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  • Really: never ever a boring moment, less in Chiapas with governors leaving the state in bancruptcy, meteorites falling from the night sky and the end of the World expected by thousands in especially Palenque today.

    Again I cannot leave my house and get to my business and office in downtown. Thousands of Zapatistas are arriving. They are marching already in Ocosingo and Margaritas and they will march through San Cristóbal now for many hours. They are wearing their masks, but each with a white stripe above the eyes. They come in peace, they announced. Women with masks nurse babies while marching. Nobody carries sticks or machetes, but they are many and more, many, many thousands.

    They say they want to mark the end of the Mayan calendar and a new beginning. Marching in San Cristobal they reach the world news telling everybody: WE ARE STILL HERE AND WE ARE MANY.

    It is the height of the dry season, but since last night a heavy rain is falling, challenging tens of thousands of Mayan Zapatistas marching. They do not care. They have suffered hard lives. They are tougher than most of us.

    They march 6 thousand in Ocosingo, 7 thousand in Margaritas, probably more in San Cristóbal, in complete silence, no shouting, no picketing.

    I remember the Zapatista Uprising on the 1st of January 1994:

    During one of our journeys to buy native folk art for our gallery, my husband suddenly turned to me and announced, “It is my dream to have my own hotel.”

    A number of years later it was possible for us to realize his dream. Together with a close friend we opened our hotel in San Cristobal. As our friend is from Switzerland, world-famous for its beautiful and comfortable hotels, she looked to her homeland to find our hotel manager. A young Swiss woman, Corinne, agreed to join the Mexican adventure and came to town. She trained the employees and truly became the good soul of the hotel.

    On New Year’s Eve 1993, San Cristobal was teeming with tourists. There was music and dancing. Firecrackers shook us up again and again, colorful balloons adorned the streets and, of course, there was a lot of tequila. We enjoyed a huge party in our restaurant. At around two o’clock in the morning I left with our youngest son, then twelve, and started to drive the six kilometers up to our house. My husband remained behind at the fiesta del año nuevo.

    Leaving town, I turned onto the road which leads to Chamula. Many trucks were moving in the opposite direction, heading into San Cristobal. I hardly saw them. I had drunk several glasses of wine and needed to concentrate hard not to lose my way. My son observed though, “Mummy, do you see all these men on the trucks? They’re wearing masks and each one has a rifle!”

    Fortunately, I only half-listened to what he was saying. My focus was on getting us home safely. Had I paid closer attention to my son, the trucks and their contents, I would not have slept a wink that night.

    Very early the next morning our restaurant night watchman telephoned me, agitated and alarmed. “Doña Kiki, guerrillas have taken the city! From the balcony here I can see dead policemen lying in the plaza.” He continued, “I would like to go home, but I cannot. I have all the restaurant money from last night with me.”

    “Hide the money somewhere,” I urged. “What is important is for you to get home safely!”

    “No,” he insisted. “I cannot go home before you have this money! The rebels have plundered the pharmacy next door. Now they are taking papers out of City Hall. I guess they want to burn them!”

    I was very worried about my husband. Where was he? Maybe he had encountered the rebels when he finally left the party! Maybe he had been shot and maybe he, too, lay dead somewhere like those unlucky policemen!

    I called the hotel. Miraculously, the staff had found an empty bed for my husband in the wee hours of the morning. He came to the telephone with quite a hangover, but was completely alert once I gave him the news.

    Nobody could enter or leave town. Our hotel guests had many different reactions to the unexpected situation. Some locked themselves in their rooms and regularly telephoned Corinne to remind her that the hotel was responsible for their wellbeing. Others started drinking anew at the bar. Still others were much more courageous, especially the Italians. They called their families in Italy and screamed into the receiver, “Mamma! La revoluzzione!” After relaying the news, they walked to the plaza where the rebels were communicating their message to the curious. Small bands were playing songs from the time of the Mexican Revolution. Some of the curious listened; some even danced. A few daredevil tourists hugged the rebels, who called themselves Zapatistas, after Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The Zapatistas returned the tourists’ attention by agreeing to be photographed, sometimes throwing their arms across the shoulders of enthusiastic foreigners. Seemingly unnoticed by either group, several dead policemen remained lying in the plaza surrounded by their spilled blood.

    My husband saw all of this as he walked through town from the hotel to our restaurant to collect the money from our night watchman. Astonishingly, after getting the money, he had no trouble finding a taxi to bring him home. Not one rebel bothered him.

    Before taking the city, the Zapatistas had attacked the military barracks a few kilometers outside of San Cristobal. While the soldiers were absorbed celebrating New Year’s, the rebels had stolen part of their arms cache!

    The Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government. Posters were pasted all over town in which the rebels said they expected to die during the upcoming days, but they were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to scream a huge basta (enough) to the government: ENOUGH! ENOUGH POVERTY! ENOUGH REPRESSION!

    All regular TV programming ceased. Instead there were endless movies and soap operas from the fifties. We heard military planes flying overhead. We managed to catch rebel radio broadcasts from Ocosingo, two hours away. Their rhetoric sounded like Maoist propaganda, not very soothing to our anxious ears.

    Early the next morning the Zapatistas left San Cristobal. Their mission was complete. By seizing it at New Year’s when San Cristobal was full of foreign tourists, they had achieved international media coverage.

    Next, Mexican soldiers marched in to San Cristobal. For several weeks they hunkered down in front of our restaurant behind a barricade of huge sacks, full of I don’t know what. They seemed poised for a rebel attack. Fortunately it never came. Day after day we sat with a few friends in the restaurant, holding our coffee cups and discussing recent events. We were alone. No customers dared pass the soldiers to join us.

    Taxi drivers who regularly ply the route between San Cristobal and Ocosingo reported heavy fighting with many civilians dead. For several days military helicopters threw grenades into the mountains around San Cristobal which the government claimed hid rebels.

    One morning during these shattering days I was walking to the market when I was ensnared by a BBC reporter with his microphone. He wanted to know my opinion of the rebellion.

    “We had gotten used to the poverty of so many,” I answered. “Now we are seeing the results of our complacency.”

    What would happen? Would there be a successful revolution? Would we lose everything? We had become very successful financially. I was, unquestionably, a white, Western woman. The guerrillas would view us as the enemy. Would they ask me to state my beliefs before they shot me or my children? My parents’ and grandparents’ stories of World War II and how they had had to leave everything behind in the East and march to the West came back to me with a new vividness. I could now well imagine how they must have felt. I was afraid!

    At that time we had a Swiss chef working in the hotel kitchen. He had become friends with many Indians and eventually married a Mayan woman. One day, shortly after the uprising, some people in the market started acting aggressively toward him. At that moment a woman ran by screaming, “The Zapatistas are coming!” The chef panicked.

    He telephoned us and his panic swept over us. In a flash, we activated a plan: Corinne, her boyfriend and the chef would come and pick us up at our house. Then we would all drive to Tuxtla, the capital of the state, taking the small back roads through Indian villages that were not aligned with the Zapatistas.

    My husband and children had already gotten into the car. Everyone was waiting for me. I turned back to look at my house one more time. It held the memories of so many years and might now be lost to me forever. Were there any other things I wanted to load into the car to remind me of this life in the future? My jewelry? The art on our walls?

    I decided that I was fine with just my painting materials.

    Climbing into the car I thought again of my grandparents and suddenly understood their lives in a completely different way.

    At the hotel in Tuxtla we met many other San Cristobalens. Journalists from international news organizations poured in. The International Red Cross and the Mexican Special Forces, which assist in national emergencies, were also there. I could not sleep. The children, meanwhile, enjoyed the warmer weather of Tuxtla and played happily all day in the swimming pool.

    When we met for breakfast our second morning, Corinne announced,” I cannot stay here any longer.”

    I completely understood. In her place I too would have returned to Switzerland as fast as possible.

    She continued, “Do you see all these journalists arriving from around the world? They need a hotel. They need to eat. And here I am sitting in Tuxtla doing nothing! I am going to return immediately to San Cristobal and reopen the hotel. If I don’t, all these people will go to the other hotels!”

    My husband looked at me. Then, he said, “It is impossible for me to allow my employees to return to work if I am sitting here hiding out.”

    So we all returned to San Cristobal, even the chef who had panicked in the market a few days before.

    I did not lose my house or my life in San Cristobal. During the following weeks and months, the hotel made more money than at any other time in its history.

    A few days after we had returned, Mexico’s president announced the government would cease fighting the rebels. Peace talks were organized several times in different locations in Chiapas. No agreement was ever reached. The Zapatistas finally retired to their remote areas in the mountains and dedicated themselves to their international public relations campaign via the Internet. Establishment politicians talked a lot and did very little. Nonetheless, I think some things have changed.

    There seems to be a new self-confidence in many Indians I see walking the streets of San Cristobal. As a consequence of the uprising hundreds of non-governmental organizations have come to Chiapas. Each is involved in social projects with different Indian communities. Indian women meet in national symnposia and talk to other Indian women from different parts of the country. Some young Mayan women have even started to write plays, others to photograph their daily lives. Some have traveled as far as New York, Berlin and Iceland to exhibit their endeavors.

    I am happy the Zapatistas did not win. Their victory would most probably have ended my life in Chiapas. But I am happy for their rebellion. It shook up a sleeping society. We were forced to look at injustices towards the Indians and reexamine the needs of many of our fellow citizens and neighbors. It also shook up the relationship between men and women in many traditional Indian societies. The rebels taught a new philosophy of equal rights for men and women. Many indigenous women have grabbed their new opportunities.

    Art by Kiki ( "Muchos Zapatistas") Copper Print Etching

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