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Interview, March 7, 1994

Don't Abandon Us!

Interview conducted by Matilde Pérez and Laura Castellanos, published in La Jornada's special supplement for International Women's Day, March 7, 1994 Translated by Clifton Ross.

"Don't abandon us!" is the desperate cry of the women of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, hoping that their cry to be heard, both within and beyond their communities, won't die.

"We ask everyone to struggle with us," Commander Ramona and Major Ana María say in Tzotzil and Spanish. Their call to Mexican women is not for them to take up arms but that they support in their own contexts the changes proposed in the Revolutionary Law of Women as well as the extensive list of demands for equality, justice, health, education and housing.

That night, the second to the last they would pass in the Cathedral, they arrived in the area behind the altar with Subcomandante Marcos. He was dressed in his unmistakable military uniform. A few steps behind him were the only two women of the group of 19 delegates of the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee.

"I'm leaving them here so you can talk about whatever you like with them," he says in a humorous tone of voice on leaving the group of five women journalists and two photographers who were gathered to interview the women of the Zapatista Army.

The happy and lively eyes of Ramona revealed exhaustion. The long black wool, the loom-woven blouse with beautiful embroidery and her small stature contrast with the gray poncho and large body of Ana María. With them is Commander Javier (to translate what Ramona would say in Tzotzil into Spanish).

The commander's words, while in Tzotzil, flow smoothly from her indigenous heart. "I left my community to look for work out of necessity. I had nothing to live on. When I arrived elsewhere I began to discover that the situation of women in the fields isn't equal. Here I began to understand and take note of the differences, here I came in contact with the organization (the EZLN) and learned of the necessity to get organized, including women."

In the EZLN the participation of women is key. Ramona belongs to the political body of troops that works in the communities. Ana María, by contrast, is part of the approximately thirty percent of the combatants or insurgents who voluntarily give up having a family so as to enter into the armed struggle.

"I'm an insurgent. I've dedicated all my life and time to the cause," affirms Ana María, the twenty- six year old infantry Major. When she speaks of displacement and repression she's suffered she frowns, the only sign of expression her ski mask lets through.

"It's a very long story," she says." Since the age of eight I've participated in peaceful struggles, in marches and meetings. Everyone in my family is a fighter, everyone has been organizing themselves to have a more dignified life. But we've never gotten anywhere by this route.

"We were in an organization I won't say which with other people, other towns. We were all there together, including the children. That's how we became aware that peaceful struggles wouldn't accomplish anything. It's been that way for years and years. My family, before I was born, was already in the struggle.

"I entered [the EZLN] when I was very young. I was 14 years old when I entered the struggle. At first there were only two women of the 8 or 10 people when we started the movement more than ten years ago. Many of the women who have joined the EZLN have done so without telling their families.

"When I left home and found out about an armed organization I made a decision and said `I'm also going to take up arms!' Because one of my brothers was already there but my parents, the majority of my family, didn't know anything. Then I left home and I went out in search of my compañeros to join up with them. And so I passed many years learning and participating in this without my family knowing anything. This is how it is in many places, in many families.

"Here my brother and I learned reading and writing and how to speak Spanish. Later they taught us tactics of combat and politics so we could speak with the people and explain our cause to them. We asked for land and the government didn't give us any and so we began the take-overs and its response was repression. Then we said to ourselves, `if with the best they don't give it, then the worst.' And so we took it and armed ourselves.

"The women were joining because they saw our presence in the army. Then the women in the towns began to teach their daughters, sisters, nieces, telling them `it's better to take a gun, it's better to fight.'" Major Ana María, who had charge over the command that took San Cristóbal de las Casas on the morning of January first, spoke vehemently.

The Invisible Protagonists of the EZLN

In the early morning hours of that first day of the year, women were the invisible protagonists of the events that crossed the borders of the country. At that moment no one knew and 66 days after the event many still ignore the fact that one of those women was in charge of taking the second city of importance in Chiapas, an operation considered a success by the EZLN because of no human losses.

Seated before three journalists from Mexico and one from Spain, Ana María explains how the attack on the city, founded by the Spanish Conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, was prepared.

"First we voted on whether to begin the war or not. After the decision the attack was organized, with the support of the high commanders. Later we organized the military tactics on how [the six municipal capitals] would be taken and who would be chosen for those places. Then, since I led one unit, I knew I had to go first, in front of my compañeros. I am a commander and I have to be an example.

"As there are many of us we organize ourselves by units and each one has its leadership. I have under me a large unit with many militia, more than a thousand. This unit is divided in smaller units and each one of those has its own command. Each one of these [commanders] is instructed, is told what must be done, how to attack. Each insurgent knows how to take possession, what he or she must do and the commanders are checking to make sure they fulfill these duties.

"When we attacked San Cristóbal some were chosen to set up barricades and others to set up ambushes in case the Federal army entered. The entrances and exits to San Cristóbal were reinforced by others and still others were chosen to attack the municipal building. Each unit has its own mission to fulfill. The leadership coordinates everything."

And did women participate in the battles at Rancho Nuevo and Ocosingo?

"Yes. For example, when the prisoners were freed in the attack on Cereso [the jail], women were the ones who entered and opened the doors to liberate the prisoners. One prisoner said that when he saw a group of women with earrings enter he thought it was strange to see women combatants with ear rings and necklaces attacking. There were groups of women all together and each one has a task. Each one is given a task and they fulfill it."

The Infantry Major specifies the differences between the militia women and the insurgents of the military body. "Both are combatants but the militia women live in their towns, receive training and go into combat when it's their turn. We insurgents live in the camps and move out from here into the towns to teach politics and to educate."

Curious and watchful, a some delegates of the EZLN approach for a few moments to listen to the interview. The two women have their backs to an image of the Virgin of El Rayo. Flowers wither at her feet, revealing the absence over the past ten days of the faithful during which the sanctuary has been closed for worship.

The Spanish journalist of El Mundo asks about the possibilities of insurgents having a family. Ana María, who displays a golden ring on her right hand, answers:

"To marry or be with someone you have to ask permission of the commanding officers and they are the ones who say yes or no. But we can't have children because we mustn't put the life of a child in danger. Among the insurgents there is family planning but there are many who have had children and have had to leave them with their parents so as not to abandon the struggle."

And what was the mission of the women in the communities?

"This is something to talk about because there are many things that happen in the communities. Since the EZLN began developing this work the participation of women has been very important in security.

"In the home and in the town there are bases. We have a network of communications and so the work of women has been to check security. For example, if soldiers enter they keep watch and also to check if there is any danger. Not all are necessarily combatants. When we attacked the cities the housewives stayed behind and watched over the communities and the children while the young women went out to fight.

"Many women wanted to enter but they were married and had children and couldn't abandon them. But the struggle isn't only with arms. The work of women in the towns is to get organized for collective work, to study and learn something from books.

"They also help the EZLN because they form their children, brothers, sisters and in-laws and make sure they have food in the mountains. That is their work: making tostadas, pinole, pozol and vegetables. They have gardens where they grow vegetables which they send to the camps. The grandmothers work on taking care of the children of the women who work."

Do the women make the uniforms?

"Yes, everything is done within the EZLN. We have sewing and tailoring workshops and workshops for making arms. Women work making pieces for guns and also small bombs for defense. Women in the towns, while they may not be combatants or in the military, can do any of these things."

And the men, do they also do the work of women like cooking, washing dishes, watching children?

"In the EZLN everything is done equally. Here no differences exist. One day it's the men's turn to cook, the following day, it's the women's and the next, both. If clothes need to be washed a man can also do it."

But you put it so simply, that men can wash clothes while the women are making bombs. We're speaking of indigenous communities where the inequality between sexes is very strong.

"In the communities where we're organized, that's how work is done. Of course, in the houses of the compañeros there's still a little inequality but it's already very little! The compañeros no longer mistreat the women so much and now help in carrying the children. Before getting ready to go into the cornfield the man leaves mounted on a horse and the woman follows behind carrying the child. Still the man returns mounted on the horse and the woman returns with the firewood on her back and a child at her breast. This is something the compañero could better talk about (she's referring to Commander Javier, the translator of Tzotzil to Spanish for Commander Ramona)."

Before the request Javier offers an emotional and detailed description: "When I was very small we had a custom that I'd learned from my grandparents and from grandparents, my dad. Since within indigenous society the life of women is deplorable, as has already been described, these sufferings weren't taken into account.

"Really, many like us, man, didn't understand how society is, the situation. It isn't as now, taking note of the struggle. Before, the participation of women wasn't taken into account. Many women got up at two or three in the morning to cook and by dawn they left with the man, who rode a horse while the women ran behind, carrying a child.

"When they arrived at work they shared the chores equally with the man, whether it was cutting coffee or working the cornfield. When they got back home once again they did other work, preparing food. Many of us men weren't aware of the issue. We gave orders and waited for our food but the poor women, really, carrying a crying child around, grinding corn, sweeping the house and, though it was night, they wash the clothes because they hadn't had time to do it during the day..."

Journalists and photographers who initially listened to the testimonies of Ramona and Ana María have dispersed during the first hour of the talk. The eyes of the insurgents reflect an exhaustion and in the millenary church the cold grows in intensity.

"It's not as cold here as in my community," Ramona says. Despite her small figure she's gained respect in the communities where she's done political work, even though it hasn't been easy. She, like Ana María and others, have demanded of the men that they respect their right to organize themselves and to be part of the military corps.

Ramona seems not to notice the cold. With her arms crossed tranquilly over her lap, she attempts to make the journalists understand the awakening of the indigenous in the Highlands of Chiapas.

"The women came to understand that their participation is important in changing this bad situation. And so they're participating even though not all are directly engaged in armed struggle. There is no other way of seeking justice, which is the interest of women."

What do you teach women in the communities?

"Everything related to the struggle," says Ana María. "The first thing one learns on arriving at a camp is how to read and write, if they don't already know. If they don't know how to express themselves then they're taught a little Spanish so they can speak and read books. They're taught how to use a sewing machine, a typewriter or how to make pieces for arms. They're taught combat tactics and we read political books. We study most of all the history of Mexico and books about struggles in other countries."

At what age do they enter?

"Right now we have many girls and boys in the militia. There are children of eight or nine years who are restless, who look at an insurgent and caress the gun, saying, `I want to be one, too, I want to be an insurgent.' and they play at being one. For example, a little while back I went to a community and asked the children about Zapata and they told me that he was a revolutionary who struggled for land and did a lot for the campesinos.

"They also go to meetings and many are upset because we tell them that they can't play with the guns until they grow up. And so we have to accept them. Of course we don't take them to fight but many of them get stubborn and say `I want to go!' and so there were a few of them here when we came to attack San Cristóbal."

Do you give workshops on reproductive and sexual health to the adolescents?

"Yes, in many communities this work is carried out, which is the work of the compañeros of health services. We are divided by services: Health, armaments, administration, management and is the same in all the communities as well as among the combatants because that's how they're organized."

Women's Demands

It was on the last day of the dialogue when the list of thirty-four demands of the EZLN was presented. A week before Subcomandante Marcos had pointed out to the press that those of the women were the broadest of the demands. On the list these occupied the twenty-ninth place and it was emphasized that this was a "demand of the indigenous women." The first of the twelve that the document contained referred to the installation of gynecological clinics to aid in births.

Among the collection of demands the more outstanding were those that would alleviate the wearying domestic workdays, including the construction of day-care centers, kitchens and cafeterias for children in the communities; the installation of corn mills for tortillas and masa (women spend on average three to five hours daily grinding corn and making tortillas).

They also sought to create and establish small businesses with technical assistance such as farms for raising chickens, rabbits, pigs and sheep. Prime materials and machinery for the installation of bakeries and craft workshops was requested as was transportation and access to the market for the fair sale of their products. Given their educational marginality they asked for technical training schools for women. These demands, proposed to the government, were the result of consultations Ramona undertook in the indigenous communities.

The indigenous women asked for technical and educational support from outside while from within (from the EZLN and from the communities) their demands are: access to power in decision-making; free choice of a spouse; not to be beaten or physically mistreated by family members or by strangers; to choose for themselves the number of children they would have and raise and the right and priority of nutrition and health care.

The two women of the CCRI who participated in the dialogue for peace remember how the Revolutionary Law for Women was born a year before.

"They'd given us the right to participate in the assemblies and in study groups but there was no law about women. And so we protested and that's how the Law for women came about. We all formulated it and presented it in an assembly of all the towns. Men and women voted on it. There were no problems. In the process opinions of women were asked in all the towns. The insurgents helped us write it," Ana María related.

The reproductive health of indigenous women is the most outstanding issue in both the law for women and the demands before the government. Despite the high percentage of maternal mortality in Chiapas, above all in the indigenous communities (in the state, for every hundred thousand births 117 women die, a rate holding third place in the country) and abortions taking place in dangerous conditions (one of every five women of child-bearing age in the rural zones of the country have had an abortion) the women of the EZLN didn't discuss this latter practice.

Ramona, you went to the communities and talked with the women. Wasn't a talk on the issue of abortion presented?

"No, no."

Why not?

Both women look at each other and it's Major Ana María who replies.

"It didn't occur to them. It's that there's a belief among indigenous people that there shouldn't be abortion."

Nevertheless, there are women who die from badly performed abortions.

"Oh, yes, of course. There are young women this happens to."

Are we talking about tradition here?

"Well, I don't know," Ana María says, turning to look at Javier with an expression as if asking for help. "You, compañero, what do you think of the belief, of what's in the towns..."

"Well," says Javier," there isn't a lot of agreement on that situation. In those same towns there is a tradition of how to treat women."

But this tradition has risks for the health and life of the women," interjects the journalist.

"Many times," continues Javier," yes, it has [risks] because there are no doctors to help. But women have their customs on how to help."

Confronted with the insistence on knowing if the indigenous women would help at a clinic in performing an abortion in case such a service were made available Ana María interrupted Commander Javier to say:

"When we talk about there being a tradition this doesn't imply continuing it. But in many communities a punishment is applied if the woman doesn't report that she's pregnant and wants to have an abortion.

"Because many times this happens, the young woman goes with a midwife or a curandera and asks for an abortion for fear that her family will mistreat or punish her. In the communities I know a man is fined or detained if he gets a woman pregnant and they imprison him for a few days and say he has to pay for the woman's medical attention."

Regarding the use of contraceptives the infantry Major says,

"They don't exist, they're unknown in any of the communities. And pregnancy of women happens infrequently because parents take great care that their daughters not get pregnant. By the same fear that the young women have for their parents they are unable to talk to any man. If they come to get pregnant many of them have the children because it's very difficult to get an abortion and, even if they get one, many die and they never know."

Another of the issues for the indigenous women is the free selection of a partner. Ana María, proposed and elected by the insurgents to participate in the peace talks, comments, "There's still the custom of the dowry. The woman is never taken into account, she's sold (in this area the average nuptial dowry is two thousand new pesos). Becoming boyfriend and girlfriend doesn't exist. To do so is a sin."

A point missing from the demands of the women is their right to own land. While both Ramona and Ana María recognize that this is vital for their survival and that in the struggle to gain land both men and women are involved, no thought has been given to the idea that redistribution would have to include widows and indigenous women without compañeros.

Ana María indicates that "this is a demand of all and if there is a special thing for women in the list of demands it's because there are things that the men hadn't thought that we would need. In this case a demand arose for a special women's school where they could excel and study even though they might already be adults."

Nevertheless, Ramona acknowledged the major importance of the ownership of land. "Although within the agrarian law we have no right to have land we women feel that it's very important because when there's no land there's hunger, misery and for this reason many children die of malnutrition. Therefore we women also have a right to land so there would be food because there's no other means of survival."

Demand of the Combatants for the Means of Communication

Two hours after the beginning of the interview only three reporters, among them the Spaniard, continued talking with the exhausted Zapatistas. A few yards away Subcomandante Marcos leaves with other journalists. Laughter resounds in the old cathedral.

The intense look of Ramona captivates one of the reporters. When she notices that she's being watched her expression changes from seriousness to amusement. Through the opening in her ski mask Ramona laughs with her eyes.

The people of the episcopate urge a conclusion to the interview. There are still many things to be asked, many things to be said but it's after midnight and the exhaustion grows, making an imminent good-bye inevitable. And so the last questions are asked.

Do you think that the media have done an adequate coverage of your demands as indigenous women?

"No, not much has come out. And for that same reason they haven't interviewed us."

Why do you think that they haven't interviewed you?

"I don't know. We don't know why. Perhaps they're more interested in national events."

Aren't the demands of the Zapatista women national?

"Yes, of course. But I don't know why they haven't interviewed us. We've spoken with very few and very little has come out in the media about the women."

Would you have any comment or request for the media?

"What we're saying is broadcast this struggle so that many women elsewhere might take the example and do something elsewhere, not so they might come here where we are. While they might not take up arms they can still struggle in some manner and support us, so other women might rise up in the struggle.

"We know that our struggle is not just for women but for both men and women. But we ask the same thing that the Subcomandante (Marcos) asked of the media when he said `Don't abandon us.' We ask for more support for democracy because here is where things are stuck, this is where it's hardest. It's at the national level and this is also where women come in to form part of society."

Are you afraid that the hope for change might die?

"No, we don't have this fear because we're going to do everything possible to make change and we believe that, up to the moment, we have the very great support of the Mexican people. We have the hope that we'll come to change the situation. But if we don't reach that (we might die or they may kill us) we're going to continue fighting this way until we're heard and taken into account."

With emotion, Ana María mentions that since the beginnings of the EZLN they've celebrated March 8, International Women's Day. And so tomorrow there will be a party in the communities and the men will be in charge of cooking. "Although," she comments jokingly," the seasoning won't be so great."

At last the interview is over. The meeting of Subcomandante Marcos with the other media has also ended.

To the surprise of the journalists, when Commander Ramona says good-bye to the journalists she states, in Spanish, her concern for not having mastered this particular language. "I'm going to study so that the next time I can answer better," she says, and the ski mask can't hide her full smile. Later, she disappears with the group.

A few minutes before, in Tzotzil, she insisted: "Our hope is that some day our situation will change, that they'll treat us as women with respect, justice and democracy."

Intro to Voice of Fire EZLN Interviews & Comm. by Ben Clarke

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