In Chiapas, Local Activists Bring Education, Hope





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How might a middle-class American student visiting Mexico, one who cannot even speak fluent Spanish, provide protection to the local indigenous people of Chiapas?

By simply carrying foreign passports that discourage the military from harassing them, according to Sylvia Romo, a Berkeley resident.

Romo and other UC Berkeley alumni went on a long caravan, composed mostly of American students and Mexican locals, for a two week immersion in the politically charged southern Mexican state several summers ago.

The trip, led by the San Diego-based Schools for Chiapas, inspired Romo and others in Berkeley to form their own group, Students for Chiapas.

The group, which started with a core of only six UC Berkeley students, now gives talks in schools, conferences and at Bay Area events related to Chiapas. It also provides internship opportunities to students, fulfilling a requirement for the peace and conflict studies major.

Because Schools for Chiapas needs money to build schools for the children of indigenous people there, it relies, in part, on the student's fundraising events, such as yesterday's benefit concert at Berkeley's La Peņa Cultural Center.

But the lack of funds is not the project's only problem.

"We lived in a Zapatista community, in a conflict zone with high military pressure and road checks all over," says Romo, of her experience in Chiapas.

The Zapatistas she speaks of are a revolutionary group fighting for democracy in Mexico and the rights of the indigenous population there. They tore into international headlines on New Year's Day, 1994, by staging an armed revolt against the state.

The army, which does not advocate overthrowing the government, takes their name from Emiliano Zapata, who led peasants to victory in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, after a long struggle for land rights.

"I am often asked why I am still involved in Students for Chiapas," says Willow Thorsen, a UC Berkeley alumna. "Supposedly it's not my issue because there's enough problems in the East Bay and definitely in California. (But) it is important to remember is that it is our issue."

It is our issue, she says, because American tax dollars fund the School of the Americas, which trains Mexican paramilitaries that harass the indigenous people.

"I am contributing to the system that oppresses (the people), so involving myself in Students for Chiapas is my way of balancing that out," she says. "It's my way of walking my talk while being educated at Cal. I could write a billion papers on Chiapas that never actually affected anyone, but in this project I am putting my body and actions behind my words."

By building a school, the students are not only improving the education of people who are not provided with schools, but also empowering them to fight for their rights, Thorsen says.

She has participated in four caravans, mostly to the Zapatista-controlled community of Oventic, and wants to go back.

Peter Brown, a San Diego educator and head of School for Chiapas, however, was permanently expelled from Mexico by the federal government last year on charges that he illegally participated in political activity while on a tourist visa.

"The reality is the government doesn't want the foreigners protecting the Zapatistas and the indigenous population by nature of their presence," Romo says.

Thorsen says that the students, who live, work, eat and even play basketball with the Zapatistas, are often confronted by the government about what is political activity and what is simply a cultural exchange.

The Mexican government does not explicitly define political activity, she says, because they use it as a threat to hold over tourists they suspect of having helped the rebel group.

The school was originally proposed by the Zapatistas themselves, and represents their fight to reclaim their heritage and power, the students say. It teaches indigenous history, math and reading as well as Spanish and local indigenous languages.

Though the Zapatistas are not currently engaged in open warfare, their struggle to reclaim land rights - taken away by the North American Free Trade Agreement - continues, according to the students.

"In that way it's very much like the ethnic studies movement going on at places like Cal," says Eric Roman, a Berkeley activist. "It involves traditionally marginalized people reclaiming their own history. (They are) creating a school based on a vision of a better world. They're setting an example for all of us."

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