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       transcending silence... spring 2008 issue


Mujeres en Acción: Indigenous Women’s Activism in Chiapas, Mexico


        Laura Gallery


This paper is the culmination of two years' worth of research.  I began researching the role of women in the Zapatista movement in Chipas, Mexico for a Women’s Studies Research Seminar class.  I then revised and focused my work the following year, and completed a Women’s Studies Honor’s project.  This project specifically focuses on indigenous women’s activism in Chiapas, both within and exclusive to the Zapatista movement. My research examines indigenous women in Chiapas, and the work they engage in to preserve their cultures and families in today’s world of corporate-led globalization. Further, I observe the problems associated with erasing indigenous people’s cultures in the name of modernization.  I seek to answer whether the activism of these women can be specifically defined as feminism, and whether their work should be included in the realm of feminist activism. To do so, I look into post-modern feminism and the “third-wave” theories to make my argument. 

For me, the work of indigenous women is the last hope of preserving these cultures and reversing the devastating effects of globalization.  Indigenous women across the globe are fighting for the survival of their cultures and ways of life.  They are making gains and setting the example for other women, both indigenous and non-indigenous, on how to make a space in the world for all people.  The more our attention is drawn to their work, the more we all can benefit and achieve a goal of a world that has room for all of its citizens. 


[1] Introduction

[2] Reshaping Mexican Economics
[3] Women’s Response to Economic Restructuring
[4] Women’s Activism
[5] Analysis of Specific Women’s Cooperatives in Chiapas
[6] The EZLN and Women
[7] Analysis of Women’s Role in the EZLN
[8] Is This Activism Feminism
[9] End Notes


For many years, the Mexican government has aimed to position itself as a global market, and gain recognition as a major economic world power.  The Mexican government heavily focused on attaining this position in the 1980’s, when they began a fast-paced process of neo-liberal economic restructuring.  By the late 1980’s, Mexico was finalizing its new economic structure, and setting the wheels in motion to solidify this new system by becoming the third member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Although the implementation of NAFTA on January 1, 1994 was considered a success by some, the agreement also spurred a huge public outcry within Mexico and throughout the world. As a result of this new neo-liberal economic plan and free trade agreement, Mexico’s poor and indigenous populations would inexplicably experience serious economic and political setbacks.   For indigenous people, January 1, 1994 was the f! inal chapter of their existence. 

To fight this debatable new economic model, indigenous people have been coming together in many unique ways in Mexico and Latin America, as well as in other nations around the world. Mexico saw the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), an indigenous rights guerilla organization, explode onto the scene alongside of and in protest of NAFTA.

As we see that indigenous people suffer greatly from the new economic policies Mexico implemented on January 1, 1994, within this group, indigenous women suffer most of all.  Before these new economic changes, indigenous women were working eighteen plus hours a day: caring for children and small animals, doing housework, cooking, sewing, and helping to cultivate the land.  After the major economic shift, indigenous peoples were forced off their lands, and moreover the men had to migrate to Mexico City, Matamoros, Guadalajara, Tijuana, and even the United States to find work.  The government privatized water sources and land. [1] Since 1994, indigenous women have been the ones picking up this slack, while their husbands and eldest sons have left home in search of work.  In addition, the women have much less (if any) land to cultivate for food.  They do not have enou! gh land to raise chickens or pigs or goats.  They no longer are allowed to use local water sources.  Sometimes these water sources dry up as a result of poor management.  In other words, a lifestyle based on subsistence is no longer possible.  There are no longer enough people in the villages to engage in reciprocal labor. [2]  These communities are forced to become part of the capitalist wage economy, and in doing so, vital aspects of their culture are erased. Despite these challenges, indigenous women are fighting back to keep their families and cultures alive. 

In this paper, I will be addressing the activism of women in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.  In this state, female activism takes two major forms.  In Chiapas, many indigenous women have chosen to become active members of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN).  The EZLN provides a way for women to escape their traditional communal lifestyles, while working to alleviate the pressures and oppressions in these communities.  Other women, who do not desire to, or are unable to join the EZLN, have begun women’s cooperatives.  In Chiapas, women have created these cooperatives to simultaneously earn a wage to support their families, and to also maintain their cultural and communal ties.  This feminist form of activism is an effort at survival on their terms.  In the case of the cooperatives, women are working within their role as women and creating handicrafts; however, their wage earnings a! re specifically against their gender roles.  Can we define this activism as "feminist?"  Further, the women who join the EZLN are taking a much more radical approach to activism. The EZLN smashes gender roles through its commitment to equality of all people, and most basically, the equality of men and women.  Can we define this activism as "feminist?"[3]   If we cannot define the activism of Chiapan women as "feminist," how can we conceptualize the actions of these women as activism?  These are the questions I hope to address and answer in this paper.
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Reshaping Mexican Economics
When Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado became president of Mexico in 1982, the nation was experiencing many economic problems. Inflation was rising at one hundred per cent per year and unemployment hit a record high of twenty five per cent. In response, Hurtado began to introduce Mexico to neo-liberal economics.  He began courting foreign investment, privatizing most state industries, and reducing tariffs.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) took notices of these reforms, and in1986 Mexico signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaty (GATT). [4

Perpetuating these economic troubles, during the 1988 election, a computer glitch, caused the majority of votes to shift from the left-wing progressive candidate Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, to right wing, neo-liberal Carlos Salinas de Gortari. When de Gortari took power as Hurtado’s successor, he continued on the neo-liberal path blazed by Hurtado.  He began negotiations with the United States and Canada to sign onto the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Mexico joined on to NAFTA in an effort to become part of the First World economy.  NAFTA promised jobs and lower prices for consumers.  The agreement promised to create a freer, more democratic space, where governments could be held accountable for their actions.  NAFTA was called a "free trade agreement," but in reality it was a "free investment agreement," allowing corporations extreme power at the detriment of nation states and dem! ocratic control (Leiva 2007).  One of the many detrimental conditions that Mexico had to accept in order to be allowed to sign onto NAFTA, was that they had to repeal Article 27[5] of the Mexican Constitution.  This single condition was at the root of modern indigenous uprising and activism of Mexico.
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Women’s Response to Economic Restructuring
By repealing Article 27, the Mexican government effectively stole the land of the indigenous people.  For the indigenous Maya people of Chiapas, land is the cornerstone of their existence.  Land is where life comes from; land is where the sun was born and the gods originated.  In particular, land is where the Mayas cultivate maize, their staple food.  The Maya consider themselves, "people of the corn."  Further, the Maya cultivate beans and squash.  These three crops are the basis of the Mayan food system, as well as their religious practices.  The Maya collectively farm a plot of land to feed the entire village, while the women often keep a small garden near the home for more specific foods.  They also raise chickens and other small animals to supplement the family’s diet (Carmack).  Without access to communal land, indigenous people are at a loss to feed their villages.  Their traditional ability to depend on each o! ther for survival is erased completely. 

Without the ability to sustain themselves in the traditional custom, many men and teenagers are forced to migrate northward to Mexico City, Matamoros, Tijuana, Guadalajara, and the United States to find wage labor (Stephen).  Women are left behind to maintain the communities.  However, with limited options to achieve this task, women have turned to the informal economy.
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Women’s Activism
Women in indigenous communities are expected to adhere to the gender roles outlined by their culture.  Often times, western feminism interprets these roles as sexist and oppressive to women.  However, according to research by Christine Eber, in her interview with Antonia, an indigenous Mayan woman, indigenous women do not feel oppressed by their role.  Men and women each have a role to fulfill, and these roles are considered complementary.  Women’s traditional work within the domestic sphere is seen as necessary to the family’s survival, rather than secondary to the man’s work outside the home.  Eber’s research also points out that, in fact, women do participate in work outside the home such as midwifery, shamanism, weaving, and as leaders of cooperatives. This work is called "cargo"[6] by the women (Eber, 12: 1999).

Although indigenous women in Chiapas and Oaxaca have created several, if not many, cooperatives, I will focus on two in San Pedro Chenalhó, Chiapas.  In San Pedro Chenalhó, women have formed the cooperatives of Mujeres Marginadas (Marginalized Women) and Tsobol Antzetik (Women United).  These two cooperatives are both located in central Chiapas and are within forty kilometers of each other.

In the formation of these cooperatives, women have been actively conscious of their experiences with non-governmental organizations.  Often times, these organizations are hierarchical in nature and, although well meaning, ignore the specific needs of indigenous women.  Similarly, indigenous women have seen, for many years, the problems of the Mexican government.  As a centralized entity with one power (the president), the government is not flexible, and has not been able to meet the needs of all its citizens.  Thus, in forming their own organizations, indigenous women have made a point of making their collectives decentralized.  The collectives do not meet on a regular basis, and women often do most of the work in their homes.  In this way, according to research by Christine Eber, women are able to work independently from their husbands without disrupting the gender roles of their society.  Also by remaining in their communities,! they are able to keep in mind the specific needs of the communities, and are constantly reminded that the government and NGO’s are not addressing these needs adequately enough (Eber: 2000). 

The kinds of work women engage in within these collectives range from bread baking, to collecting and selling firewood, to weaving.  All of these activities are also indigenous cultural traditions.  By transforming cultural traditions into a means of survival, indigenous women are able to maintain and even strengthen their culture in the face of corporate, capitalist globalization, which destroys culture in its search for profit.  Further, women in these collectives are able to discuss their personal issues as indigenous people and as women.  From here, they are able to come to a collective consciousness of their circumstances and begin to move their work from merely survival to actively resisting the politics and economics that are working against them (Eber, 14: 1999).  Women’s cooperatives create a space for women to realize, and then act upon political and economic issues that are affecting them specifically.  Also through Eber! ’s research, we see that women’s articulation of their struggles have been changing since these cooperatives have become stronger and more prevalent.  Earlier, women described their struggles as being different than that of men, but not more intense. Currently, they are realizing that the problems of their communities such as poverty, racism, lack of health care, and absence of assistance in times of need, affect them not only personally as community members, but also specifically and more intensely as women.  Their ability to fulfill their domestic responsibilities is severely reduced.  They are coming to a collective consciousness amongst themselves, which makes it possible for them to see how their struggle, in some ways, can be seen as more intense than that of their male counterparts in the community (Eber,14: 1999).  These collectives began as an attempt by women to support their families. 

Despite the positive, progressive results of these women’s cooperatives, the co-ops are faced with many difficulties as well.  Some of these issues stem from the culture of indigenous peoples, while others are caused by politics and economics.  Often times, despite the efforts of the collectives to be flexible and mesh with women’s domestic responsibilities and gender roles, women are still unable to participate.  Women have many household and field chores to complete, and their remaining time is spent weaving and baking for use in the home and caring for children.  Finding the time to weave or bake extra for sale is often impossible.  Further, each cooperative elects a representative woman who is supposed to travel to the market to sell the weavings, baked goods, or other handicrafts.  This requires anywhere from a few hours to a day’s worth of travel, time spent at the market, and then travel time to return home.  Because! of the gender roles by which women and men are bound, finding childcare or persuading men to take over some of the household duties is almost never an option.  Some collectives have decided that unmarried women without children are only allowed to serve as representatives (Eber, 25: 1999).  However, often these are the youngest women in the community and their experience with the cooperative and their knowledge of the business aspect of selling the goods is limited. 

Another issue faced by the cooperatives, stems from the traditional culture and gender roles involved within that tradition.  Many elders within communities object to women earning money, traveling, becoming politically active, and otherwise operating outside the domestic sphere.  As is true in Western culture, women who divert from the traditional gender roles are often subject to harassment, gossip, and rumors. Some women are even subjected to violence.  Compounding this issue, men’s inability to fully perform their roles as protectors and supporters outside the home causes them to feel threatened by women’s changing roles (Eber: 2000).  This has caused a rise in domestic violence in indigenous communities and is possibly the most damaging negative effect of the women’s cooperatives (Amnesty International).

Finally, indigenous women are faced with issues that stem from the government.  There is a limited access to markets because of the lack of infrastructure accessible to indigenous people.  From their remote communities, journeying to the major urban center of Chiapas, San Cristόbal de las Casas, or anywhere that they could sell their handicrafts is a difficult process.  Further, the cooperatives often receive new orders for crafts before they are able to make profits from preceding orders.  In one example from the cooperative Tsobol Antzetik, the women received an order from Pueblo To People[7] and before they were paid, received another, larger order.  Without the money from the first order, they were unable to buy thread and other supplies that they needed.  This issue of lag-time between payments means that the major goal of the cooperatives (supplying a monetary income for survival) ! is not achieved.  Compounding this issue, is the fact that indigenous women have absolutely no access to banks to get loans, and if they did, they have nothing to use as collateral against the loan and probably would be hard pressed to make payments (especially with interest) on any loan they might be granted.  While microcredit program banks[8] do exist in Chiapas, women’s ability to physically get to San Cristόbal de las Casas is limited.  Further, many indigenous women are monolingual in their indigenous language (Tzotzil and Tezltal are most common) and the banks operate in Spanish (Eber: 2000).
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Analysis of Specific Women’s Cooperatives in Chiapas
The weaving cooperative Tsobol Antzetik in San Pedro Chenalhó, Chiapas has had considerable success, despite the obstacles described above.  Formed in 1981, Tsobal Antzetik follows the traditional structure of cooperatives.  The women do not meet regularly, and they have elected a representative, Antonia (who, interestingly, is married and has children and yet is able to fulfill her duties).  Antonia is responsible for collecting and delivering the weavings to a store in San Cristόbal, collecting payments, and distributing them to members.  The members give Antonia a small amount of their earnings to pay for her bus fare and food.  The members of the cooperative report feeling a high level of commitment to the cooperative.  They meet once a year and the women are able to voice their opinions and discuss problems.  They are able to pass on tradition through their weavings by teaching younger women the older styles and designs of ! the weavings.  Further, the women in the Tsobal Antzetik cooperative have been able to avoid the repercussions of deviating from their gender roles in two ways.  First, they remain within the village as much as possible, with only Antonia traveling to San Cristόbal. Second, they have been able to incorporate the men into their work as "…advisers, mediators with outlets, or ‘bodyguards’ to protect them while carrying…receipts" (Eber).  These jobs allow the men and the women to contribute without having to deviate far from traditional gender roles.  Thus, the women are not seen as threatening to the men, and there is no fear of backlash against their increasing autonomy. 

Another successful women’s cooperative is Mujeres Marginadas.  This cooperative was formed by twenty women as a means to support themselves and their community.  Women travel to San Cristobal to purchase flour and other supplies needed for baking bread. Then, one day during the week, the women come together to bake hundreds of bread products, such as rolls and sweet breads.  The women of Mujeres Marginadas have created strong friendships with each other, whereas before the cooperative, their relationships were nearly entirely contained to family members.  This allows the women to become aware of each other’s struggles with domestic violence and caring for children.  The cooperative fosters a sense of connectedness, which can open the door for larger scale resistance projects focused on social justice for their communities.  Further, the Mujeres Marginadas have had much success with involving men in their work.  The men buil! t the ovens and often do any repair work needed.  They also travel to gather firewood for the baking (Eber). 

One aspect of the Mujeres Marginadas that serves to explain their success (and cannot be used to explain that of Tsobal Antzetik), lays in the understanding that their community is also a Zapatista support base.  The fact that the people of the community are affiliated with the Zapatistas, shows that they are already, as a whole, on a progressive track.  The Zapatistas foster autonomy in their support bases and within the EZLN, women experience a radically different reality than they do outside.
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The EZLN and Women
The Zapatistas became known to the public with the passing of the NAFTA agreement, on January 1, 1994.  The EZLN is a guerilla army of indigenous men and women who rose up against the neo-liberal economic model, and against the obliteration of their culture in this process.  Their purpose and views are most concisely articulated through their various "communiqués," or written messages, speeches, and musings presented to the public through the independent media and also public appearances made by the EZLN command.  As they say in their First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle:

We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz denied us the just application of the Reform laws and the people rebelled and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace, nor justice for ourselves and our children.  B! ut today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation. The dispossessed, we are millions and we thereby call upon our brothers and sisters to join this struggle as the only path, so that we will not die…” (EZLN Command, 1994).

The Zapatistas base their entire existence on their belief of equality for all people of Mexico.  They believe that the indigenous people of Mexico have been exploited, ignored, and abused for long enough; now is the time to be recognized as citizens of Mexico, just as the mestizo population have been.  Over time, their movement has evolved to become a movement for worldwide justice, striving to achieve an end to the oppression of all the invisible people of the world.  As of 2006, the Zapatistas have expressed solidarity with:

…the millions who are not indigenous: workers, peasants, employees, small business people, street vendors, sex workers, unemployed, migrants, underemployed, street workers, homosexuals, lesbians, transgendered people, women, young people, children, and the elderly” (Subcommandate Marcos[9], qtd. Carlsen, 29). 

This solidarity with all oppressed peoples, and the commitment to equality, has given women within the movement a unique platform from which to engage in activism.

Since the EZLNs inception in 1983, the activist organization has been a decentralized, horizontally organized movement.  There is no specific leader, and no one person has ultimate power.  Further, unlike many (if not all) other resistance movements in Latin America, the Zapatistas have done more than just give lip service to gender equity.  Women have always, and remain to be, significant actors in the rebellion.

In 1994, when the Zapatistas seized several cities in Chiapas, women were among the most visible actors.  Insurgent Infantry Captain Irma, Insurgent Infantry Captain Elisa, Insurgent Infantry Captain Silvia, Infantry Insurgent Isidora, First Lieutenant Amalia, Lieutenant Elena…these are just a few of the women who were present on January 1st.  Later, Commandanta Ramona would emerge as a spokesperson for the EZLN:  

Women have been the most exploited . . . We get up at three in the morning to prepare corn for our husband's breakfast and we don't rest until late at night. If there is not enough food we give it to our children and our husbands first. So the women now have decided to take up arms and become Zapatistas." Commandanta Ramona, EZLN.

According to the Irish Mexico Solidarity group, women make up 1/3 of the military command of the EZLN and 55% of the support communities. [10] Most of the women who join the EZLN are in their late teens. Age is important to note because it shows traditional gender roles create an impossible barrier for married or child bearing women to join. Joining the EZLN requires a woman to leave her community and live deep in the Lacandón Jungle, where the Zapatista command has its headquarters, and where training occurs.  The incentive for women to join the EZLN (rather than remain in a support community) is highly rewarding .  Upon arrival, women are taught to read, write, and speak Spanish.  They are taught their own history as indigenous people, and how to fight for their existence.  Within the ranks of the EZLN, women and men share all duties and traditional gender roles are not enforced.  In ! fact, they are consciously broken down.  Women and men share duties on a rotating schedule.  On certain days, women have the job of  cooking the meals, and cleaning the living area.  On other days, the responsibility for the domestic chores falls to the men.  Both sexes are trained in military strategy and on the use of arms.  Both sexes hold equal ranks in the organization; there are male and female majors, lieutenants, soldiers, commandants, and sub-commandants.  Both men and women work together to produce and deliver the many speeches and declarations of the EZLN.  The EZLN has made many journeys to Mexico City to address the Mexican Congress on the issue of indigenous rights.  At all of these addresses, women have spoken to the Congress equally with the men. 

The Zapatista’s aim to incorporate women fully and equally into their organization; they have cemented this commitment in the Revolutionary Law of Women.  Finalized in 1996, the Revolutionary Law of Women was a project of many of the female commanders of the EZLN.  They set out to speak with other women soldiers of the EZLN and also women in the support communities.  They came up with a list of thirty one demands.  These demands ranged from the right to rest, ending prostitution, and stopping polygamy, to the right to not marry or have children and the right to be respected as human beings by their male counterparts.  These laws were presented to the EZLN command and added to the official EZLN documents in 1996.  Within the ranks of the EZLN, these laws are accepted and enforced.  Although they are also accepted in the base communities, enforcement is not as strong (Mujeres Zapatista).  Often, women in support communities ar! e working towards social justice for the community as a whole, rather than their specific concerns as women.  Further, traditional gender roles have not been eradicated in the base communities as they have been in the EZLN command.  As we saw with the cooperative Mujeres Marginadas, which is part of a Zapatista base community, women had been able to engage in activism and include men in their activism specifically because they worked within their assigned gender roles.  Being that Mujeres Marginadas is in a Zapatista base community, and they are able to engage in activism that other indigenous women cannot, this proves that steps are in fact being taken towards the alteration of gender roles beyond the EZLN. Although this is true, complete progress is far from being achieved at this point.

Women who remain in the support communities by choice or obligation, also have a place in the Zapatista struggle.  These women are the people who implement the Zapatista program on the ground.  Currently, the Zapatistas are working to enact the future they wish to see for Mexico in their base communities.  They have officially declared autonomy from the Mexican government in their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle(2005), and are effectively setting up an autonomous Zapatista zone in Chiapas.  They have organized their base communities into five caracoles[11] headed by "Good Government Juntas" made up of individuals elected by their communities.  These juntas work together to provide Zapatista communities with the infrastructure, education, and healthcare that the government has so long denied them (Carlsen). 

Within the communities, women are the ones actively working towards the Zapatista goal of autonomy.  Women organize cooperatives (as we saw with Mujeres Marginadas) to help the communities generate income, as they can no longer survive on subsistence alone.  Besides the informal, consciousness-raising education that they engage in through handicraft cooperatives, they formally learn from Zapatista representatives in classes set up by the Good Government Juntas.  Through these classes they are able to learn basic math and literacy, as well as the Spanish language and revolutionary strategy.  Most indigenous women in communities are monolingual in their indigenous languages and learning Spanish is a way to understand the oppressor, and consequently as a way to fight back.  The knowledge of Spanish in Mexico, just like the knowledge of English in the United States, allows a person to better understand the society and participate more fu! lly.  For the women of Chiapas, knowledge of Spanish allows them to communicate with non-governmental organizations, state agencies, and anyone else who may be able to help them promote their cause.  Further, they learn about Mexican politics and how and why they an effect on everyday life in the communities.  Again, this knowledge better equips the women to know what they are resisting against and ways of resistance. Through their roles in the domestic sphere, women can contribute to the EZLN by supplying food and clothing, and even money from their handicraft cooperatives .  As said by Subcommandante Marcos, "the women are the spiritual and material support of this army; if we can survive in large numbers, it is thanks to them ...." (Irish Solidarity Network).
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Analysis of Women’s Role in the EZLN
Unlike many revolutionary movements in the world, the Zapatistas have made a specific effort to include women.  Beyond inclusion, they are making strides towards breaking down gender roles and stereotypes in indigenous communities.  The women of the Zapatista movement have actively spoken up for the rights of all indigenous peoples, and have also spoken up for their specific rights as women.  The EZLN has provided women with a platform to speak out against their oppression in ways that the cooperatives women have set up are as of yet unable to do.  Within the EZLN support communities, women experience a level of equality, which women in non-support bases are not able to receive.  Although women in the support communities still remain relatively bound by gender roles when it comes to activism, they remain key actors in the success of the Zapatista movement through their contribution to the material needs of the revolution and also in th! e contribution of their minds through their education. 
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Is This Activism Feminism?
In a basic Google or Wikipedia search on feminism, one finds the term defined as three "waves."  The first wave is said to have been concerned with the absolute rights of women (i.e. land ownership, voting, et cetera).  The second wave came about in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and was concerned with equality in terms of discrimination.  The second wave focused on gaining individual rights for women.  These two waves have been criticized for framing women’s struggles in terms of the white, middle class and did not recognize the issues or voices of women of color, nor the significance and importance of women’s activism for issues outside the realm of absolute or individual rights.  In the 1990’s, the third wave of feminism began, and continues into today.

Third-wave feminism is an idea of post-modern feminism.  Post-modern feminism deals with issues of race, class, and gender and has been trying to create a space within feminist discourse for the many different voices or women.  There is a genuine effort to study and learn from the work and activism of African-American women, Chicanas, Asian-American women, poor women, rural women, transgendered women, lesbians, an anyone else who has been left out of feminist thought until now.  Most recently, there has been an attempt within third-wave feminism to examine and create a space for the work of women from the Global South (Ortega, 64-65).  This is where the activism of the women in Chiapas fits. 

These women began organizing and becoming active out of necessity.  Neo-liberal economic restructuring, and capitalist culture has invaded Mexico, threatening indigenous existence.  In the case of Chiapas, traditionally indigenous land was privatized; indigenous communities could no longer be self-sufficient and were thrust into a dependence on capital (money).  Parallel to this, these communities are steeped in 500 years of traditions, and part of these traditions includes gender roles.  In keeping with these roles, men migrated to larger urban centers in Mexico and to cities in the United States seeking wages, while women stayed home and began cooperatives (both within and independent of EZLN support communities) to create handicrafts and traditional foods to sell at local and semi-local markets.  This form of activism would not be recognized as feminist through the first- and second-wave lens.  They do not try to gain speci! fic rights for women such as voting power, nor do they focus on woman-centered individual rights, such as the right to an abortion. 

We then must address the other indigenous women whose response to the neo-liberal shock was to become active participants in the EZLN.  These women have totally broken from traditional gender roles, in order to join a movement that has the express purpose of protecting indigenous people’s lifestyles and traditions from extinction.  The EZLN is fighting on behalf of all oppressed peoples, and within it, women have found a place to become active specifically for their concerns as women.  Through the Zapatista’s commitment to equality, women have been able to exist outside of traditional gender roles, and they have built upon this commitment by creating Revolutionary Law of Women.  The activism of women in the EZLN fits more squarely into the first- and second-wave ideas of feminism.

The emergence of third-wave feminist thought has created a space for both of these forms of activism to be analyzed as feminist activism.  Third-wave feminists and scholars can look to the activism of these women and learn how women are doing what they need to do, independent of men, government, and permission, to preserve their families and their cultures. As post-modern feminism seeks to include the experiences and words from women of the Global South, this type of activism, which is seeped in the goal of giving a voice to these women’s culture, communities, (gender roles and all), and families will undoubtedly be recognized as valid feminist activism and even as a form of feminist theory. As said by Christine Eber: 

Their[indigenous women’s] experiences require us to reject the notion that these women’s activities are prepolitical moments in lives of women who lack political consciousness because they have not cast off their cultural yokes.  They open up alternative possibilities within indigenous women’s organizing for democratization and sustainable development in the face of destructive forces of neo-liberalism.  Through their struggles to challenge particular forms of subordination, the women in the two cooperatives also challenge dominant conceptions of gender inequality, specifically the pursuit of individual rights as the only path for women’s liberation” (Eber 1999: 30). 

Through the research of Christine Eber and Lynn Stephen, we see that the indigenous women of Chiapas are engaging in activism to better their communities and through this, their own personal lives.  We see that women’s activism in collectives allows them to sustain their communities, while at the same time maintaining their cultural values.  We also see women engaging in more radical activism through the EZLN: they are breaking down certain aspects of their cultures in the interest of preserving their larger identity as indigenous people.  Western feminists may have a difficult time finding this activism as specifically feminist; however, through the lens of post-modernist feminism, a space is being created where we can appreciate this activism and the women innovators . The women of Chiapas are creating their own unique brand of woman-sponsored activism, which   has its own valuable place within the broad scope of third-wave! , global feminisms.
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End Notes
[1] As described by Mario Canek Huerta of the Mexico Solidarity Network, following the implementation of NAFTA, land and water that had once been held communally by peasants or seen as being property of the public (such as lakes) became available for private ownership.  In most cases, the government or large multinational corporations bought the land and water resources for private use.  Peasants were no longer allowed to use these resources, and a major element of their survival and of their culture was stolen (Mexico Solidarity Network). [Return to Text

[2] Often times in Latin America, indigenous communities depend on all members to get work done.  During harvest time, all families would come together to harvest the crop of one family with the knowledge that the next day or week, another family’s need would be addressed. This is known as reciprocal labor.  In this way, the villages are able to maintain a strong sense of community and all members’ needs are met (Leiva, 2007). [Return to Text

[3] I am placing the word feminist in quotes because I feel that feminism is a Eurocentric term which is most often used to define activism that is focused on bettering the lives of women, first and foremost.  Further, in my research for this paper and other papers, I have found that most indigenous Latin American women do not identify with the term feminist/feminism because they feel it deals with white women’s concerns and does not do justice to the work which they engage in.  [Return to Text

[4]The GATT Treaty was created at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1948.  It was created in response to the failure of a proposed International Trade Organization.  The main objective of the treaty is to reduce tariffs and other barriers to international trade. [Return to Text

[5] Article 27 was added to the Mexican Constitution in 1917 as a result of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).  It returned communal land rights to peasant populations of Mexico.  While Mexico was undergoing privatization, Article 27 was repealed which made communally held lands (ejidos) able to be bought, sold, and held privately.  Many lands which were once communally held were bought by large corporations without any reparations to the communities that once cultivated them for sustenance agriculture.  [Return to Text

[6] According to Eber, “cargo” is defined as “…service that they [women] provide to their communities without pay…The concept evokes the responsibility that people carry to assist powerful spiritual beings in keeping the world in…balance” (Eber, 12).  [Return to Text

[7] Pueblo To People is a now-defunct fair trade organization that acted as a middleman between Latin American handicraft producers and the market in North America (The New York Times).[Return to Text

[8]Microcredit programs (such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) provide small loans to people (mostly underemployed women in the Third World) and give them access to credit.  These programs are most used by women to start up small businesses.  The payback rate is about 98% .  The Grameen Bank has grown to include banks worldwide, including Chiapas, Mexico ( [Return to Text

[9] Subcommandante Marcos is the spokesperson of the EZLN.  Although he is often mistaken for the leader, he specifically denies this identity.  He is called the Subcommandante because he takes his direction from all members of the EZLN, and serves as a mouthpiece for their words.  His counterpart was Commandanta Ramona who also served as a mouthpiece, although she often spoke on behalf of women specifically.  She has since passed away in 2006.  [Return to Text

[10] The EZLN has control over more than 40 communities in Chiapas.  These communities are called “support communities”, as they have expressed solidarity with the EZLN but are not actively engaged in the EZLN military component.  These support communities provide the Zapatistas with financial, material, and moral support.  [Return to Text

[11] In Spanish, caracol  is translated literally as “snail shell”.  The EZLN likens their municipalities to snail shells because they represent “a spiral path, inward to the heart of the communities and back out into the world abroad” (Carlsen, 21).  [Return to Text


Edited By: Lauren Nye


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