SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Balaclava-clad faces adorn the walls of cafes and bars in San Cristobal, where vendors hawk dolls of Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious frontman of the Zapatista movement.
Two decades ago, San Cristobal de las Casas was a sleepy provincial town, an asterisk on the backpackers' route. Today it welcomes a steady stream of visitors.
But emotions are mixed about whether the scramble for tourist dollars is legitimate, or whether it takes advantage of a movement fighting against, among other things, commercialism.
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation burst onto the world scene in 1994, the first year of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Zapatistas believe the deal disenfranchised indigenous farmers in favor of the neoliberal goals of the American, Canadian and Mexican governments.
Since then, the Zapatistas' fight has been one for land and equal rights for the indigenous residents of Chiapas, waged at home and through solidarity networks around the world.
In the years after the uprising, a wave of international visitors passed through San Cristobal, which serves as the unofficial base for people visiting the movement. Political activists and international supporters came to observe or assist with the struggle. Others came as emissaries, and thousands attended the international meetings the Zapatistas held in the mid-1990s.
The tourist demographic has been significantly depoliticized, but a general interest in being close to the Zapatistas keeps hotel rooms and restaurants full.
Luis Antonio de la Cruz, who manages a popular hotel in San Cristobal, said about 80 percent of his visitors are aware of the movement when they arrive, and about 25 percent are “truly interested in getting to know the Zapatista movement and its people.”
Daniel, a 26-year-old from Poland who's taking a two-year trip around the world, made a detour to visit the Zapatista region. But, after being forced to cough up his documents and answer some questions — routine procedure for any outsider hoping to enter Zapatista territory — it was decided he could not enter. (The Zapatistas are unapologetic about being selective regarding who can and cannot enter the communities.)
For Daniel, this was a let down. “I like Zapatista coffee — it's fair trade in my country, it's organic” Daniel said. “That’s why I changed up my plans, and came here.”
In San Cristobal, local proprietors have certainly capitalized on the revolutionary sentiment and international interest in Zapatismo. Few are Zapatistas, but instead people who have lived within the region since its inception, and in one way or another, have seen the opportunity for leveraging interest in the movement as a means of earning a living.
Local establishments such as Bar Revolucion and Tierra Adentro market themselves as being "Zapatista,” with framed photos, Zapatista insignia and merchandise available for sale — though some locals scoff at these claims of authenticity. A local tour company even advertises trips to Oventic, the nearest autonomous zone controlled by Zapatista leadership. However, the company rarely manages to make the tour happen.
De la Cruz says many of the tourists he knows reject this trend toward commercialization and don’t want to see the movement as a tourist attraction, or a check mark on the travel "to-do" list. But indigenous residents nonetheless manage to use the iconic images of the Zapatistas to pull in a few extra pesos.
Every night after 10 p.m., Maria Perez sets down a blanket outside the main church with dozens of other sellers. With one of her kids usually in tow, she sells bracelets, stuffed toys and her specialty, a wide array of Zapatista dolls, to tourists cruising the town after dinner.
Though she is not a Zapatista herself, Perez is thankful for the tourist dollars she pulls in by making and selling images of Zapatista leaders. The key to her success is not the meaning behind the images, but the fact that she can sell them, and make the money she needs.
“I like it a lot,” she said of her job. “It helps me support my daughter, and my other kids. Its how I earn money for food, to buy clothes, for everything. This is why I like to sell the Zapatistas.”