Zapatista merchandise

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CROPPEDBANNER_hamilton_zapatista_merchandise_1245Caitlin Hamilton
hamilton_zapatistakeychains_1270_smZapatista keychains

The artisan market in the plaza of Santo Domingo and the shops along Real de Guadalupe are the two touristic centers for souvenir shopping in San Cristobal de las Casas. In the stalls and stores one finds amber jewelry, hand-woven shawls, bobble-headed turtles, woolen sweaters and colorful friendship bracelets. Many of these gifts and nick-knacks are similar to those that stock souvenir shops throughout Mexico and Central America, but certain items are distinct to Chiapas; namely the Zapatista-themed merchandise. Zapatista souvenirs come in a variety of forms and are found in approximately sixty percent of stores in San Cristobal de las Casas (observed estimate). One can buy an entire replica Zapatista outfit, complete with ski mask and boots, or opt for the more understated Subcomandante Marcos graphic t-shirt. More common, though, are postcards and felted Zapatista dolls, hung as key chains and earrings, or sold free standing as playthings.

Though not all proceeds from Zapatista souvenirs are for the benefit of Zapatista communities, the Zapatistas take an active roll in the selling of their merchandise by running two co-operatives and a store on the main tourist road in San Cristobal de las Casas in addition to the many shops operated by Zapatista women in Oventik.

Zapatista Dolls and Resistance

Zapatista t-shirtsZapatista t-shirts

Vendors in the artisan market indicated that the majority of the Zapatista dolls are made, not in fact by the Zapatistas themselves, but rather by indigenous women in the near-by town of San Juan Chamula. The Zapatista dolls evolved from the original “Chamulita” dolls first made by these women during the influx of tourists to Chiapas in the 1970s. “The indigenous dolls, identical to their maker in dress and expression, served as a surrogate for the possession-desire inherited by Westerners from their imperialist ancestors” (Scott, 2005).

 Viewed in this light, the accumulation of souvenirs is akin to Sontag’s position on photography--“to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and therefore, like power” (p. 4). If, as she says, “to collect photographs is to collect the world,” then to collect Chamulitas, and similar souvenirs, is to collect peoples.

But the important thing to note is that the Zapatista dolls, though identical to the Chamulitas in virtually every other way, have the crucial addition of the mask. Continuing with the metaphor that purchasing souvenirs is like taking photographs in its desire for appropriation, then the addition of the mask serves the same purpose as the prohibitions on photography enforced by the Zapatistas and Chamulans alike.

“The mask protects the identity of the Chamula person from the possession desire of Western tourists,” argues Scott. “‘It is possible for you to own this doll’”, the mask articulates, ‘but you cannot own a Chamulita’. The mask hides and protects native culture. By covering the face, and therefore identity, with a ski mask the Chamula doll makers are liberating themselves from roles (as playthings) imposed upon them by global society” (Scott, 2005).

Souvenirs as a Performance of Resistance

novak_zapaturismo_001_smZapatista postcards

The purchasing of Zapatista souvenirs could also be interpreted as an act of resistance on the part of the tourist, especially “leftist tourists” who buy them as symbols which enhance and give credit to their performance as anti-globalization sympathizers in their home countries. However, this is certainly not the case for a number of tourists who purchase Zapatista merchandise. One couple from Australia, interviewed while trying on black combat boots in the Zapatista cooperative in Tierra Adentro, indicated that they weren’t at all interested in the Zapatista movement. On the contrary, they were interested in buying cheap boots.