Zapatista Tchotchkes

Miriam Basilio, Art History and Museum Studies, NYU
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I recently visited San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chipas, Mexico to take part in an academic workshop, and, although I had read and heard about the traffic in Zapatista souvenirs, knick-knacks, or tchotchkes there, was overwhelmed by their variety and number. The complex political motives that led to the Zapatista movement are not my subject here rather I am interested in the ways in which popular representations of this movement for self-determination circulate as objects for tourist consumption. What is our role as consumers? What does it mean to buy these objects? Just prior to my visit, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column published a piece promoting San Cristobal de las Casas as an ideal travel destination. Of course, this feeds this place into a cycle whereby those of us with relative wealth travel seeking this particular bargain, which then makes the place less inexpensive, more crowded, and less seemingly remote, and the new cheap and undiscovered place is…elsewhere.
One particular feature of this city, which the reporter underscored, is its proximity to a network of autonomous communities governed by the Zapatista movement. (For the account of a visit to one such community see: http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/in-the-village-of-the-zapatistas/) That even a few years ago, the US State Department warned US citizens against going there lends the region a seductive hint of danger for some travelers. Other Americans, sympathetic to the Zapatista cause, travel there to see for themselves the revolutionary changes being made on behalf of the Mexican people. But most of us are not experts on the political situation there, and our role is more ambiguous. Are we seeking the thrill of the supposedly off the beaten track? Romanticizing revolution? Empathetically yet somewhat voyeuristically witnessing others’ struggles, only to safely return to our lives of privilege? How do we negotiate these at times intersecting positions?
As Americans in particular, and at a time when we are being urged to consume as our patriotic duty, we shop. Is it out of a desire to support the revolution in Chiapas, to help locals in one of the poorest areas in Mexico to make a living, regardless of where the proceeds end up, or, buying souvenirs motivated by the basic tourist drive to return home and say “Look, I was there.” Despite the New York Times reporter’s breathless account of his trip to view a Zapatista community (easily accessible and cheap public transport) and his detailed description of the group’s self-presentation and scripted tour of their community, I was shocked by the “Zapatista tourism” infrastructure that existed in San Cristobal. Large bus tours were advertised, and private taxis may be hired as well.
Seemingly hard to access, yet openly advertised, the prospect of visiting such communities was thus paradoxically tantalizingly possible, and mysteriously remote. Goods produced to publicly assert sympathy for the Zapatistas, however, were openly sold everywhere. Ubiquitous at the local market beside Santo Domingo church were T-shirts in myriad designs: black star logos, the EZLN initials, women with bandanas tied across their faces, hair worn in braids, with slogans calling for women’s dignity, others featured male freedom fighters, faces covered in ski masks. Male and female dolls made of yarn wore indigenous garb from the region, with the ski masks, and carried tiny cardboard rifles. Handmade revolutionary Barbies and Kens, they also are sold as Lilliputian key chains. Cotton handkerchiefs had slogans praising Subcomandante Marcos and his portrait all hand embroidered. Small change purses and pouches were similarly embellished. I purchased a tote bag large enough to carry my MacBook, featuring a female freedom fighter and the slogan: Las mujeres con la dignidad rebelde (Women with rebel dignity) for myself.
There were a few stores in town that advertised themselves as cooperatives that sold the goods for the benefit of Zapatista communities, so I tried to buy most of my gifts there. However, I also felt torn and bought a few things from local women at the market. The coop stores had the greatest variety of products, posters, postcards with photos of Zapatista communities, often featuring the beautiful murals painted on many of their walls and buildings, and locally produced textiles or coffee. I regret not asking the people selling these things at both places where they were made, did they also keep them in their homes, who else was buying them, what did they think about them, when did they start to sell these objects, and more. But someone should.