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A cool night in San Cristobal de las Casas. A walk in search of a place to eat. Looking ahead, I saw lights, then the activity on the zocalo.

Men and women were gathered, maybe as many as a thousand, some holding candles in one or both hands. The wavering flames they held out made it appear to be a religious ceremony more than the political one that seemed its intention according to the posters and banners that made the point the anniversary of the birth of Emiliano Zapata would not go unrecognized.

On the sidewalks, Civil Guard in khaki uniforms watched the procession. Squads of them were stationed at even intervals with rifles in hands and handguns in black holsters fixed to their hips. Four armed vehicles protected the Palacio Municipal, where the offices of the local government were located. In San Cristobal any pubic gathering required the strongest defensive display.

The dinner I was on the hunt for would have to wait. The gathering continued to build. People pressed toward the makeshift platform stage with a single microphone and four large speakers. A man in a white shirt, with graying temples, stood at it. The metallic squeak of his words didn’t disrupt the steady power of his voice. One of his hands drew pictures in the air. The message I fought with myself to understand had something to do with history and land and Zapata’s legacy, which would include both.

I stood by a bench. The lights along the perimeter and interior walkways cast long shadows across the concrete and grass. On the other side of the zocalo lights burned in the windows of the city’s most expensive hotel, The Villa Real. Human silhouettes stood behind the protective bars.

I had no doubt the Zapatistas were in the audience even if there were no black hoods with eye, nose and mouth holes cut in them. Nothing threatening or secretive was going on. It was a public event, hoods weren’t required.

“Zapata’s cumpleanos?” I asked a man with a thick mustache standing by himself a few feet from the stage. His hands were buried in the pockets of a washed-out black sweatshirt. He looked at the camera in my hands and then back up at me.

“Si,” his head made slightest nod and he took two steps to the side.

I snapped pictures as the speeches went on. The microphone was passed to the next highest authority, I presumed, a shared mechanism to relay Zapata’s message. The crowd was attentive, not noisy or effusive. There was little clapping. Emotions were felt within, a kind of resolve, I thought, that didn’t need to be expressed with excessive enthusiasm or cheering. It was more like a meeting. This was business. The people’s business.

A sharecropper and horse trainer, Zapata was born in the northern state of Morelos. He served seven years in the Mexican army and was promoted to the rank of sergeant. As president of the village council of Anenecuilco he campaigned for village lands that were confiscated by the hacendados (colonial landowners). His slogan was “Tierra y Libertad.” Land and liberty were the reasons so many people had come here on this night.

Between 1910 and 1919 Zapata continued rebelling against anyone who interfered with his Plan of Ayala, which called for the seizure of all foreign-owned land, all land taken from the villages by the government, confiscation of one-third of all land held by friendly hacendados, and full confiscation of land owned by persons opposed to the Plan of Ayala.

On April 10, 1919, Zapata was tricked into attending a meeting with one of President Carranza’s generals, whom he had thought wanted to switch sides. (Carranza had done little to implement the far-reaching reforms of the 1917 Constitution.) The meeting was a trap. Zapata was killed when he arrived at it.

I took more photos with the intention of using up the remaining film in my camera. They included: (1) near the back of the gathering, the cart of an ice cream vendor selling HELADO in many varieties: Fresas, Coco, Manzana, Caramelo, Pistacho (2) the front of the stage where the speaker stood behind a poster with the words NO A LA REPRESION and VIV EZLN (3) the side of the Municipal Building where a man stood next to his three-speed bike listening to the speaker (4) a man selling balloons in the shape of giant hearts.

Later on, the rally ended peacefully. Just what was to come for San Cristobal between now and the next anniversary of Zapata’s birthday? was the thought that came to me without any clear answer.


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