San Diego Anglo media ignores Zapatistas

The Spanish-language reporters dive in

— The press conference is crowded into the front room of the old blue wooden house at 11th and G. That's where Rosario Ibarra de Piedra sits, at the end of an oblong table. Hers is an intense, lively face with quick, bird-like movements, as she faces two television cameras and half a dozen journalists.

One thing you notice right away: No Channel 10. No Channel 9. No Channel 8. No Channel 7/39. Yes, KBNT, Univisión Channel 19, the cross-border Spanish-language station, has a camera here, and so does the L.A. Univisión station, KMEX, the L.A. Spanish-language station. But the only representative of mainstream English-language media is Gregory Gross of the Union-Tribune.

And this, for Mexico's leading human rights activist and until last year a member of Mexico's senate?

"The invitations went out," says Peter Brown, one of the organizers of this event. He shows a flyer. "Mexican activist Rosario Ibarra will speak about the Zapatista vote and the struggle for democracy in Mexico."

"But San Diego's [Anglo] television, they don't show up," he says. "This one is not on their screen."

Brown stands beside Ibarra. He's almost twice her height, a youthful yet graying, ponytailed 48-year-old resource teacher with the San Diego Unified School District. His "San Diegans for Peace, Justice and Democracy in Mexico" is sponsoring her visit. He looks half protector, half adoring acolyte to the wiry little 71-year-old lady, someone he regards as a Mother Teresa -- or more accurately -- a Gandhi.

Brown is himself a somewhat mythical figure locally. He has been at the forefront of a project to build a school for the Tojolabal, Chol, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas, where they will be taught according to a Zapatista curriculum, including Indian cultures and languages and values. He so incensed the Mexican government that last July they arrested him, deported him, and ordered him never to return to Mexico.

Despite help from Congressman (D) Bob Filner, the order still stands.

A silver locket hangs around Ms. Ibarra's neck. It frames a photo of her son Jesús Piedra Ibarra, who disappeared after being detained by police in 1975 in Nuevo León. She has been crusading in Mexico for human rights ever since.

The press conference begins. The questions and answers are in Spanish. Ibarra says she has come up from the Zapatistas' headquarters in Chiapas to spread the word of an unofficial vote being organized by the Zapatistas.

She tells the reporters that Subcomandante Marcos wants all Mexican citizens, living inside and outside the country, to vote on the Zapatista fight for the rights of indigenous peoples. She estimates there are two million Mexican nationals living in California who would qualify to vote, just as they probably will also qualify to vote in the Mexican presidential elections of the year 2000. The Zapatistas are organizing this unofficial vote to take place on March 21. Any Mexican over the age of 12 will be eligible. Marcos hopes to influence the presidential elections, whose campaigns begin officially a month later.

"This whole getting together is not just with the people in Chiapas," Ibarra says. "It's with everybody. All Mexicans. If the vote goes through -- and it would be great if it passed here -- then it would increase the chances of change, if people are in solidarity."

The Zapatistas want to create "brigades" all over Mexico, in Texas, Arizona, and here in California, to organize the nuts and bolts of what they are calling a consulta (an opinion poll, or plebiscite). In addition, the Zapatistas will send forth 5000 of their men and women soldiers to help organize the consulta around the country -- a definite risk.

Ibarra scrabbles around in her purse to find the actual questionnaire that will form the basis of the consulta. It consists, she says, of four questions.

"First: Do you agree that indigenous peoples...should take an active part in the building of the new Mexico?

"Second, do you agree that indigenous rights should be recognized in the Mexican Constitution?

"Third, do you agree that we should achieve true peace through the path of dialogue, demilitarizing the country with the return of the soldiers to their barracks?

"Fourth, do you agree that the people should organize themselves and demand that the government [recognize the will of the people] in all aspects of national life?

"If this vote is strongly in favor of the Zapatistas, it will create great pressure on the Mexican government," she says. "The government won't be able to say, 'We can't do anything because most people don't think [what's happening in Chiapas] is wrong, or don't care.' By having all these people take part and get together, it would be a great triumph. This will hold the government accountable.

"All I do," she says, "is support Zapatistas, and I am only a bridge to bring information. But it would be great if it passed here in San Diego."

It's a stirring speech. But what's interesting is that most reporters here seem to be shaken, not stirred. The questions reflect the fear of what's happening in Chiapas, rather than sympathy with the causes of the Zapatista rebellion, which began five years ago and has reportedly brought three-quarters of the Mexican army down to Chiapas.

The Spanish-language reporters dive in: "What do the Zapatistas think will come from this vote? How would this vote change Mexican politics?"

"What if there isn't a favorable response to the Zapatista position?"

"How do you justify the overwhelming presence of foreign [supporters of the Zapatistas] in Chiapas?"

"How do you feel about idol worship among the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, and the altars that are down there?"

But the questions keep coming back to the foreigners.

"Tell me more about the foreigners who have gone down there to screw things up," asks the reporter from KMEX. "Because many people don't agree with foreign interference in Chiapas."

"Of all the foreigners there that I have seen," replies Ibarra, "I haven't seen any who are doing damage. The ones I have seen are working for the people, helping to build roads, pull vehicles out of ditches, of the mud. The army trucks carrying soldiers and weapons leave the roads impassable. They ruin them. The foreigners help to repair them. That might annoy the government. But I haven't seen them do any harm. I haven't seen any foreigners with a weapon, or with a Zapatista uniform. They work for the community. They're helping to cook, doing the chores. They're willing to be there while airplanes are constantly flying overhead, helicopters land nearby. It's a situation not many people would be willing to risk: 1000 soldiers marching by in the morning, 1000 marching back in the evening. The kids get scared. The [volunteers] are courageous. God bless all the foreigners who are there helping. It's marvelous. They can share with the rest of the world what the government is trying to conceal with very expensive military campaigns. There has been no advancement [in Mexico since Ernesto Zedillo became president]. There are still tortures. People are continuing to disappear. We need a just government."

Ibarra speaks in a rapid-fire, confident way. She knows her reputation as one of the pre-eminent human rights advocates in Mexico carries great weight, is probably the sole reason anybody turned up here this morning. Twenty-four years after her son Jesús, a student, disappeared, the fire is still strong inside.

"Peter Brown was [deported] in an unjust way," she says. "[Foreigners] don't go with a paternal attitude and view [the Mayans] as 'Oh, the poor little Indians.' They view them as equals. Whereas the Mexican government sees them as third-, fourth-, fifth-class citizens. The foreigners don't go to try to 'educate these poor Indians.' They know the Mayans are a great people already."

Ibarra says that "brigades" are already being formed in Los Angeles for the vote. "And they have registered in the [Zapatistas'] San Cristóbal office," she says. "They're just waiting to take the next step."

The evening after the morning press conference, KBNT is the only channel in San Diego to feature Rosario Ibarra on its newscast. Yet it ignores Ibarra's sole reason for coming to San Diego and holding the press conference: the Zapatistas' consulta. The station plays only those bits of the interview that mention the upcoming presidential vote in Mexico.

"We did not mention [the consulta]. We did not cover that angle of the story," admits Lourdes Sandoval, news director at KBNT's Univisión (until last July, she was press attaché at the Mexican consulate in San Diego). "With TV you have to focus on one or two main ideas, because if you touch upon many, people get confused. [Voting in the presidential election] is something that's very important since we are so close to Mexico. Rosario Ibarra is publicizing the consulta on this side of the border, not on the Mexican side. If she had gone to do this in Tijuana, then I would focus on that. But here in San Diego I have not found a large, committed group of people who really are interested in the Chiapas situation. Just a small group."

"I'm disappointed. I'm very disappointed," says Peter Brown by phone from his office at the Unified School District. "But I can't say I'm surprised. [Sandoval's] decision speaks for itself. I think it's fair to say that Univisión would probably rather not cover the consulta, because the Zapatistas make the official [government] story uncomfortable."

And Univisión, Brown says, toes the Mexican government line. "Indigenous communities have explicitly excluded Univisión from many of their activities because they don't trust them. It's not a new phenomenon that they wouldn't tell the truth over what a person speaking about Chiapas was saying."

Brown claims it's not just Univisión. A friend reported that he had checked every channel. "He never saw a word about the consulta. I think the only [media] that covered it was the San Diego Union, in English! And on page 12."

Sandoval says she did include a segment in which Ibarra "mentioned something about her thoughts on the Zapatistas in southern Chiapas." She says she would have played excerpts about the consulta from the press conference Ibarra held the next day in Tijuana. "Unfortunately we don't have the resources. Because of lack of resources we did not follow her to Tijuana."

Brown doesn't buy it. "They have operations on both sides of the border," he says.

But he agrees with Sandoval on one score: It was typical that no English-language TV station would cover Rosario Ibarra's visit, a controversial event of importance to San Diego's Hispanic community.

"[English-language TV news stations] are not interested [in us]," says Sandoval. "Not even when there are demonstrations in front of the consulate regarding Chiapas. Only when there's, say, a massacre. Then they'll cover that."

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