The Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico embody a powerful story of unflinching pride, struggle, and resistance. But you won’t hear it from us.
When we pulled into San Cristobal de las Casas deep in Southern Mexico, we set out hunting for a story. We’re on a mission, after all, to drive from NYC to Argentina and film it for TV. And TV requires great people and great stories.
We had only just heard of the Zapatistas but were quickly hooked. The Zapatistas are a proud indigenous group of the region who have organized to resist the corporate hands of the Mexican federal government. In 1994, when the NAFTA agreement went into effect, the Zapatistas staged an armed uprising in San Cristobal. It was quashed in just days, but a largely non-violent resistance has continued quietly ever since. The Mexican government agreed to allow the Zapatistas autonomous control in some small Chiapas areas – the Zapatistas pay no taxes, but they are left alone in return, to run their own schools, hospitals, and lifestyles. They are notoriously camera shy and refuse to be photographed without their anonymising black ski masks.
Okay, that’s it, I’ll stop telling their story and go back to ours.
We walked from shop to perfect little shop in San Cristobal, making our way past hundreds of Zapatista-themed t-shirts and computer stickers and rally cries, looking for anyone truly affiliated with the Zapatistas, or even knowledgeable about the cause, to speak to our camera. We even lounged at a Zapatista-themed café, where the waiter quickly shied away and didn’t come back when we asked for a few minutes of his thoughts.
Finally, a shop owner directed us to Paco. Paco is a photographer who has worked with the Zapatistas for years, we were told, and would be the best source to speak about their cause. We got on the phone with Paco and set up a meeting for the next morning. We even bought one of Paco’s famous photos in postcard form from the shop.
“We’re producers! We’re really producing!” we proclaimed on the way back to our campsite. We’re new to this. We’re just 3 NYC office junkies who were recently offered the opportunity to quit everything and make a travel TV show, and we’d been struggling early on with how to tell great stories. But we were about to learn one of our first great lessons in storytelling – that not all stories are ours to tell.
We spent the night prepping questions (prepping questions! We had never done this before) and knocked on Paco’s double red, unmarked doors in the morning as directed. Inside, hundreds of well-organized DVDs cataloging Zapatista and other revolutionary-themed events lined the walls of a color-coded library. Paco arrived looking like a true revolutionary – long black ponytail, olive denim jacket, deep eyes embedded in a stern face. He was our guy.
“We are three guys making a TV show about our drive from New York to Argentina. It’s a fun, authentic reality show about the people, the cultures, the places, the food we encounter along the way – and we’d love to get to know the Zapatistas!” we offered.
This pitch usually excites people; TV has that special power. Paco didn’t react like anyone we’d ever met before.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he countered. “How can it be an authentic show when you’re driving place to place, scratching the surface of causes that have been moving for decades?” he asked us. “This doesn’t seem authentic – this seems superficial. This seems exploitative, even. I’m not comfortable doing an interview,” he admitted.
We were stunned – speechless, at first. In our travels so far, we’d rarely been met with skepticism, and never with outright rejection. But Paco’s immediate observations shook us, and our show, to our cores. He had challenged the fundamental nature of everything we’d been living and filming. In those speechless seconds after he declined our interview, our idealized image of ourselves as fearless ambassadors, dauntlessly uniting our television audiences with parts of the world they never otherwise would have seen, quickly soured to recognizing ourselves as exploitative, culturally imperial panderers sucking the lives out of anything we pointed our camera at. With a few words we became suddenly self-aware aspiring storytellers without a story.
The conversation shifted to storyteller counseling. “Paco, it’s our contracted job to make it from NYC to Argentina. We’d love to spend 2 years in each town getting to the heart of every story, but we just physically can’t. How can we do justice to the people and places we meet along the way?” we asked, genuinely.
Paco considered; he agreed that this was tough. “Make the story about you. Make it relate to your viewers in their homes. Just don’t be jackasses, TV doesn’t need more jackasses.”
He was right. Well, sometimes we have to be jackasses. That’s TV. But we needed to tell our own story. Paco opened up a gaping hole in our thinking, but didn’t really solve it for us. We’d have to do that on our own.
Paco invited us to come back later if we felt the interview was truly necessary. After a few hours picking up the broken images of ourselves as storytellers, we regrouped, retooled, and reframed how we see ourselves. We decided to go back to Paco and conduct a full interview – this time, about his organization’s work and his advice on how to be better-tuned filmmakers. It was a well-conducted, rewarding interview. But we never asked about the Zapatistas.
We’re on an epic, story-packed odyssey to Argentina, meeting amazing people and having amazing things unfold on camera. We’ve found that the best stories are the ones we don’t have to hunt for. We won’t tell the Zapatistas’ story. It’s just not ours to tell, so let them tell it the way they want it told.
These days we’re all storytellers. Social media has enabled each of us to tell more stories and to bigger audiences than ever possible. But that doesn’t mean we have to.
Not all stories are yours to tell. Make your stories yours! You’ll be a much better storyteller that way.
About Paco: We never could have known that Paco (we didn’t know his last name at the time) has dedicated his last 20 years to leading an organization that provides the Zapatistas a voice – not his voice, but their voice. Promedios equips and trains Zapatista villages on how to use video camera and communication equipment. Most video the Zapatistas produce stays internal to the community, used for cultural, religious, and educational knowledge transfer. They do make some video to express themselves to the public, and some of this can be seen on Promedios’ YouTube channel. Hear their story from them.
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