Researching in Zapatista Communities: Listen more, ask less

Beatriz Lopes Cerqueira, Master’s Student, Environmental Sciences – Environmental Policy at Wageningen University

For my MSc thesis research, I decided to travel to the home of one of my special interests, the Zapatista movement, which has been fighting with and for the dignity of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Mexico, and learn their particular views and practices towards Nature, natural resources and the preservation of the environment.

The relationship established between the Zapatistas and me followed what I believe to be the fundamental properties of emotional relations(hips) – those based on the mutual exchange of ideas and feelings, trust, and respect. For me, these kinds of connections require a careful management of our thoughts and feelings as emotional beings and the ways in which these are interchanged. Thus, for my research with the Zapatistas, I engaged in a long and complex process of analysing and evaluating the best way to create a relationship based on reciprocity and trust. Later on, I tried to apply these reflections in my own research process. Which methods and methodology would allow me to build trust with the Zapatistas, to conduct research without blindly extracting their knowledge? Which would be the best tools for telling the story of the Zapatistas’ ecological consciousness and the values, emotions and worldmaking processes that make up their cosmovision? For academic research, I believe that methodological choice(s) are the most important foundation for a steady and lasting relationship.

When I started to think about my fieldwork, I decided to do exploratory work in Oventik, one of the Zapatistas’ autonomous centres, in the highlands of Chiapas, before beginning.

The first step I took was to search online for information on the possible ways to access such a restricted site. The Zapatistas are very careful about who to welcome onto their autonomous territories; indeed, it is important for them to avoid the entrance of outsiders who might endanger their safety as communities that have struggled and fought against the state and subsequently spent their efforts on building autonomous centres where their political activities take place and their decisions are consensually made. Eventually, I found that internationals were welcome to live with the Zapatistas while taking language (Spanish or Tzotzil) classes, at least for a short period of time. “Perfect!” I thought; until I saw the huge form that I had to fill out to be accepted. Despite its length, though, I cannot say that this was a hard task. I just had to write about myself, about my political inclinations (from below and to the left), my activist work in Europe, how I knew about the Zapatista movement and its ideals, and how I felt I aligned with them. It was easy, at least for me, as a self-proclaimed activist researcher. This process might be considered controversial, especially in Wageningen University, a Western-based academic context where objectivity and neutrality are praised as the indicators of good research practice. Well, sorry, not in this case. Indeed, I was only able to conduct this research because of my own (political) position, which I had to claim in order to be accepted into a Zapatista territory.

Anyways, simply entering the(ir) site and observing a people seemed to me a highly superficial – and even aggressive – exercise. Indeed, I did not want to be one more white ethnographic researcher studying the exotic. In addition, I could not possibly understand these peoples’ cosmovisions, their ideals, passions, and fears just by looking at the way they live. I had to live with them, fully, participating in the activities that make up their resistance – and autonomy. And I needed to gain the trust of the people I wanted to know better – for which, I realised, they needed to know me better. Even though this exploratory work eventually became incorporated into my findings, the primary intention of this first visit was to discover the place and the people I wanted to “research,” with the aim of doing something that could be meaningful not only for me, academically, but also for the communities themselves.

During this pre-fieldwork, I spent three weeks in Oventik with the Zapatistas, working in the corn fields, cooking tortillas, singing revolutionary songs, weaving, and learning the Tzotzil language. The Tzotzil language is one of the Mayan-derived indigenous languages that predominate in the Chiapas highlands. Like any other language, it is the written and spoken expression of the people’s worldviews and, thus, in my opinion, the best tool for understanding the Zapatistas’ own ecological and environmental perspectives. And I really wanted to immerse myself in their context, to become, if possible, less white European and more a part of that community, which I had always admired. In this way, before engaging with the research itself, I learnt to speak and write the language, as well as to understand it in (small and limited) conversations with the Tzotzil indigenous communities in Oventik.

Working on the coffee field, photograph taken by the author

I am not going to lie: learning Tzotzil is extremely hard. You cannot associate the words or even the structural composition of sentences with any dominant – or colonizing – language. The Tzotzil language is a world in itself, a world that I wish I could have understood more deeply. Yet, for the purpose of my research, I believe I was still able to take something with me – and to the people who are interested in reading about my research in Oventik. Indeed, many concepts, especially concerned with the Zapatistas’ cosmovision in relation to Nature, entered my mind and heart quite naturally – and do not seem to want to leave. I am glad to have realised this while I was still in the process of deciding what to write for my master’s thesis report so I can also plant these words, views, and emotions in those who are brave enough to defy their own preconceptions of Nature by reading about different cosmovisions.

Even though I already knew that I wanted to work with the Tzotzil language during my research, I could not decide how, so I followed my heart and went to ask the Zapatista authorities in the Oventik caracol (administrative centre). Interviews were out of the question, they said. I was scared and lost. How could I engage with this research without asking people about their own views and practices in relation to Nature, natural resources, and the preservation of the environment? The answer came to me in dreams.

As one of the Zapatistas I met told me, dreams are very important in the Tzotzil cosmovision as they show us the way forward. And for me, this way, as it appeared in my subconscious, was storytelling. Oral stories are central to indigenous communities, enabling them to picture and perpetuate their cosmovisions, including in relation to Nature. I was sure stories could provide me with what I was looking for – to understand the worldviews and realities of the people who were so different from me – stories attached to emotions and thoughts that are told and retold, usually within indigenous circles but also sometimes, as happened to me, to the outsiders who have so much to learn from them.

I was interested in showing the reality of the indigenous Zapatista communities of the Chiapas highlands through my own story as a participant-observer in the field, as well as from the perspective of the people I had the pleasure to live with there, materialized in their oral stories that I intended to (respectfully) write. I decided not to do the latter, to be the teller of their stories; instead, I chose to write my story interlaced with indigenous ones and collaborated with Zapatistas in writing their stories, hoping that this would contribute to a co-production of knowledge in an alternative context, that of Oventik. We dialogued daily. The Zapatistas would tell me stories in Spanish that I would copy to my journal verbatim to preserve their authenticity. We communicated openly about the stories that I could weave into my work after translating them into English since I was sure I did not want to fail their beautiful and inspirational lessons.

But again, I was intrigued by how I would gather such stories. One thing I knew: I could not ask. I had to move myself out of the typical interviewing style characterized by questions asked to people as participants in a study. During my stay in Oventik, I started to think more about how to relate to the people than about my research. Eventually, I reached the point where I did not care if I had sufficient material for my thesis report. My main concern was to fully embrace the experience that was being offered, to live, to cook and sing, to sweat and laugh in the fields and to learn the Tzotzil language in Oventik. I am glad that, again, I followed my heart.

It was during the Tzotzil classes that Zapatistas started to tell me how, influenced by their ancestors, they work the land and how these practices are deeply embedded in a cosmovision of Nature and the world based on democracy, respect and care. These stories were more than anything I could ask for. They told me so much more than the answers to simple questions I could formulate for an interview. And they were openly offered to me, and to anyone who reads my thesis report. This was only possible because I offered stories myself. From stories about greenhouse horticulture in Portugal to more personal and surreal ones about my family dynamics, the Zapatistas could hear and learn about me – me as a person rather than a researcher. So they trusted me with their stories. I surely learnt a lot about the Zapatistas’ views and practices towards Nature, natural resources, and the preservation of the environment. But the biggest lesson that I learnt had nothing to do with my research topic. It was quite simple: listen more, ask less. Listen to the voices of the unheard. Embrace the stories of the forgotten world. Respect the places and their peoples and the spiritual connection between them that an outsider would never be fully able to grasp. Do not act like a researcher but as an active learner. Do not be a “mosquito” researcher – who sucks the blood of the “research subjects” and leaves. Be more like a “bee” researcher, one who produces the sweetest outcome through collaboration, who cooperates with the members of society as equals to achieve a common aim – to build a more sustainable and enduring world, where diversity is a tool for union and cooperation and not for extractivism and oppression.

Beatriz Lopes Cerqueira (2023) Zapatistas: new environmental subjects? Master thesis in Environmental Sciences, Supervisor/Examiner Joost Jongerden and Ingrid Boas