An Encounter with the Zapatistas

An article about an encounter I had with my sister and friend while hitch hiking in Mexico on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse.

While hitch hiking in Mexico, I witnessed two terrifying events. The second most terrifying were the Mexican police officers. They drove up and down the streets of towns and they drove behind us, standing in the back of their trucks with their automatic guns pointing from over their cab at my sister, Sarah, and I hugging each other and trying to make our bodies as flat as possible while we closed our eyes so at least we couldn’t see their rifles pointed at us. And the first most terrifying? That was the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

I was hitch hiking from Puebla, Mexico to Belize with my sister and my friend from university, Alex in December 2012. After a rough night in Palenque, Chiapas sleeping on a slab of concrete we had managed to survive the Mayan Apocalypse with a soggy morning spent at the ruins with hundreds of poncho clad strangers singing John Lennon songs and holding hands in an ohm circle, but we wanted a change of scenery. We had heard that San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas was a beautiful town with Spanish colonial architecture and surrounded by hills and because we had no itinerary we decided to spend the rest of the day trying to find a ride there.

We began to walk from the town of Palenque and towards where we imagined the road to San Cristóbal de las Casas might be. We walked for about an hour with our backpacks in the heat of the middle of the day, passing every type of tree and greenery you can imagine on the side of the road, a few tiny shops with grass roofs, dozens of old Volkswagen Beetles and after seeing a Pemex gas station we decided it might be a good idea to inquire about a map. We were still using one we had hand-drawn in Puebla. Unfortunately however, that Pemex is the furthest we made it down Carretera Federal 199 the highway that would have taken us all the way to San Cristóbal de las Casas.

After using the bathroom in the gas station and discovering there were no maps to be found, we stepped outside the gas station startled to see six alarming trucks filling up their gas tanks. The backs of the trucks had a high canopy with a tarp covering two of the sides and the back open to the air. Seated in the bed of each truck were about a dozen men or women, it was impossible to tell which because each was wearing a black ski mask covering all but their eyes and mouths, red bandanas tied around their necks and a few individuals had what appeared to be machine guns in their arms. Simultaneously, barreling down the same highway we had just been about to hitch hike on, was an endless stream of identical trucks as far as we could see, all of the passengers with black ski masks and red bandanas, and all eyes appeared to be on us . All of us panicked. I wanted to run and cry and scream and hide but I couldn’t move. What’s happening? Are these terrorists? A word I believed was thrown around too often in the U.S., was I being punished for having underestimated the threat of terrorism? For eternity we stood frozen on the side of the gas station too shocked to move. As soon as the trucks left the gas pumps with full tanks, another round would take their place, more masks, more potential guns and more fear.

After we started to remember where we were, we realized we needed to move or do something quickly. But none of the gas station workers looked more than slightly concerned. “¿Qué está pasando? ¿Quiénes son? ¿Son peligrosos?” “What is happening? Who are they? Are they dangerous?” We asked the employees.

In our basic understanding of Spanish we discovered that they were the Zapatistas and while they weren’t particularly dangerous, they were likely going to blockade the highway and probably require cars to pay a hefty toll if they wanted to pass.

The name sounded familiar to me. I could envision the word in one of my Spanish books from school, but my ignorance and naivety prevailed. I couldn’t remember who they were, or what they did and neither could Sarah or Alex. We decided that the best thing to do was to leave the state of Chiapas altogether immediately because we didn’t know enough about the Zapatistas to risk staying and we certainly couldn’t travel down Carretera Federal 199 any further.

As we walked back towards the town of Palenque, passing a constant flow of Zapatistas and still shaken up, we realized that we couldn’t hitch hike anywhere and we had no idea how long we might have to wait in Palenque. We bought tickets on the first bus from Palenque which was headed for Tulum. A journey we were convinced according to our hand-drawn map could only take about 6 hours but 12 hours later we arrived there safely yet damp from the leaky bus roof.

I did not stop thinking about the Zapatistas for the rest of our trip, but it wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. and started a course about social movements in Mexico that I began to understand who they were and what they do.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation or the Zapatistas as they are often referred to, are a revolutionary leftist group that is based in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. The movement is largely indigenous peasant based and the group’s three central objectives are democracy, freedom and justice.

It can be very difficult to fully understand the Zapatista movement especially for those outside of Mexico, because the Zapatistas do not adhere to standard socialist formulas, but instead adopt what political scientist Stahler-Sholk has coined an “eclectic sprinkling” of anarchism, socialism, “liberation theology, Mexican agrarismo, indigenous community values, and sui generis forms of organization.”

And while they strongly oppose capitalism they prefer to leave the question open as to what they suggest should take capitalism’s place. This especially makes it easier for the Mexican government to claim that they do not understand the demands of the Zapatistas well enough to respond. But the Zapatistas have made it clear through the mainly nonviolent “war” they have declared “against the Mexican state” that they oppose economic globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) primarily because it has drastically reduced the living standards for many southern Mexican farmers and removed the right which had previously guaranteed land reparations to indigenous groups throughout the country.

Although it might be easier for them to be heard, they cannot become a political party because if they were to gain any political power, it would directly contradict their belief that the contemporary political system of Mexico is inherently flawed because of its disconnect from the people. Their desire is to reconceptualize the entire system.

The day that we saw the Zapatistas, December 21st, 2012 was the largest nonviolent mobilization in the history of the Zapatista movement. At least 50,000 members marched in complete silence in five Chiapas cities, but their message was clear to those listening. They came out in large numbers to tell the people of Mexico and the world that they had never gone away, that they have never stopped working, organizing and struggling. They understand more than anyone that the alternate world that we need to build can only be reached through organization, discipline and coordination.

More than most things, I regret leaving the state of Chiapas that day. I regret that I was too worldly unaware to feel excitement when I saw the Zapatistas congregating. I realize now that they are not interested in power or politics, unlike many activist groups they care solely about people and are huge advocates for indigenous worker’s and women’s rights. I hope that if you happen to see the Zapatistas marching in silence when you visit Chiapas, Mexico that you do not succumb to naiive fear as I did, but that you hear their message and their hopes for a better Mexico and a better world.

After the march on December 21st, 2012, the Zapatista’s main spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, issued a written communiqué in the form of a question and protest.

Did you hear it?

It is the sound of your world crumbling.

It is the sound of our world resurging.

The day that was day, was night.

And night shall be the day that will be day.




From the Mountains of Southeastern Mexico

For the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee — General Command of the EZLN

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Mexico, December 2012

For this article in Spanish and other amazing articles, visit Argentine Magazine CLAP:

Grillo, I. (2013, Jan 08). Return of the zapatistas: Are mexico’s rebels still relevant?. TIME, Retrieved from


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