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Zapatistas & Comandanta Ramona


Tiny Ramona dolls made in Zapatista communities, sold at Nemi Zapata.

Since 1994 the indigenous people of southern Mexico have been front and center in the politics of Chiapas after generations of abuse and exploitation by public and private institutions. After exhausting non-violent means, the people in the form of a political and military organization known as EZLN, rose up to demand respect, rights and restitution of the lands that had been taken from them over the centuries by European and European-Mexican governments and North American interests in their Mayan homeland. It was in every sense a war.

I’d heard vaguely of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and, considering a trip to the area, the only information I sought out was “is Chiapas safe for travelers.” The answer to the question seemed to be yes, with less certainty regarding current specifics of the insurgency. But figuring I’d have heard if the streets were clogged with tourists’ bodies, I proceeded with my plans.


My continuing education on the subject began as soon as I arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The young man who ran the family guesthouse where I stayed the first 2 weeks of my visit, José, in the course of a conversation when I’d asked about the history of the building, told me that his family hadn’t always lived in the city. It had been the home of his maternal grandparents and the rest of the family lived on a ranch in the countryside. In 1994, when the EZLN, the Zapatistas, launched their offensive to reclaim the land of their ancestors, the ranchers of the area were given a choice, leave or be killed. Jose’s family left, moved to this house in town to live with his grandparents. Their neighbors were killed.

This was the moment when my understanding of what had seemed a vaguely romantic movement shifted. In real life, had history not played out as it had, José would not be managing a family business in this house but running the family ranch and I would be sleeping somewhere else. We’re all subject, of course, to world events past and present, at home and away, but suddenly Chiapas history seemed very immediate.

ramona.marcos-e1398188467937Subcomandante Marcos & Comandanta Ramona

The revolution hasn’t gone away but is described as “frozen”. A visitor with no interest in politics might ignore the references or even be unaware that though armed insurrection has paused for now the revolution is a living thing for the people in Chiapas. I couldn’t help but take note of Zapatista images all around San Cristóbal and most especially imagery celebrating the women who participate fully. For persepctive, a third of the EZLN army were women. I came to notice one name in particular, Comandanta Ramona. On New Years Day 1994, it was Comandanta Ramona who commanded the unit that captured San Cristóbal de las Casas.

From Comandanta Ramona’s obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper,
9 January 2006:

"When Mexico's balaclava-clad Subcomandante Marcos launched his Zapatista rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in January 1994, a tiny woman in gaily embroidered native huipil blouse was often seen alongside him, all but her eyes masked by a pink bandanna. . . The woman was Comandanta Ramona, one of a Revolutionary Committee of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan Indians he said were the real leaders of the guerrilla group. . . it was Ramona who led the rebels into the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas on New Year's Day 1994, demanding greater rights for the indigenous people of Chiapas and protesting at Mexico's involvement in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) which came into force that day.

It was Ramona who was sent to the first peace talks with the Mexican government, in the colonial cathedral of San Cristóbal in February 1994. She was by now adopting a Marcos-style balaclava with a jaunty tassle, and the media dubbed her "The Petite Warrior". In the tourist markets of San Cristóbal, woollen Ramona dolls depicted her with balaclava and rifle, sometimes on horseback.

"By 1996, she was suffering from serious kidney disease and received a transplant. But in October that year, though sick and frail, she defied a government ban and showed up in Mexico City for a National Indigenous Congress. . . Zapatista sympathisers from all walks of life formed a security guard around the Comandante to ensure she was not arrested and she was showered with flowers at the Congress.

"While the men in the crowd chanted "Todos somos Marcos" ("We are all Marcos"), the women responded with "Todos somos Ramona". By now she had become almost a mystical figure among indigenous women in Chiapas, some of whom compared her with the Virgin Mary for the strength and self-respect she brought to them."


My trusty Lonely Planet guide for Mexico has the following entry under “shopping” in San Cristóbal: “Nemi Zapata. A fair-trade store that sells products made by Zapatista communities: weavings, embroidery, coffee and honey, as well as Ejército Zapatista de Libéracion Nacional (EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Army) cards, posters and books.”

Posters, above Las Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde

(Women with the Rebel Dignity)

Below, Madre de la rebeldía de la tierra y de los pueblos oprimidos de America
(Mother of the rebellion of the earth and the oppressed peoples of America)

The Virgin of Guadalupe is one of the most important symbols of faith in Mexico with particular significance for indigenous people. Emiliano Zapata incorporated the image into his army’s flag during the 1910 Mexican Revolution and the more recent EZLN’s use of the image with the mask of the Chiapas revolution (above) is, I believe, a brilliant and powerful statement.


Find all episodes of  'A Month in Chiapas'  here.


More PortMoresby stories here.



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