TOURISTS visiting San Cristobal de las Casas, the picturesque old colonial town of the Chiapas highlands, are often besieged by street vendors selling local handicrafts. Many sellers will be offering Ramona Dolls. Cloth dolls of women dressed in local indigenous dress have always been staples of these vendors, but the Ramona Doll is a new version, a peasant woman, wearing a black balaclava or a red bandana to hide her face, carrying a gun, a baby or both.
Commandante Ramona of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is the model for these figures; the male version is of Subcommandante Marcos. Ramona is a Tzotzil, one of the many indigenous groups that form the majority of Chiapas citizens. She is part of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee that directs the EZLN. Subcommandante Marcos, the leader that the Western media and the Mexican government have singled out for attention and ‘stardom’, speaks publicly for the EZLN as directed by this committee.
The EZLN uprising on 1 January, 1994 took Mexico and the world by surprise. Nobody expected poor peasants to organise brilliant military manoeuvres, let alone organise thousands of peasants marginalised by centuries of poverty, isolation and illiteracy – at least in Spanish – into an instantly world famous liberation force that understood the effects of NAFTA on all the poor of Mexico; that NAFTA would lead to loss of their communal lands, sustainable self-sufficient agriculture and any form of self-government and cultural integrity.
Ramona is one of seven female commandantes on that committee which directs an army which comprises one-third women. In 1993, during the formation of the EZLN, thousands of indigenous women came together to create the Revolutionary Women’s Law that asserts women’s right to self-determination and equality in society, at home and in the ranks of the EZLN. Ramona was one of the drafters of that document that gives credence to the EZLN statement, at an international meeting for humanity in 1996:
‘We are not gathered here today in order to change the world…we are here with a more modest proposal.. which proposes to create a new world.’
The EZLN in solidarity with many civil groups continues to work towards that new world with peaceful means – organising strikes, demonstrations, meetings with other Mexican social justice groups and supporters around the world, continuing to emphasise that all their struggles are in common against corporate powers that plan to control resources, production and the lives of people everywhere.
Throughout Chiapas, in spite of the overpowering military presence of the well-equipped Mexican Army, people are working within their own communities to increase resistance to the repressive complicity of the Mexican government and international capitalism and to strengthen their own commitment to a self-determined life of dignity and independence from corporate control.
Ramona’s strength lies in her commitment to her own people and the realisation of their ancestors’ prophecy of the native people of the Americas uniting to claim their freedom. Not a prominent speaker or public representative of the EZLN, she speaks simple Spanish and prefers to work among her own; however, she gained attention when she addressed a crowd of thousands in the main square of Mexico City early this year. With her face covered by a mask, she was the first EZLN leader to speak in person publicly in the national capital. She called for solidarity, strength, and courage to the millions of Mexicans who saw her there or in the media. Her slight frail presence was transformed into a gigantic icon of hope for the Mexican masses. The response gave lie to the Mexican government claim that the EZLN is only relevant to a small rural ethnic group.
‘The great global power has not yet found the weapon capable of destroying dreams. As long as it does not find it, we will continue to dream, in other words, we will continue to triumph..’ (EZLN statement)
At the end of her speech the Zocalo, with the Presidential Palace on one side and the cathedral built of stones from an ancient Aztec temple on another, resonated with the chants of ‘Ramona, Ramona, Ramona, Ramona’.
This appearance carried a high price. Ramona was near death from kidney failure when the Mexican government granted her immunity (there is a death sentence on the life of every EZLN leader) to travel for medical treatment. She is recovering from surgery now and when she is able, with the aid of medication for the rest of her life, she will return to her people in Chiapas.
Although the government has reneged on the San Andreas Agreement in which it accepted the principles of self-determination, land rights and cultural integrity for the people of Chiapas, the EZLN and its civil partners are still willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement; even as they elude military pursuit and help communities resist crimes by the army and paramilitary groups including murder, rape, abduction and harrassment.
In NAFTA the Mexican government agreed to open up traditional communal lands in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico to commercial agriculture and resource exploitation. Under the new Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the Mexican government will lose much of its power to grant autonomy to communities because it will commit Mexico, as our government will commit Canada, to sweeping new powers for international capital and corporations that will override national jurisdictions.
Mexico is also a member of APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, which is developing new means to permit a freer flow of capital and resources in Pacific Rim countries. (APEC will meet in Vancouver in November and many alternate events are planned by citizen groups.)
If she were not an EZLN leader, Ramona would be dead. Few Chiapas peasants have access to expensive surgery and medication. In fact, Ramona used to be a street vendor, selling the mother dolls that were transformed into Ramona Dolls to tourists on the streets of San Cristobal. Street vendors are still too poor to receive specialised medical treatment.
Her transformation from street person to revolutionary leader has given hope and inspiration to thousands of poor women. She has given them a dream of possibility – the possibility to transform their lives and to dare to dream of transforming society. She has become a symbol to many other Ramonas struggling now and yet to be born.
When next you walk downtown or if you are ever a tourist in San Cristobal, remember the EZLN words when you turn your gaze downward before a street person, ‘…find there, not a victim, but a brother or a sister.’ Her name may be Ramona.
(This story was first published in the Third World Resurgence No. 84, August 1997 after Theresa Wolfwood returned from Chiapas where she was a human rights observer. It is reported that Ramona has died; her spirit still lives in Chiapas.)