In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Chiapas History
  • Origins of the Rebellion
  • Religious Influences and Conflicts
  • Agrarian History
  • Agrarian Conflicts After 1994
  • Subcomandante Marcos
  • Peace Negotiations and Constitutional Reform
  • Human Rights
  • Autonomous Government
  • Women and the Zapatista Rebellion
  • Impacts on National Politics
  • Impacts on International Politics

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Latin American Studies Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas
Neil Harvey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0065


The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas drew widespread attention to the plight of indigenous peoples in Mexico’s second-poorest state. On 1 January 1994 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) (cited under Primary Sources and Translations) took possession of six towns in central and eastern Chiapas, including the former colonial seat of power, San Cristóbal de Las Casas. More than 3,000 indigenous people participated in the uprising, which was timed to coincide with the taking effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Denouncing NAFTA as a “death sentence for indigenous peoples,” the principal spokesperson for the EZLN, Subcomandante Marcos, argued that the privatization of collectively held lands and the implementation of neoliberal economic policy would undermine small producers (campesinos) and make the country more dependent on imported crops and other commodities. The Zapatistas issued a call for all Mexicans to mobilize against then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a principal architect of neoliberal reforms who had claimed victory in the 1988 presidential elections despite widespread evidence of fraud. The government responded with a military offensive, but large-scale protests were effective in ensuring that peace talks would begin in late February 1994. Negotiations did not lead to a peaceful solution. By 1996 only one set of accords had been signed, relating to indigenous rights, but these have not been implemented. As a result, the Zapatistas have attempted to build alternative community structures and promote autonomous projects on the lands that were occupied during the early stages of the rebellion. Scholarship on the Zapatistas is large and covers many different aspects of this movement. While some scholars celebrate the novel qualities of the EZLN (for example, its desire not to seek power and its promotion of decentralized autonomous bases of support), others claim that outside activists have sought to mobilize local grievances to support their own political agendas. Earlier studies of the EZLN tended to highlight the movement’s public statements, speeches, and communiqués. More recent work has been able to provide more-detailed analyses of the local-level impacts of the rebellion, including greater attention to the participation of indigenous women.

General Overviews

Several works examine the general context in which the Zapatista rebellion occurred. Some scholars emphasize the agrarian conflicts and prior history of local organizing. Harvey 1998 traces the emergence of campesino organizations in the 1970s and 1980s that demanded land redistribution and improved economic and social conditions. This activism was a forerunner of the Zapatista rebellion, and Harvey argues that the government’s failure to address unequal land distribution, combined with political repression of grassroots activists, radicalized a new generation of community members in ways that led them to turn to the armed option offered by the EZLN. Womack 1999 similarly highlights the social inequalities within a longer historical perspective. This author adds important material regarding the role of the Catholic diocese in supporting community-based organizations in Chiapas, and a section of thirty-two readings including key texts from the Colonial period up to 1998. Some works, such as Muñoz Ramírez 2008, take the testimonies of Zapatistas themselves as the main source for constructing a history of the rebellion. Higgins 2004 uses international relations theory to see the rebellion as a response to the centralizing tendency of state formation in Mexico, which had rendered indigenous people largely invisible, at least in political terms, until 1994. Gollnick 2008 adds an important dimension by critiquing literary narratives that have also placed indigenous people in a passive role in the social history of Chiapas. Against this trend, most recent scholarship gives greater weight to the agency of indigenous people. De Vos 2002 uses a series of testimonies to detail the aspirations and hopes of those indigenous campesinos who migrated from former plantations to establish new communities in the Lacandón forest of eastern Chiapas since the 1940s. Ross 2002 also provides insight into the process by which the Zapatistas actively engaged with Mexican society and resisted the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in the 1990s. These overviews reflect the core issue of land conflicts in Chiapas, a theme that is also central to the film documentary A Place Called Chiapas (Wild 2005).

  • de Vos, Jan. Una tierra para sembrar sueños: Historia reciente de la Selva Lacandona, 1950–2000. Sección de Obras de Historia. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002.

    Jan de Vos is a leading historian of the Lacandón forest region of Chiapas. This book is the third part of a trilogy of books that cover Lacandón history from colonial times to the present. De Vos divides his analysis into parallel accounts of different individuals who represent to some degree the diverse economic and political interests at stake in this area of Chiapas, one of the main bases for the Zapatista rebellion.

  • Gollnick, Brian. Reinventing the Lacandón: Subaltern Representations in the Rain Forest of Chiapas. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008.

    Gollnick shows how the Lacandón forest has been represented in dominant literary forms in ways that have excluded or minimized indigenous voices. Drawing on theoretical insights from subaltern studies, Gollnick brings these voices, or “oral traces,” to the fore, providing new ways of reading the history of Chiapas.

  • Harvey, Neil. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    Harvey analyzes the formation and actions of three independent peasant movements in Chiapas during the 1970s and 1980s. The struggle for land and the right to organize outside of the ruling party’s main peasant confederation are seen as important factors that led up to the Zapatista rebellion. The author also examines responses from the Mexican government and civil society.

  • Higgins, Nicholas. Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion: Modernist Visions and the Invisible Indian. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

    Using insights from Foucault on modern forms of governmentality, Higgins explains how the process of state formation in Mexico made indigenous people invisible to the national project. He examines the Zapatista rebellion as a demand for visibility and an end to assimilationist and exclusionary forms of political representation.

  • Muñoz Ramírez, Gloria. The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement. Translated by Laura Carlsen with Alejandro Reyes Arias. San Francisco: City Lights, 2008.

    A history of the Zapatista movement and its origins, told from the perspective of members of the EZLN. The book is organized by year and is written in a clear and accessible style, with photographs and a preface by Subcomandante Marcos.

  • Ross, John. The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles, 1994–2000. Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2002.

    Ross explains how the chronicle, in Mexico’s journalistic tradition, is more than a simple chronology of events. The chronicle is evocative in its detail and allows the reader to imagine the events described rather than simply memorize them. Ross divides his chronicle into time and seasons, much like agricultural cycles, to present the struggles of the Zapatistas from 1994 to 2000.

  • Wild, Nettie, dir. A Place Called Chiapas: Inside the World’s First Post-Modern Revolution. DVD. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2005.

    Filmed during the years immediately following the 1994 uprising, this documentary captures the testimonies of participants in the movement as well as those affected, including private landowners and ranchers.

  • Womack, John. Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader. New York: New Press, 1999.

    Historical analysis of the rebellion, with particular attention to the role of the Catholic diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Bishop Samuel Ruiz in promoting social justice through peaceful means. The book includes a very useful collection of primary source materials from the Colonial period to the 1990s. Translations by John Womack Jr.

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