by Grant Fuller and Myles Estey
On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation catapulted itself from the jungles of southern Mexico onto the international political stage. The leftist rebels declared war against the Mexican state – while proclaiming indigenous rights and seizing land. The Zapatistas formed autonomous settlements, places to put their Marxist theories into practice. Those settlements are still there today in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
But in recent years, grinding poverty has led many young Zapatistas to leave in search of construction work in luxury resort cities like CancÃºn and Playa del Carmen. This migration from the epicenter of anti-capitalist Zapatismo to the Mayan Riviera begins in places like the small Zapatista village of Juan Diego.
23-year old Isaac lives in Juan Diego. With dirt floors, a plywood table and a pig out front, his reality couldn't be further from the luxury of CancÃºn. But the lure of jobs there is definitely felt in Juan Diego.
"Here, somebody's always on the radio saying there are jobs up there, that you can make a little money," Isaac said. "But then they screw you over, because they only pay you $15 a day, and you start at six in the morning and go home at seven at night. Sometimes the boss feeds you, and sometimes not."
Isaac couldn't stand CancÃºn. With its opulent five-star resorts and wet t-shirt contests, it's the exact opposite of the communal farming lifestyle the Zapatistas aspire to. But in the nearby town of Ocosingo, other young Zapatistas are ready to join the migration wave.
"We're waiting for the bus to Playa del Carmen to make a little money," said Leandro Gomez. "Then we come back and give it to our families. You gotta fight for it."
Leandro grew up in a Zapatista village. His father is a community leader. But when the Zapatistas gave him permission to work in the United States for up to six months, he liked it and stayed for two years. When he came back late, the Zapatistas demanded he pay a percentage of his earnings to the community. He refused.
Community ideas and independence
"If I'm going somewhere to make money, I'm not earning money for them," said Leandro. "I'm going to earn a living, for my own life. So I didn't like their demands, and I left." Leandro added that there are many other Zapatistas like him: young people who see value in the community ideals, but who also want to assert their independence, and make a buck for themselves.
On the bus to Playe del Carmen, the movie 'Avatar' was playing, and Leandro and his friends Bersaín, Eric and Noé, seemed anxious. Bersaín's brother-in-law promised them temporary jobs at the construction site where he works. Leandro said Playa is "maravilloso" and dreams of all the money he'll make.
Playa del Carmen is a growing resort destination near CancÃºn. Tourists in board shorts and sandals pack upscale shops and restaurants along the beach. But there's another side to Playa del Carmen. In a working-class family subdivision across the freeway called Galaxy 2, Leandro and the boys meandered down the street. They came across a window with a 'for rent' sign, called the number and hastily agreed to pay $250 to share a tile floor for the month.
Local building contractors prefer Chiapan workers, said Gabriela Campos, of the Migrant Help Center in Playa del Carmen. "I don't know why, maybe it's because they still conserve their campesino way of life. They're people who are used to working from 4 in the morning to 6 at night, very hardworking."
Competition for scarce opportunities
But she added that when they get here, migrants often feel lost in a strange land. Hopeful workers wait in a small park for contractors to pull up in pickup trucks and hire them. Dozens of them jostle for the few offers that come. With increased migration and a depressed economy, there's a lot of competition and opportunities are scarce.
"The communal system in Chiapas is still relatively close-knit," said Campos. "The community pays attention to the needs of its families and young people. Then suddenly they get here, and it's like a miniature Mexico City, where the individualism and competition is very strong. They arrive with this illusion that they can make easy money to improve their family's life." If they can find work, the migrants are paid much more than they would make in Chiapas, Campos said, but the jobs usually come without a written contract or guarantee of workers' rights.
Leandro and the former Zapatistas are lucky to have a connection, so they can skip the migrant park. But after their first day clearing debris on the construction site, Leandro said only he and Eric were hired. Noé and Bersaín were turned away, and spent the rest of the day on a desperate, fruitless search for work. So that night they shared beans and tortillas, and hoped for better luck the next day.
Despite their trials, the boys said they prefer this life to the Zapatista world they left behind. The autonomous zones in Chiapas are full of young people growing up in Zapatista schools, but Bersaín and Leandro say many of them aren't buying the collective anti-capitalist ideology anymore. They just want a chance to reap the rewards of their own hard work.
"I think if they keep leaving, whatever's left of Zapatismo and its people will disappear," said Bersaín.
Bersaín and Noé were caught between the Zapatista community they rejected, and the reality of being on their own and jobless in Playa del Carmen. Meanwhile, the foreign tourists continued to party at the beach, oblivious to the migrant drama unfolding a few blocks away.