Scarred by a brutal massacre which took place in December of 1997 and left 45 dead, the residents of Acteal, in the highlands of Chiapas, continue to remind the world never to forget. The multi-ethnic indigenous activist group, La Organización Sociedad Civil Las Abejas de Acteal (Las Abejas for short) works to demand justice and honour those who lost their lives on that tragic December’s day.
One of the Guardian’s most recent documentaries tells the remarkable story of Lupita Vasquez, a Tzotzil-Maya mother, leader and organiser of Las Abejas. Lupita was 10 years old when she lost her parents, sisters, grandmother and uncle to the bullets of the right-wing paramilitary group Máscara Roja. The group was responsible for the brutal murder indigenous families – and their unborn babies – at a Sunday church gathering.
Many of the people attending the service that day were members of Las Abejas, which, although a pacifist group, publicly sympathised with the Zapatista Army of Liberation (EZLN), an armed revolutionary group composed mainly of rural indigenous rebels.
The EZLN’s ideological stance was characterised by its ardent opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, known for its neoliberal policies and economic reforms. In the Uprising of 1994, the Zapatistas demanded ‘work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice and peace.’ These rights of course resonated with many throughout Chiapas, including the inhabitants of Acteal.
It is widely accepted and acknowledged that Máscara Roja was sent by the PRI to murder the churchgoers. On 3 September 2020, the Mexican government accepted responsibility for the massacre; not for inciting it, but for failing to prevent it. This is, for many, an insufficient level of accountability. The perpetrators continue to revel in their freedom, with total impunity.
Las Abejas are among those who reject the government’s apology outright. Every month, they hold a memorial service to commemorate the massacre and memorialise those who died. During this event, the names of all the government officials involved – and who remain at large – are recited, with the crowd vocally, communally responding: ‘¡Responsable!’
The documentary shows one of these monthly memorials, where Lupita’s powerful words resonate with those who have gathered in the hundreds: ‘we are here to shake the world, to let the people know that we, the people who they thought they had exterminated, are still here.’
A remarkable fighter, Lupita leads the way for hundreds of women like her, victims of violence. She echoes the revolutionary spirit of the many indigenous women in the Zapatista movement. These women played an important role in the organisation and implementation of the EZLN’s values, an occurrence seldom seen in armed groups. As Guiomar Rovira writes in Women of the Maize – Indigenous Women and the Zapatista Rebellion:
‘These physically small women, who had emerged from their villages beyond the pale of modern life, discarding “exotic” traditional dress in favour of military uniforms and guns, abandoning their role as mothers and obedient workers to engage in combat and give orders, were something quite new and disconcerting, alien to familiar concepts of a “revolutionary”.’
The twenty-minute documentary, directed by filmmaker Monica Wise Robles, does a brilliant job of contextualising this historic conflict and showing how the seeds sown by the Zapatistas continue to germinate today. ‘We won’t give up our lands for anything […] we know what the capitalist is doing,’ Lupita decries.
What we see in Lupita is a woman who turns pain into resistance, and resistance into action. ‘If my dad saved me, it’s because I have something to do in this world,’ she says, explaining how it was her father who helped Lupita escape the massacre by instructing her to run away and hide.
Though justice remained unserved, Lupita goes a long way in ensuring she and all the other victims are one step closer to achieving it. A remarkable woman with a remarkable story to tell, Robles’ documentary shines a light on a woman whose passion and bravery we should all strive for.