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For women, "it is better always to work"

“My mother was pregnant with me when it started.” By “it”, Ceci means the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, in the south of Mexico. “My mother learned to work the radio. My brothers were part of the self-defense militia. When the army came to kick us out we ran and hid in caves and slept there for weeks.” Ceci is the 10th of 11 children from a Zapatista family in San Andres Larrainzar, a community in Chiapas that is famous for its backstrap weaving. I met her in August when she was kind enough to serve as my Spanish-Tzotzil translator while visiting some of the textile artisans Catrinka works with in Chiapas.

Ceci says her town was always resistant to outside influence. “We kicked the Spanish out a long time ago.” As a child, she remembers lots of discrimination against indigenous Mayans like her when they visited the main city in Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas. “I would go to San Cris to sell tortillas and they wouldn’t even let us walk on the sidewalk.” Mayan indigenous communities banded together in response, and that helped to create the foundation for the Zapatista movement to rise from.

“My mom has a ‘mentalidad de trabajo’ – she taught me how to work. If you want a life, you have to work for it. I see a lot of people who depend on the government. Most people where I am are Zapatista and if not at least are autonomous – they manage their own light, water, etc. We support ourselves.” Where people have gotten used to government support, they get reliant on it and when the government takes it away as it has been recently, there is lots of violence. Ceci says the federal government provides and removes financial support in an effort to gain votes - because Zapatistas don’t vote.

What Ceci didn’t like about the Zapatista influence on her childhood was that young people weren’t allowed to leave the community – the philosophy was that “we had to serve the community until we were 14 years old.”

What she did like? Ceci credits the Zapatistas for the fact that women in her community can vote, can speak. “Women couldn’t go out before so they couldn’t sell their artesanias (handicrafts).” The Zapatista movement elevated the position of women and helped to advance them past the traditions that had been holding them back. Still, it is a challenge. “La mujer tiene voz, tiene derecho pero poco se llega a practicar – es una pelea.” (Women have a voice, have rights, but they seldom do in practice – it is a fight.) 

The struggle - both the Zapatista movement and the fight for women's equality - continues in Chiapas, and women are often leading the fight. Women in Zapatista masks feature heavily in art from the region:

(Until dignity becomes a habit - famously said by Estela Hernandez, an indigenous woman who was wrongly accused of kidnapping by the Mexican government). Photo by Carolina Coppel.

Photo by Gerardo de la Madrid, art at the MUAC UNAM

Photo by Gerardo de la Madrid, art at the MUAC UNAM

Rebel girls handmade textile bag made in Chiapas

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The announcement of Mexico's first Mayan indigenous candidate for President - Marichuy - has rallied support throughout Zapatista territory and led to scenes of Zapatista women welcoming her, in their balaclavas and traditional textiles, like this:

Photo by Carolina Coppel

Textiles are an integral part of the culture and fabric of life in indigenous villages in Chiapas. Ceci wasn’t very interested in them as a child. But after high school she went back to her community and there was no work except in textiles, so she learned to weave from her aunt. She had grown up with her mother making textiles while watching the kids and the sheep in the fields, and her father always taught her and her siblings to value the work of their grandmothers. She found she loved the work, and now is employed full-time with Kip Tik, an artisan support organization in San Cristobal. “Lots of my classmates asked me if I am embarrassed to wear my traditional clothes and to work in textiles, but now that they see I have a good job they wish they had learned to weave too.”

Ceci says weaving has always been a lifeline for women: “I see lots of women in the villages with husbands who have good jobs and they still weave. I ask why and they say what if there is a sickness or an accident or a kid gets married to someone without an income – it is better always to work.”

Click here to learn more about Kip Tik’s work or donate to support it.

December 19, 2017 by Megan Reilly Cayten