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Critical Introduction on Zapaturismo

su10_zapaturismo_introKate Trebuss

In January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or “EZLN”) declared war against the state of Mexico to contest an exploitative program of neo-liberal policies that stripped poor and indigenous Mexicans of rights, land, and social agency.  By August 1996, national newspapers in Mexico and the United States were declaring a visit to Zapatista rebel territory in Chiapas--Mexico’s poorest state and the region that is home to the majority of the country’s indigenous population—to be one the most fashionable tourist experiences on offer in Mexico. 

This peculiar breed of tourism quickly became known as “Zapaturismo,” a label which clearly differentiates Zapatista-oriented visitors from tourists participating in more traditional forms of ethnic, heritage, or ecocultural tourism.

Two years into the Zapatista rebellion, The New York Times published an article by Julia Preston promising adventurous travelers “mud, sweat and radical chic” in Chiapas.  The article identifies Chiapas as a “fashionable” stop on the “international leftist travel circuit.” “This is the place to be,” declares Preston—“although you would never know from looking at it.” Preston’s description of the region is hardly complimentary (she cites fleas, mosquitoes, snakes, and mud as Chiapas’s main environmental attractions and does not mention a single regional cultural site).  According to Preston, then, encounters with Zapatistas are not something to add to the itinerary while one happens to be in Chiapas—they are the reason one visits Chiapas in the first place.

More than a decade after the publication of Preston’s article, Matt Gross (another writer for The New York Times), paid a visit to Oventic—one of the five Zapatista “caracoles” that today function as autonomous sites of Zapatista governance within territories controlled by the EZLN. Gross claims in his article that his visit to the caracol was motivated by his desire to get a “firsthand view of a modern Zapatista community.” Yet Gross was clearly disappointed by the subdued village he found on the other side of the gate which separates Oventic from the government road passing alongside it.  After briefly describing what he saw and heard at Oventic, Gross meditates on what may have been rendered invisible by the caracol’s closed doors, guarded inhabitants and the dense fog that sat heavily over the village throughout his visit—thus revealing a distinctly nostalgic longing for access to what he imagines was a more romantic and dynamic Zapatista community of yore.

It is remarkable how quickly the desire to sample the flavor of the Zapatista movement created a market for a breed of tourism that was distinct from more traditional environmental, cultural or site-based forms of tourism—and how quickly these markets have since collapsed back into one another. Almost from the first days of the Zapatista rebellion, travelers from Europe, Canada, and the United States have journeyed to Chiapas in search of the romance and reformist enthusiasm embodied by the mysterious masked members of the EZLN.  But to what extent does western tourism undermine or devalue the EZLN’s fight against the Mexican government (the “mal gobierno,” in the language of the Zapatistas) and the tenets of neo-liberalism? Or, as Matt Gross asks in another travel piece on the Chiapas region, “When you can eat at a Zapatista restaurant, buy coffee and political artwork from the Nemi Zapata boutique and pick up an iSubcomandante T-shirt from the iPod Tours storefront, does the movement’s anti-globalization message retain any meaning?”

Conversely, one might ask in what ways tourism has been strategically incorporated into Zapatista tactics of resistance against exploitative national and international policies.  How might those who inhabit the spaces of tourism, and those whose bodies are at risk of becoming passive objects for touristic consumption, exploit elements of the tourist industry to perform acts of resistance or “world making”? Certainly one could view the proliferation of Zapatista dolls in markets all over Chiapas as a vivid accession to the very policies of capitalist consumption the EZLN claims to resist. It is important, however, to question whether or not there might be alternative meanings encoded in the infinitely repeatable and variable masked warrior figures available in nearly any tourist shop in the region. 

To what extent, one might ask, does the visual image of the Zapatista warrior (both male and female, often carrying both weapon and baby) disrupt deeply entrenched colonial relations between visitors from wealthy “first world,” western cultures and the racialized indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants of southern Mexico?  What can the endlessly repeated images produced by the Zapatistas for tourist consumption illuminate about the power and politics of visual representation?  How are the various meanings of these images transfigured as the objects on which they occur travel through space?  And how do these objects and images determine how we interact with Chiapas and with its inhabitants when we arrive here as visitors, outsiders, researchers or tourists?

In this module, we consider some of the intersections between tourism in Chiapas and the Zapatista rebellion.  While we certainly do not argue that tourism offers anything even resembling the kind of utopic liberation sought by the Zapatista movement, we would like to suggest that tourism has also not operated as a unilateral mode of oppression in Chiapas.  Art, in particular, has played a vital role in the Zapatistas’ resistance and reconfiguration of conventional forms of touristic exploitation—whether through the photographs selected as ethnographically representative postcard images; the warrior dolls sold in place of quaint indigenous figurines; or the junta’s performance of relative indifference to the outsider who arrives at Oventic expecting supplication and intimacy.  Thus, tourism in this context, writes Desiree A. Martin, “becomes a space not to access potential national unity, but rather to rewrite the terms of indigenous difference and national inclusion.”

This module is by no means an exhaustive investigation of Zapaturismo and its relation to broader questions of the relation between art and resistance; rather, we hope our work will serve as inspiration for further consideration of these vast topics and enthusiastically invite further contributions to this fascinating and immensely important field of study.

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