mexico city, march 12 -- when rebel martyr Emiliano Zapata and his ragtag campesino army marched into Mexico City in December 1914 at the height of the Mexican revolution, the denizens of this capital were not crazy to greet him. Big, black newspaper headlines decried the smouldering-eyed Indian leader as an "Attila" and his peasant troops as "Huns," and it was rumoured that the Zapatistas were coming to eat small children. Panic buying emptied store shelves, and decent families locked up their daughters.
Mexico City was in a more hospitable mood to receive the "hijos" (children) of Zapata last Sunday (March 11) when two dozen comandantes of the largely Mayan Indian Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which declared war against the Mexican government seven years and three presidents ago, were welcomed to the capital by a wildly cheering throng.
"Zapata's struggle continues!" and "No estan solos!" (You are not alone!) chanted jubilant supporters as the rebels rolled in from the south of the city on a flatbed truck to the great central plaza, the zocalo.
The zocalo crowd, an estimated 160,000 enthusiastic onlookers, was presidential-size, about the same number the three major political parties drum out for the closing rallies of their presidential candidates. But like their namesake, Emiliano Zapata, who once turned down the presidency to go home to his village and farm, the insurgents' charismatic spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, denies that the EZLN has any political aspirations.
Speaking on a stage erected in front of the National Palace, official address of the federal government, the Subcomandante insisted that "we do not come to impose our word. We speak for no one except ourselves -- we are only one voice among many...."
The EZLN comandates were accompanied by representatives of many of Mexico's 57 Indian nations, by international supporters and these supporters' Italian security guards, known as the "white monkeys," and by tens of thousands of ski-masked young people. (Ski mask sales have boomed since the EZLN recaptured front pages.) Their three-hour-long ramble through the city to the zocalo, the political heart of the nation, was the culmination of a 15-day, 3,000-kilometer odyssey from the jungles of Chiapas.
"We who are the colour of this earth have come to take our rightful place as Mexican citizens," the Subcomandante pronounced in a poetry-laced keynote address as an enormous red, white and green Mexican flag unfurled over the packed plaza and the pungent fumes from braziers of copal incense scented the light afternoon breeze.
There were bumps along the neo-Zapatistas' route. Some aging veterans of Emiliano Zapata's struggle for land and liberty, like 100-year-old Emetario Pantaleon, were suspicious that the Chiapas-based rebels had come "to steal the glory of our general."
A gathering at Zapata's tomb had to be called off when a man with a gun was spotted in the crowd. "We follow the road of history but we are not going to repeat its mistakes," Marcos told supporters as Zapatista comandantes were hustled off to a bulletproof bus.
Nervousness about the EZLN leaders' safety has been pervasive since their caravan set off from San Cristobal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands on February 25. A bus accident in Queretero, a central state whose governor had declared that the Zapatistas should be executed for treason, triggered fears of an assassination attempt, like the one that befell the first Zapata at Chinameca.
As the troops of Emiliano Zapata had back in 1914, the ski-masked rebels holed up in the deeply Indian suburbs of Milpa Alta and Xochimilco before descending into the megalopolis.
As the EZLN drew closer to the centre of political power, their challenges to freshman president Vicente Fox sharpened. Fox, the first president elected from the ranks of the (right-wing) opposition in seven decades, is attacked by Marcos as "a man with a long tongue who listens little."
The president, a master of political marketing, has kept up a steady drum roll of optimistic banter as the Indian rebels neared Mexico City, even inviting Marcos to hobnob at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Nonetheless, the EZLN march through the city stole so much attention from the president that Fox was forced to call off a celebration of his first 100 days in office.
The EZLN, in its first declaration from the Lacandon jungle, issued January 1, 1994, announced that it would soon take the capital of the country, "overwhelming the federal army on its way." Their march was as much protected by that army, federal police, and rooftop sharpshooters as it was by the so-called "civil society."
Not surprisingly, the insurgents' arrival upset Mexico City's elite. "They are coming to stir up the poor classes. Who knows what can happen? I'm telling my family to stay inside," worried 90-year-old tycoon Juan Sanchez Navarro, who made his fortune selling Corona beer to North Americans.
With 20 million inhabitants, the greater Mexico City area is the most populous and one of the poorest urban swatches on the planet. It is also the most Indian city in the Americas, with a concentration of a million-plus indigenous people living in and around the capital, working at menial jobs and suffering the brunt of big-city racism.
Their presence provides the EZLN with the ready-made constituency it needs to pressure Congress into passing a long-awaited, landmark Indian rights law. That measure, which would grant Mexico's nearly 60 distinct indigenous peoples limited political, judicial and cultural autonomy, was sent on to Congress by Fox soon after his December inauguration, after years of being bottled up by the former regime.
The EZLN and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which represents most of the Indian nations, have vowed to camp out in Mexico City until the law achieves constitutional status.
It may be a long stay.
Even if the Indians carry out their threat to surround and lay siege to the monumental edifice that houses Mexico's Chamber of Deputies, it's doubtful that the legislature will approve the rights bill -- at least in a form acceptable to the EZLN -- in the next session of Congress, which begins March 15.
Indeed, leaders of both Fox's National Action, or PAN, party and the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which roughly divide the Chamber and the Senate, have thus far refused to grant the ski-masked rebels an audience.
Because the Indian rights bill contains constitutional amendments, requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, the measure seems doomed to go down in flames without substantial PAN-PRI support.
The defeat of the Indian rights law is sure to pique the Zapatistas and their allies. At the CNI's third congress last week, in Michoacan state, several thousand Indian representatives voted to declare their nations autonomous should the rights bill be rejected by the federal government. Defeat of the Indian rights law would also damage Fox, who has staked his political credibility on achieving peace in Chiapas.
After weeks of dusty, colourful, history-drenched passage through Mexico, the roadsides lined with chanting supporters, on a journey that ran the emotional gamut from festive to poignant, the next chapter of the Zapatistas' "war against oblivion" will be played out by men in suits in the dim brown corridors of Congress. *