My very first trip to Latin America….
On a normal day with a blue sky in Columbus, Ohio….
I show up to the airport there as I was living in that area around that time…
All of this probably took place about 7 or so years ago if I remember right.
So I’m there and there’s about 6 or 7 other people coming with us.
Our destination was Chiapas, Mexico.
Which is the southernmost state of Mexico and one of the more rural states in that country.
We planned on being there for basically about a week to two weeks ish…
And the purpose of our trip was to basically do some academic research on a social movement in the region called the Zapatista movement…
Who are the Zapatistas?
This is a bit complicated to explain since I’ve written a few hundred pages on them and could go on forever and ever talking about this group.
But if I had to summarize them in the simplest way possible…
Basically, you have a group of indigenous people in Chiapas that have been living in poverty for quite a while.
Where previous efforts to mobilize and improve their communities were often squashed.
And then you had a variety of different organizations in the second half of the 20th century working to improve these communities.
Which, one of those groups, was an armed guerrilla group called the FLN – named the National Liberation Forces as you can read about here.
Who were from Monterrey, Mexico and formed in 1969.
And they basically formed cells in other Mexican cities to eventually overthrow the Mexican government.
But the Mexican government, with cooperation from agencies in the US government such as the FBI, got wind of this and cracked down hard on their group.
The survivors escaped to Chiapas – a very rural area – and started forming defense military camps in the Lacandon Jungle.
And started working on gaining the support of the local rural communities of indigenous people.
They ended up, in a way, competing with other social actors in the area for the support of the local indigenous people and ended up becoming the dominant group.
By 1983, the FLN becomes the EZLN, which is the military wing of the Zapatista movement.
In 1993, the indigenous population votes to start an armed uprising against the Mexican government and releases a declaration a year later announcing their uprising.
Then they get into an armed confrontation with the Mexican military as they tried taking land that they claimed belonged to indigenous people.
And end up losing some of that territory while retreating.
And so the Zapatista Movement is basically a rural movement in Latin America that has stronger left ideologies.
Including opposing capitalism and neoliberalism…
Representing the interests of indigenous groups in the area..
A governance system that better resembles direct democracy (though their practice of it is problematic in some ways but that’s a topic for another day…..)
And also they run a bunch of cooperatives that basically sell products to other people (local Mexicans but mostly foreigners) who are willing to pay a premium price under the idea of “fair trade” to those who want to support this movement.
Such products are coffee (which is by far their most financially profitable product), artisan crafts and more…
While also receiving a lot of donations from foreign supporters.
From memory, that is basically the TLDR of this movement.
Well, a TLDR from someone who wouldn’t mind saying a lot more about this movement but that could be an entire article in of itself…
Click this link here for more info on them (Wikipedia source).
Anyway, so let’s get back to my first trip to Latin America to do research regarding this movement…
Arriving to Mexico
So now I’m on the plane in Columbus, Ohio…
Ready for it to take off..
And now keep in mind this was the very first time I had ever been on a plane in my entire life..
So the feeling of it lifting off the ground and the speed it took was a bit of an experience for me since it felt a bit different.
Anyway, we get to Mexico City first where some police folks are investigating our bags for drugs.
We are going to bring drugs to a very rural libertarian-socialist movement in Chiapas, Mexico.
Because, you know, those Zapatista folks need some cocaine for when they get the arms needed to attack the Mexican government again.
Anyway, we catch a flight that same night to Villahermosa, Tabasco.
In hindsight, I’m not sure why they didn’t take us directly to the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
But I didn’t question it – it was my first trip to Latin America…
And actually my very first trip outside of the US in general.
So here we are in Villahermosa at night in some hotel.
In a neighborhood, that in hindsight after having now some years living in Mexico, I’m not sure was very safe.
The person running this trip I don’t think did a lot of research on which hotel to pick obviously.
So I’m standing on this balcony outside the hotel room and look at the neighborhood.
Which, yes, did look a bit sketchy – especially in hindsight.
But it wasn’t terrible – I mean, nothing happened anyway.
There were some sketchy looking folks walking outside from what I saw…
And a bar in the distance that was playing some reggaeton music…
I think, if I remember right, it was “sensación del bloque” by De la Ghetto
Which is probably where I learned that song now that I think about it…
Good song, by the way.
And among that, there were some military looking trucks running around with military dudes in the back holding what looked like machine guns or something.
So anyway, the next day we have free time to explore Villahermosa.
And it was an OK city.
From there, we had to take a vehicle (or two or three, we changed vehicles a bit) to eventually get to Zapatista territory in Chiapas.
Along the way, I remember I had this impression….
That Mexicans are loud.
Nowadays with my time down here, it’s completely normal to me.
But back during my first trip to Latin America, I was annoyed by the amount of people yelling shit…
“SE VENDE SE VENDEEE SE VENDE CHOCOLATE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Or something like…
“OK PENDEJOS OK, VAMOS AL MERCADO!! VAMOS AL MERCADO! SOLO 5 PESOS POR UN VIAJE AL MERCADO EN EL COMBI!!! MERCADO MERCADO!!!”
Like, dude, we get it. You are going to the market in your combi.
“Ya callense la pinche boca pinche putito”
Obviously, my Spanish vocabulary has improved since then….
And before we ended up in Chiapas, we sat down at a restaurant…
But before we decided on that restaurant to eat at…
Our local guide who was getting us to Zapatista territory said “no no, not that restaurant. That one sucks. It will give you food poisoning.”
Which is an issue I had with here…
But, nonetheless, good food was not on the table that day.
I ended up getting a tamale – which almost made me throw up.
To this day, I’m not a big fan of tamales – the texture is just weird.
Regardless, we get to Chiapas eventually.
In a small van along the way to Caracol 5 of Zapatista territory.
Which, by the way, Zapatista territory is meant to be autonomous from the rest of Mexico in that it is self-governing.
Almost think similar to what happened in Seattle with CHAZ a little while ago this year...
And it is divided into different areas called a “caracol.”
So we show up to Caracol 5 as you can see above.
Arrival to Zapatista Territory
Upon arrival to Zapatista territory, we come across this sign here as you can see below…
Then we showed up to some office where we meet the local “Junta de buen Gobierno” that basically oversees management work of this caracol.
And which the people who are part of the Junta de Buen Gobierno are chosen by members of their community and the people in the position are basically switched up at a regular basis.
During this meeting, we listened to them describe their movement and welcome us essentially before we are allowed to ask them some questions.
For the rest of the trip…
I mostly focused on doing some informal interviews with those in the area to get some information for our research.
Plus some of the members of our group participated in helping paint this mural as you can see here.
Which I tried to help paint also…
And while everyone was allowed to partake in helping paint the mural…
My painting was apparently so shit that the main muralist who came in to lead that specific project literally stopped the entire thing..
And gathered the few people there painting and said something along the lines of…
“Hermanos, hermanos, trabajamos juntos. Es importante ayudar a nuestros propios compañeros!”
Meanwhile, I was on my knees just trying to paint a little bird on the mural that you can see below.
Then the guy took my paint brush and adjusted it a bit.
To be fair, my painting skills would probably make the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera roll in his grave.
To a point where, if he were alive today, he would mumble “ay rayos, pinta como un pendejo. No mames wey” at the sight of my painting contribution.
At any rate, I gave up on my aspirations that moment in giving a significant contribution to the mural and went back to doing interviews that were needed to be done.
During the trip as well, we saw a meeting that was being held where members of this community were basically discussing issues in their community.
One of which, from what I understood, had to deal with issues regarding some artisan cooperative in the area.
Near the end of the trip, our group had it planned where we would cook a bunch of food for the local community to show appreciation for them letting us inside.
Which you can check out the kitchen we used to cook for them here below.
Not the most modern but we got the job done – mostly meat that was cooked, which apparently is not something people in the community eat often due to the higher expensive of meat.
If I remember right, apparently they only eat meat a few times a month.
One thing I enjoyed quite a bit on this trip was sitting down during this moment as we were eating together with people in the community…
Where I separated from my group for a bit.
The group I was with was eating by themselves in the building that you see above where the mural was.
And in the moment, I felt it would be better to sit down with one of the locals and talk with them for a bit while eating.
Just to meet someone new and get some perspective on their community.
A Small Discussion Over Dinner
Now keep in mind not everyone here in this community speaks Spanish.
Some of them, as I encountered, speak local indigenous languages and you won’t necessarily understand everything that everyone is saying.
But fortunately the first person I sat down with did speak Spanish so we had no issue understanding each other.
He was a young guy probably about my age at the time from the looks of it.
I introduced myself and we had a small chit chat while eating some beef.
Over some normal small talk about life in Chiapas…
Which consisted of most of our conversation as I asked him about things like if smoking is allowed.
Though that might seem like a weird question, it isn’t necessarily when you consider that alcohol is banned on these communities.
And then the conversation switched to a more serious topic about how he perceives his future here in Caracol 5.
“Te interesa conocer otros lugares de Mexico?”
Is one question I asked as the conversation got more serious.
Because, on my side, I was curious about how many of the folks here ever leave the territory to explore life elsewhere in Mexico.
Perhaps because being from Iowa myself, I know of some folks who basically never left Iowa.
And in this case, given the tight security around the Zapatista territory and some of the isolation of some Zapatista communities from the rest of Mexico…
It does make you wonder if any of the folks here would ever consider leaving for a time and maybe living somewhere in a place like Villahermosa or Mexico City.
Especially, as in hindsight, you learn that so many people in rural areas around the world migrate to larger cities in search of better employment opportunities.
Something I have seen in Mexico City over the years living there as you notice folks from more rural areas or indigenous background living on the streets and in search of money.
Where, in one case, I remember an older man on the metro in Mexico City a year ago or so giving me a note saying in Spanish that he basically migrated to the city from a more rural area in search of money to support his family.
So what about this young guy I was talking to?
I asked the question…
“Te interesa conocer otros lugares de Mexico?”
He continued eating his beef for a second while looking down at his plate…
Then looked up at the mural in front of us that we painted and nodded “si.”
“Por que?” I asked.
And he goes on about how, well, he has family in this territory…
But he has a sister who left the area years ago to move to Tuxtla Gutiérrez for work reasons.
And also, in his words, life in the area really isn’t that much better than the rest of the country and he felt he could have a brighter future elsewhere.
Perhaps in Tuxtla Gutiérrez or perhaps elsewhere in Mexico.
At any rate, it was insightful getting his perspective on life in this community.
Could be worthy of another article in general in the future.
But that’s one thing I really enjoy doing in Latin America…
Which we will cover under some general lessons from this trip…
First and foremost, one thing I really liked about this trip was getting to sit down with normal folks in rural areas of Latin America.
This wasn’t a trip to Cancun.
Though I have never been to Cancun, I am sure it is a nice area.
But one thing I really like about living in Latin America is visiting more rural areas and asking normal folks about life in their community.
Just to get an inside perspective about life in the areas of Latin America not often visited or talked about.
Because, to me, it gives a real insight into life outside the cities.
And perhaps because I can relate better to folks from the areas outside the cities because I am originally from a small town in Iowa.
A state in the US that elitists from the coasts often call a “fly over state.”
A place many of these same folks don’t visit and sometimes even look down upon with their noses calling us “racists” and “uneducated” among other things.
Without ever visiting and sitting down to have a beer with us from there.
So anyway, for me personally, I enjoy visiting more rural areas of Latin America.
Which is ironic given that I enjoy more living in urban cities for a variety of reasons.
But I am young also and maybe I will move to a more rural area in Latin America when I get older.
Perhaps to a small, relatively more rural area like Puerto Williams in Chile.
A nice little area that you can read about here.
Plus the name is Puerto Williams – Williams is not hard to pronounce, so that’s a plus!
Almost feels like I am in the US again!
At any rate…
Other lessons I learned had to do more with the social movement we were looking at.
Going into it, I had a more positive view of the movement.
And while I still do in a way and understand where they are coming from…
As this area has often been neglected by the Mexican federal government and even the local state government…
Not to mention the violence against the indigenous communities in the area also historically…
So I get the efforts made by these folks to improve the quality of life in their communities.
And it is something I can respect.
After all, they don’t look to the government asking for money.
They pull themselves up and try the best they can to improve their own communities despite the difficulties they come across.
Such as violence from nearby paramilitary groups, issues regarding crop failure, etc.
Still, while the broader movement has done some good for the movement for sure…
In ways such as building schools or clinics for rural areas that didn’t have that before.
Or providing access for rural producers of coffee to wealthier customers in North America and Europe who are willing to pay a premium for their coffee or other products…
It became apparent the different inefficiencies and inconsistencies I learned about regarding this movement.
Which, if this article wasn’t over 3,000 words, I’d go into more detail on that but I can save it for another article someday…
Because given my experience looking into this movement, I could easily write up another 300 page document on this movement.
Either way, these were the two more important impressions I had during my time on this trip.
There were a few other lessons I could add here but they are not as important so I will cut it off here.
And if you have any experience in Latin America, Mexico, Chiapas or with the Zapatista movement…
Let me know below with a comment.
And thanks for reading.
I hope you enjoyed this read.