Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.
Today marks 20 years since a previously unknown army emerged from the rain forests of the indigenous highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and declared war on the government. It was a landmark day. Even in early 1994, as a 13-year-old middle-school kid living in Southern California, I knew something huge was happening in my parents’ homeland. And I started to pay attention.
That same day, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. NAFTA was going to launch the hemisphere into the age of the globalized economy, inducting Mexico into the club of developed nations. There was what seemed to be an infallible hope of more and better and cheaper goods would pour in from the United States. We were all supposed to be excited about it.
But the armed group that seized parts of Chiapas that New Year’s Day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), had a much different point of view.
They declared war—specifically on an army dozens of times larger than theirs. The indigenous and poor of Mexico had apparently had enough. Under the autocratic regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or “dinosaurs” as they were more colloquially known, exploitation, inequality, and neglect were the norm. Nothing was changing, and there was no potential for change on the horizon. Peaceful means of protest were no longer an option for the army that called themselves Zapatistas, in honor of the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata who took up arms nearly a century before.
The new Zapatistas rightly suspected that NAFTA would do little to better their conditions, or could even worsen them. The guerrillas offered a wake-up call for Mexico, but also, I think, for all of Latin America and for Latino diasporas in the United States.
It was the first armed uprising in Mexico since the country’s “Dirty War” against leftist guerillas in the 60s and 70s (a period that’s been erased from Mexico’s official history, and thus is barely mentioned in the national narrative). It was also considered the first armed uprising in history aided and spread by modern technology and organized through the internet (the EZLN’s first declarations, which were distributed via fax). The guerrillas included men and women, mostly ethnic Maya Indians who spoke Mayan languages. They relied on a charismatic Spanish-speakingmestizo spokesman known as Subcomandante Marcos to send their message around the globe. In short time, Marcos’s pipe, machine gun, and ski mask quickly became iconic.
The armed EZLN rebellion lasted 12 days, costing roughly 100 lives, although that figure remains in dispute. A ceasefire was called, and peace accords began. Those went basically nowhere. A stalemate has hung over the two sides ever since, while political violence and disappearances in Chiapas continue to this day.
On January 1, 1994, no one knew how the Zapatista uprising would play out. But we all knew that Mexico—and a few generations of Mexicans—would never be the same again.
Marco Antonio Cruz, one of Mexico’s most respected photojournalists, managed a photo agency called Imagen Latina at this pivotal time. On the morning after word emerged that the EZLN revolt had begun in the mountains, Marco Antonio and a small group of journalists in Mexico City gathered at the airport and wrangled an airline to fly them to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, after all routes there had been halted. He covered the earliest and bloodiest days of the EZLN conflict.
Today Marco Antonio is photography editor of Mexico’s storied investigative weekly, Proceso. The magazine has published some of the most memorable shots from the Zapatista movement.Proceso’s Mexico City headquarters is a modest, white-stucco house on a residential street in Colonia Del Valle. I recently visited Marco Antonio there to recall the EZLN revolt through the lens of the photojournalists who were there to document it.
“For many of photographers Chiapas is a state where the injustice, the neglect, has been historic,” Marco Antonio told me. “Much of what occurred after the triumph of the Mexican Revolution [1910-1920] never reached Chiapas. It’s been centuries and centuries of slavery and oppression.
“[Photographer] Antonio Turok had already been living there for 15 or 20 years, and my first trips were in the 80s when the Guatemalan refugees arrived. I also did a project about blindness in Mexico, so I went to communities in Chiapas where people were affected by blindness. I knew the situation. It is a place where people die from curable diseases. Something like this had to happen, and so, when it did, it really wasn’t all that surprising.”
In his dim office, the photographer went on to remember the fear that gripped him the first time he saw uniformed Zapatista casualties following their skirmishes with the Mexican Army, and then how he shared in the thrill that many of us felt years later upon seeing the Zapatistas’ caravan arriving before crowds of supportive civilians in the symbolic core of the nation—the Zocalo central square in Mexico City.
Here are 20 photographs that Cruz shared with VICE that tell us, paired with his commentary, the story of 20 years of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional.
“This is by Antonio Turok, he used to contribute to Imagen Latina, and lived in San Cristobal de las Casas. In the middle of the night on January 1, he came upon the arrival of the Zapatistas and the take-over of the municipal hall in San Cristobal de las Casas. They took the main city halls in the highlands and in the jungle, and the most important one was San Cristobal. And this photo, well, is an icon. It is part of the history of this country, the entrance of the Zapatistas.”