Green, red, and white flags in the autonomous Zapatistas territory in Chiapas, Mexico. The Transformative Leadership online Master's program at California Institute of Integral Studies presents a model of leadership focused on social justice and equity.
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Rising Up: Chiapas, Mexico

Lessons learned visiting the Zapatistas

Stefani Pearsall May 23, 2018

¿Cual es tu lucha? What is your struggle?

Each and every one of us has something we personally fear or struggle with. And then there are our collective struggles. Perhaps we feel in our heart that something isn't right, or perhaps it's the glaring violence beating down on us every day. We can allow fear to overpower us, or we can choose to rise up, become empowered, and do our best to overcome. We are not alone; we can choose to organize, together.

In January 1994, indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico, made a choice to rise up as part of a 500-year lucha (struggle) against colonial and imperial capitalist domination. They did this by organizing themselves: Thousands of men and women rose up against the government, the capitalist hydra, and the oppressive conditions that had kept them in a cycle of exploitation by social and government power structures. In 1994, they decided that enough was enough. They called themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

Armed with a history of oppression, wooden mallets, guns, black face-masks, and red bandanas, they organized thousands of men and women to resist the neo-liberal government, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and corporate globalization, while creating their own autonomous government in the Mexican state of Chiapas. They were finished with being victims of a social relation begun by conquistadores and colonialists 500 years prior.

Imagine what it would be like to overcome your fear, your struggle, your lucha.

When I first applied to join my compañeras on a journey to learn about the Zapatista movement, I was paralyzed with fear. My struggle, my lucha has been with the capitalist society that we live in but had no idea how this experience would inform my life. I understood that the Zapatistas were in struggle, creating autonomy from the Mexican government while also struggling against the capitalist hydra. However, I had no idea what it would look like to create another world without capitalism, without power-over dynamics, without control, domination, and war.

What would it look like to exit an authoritarian government and enter into a world of collective governance in which the power is in the ‘we' and not in the ‘I'? I struggled to see past the brutal 1994-5 images of war-torn Chiapas, and look beyond the mass media's focus on the drug wars in Mexico that rendered it unsafe to travel to Mexico with such intensified militarization.

At that moment, I had to confront my fear and unlearn what I had learned. I had to face my fear and realize that politicians and mass media appeal to base instincts such as fear to manipulate and capitalize on the masses. I realized that fear-of-the-other runs rampant in our media, in our government, and within our subconscious mind. I made a choice to confront my fear of the unknown, rise up, and overcome it by becoming empowered to educate myself through an experiential learning opportunity. I chose to overcome my fear, in my struggle with capitalism, by traveling to Mexico, exploring the Other, and enrolling in the course, Another World is Here: Building Autonomy and Resilience in Chiapas.

As one of our guides, Alberto Vallejo Reyna stated: "Anyone can learn from the Other who is a mystery; the mystery of the unknown is a philosophy that will help you grow." I invite the reader to consider your fears and your lucha, your struggle. How is propaganda in the media, capitalism, and fear of the Other being utilized to manipulate your subconscious mind? How can you rise up to overcome fear and actively engage with struggle in your life experience? How can a philosophy of learning from and with the Other help un-learn what you've been taught and help you lean into the mystery of the unknown?

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