Zapatista Tchotchkes

Miriam Basilio, Art History and Museum Studies, NYU
I recently visited San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chipas, Mexico to take part in an academic workshop, and, although I had read and heard about the traffic in Zapatista souvenirs, knick-knacks, or tchotchkes there, was overwhelmed by their variety and number. The complex political motives that led to the Zapatista movement are not my subject here rather I am interested in the ways in which popular representations of this movement for self-determination circulate as objects for tourist consumption. What is our role as consumers? What does it mean to buy these objects? Just prior to my visit, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column published a piece promoting San Cristobal de las Casas as an ideal travel destination. Of course, this feeds this place into a cycle whereby those of us with relative wealth travel seeking this particular bargain, which then makes the place less inexpensive, more crowded, and less seemingly remote, and the new cheap and undiscovered place is…elsewhere.
One particular feature of this city, which the reporter underscored, is its proximity to a network of autonomous communities governed by the Zapatista movement. (For the account of a visit to one such community see: That even a few years ago, the US State Department warned US citizens against going there lends the region a seductive hint of danger for some travelers. Other Americans, sympathetic to the Zapatista cause, travel there to see for themselves the revolutionary changes being made on behalf of the Mexican people. But most of us are not experts on the political situation there, and our role is more ambiguous. Are we seeking the thrill of the supposedly off the beaten track? Romanticizing revolution? Empathetically yet somewhat voyeuristically witnessing others’ struggles, only to safely return to our lives of privilege? How do we negotiate these at times intersecting positions?
As Americans in particular, and at a time when we are being urged to consume as our patriotic duty, we shop. Is it out of a desire to support the revolution in Chiapas, to help locals in one of the poorest areas in Mexico to make a living, regardless of where the proceeds end up, or, buying souvenirs motivated by the basic tourist drive to return home and say “Look, I was there.” Despite the New York Times reporter’s breathless account of his trip to view a Zapatista community (easily accessible and cheap public transport) and his detailed description of the group’s self-presentation and scripted tour of their community, I was shocked by the “Zapatista tourism” infrastructure that existed in San Cristobal. Large bus tours were advertised, and private taxis may be hired as well.
Seemingly hard to access, yet openly advertised, the prospect of visiting such communities was thus paradoxically tantalizingly possible, and mysteriously remote. Goods produced to publicly assert sympathy for the Zapatistas, however, were openly sold everywhere. Ubiquitous at the local market beside Santo Domingo church were T-shirts in myriad designs: black star logos, the EZLN initials, women with bandanas tied across their faces, hair worn in braids, with slogans calling for women’s dignity, others featured male freedom fighters, faces covered in ski masks. Male and female dolls made of yarn wore indigenous garb from the region, with the ski masks, and carried tiny cardboard rifles. Handmade revolutionary Barbies and Kens, they also are sold as Lilliputian key chains. Cotton handkerchiefs had slogans praising Subcomandante Marcos and his portrait all hand embroidered. Small change purses and pouches were similarly embellished. I purchased a tote bag large enough to carry my MacBook, featuring a female freedom fighter and the slogan: Las mujeres con la dignidad rebelde (Women with rebel dignity) for myself.
There were a few stores in town that advertised themselves as cooperatives that sold the goods for the benefit of Zapatista communities, so I tried to buy most of my gifts there. However, I also felt torn and bought a few things from local women at the market. The coop stores had the greatest variety of products, posters, postcards with photos of Zapatista communities, often featuring the beautiful murals painted on many of their walls and buildings, and locally produced textiles or coffee. I regret not asking the people selling these things at both places where they were made, did they also keep them in their homes, who else was buying them, what did they think about them, when did they start to sell these objects, and more. But someone should.

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4 Responses to Zapatista Tchotchkes

  1. Anonymous April 24, 2009 at 10:58 pm #

    Posts like these make me unsure of the purpose and stature of this blog. While we agree that blogs are ideal for trying out ideas, we might as well try them out in ways that reflect some awareness of existing thought and ideas. Or challenge sloppy thinking when we see it.
    Really? Tourism to “dark spots” has moral implications? Since 1946, when Holocaust survivors returned to…and were forced to spend money doing so…
    “what is our role as consumers?” = erm, to consume? Our role as critics is different.
    Westerners enjoy 3rd world souvenirs? Alert the postcolonial police.
    “Shocked by “Zapatista tourism?” Apparently they marshall images and symbols most effectively. Could this be useful in marketing heritage?
    We are (apparently) in an era when to shop is patriotic? Was this penned in October 2001? Last I heard, we’re in an era of govt sanctioned restraint, punctuated by news reports about Mexican drug killings.
    Anyway, to pick apart every point would be beleaguered – just to say that academic blogs, if nothing else, should be timely – in a way that this melange of notes is not.

  2. Haidy Geismar April 27, 2009 at 6:55 am #

    Note from the editor: the purpose of this blog is to provide a forum for those interested in material and visual culture to discuss and share ideas and experiences, images and objects, providing a non traditional academic environment to open up debate. People come from many disciplines and don’t always have the same frames of reference, we are non-hierarchical and value contributions from professors, students and non-academics.
    All feedback is appreciated, although anonymous negative criticism doesn’t foster the dialogical environment which is the fundamental aim of the blog. I’ve altered the settings to disallow anonymous postings. Postings now require a valid email.
    I’m sorry that the anonymous poster doesn’t feel that the blog is timely. Hopefully they will keep reading, and I hope they feel welcome to send in content themselves?
    p.s. after Obama’s recent comment at the G20 summit in England that the US economy will surely recover because we all need to buy new cars (much to the dismay of the Green Lobby), I don’t think that the author’s comment that there is a patriotic injunction to consume is at all out of date.

  3. Miriam Basilio April 27, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    My post was not intended as an academic article. It was a brief reflection on my trip to a particular place in the hopes of starting a conversation or perhaps eliciting commentary from those who have conducted specialized research on this part of the world. My own publications and research have familiarized me with current literature on tourism, which had this been an article in a peer-reviewed journal I would have cited. The reference to our government’s encouragement to shop is clearly intended as ironic as I hope anyone who read this post would understand, particularly because of my self-critical remarks. I hoped to raise questions about recent representations of the area as a tourist venue in The New York Times, and reflect briefly and informally on my own brief travels in Chiapas.

  4. Carl Leighton August 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Well, it might be a little late now, but I think you did exactly what you hoped to do when you wrote the post, Miriam. It’s very well written. And yes, that comment about our own governments encouragement to shop was very ironic, but also very accurate.

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