Gustavo Esteva and the Long Road to the Zapatistas

“For Esteva, many myths had been imploded over his life’s long and eventful course: the idea that Mexico had to imitate the United States. That corrupt power structures could be reformed from within. The last myth would be destroyed—its void soon replaced, for Esteva, with a sort of intellectual liberation—with the violent emergence of the enigmatic black-masked insurgents in 1994.”

Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

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Gustavo Esteva before the Unitierra (short for Universidad de la Tierra, or “University of the Earth”) the alternative education school he founded in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Rooted in the radical educational philosophy of Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire, Esteva has helped develop close ties to the Zapatista movement through the school he founded. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.


When the Zapatistas first exploded into the public eye in an armed rebellion nearly 25 years ago, Gustavo Esteva found himself at a crossroads.

It had been decades since he’d renounced violence as a means of pursuing social justice. The Mexican philosopher, economist and educator—who’d spent nearly forty years working to improve the lives of Mexico’s campesinos—had come a long way towards developing a philosophy that could help his country’s peasants escape the wrenching poverty in which they’re trapped. Now, as the army of indigenous Mayans broke into an unexpected war with the national government, Esteva saw that philosophy crumbling apart.

“In the first week of 1994, I was in a very serious conflict with myself,” Gustavo tells me of that era, when he joined thousands of protesters in the streets demanding the Mexican Army cease attacking the Zapatistas. “I was telling myself, ‘Gustavo, why are you so enthusiastic (about the Zapatistas) if for thirty years you have been against the use of violence?’”

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“A Small, Very Small, Ever so Small Rebellion”

Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

You can view the original article here.


The Predicament

You would be hard-pressed to imagine anything of importance ever taking place here.

On any other day, approaching it on the cracked roads leading through the rolling ocean of pine, it would’ve seemed little different from the thousands of similar communities which scatter this rugged, mist-cloaked cordillera. The village of Morelia—a soaking-wet redoubt of clapboard wood shacks, high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—doesn’t at first glance look like a viable locale for a political meeting in which hundreds of international visitors would be drawn to spend three days in the country’s remote southlands.

But to believe such a thing is to be deluded.

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