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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 14:29 GMT
In the footsteps of Zapata
Mexico's central Zocalo square
The Zapatista's take over the Zocalo Square

By Peter Greste in Mexico City

Last Sunday, Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas led by their commander, Subcomandante Marcos, completed a two-week nationwide road trip from their base in the southern state of Chiapas, to Mexico City.

They became the first rebel movement to enter the capital since 1914, marching into the central Zocalo square in the footsteps - 87 years later - of the man who inspired their movement, Emiliano Zapata. It was a dramatic climax to a remarkable journey.

Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata - inspiration to today's guerrillas (AP)
No place in Mexico has the historic, the emotional or the political significance of the grand central Zocalo square in the heart of the capital.

On the northern side is the awesome Metropolitan Cathedral - a hulking stone structure that's the oldest cathedral in the Americas and an imposing monument to the dominant role the church has played throughout Mexican history.

On the west, facing the setting sun, is the orange-stone colonial National Palace - the seat of Mexican government where the president has his offices. The south and east are lined with historical buildings that serve the Mexico City administration.

And buried beneath it all - the ancient Aztec city that the Spaniards conquered and built more than five centuries ago.

Mounted column

It is, quite simply the heart of Mexico both ancient and modern, and it's been a part of just about every major upheaval in its history.

Zapatista mural
'Freedom for political prisoners' - a Zapatista mural
The last rebels to march to the Zocalo came in 1914. Riding at the head of a mounted column - Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata - the inspiration for the modern-day Zapatistas who entered on Sunday on the back of an open lorry.

And the figure head is the Zapatista leader known only as Subcomandante Marcos, an enigmatic character who has never been seen in anything other than his combat fatigues, black ski mask and pipe.

His poetic words and his images have elevated him from an insurgent leader to an icon of the international left.

When they entered the Zocalo at the end of a two-week road trip, a crowd of well over 100,000 people raised their voices in welcome - a massive number even by Mexican standards.

Heroes

And although they'd achieved no military victory, the guerrilla army came as heroes. Banners declaring peace, justice and dignity fluttered around the square, souvenir stands sold Zapatista t-shirts, flags, ski-masks - even tiny knitted rebel dolls - and the crowd bellowed: "Long live the Zapatistas".

Like the earlier rebels, the Zapatistas are a guerrilla army who declared war on the Mexican Government. That was when they launched their armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas seven years ago, and technically at least, nothing has changed since.

Until a few weeks ago, the guerrillas were hiding in the jungles of Chiapas under arms. So to see them enter the capital, with a security escort of federal police and the explicit blessing of the president was truly remarkable.

 Subcomandante Marcos
Enigmatic figure: Subcomandante Marcos
But to think of the Zapatistas as regular guerrillas is to miss the point. A meeting with them makes it clear that they are not real fighters.

Peer into the eyes that hide behind the black ski-masks, look beyond the largely symbolic weapons and military fatigues, and you find humble Indians with families and farms who are simply fed up with a system that leaves them destitute, and with no control over their futures.

And their aim then, as now, is simply a better deal for all the nation's 11,000,000 indigenous people, and they vow to stay put in Mexico City in a tented village until they get what they want.

In practical terms, that means constitutional recognition of their rights and their culture as Indians. There is a package of laws they want Congress to pass, that would give Indian communities a degree of self-determination, including the right to set up local administrations based on traditional systems of government.

Presidential support

It would also provide radio stations in Indian languages, bilingual schools and proportional representation for Indians in legislatures.

Crucially, they don't want any form of national power - just local rights. That makes sense to President Vicente Fox, who despite being conservative, has staked his political future on getting the laws through congress.

But there are plenty of congressmen who believe that the laws could lead to the break up of Mexico. Give local Indian communities too many special rights, the argument goes, and they will eventually want independence.


They insist they don't want history reversed - they just want to secure their place in the modern Mexico.

But this is also about a good deal more than a local spat over indigenous rights.

A huge proportion of the buses in the Zapatista convoy carried foreign leftists who see this movement as part of a wider drive against the evils of globalisation. This is the voice of the little people, one French supporter told me.

And, he said, there are hopes that the Zapatistas' struggle could prove to be a model for people exploited and abused by rampant capitalism around the world.

There is no suggestion that like-minded communities could take up arms in the future, but the indigenous movement has clearly struck a chord.

Dollar worship

One academic told me that the rest of the world had better watch Mexico closely. He said it is up to the government here to learn how to deal with the next generation of conflict, that will inevitably arise from globalisation.

But despite that, this is essentially an indigenous movement, fighting for a way of life they're afraid won't survive the onslaught of capitalism. Their culture may die in a world of dollar worship, they argue, when it has no monetary value.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the whole day was when a troop of Aztecs, wearing spectacular crested head-dresses danced to the gut-thumping beat of traditional drums.

Around them were the church and palace - symbols of the institutions they say have pushed them into the background in a land they once called their own.

They insist they don't want history reversed - they just want to secure their place in the modern Mexico.

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See also:

11 Mar 01 | Americas
Rebels ride into Mexico City
10 Mar 01 | Media reports
Press alarm at Zapatista arrival
09 Mar 01 | Americas
Fox's flying start in Mexico
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Profile: Vicente Fox
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Vicente Fox: The road ahead
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico's peasant revolt
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico rebels to talk peace
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