DO NOT LEAVE US ALONE! Interview with Comandante Ramona
Jesus Barraza - Todos Somos Ramona
DO NOT LEAVE US ALONE! Interview with Comandante Ramona
by Matilde Perez U. and Laura Castellanos
(Published in Double Jornada, Monday, March 7, 1994)
(Translated by Judith and Tim Richards)
Another of the concerns of the indigenous women is the freedom to choose a partner. “The custom of the dowry still exists, the young woman is never taken into account, she is sold (in this region the average marriage dowry is 2,000 new pesos). The custom of being engaged doesn’t exist; it’s a sin to do that.” Ana Maria, Infantry Major _________________________________________________________________
"Do not leave us alone!" is the desperate cry of the women in the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) so that their hope of being heard inside and outside of their communities will not die.
"We ask all women to fight alongside us," Comandante Ramona and Major Ana Maria say in Tzotzil and in Spanish. Their call to Mexican women is not for them to (that they) take up arms, but rather to support, from their own homes, the changes proposed in the Revolutionary Law for Women, as well as the extensive list of demands in the areas of equality, justice, health, education and housing.
That night, the next-to-the last but one that they would spend in the Cathedral, they went to the area behind the altar accompanied by Sub-Comandante Marcos. He, dressed in his unmistakable military uniform. A few steps back, the only two women in the group of nineteen delegates from the Indigenous Clandestine Revolutionary Committee.
"I’ll leave them there for you so you can speak to them all you wish," he says in a joking tone, as he takes leave of the group of five women journalists and two photographers who plan to interview the women from the Zapatista Army.
The lively almond-shaped eyes of Ramona reflected her weariness. Her long, black, woolen skirt, the hand-woven blouse colorfully-embroidered, and her petite stature contrasts with the grey poncho and solid body of Ana Maria. Comandante Javier remains with them (to translate for Ramona from Tzotzil to Spanish).
The Comandante’s words, even in Tzotzil, flow smoothly from her indigenous heart. “I left my community out of necessity in order to find work; there was no longer any way to earn a living there. When I went elsewhere I became aware that things aren’t the same as they are for country women. There I began to understand and become conscious of the differences, and so I became interested in the organization (EZLN), and that women also need to organize.”
In the EZLN the participation of women is crucial. Ramona belongs to the political cadre that works in the communities; Ana Maria — on the other hand — is part of the approximately thirty percent of the combatants or insurgents that voluntarily renounce having a family in order to devote themselves to the armed struggle.
"I am an insurgent. I have dedicated my whole life and all my time to the cause," affirms Ana Maria, the 26 year-old Infantry Major, who when speaking of the dispossession and repression suffered frowns sadly, the only sign of emotion that her ski mask permits us to see.
"It’s a long story," she says. "Since I was eight years old I have participated in peaceful struggles, in marches, in meetings. My family is committed to the struggle and has always been organizing in order to have a life with dignity, but we never achieved it in that way."
"We were in an organization — she doesn’t say which — with other people, with other towns. There we all were, together with our children; and it is in that way that we were becoming aware that we were not going to gain anything through peaceful protest. This is the ways things have been for years and years. My family was already in the struggle before I was born."
"I came to the movement EZLN) as a very young woman; I was fourteen when I joined the struggle. At first there were only two of us women among the eight or ten people who began the movement over ten years ago. Many of the women who have joined the EZLN have come without telling their families."
"When I left my house and discovered that there existed an armed organization, I took the decision and said to myself: I am also going to take up arms! because one of my brothers was already in it; but my parents, the majority of my family knew nothing about it. So I ran away from my home and I went to look for my comrades in order to enlist, and in that way I spent many years learning and participating in this without my family realizing. This has happened in many places, in many families."
"There, my brother and I had our first reading lessons and learned to speak Spanish. Then they taught us combat and political strategies to enable us to speak with the people and explain our cause to them. We asked for land and the government refused to give us any, and there began the occupations and the response was repression. So we said to each other "if they don’t willing give it to us, we’ll have to take it; we took it, and we began to arm ourselves."
"The women were joining because they saw our presence within the army; then the women of the towns began to instruct their daughters, their sisters, the granddaughters and they said to them ‘it’s better to take up arms, it’s better to fight’," says with vehemence Major Ana Maria, who was in charge of the commando that occupied the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in the early morning of January 1.
The Invisible Protagonists of the EZLN
In the early morning of that first day of the year, the women were invisible protagonists of the events that transcended the country’s borders. At that time nobody knew — and 66 days after the event, many still don’t know — that one of them was in charge of the occupation of the second most important city in the state of Chiapas, and that operation was considered by the EZLN a success because there was no loss of life.
Sitting in front of journalists from three different information media from Mexico and one from Spain, Ana Maria explains how the assault on the city founded by the Conquistador Diego de Mazariegos was planned.
"The first thing we did was vote to see whether or not to begin the war. After the decision the attack was organized with the support of the high command. Then we organized the military strategies for taking control (of the six municipal administrative centers, and who would be assigned to those places. Then, as I command a unit, I knew that I had to go first at the head of my comrades. I am in command and I have to set the example."
"As there are a lot of us we are organized in units each one has its command. I have under my command a large unit that has many combatants, more than a thousand. This unit is divided into small units, and each one has its commander also. Each one of these commanders is instructed, is told what it is that they have to do, how to attack. Each insurgent knows how to take position themselves, and what they must do, and the commanders check that they comply with this."
"When we attacked San Cristobal some people were assigned as reinforcements and others to wait in ambush in case the Federal Army entered; the roads in and out of from San Cristobal were reinforced; others were assigned to attack in the town hall. Each unit had to complete a mission, and that’s how it was organized. The commander coordinates everything."
And did women participate in the clashes that occurred in Rancho Nuevo and Ocosingo?
"Yes, for example when the prisoners were liberated in the attack on the Cereso Prison, those who went in to open the doors in order to free the prisoners were women. One prisoner has said that he saw a group of women with earrings enter and he thought it was very strange that combatants should be wearing earrings, necklaces, and attacking. There were groups of women, all mixed together, but each one had her job. Each one is given a mission and she fulfills it."
"The Infantry Major clarifies the difference between the militia women and the female insurgents of the military cadre; "both are combatants, but the militia women live in their villages, receive training and go into combat when it’s their turn. We, the insurgents, live in the camps and divide up to go to different towns to teach politics and basic education."
Some delegates of the EZLN, half-curious, half-checking, come up from time to time to listen to the interview. The two women with their faces covered, have their backs to an image of the Virgin of El Rayo, the withered flowers at her feet give testimony to the absence of the faithful in the last ten days during which the sanctuary has remained closed to worship.
The Spanish journalist from El Mundo asks if the insurgent women are free to have families. Ana Maria, who is wearing a gold ring on her right hand, replies: “to get married or to live together, you have to ask permission of the superior officers and they are the ones who say yes or no, but we are not able to have children because we must not put the life of a child in danger. There is family planning for the insurgent women but there are many who have had children and have had to leave them with their parents in order to continue in the struggle.”
And what was the mission of the women in the communities?
"That is something that we spend a lot of time talking about because there are many things that they do in the communities. Since this work (EZLN) began to expand, the participation of women in security has been very important."
"At home, in the village, there are bases. We have a communications network, so the women’s work is to constantly check security; for example, if soldiers approach they give the warning and also if there is some danger. Not all of them are necessarily combatants. When we attack the cities, the housewives stay behind to take care of the communities, the kids, and it was the young women who went off to fight."
"Many women wanted to join but were married and had children and they didn’t let them; but the struggle is not only with arms, the job of the women in the towns is to organize themselves for collective projects, to study and learn something from books."
"Also they help the EZLN because their sons, brothers, brothers-in-law are members and they see to it that they have food in the mountains. This is their job; to make tostadas, pinole, stew and also to tend the crops. They have gardens where they grow vegetables and send them to the encampments. The grandmothers devote themselves to taking care of the children of the women who work.
Did the women make the uniforms?
"Yes, everything is made inside the EZLN; we have sewing and weaponry workshops; the women both participate making weapon parts, and they also make small bombs to defend themselves. The townswomen, even if they are not combatants or soldiers, can do any of these jobs.
And the men can also do women’s jobs, such as cooking, washing dishes, taking care of children?
"In the EZLN, everything is shared. There are no differences; one day it’s the men’s turn to make the meal, on the following day the women’s turn, and so on. If there are clothes to wash, the men can do it."
It’s easy to say that men wash clothes while the women are making bombs. We are speaking of indigenous communities where the inequalities between the sexes are very strong.
"In the communities where we are organized, this is the way the work is done. Of course, inside our comrades’ homes there still exists some inequality, but it is very little now! Our men no longer abuse women so much, they help them carry the children. Before the organizing, when it came time to go to the cornfield, the man went on horseback and the woman walked behind carrying the child. The man can still return on horseback and the woman carrying firewood on her shoulders and the child walking ahead. He can tell you more about this (she is talking about Comandante Javier who is translating into Spanish what the Comandante Ramona said in Tzotzil)."
When asked by Ana Maria, Comandante Javier emotionally fills in the details: “When I was a young boy we had a custom that I learned from my grandparents, and my father also learned from his grandparents. Well, in Indian society the life of the women, as we have already said, is deplorable, since all this suffering was never taken into account.”
"Really! many like us, my friend, didn’t sense what society is like, what the situation is like. It’s not like right now, when people are becoming conscious of the struggle. Before, the participation of women wasn’t taken seriously. Many women get up at two or three in the morning to prepare food and at sunrise they leave together with the men, they ride horses and the women run behind carrying the child."
"When they arrive at the work they do their part the same as the men, whether picking coffee, or cultivating corn; but when they return home another job awaits them, cooking the meal. Many of the men, since we don’t stop to think about it, make demands and wait for the food, but the poor women, incredibly! carrying the crying child, grinding corn, sweeping the house and even though it’s dark, they still go to wash the clothes because they have no time to do it during the day…."
Journalists and photographers who were initially listening to the testimony of Ramona and Ana Maria have scattered during the first hour of the talk. Weariness shows in the eyes of the insurgents and an intense cold is rising in the ancient church.
"It’s not as cold here as in my community," says Ramona. In spite of her small stature, she has gained respect in the communities in which she has done political work with women, but it wasn’t easy for her. She, just like Ana Maria and many others, demanded that the men respect her right to organize, as well as to become part of the military cadre.
Ramona doesn’t seem to feel the cold. With her arms crossed calmly in her lap, she tries to make the journalists understand the awakening of the Indian women in the highlands of Chiapas:
"The women finally understood that their participation is important if this bad situation is to change, and so they are participating although not all of them are directly involved in the armed struggle. There is no other way of seeking justice, and this is the interest of the women."
What do you teach the women in the communities?
"Everything they need to know about a struggle — Ana Maria replies. The first thing they learn when they arrive at a camp is to read and write, if they don’t already know; if they don’t know how to express themselves in Spanish, they are taught some so that they can talk and read books; they are taught to use a sewing machine, to write, or to make parts for weapons; they are taught combat tactics; we read political books. We study the entire history of Mexico, that’s what we study most, and resistance texts from other countries."
At what age do they join?
Right now we have many boys and girls in the militias, there are children of eight and nine who are restless, they see a rebel and go and run their hands over the weapons, and they say, ‘I too want one, I too want to be a rebel,” and they play at being one. For example, a little while back I went to a community and asked the children about Zapata and they told me that he was a revolutionary who fought for the land and did a lot for the peasants.”
"Children also go to the meetings and many of them get upset because we tell them that they can’t play with the guns until they are older. So, we have to accept them; of course we don’t take them into battle; but many of them dig their heels in and say, "I want to go," and for this reason there were some of them here when we came to attack San Cristobal."
Do you give classes about reproductive and sexual health to the adolescent girls?
"Yes, in many communities this work is done; it’s the responsibility of the sisters who work in health services. We are divided into areas by service: health, weaponry, administration, supplies, and it’s this way in each of the communities; and also among the combatants because that’s how they are organized."
Abortion and Land for Women, Missing Elements in the List of Demands
The thirty-four demands of the EZLN were released on the last day of the dialogue. A week before Subcomandante Marcos had emphasized to the press that those made by the women were the broadest. On the list, these occupy item number twenty-nine, which stands out as a “Petition from the Indigenous Women.” The first of the twelve contained in the document refers to the building of clinics for childbirth.
Among the group of demands those that stand out would ease the wearisome domestic routines, such as: the construction of day care centers, kitchens and dining halls for the children of the communities; the installation of mills for grinding the corn for tamales and tortillas (the women spend an average of 3-5 hours grinding corn and making tortillas).
They also seek to create and establish, with the necessary technical advice, small business such as farms for the production of chickens, rabbits, sheep and pigs. They demand the construction of bakeries and artisan workshops, for which they are asking materials and machines as well as transportation and a market for the fair commercialization of their products. Given their marginal education, they seek technical training schools for women.
These demands, given to the government, were the result of consultation carried out by Ramona in the indigenous communities.
Externally, the indigenous women seek technical and educational assistance; internally (within the EZLN and the communities), their demands are: access to power in the decision- making process; the freedom to choose their partner; to not be beaten or physically abused by family members nor others; to decide on the number of children that they can bear and take care of, as well as to have the right and the priority to nutrition and health care.
The two women of CCRI who participated in the dialogue for peace, remember how one year before “The Revolutionary Law For Women” was born. “They had given us the right to participate in the assemblies and in the study sessions, but there was no law for women. So we protested and that is how the Law for Women came into being. All of us decided on it and presented it in an assembly of all the communities. Men and women voted on it. There were no problems. In the process the women from the different towns were asked for their opinions. We fighting women helped to write it,” Ana Maria says.
The reproductive health of the indigenous women is the major point, both in the mentioned legal code and in the petitions presented to the government. In spite of the high percentage of maternal mortality in Chiapas, particularly in the indigenous communities (in the state, for every 100,000 live births, 117 women die; the rate occupies third place nationally) and of abortions performed in dangerous conditions (one in five women in the rural zones of the country of child-bearing age, has had an abortion), the women of the EZLN didn’t discuss this last practice.
Ramona, you went to the communities and spoke with the women. Did the topic of abortion never come up?
The two women look at each other and it is Major Ana Maria who replies:
"It did not occur to them … the fact is that there is a belief among the indigenous people that there should not be abortion."
Nevertheless, there are women who die because of badly done abortions.
"Oh, yes, of course! there are young women to whom this happens."
Does this have to do with a tradition?
"Well, I don’t know," Ana Maria turns to look at Javier for help, "You, comrade, what opinion do you have about this belief, of what happens in the villages…."
"Well," Javier says, "there hasn’t been a lot of agreement about this situation. In these same villages there is a tradition about how to care for women."
"But this tradition is risky for the health and lives of women," interrupts the journalist.
"Many times," Javier continues, "they really do run risks because there are no doctors to attend to them. But the women have their own traditional procedures."
In response to the reporter’s insistence on whether indigenous women would attend a clinic to receive a safe abortion — in the event that there should ever be such a service — Ana Maria interrupts Javier to say:
"When we talk about there being a tradition, that doesn’t necessarily mean continuing in the same way. But in many communities the woman is punished if she did not report that she is pregnant and that she wanted to have an abortion."
"Because this happens a lot; the girl goes to the midwife or a healer and asks for an abortion because she is afraid that the family will mistreat her and they’ll be punished. In the communities that I know, they fine them or detain the man who makes the woman pregnant and jail him for a number of days, or they tell him that he must pay for her treatment."
As for the use of contraceptives, the Infantry Major states:
"That doesn’t exist, it’s not known in any of the communities and these pregnancies rarely occur, because the parents are very careful that their daughters don’t get pregnant; and because of the fear that girls have of their parents, they cannot talk to any man. If they get pregnant, many of them have the children because it’s very difficult to have an abortion, and if they do, many die and it’s not known."
Another of the concerns of the indigenous women is the free selection of partners. Ana Maria — proposed and elected by the insurgent women to participate in the dialogue for peace — comments: “The custom of the dowry still exists, the young woman is never taken into account, she is sold (in this region the average marriage dowry is 2,000 new pesos). The custom of being engaged doesn’t exist; it’s a sin to do that.”
A point missing from the women’s demands is the right to own land. In spite of the fact that Ramona and Ana Maria recognized that this is vital for survival and that in the struggle to obtain it both men and women are participating, they did not conceive that widows and single women should be included in the redistribution.
Ana Maria indicates that “this is everybody’s demand and if there something specific about women — in the list of demands — it is because there are things that we might need that the men don’t think about; in such a case there emerged a demand for a special school for women in which they can better themselves and study even if they are older.”
Nevertheless, Ramona puts a higher value on the possession of land. “Although according to the agrarian law we do not have the right to own land, we women feel that it is very important, because when there is no land, there is hunger, misery, and consequently a lot of children die of malnutrition. So we women also have a right to the land so that there might be food; because there is no other way to survive.”
The Combatants’ Complaint About the Communication Media
Two hours into the interview, only three women reporters, among them the Spanish woman, are still chatting with the weary Zapatistas. A few meters away, Subcomandante Marcos could be seen talking to other journalists.
Their hearty laughter resonates through the old cathedral. Ramona’s intense gaze fascinates one of the reporters. When she realizes she is being observed, her eyes change from a serious to an amused expression. Through the opening in the ski mask, Ramona laughs with her eyes. The Bishop’s staff urges them to end their interview. There are still many things to ask, many things to say, but after midnight tiredness grows, so that an imminent departure seems inevitable. Then the last questions are asked.
Do you think that the communication media have given sufficient coverage to your demands as indigenous women?
"No, not a lot has come out, for the very reason that they have not interviewed us."
Why do you think that they haven’t interviewed you?
"I don’t know, we do not understand it, perhaps they are more interested in knowing about national events."
The demands of the Zapatista women are not national?
Yes, of course, but I don’t know, since they haven’t interviewed us. We have spoken with very few people and in the information media very little has been said about the women.”
Might you have a commentary or a request for the media?
"What we say is that they should make this struggle known, so that many women might follow the example and do something in their own places, rather than coming here where we are. Even if they don’t take up arms, may they join the struggle in some way and support us; may other women join the struggle."
"We know that our struggle is not just one for women, but is equally for men and women; but we women also ask the same thing that the Subcomandante asked of the media when he said ‘do not leave us alone.’ We ask for more support in the whole question of democracy, because that is where the whole thing is a bit bogged down, that is where it’s most difficult, it has to be on the national level and that is precisely where women get into it because they are part of society."
Are you afraid that the hope for change will die?
"No, we are not afraid of that because we are going to do everything possible to achieve it and we think that up to this point we have great support among the Mexican people. We hope to change the situation but if we are not successful (perhaps we’ll die or be killed) we will continue fighting until we are heard and people take us into account."
Excitedly, Ana Maria remarks that since the beginning of the EZLN they celebrate the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, for this reason tomorrow they will have a party in their communities and the men will be responsible for preparing the food. Although — she adds jokingly — it won’t taste very good.”
Finally the interviewed is concluded; the meeting of Subcomandante Marcos with reporters from other media also ends.
To the surprise of the journalists, when Comandante Ramona says good-bye, she expresses in Spanish her concern for not having the command of the language that she would wish: “I am going to study so that next time I can respond better,” she says, and the ski mask cannot hide her broad smile. Then she disappears with the group.
A few minutes before, in Tzotzil, she has insisted, “Our hope is that one day our situation will change, that we woman will be treated with respect, justice and democracy.