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Ya Basta! A Cry that Echoes Beyond Borders: Zapatismo and International Solidarity Networks in the Zapatista Uprising

By: Nicole Gulewitsch

McGill Sociological Review, Volume 2, April 2011, pp. 77-91


During the Zapatista rebellion, a vast network of organizations and activists came together to struggle not only alongside the Zapatistas, but as Zapatistas themselves. The formation of a transnational network as far reaching and powerful as this is as intriguing as it is rare and surely deserves further explanation. This paper will seek to address how and why a transnational solidarity network was formed during the Zapatista uprising. I argue that the transnational solidarity network was formed as a result of the strategic framing of ‘Zapatismo’ through neoliberal injustice and radical democracy frames, political imagination, and a collective Zapatista identity in ways that resonated with activists beyond the borders of Mexico.

What is happening in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast that finds an echo and a mirror in the streets of Europe, the suburbs of Asia, the countryside of America, the townships of Africa, and the houses of Oceania? (Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos as cited in Khasnabish 2008b: 155)

The Zapatista rebellion began as a radical movement in the south-eastern jungles of Mexico, but quickly became one of the most widespread and well known political movements of the twentieth century. Cries of “Ya Basta!” were heard throughout North America and in many other parts of the world; those cries did not go unanswered. A vast network of organizations and activists came together to struggle not only alongside the Zapatistas, but as Zapatistas themselves. The formation of a transnational network as far reaching and powerful as this is as intriguing as it is rare and surely deserves further explanation. This paper addresses why a transnational solidarity network was formed during the Zapatista uprising.

Much of the literature on the Zapatista uprising uses network analysis to explain the development of the transnational solidarity network within the movement (della Porta and Tarrow 2005; Olesen 2004, 2005). However, there is less scholarship that seeks to understand why a transnational network emerged within the Zapatista movement. Thomas Olesen (2005) offers a sophisticated analysis of the development of the transnational Zapatista solidarity network by examining the resonance of Zapatista framing along subjective, systematic, and technological channels. He uses framing theory to demonstrate how the resonance of two dominant frames, the neoliberal injustice frame and radical democracy master frame, facilitated the formation of the Zapatista solidarity network. Khasnabish’s (2008b) work on the transnational Zapatista solidarity network builds on Olesen’s analysis by offering important insight into an aspect of the resonance of the Zapatista movement overlooked by Olesen: the impact of political imagination on resonance. Taken together, these analyses offer a useful lens for understanding how and why the Zapatista movement resonated with so many activists outside of Mexico. However, neither of them adequately addresses the role of collective identity in creating a transnationally resonant Zapatismo. This paper builds on the insights of Khasnabish (2008) and Olesen (2005) in explaining the transnational resonance of Zapatismo, and furthers their analyses by demonstrating how the framing of a collective Zapatista identity was also critical to the development of the transnational solidarity network.

I address the question of why the transnational network was formed through an examination of both the frames embodied in notions of Zapatismo and the collective Zapatista identity, paying particular attention to how and why those frames resonated with a broader international audience. I draw on the speeches and communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos, who acts as the voice of the Zapatista movement, and whose words were heard throughout North America and Europe, in order to demonstrate the use of the neoliberal injustice and radical democracy frames. I then compare the use of these frames to the frames used in the advocacy statements of Zapatista solidarity organizations outside of Mexico. By demonstrating the coherence between the frames used by the Zapatistas and the frames used by Zapatista solidarity organizations, I show that the frames used by the Zapatistas did indeed resonate with activists outside of Mexico. Moreover, I suggest that the framing of the Zapatista movement shifted over time in order to foster transnational resonance through a strategic process of frame bridging and frame amplification. I then examine how a collective Zapatista identity rooted in difference, rather than similarity, helped to further fuel the development of the transnational solidarity network.

Background: The Zapatista Uprising

The Zapatista uprising began on January 1, 1994, when Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos led the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a guerrilla army comprised largely of indigenous peasants and the poor, in an armed insurgency against the Mexican government. They declared war on the state, demanding land, democracy, and justice in the “First Declaration from the Lacandón Jungle” (Khasnabish 2008a). This declaration coincided with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and demanded an end to structural violence against the indigenous people of Chiapas and a number of specific reforms to labour, education, healthcare, land, democracy, independence and liberty (Callahan 2004). More generally, the Zapatistas sought an end to neoliberal economic reforms, including NAFTA, which they saw as increasingly jeopardizing the livelihoods of landless and land-poor peasants throughout Mexico by privatizing natural resources and state-run services, lowering the social wage, limiting benefits and workers’ rights, and opening the market to foreign trade (Callahan 2004). After twelve days of violent struggle the Mexican government regained control of the four major cities within the state of Chiapas that the EZLN had captured and called a unilateral truce (Washbrook 2007).

Support for the Zapatista movement grew nationally and internationally and resulted in the creation of numerous solidarity organizations and the mobilization of many pre-existing organizations, as people throughout North America and in parts of Europe began to see the EZLN not only as a voice for the rights of indigenous people, but as a voice for democracy and against globalization, neoliberalism, and corporate-driven capitalism (Washbrook 2007). However, as Deborah Yashar (2007) points out, it is important not to reduce the emergence of the Zapatista rebellion to an effect of neoliberal globalization alone, as many economic reforms began long before the Zapatista uprising. Similarly, she suggests that although the Zapatistas declared war against the Mexican government on the same day that NAFTA was implemented, organizing for the uprising began long before this date (Yashar 2007). Furthermore, there were a number of human rights organizations that were already monitoring the Mexican government because of past human rights violations and political repression, which exerted pressure on the Mexican government to fulfil its newly stated commitment to upholding international human rights standards (Munñoz 2006).

As a result of both internal and external pressures, the EZLN played an increasingly important role in the political landscape of Mexico over the next six years, commanding the attention of the Mexican government on a continual basis (Washbrook 2007). Nevertheless, the Zapatista movement did not achieve many of its objectives. It did, however, lead to the signing of the Accords of San Andrés in 1996, which were established to improve indigenous rights. The government failed to implement the accords, which has led to an ongoing stalemate between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. To this day the Zapatista army is still engaged in the struggle, but they have lost much of their popular support outside of Mexico, as well as their political clout within Mexico (Washbrook 2007).

Transnational Networks In The Zapatista Uprising

The Zapatista solidarity network consisted of numerous organizations with as many as eighty-eight formal organizations in the United States alone (Olesen 2004), and with members from all over Canada, Europe, and the United States (McAdam 2003). The network included a wide variety of human rights groups, anti-globalization groups, anarchists, Marxists, socialists, religious organizations, and groups formed exclusively in solidarity with the Zapatistas. Consequently, these organizations represented a wide range of interests and perspectives that, despite seemingly endless differences, found common ground in the foothills of Chiapas. How was it that so many organizations were able to come together to join in the Zapatista struggle? The answer to this question can be found partly in the informational infrastructure of the Zapatista movement; however it is necessary to go beyond a structural analysis by examining the framing of Zapatismo to understand why activists and organizations from so many diverse backgrounds united around the Zapatista movement.

According to Olesen (2004), information about the Zapatista uprising is disseminated along five levels of an informational infrastructure via email through numerous listservs and personal email networks that allow the information to take on “a life of its own” (p. 94) as it can then be further spread by any of the initial recipients, making it a powerful networking tool. Despite the central role that the transnational network played in disseminating information beyond the borders of Mexico, it is important not to overstate the role of international actors in the struggle ‘on the ground,’ as it continues to be a struggle directed primarily toward the state, and much of the real action occurred within the Mexican borders (Yashar 2007). Nonetheless, international social movement organizations (SMOs) did play an important role in the Zapatista movement.

Olesen (2004) suggests that several SMOs played an integral role in the movement by offering direct solidarity by bringing aid, observing human rights, and organizing fair trade partnerships. For example, Schools for Chiapas, a solidarity organization based in San Diego, provided materials and labour to the Zapatistas for the construction of autonomous schools in Chiapas (Olesen 2004). Pastors for Peace, a group based in Chicago, sent numerous aid caravans to Chiapas, delivering food, clothes, medicine and school supplies. Many SMOs outside of Mexico participated in the Zapatista movement more indirectly by helping to raise awareness about the Zapatistas’ struggle through both public demonstrations and their informational and educational campaigns (Olesen 2004). Madrid’s Zapatista Support Network, for example, states that its primary activities “have been informative; [it] distribute[d] small publications called the RAZ Notebooks with communiqués, and work[ed] on themes related to the Zapatistas” (in Olesen 2004: 83). Moreover, international SMOs were able to put much needed pressure on the Mexican government to respond to the demands of the Zapatistas (Munñoz 2006).

Framing In The Zapatista Uprising

According to Alex Khasnabish (2008), much of the literature on the Zapatista solidarity network glosses over the ideological basis of the network, that is, the “collective sentiment” in which a “group begins to imagine and feel things together” (Appadurai as cited in Khasnabish 2008a: 39). In the Zapatista rebellion, this collective sentiment is known as Zapatismo. Zapatismo refers (quite loosely) to the ideology or philosophy behind the Zapatista movement (Callahan 2004). To clarify, although Zapatismo is closely associated with the Zapatistas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is the army that serves the Zapatistas, and the Zapatistas include both members of the EZLN and non-military supporters of the movement. According to Manuel Callahan (2004), Zapatismo is more than just an ideology or philosophy – it is “a political strategy, an ethos, a set of commitments claimed by those who claim a political identity” (p. 218-219). Although difficult to put into words, Zapatismo may be best understood as a ‘spirit of struggle’ which captures not only the ideology behind the struggle, but the feelings of imagination and hope and a desire for change shared by activists in Mexico and abroad. Zapatismo developed when the EZLN, through the communiqués of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, broached (or ‘framed’) Zapatista demands to an international audience in a way that resonated strongly with a broad range of labour, human, and indigenous rights groups, as well as more radical movements opposed to globalization, neoliberalism, and corporate-driven capitalism.

Framing refers to the process by which movement leaders strategically analyze events in a way that resonates with the beliefs and experiences of potential participants, and then identify responsible parties in order to motivate potential participants to act (Noakes and Johnston 2005). Collective action frames, then, are the “action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization” (Benford and Snow 2000: 612). According to Benford and Snow (2000), there are three core framing tasks which serve particular functions within a movement: diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational framing. Diagnostic framing refers to the process of identifying the problem and attributing it to a cause. Prognostic framing refers to the process of identifying a solution to the problem (i.e. collective action). Finally, motivational framing refers to the process of providing a rationale for action in order to encourage people to join a movement (Benford and Snow 2000). Another important aspect of framing is the concept of frame resonance, which stresses that a frame will only be meaningful to participants if it draws on the cultural symbols that appear ‘natural and familiar’ to them (Noakes and Johnston 2005). Simply stated, if a frame does not fit with the experiences and beliefs of the target audience it will not motivate potential participants to join a movement. Framing theory serves as an excellent theoretical lens for examining the relationship between Zapatismo and transnational participation in the Zapatista struggle, as it draws on the concepts of framing and frames(or collective action frames) in explaining the relationship between beliefs and political action. Examining the framing of Zapatismo within the Zapatista movement is important for understanding the development of the transnational solidarity network in the Zapatista movement, as the beliefs of activists clearly played an important role in motivating them to join this struggle.

Olesen (2005) identifies two different frames – the neoliberal injustice frame, and the radical democracy master frame – which resonated strongly with a range of SMOs outside of Mexico and inspired them to join the Zapatista movement. In what follows, I first describe each of the dominant frames used in the Zapatista movement, and discuss the function of each frame in the Zapatista movement. I then demonstrate the use of the neoliberal injustice and radical democracy frames in the communiqués and speeches of Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN. I go on to demonstrate the resonance of these frames among Zapatista solidarity organizations by showing the coherence between the framing used by the Zapatistas and the framing used in the advocacy statements and blogs of solidarity organizations.

The neoliberal injustice frame speaks to both economic and political globalization (Olesen 2005). According to Olesen (2005), the neoliberal injustice frame highlights the impacts of neoliberalism at both national and transnational levels. It emphasizes the loss of sovereignty, diversity, and identity related to neoliberalism (Olesen 2005). Moreover, the neoliberal injustice frame identifies neoliberalism as the root of the Zapatistas’ grievances. As such, the neoliberal injustice frame can be seen as the dominant diagnostic frame used in the Zapatista movement. In Mexico, the neoliberal injustice frame resonated with the concerns that many people shared regarding the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, including the loss of sovereignty, the privatization of public services, and NAFTA’s impact on small farmers, particularly on maize producers who would be unable to compete with the higher yields produced by American farmers (Olesen 2005). The globalization of neoliberalism has meant that neoliberal economic reforms can be felt (albeit in very different ways) in many places outside of Mexico, including Canada and the United States. The strategic choice of the EZLN to target NAFTA was important in bridging activists and organizations in Canada and the US because, as members of the agreement, it provided them with a link to the struggle in Chiapas (Olesen 2005). In addition to this, the neoliberal injustice frame captured the interest of a number of pre-existing organizations already mobilizing against neoliberalism prior to the signing of NAFTA (Olesen 2005). More importantly, however, this frame resonated with the ideological beliefs of activists outside of Mexico.

The neoliberal injustice frame can be seen in many of the communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN. Even the earliest communiqués of Marcos speak to the injustices related to neoliberal economic policies, citing NAFTA and globalization as the root of their struggle. This is illustrated in the following communiqué released in 1993, a full year prior to the EZLN’s formal declaration of war against the Mexican state, in which the EZLN identifies a number of grievances related to the lack of social services such as housing, healthcare, and education, associated with neoliberal economic policies:

We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children (EZLN “Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle”1994).

In order to increase the resonance of the neoliberal injustice frame, the EZLN used frame bridging to broaden its description of the impacts of neoliberalism on Mexico to include international audiences (Olesen 2005). Frame bridging refers to the “linking of two or more ideologically congruent but structurally unconnected frames regarding a particular issue or problem” (Benford and Snow 2000: 624). Frame bridging is evident in a communiqué released in 1996 in “The First Declaration of La Realidad” in which the Zapatistas framed neoliberalism as a war against humanity, stating that “re-named ‘neoliberalism,’ the historic crime of the concentration of privileges, wealth and impunities democratizes misery and hopelessness. A new world-war is waged, but now against the entire humanity…” (in Olesen 2005: 137). The resonance of the neoliberal injustice frame can be seen in the advocacy statements, articles, and blog entries of many solidarity organizations, as they frequently identify neoliberalism, and capitalism more generally, as the source of their struggle and acknowledge that it unites them with the Zapatistas. For example, RJ Maccani quotes the spokesperson from Movimiento, an organization of primarily Mexican immigrants in New York City’s East Harlem, in a blog entry on the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network website (2010):

We, from New York, had begun organizing ourselves for a dignified life and so that we would not be displaced from our homes, and saw that our problems were caused by the capitalists, the rich, the bad governments… Thus we saw that in different places, different countries, our struggle is to live a dignified life. And for them the capitalists wish to kick them off of their land… Us here in New York, them in San Salvador Atenco, we are waging separate struggles but against the same thing. The problems that we have are caused by the same people, by capitalism.

According to Olesen (2005), the radical democracy frame served as the master frame guiding the Zapatista movement. Master frames serve as ‘broad ideational resources’ that activists can draw on to increase the resonance of a movement’s framing, particularly when they are rooted in widely shared ideas or beliefs. Olesen suggests that the radical democracy master frame contained both a latent master frame and an action master frame. The latent master frame was rooted in abstract ideas about radical democracy. The radical democracy frame embraced the civil and political liberties of liberal democracy, but extended democratic principles to include social and economic liberties as well (Olesen 2005). Furthermore, for the Zapatistas, democracy meant transforming political, social, and economic structures around radical democratic ideas by redistributing power through horizontal decision making processes based on consensus, and demanding the accountability of political officials to citizens rooted in the notion of ‘ruling by obeying’ (Olesen 2005). Olesen (2005) argues that radical democracy, framed as an extension of liberal democracy, resonated more strongly among activists outside of Mexico than a socialist democracy frame would have in the post-Cold War context. The radical democracy action master frame, while derived from the ideas of the latent master frame, provided concrete ‘guides’ for contentious social action by translating ideas about radical democracy into the goals of the Zapatista movement (Olesen 2005). Thus, the radical democracy action master frame demanded the restructuring of political, social, and economic structures around horizontal decision making and principles of social and economic justice. The radical democracy frame can be seen as the dominant prognostic frame as it offered activists a solution to the Zapatistas’ grievances. The Zapatistas’ use of the radical democracy frame is apparent in a communiqué by the EZLN in 2000:

For the Zapatistas, democracy is much more than the electoral competition or the alternation of power. But it is also the electoral dispute if it is clean, equal, honest, and plural… We want to find a politics that goes from the bottom to the top, one in which to ‘rule by obeying’ is more than a slogan, one in which the power is not the objective… In the Zapatista idea, democracy is something that is constructed from below and with everyone, including those who think differently than we do. Democracy is an exercise in power by the people all the time and in all places (in Olesen 2005: 156).

The EZLN used frame amplification to increase the resonance of the liberal democracy frame to a wider audience. Frame amplification refers to the process of strengthening existing frames by embellishing, clarifying, or idealizing them to make them resonate with a wider audience (Benford and Snow 2000). The thrust of the radical democracy action master frame in Mexico was aimed at increasing autonomy for indigenous people in Chiapas, as well as securing political representation for all Mexicans (Olesen 2005). Although it has been suggested that the Zapatistas were struggling for a more radical form of democracy than is common outside of Mexico (Callahan 2004), by amplifying the radical democracy frame, the Zapatistas were able to capitalize on widely shared values surrounding the importance of democracy in Canada, the United States, and Europe (Olesen 2005). The resonance of the radical democracy frame can be seen in the words of a Denver-based solidarity activist:

I think that what we are trying to do here in terms of organizing coalitions for economic justice, we are saying we need to get the power into the hands of grassroots organizations and have more democratic forms of government… (in Olesen 2005: 172).

Yashar (2007) notes that indigenous peoples’ movements increasingly use human rights discourses as they have become much more widely recognized and agreed upon, particularly with the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, but suggests that they have not been successful in many Latin American countries with less than adequate human rights histories. Nevertheless, this type of framing helped to expand the transnational solidarity network of the Zapatista movement by mobilizing the support of human rights organizations that had already been active in Mexico as a result of earlier human rights violations. They acted as critical allies to the movement by putting pressure on the Mexican government to uphold international human rights standards throughout the conflict (Munñoz 2006). The commitment of international solidarity organizations to upholding human rights standards associated with liberal democracy can be seen in a blog entry on the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network website (2010):

But from here, neither intimidation, nor eviction, nor imprisonment, nor disappearances, nor murders, can be hidden; from here, we will still be watching and spreading information, not only about the attacks suffered by our companeros working in the defence of human rights, but also about the acts of aggression continually being experienced by our companeros from the Other Campaign and from the Zapatistas, those people below and to the left, who are building and resisting, according to their own customs and traditions, and who struggle for the destruction of that system – one which we also fight from here – Capitalism. Once again, we say they are not alone!

In this statement, the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network identifies its role in the movement as it sees it as a human rights observer, and also speaks to the ideological basis of its support of the movement, which it describes as ‘in the defence of human rights.’ Further, it refers to the ‘acts of aggression… being experienced by… those people below and to the left.’

Table 1 summarizes the key features of the dominant frames used in the Zapatista movement. It illustrates the core values associated with each frame, the target audience of each frame, the function of each frame, as well as the strategy used to expand the resonance of each frame.

Table 1: Collective Action Frames of the Zapatista Movement

In sum, the neoliberal injustice frame emphasized the detrimental social and economic effects of neoliberalism, and served as the diagnostic frame in the Zapatista movement by identifying neoliberalism as the source of their grievances. The radical democracy frame offered an alternative to liberal democracy based around social and economic justice and ‘power from below,’ and served as the prognostic frame in the Zapatista movement by identifying a solution to the problems associated with neoliberalism. The neoliberal injustice frame and radical democracy frame resonated with activists in international solidarity organizations on ideological grounds and, taken together, formed a strong sense of Zapatismo. The Zapatistas increased the resonance of their frames through a combination of frame bridging and frame amplification in communiqués directed toward the international activist community. The resonance of these frames is evident in the similarity between the framing used in the advocacy statements and blog entries of solidarity organizations, and the communiqués of the EZLN. The transnational resonance of Zapatismo is particularly evident in the words of one Zapatista solidarity activist:

The issues that the Zapatistas address are not specific to Mexico. When they speak to human dignity, their message is universal. When they list their specific demands, they address the basic needs of every human being… Their emphasis on the dignity of every human being bridges issues and borders and opens the door to a worldwide movement for humanity (in Olesen 2005: 121).

Political Imagination In The Zapatista Uprising

In addition to the two dominant frames identified by Olesen, Khasnabish (2008b) identifies a third aspect of Zapatismo that was critical to the transnational resonance of the Zapatista movement, which he calls ‘political imagination.’ Political imagination, according to Khasnabish (2008b) refers to imagination as both an integral aspect of contentious action, and as the impetus and processes involved in articulating political projects that have emerged as a result of Zapatismo. More specifically, he uses the term ‘political imagination’ to describe the ‘terrain of possibility’ that emerged as a result of interactions between northern activists and Zapatismo. According to Khasnabish (2008b), the ‘political imagination’ embodied in Zapatismo offered activists the vision of a new way of doing things and a sense of hope that ‘a new world is possible’, all of which encouraged activists to join in the Zapatista struggle. He suggests that political imagination is not an individual act, but rather a collective expression of possible futures created though the interaction between activists and ideas. The framing of political imagination can be seen in the EZLN communiqué “In our Dreams we Have seen Another World,” released in 2001:

In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live. We saw that in this world there was no need for armies… And in this world there was reason and goodwill in the government, and the leaders were clear-thinking people, they ruled by obeying. This world was not a dream from the past… It came from ahead, from the next step we were going to take. And so we started to move forward to attain this dream… And it was for all. This is what we want. Nothing more, nothing less (in Khasnabish 2008b: 152).

This communiqué offers a provocative and enticing alternative vision for society and is rooted in an imagined future. The resonance of political imagination among activists outside of Mexico can be seen in the words of a solidarity activist interviewed by Khasnabish: “…if we can’t imagine something different, we certainly can’t start moving towards it, we can’t start enacting it and that is the place I’m most terrified [of]… that we’ll lose” (In Khasnabish 2008b: 174). Political imagination was important to the development of the transnational Zapatista network because it inspired activists to struggle for change by planting images of hope and an alternative vision of society in the hearts and minds of activists. Thus, while I have only briefly examined Khasnabish’s analysis of the role of political imagination in the formation of the transnational network in the Zapatista movement, his analysis clearly contributes to our understanding of the development of this network, and is important to my analysis. Another important factor in explaining the development of the transnational network and the transnational resonance of Zapatismo is collective identity.

Identity In The Zapatista Uprising

Khasnabish (2008b) argues that Zapatismo resonated with activists and SMOs because, in addition to resonating with the commonly held beliefs of activists, the Zapatistas put forth a number of invitations to international solidarity groups, through their communiqués, to engage in the struggle as Zapatistas, rather than as outside observers . However, it is important to keep in mind that the Zapatistas did not endorse a single, homogenous collective identity, but instead, supported the notion that people everywhere could be Zapatistas in their own way, struggling for change in their own ways and on their own soil (Callahan 2004). Nevertheless, this suggests that it is important to consider the role of identity in the formation of the transnational solidarity network in order to fully understand the resonance of Zapatismo. Indeed, it is widely recognized that a shared collective identity is needed in order to mobilize participants in any social movement (Bernstein 2008). Moreover, social movement scholars have shown that identity is implicated in all aspects of social movements, from the initial mobilization of participants, to sustained participation, strategy, organizational form, movement success, and framing itself (Einwohner, Reger, and Myers 2008).

The creation of a collective identity is particularly important in solidarity movements since solidarity organizations are, by definition, not motivated by the benefits accrued by the organizing (sometimes called beneficiary: see Zald and McCarthy 1977) group, and therefore become involved based on their ideological values and beliefs (Myers 2008), such as a belief in the moral righteousness of a movement or an ideological commitment to promoting ‘justice’ or ‘equality.’ Although there were common interests between the Zapatistas and the organizations that made up the transnational solidarity network, such as a shared interest in reducing the impact of neoliberal policies like NAFTA, the solidarity ties were more deeply rooted in ideological beliefs surrounding human rights, dignity, autonomy, equality, and democracy. This can be seen in the “Manifesto” of Peoples’ Global Action, a transnational solidarity organization formed in 1998:

We assert our will to struggle as peoples against all forms of oppression. But we do not only fight the wrongs imposed on us. We are also committed to building a new world. We are together as human beings and communities, our unity deeply rooted in diversity. Together we shape a vision of a just world and begin to build that true prosperity which comes from human empowerment, natural bounty, diversity, dignity and freedom (Peoples’ Global Action 1998).

In saying this, the Peoples’ Global Action asserts that their commitment to the movement is rooted in ‘a vision of a just world’ based on ‘human empowerment, natural bounty, diversity, dignity and freedom.’

Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier (1992) suggest that “…collective political actors do not exist de facto by virtue of individuals sharing a common structural location; they are created in the course of social movement activity” (p. 109-110). They propose that three factors – boundaries, consciousness, and negotiation – act as analytic tools for understanding the process of constructing collective identities. I argue that a collective Zapatista identity, rooted in a global consciousness, was an integral aspect of the transnational resonance of the Zapatista struggle. In what follows, I briefly discuss each of these factors, and then go on to show how boundaries and consciousness can be applied to the construction of a collective Zapatista identity through the framing efforts of the EZLN, and particularly, through the communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos.

Boundaries promote an awareness of the commonalities shared among social movement participants that distinguish them from the dominant group (Taylor and Whittier 1992). The boundaries of identity are constructed in part through diagnostic framing, in which the in-group, or ‘us’ is distinguished from the out-group, or ‘them,’ as well as through the ongoing process of affirming and reaffirming identity through social interaction with movement participants. Within the Zapatista movement boundaries were strategically stretched to create a ‘global identity’ that allowed activists to see themselves as a unified group, which increased the resonance of Zapatismo. According to Khasnabish (2008b), the Zapatistas offered activists the opportunity to ‘read themselves in’ as Zapatistas. This can be seen as an example of how the boundaries of the Zapatista identity were strategically stretched to include activists and organizations outside of Mexico. The deliberateness with which this was done is clear in an oft cited quote of Subcomandante Marcos: “…if you want to see who Marcos is, see who’s hidden behind the mask, then take a mirror and look at yourself. The face you see there will be the face of Marcos, because we are all Marcos” (in Olesen 2005: 116). This is an excellent example of boundary framing that implores the audience (whether locally or transnationally) to see themselves as not only Zapatistas, but as an important part of the Zapatista movement. The extent to which Marcos’ framing – that is, his invitation to join in the Zapatistas’ struggle as Zapatistas – resonated with a wider audience is summed up beautifully by one solidarity activist:

[W]e didn’t march the way people like us had in the 1970s and 1980s, saying we’re against the war in the south, we support those people down there; we marched and said we are Zapatistas and the war is right here under our feet... (in Khasnabish 2008b: 141).

Consciousness refers to the realization that a group shares common interests based on grievances which result from structural, cultural or systematic causes rather than personal failings. Consciousness is important to the development of a collective identity because it enables participants to establish new expectations concerning their treatment or role in relation to the dominant group, which enables them to mobilize around those expectations (Taylor and Whittier 1992). Taylor and Whittier (1992) suggest that consciousness is developed through an ongoing process in which participants re-evaluate themselves and their experiences, and is communicated through the speeches, writings and other social movement publications that exist within a social movement. According to Olesen (2005), the formation of transnational networks requires the development of a particular kind of consciousness, that is, a ‘global consciousness,’ in which activists have an understanding of the world as a unified whole. A global consciousness was critical to the development of a collective Zapatista identity because it enabled activists to see themselves as a unified group working toward shared goals as part of a common struggle. Efforts to create a global consciousness can also be seen in many of Marcos’ communiqués, such as his 2001 statement in “Flowers like Hope are Harvested”:

We know we have brothers and sisters in other continents. We are united by a world order that destroys nations and cultures… Today we suffer a new world war, a war against all peoples, against humanity, against culture, against history. It is an international war, of Money versus Humanity, carried out by a handful of financial institutions… Now this international terror is called neoliberalism… (Marcos in Khasnabish 2008b: 55).

Through this communiqué, the EZLN attempted to raise the global consciousness of people outside of Mexico by referring to neoliberalism as ‘a war… against humanity’ and as ‘an international war of Money versus Humanity.’ Moreover, this kind of framing resonated with many solidarity activists who joined the movement on ideological grounds. For instance, one activist demonstrated how this kind of framing helped to foster a collective Zapatista identity among solidarity activists which allowed activists to participate in the struggle as Zapatistas in their own ways:

…if you continue to go through all the eloquent readings [of the Zapatistas], you go, wait a minute! I can be a Zapatista too! …We all suffer the same things… in different ways and we can change them in different ways (in Khasnabish 2008b: 147).

Finally, negotiation describes the process by which social movements seek to change symbolic meanings by recognizing that most daily interactions between dominant and subordinate groups reinforce unequal power relations and reaffirm negative conceptions of the subordinate group (Taylor and Whittier 1992). Social movement groups and activists attempt to resist the negative definitions that have been ascribed by the dominant group, and redefine themselves in a way that demands change through the negotiation of their identity within personal and political settings (Taylor and Whittier 1992). Negotiation will be most evident in prognostic framing, in which SMOs or leaders define the solution to the problem, particularly where the movement’s main goals are directly related to changes in identity (such as in the civil rights or women’s movement). However, because the solidarity network was not primarily organized around identity in this sense (although the Zapatistas in Mexico did organize around both indigenous and Mexican identities), but was rather rooted in more ideological grounds, this aspect of Taylor and Whittier’s model is not as relevant to the resonance of the framing of Zapatismo.


In this paper, I suggest that identity boundaries were strategically stretched to create a ‘global identity’ that allowed activists to see themselves as a unified group. I propose that this global identity was rooted in a ‘global consciousness’ that enabled activists to recognize similarities between the struggles facing activists in Chiapas and the struggles facing activists in other parts of the world, and that allowed them to recognize common goals for change. However, a more thorough analysis of the role of collective identity in the Zapatista movement is needed in order to gain a better understanding of the extent to which a collective Zapatista identity was created within the Zapatista movement and the degree to which this identity resonated among activists outside of Mexico. Future research would also do well to examine the strengths and limitations of global collective identities within transnational social movements.

Throughout this paper I have attempted to shed light on why the Zapatista uprising led to the formation of a transnational solidarity network. I have argued that the transnational solidarity network was formed as a result of the strategic framing of ‘Zapatismo’ through the neoliberal injustice and radical democracy frames identified by Olesen (2005), the political imagination identified by Khasnabish (2008b), and a collective Zapatista identity. By drawing on framing theory, this analysis offers a useful way of theorizing the relationship between Zapatismo and the formation of the transnational Zapatista solidarity network by emphasizing the connection between the ideas, beliefs, and identities expressed in the communiqués of the EZLN, and the ideas, beliefs, and identities of activists outside of Mexico. Moreover, this analysis provides a more complete picture of the resonance of Zapatismo by considering the role of dominant frames, political imagination and collective identity. The political vision of the Zapatistas has inspired activists to join in the struggle for democracy and against neoliberalism, and indeed, cries of “Ya Basta!” can still be heard far beyond the borders of Chiapas.

Nicole Gulewitsch is an MA student in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph. Her current research focuses on alliances between Indigenous peoples and environmental movement organizations. Please direct all correspondence to Nicole Gulewitsch, gulewitn [at]

Acknowledgments I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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