The Perils and Possibilities of Revolutionary Tourism: A Visit With the Zapatistas

Mexico Culture
by Sarah Menkedick Jun 23, 2010
Is revolutionary tourism just exploitation disguised as empathy?

THIS IS AN ERA in which tourism is the most postmodern of activities, and no experience is safe from the vacuum of commodification. There are Mexican tourists simulating the experience of crossing the border illegally in Hidalgo, where indigenous Otomi people run a theme park in which participants pretend to be migrants headed to El Norte. The tourists pay $125 to race along steep ravines and riverbanks, crashing through mud, brush, and dangerous terrain with the “border patrol” (the Otomis screaming in broken English) going after them, tapes of gunshot fire playing in the background, and the occasional terrifying scream coming from the bushes, signifying rape.

Alexander Zaitchik, a reporter for Reason magazine, ran the course in 2009 with a bunch of young, wealthy Mexicans who, as he pointed out, go to the U.S on tourist visas and sport Diesel jeans and hipster haircuts. Afterwards, they sat around the campfire drinking beer and swapping stories.

There are slum tours in Mumbai and township tours in South Africa, ghetto tours in Chicago, and revolutionary tours in Venezuela and Chiapas.

Some of them indulge in blatant and perverse exploitation and romanticizing of poverty; others attempt to make tourism, an inherently inauthentic and artificial endeavor, into an educational, empathy-building experience. But they all lay uncomfortably bare economic, social and cultural divides and pit the (relatively) moneyed traveler against the rooted, frequently impoverished, often discriminated-against locals.

They all contain some degree of voyeurism, guilt, twisted and complex longing (to join the revolution, to express solidarity with the slum-dwellers of Soweto, to “help” in some way) married to commodification (buy a t-shirt and a Pepsi in the Zapatista tienda, buy the experience of crossing the border).

They all, to put it simply, ask travelers to navigate a swampy and ethically iffy zone between naivete and cynicism. I tend to veer towards the latter. After seeing the revolutionary tourism linked to Oaxaca’s 2006 social movement which, like all social movements, was far more complex and intricate a phenomenon than the graffiti depicted it to be, I grew even more cynical.

In the midst of the Oaxaca conflict, the editor of Narco News – which covered the unfolding movement from a leftist perspective – came to the conclusion that “revolutionary tourism” was doing more harm than good, and regretted that the organizations and people pushing Oaxaca’s movement forward hadn’t strictly regulated the activities of foreigners as the Zapatistas had.

That example of the Zapatistas seems interesting after a visit to Chiapas, where tourism appears to be thriving in the Zapotec communities in the canyons and valleys outside of San Cristóbal.

So here’s the riff – in spite of everything I’ve set up above, all the problematic, superficial interactions and replications of wildly uneven power structures inherent in revolutionary tourism, I came out of a visit with the Zapatistas changed in a way that I’d like to believe isn’t superficial, that I’d like to believe hints at meaningful engagement, at some awareness of the other that goes beyond guilt alleviation or shining idealism or perverse voyeurism to compassion and belief in change.

It is so easy to be cynical about taking some sort of perspective-altering, revelatory tour through Zapatista communities, and to interpret the whole thing as the ultimate incorporation of real efforts to subvert the neoliberal system into the same commercial tokens, ideologies and values the system survives on.

It is so easy to sit in the comedor in Oventic and listen to the tour group shuffling around you compare donut stories and talk about Israel and wine and sandwiches in Nicaragua and think that this is just another authentic experience consumed and jotted down in the moleskin to be later strutted out at a hostel in Vietnam or Sydney.

But you’re there, too, for a reason that you hope goes beyond a check in the moleskin of experience, so unless your cynicism is unbelievably cocky and ignorant, you have to rein it in a bit in order to let yourself off the hook. You have to suspend your disbelief; there must be something else to it. This is what I thought going in.

Initially, as we waited by the roadside in the stillness under a white-gray sky, and the women with bandannas observed us from a makeshift observation post while dozens of other unmasked women and children loitered and knitted before a community store, I was uncomfortable. I wanted to see, yes, and to understand more about the Zapatistas, but in that act of seeing my outsiderness and the problem of my purpose were so obvious it was painful.

I am an estadouniense writer who’s come to poke around your community, take photos of your walls, swoon over your movement. I will probably think higher of myself after having done so, and higher of you. Then I’ll leave and I’ll go back to my life, and you’ll keep on there, hoping the army doesn’t come in and raze it all. I’ll have touristed your revolution.

But we were let in, and we ate simple quesadillas with slices of avocado and tomato before we were shown around Oventic. Another tour group browsed around the comedor and store, bought some things, and left. I went to the bathroom, with a kind, nervous, rail-thin man in his late thirties as my escort.

“Our facilities are rustic,” he warned gently.

“It’s no problem,” I said.

“There’s no toilet paper,” he cautioned.

“It’s fine,” I said.

They were rustic, but nothing you wouldn’t find elsewhere in rural Mexico. As I picked my way back to the man, black ducks waddled around fat green plants and a small stream. Not knowing what to say I asked,

“What do you do with the ducks?” I wanted to hit myself over the head as soon as I said it, but there it was – we were standing in the backyard of a Zapatista building, with trails curving off here and there and a rustic bathroom and big black bulbous ducks scattered about, and I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“We eat the eggs,” he said.

I was going to say, “ah, like in China!” but suddenly thought that’d be weird and instead nodded wisely as if eating duck eggs was a very sage idea. I’d never met anyone in Mexico who ate duck eggs, and the thought that this was my first factoid from the Zapatistas seemed comical and pathetic. We wobbled along the small stone path back towards the comedor.

“Stop!” the main said, “wait – you can wash your hands here. There’s soap, too.” I washed my hands and he leaned in with oval, inquiring eyes and asked,

“What do you do?” There was an insistence that went beyond curiosity to worry.

“I’m a writer,” I said, afraid that wouldn’t sound right but wanting to be honest. He asked the inevitable,

“De que escribes?” What do you write about? I rambled off a list of subjects: travel, critical travel essays, politics (leftist), Mexico, Latin America. He nodded.

“And your friends?” he asked. I identified Susy and Mauricio as students and Jorge as a photographer, and rushed to specify what Jorge photographed, citing a recent project on basketball in the Sierra Norte. The man seemed satisfied, nodding a few times, and we continued back towards the restaurant, parting ways as he veered off into the kitchen.

The visit continued on that tone of awkward mutual recognition, interest, and caution, but as we began walking down the steep hill and into the community a feeling of intense emotion came over me. The need to weep. It is rare in such a travel situation to get a sense of honesty, of – and I can’t imagine invoking this word without a mocking overtone, but I’m about to do it here – authenticity.

Here, my presence was tolerated, accepted, perhaps even condoned, but it didn’t detract from a wider truth that was being achieved in the buildings and meetings and community there. It didn’t seem to cheapen the project at hand, or to shape it. It made me very humble; the best indicator of the authentic.

I could understand for the first time in that visit what made the Zapatistas so compelling, so emotionally and intellectually powerful for their supporters across national, economic, cultural and social borders. It was a feeling more than anything else, the feeling of an alternative project – not frenzied, not reactionary, not hateful, not tentative and skeptical, but directed and organic and meaningful – in action. Women planted flowers beneath murals that said “otro mundo es posible.”

Another me would’ve cringed. I cringe writing this. But there, it wasn’t maudlin, and I didn’t see it as a sign of peace and love and la revolucíon as much as as an example of everyday life in a community that had regained its dignity from a corrupt government. It humbled me tremendously. At its best, that’s what travel should do.

A kid played basketball on a court with EZLN hoops, and fat, shiny black cows roamed a sloping lawn. Dogs followed teenagers collecting wood. Our guide, a man in his sixties in a black ski mask, asked lots of questions about Jorge and I’s upcoming wedding. Would we spend lots of money? Would we dance with a turkey? What would we eat? Would we drink? Lots?

He was congratulatory and told us he’d married when he was fifteen, and was still married to the same woman. He’d joined the Zapatistas five years ago, and lived between Oventic and San Cristóbal. He was like an old man you’d meet at the market, who’d clasp your hand and give you his blessings for your wedding, ask you how many babies you were going to have, and laugh gently at your answers.

He knew he was the one guiding us, hosting us, giving us permission to be here, and we knew it, always asking before roaming off into an unknown corner, but beneath the firmness of his small hardened body and his ski mask were warmth and curiosity. I don’t know why that was surprising to me – I had thought the people would be harder, more closed off and resentful, and the women were certainly quiet and withdrawn but not in a shut-down way.

The place, to put it very simply, didn’t feel bought, didn’t feel incorporated into the swirling worries about authentic and inauthentic, commodification and resistance.

Mostly, what I felt was emotion, which didn’t belong to one category of sadness or excitement or belief or trust but was more the simple power of witnessing. I experienced a similar thing at a goat slaughter in the Mixteca, the only other time and place in years of traveling in which I’d use the word authentic.

We took lots of pictures, and bought t-shirts and cigars, and then we were back out by the road again in the pale fogginess of the late afternoon. Mauricio and Susy took two available seats in a passing taxi and Jorge and I settled in to wait for the next one.

A few minutes later, as we were taking pictures of the sign declaring this the heart of Zapatista territory, a man came out of the community gates and offered the indigenous women waiting on the side of the road next to us a ride.

“Are you going to San Cristóbal?” we asked meekly.

“Yes, subense,” he said warmly.

We got in the back of the van after the indigenous women, who were en route to San Andrés, and greeted them and the other passengers – presumably the man’s wife and his two children – and a young male driver.

The first half of the drive was silent, taking hairpin curves and slow descents and steep rises through valleys that feel like topo maps come alive, series of squiggling lines and treacherous precipices and ridges in greens and browns. Chiapas is overwhelmingly rural – we passed tiny scatterings of wooden shacks and the occasional ramshackle store, but there were no organized villages with their churches and restaurants as in Oaxaca. We passed palm green and pale green and pine green, patches of corn, cows and sheep, and the shadows of women in black skirts and men working the fields.

At some point, I asked the man who’d allowed us on board a question.

“How long has this community been in existence?”

I wanted to get a sense of whether it had been formed after 1994 or right then and there in the thick of things. He said,

“Pues, mil-novecientos-novente-cuatro,” as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and once again I proved my scrabbling ignorance before the Zapatistas. But it got better from there. We started talking about governance, about education, about politics. The educational system is particularly fascinating. The kids study three subjects: social sciences (predominantly history), math, and biology/zoology. Once they graduate from secondary school, they become the teachers.

The schools don’t have government certification – “what would be the point?” asked the man laughingly, “if you’re trying to break away from the government, from their miseducation, why would you want them to certify and regulate what you do?” This does pose a problem, though, for Zapatista children who want to go on and study at university. The Universidad de la Tierra is the only university that currently accepts their qualifications.

The conversation wound like the road, around to Oaxaca’s 2006 political movement and to the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD, the increasingly interchangeable parties managing the corruption of Mexico. The drive back to San Cristóbal seemed to take minutes, and in the midst of conversation we barely noticed the van was driving right past the house we were staying at,

“Aqui!” blurted Jorge, just at the opportune moment, and we opened the door, shook hands, gave effusive thanks, and said our goodbyes.

The experience lingered the rest of the day, the way a powerful airport goodbye sticks with you like an aching pain for the duration of the journey. We walked the streets of San Cristóbal dazed and temporarily possessed by our experience in Oventic.

And then the speed and motion of our lives caught up with us again and we were eating pizza for dinner and planning the next day’s journey and catching up on emails, and the Zapatistas faded into the background of travel experiences and stories that lay in waiting only to surface from time to time like small boats on a choppy sea.

A few nights after that, on one of our last nights in the city, we finally caved and went to the Revolution bar. It was like the art scene of Oaxaca, but the pretentiousness had a strong hippie vibe and all the righteousness of deciding to switch historical sides and align oneself with the oppressed (while, of course, constructing one’s casa just outside the city and sipping beers and listening to folk rock by pretty young hippies).

There was a similar privileged-and-comfortably-leftie-Bohemian vibe, similar protagonists, more young mothers with curly-haired babies in indigenous baby slings.

Indigenous kids came and tried to sell their clay animals to the patrons, who smiled much more indulgently than most and teased them but ultimately declined their offers. The kids, impervious, continued on to the next round of tourists. Meanwhile on the pedestrian street clusters of tourists and families and couples streamed by – the nightlife in San Cristóbal is consistently vivid, even on Sundays. They sometimes cast curious glances at la Revolucíon, and then kept walking.

It was the quintessential Chiapaneco day – an excursion to Oventic, a night at la Revolucíon. I could see how this would get addictive – bagels in the morning, wine at night, picturesque forested hills and churches, like-minded Europeans and Americans baking bread and sharing the same ideals, coming from similar backgrounds (and benefiting tremendously from them to hang around Chiapas for a time), learning about the indigenous, doing some volunteer work, getting all the perks of a high quality of life in Mexico plus free guilt alleviation plus the righteous belief in your place on the right side of the battle.

And at the same time, I could see how it could be kind of awful. In a great piece written for Casa Chapulin, Leila (no last name is cited) takes San Cristóbal’s revolutionary tourists and foreign activists to task for outsourcing guilt and blame to “neoliberalism” or “corporations” while at the same time ignoring their own complicated roles as relatively affluent outsiders in Chiapas. She writes,

“Whether I’m spending the afternoon with Americans or Europeans talking about pleasantries and minutia, or having an equally evasive conversation with urban Mexicans, something essential is being avoided. None of us are talking about what’s all around us. None of us are acknowledging our own ease of life and its morally problematic positioning. We’re not talking in personal terms about the reality of poverty that flanks us on all sides; sometimes I’m not even sure we’re letting it trouble us. We recognize it systemically, intellectually, and beyond this we excuse ourselves.”

Even more powerfully, she asserts that the revolutionary tourist, who is politically-minded and who sticks around San Cristóbal for three months to several years, is no less a “tokenizer of the indigenous” than the more iconic tourist gleefully purchasing ethnic stereotypes as trophies.

Finally, she points out that the mere ability of revolutionary tourists to be present and to live in San Cristóbal is indicative of the inequalities of power and wealth that have characterized and continue to characterize Chiapas specifically and Mexico overall. Simply ignoring the fact that one’s own presence in a Zapatista community, buying t-shirts, is the result of a specific historical process and is also symbolic of that process, and instead commending oneself for “solidarity” and exorcising all blame and guilt to “the corporate-capitalist” system, is leaving a huge, self-serving, and ignorant gap in the process of attempting to contribute to indigenous movements.

What I love most about Leila’s piece, though, is that she doesn’t call for some stripped down lifestyle of solidarity via suffering, nor does she argue that revolutionary tourists are vapid and useless and should simply leave. Rather, she insists that self-awareness and criticism are essential to doing more than simply lauding ourselves and condemning the big bad guys – the government, the system, the corporation.

I would add that humility, too, goes a long way. What I saw in Chiapas was a brash lack of humility and in fact, it’s opposite – an ironic and vulgar egoism about helping the poor indigenous get their act together, a reincarnation of noble-savage-ish fawning plus European boutique tourism. There don’t seem to be many people saying wait, how is it that I, coming from France or Mexico City or New York, can expect to be down with the indigenous and part of the great revolution, on the honorable side of history and a soldier in some glorious battle for dignity and truth, when actually, history and politics and my background and situation have set me up to be in a position in which I can live an exceedingly comfortable lifestyle amidst poverty, I can study what I want and live where I please (and, I might add, do so guilt-free because I’m sympathetic with the poor?) There seems to be little discussion at all, in fact, of the great irony that San Cristóbal has become a snazzy little boutique destination for Tuxtla’s wealthy and curious ethno-tourists, the tense center of a (now repressed) revolution, and a playground for politically-minded foreigners to set up shop and watch Ingrid Bergman movies and drink Argentine wine and express their sympathy for one another’s sympathies, while all the while the military extends its tentacles further into the forests and jungles, the poor people continue to sleep and beg in the streets, and the Zapatistas, after fifteen years, struggle to hold onto what they’ve got left.

And yet, I went to a Zapatista community and would dare to call it a transformative experience. Educational, illuminating, and transformative. But I have, frankly, no idea as to what my role would be if I were to ever get involved with the Zapatistas, and I think it would have to be one that takes into account where I come from and what my privileges have been.

I’m sure many of the revolutionary tourists living and working in San Cristóbal have had far more enduring and equally profound encounters with the Zapatistas and local communities in Chiapas, and I think those encounters mean something. I think they’re important, critical even, and they are the best of what tourism can (not necessarily does, but can) offer.

But what we make of them depends on how humble we stay before them, and how critical we are both of our own perspectives and positioning and of the movements we want so badly to believe in. The easy embrace of revolution via some vibey conversations at Café La Revolucion over a few chelas and some peanuts, cemented by a few friendships with indigenous kids, seems to me to be fairly pointless. Maybe not necessarily harmful, but certainly not charged with the real potential to change anything.

Ultimately, perhaps, if this revolutionary tourism – be it the kind that lasts an afternoon, like that which I took part in, or the kind that lingers and draws itself out over years in San Cristóbal – is going to actually affect positive change, and is going to create some sort of understanding and interaction that goes beyond the purchase of symbolic trinkets, then it’s up to each individual tourist to take his/her background, experience, and place into account, and to examine what he/she can do starting from that.

Me, I can read and read and read about the Zapatistas, something I’ve never felt the urge to do before because, dumbly, I coasted along on snippets I’d read and heard here and there and thought I’d gotten it. I can write. I can research more about this whole concept of revolutionary tourism and its implications. And I can believe, honestly and with feeling, in the authenticity of what I saw in Oventic, Chiapas.

If it’s authenticity we’re after, travelers, and solidarity, then that authenticity will have to express the authentic truth that our privilege is all tied up in the poverty we want to end and sympathize with, and our solidarity is plagued by the great fortune we’ve had in being able to choose, in comfort and relative luxury, to feel it.

We first need critical awareness of that, and humility. And from there we can take steps – respectfully, honestly, purposefully – towards solidarity.

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