"The Women We Are"

Natalia Arcos and Alessandro Zagato

6 min read

A Report on the First Zapatista Congress of Women who Fight

At the end of December 2017, during the closing of the Zapatista Festival "Consciences" in San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a group of Zapatista women made an announcement that inspired many emotions and expectations among the Mexican activists and foreigners present. They extended an invitation to the first "political, artistic, sporting, and cultural International Congress of Women who Fight," to be celebrated from March 8 to 10th, 2018, in Zapatista territory—specifically, in Caracol[1] IV Morelia " Whirlwind of our Words", in the Cañadas region (of deep valleys), where the Lacandon jungle begins.

In the history of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish), this would be the first event dedicated entirely to women, organized by their leadership and focused on their demands. In a country plagued by gender-based violence and femicide[2], where women—above all those who are associated with disenfranchised groups—suffer humiliating working and living conditions, the Zapatista initiative took on a powerful symbolic meaning.

"So, if you are a woman who fights, who does not agree with what they do to us as the women we are—if you are not afraid, if you are afraid but control your fear—then we invite you to join us, to speak to us, and to listen to us as the women we are."[3]

By the middle of January, just under 500 women had signed up to attend. That number would grow dramatically, to over 5,000 women from every continent. To sustain such a large number of people, an additional 2,000 Zapatistas arrived at the Caracol to provide support for conference activities and logistics, such as cooking, cleaning, and security. At the same time, another 2,000 women arrived directly to the Caracol to sign up for the Congress in person. All told, around 9,000 women participated from the afternoon of Wednesday, 7 March, through the morning of Sunday, 11 March.

Arrival featured long lines and over four hours of waiting before entry. The differences that would characterise this event were already perceptible, as no man was inside the Caracol. All male companions, Zapatistas or not, had to camp outside and help out in the inns. That helped put the women at ease. They farted freely and chattered unceasingly, telling jokes and sharing mutual understandings.

An equal number of the attendees spent the nights in tents as stayed in wooden sheds, sleeping in sleeping bags and suffering through the intense cold of the Morelia nights, a cold that contrasted starkly with the suffocating daytime heat. Despite these conditions, a multitude of women maintained a state of complete calm and joy, maintaining a show of order and cleanliness rarely seen in conferences so massive. The jovial and peaceful coexistence was the magic potion of those four nights and days in which the Zapatistas welcomed us with immense affection, and bringing it all together was an impressive logistical feat.

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The first activity of the day, on 8 March, was kicked off by the presence of the Zapatistas, their support bases, militia soldiers and insurgents on stage. They read a series of welcome statements and outlined the activities that would follow in the coming days. Next, the female Zapatista comrades entertained attendees with an artistic show of dance, music, poetry, and theater they both created and performed. The women in attendance—among them hundreds of Argentines, Chileans, Americans, Italians, French and, of course, Mexicans, along with nationals of other countries, from many ethnic and indigenous groups—were able to learn about the structure of Zapatista autonomy and the creative practice of their rebellion, represented through educational pieces about the contemporary Zapatista experience.

Suddenly, it was nighttime, and all the lights in the Caracol were extinguished. The women from the support bases appeared in the darkness carrying lighted candles, in a multitudinous and highly staged scene, such as those familiar with the Zapatistas have come to expect (for example, the silent march on 21 December 2012, or the farewell to Subcomandante Marcos in May 2014.[4]) That night, there were no celebrations. Silence, which almost never occurs in Zapatista events, marked the women's sleep, allowing them to relax from their duties and their travels, but also from their pain and their search for missing individuals—for justice and peace. So it was meant to be understood, and so it was experienced.

The second day of activities, on Friday, 9 March, contained a vast program of workshops, lectures, work sessions and meetings, in addition to cultural presentations and soccer and basketball games by the external attendees. For obvious reasons, given the savage increase in the number of attacks on women in the last ten years[5], one of the most heavily attended workshops was that on the techniques of self-defense. In this context, art emerged on all sides: half a dozen canvases, approximately three meters wide and two meters tall, were painted by the Zapatistas especially for the occasion. They were displayed throughout the main temple, in a Caracol that also expanded and provided new infrastructure for the conference. The presence of women like María de Jesus Patricio Martínez, the spokesperson of the Indigenous Council of the Government, and the Mapuche leader Moira Millán, punctuated a human landscape in which all ethnicities and struggles were integrated.

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In this sense, some of the most interesting theoretical contributions of the conference included a decolonial perspective that can enrich the feminist struggle internationally. The integration of its theoretical and practical tools in broader revolutionary contexts, experiments in autonomy such as that of Rojava (the Kurdish YPG sent their greetings via video, since their leader was deported on arrival in Mexico City), and of the Zapatistas themselves (remember their famous women's revolutionary law, a sign of a revolution within the revolution) can enrich and empower the struggle of these women and organizations.

Representatives speaking about movements ranging from the struggle of the indigenous Sami against the state of Norway, to the Mapuche resistance in the militarized south of Chile, and of historians of the Mexican warriors of the '70s, filled halls and inspired a visceral sense of euphoria and excitement in the attendees.[6]

The third and final day, Saturday, 10 March, featured a similar program of activities as well as the closing of the conference. At the closing, the Zapatistas read a statement, one of the most precious and symbolic of the "post-Subcomandante Marcos" era and included an emotional letter from one of the mothers of the missing youth from Ayotzinapa. Commander Miriam, a legendary figure of the armed women of the EZLN, also spoke. She made a special request of the women present: "In front of all of us that are here and those that are not, but are present in our hearts and thoughts, we propose that we agree to continue living and continue fighting, each in her own way, her time and her world."

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When finally everything seemed finished, representatives from ethnic groups and African descendants in the United States burst in, singing a ritual song. They greeted the EZLN and delivered symbolic gifts to the Zapatistas. Then came the representatives of the Mapuche people in Argentina and the Landless Movement in Brazil.

In this way, the thousands of attendees were left with a final message resonating in their minds and hearts—the hope that, as they proclaimed, a Zapatista embraces us and tells us in our language, in our way, "Do not give up, do not sell yourself, do not give in." So it will be until next year.[7]

Welcoming women to Zapatistas land / Photo by the EZLN


  1. The Caracols are the five political and institutional centers of the Zapatista movement. ↩︎

  2. It is estimated that in 2017, the total number of femicides reached 12,000--in Mexico alone. ↩︎

  3. EZLN Announcement, December 29, 2017, http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2017/12/29/convocatoria-al-primer-encuentro-internacional-politico-artistico-deportivo-y-cultural-de-mujeres-que-luchan/ ↩︎

  4. Consultar Zagato, A., & Arcos, N. (2018). El Festival "Comparte por la Humanidad". Estéticas y poéticas de la rebeldía en el movimiento Zapatista. Revista Paginas, 9(21), 75-101. ↩︎

  5. According to sources from the United Nations, as of 2016, more than 50% of femicides at the global level are concentrated in Latin America. Also according to the UN, in 2017 the total number of attacks and murders were on track to rise in the region. ↩︎

  6. It is worth mentioning that there were also hundreds of workshops on yoga, massages, dance, birthing, menstruation, sexual health, body and territory, etc. ↩︎

  7. The Zapatistas have suggested the possibility of a second Congress in 2019. ↩︎