- Politics, Identity, and México’s Indigenous Rights Movements
The Zapatista (EZLN) indigenous uprising, which broke out in Southern Mexico in 1994, generated worldwide media attention. This unexpected armed social movement became a wake-up call both for the country at large and particularly for the indigenous peoples (more than sixty different ethno-linguistic groups, making up around 12–15 percent of the total population). In the subsequent years it also produced a large amount of academic literature in the country and abroad. After a decade and a half the media appeal has diminished and the movement’s initial impact on the Mexican polity appears to have subsided. Many things did however occur over this period. After lengthy negotiations, the federal government and the Zapatistas signed a peace agreement that was intended to lead to new legislation recognizing the social, economic, and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. But the government reneged on its commitment. It was only when an opposition party had been elected in 2000—after seventy years of a [End Page 1169] one-party state—that the Congress adopted constitutional reform on the topic. The resulting legislation was a whittled-down version of the previous agreement and the disappointed Zapatistas returned to their strongholds in Chiapas. Other popular social movements involving indigenous peoples have waxed and waned in rural and sometimes in urban areas around the country. So far, the constitutional reform has not been implemented.
The events of those years and thereafter have been the subject of intense academic and media scrutiny. It has drawn the attention of university researchers, human rights activists, civil society organizations, donor agencies, and political think-tanks concerned with threats to governance, drug trafficking, and international terrorism. What used to be the domain of arcane anthropologists has now become the hunting ground for dissertation material in political science, cultural studies, gender research, development sciences, public policy, and other fields.
So why yet another book on the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico? Todd Eisenstadt’s contribution goes beyond easy categorization. First, it is not really a study of the Zapatista movement itself, but rather about the attitudes of outsiders, i.e. bystanders, former Zapatistas, and anti-Zapatistas regarding the issues that allow Eisenstadt to pigeon-hole his informants one way or another. Second, it attempts to compare the Zapatista movement with other political processes in neighboring Oaxaca. Thirdly, it tries to draw some general comparative conclusions regarding what the author terms “indigenous identities.” He argues that structural factors like social and economic history can trump ethnic identity in the formation of individuals’ attitudes regarding individual and collective rights, concluding that:
Ultimately, a power-sharing model based on moderate, constructivist assumptions that serves as a hemisphere-wide example of communal rights recognition within a liberal society, can only be created by understanding geographical, historical, psychological, socioeconomic—as well as the ethnic—group incentives, and complementary individual motivations. These individual motivations are the ones that guide indigenous people, and the rest of us, in choosing from among the identity choices available to us at a given concrete moment.1
In the chapters devoted to Chiapas the author rightly argues that the indigenous movements that emerged in the southern jungles since the nineteen-seventies had agrarian concerns at their root. The EZLN actually called themselves Zapatistas to invoke the symbolic role of that other Zapata (Emiliano) in the state of Morelos during the 1910–1917 Mexican agrarian Revolution. Whereas the EZLN decided in the mid-eighties to prepare for armed struggle, other organizations continued with the traditional petitioning-the-government and protesting processes. These processes had been mostly unsuccessful during the preceding years, both in Chiapas and elsewhere in the countryside, but had drawn down hostile repressive acts by both state and federal authorities against the leaders and militants of these organizations. Others were co-opted in Mexico’s traditional clientelistic fashion. This became one more of the many internal divisions among the indigenous peasants of the area. The story has been [End Page 1170] well told...