The Zapatistas cover their faces in public actions, in order to remain a faceless movement. Their masks act as mirrors, representing oppression everywhere. The most well-known Zapatista, Subcomandante Marcos, wrote a poem reflecting this idea:Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, Black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an Anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a Pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable — this is Marcos (Green Left Weekly 1997).
This anonymity means the identities of Zapatistas are hidden, meaning their experiences are little known.
Subcomandante is the public leader of a leaderless movement. Characterized by his mask, pipe, and hat, he has become iconic, and is compared at times to one of the revolutionary characters: Che. He calls himself Subcomandante because he reports to the Comandantes, a group of indigenous leaders who make up the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, which officially leads the EZLN.
In a movement that is almost completely indigenous, Marcos stands out as a mestizo Mexican. Marcos went to University and became radicalized as a student (Here are the other 2 segments of the linked interview: 1 & 2). He felt education either formed or de-formed youth: students are either domesticated into society, or become resistant to society. As a student, Marcos found schools to be domesticating, and disagreed with their focus on financial success in a society he didn’t agree with.
Instead, Marcos resisted. He was trained in Marixsm/Leninism, and some rumors claim he was a professor (by the name of Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente). Regardless, after being in academia, he went to the mountains of Chiapas.
His training in Marxism/Leninism wasn’t applicable when he joined the indigenous people of Chiapas. Within these ideologies, there is “neither a theoretical tool nor a political proposal for the indigenous” (movie from ‘radicalized’). Instead, he needed to learn from the Mayan people he began to live with. They had hundreds of years of knowledge on how to organize and run communities in their culture, so Marcos began to learn their knowledge. This was a challenging process for Marcos, as he learned he had “much to learn,” and “little to teach” (movie linked on ‘worldly’ below).
Marcos led the most recent campaign by the EZLN – The Other Campaign. During this, he traveled around Mexico, networking with many other organizations and groups of people who were fighting for similar things as the Zapatistas.
Marcos is an author and poet, publishing several books on the Zapatistas since 1994: The Speed of Dreams (2007), The Other Campaign (2006), Selected Writings (2000), and Conversations with Durito: Stories of the Zapatistas and Neoliberalism (2005), amongst others.
Marcos’ experience is interesting. He is one of the few non-indigenous of the movement, and was raised in a family that could send him to university. In interviews, he comes across as a charismatic, intelligent, and worldly person. He is eloquent, inspirational, and a cult figure. But his background begs the question: Is it right that he is the most visible person in the EZLN? Should he, a person raised in privilege, be leading indigenous people towards liberation? Or is it more just for him to support them, but for the indigenous to lead themselves?
Comandante Ramona was a member of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, and organized the seizure of the capital of Chiapas, San Cristóbal, when the EZLN began their resistance in 1994. Ramona was a Tzotzil Mayan woman, and “left her home in search of work,” which led her to experience “the disparities between the rural communities and the larger towns” (Morales 2011). After view injustice for Indian women, she joined the Zapatistas “to make life better for rural people, especially women” (Morales 2011).
Ramona worked politically within the EZLN, both locally and nationally. She traveled between villages to educate and organize women in Chiapas, and traveled to Mexico City to take part in peace talks, indigenous conferences, and to lobby the government.
The most influential action of Comandante Ramona was her creation of the “Revolutionary Law on Women,” which “declared women equal to men” and was passed by a male and female assembly of Zapatistas (Morales 2011). Morales died from cancer in 2006.