Conant hung out in San Cristobal with his Global Exchange friends, while his colleague Michael Sabato did time in a peace camp. Peace campers often come away feeling bored and useless; their ostensibly independent diplomatic status precludes them from working in the communities, and so they spend months getting more familiar with the books they brought than with the villagers they have come to see. As Conant and Sabato cruised around the relatively quiet countryside, they saw villagers with a second-grade education but a surprising amount of political sophistication. They talked with them and ate corn, tortillas, and beans — sometimes tomatoes and chiles if they were lucky. They got tired of just watching these people struggle against poverty and the military, and decided to help.
“We asked people in the villages, ‘If we went back to San Francisco, where there’s a lot of money, what would you want us to do to help you?'” recalls Conant. “They said, ‘We could use some shoes.'”
Fed Up with Food Not Bombs
Back in Berkeley, Travis Loller was tired of her life. In 1991, the Gulf War riots and the upheaval that erupted when the University used part of the legendary People’s Park (located on University property) to build volleyball courts had drawn her into the orbit of radical politics. As a resident of a student co-op, she watched as one lonely activist for the feed-the-homeless group Food Not Bombs used the kitchen to cook meals day in and day out. Gradually she began to help out, and soon she was living the life of a dedicated young radical of the stripe that Berkeley so easily seems to spawn. But after bopping around the radical left scene for a couple of years, even helping Jorge translate the Marcos communiqués, Loller felt disillusioned and lost. Many of the leftist institutions she had worked on had worn her down; Food Not Bombs and other projects seemed to take a lot of effort just to keep them afloat, and somehow serving lunch at People’s Park no longer felt like changing the world.
“But then I remembered that Jorge and a couple other people had gone down to Mexico and had just gone out into the fucking jungle and did this interview with Marcos,” says Loller. “And it was a great interview, one of the best things I had ever read. That someone I knew had done that — I mean, it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me. Up here, I just didn’t think that we were accomplishing that much. Around December , Jorge came over to my house, and I was telling him how frustrated I was. And he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Chiapas with us?’ I said, ‘I can’t go to Chiapas! There’s no way.’ But then I thought some more and quit my job, sold my car, quit all my activist work, and cleared out my bank account. I was ready for, well, whatever.”
A Hella Road Trip
After Conant and Sabato came back to the Bay Area, they teamed up with Jorge and got to thinking. The three decided that the best way to help the Zapatista villagers was to do modest little things to improve their standard of living. People in the Bay Area throw so much away, things that would make a world of difference in Chiapas. Over the next five months, they scrounged for shoes and Spanish how-to books on lay health care. They hit up their trust-fund-baby friends for cash. Local companies donated packets of tomato seeds, and nonprofits gave expired antibiotics. One activist arrived in town from Big Mountain in Arizona — he gave them his van.
By December, Jorge, Loller, Conant, Sabato, and a fifth man were ready to roll. They crammed the van full of shoes, books, medicine, and a small electrical generator and rolled out of the driveway. They would drive this rickety camper stuffed with scavenged humanitarian goodies down through California, across the border, and all the way through Mexico.
According to Loller, the worst night of their trip was Christmas of 1995. The van broke down in Irvine, and the five of them had to spend Christmas Eve packed together in the camper in darkest Orange County. Remarkably, that was as bad as it got. Even crossing the border went easily; Mexican customs officials didn’t bat an eye at the boxes of crap piled in the back. It was only as they approached Mexico City that the bumps began to appear on the road. Loller and company were about to learn the gentle art of bribing the Mexican police.
“We hadn’t been driving at night very much,” recalls Loller. “Everyone says don’t do it, especially in the countryside, because there will be bandits on the road. Really, people will set up roadblocks and stop you, take your money, wave a weapon in your face. But we were all revved up and decided to do it anyway. So we got stopped at one in the morning, and the cop started going down the list of all the things we’d done wrong. And we actually tried to argue with him. That was the wrong approach; you don’t argue with a cop in Mexico. You hand them a bribe as quickly as possible, try to be their friend, and hope that they let you go away. But this was the first time, and we were arguing, and the bribe just kept going up and up. We wound up giving him forty bucks.
“The second time we got stopped, in Mexico City, we got away with a twenty-dollar bribe, because we had argued a little less. By the third time, we’d figured out the system. The cops saw our California plates and pulled us over. But this time, Jorge jumped out of the car with five dollars in his hand and said, ‘Oh, we know we’ve done something wrong, but we’re tourists and we’re in a hurry. Could you please give this to the judge, and I hope this will cover the fine?’ Boy, then the cops were super friendly to us. They said, ‘Here in Mexico, the police are very corrupt. But we can also help people!'” And so Loller, Jorge, and the rest got a police escort through the area, with lights flashing and the cop radioing ahead to clear the road. The camper van chugged along with the official sanction of the Mexican law enforcement community, bearing supplies to indigenous rebels far to the south.
Arriving in San Cristobal, the news they heard was bad. The Mexican army had swarmed in force through the countryside, and immigration checkpoints had been set up along the roads. There was no way a van bearing goods for the Zapatistas was going to make it through. But they weren’t ready to give up just yet. Driving for hours through the rugged country toward the community where they were to drop off the supplies, they asked locals about the checkpoint up ahead. “It turned out that the army apparently shut down the checkpoint after dark and went to sleep,” says Conant. “So we waited until the middle of the night and set out.”
The road was hard to handle, barely more than a worn path in the mountains. The van bounced hard off big rocks, and boxes slid around and crashed into the sides. The world was the pitch black of midnight in the countryside, and the headlights barely pierced the humid air. Conant looked through the windshield apprehensively: They were in guerrilla territory, in a country not their own. Soldiers were up the road; they were about to run a military checkpoint. If they disappeared, who would think to look for them?
But they did it. The van eased past the sleeping guards and moved on. When they reached the community in the morning, the five of them climbed out of the van and handed the supplies over to the responsables, the village coordinators. To this day, the van is still being used as a Zapatista ambulance, but the shoes are a different story. Chiapas peasants are five foot three if they’re lucky; the shoes were all too big.
Undaunted, the five adventurers spent the next two months in the community, talking and cooking with the villagers and sleeping in hammocks in the schoolhouse. Like most homes in Chiapas, the schoolhouse was a rickety affair. “They don’t really bother to make houses, because they live in the tropics, and it doesn’t really get that cold,” says Loller. “Actually, it doesn’t really occur to people to build a sturdy house. To them, a real house is something made out of cement blocks. Their houses are just kinda shitty. If you’re lucky, the wood is nailed together; otherwise they’re tied together with vines and a thatched roof. A cement floor and corrugated tin roof are status symbols.”
It turned out the village schoolteacher had been driven out of town because he was a drunk (Zapatista communities are dry). The children had no one to run the school, so Conant taught them math. He and the rest of the crew noticed that the villagers raised hogs, but had no waste disposal system for the manure. When the heavy rains came, the hog shit was washed into the homes. After a bit of thought, they dug trenches for the rainwater and dung to collect in. Conant was amazed to consider that five Americans who knew nothing about raising pigs or sanitation did what had never occurred to Chiapas peasants. “I think that after years — centuries, even — of being displaced from your homes over and over, some sort of cultural knowledge gets lost,” Conant muses.
At some point in the course of working on mundane chores in an isolated rural village, something clicked. The Americans had been educated computer engineers, copy editors, and social workers, but after two months in Chiapas, they had become barefoot organizers, dedicated to working in the Third World indefinitely. They saw how dramatically even a little effort could improve the lives of Chiapas peasants. “When you go to these communities, especially if you hit it off with the people, they really, really want you to stay,” says Loller. “You start to feel committed to them. It’s hard to say no.” Their new lives might be dirty and dangerous, but they were in for the long haul.
First, they would need money, supplies, and training back in the States. Jorge had read books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and become entranced with the idea of appropriate technology. He and the others figured that they could make micro-hydropower systems really work in Chiapas, so they came back to Berkeley to get turbines and know-how. Loller worked on the maintenance crew at the UC-Berkeley co-op Rochdale Village and studied at nearby Laney College to become an electrician. Jorge set up a nonprofit support group (which was little more than a P.O. box) and began fundraising. In June 1996, Loller flew back down and was rarin’ to start building micro-hydropower systems.
The project was a flop. “I started talking about it to the responsable for the region, asking him what communities could use this; he kept sending me to places where it would never work,” says Loller. “I kept telling him, micro systems need a lot of water, and they need a lot of vertical drop — they need head, you know? Perhaps he just didn’t understand, but I think he kept sending me places based on political decisions, like which village was most politically loyal. He didn’t consider whether the system would actually work, so I was traveling around the country, lugging surveying equipment for nothing. It was useless.”
Clean Water Act
Loller was getting more and more frustrated when a friend came up with an idea. She had just returned from a peace camp at the community Roberto Barrios. They didn’t need a new electrical system; what they needed was water. Why not try that? Loller thought it over and decided to give it a shot, catching a truck to the village. Roberto Barrios, perhaps the model Zapatista community, runs along a steep hillside beside a river; mountain streams course through the hills overhead. It was a perfect site for the development of a potable water system. The community was also strategically important; it boasted one of five aguascalientes in Chiapas — a sort of library and regional community center for Zapatista political meetings. Across the river, along the only road that leads into the ejidos, was an army encampment; every day, helicopters buzzed low over the village, threatening to land and cause trouble. Loller had to ride through the base every time she moved in or out of the village.
Years ago, after pleading futilely with the government to put in a water system, the community leaders had tried to install one themselves. But they had run out of money and had no expertise to begin with. The pipes and pumps were shoddy and extended only to the outskirts of town. Loller looked around and talked with Jorge and the others, who followed her. They agreed to repair the leaks and extend the pipes down into the village center. Of course, none had ever built a running water system before, but they figured that now was a good time to learn. “It wasn’t exactly what we thought we’d be doing, but Jorge seemed to think it would be no problem. And if Jorge thinks we can do it, then I’m game, because he’s capable like that. Did we make a lot of mistakes? Actually, nothing too bad. I don’t think we did too horrible a job,” says Loller.
Loller returned to San Cristobal, chatted up friends of theirs who had been installing water systems elsewhere in the country, and picked up how-to manuals on cheap systems: what sort of pipe to use, how to install the taps, etc. Meanwhile, Sabato and Conant began organizing work crews and mapping out the terrain for the system. Within a few weeks, the work was underway.
“We dug a lot of ditches, mixed a lot of cement,” says Conant. “We did our share of the work, but there was no way we could keep up with the people of the community. Their lives are hard work; they could dig ditches twelve hours a day. People asked lot of questions about the U.S. What kind of crops did we grow? Did we eat tortillas? I told them that the cows eat almost all the corn, and the rest gets turned into syrup for Coca-Cola.”
One of Conant’s closest friends at Roberto Barrios was a young man named Trinidad. Trinidad had a lot on his mind: His brother was a responsable for the ejidos — he was rumored to be a local leader in the EZLN — and his brother-in-law had been murdered a few months before, possibly for political reasons.
Trinidad also had his daughter to worry about. “Trinidad’s daughter was almost completely deaf, and she had a hearing aid. New batteries and repairs cost several days’ pay, so every month he had to go into town and do construction work for a few days. One day I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was a little worried. He had sent the hearing aid to Mexico City to be fixed several months before, and he hadn’t gotten it back. I asked if he had called the shop, and he said no. When I asked why not, he seemed embarrassed and mumbled something. Then he said he didn’t know how to use a phone. Those are the kinds of conversations we were having, and military helicopters are flying over our heads. I went with him into town the next day and taught him how to use a phone.”
After six months of work, the water system was nearly finished. The responsables had carefully watched how the system had been built so that they’d be able to repair it in the future. “There’s not a lot of science to it, but there’s some science,” says Loller. “Like knowing what pipes to use and stuff. And they didn’t have the money to do it before. Because they were so poor, they’d cut a lot of corners, and because you can’t do that with a system like this, things would break, and they’d think, ‘Well, it just doesn’t work.’ So instead of buying big tubes that can handle the water pressure, they’d buy a little hose. And then it would bust, and they’d wrap plastic bags around the leak or apply cement to it. And it would burst somewhere else. It’s like it’s hard to convince them that in order to fix this problem, you need to go out and buy that piece, that there’s no way around it.
“But the system worked. It had great pressure, and you could drink it without filtering it. One of the things that sort of warmed my heart happened near the end. There was an election coming up, and the government was doing things to boost its image. They had brought in bulldozers to work on the road, and one of them had slipped and crashed into the pipe, right where we couldn’t bury it very deep. The pipe was broken. I was down at the other end of the community when it happened; when word eventually got to me, I came back up. By the time I got there, they had already fixed it. They hadn’t even asked me how — they just did it.”
But the group’s next project wasn’t nearly the fairy tale that the Roberto Barrios water system had been, and the political climate was beginning to change. The military was stepping up pressure in the countryside, and the Zapatistas had broken off peace talks. When Loller and the rest made their way to the next village, people had begun to worry about the appearance of paramilitary death squads.
Unlike Roberto Barrios, whose population had been almost exclusively allied with the Zapatistas, their next village was split between EZLN supporters and PRI-istas. Repairing and expanding their water system, Loller says, was a giant headache. “The PRI-istas had a totally different mindset. Whereas the Zapatistas had an understanding that this was designed to contribute to their independence and autonomy, the PRI-istas thought, ‘Get as much as you can out of the rich foreigners.’ Nobody wanted to work. Everyone wanted it for free, and no one wanted to learn how the system worked. That’s the difference between the autonomy stuff that the Zapatistas were talking about and the dependency cycle that the PRI rely on to stay in power.”
Near the end of 1997, Jorge had left for the States, and things had gotten particularly tense. Rumors were flying every day about military incursions, death squads skulking in the bushes. PRI-istas would get drunk and mouth off about Zapatistas getting theirs sometime soon. When children teased Loller, they said that the army would arrest her, and she’d never see daylight again. Conant, in particular, began to get worried. He called media outlets in the states, he says, warning that something bad was going to happen.
The mountain village of Acteal was once little more than a bump in the road, but over the years had become a tent city for refugees fleeing violence in other parts of Chiapas. One morning in late December, as refugees were gathering for church services, men arrived in town bearing AK-47 assault rifles and machetes. They began firing indiscriminately into the crowd. A half-hour after the attack had begun, church leaders had already called government officials and warned them that a massacre was happening at Acteal. The gunmen spent the next several hours wandering through the village, picking off whoever they had missed; the authorities never arrived. By the end of the day, at least 45 people were dead and countless wounded.
For Conant, who had recently had an unpleasant brush with PRI-istas dropping some ominous hints about his future, this was getting a little too real. But he, Loller, and Sabato kept on with their work. They were foreigners, after all, and no one messed with them. That was the point of their being there, to exploit the special status of foreigners and invoke the potential for an international incident should they be harmed. In March, Conant found himself in San Cristobal when news reached the city: Someone in Roberto Barrios had been murdered. Conant caught the next ride out to the ejidos. There, villagers told him the story: Trinidad had been hacked to bits by members of a PRI-ista family that had been accused of murdering his brother-in-law.
At the time of Trinidad’s death, almost two years had passed since Loller first showed up with surveying equipment and some hydropower turbines. She, Conant, and Sabato had scooped out muck from trenches all over the country and laid down water pipes in several villages. They probably prevented countless cases of dysentery, but, of course, they’ll never know for sure. Their bodies had changed; they were lean, even emaciated by American standards, but could easily hike through twelve steaming miles of jungle. A world of Spanish, Tzeltal, and hunger surrounded them. They had confronted so many utterly alien experiences that they seldom thought about how much time had passed. They certainly had no idea that they had less than a month left in the country.
Crashing the Party
On April 11, Conant, Loller, and Sabato were working in a tiny mountain hamlet with at most 120 homes. The high-altitude air was markedly different from that at the lower jungle villages, and the atmosphere was almost serenely removed from the civil strife elsewhere. As they put the final touches on a new water system, tweaking the spigots and tidying up, a coworker said he was going to take a break. A second worker took a break, and one by one the villagers drifted away from the trenches and left town.
The Zapatistas had just announced that they would no longer recognize the authority of the PRI municipal government in the local provincial town of Taniperlas; they would run things from now on. A big party had been scheduled to celebrate, and just about everyone in the area was going to show up. Before Loller or any of them knew it, they had been abandoned for the party.
Why waste time digging when no one else is interested, Loller and the others thought, dropping their shovels. Gathering their packs, the three wandered through the empty village and came to the trail leading down to Taniperlas. It would be a five-hour hike.
The Zapatista speeches were all in Tzeltal, but the young Americans didn’t want to hear them anyway. Not when hundreds of people were dancing and grooving to the band, a drum machine and keyboardist brought up from Ocosingo who played quirky dance pop. The dancing and food went on for hours. “Suddenly the music stopped,” Conant recalls, “and someone got on the stage and said something in Tzeltal, and a hush fell over the crowd. Now everyone’s headed for the gates.”
Conant finally got the news in Spanish: The military was amassing in a large column several miles down the road. No one knew what they had planned, and no one was taking any chances; the party was over. By the time Conant, Loller, and Sabato found each other and figured out what was going on, night had fallen, and the EZLN guerrillas were probably preparing ambushes in the hills. It was no longer safe to make the trip back up to the mountain village. They sat near the edge of the nearby peace camp, listening to the human rights contingent make their plans. “They decided that their job was to stand at the corner of each block to do human rights observation. We decided that our job was to get the hell out of there,” says Conant.
Loller says that she had heard rumors that a day like this would come since she first headed into the hills. It made for a life of constant tension, but after two years she rarely took the rumors seriously and wasn’t too worried about this one. Conant had found some folks who could escort them past the EZLN and into the safety of a neighboring village. The three of them got rid of everything in their packs that could weigh them down in the jungle and lay down to sleep, waiting for their escort to wake them and go.
It was too late. The next thing Conant knew, army Humvees were rumbling into the village. The night sky was lit up with headlights, and people had begun to panic. Conant and Sabato ran outside and stared at the column of soldiers. When Conant looked back for his friends, Loller had disappeared. He grabbed the local peace camp coordinator: “He was just deer in the headlights, staring at the lead Humvee, totally panicked. I asked him, ‘Have you seen Travis?’ and he said, ‘Uh huh.’ I said, ‘Where is she?’ and he said, ‘Uh huh.'”
Loller was gone, but there was no time to think about that now. They had previously made contingency plans to meet on the trail leading to the mountains if everything else fell apart, and that plan now looked very good. Conant and Sabato sprinted through the village, hit the trail, and ran straight into a dozen soldiers with M-16s and camo paint on their faces. “We stopped and looked at them, and Michael said, ‘Um, hola!’ We heard someone shout, ‘They’re not from here!’ and they surrounded us and leveled their guns at us. Michael put up his hands, which it didn’t occur to me for a long time to do.”
Meanwhile, Loller was on her own. “I ran off and thought that maybe I could find somebody to hide me in their house until the soldiers left,” she says. “I figured this was one of those times when the military would just terrorize people and go away. But I didn’t know this community very well. I didn’t know who was PRI and who was Zapatista, so I just sort of scuttled off and was wandering the streets. I tried to get out of town at one point and ran to the end of the road, and there were about ten military types with their faces painted, hiding in the weeds.”
Nabbed, Loller was escorted back to the army staging area, where all the foreigners were being rounded up. She saw Conant and Sabato being pushed ahead of her, occasionally getting rifle butts to the kidneys. As a newly built Zapatist auditorium was set on fire and gunshots rang out in the distance, the three of them were put in the back of a black van and driven off. They looked back at the last glimpses of Chiapas they would have for a long time to come.
In the next few hours the three were subject to deliriously abrupt changes in their environment, going from a slow, quiet, indio and Spanish world to the world of detention cells and gun barrels — and almost as quickly to the international terminal at SFO. The culture shock was intense; in Chiapas, no one had much money, privacy, or real comforts, but there was an omnipresent sense of companionship and purpose. Here, well, it’s different. They’re still figuring out how to live in this world once again. It’s only because they’ve been banned for life from Mexico that they are willing to tell their story now.
But these three people are just the tip of the iceberg; scores of young activists just like them have been making the trip down to the remote mountains of Chiapas. Some learn lay health care and teach it to villagers; others are building water systems or smuggling in medicine. An informal, ad hoc convergence of American activists have coalesced into a Chiapas lifeline. You won’t see newspaper advertisements about it or any formal institutions endorsing it. It’s just something that people do. More and more, the Mexican government has been cracking down on foreigners in Chiapas; two weeks ago, a young man from L.A. was deported for building a schoolhouse. The trick is to do what you can as discreetly as possible. More than one person anxiously asked me, “You’re not gonna use any names, are you?”
One month ago, Conant came home to find a strange man rummaging through his Oakland home. The man grabbed his laptop computer, which had all his notes from Chiapas on the desktop, and broke for the street. Conant chased him down, and the two tussled in the middle of an intersection. By the time the cops came, the laptop was smashed, and Conant had broken two of his fingers against the intruder’s jaw. Later, when I asked him if he wasn’t scared down in Chiapas, he said, “Yeah, there’s soldiers around, and my friends have died, but that’s just one part of life down there. This,” he said, pointing to his cast, “would never have happened in Chiapas.”
Chris Thompson is a staff writer for the East Bay Express, an alternative news weekly based in Berkeley, Calif., where a version of this story originally appeared.