Zapatista National Liberation Army.comes from Chiapas to Tijuana

"We saw the misery then"

— They come out of the chilly night. When they arrive in the pool of light at the top of the stairs, their dark eyes appear more startled and startling because that's all you see. Masks cover the rest of their faces -- woolen ski masks, silk masks, green ones and black ones.

It's 7:30 on Sunday night, March 21. We're on Tijuana's Calle 10. I've been searching all day for these mysterious people from the Lacondan jungle. The first thing you notice is how small they are. Five feet or so. Eleven of them, men and women, Tzetzatl Indians from Chiapas, Mexico's rebellious southern state, representing the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Altogether 18 have come to exhort Tijuanans to vote in today's national consulta -- "consultation," or unofficial vote -- asking citizens whether Mexico should approve of the Zapatista demand for Indian rights.

The visitors shake hands with a member of the Tijuana Zapatista youth commission, then turn their attention to the boxes two women and a man are bringing up the stairs behind them.

"Boxes," says a man coming up the stairs. He drops his on the lone desk. "They got missed at Playas de Tijuana. We'll have to count them here." Two women arrive behind him, carrying two more cardboard boxes. Ballot boxes.

This is the reason 5000 Zapatistas, who launched an eight-day armed rebellion in 1994 against the Mexican government, have left their Chiapas sanctuary and risked arrest. They have fanned out to towns and cities throughout Mexico, to raise interest in the vote among Mexican citizens. They have been here for ten days, traveling from colonia to colonia, from Tijuana to Rosarito to Mexicali, exhorting people about the justness of their cause. They know that the more Mexicans who vote, the stronger their message to the central government will be. And that's very important this year, because it's the one time the country's rulers are likely to listen: Next month presidential and congressional election campaigns start in earnest in Mexico.

Soon the bare-bones office -- with its desk, white walls, red-star Zapatista posters, copying machine, and empty five-gallon drinking water bottles -- is busy with people sitting on the floor counting papers. Two Tijuanans count each stack and then hand them to one of the masked men. It's plain that a couple of the Tzetzatl women don't speak Spanish, so the men do the count-checking.

The tall Tijuanan who brought up the first box introduces himself. Juan Bañuelos, industrialist and exporter. An industrialist capitalist helping those who oppose the pro-NAFTA, pro-business government of Ernesto Zedillo?

"Oh, yes," he says. "I know it's unusual. The image businessmen present is when they have money, they don't want to participate in demonstrations. My friends get at me all the time about being involved in this movement. But it's not just me. It's my whole family. My three children and my wife, five of us are 100 percent involved since the beginning. We are Zapatistas. The Bañuelos Zapatista family!"

He laughs. His wife, Margarita, and Celith, his 20-year-old daughter, smile up from the floor, where they're counting ballots.

"And you know why we support the Zapatistas? I studied for five years at the University in Mexico [City], paying ten American cents per year. Somebody paid for my studies. And I'm sure that it wasn't the rich people. The poor people paid for my studies. So I want to pay back to the poor [tax-paying] people for what they did for me and for my family."

I ask him if it would be all right to speak with the Zapatistas. "Don't ask me," he says. "Ask them. They make their own decisions."

He speaks to a man in his 40s, though it's hard to tell, behind his woolen ski mask. The conversation goes back and forth. The man talks with two others and then two of the women.

"They need to have a conference on this with all their members," says Bañuelos. The Zapatistas file into a room off the office and shut the door. We can hear their conversation in Tzetzatl, which sounds more staccato than Spanish.

"I'd be prepared to hear what these Zapatistas had to say," said my taxi driver, Mr. Hernández, earlier, "but first I want them to take off their masks. Be open. They look like they're hiding, trying to frighten you behind those masks."

It looks as though neither the masks nor the interview is going to come off. Each voting spot I went to, the Zapatistas had already visited -- and left. Early today, outside El Yogurt restaurant at Playas, the middle-class beach section of Tijuana, Carla Martinez, a literature student at the University of Baja California, says that 100 people had come to vote so far, but the Zapatistas were already gone.

She showed me the four-question ballot, a 5H- by 8H-inch slip of paper. "Consultation for the Recognition of the Rights of the Indian People and for the End of the War of Extermination," read its title.

Before each of four questions, a check mark was required next to boxes marked or No. "Do you agree that the indigenous people must be included with all their strength and wealth in the national plan and take an active part in the building of a new Mexico?"

The second question addressed Indian rights and the Mexican constitution. The third, a return to negotiations and the pull-out of Mexican troops from Chiapas. The fourth, the government's obligation to obey the will of the people.

A mile south, in the concourse of Las Playas' delegación (equivalent to city hall) on Avenida de l'Agua, a band called Brick by Brick thundered out Baja rap so loud you could hear them three blocks away. Maybe 200 young people, a few wearing biker patches but mostly middle-class students, stood around or danced a little, while a few formed a line in front of voting tables under the patio arches. A 15-year-old girl named Patricia said that until the Zapatistas turned up an hour ago and delivered a passionate speech about the rights of all Mexicans, not many people had been keen to vote.

"I wanted to hear what they had to say. And what they're saying in there really makes me think," she half-shouted over the music. "Now I realize the Chiapas people don't really have the means to make themselves heard because the government doesn't take them very seriously. They're crying for help. Just because they don't have money or good houses, they're still Mexicans, and we're all equal here."

Half an hour has gone by.

"They need this time together," says Margarita, Juan Bañuelos's wife, who teaches at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Tijuana. "They have been facing crowds of people like us all day. They weren't expecting your request."

Margarita says she and Juan visited Chiapas about 17 years ago. "We saw the misery then. Their world is so...different. And last week, when they arrived in Tijuana, they were barefooted, with only the clothes they had on their backs, and a lot of their clothes have been handmade and are very worn with use, and you could see where the women sewed, resewed, and resewed. That makes your heart just cringe. I don't care whether you're a rightist, a leftist, or centrist, the bottom line is that we're all human. It's a moral issue."

She says that when the Zapatista uprising erupted on January 1, 1994, she and Juan could identify with what was going on. But it was the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, in which 45 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed by paramilitary gunmen, that propelled them into action.

"I started to cry. I told my husband, 'It is useless to shed tears. That doesn't help anyone. We need to become much more actively involved.' So we educate people. We show videos. Some people express fear because the Mexican government in the past has been very repressive. But I think since the establishment of the Iberoamericana human rights organization in Mexico City, people are taking more risks. Still, there is a great degree of fear."

"We don't like to talk about violence, because we're a pacifist group," says Margarita. "I square that with supporting [the armed Zapatistas] because they have tried for many years to be heard and to have their needs met, and they haven't been met. They took up arms for eight days in 1994. Five years ago. They haven't fired a shot since. One forgets that. But yet there are still 60,000 Mexican military personnel in the state of Chiapas.

"I hope the government sees this worldwide consulta as a big exclamation point. As a neon sign. A rattling of the drums," she says.

The door opens. "Okay," says Juan. "They say okay."

Three of them -- men only -- sit together on the small stage in the little white-walled conference room next door. Sounds from Calle 10 and from the upper reaches of Revolución drift up through the windows.

"My name is Oscar," says the first man. "I am 45 years old. I have 8 children. All of us here are Tzetzatl people."

"My name is Lucas. I am 20. I have no wife. I decided to join the Zapatistas when the needs became too bad. Our health, our lives were so unhappy, we all decided to join the struggle. We are not soldiers, but we support the army."

"My name is José Carlos. I am 22. I have three children. We are campesinos. We grow maíz and frijol. I have no animals. No burros."

Maybe because he is the oldest, Oscar talks the most. They can't say anything about the Zapatistas' military policy. But he tells how this struggle started as their own local problem and is now, he believes, a national problem.

"Our army arose because we indios were forgotten by the government. We felt that we didn't have education, hospitals, and did have so many problems. And we wanted to govern ourselves, we Indians. Because the tradition of our ancestors is that each pueblo -- village -- determines how it wants to govern itself. We select our leader in each community.... So we decided to fight for the autonomy of the indigenous peoples. We want the government to respect our autonomy.

"There are 56 ethnic languages within Mexican territory. All [ethnic minorities] have the same problems that we have in Chiapas. Forgotten people. The Tarahumara people, Mixtecas, Zapotecas..."

Oscar says Tijuana is different from anything he's known before. After weeks of canned donated food, they are all looking forward to getting back home. "I miss my fresh tortillas, my frijolitos," he says. "They're not as fresh up here." The others nod. For the first time, they saw sandwich bread. They were offered spaghetti, hot dogs, hamburgers. The hamburgers they never could eat. "But the emotion people have shown toward us here gives us hope to go home with," he said.

"Before the Zapatistas were almost a myth," says Celith, who also teaches at Universidad Iberoamericana. "But now here they are. Real people. Even my boyfriend had always said, 'I don't care. You do whatever you want about them. That's your trip.' But then he met them. Saturday, he said, 'You know what? I think otherwise now. I really see the problem. I see that there has to be something done.' "

As we're leaving, I think of Mr. Hernández, the cab driver, and his criticism. I ask José Carlos why he and his comrades always wear the pasa montaña, the face mask.

His eyes study me for a long moment. "We have our reasons," he says, warily. "One is, your photographs might be seen by the Mexican army. They may recognize us when we return. We can't trust the government."

Second, he says, Zapatistas have decided on principle not to take their masks off, as a protest, since the government backed down from things they agreed to in 1996 in the Accords of San Andrés.

And the third? "Nobody has cared to see our faces over the last 500 years. What difference does the sight of our faces make now? If you didn't care before, why would you care now?"

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