For 20 Years, Zapatistas Pursue Their Own Way Of Life Away From Mexican State

Since their uprising 20 years ago, the Zapatistas of southern Mexico have lived in five secretive, closed-off enclaves that they hold in the poor state of Chiapas.

But the rebels opened up their communities over the past five months to more than 7,000 Mexicans and foreigners who came to learn about how the movement self-governs and maintains its autonomy and way of life. Those invited stayed for a week at a time and lived with a Zapatista family.

Some of the visitors came to the lush, misty mountain Zapatista village of La Garrucha in December. Children and adults wearing ski masks invited their guests to attend classes or spend the day at an arts and crafts workshop.

In all of the Zapatista communities, children attend schools called "Sun Seeds," where they learn to read and write and study about nature conservancy and the environment. They also learn how to be productive members of their communities and how to protect their autonomy.

Adults participate in collective projects such as bakeries, arts and crafts, agriculture, beekeeping and ecotourism, among others. Each community decides what collective project its residents will take on and how to distribute the funds they earn.

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Most Zapatistas still eke out meager livings as corn farmers, and the communities' material conditions haven't improved since their rebellion, in part because the Zapatistas refuse all government aid.

Two decades after their revolt stunned Mexico and drew widespread support from leftists around the world, the government doesn't recognize the Zapatista communities as autonomous, but officials leave them alone and they live according to their own rules.

Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos said recently that the act of rebellion itself is enough reason to celebrate.

"Rebellion, friends and enemies, is something that has to be celebrated, every day and at every hour," he said.

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