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Anthropologist: How Zapatista masks set off Mexico's money crisis

STANFORD -- The striking fact about the crash of Mexico's peso to George Collier is how little action was required to trigger it.

"The Zapatista rebels simply donned their masks in a few towns outside their heartland, setting off Mexico's economic crisis," says the Stanford University professor of anthropology who has just published a book on the background to the year-old Zapatista rebellion.

"I think the press didn't realize how widespread the support and sympathy for the Zapatistas was," he said. People outside of the state of Chiapas were therefore caught off guard in early December when the famed Zapatista masks suddenly appeared on streets and roads where the military was thought to have control. No weapons were necessary to cause panic about the stability of Mexico's economic restructuring, Collier said, because the masks alone demonstrated that the military did not have the rebels encircled; that government troops might be able to seize and control town centers, but peasants could change the situation in the countryside simply by changing their identities overnight.

"And when they take off their masks, how can you tell which ordinary people are Zapatistas? It pointed out there isn't any military solution to the problem without civilian losses that would be unacceptable to Mexicans," Collier said.

Collier will be giving two campus talks on the book Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, which he co-authored with journalist Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello. The paperback, based on his research in the Chiapas area, is in its second printing by the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, Calif. Talks are scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Bolívar House (582 Alvarado Row) and at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Stanford Bookstore.

An anthropologist, Collier doesn't claim to understand the workings of international currency markets. But he's learned about their social effects by studying social change in the highlands region of Chiapas over the past 30 years. He began studying peasant farming communities there as a graduate student in the Harvard Chiapas Project in the early 1960s and has returned many times since.

The Chiapas highlands, where most of the initial rebels are from, is a relatively remote region in southeastern Mexico that is full of paradoxes, he said, and one where Mexico's oil boom in the 1970s and the debt crisis that followed redefined the lives and roles of many peasants.

"Within even the tiniest Indian hamlets there are wealthy entrepreneurs who own such modern luxury items as televisions and videocassette recorders; poor, marginalized farm workers; and opportunistic political bosses. The state has plenty of wealthy ladinos, or Mexicans non-indigenous to the region who sympathize with the Zapatistas, and poor peasants who do not. There are disaffected intellectuals, grassroots organizers, elite colonial families and ranchers, each with their own political agenda. And in this place where Catholics and Protestants have clashed bitterly, where women are praised for passivity rather than activism, a non-sectarian rebellion has arisen, and mothers, wives and daughters are among those who make up the ranks of the Zapatista army."

In contrast to some analysts, Collier believes this is a peasant rebellion, not an exclusively Indian rebellion, even though Zapatistas demand rights for indigenous people.

"By peasants, I mean rural people who produce their own food or who are closely connected to others who produce for subsistence, as contrasted with those who farm commercial crops primarily for sale and profit." Some are indigenous but many are not, he added.

The roots of the rebellion date at least to the early 1970s, Collier said, when Mexico's national government undertook contradictory land reforms and massive oil development.

"The government encouraged colonization in eastern Chiapas, a frontier area. It was used as an escape valve for peasants from all over the country. The government pursued a policy of colonization, and at the same time, began to respond to environmental concerns by setting down biological reserves, sometimes right on top of the very colonies it had helped found.

"Naturally, the colonies were tremendously angry. Then the government began trying to distinguish between compliant and dissident peasants. In 1989, [then-President Salinas de Gortari] came to terms with a bunch who had resisted relocation. He made a deal with those who aligned themselves with his party, PRI, and said it was okay to let them stay in the bioreserves. The non-compliant groups were left out in the cold."

The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, Collier said, came when the government, as part of its economic liberalization, decided to reform again its ever-shifting land reform policies by ending them altogether. "That meant all the dissident groups decided to cast their lot with the Zapatistas, who had been there since the early '70s."

Adding fuel to the fire was the social upheaval caused first by oil development and then the collapse of the regional economic opportunities it had created.

"In the early '70s and '80s, many people in Chiapas shifted out of agriculture into a growing, more capital-intensive economy. As regional wages rose, farmers switched from labor-intensive farming to more chemical-intensive farming."

"Among the indigenous peasants I know, I saw the gap grow ever wider between the wealthy who were able to infuse their farming with cash derived from wage work near oil fields, on dam projects and in urban construction projects, and the poor who were finding it increasingly impossible to be able to farm even their own land."

Then came Mexico's 1982 debt crisis, which sent many wage workers back to farming. "The only way they could be viable at this point was to use chemical inputs."

Switching from subsistence crops such as corn to cash crops such as coffee to pay for the chemicals, the peasants "became dependent on credit, and as is true of agriculture everywhere, growing these cash crops left them vulnerable to the kind of credit crisis that occurs when market prices fluctuate on a world scale."

In 1989, the price of coffee dropped by half at the same time that Salinas, under pressure from the United States, began to remove farm subsidies, such as those for fertilizer, credit and state-supported marketing enterprises, which farmers relied upon to move their cash crops to market.

With so many people squeezed by the these government actions in such a short time, Collier said, support for the Zapatistas' anti- government views spread broadly. "Today, the residents of many towns, especially in a swath through Chiapas from Tabasco to the Guatemalan border, have adopted changes in local government that were recommended by the Zapatistas, and they have been activists in blocking roads or protesting ranchers or government actions. All these people have to do to make it seem like the Zapatista army has escaped military encirclement is to put on masks."

Because of the rebellion, the government has promised more agrarian reform, Collier said, "and it really has no alternative but to legalize the de facto situation in those areas where peasant groups have taken over ranches. The question is whether there will be Zapatista pressure to touch ranches in those areas of the state where peasants haven't been present in the past. "

Meanwhile, the Zapatistas have become heroes to many people reading about them at a distance, Collier said, but it is inaccurate to idealize the peasants. "Some of the inequalities in the countryside are the result of stratification within peasant communities, not merely the result of injustices heaped upon them from outside."

Many of Mexico's indigenous and peasant peoples have become protagonists in battles for land and political favors, he said, and "appeals to collective sentiments are often combined with maneuvering for personal power."

"I think we misrepresent peasants if we allow ourselves to view them in simplistic terms - as either the passive victims of the state or as 'noble savages' who can reinvigorate modern society with egalitarian and collective values," he writes in the book.

"By acknowledging tensions and differences in peasant communities, we face up to both the virtue and the vice inherent in peasants' exercise of power over one another, and we integrate individual agency into our understanding of peasant communities."

Collier suspects the Zapatista rebel leaders may have been surprised by their own power when the peso suddenly fell in value. "This may have been a lose-lose situation for the Zapatistas, because now that the value of the peso has eroded, the government may not have the resources to undertake the benefits the Zapatistas want," he said.

"The Mexican economy and political system is much less stable than pundits on both sides of the border have wanted to portray it," he said. "The images we were presented of the North American Free Trade Agreement were not nearly as realistic as its advocates predicted and certainly, it is no longer possible to expect a steady growth trajectory" for Mexico. The peso's collapse, he said, "leaves Mexico with much less stability, and that means little actions can have wider effects."



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