Book Review: “Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories” by Hilary Klein


» 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.” ☀

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