By Andrea Gutierrez
» Originally published in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2015, no. 17)
Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories By Hilary Klein Seven Stories Press
It’s after midnight when I take a break from reading Hilary Klein’s Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories to bellow into the zeros and ones of social media. “GODDAMMIT THIS LAPD COPTER HAS BEEN CIRCLING FOR TWO HOURS,” I tap into my phone. Reports online say there’s a dude running around with a gun two blocks from my house. Cops have set up a perimeter. They won’t let people into their homes, and a voice from the helicopter tells the rest of us to stay put. This is the third time I’ve heard that copter in, what, a week? Two weeks? I’m losing count. It’s all so unnecessary.
When I return to Compañeras, the familiar th-th-th-th-th still beating above, I’m reading about the Mexican government’s low-intensity conflict with the Zapatistas in 1998, an attempt to destroy the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) without waging all-out war. Margarita, one of the dozens of Zapatista women that Klein interviews, gives her account. “As women, we can’t work in peace in our houses or in our kitchens because we keep hearing the helicopters pass by. […] That’s what the government wants—for us not to be able to work in our cooperatives, because we’re working for ourselves and the government wants to take away our ability to work and organize ourselves.”
When I read this, and remember the rumors of a looming gang injunction, it’s hard not to draw a connection between police action in Highland Park, my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Los Angeles, and the Mexican government’s military tactics in rural Chiapas, where the once-clandestine EZLN built the most prominent, and in many ways successful grassroots revolutionary movement to challenge neoliberalism and global capitalism.
Klein, an activist from the United states, lived in Chiapas between 1997 and 2003, during what she calls “some of the Zapatista movement’s most dynamic years.” Though she had planned to visit Chiapas for only a few months, her interest in women’s roles as key actors in the Zapatista movement led her to stay and gather the stories of these compañeras, many of whom had never been asked or encouraged to give their testimony before. In 2001, women authorities in the Morelia region of Chiapas asked Klein to collect and edit these women’s stories into a book for internal use in organizing and education; five years later, they gave Klein permission to use the same testimony in addition to new interviews for a book—this book—aimed at an audience beyond Chiapas.
The women that Klein interviews are surprisingly candid for being affiliated with an organization so secretive. They share details of their lives before the famed uprising of January 1994, when they lived in what was essentially indentured servitude on fincas, or farms, fearing for their health and safety under the sadistic surveillance of the ruling landowners. The first five chapters of the book lead us through the compañeras’ political awakening—recruitment by insurgents, organizing in their communities, involvement and leadership in uprisings, struggles between the women and their families. The compañeras are encouraged to find their strength primarily as it helps the EZLN’s cause, in building a new autonomous society among the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.
But as the autonomy of Zapatista communities becomes more established around the turn of the twenty-first century, and the communities struggle to establish sustainable methods of governance, compañeras realize that there’s still so much to do in furthering their own rights. They want women’s rights because they are human rights, because women’s rights are just—not simply because they benefit the Zapatista movement. Compañeras see now that the underpinnings of patriarchy are not undone just because a certain level of community autonomy has been reached. “The failure to propose any solutions aside from women’s participation in the struggle demonstrates the lack of complexity in the EZLN’s gender analysis at the time,” Klein writes. But the EZLN has shown an ability and willingness to change. Esmeralda, a mestiza nun who has worked in Chiapas since the 1970s, muses about the EZLN’s evolving gender analysis: “There are many things within zapatismo that helped this process. The level of political organization, the consciousness, the search for autonomy, and the desire to change.”
What is most remarkable about this book is how close Klein gets to her subjects and how much they are willing to divulge with her. While, in general, Zapatista women interviewed are careful not to critique their movement to outsiders, Klein explains that they often share their concerns privately with people “they know and trust,” perhaps implying that she is one of these people. Many women are credited with pseudonyms or nombres de lucha (names of struggle), others with their real names. Several testimonies are attributed to a group of women, so as to represent a collective voice so important to Zapatistas. Klein keeps the compañeras’ stories central to the narrative, never stealing the spotlight or erasing her presence to the point of invisibility.
It’s another night, and I’m writing this review while I listen to another helicopter hovering in the distance. Someone writes online that a young hipster woman came into her place of work that day and commented about the smattering of police activity in recent weeks. “They still have some cleaning to do,” this young woman said. She might get her wish if a gang injunction does take hold, a favorite tactic of the LAPD that has a way of popping up in neighborhoods like mine that local real-estate blogs have deemed “up-and-coming,” Where newcomers like this woman still believe in cops’ ability to serve and protect. Others online have celebrated the uptick in crime in our neighborhood, hoping it encourages newcomers to leave. I think of Araceli and Maribel, Zapatista compañeras who describe the EZLN’s covert organizing. “They also told us that the struggle is for everyone—men and women—and that all you needed was consciousness and a willingness to fight.” ☀