Chiapas’ Zapaturismo

Translated by Michelle Fuller

Originally posted on BBC Mundo

Dolls of Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Ramona. Zapatista Shirts. Guided Tours of Zapatista territories. Bars bearing in their name the words Revolution or Revolt. ‘Tours’ by Zapatista territory. Bars with the name of revolution or revolt. A menu features the image of a black ski mask, or balaclavas. Welcome to the Zapatista Revolution packaged up for tourism consumption.
This historical phenomenon had a precise birth date: the first days of January 1994. Exactly 20 years ago, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) uprising began.
The emerging digital technology, the charisma and mystery of the leader Subcomandante Marcos and the certainty of Mexican and foreign youth that the cause was a just one, made what happened in a secluded corner of Mexico have a global resonance.
One of the unexpected effects is that thousands and thousands of people, especially young people, began to travel to Chiapas to learn more about the Zapatista phenomenon. Tellingly, this has a name as evidenced by entries in Wikipedia under the name of ‘ zapaturismo ‘.
A quick walking tour through the narrow downtown streets of the state’s third largest city, San Cristobal de las Casas, gives you a feel for the Zapatistas’ allure. San Cristobal was where the armed uprising was concentrated two decades ago.
In the ‘tianguis’ (street markets) Subcomandante Marcos dolls are sold for 50 pesos. For the same price, you can also grab a figure of the deceased Comandante Ramona, which according to followers of the Zapatistas, organized the capture of the city of San Cristobal. Keychains of both commanders fetch15 pesos.
The same person who told me about Ramona (and who prefers to remain anonymous) assured me that the Zapatistas do not benefit from this and have not authorized anyone to merchandise on their behalf. He adds, however, that they do not try to stop it, knowing that it would be virtually impossible. In fact, in the Caracol of Oventic (one of the Zapatista communities), there is a small cooperative selling the same Zapatista merchandise.
In San Cristobal, there are thriving businesses including bars, restaurants and even clothing stores with revolutionary paraphernalia, particularly of Che Guevara and the Zapatistas.
In 2010, then- Secretary of Tourism of Chiapas, Juan Carlos Franco Cal y Mayor, joked that Subcomandante Marcos should be given gifts for the promotion of the state. It was not just tourism that the movement helped along. Following the uprising, the federal government poured enormous economic resources in the area.
Behind all the ‘zapaturismo’ there is obviously a political interest. In addition to youth eager for a just cause, during the 1990s, Chiapas was visited by colorful, left-leaning characters like Oliver Stone, Eduardo Galeano, José Saramago and Danielle Mitterrand.
The global rise of the Zapatistas contributed, in no small part, to a new message from the left which was left crestfallen by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union Paradoxically part of this message was anti-globalization. Moreover, Luis Daniel Vazquez , a professor and researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, FLACSO , states that part of the anti-globalization movement was born when young people held meetings organized by the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
“One of the strongest is the 1997 meetings, where several of the people who were already beginning to form the anti-globalization movement attended. This anti-globalization movement culminated in Seattle in1999. When you talk to the people who were behind this demonstration, they recognize that the source was two years earlier at the meeting in Chiapas.”
It is also clear that the international popularity of Marcos and his Zapatistas was propelled by extraordinary media savvy. In the chapter devoted to the Zapatista leader, the book “ Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America’, the historian Enrique Krauze writes:
“The masks, of course, was an extraordinary invention, a powerful symbol with all the benefits of a wonderful brand: different, simple, cheap, useful, reproducible itself or on posters or t-shirts”.
However, Marcos said that this was improvised. The real symbol was intended to be a red bandana.
The allure of “zapaturismo” is undeniable. This was clear upon meeting Kevin Maloney and Kelly Mery, two Americans, at one of the typically Zapatista-showcasing sites in San Cristobal – a restaurant in the town’s center.
Kevin says he came because the area is very beautiful, but added that the issue of the Zapatistas is of interest to the United States’ ‘democratic collective’, including, he clarifies, the Democratic Party.
Mery confirms that in the area of San Francisco where she lives, the Zapatistas are very popular – almost on par with Che Guevara.
People like Maria Elena, responsible for library headquarters of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in San Cristobal , who says that the flow of visitors seeking information about the Zapatista movement has been more or less constant over the 20 years that have elapsed since the uprising.
“They are mostly young foreigners. Some have even been established in Chiapas. There are people who have stayed forever – are inserted in an activity they enjoy. They come from Spain or Europe. I think they find a meaning, a meaning in their lives.”
‘Beto ‘, who runs a hostel for cyclists, also believes that the influx of visitors has not diminished.
“There are many people interested in the subject. I do not know whether to call it ‘tourism’. Folks come to participate and learn more about other things. They are not only here to visit the communities and take pictures. They have a real interest.”
“Some are researchers, other kids studying for their Masters or PhD in social science. The people I’ve met here are informed- not your typical tourist,” Beto says.
On the streets, some of them can be distinguished at a glance: dreadlocks, scarves and colorful “colorines” pants. It’s a fascinating combination – people arriving from abroad interested in the problems of indigenous communities in southern Mexico. Traveling the world with a strong anti-globalization sensibility.

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