Documentary dives into history of Zapatistas

Courtesy of Eduardo Verdugo

On April 10, Lewis & Clark hosted the American Pacific Northwest premiere of “La Montaña,” a documentary about a group of Indigenous Mexicans sailing from Chiapas, Mexico to Spain.

Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Magalí Rabasa spearheaded this showing. It was co-sponsored by the Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement, the Sociology and Anthropology department and the Hispanic Studies department. The film series also partnered with several student organizations to promote the screening, including Gente Latina Unida, the Native Student Union and Spanish Club.

Rabasa prefaced the showing with introductory context to the Zapatista movement.

“For those not familiar with the history of the Zapatista movement, it’s important to go back to January 1, 1994, when the Zapatistas, a majority-Indigenous movement based in the southeasternmost state of Chiapas, declared war on the Mexican government. Often, it’s a forgotten but very important detail about the movement. You’ve heard about the Zapatistas; we’ve seen so much about them over many decades, but their initial public action was a declaration of war,” Rabasa said.

Rabasa explained that this declaration came in the form of a text entitled “First Declaration of Lacandon Jungle,” which was published in conjunction with an organized military effort in which the Zapatistas took over six municipal centers. This activity and the issuing of their declaration coincided with the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, establishing a free trade zone between Canada, the United States and Mexico, lifting tariffs to allow businesses to buy and sell goods across borders with little to no financial obstacles. 

The Zapatistas intensely opposed NAFTA due to its harmful implications for agrarian and Indigenous Mexican workers. The treaty forced local farmers to compete with the colossal American agribusiness industry, and as a result, millions of Mexican workers lost their jobs. Additionally, NAFTA ignored the legal status of Indigenous tribes and failed to recognize tribal governments or reservations. This was especially detrimental to the native communities of Mexico who lived on traditional lands without clearly-defined, legally-recognized reservations. 

Rabasa continued discussing the group’s history by reading from the “First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.”

“‘We are the product of 500 years of struggle.’ That’s how they opened the declaration,” Rabasa said. 

She continued by reading the end of the declaration where the group declared war on the Mexican government.

“We, the men and women, full and free, are conscious that the war that we have declared is our last resort, but also a just one. The dictators are applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation, your decision to support this plan that struggles for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic,” Rabasa read.

Rabasa described the ten years of organizing, training and mobilizing that happened clandestinely before the group made its first public appearance in 1994. She also noted that, coincidentally, the showing of the documentary fell on the 105th anniversary of the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, a leading actor in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 who organized an army to fight for land reform and the return of stolen lands to the peasants in the south of Mexico.

Zapata is the namesake of the Zapatista movement, and the Zapatistas honor him as their ideological forerunner. They admire him for his commitment to judicial reform, the decentralization of government power, equitable democracy, the redistribution of wealth and the promotion of the interests of rural workers and small agricultural producers while simultaneously protecting Mexican sovereignty against powerful foreign interests. 

Then, Rabasa transitioned to discuss the documentary.

“The documentary is made by Mexican journalist and director Diego Enrique Osorno whose work I was familiar with previously because of his coverage and a book that he published about the rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006,” she said. 

She introduced the premise of the documentary.

“In this documentary, Osorno follows the Escuadrón 4-2-1, a delegation of seven Indigenous Zapatistas on their transatlantic maritime voyage in 2021 from Mexico to Spain. They spent 57 days at sea, as we’ll see in the documentary, on an old sailboat, emphasis on an old sailboat that they named La Montaña, so that’s the name of the documentary,” said Rabasa. “They did this emulating the voyages of the conquistadores who had come 500 years earlier in the other direction across the Atlantic. And they did so in that moment to commemorate, in a very unique, novel, playful way, the 500 years since the invasion of Tenochtitlan — what today we know as Mexico City — in 1521.”

Rabasa then described her personal connection to the Zapatista movement. 

“For me, the Zapatistas have been (present) since I was 12 years old in 1994 and learned of it with my dad — my dad is from Mexico. (The movement) has been a source of hope, inspiration and creativity for my thinking and political action, as I know it has for many of you,” Rabasa said.

Rabasa concluded her introduction by encouraging the audience to draw from the lessons and perseverance of the Zapatista movement and apply them to contemporary life. She called for us to work together to create a world of many worlds, from Chiapas to Portland to Gaza and beyond. 

She added that we must be the ones to build a future that addresses the deep history of colonization in the world. 

“As we watch the film, I invite you to think about what radical listening and encuentro can be, and how the long and recent histories of both colonization and decolonial resistance can help shape the way that we live, the way that we learn and the way that we act in the present to the largest future for everyone,” said Rabasa.

The film followed Escuadrón 4-2-1 on their journey to Spain. However, it was supplemented by historical background interwoven throughout about the Zapatista movement, specifically the political action the group took in the 1990s. This interplay was an effective storytelling technique that grounded the modern Zapatistas in the movement’s history. It captured the essence of their struggle and the continuity of their resistance against systemic injustices over time. This clearly defined the continued necessity of this movement to address Indigenous rights in Mexico.

The film’s beginning perfectly captures our modern world’s claustrophobia and entrenched consumerism. So when the camera cut to the open sea, it communicated a distinct freedom with life away from the rest of the world. 

The film’s cinematography was beautiful. You would think that being on a boat for 56 days, most of which were on the open ocean, would lead to repetitive, boring camera shots. Yet Uruguayan cinematographer Maria Secco creatively constructs new and interesting shots that capture the beauty of the sea, stars and people aboard the ship. 

Early on in the film, the Zapatistas discuss their critiques of capitalism. 

“We are wrong as a humanity,” one describes. “We have no concept of how society or the future should be.”

They talk about the bloodshed their peoples faced during the 20th century. Even beyond the estimated 300 Zapatistas who were killed in the 1994 uprising, critics of the Mexican regime and Indigenous women in Chiapas were subjected to torture and rape at the hands of the Mexican government. 

Indigenous people in Mexico still face significant mistreatment by the justice system. They are massively overrepresented in Mexico’s prison system, attacked by paramilitary groups and exploited on many levels. Indigenous women tend to bear the brunt of this brutality, as they are the ones left to deal with family poverty, lack of access to health services and increased rates of domestic violence, child abuse and alcoholism. 

Despite the film’s discussion of the horrors of capitalist exploitation and Indigenous suffering, there were many moments of hope and joy diffused throughout. 

The women aboard La Montaña spoke of their pride in being Indigenous. They channeled the pain of centuries of colonization and debasement into a sincere hope that the future will be better. It is difficult to articulate how utterly inspiring this was to witness; it is something I felt in the deepest corners of myself. 

At one point, the captain sang in the kitchen “A Las Cinco de la Mañana” by Candeal, dancing around in the yellow light. At another, the Zapatistas reveled in a meal of traditional Indigenous foods like pozol, a cocoa drink made from a fermented corn dough of the same name. They taught each other words in their respective languages, including Tzeltal and Tojol-ab’al. They sat under the stars, talking about their lives. For every hardship endured, there was a scene of deep, revelatory levity. 

“Without a sense of humor, you’ll never understand Zapatismo,” remarked one of the voyagers. 

The film felt enormously relevant to our current world. The Zapatistas’ critiques of over-industrialization, social media and cell phone use, climate destruction, police and capitalism touched on many issues at the forefront of our global political climate. 

They left the audience with the message that not everyone has to be a Zapatista, but everyone can organize to fight for a just and equitable future.

It is important to acknowledge the complexities surrounding my emotional response to this film. I was deeply moved by the depiction of Indigenous struggles and their fight for sovereignty. However, I am also aware of the danger of romanticizing or exploiting their pain for my own self-awareness or sense of righteousness; my white guilt is not relevant to this documentary. That being said, I appreciate this depiction of historical and contemporary Indigenous resistance. Often, narratives about resistance against capitalism are framed within Eurocentric perspectives, overlooking the rich history of Indigenous communities challenging exploitation. 

This film is a moving reminder of the enduring struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. The focus on armed resistance uses nuance to capture the ongoing battles against colonialism and capitalism that continue to shape our world today.

It is often difficult to tie the anticapitalist sentiments of many young people today to the global, historical and often Indigenous dissent with the oppressive nature of modern capitalism. Yet this film radically exhibits the persistence of anticapitalist resistance and the immense value of amplifying Indigenous voices in the fight against systemic injustices.

It is unclear when or where the next screening of this documentary will be, as its release in the U.S. is limited to special, one-time screenings. However, I implore you to seek out a showing in the coming months. It is an impeccable experience that will inspire you in ways you never imagined.

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