Commander Esther

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–Inaugurating an unprecedented chapter in Mexican history, Commander Esther, said to be an indigenous woman from the Tzeltal region in the Mexican state of Chiapas, took the floor of the Mexican Congress to lobby for the passage of an indigenous rights bill and for additional safeguards for the rights of women of her region and stature.

Her central message is striking. She vowed the rebels would lay down their arms to become an open political force. But the fact that it was she, not the Zapatista’s charismatic spokesman Subcommander Marcos, delivering it surprised this nation as well.

If Commander Esther, part of the rebel Zapatistas’ indigenous decision-making structure, is successful, the legislation could pave the road to peace in the conflict-ridden state of Chiapas and could legalize self-government for the country’s 10 million indigenous people.

Leading television networks offered a live broadcast of the special congressional session, which was the climax of the rebels’ three-week-long march across Mexico in March to put indigenous rights–and the rights of indigenous women–on the national political agenda. President Vicente Fox has made renewing peace talks a priority for his administration and he hailed the session as a positive step toward peace and called the event a “triumph for Mexico.”

Notwithstanding, legislators from his own right-wing National Action Party (PAN) boycotted the session, claiming it represented an egregious breach of protocol.

Black Ski Mask Is a Symbol of Her People’s Invisibility

“Those who are not here today already know that they refused to listen to what an indigenous woman came to tell them,” said Commander Esther, as she addressed a half-full Congress wearing an embroidered blouse and a black ski mask.

Since the Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up in arms on January 1, 1994, the rebels and their civilian supporters have worn ski masks to symbolize what they see as indigenous peoples’ invisibility in Mexican society and to signify the universality of their struggle for cultural and political rights. And in Mexico, where television programs typically depict indigenous women as ignorant maids, such symbols have deeper meanings.

“This tribunal is a symbol … which is why we wanted to speak here, and why some did not want us to do so. It is also symbolic that I, a poor, indigenous Zapatista woman, am giving the first speech and that my words are the Zapatistas’ central message,” Esther added.

After 12 days of fighting in 1994, the government and the rebels held a series of peace talks in the Zapatistas’ jungle territory in 1996. The talks culminated in both sides signing an accord to legalize indigenous autonomy over local government, justice and culture. That pact served as the basis of the rights legislation now before Congress.

Peace talks ground to a halt later that year, former President Ernesto Zedillo shelved the rights bill, the number of military bases in the state multiplied markedly and the conflict settled into a low-intensity war that claimed hundreds of lives.

Nonetheless, President Fox’s historic victory over the long-standing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) last July allowed the government and the rebels to find a new political language in which to communicate. The Zapatistas set three conditions to renewing talks: the adoption of the rights law, the withdrawal of federal troops from seven of the estimated 259 military bases in Chiapas and the liberation of all Zapatista prisoners.

Says Zapatistas Know Which Customs Are Good and Which Are Bad

In her speech before Congress, Esther praised Fox’s move to withdraw troops from the seven bases, and said that Zapatistas would respond to the move by laying down their arms to work for political recognition. She also used the tribunal to debunk critics’ accusations that giving indigenous communities autonomy would reinforce antiquated, patriarchal structures of governance, as the rights bill contains a section on women’s rights.

“We know which uses and customs are good and which are bad,” she said. “The bad ones include beating and hitting women, buying and selling women, forcing women to marry against their will, and forbidding women to participate in (village) assemblies and to leave their homes.”

Mexico’s indigenous communities, which make up 10 percent of the total population, live in abject poverty, but indigenous women bear the brunt of the burden. According to official statistics, 48 percent of indigenous women are illiterate, compared to 29 percent of indigenous men, and 10 percent of Mexicans nationally. Furthermore, infant mortality rates for indigenous women stand at 48 per 1,000 live births, while the national statistic is 28 per 1,000.

In addition to furthering the road to peace, the Zapatistas’ decision to march to the Mexican capital encouraged other indigenous organizations and women’s groups into the public sphere. Three weeks before the Zapatistas spoke in Congress, some 3,000 delegates hailing from 42 of Mexico’s 56 ethnic groups assembled in a rural village in the state of Michoacán to build consensus among native communities and to raise consciousness about the rights bill.

As part of this National Indigenous Congress, indigenous women held a separate workshop to discuss their own problems and issues.

Indigenous Women Push for Political Equality, Physical Safety

Guadalupe Celestino Hernandez, a Náhuatl woman from a mountain village in the state of Veracruz, traveled to the meeting to denounce discrimination against women in her community and the militarization she says her community suffers.

“We indigenous women have a lot of ideas and sometimes our partners don’t understand us. That’s why when we speak among a group of women, we have more freedom to come to an agreement amongst ourselves,” said Celestino. “There are Army troops in some villages in our region and that means that the women always suffer more. We have to get organized so there are no more rapes of indigenous women.”

Bacilia Gomez Santis, a Tzeltal woman from Chiapas chosen by her village to attend the congress said she faces a similar situation.

“We don’t have the right to participate in politics as women. How are we going to learn how to participate if the men don’t let us?” asked Gomez.

Xochitl Galvez, a Nanu woman whom Fox appointed to head a new office for indigenous affairs, says the new government is concerned about gender inequality in native communities.

“Indigenous women in Mexico do not have access to education, they don’t have the same opportunities as men and they cannot get loans. This is beginning to change and they are starting to get organized and demand their rights. If I can do anything to change the situation, I will,” said Galvez in an interview.

Nonetheless, the prospect of extending broader rights to women and indigenous communities faces considerable opposition from within Fox’s own party. Recently, Labor Minister Carlos Abascal called the push for women’s rights a “moral catastrophe” and an “attack against the foundations of a civilized society.”

Commander Esther has a different point of view, to say the least. And, as Mexico attempts to come to terms with Commander Esther’s offer, the vision of her addressing Congress will remain a powerful image of what exactly indigenous women are seeking.

Garance Burke is a free-lance journalist who has covered themes of social justice in Mexico since 1994.