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Dancing with the Zapatistas

Diana Taylor, Lorie Novak, Authors

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Zapatouristic Differentiations

Brian Batchelor

I have to wait my turn to have my photo taken with a large mural featuring Mayan, masked, and skeletal faces fanning out from a central, indigenous face. Currently, a fellow traveler is doing a photo shoot in front of the mural, and three other people are waiting in front of me to have their pictures taken with this arresting image. I am here with a group of transnational activists, artists, curators, students, researchers, and instructors. We have traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to participate in the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ Art and Resistance course in San Cristóbal de las Casas. We are on a field trip to Oventic, one of the five caracoles, or autonomous municipalities, run by the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN). Located in the Chiapas highlands, Oventic is situated around a cement and gravel pathway that descends down a steep hillside. Buildings painted with bright murals reflecting Zapatista values line both sides of the pathway; many of these buildings are governmental, since Oventic is also the center for this particular caracol’s Junta del Buen Gobierno (Council of Good Government). At the bottom of the hill stretches an open stage area, which our Zapatista guides direct us away from in favor of the caracol’s school, a series of buildings with the center’s highest concentration of murals. It is here that I wait to have my picture taken in front of a mural representing multiple faces and identities. 

This paper examines how Oventic engages with tourism so that visitors come into contact with and even come to embody Zapatista formulations of difference and multiplicity. How do the practices of travel, tourism, and photography interpellate and regulate identities within indigenous spaces such as Oventic? What does it mean to be a tourist, versus a traveler, when interacting with these spaces? How do indigenous communities intervene in and co-opt transnational discourses and mobilities? I argue that the Zapatistas are aware of the long histories of travel and tourism to and within Chiapas and thus use tourism as a tool to communicate and mediate their rhetoric and representations. Zapatistas therefore solicit tourist encounters and produce autoethnographic displays that fall outside of traditional—colonial, western, Mexican—representations of indigeneity. Specifically, I read one such autoethnographic display, the aforementioned mural, as a representation that employs a Zapatista rhetoric of difference and paradox in order to split subjectivity. Captured through the performance of photography, or photo-taking, this mural makes manifest the differentiations within and between Zapatista, indigenous, Mexican, and tourist identities while it simultaneously fractures the tourist self into multiple parts.

On 1 January 1994, the effective start date of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an armed force of indigenous soldiers emerged out of the Lacandon Jungle of Guatemala and Chiapas, declared war on the Mexican government, and (briefly) seized seven towns in Mexico, including San Cristóbal de las Casas. The EZLN and its media-savvy spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, obtained international attention and, as Tamara Underiner notes, support from Mexican and international artist, activist, and academic communities (2004, 39). Reasons for this uprising are complex, but they generally involve a concern with the increased economic and political marginalization of indigenous populations in the face of open-trade borders.[1] The Mexican army reacted, and a ceasefire was called after 12 days of fighting, leaving the area in a militarized state. In 1996, the Mexican government and the EZLN signed the San Andrés Accords and outlined a plan to address the Zapatistas’ concerns regarding “land rights, cultural rights, and indigenous autonomy” (Babb 2011, 95). These negotiations have since faltered; Zapatista communities have been encircled since then by the Mexican military and have become the targets of “a vicious counterinsurgency campaign staged by paramilitary groups,” as well as a “low-intensity” war (Saldaña-Portillo 2003, 199). Recognizing that they cannot beat the Mexican army militarily, the Zapatistas have responded by “putting their weapons aside” and building “their own world of participatory democracy” in five autonomous caracoles located throughout southern Chiapas (Rider 2009). Zapatistas continue to take on indigenous issues within Mexico and the Americas; opening their communities to visitors becomes one way in which the Zapatistas can “challenge the geographic marginalization which situates the indigenous people under the rubric of local” (Martin 2004, 122). The live co-presence offered through the travel encounter becomes one route through which Zapatistas can communicate their concerns.

The question of who is and is not a tourist is problematic, since the differences between tourist and non-tourist (or traveler) change from moment to moment: there is a constant slippage from one to the other. The tourist as a construct is often conceived of in a negative sense. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that tourism is generally understood as the last bastion for outmoded colonial and imperial concepts (quoted in Franklin 2001, 214). Travelers, on the other hand, are thought of as inherently more authentic and less connected to problematic and unequal divisions of power and representation within travel encounters (Harrison 2003, 30). Sociologist Dean MacCannell blurs the distinction between the two by positing tourists as those who search for the authentic: they are travelers responding to the structure of being and alienation that underlies our modern, capitalist world (1999). The difference between these two modalities is often self-ascribed, and the act of self-identification is also an act of differentiation. According to Jonathan Culler, the act of labeling oneself as a traveler, against the identity of tourist, is actually an identifying feature of being a tourist: “To be a tourist is in part to dislike tourists (both other tourists and the fact that one is oneself a tourist)” (1988, 158). I use the terms tourist and traveler interchangeably for two reasons. First, following the work of anthropologist Julia Harrison, both travelers and tourists leave their homes and seek out experiences abroad for a reason (2003, 30-31). There is a particular experiential desire, or curiosity about the unfamiliar world, that fuels travel.[2] Secondly, both travelers and tourists to Chiapas have had and continue to have a profound (and not unproblematic) effect on the region’s economic and political milieu. Locations that cater to touristic desire have become, as I will demonstrate, key spaces of cultural enunciation in which transnational and national formulations of indigeneity and Mexican identity are traversed. Transcultural encounters that occur therein are, as literary scholar Desirée A. Martin observes, predicated upon and driven by a desire for access and authenticity that affects other portrayals of Mexican indigeneity (2004, 111-12). Differences between tourist and traveler are, for Harrison, “much of a muchness” (2003, 207). She notes, following the work of cultural theorist John Taylor, that tourists (and travelers), as well as the tourees that host them, are “looking for ‘sincerity’ rather than ‘authenticity’ in their cross-cultural touristic encounter” (2004, 208). This suggests that we should think of such encounters as co-productions in which traveler, tourist, and host—as identities—contain political potential because they are motivated by an underlying desire to experience each other in Chiapas. Touristic encounters, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reminds us, can effect political change, since the sheer number of tourists, combined with their role as cultural witnesses/consumers, means that tourism “can be an instrument for the mobilizing of public opinion” (quoted in Franklin 2001, 223). I view these encounters as transformative and political performances; understanding cross-cultural touristic encounters as such opens the possibility of examining the power dynamics and agency of display—“what is shown, who shows, who experiences the display, and who is affected by it”—that underlie these encounters (Franklin 2001, 226). Furthermore, tourist spaces are not unmediated transmitters of information, nor are tourist encounters power-neutral (Franklin 2001, 215). By using the terms traveler and tourist interchangeably, I hope to show how each construct can be used to open up a space of political and cultural imagining. I also use the term visitor to denote that the Zapatistas, in different instances, both permitted and solicited us to come to Oventic, creating the possibility for a sincere form of encounter.

While I arrived in Chiapas as a student and as a researcher, I did not arrive free from previous incidents of travel and tourism in the region. I was, to use a phrase that Diana Taylor borrowed from Richard Schechner on the first day of class, “not a tourist” but also “not not a tourist” (Schechner 1985). Contemporary travel encounters in Mexico are, according to ethnographer Quetzil E. Castañeda, always already “forged in discursive practices that derive from the history of travel” (1996, 129). Chiapas has long been connected with the practices of tourism and travel, arguably since John Lloyd Stephens published his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán in 1841. Stephens’ book captured the imagination of the North American public by portraying the Mayan world as ripe for archaeological investigation and scientific exploration (Castañeda 1996, 5). Historian Dina Berger notes that in the immediate aftermath of the Mexican revolution, the Mexican state perpetuated this image of Mexico as an “Egypt of the Americas” by fusing the concept of an indigenous past with that of a new and modern Mexico (2006, 21). However, due to its difficult terrain and lack of major roads, Chiapas remained what ethnographer Pierre L. van den Berghe calls a “tourist backwater” until the construction of a major highway in the 1960s and 1970s drew more tourists to the region (1994, 55). Van den Berghe’s pre-Zapatista uprising study of San Cristóbal tourism locates travel to and in San Cristóbal within a larger discourse of cultural or ethnic tourism (travel that emphasizes cultural difference) and the search for a more authentic experience of Mexico (1994, 70). Despite its predominantly Latin@ population, San Cristóbal became a hub for people wanting to experience Mexico’s indigenous communities and a center for the expansion of cultural tourism through which the government could present a united front of indigenous and national identity (Martin 2004, 109).

The Zapatistas emerged out of this milieu of transnational contact and contestation and have recognized the importance of tourism in highlighting issues of indigenous representation. Martin observes that the Zapatistas have “engaged with tourism ever since the very first day of their uprising” in 1994 (2004, 121). Interestingly, while more traditional forms of tourism to San Cristóbal fell in the wake of the rebellion, a different kind of tourism attracting a different kind of traveler emerged. For instance, thanks to the technological, digital, and media shrewdness with which the Zapatistas communicated the terms and manifestos of their resistance, journalists and activists began to travel to Chiapas to show their support (Babb 2011, 95). Wayne J. Pitts calls these new forms of visitors “Conflict Tourists” or “War Tourists,” interested in San Cristóbal’s “ethnic ambiance” and the notion that “the Zapatistas represented a much larger dissatisfied Indian population” (1996, 221). Commenting on her own experiences traveling to San Cristóbal and Oventic as a member of a delegation of international observers, Florence E. Babb notes the continued presence of these “internationalists (solidarity tourists),” who distinguish themselves as “more serious than tourists” and “view themselves as political pilgrims” (2011, 106-10). While not necessarily ethnic tourists searching for an indigenous and Mexican authenticity, many of them nevertheless come “with romantic notions of the Zapatistas—for intimate experience with indigenous rebels” (2011, 98). Babb demonstrates that, while not necessarily mainstream cultural tourists, solidarity travelers and internationalists visiting San Cristóbal to experience Zapatismo are not completely different from other tourist modalities. This works in the Zapatistas’ favor, as the trope of the tourist encounter allows the Zapatistas to create an autoethnographic space in which to imagine and refashion indigenous, Mexican, and transnational identities.

As we wait in the hot sun outside Oventic’s main gate, the Zapatistas make it clear that we are no longer in Mexico: a first act that frames Oventic as an autoethnographic performance space. We sit outside for two and a half hours as the gatekeepers review our passports and information. Eventually, we are led inside the caracol and downhill to an office where we again wait outside. Numerous factors limit our interactions with Oventic and its residents. The course conveners had requested the opportunity to speak with the Junta de Buen Gobierno, so that our group could learn about Zapatista politics and history and, if the Junta would permit us, ask questions. Unfortunately, the committee iss too busy planning for an event to be held later that week.[3] While unintentional, the lack of dialogue with any official Zapatista interlocutors puts our group’s experiences in Oventic into a predominantly visual framework. This visuality is further manifested by the fact that we also cannot ask questions of the Zapatistas accompanying our group while we visit and tour their space.[4] Furthermore, we are only allowed to take pictures of the murals and cannot photograph the residents.[5] These conditions shifted the nature of our encounter there. Firstly, by not answering our questions, the Zapatistas reactivated their performance of silence: a complex performance that, according to María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, reenacts the many years of silence in the Lacandon Jungle under which the Zapatistas organized their rebellion, as well as the over 500 years of silence “imposed on indigenous peoples of the Americas by subalternizing discourse of the colonial and postcolonial periods” (2003, 193). Furthermore this silence, spoken through the iconic black ski masks and bandanas hiding the Zapatistas’ faces, marked the absence of an individual voice or cultural intermediary, but also the presence of a community, a series of voices that spoke on their own terms, to each other, and were not beholden to us and our questions. At the same time, this performance of silence was a strategic rejection of a touristic practice of investigation that tends to totalize and fix (and thereby dominate) its object of inquiry—in a similar manner to Norman K. Denzin’s interview societies (2003, 62-66). Here, touristic curiosity becomes a dramaturgical text and performative framework that drives desire for access and understanding within a tourist encounter. Tourist experience is fashioned as similar to an interviewer-interviewee dynamic that creates the social roles of Self and Other, whereby the tourist constructs an imagined representation of an authentically real Other in contrast to the tourist’s Self (Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1994, 455). For sociologist Judith Adler, this representational system becomes a “master narrative” that enables tourists to perform an “art of travel,” whereby their trip often stands in “as an allegorical miniature of earthly life, or as search for a vantage point from which to grasp and understand life ‘as it really is’” (1989, 1375). By refusing to take questions or allow us to comment on and ask about their (quotidian and extraordinary) lives, the Zapatistas at Oventic broke a discursive chain in which touristic desire to understand and experience indigenous and/or Zapatista culture overwrites that very culture itself.

Most importantly, however, by disallowing us the opportunity for questions and by restricting our photographs to murals, the Zapatistas reconfigured our experience of the place—on their terms rather than ours. That is, by making us focus on their murals and interpret the (potential) meanings located therein, the Zapatistas “transcended or superseded the colonial script” by “making themselves the agents of contact” and soliciting our curiosity through their own representations (Pratt 2009, 7). Tourism, as Martin states, is about the agency of choice and mobility; it does not necessarily follow that those who exist or operate as a tourist attraction do so without agency (2004, 121). At Oventic, the Zapatistas take on the “powers of movement and the powers of the host” to interrogate or reconfigure concepts of “mobility, placidness, and indigeneity” as products of “the West’s dominant traditions and epistemologies” (Pratt 2009, 8). Here, the Zapatistas employed the trope of tourist sight in order to focus our gaze—our experience—on the autoethnographic displays of Zapatismo found in Oventic’s murals. By disallowing us control of this encounter, the Zapatistas did not allow us to “sit cozily” in our “pre-existing notions of subaltern subjectivity” (Underiner 2011, 41). Rather, they engaged us with their own form of subjectivity through our photographic practice. In this way, our experiences of Oventic were primarily mediated through the act of sight as filtered through the murals and the camera lens.

Multi-faced mural. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Brian Batchelor, 2013. 
The multi-faced mural is an appropriate image to understand the Zapatista approach to autoethnographic displays: it can be seen as a reference to the political demand for the “rights of the land” and the right to “independently define national and indigenous identity” (Martin 2004, 108). This is the mural as I interpret it: on the outside, three masked Zapatistas represent the present community; further in, two figures reminiscent of images of the ancient Maya (as seen in museums and in other areas of Mexico) denote the past; next to them, two spirits, in this case skulls, indicating death, represent those killed during the struggle for autonomy; and, at the mural’s center, the face of a lone, indigenous woman, with her eyes closed—asleep—represents a potential future free from struggle. I am, of course, reading this mural against other Mexican images and representations found in transnational contexts: portrayals of ancient Maya from ruin sites and National Geographic Magazine; La Calavera Catrina figurines from Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and Día de los Muertos celebrations in Canada; and images of Marcos and other masked Zapatistas from digital media. I therefore read this as a political representation that at once historically locates the Zapatista movement within national discourses of indigeneity and grounds it in place—the Jungle. This is an instance in which Zapatista indigeneity becomes a resistant identity that, as Pratt describes, conflicts with other colonial formulations (2009, 5). This mural therefore follows Saldaña-Portillo’s definition of autoethnographic representation as an active “self-authored” reconstruction of “Indian experience and specificity” (2003, 233-36). At the same time, it references the future that Martin notes the Zapatistas strive for, in which indigenous peoples have “full political, economic, and cultural citizenship and participation in the nation,” rather than “inclusion through selective national appropriation” (2004, 114). This mural therefore creates what Jill Lane calls a “disturbance in the normative discourses” (including tourism) that tend to write/read/interpret the Indian and produces a space in which “their collective presence can be made newly legible” (2003, 136-37). The mural operates as an autoethnographic display that disrupts colonial—touristic—readings of indigeneity by filtering the localized experience of Oventic through the past and a possible future. 

Photographing this mural is a tourist performance that imbricates the localized indigenous experience of Oventic with other contexts of indigeneity as mediated by practices of travel and tourism. The Zapatistas are aware that an “individual’s or group’s indigeneity is often defined precisely through contact and travel” (Babb 2011, 116). Accordingly, the Zapatistas use tourist practices to represent and interrogate the construction of Mexican indigenous and national identity. For instance, Zapatouristic representations of indigeneity work with and against portrayals of post-revolutionary Mexican Indianness found at other tourist locations, such as ruin sites, monuments, murals, and museums (Martin 2004, 109). If we read the two Mayan faces on the mural as touristic representations of Mayan indigeneity, such as those produced at Mayan ruins, then their presence is not a Zapatista counter claim to Mexican indigenous heritage; rather, we can read their presence as a comment on Mexico’s indigenous history. Their placement alongside other forms of indigeneity highlights the national difference contained within Mexico itself. Photographing this evidence makes this national difference explicit on a transnational level. Here, touristic experience (in the form of photographs) backs up Subcomandante Marcos’ claim that the difference of indigenous people “aspires to unite with others that make up contemporary Mexico” (quoted in Martin 2004, 115) and Comandanta Esther’s request that “our differences and our being Mexicans be recognized” (quoted in EZLN 2002, 198). On the one hand, photographs circulate the paradoxical and autoethnographic representation of indigenous identity beyond Mexican borders. The camera then becomes part of a greater process that rhizomatically disseminates Zapatista representations and rhetoric through digital means (Lane 2003, 142). This mural, as it is seen, viewed, and disseminated through touristic practice, therefore emphasizes the potential differences of all Mexicans. On the other hand, this autoethnographic representation becomes not a depiction of a unified and homogenized Mexican state, but rather an imaginative space “capable of encompassing the abstract national community in struggle and in difference” (Saldaña-Portillo 2003, 256). Here, the mural, in conjunction with my photograph of it, becomes an avenue through which the Zapatistas can open up conversations about difference.

However, I offer an additional reading of this mural and its intervention in touristic practice. Because multiple faces fan out from a single figure, perhaps this mural portrays an individual’s multiple identities and subjectivities. That is, rather than illustrate identities in different historical or temporal periods, the mural shows multiple (contrasting) subjectivities and modalities occurring at the same time: asleep and awake; Mexican and indigenous; alive and dead; present and hidden; masked and unmasked; ancient and modern. As Saldaña-Portillo points out, this type of paradoxical display, full of “constitutively fleeting and inconclusive” identifications, is central to “the Zapatistas' project of wresting national and international terms of political representation for themselves” (2003, 194). By portraying numerous identities and social roles operating coterminously within the concept of the Zapatista, the mural demonstrates the self-differentiation within a Zapatista identity as it rejects other historical representations of Indianness. Accordingly, the mural employs the representation of various paradoxes (ancient and modern, for example) to create a “situation where multiple possibilities can exist at once” (Martin 2004, 110). Therefore, the representation of difference within indigeneity and within Mexican identity is not the only operating idea encoded in this mural. This mural also asks us, as tourists and photographers—“cultural witnesses,” to return to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett—to understand or to approach the differences within and between ourselves, and within and between Self and the Other (quoted in Franklin 2001, 225).

At Oventic, the photographic division of Self and Other is complicated by the fact that we are unable to take photographs of the Zapatistas themselves. Instead, we take photographs both of the murals and of each other and ourselves next to them as a means to record our presence and experience there. Sociologist John Urry asserts that a strategic order of vision, the tourist gaze, dominates tourism and structures the tourist self, as well as the toured other; photo-taking lies at the heart of this process (1992, 180). For Urry, the visual influences and mediates all actions involved in tourism (1992, 172). Photography and modern tourism developed concurrently, and each practice cannot be separated from the other (Urry 2002, 148-149). Tourism’s emphasis on image capture renders it a part of what Bernard Sharratt calls an “image economy,” so that tourists perceive and seek out elements, scenes (views), and peoples as forms of photographic material (1989, 38). In this manner, photography becomes a framework that structures “a single vision of order and boundary” (Larsen 2004, 21). This is a totalizing view in which the photographer and photographed are co-constructed: a process that, like the scenario, “constructs the wild object and the viewing subject—producing a ‘we’ and ‘our’ as it produces a ‘them’” (Taylor 2003, 54). Because the tourist photographer and the object of the tourist’s gaze operate within the same social space, both construct each other so that any notion of a touristic self is a mediation between itself and its other (Gillespie 2006, 352-53). Accordingly, as identities structured within and by the tourist gaze, both photographer and subject emerge out of and are mediated through photography as process and act. 

What happens, then, when our tourist bodies are placed within the frame of the Zapatistas’ murals that depict fractured identities? First, by becoming the touristic object while remaining the touristic subject, we make apparent the performative framework that divides subject from object. This differentiation of self is reinforced against the mural, which shows multiple subjectivities. Here, the Zapatistas’ autoethnographic representation combines with the photo-taking performance to erode “spatial boundaries and suggest social, political, and cultural identity as an amalgam” (Smith and Katz 1993, 76). Touristic photography—and it is touristic—filtered through the Zapatismo of the murals reconfigures Oventic as an imaginative space at the same time as it reconjugates our bodies within this frame as figurative spaces that allow for a plethora of meanings. The murals follow a kind of critically reflective touristic practice in which tourist spaces become performance spaces where cultural difference, contradiction, and paradox are made manifest, permitting numerous possible interpretations (McRae 2003, 246). This self-photographic act does not divide difference upon itself—it doesn’t erase difference; rather it keeps it close and always present so that “because I am beside the experience, my distance from it is only re-entrenched” (Alvarez 2011, 31). If Zapatista silence is, as Saldaña-Portillo suggests, a methodology for “interrupting the teleological discourses” that form a Mexican post-revolutionary identity and the interpellating processes of mestizaje and indegenismo, then the mural-centric photographic practice at Oventic—as its own form of silence—disrupts the ordering of Self and Other that occurs within the tourist gaze (2003, 196).

Brian with multi-faced mural. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Brian Batchelor, 2013.
At Oventic, I am neither not a tourist nor not not a tourist; rather, I am a tourist and... I am numerous identities, but never just a tourist, just a traveler, or just a student. The mural indicates not a series of oppositional binary identities, but rather, like the Zapatistas themselves, “a multiplicity that is many things at once yet that preserves its individual parts” (Martin 2004, 120). Oventic demonstrates that I am not a tourist contrasted against the indigenous Other formed through discourse and practice. Rather, in fracturing Zapatista identity, the mural also interrogates my own identity, a process that reveals the performative frame of tourism while at the same time “opening the self into” its multiple parts through what D. Soyini Madison calls a performance of possibility (2003, 82). Here, the Zapatista experience of paradoxical identities is shared with and filtered through the traditionally colonial practices of tourism: an autoethnographic representation that operates through, in Pratt’s words, a "partial collaboration with and appropriation of the idioms of the conqueror," but does not in and of itself offer an unmediated or authentic encounter with the Zapatistas (1992, 7). The acts involved in tourist photography—both taking a photograph and posing—here offer an embodied paradigm of Zapatista difference encoded on tourist bodies. Tourists are therefore folded into these representations; to photograph ourselves alongside the murals allows us to comprehend and appreciate the “thresholds and proximities that open up a relation between one’s self and another” (Alvarez 2011, 31). Tourism becomes one of the many strategies of decolonization employed by the Zapatistas as they continue their experiments in negotiating their identities, spaces, and political ends within and against Mexican and international desires and interests.

The fact that I am never just a tourist at Oventic comes into sharp relief a few days after our visit. On 16 August 2013, I return to Oventic, this time with hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, other visitors. We make our way down the hill to the large, semi-covered stage at the bottom. This gathering marks the culmination of several events celebrating 19 years of Zapatista autonomy and the tenth anniversary of the formation of the caracoles: the first of three days in which Oventic will be open to the public; the opening of the other caracoles to national and transnational visitors; and the end of a course on Zapatista freedom and democracy offered online, in San Cristóbal and in the five caracoles, called the Escuelita Zapatista por la Libertad—the Zapatistas' Little School of Freedom (Mariscal 2013). On 14 August 2013, an email was sent out through the Zapatistas’ digital communications channels reporting that on 12 and 13 August, military aircraft performed nighttime flyovers and buzzed the five caracoles. At Oventic, I am unaware of this increased tension (though it is possible that other visitors were). After a parade in which masked and uniformed Zapatistas take the stage, raise Zapatista and Mexican flags, and give a series of speeches in Spanish, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal, the celebration starts, and bands begin to play folk, rock, hip-hop, and reggae-infused music. People fill the stage space and dance together, in groups, and separately. In the rainy night, Zapatistas (some masked, some not), local supporters, and interested visitors all blend into a muddy and damp performance of solidarity. Any difference at this point, between tourist and traveler, becomes negligible.

The Mexican military’s incursions into Zapatista territory are a reaction not only to these anniversary celebrations, but also to the sudden influx of travelers to and the show of support for the Zapatista communities. That is, this military response indicates the Mexican government’s concern with an increased national and transnational awareness of Zapatismo; it also demonstrates the direct correlations between tourism and travel (and the cross-cultural encounters they facilitate) and political claims to autonomy and identity in Chiapas. The Zapatistas again solicited this transnational encounter by opening their doors to a diverse but interested (fascinated) public who traveled to Oventic to experience this unique event. Oventic once again became a touristic space. Dancing together, we embodied the very formulations of difference and multiplicity represented in the many-faced mural. It is this exact touristic, live co-presence that the Mexican government finds so threatening. As the government’s reaction to a series of peaceful gatherings demonstrates, larger transnational encounters operating within international mobilities and economies of travel hold the political potential to decenter or intervene in dominant structures. While dancing at night, we were all tourists and visitors, supporters, students, activists, artists, and academics; we were also witnesses, protectors, and ambassadors—political supporters and agents in the Zapatistas’ continuing struggle for freedom and buen gobierno. It is this refracting out of the tourist into its multiple potentialities that gives cross-cultural touristic encounters their political power, and, as the Zapatistas demonstrate, this becomes an important strategy of survival.


[1] See John Womack Jr.’s Rebellion in Chiapas (1999) for a historical overview of the conditions and concerns that led to the Zapatista uprising.

[2] Importantly, Harrison notes that there exists a problematic and “unquestioned assumption” that the engine behind this desire is a “natural curiosity about people and places away from home among those in the Western World” (2003, 30). She goes on to state that this is an oversimplification and that the desire for experiences abroad needs to be further explored and critiqued.

[3] The event was an anniversary celebrating Zapatista autonomy and involved opening the community up to several thousand visitors. I will return to this event at the end of this paper.

[4] Importantly, several of our group members reported moments when individual Zapatistas answered questions asked by a single student or a small group. This speaks to a possible difference in speaking one (or few) to many and how that dynamic shapes group identities, versus speaking one to one or few to few.

[5] There are multiple potential reasons for the Zapatistas to disallow our photographs of/with them. First, they might not have wanted 40 people lining up for photographs. Secondly, it could have been a method of controlling the circulation of their images. Most notable however, is the fact that photographs could lead to their identification, arrest, and imprisonment by the Mexican state.

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