Santa María del Tule brought us together, and he was extremely supportive of my efforts to conduct oral histories and talk with people about their feelings concerning the agrarian reform and other topics.

In addition, his responses to my questions reconstituted our relationship and "the field" of our interaction. While anthropologists often assume that "being in the field" refers to taking themselves somewhere else, José had a different idea. By first positioning himself locally and then bringing in his view of the Mexican government, the U.S. government, people in the United States, and the imperialism of U.S. territorial expansion, he bound us into one set of historical, political, and economic relationships; I was in his "field," he in my "field." Being "in the field" thus was an ongoing, constant process and place, from which I could not remove myself or come and go at will. Both of us were always "in the field." Whether talking together in Oaxaca or occupying the separate places we called "home" (Boston for me at the time, Oaxaca for him), we were appropriately constructed by him as part of the same larger system and set of relationships. His lesson to me was that I could not come and go from his community and consider that I had left the "field." Because of who I am, where I come from, and the nature of my inquiry, I would always be "in the field." Consider his responses to my questions about changes to agrarian reform laws.

LYNN: What do you think will happen with the new agrarian reform law? Will it change things? What will happen?

JOSÉ: All the land that is now part of the ejido used to be private property. Before, people in El Tule were really poor. All they could do was to sell their labor. They also sold their land if they had any. If someone was sick and they died, where were the poor people going to go to get money to bury them? They would go to the rich and borrow money from them. Then the rich would buy their land. In [the neighboring town of] Lachigolo, they lost all of their land. Here, too. Then they passed a law to take away all of the land from the hacienda [large landed estate or sizeable property of privately titled land]. We got our ejido. Now they still want to take it away. Even after we got the land, the hacendados [owners of large, landed private estates] still tried to take it away. We would find them with their oxen working on our ejido land. We had to run them off the land. We suffered a lot getting rid of these people. The people from the hacienda had the federal forces on their side. Zapata was the one who helped the poor. He had to force the hacendados out. All of the poor were on the side of Zapata. The hacendados were with the rich. They killed a lot of poor people to hang onto their land....

Now [in 1993] the government of the United States is probably speaking with the Mexican government. That's what they say.... The government of the United States wants to expand its territory. The United States has a lot of people and it needs more land. They are going to come here from the United States to buy our land. And who isn't going to sell to them? If they pay a high enough price, then people will sell. Little by little, they will buy up the ejido, just like the hacendados did before. That is what is going to happen.

By the end of his response, José has wrapped us both in the larger political economy of the United States and Mexico. His reframing of the discussion was the beginning of a five-year journey that made me conclude that "the field" is unbounded and I/we are always in it (see Gupta and Ferguson 1997). Anthropologists do not go to work in an objectively bounded place. Rather, we construct research "fields" that fit with our personal agendas and ideologies. We are the creators of "fields" as well as of what we call "field" work. Such creations are built on the assumption that anthropologists are powerful, determining actors, who can impose boundaries around peoples and places, and that we can pop ourselves in and out of those imposed boundaries at will. We usually become conscious of the bounded "fields" we have created when we engage in certain acts of thinking, analyzing, and writing. If, however, we imagine ourselves in permanent, ongoing relationships with those people we study and work with, "the field" disappears and becomes a part of larger global relations that we do not create but simply live in, like everyone else.


My prior experience living and working in a nearby Zapotec community, Teotitlán del Valle (Stephen 1991), as well as my ability to still speak some Zapotec, was of interest to many elderly ejidatarios in Santa María del Tule. After I presented myself to the ejido authorities, provided them with a copy of my first book about Teotitlán, and gave them letters of presentation from a research institute and university in Oaxaca, as well as a Spanish translation of my proposal, they told me that they could not decide whether I could conduct my project on the history of the ejido and on reactions to the reforms to Article 27. The comisariado ejidal (ejidal commissioner) stated: "Here, we decide things in our assembly. The ejidatarios have to all hear your proposal and then vote on it. Come this Sunday afternoon and we will listen to your proposal and give you an answer."

That Sunday, I returned and found people beginning to mill around outside the Casa Ejidal (the meeting hall and office of the ejido authorities). I noticed that many were elderly and that there was a strong contingent of women. I began to talk with a group of women, alternating between Zapotec and Spanish. It was at this meeting that I met José. He introduced me to several other original ejidatarios.


Excerpted from Zapata Lives! by Lynn Stephen. Copyright © 2002 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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