Comandante Ramona

Zapatista rebel leader

Comandante Ramona, guerrilla and activist: born near San Andrés de Larrainzer, Mexico 1959; died near San Cristóbal, Mexico 6 January 2006.

When Mexico's balaclava-clad Subcomandante Marcos launched his Zapatista rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in January 1994, a tiny woman in gaily embroidered native huipil blouse was often seen alongside him, all but her eyes masked by a pink bandanna. She looked as though she had never used the Vietnam-era rifle that almost dwarfed her, and some say she never did.

Marcos, clearly a white or mestizo with his honey-coloured eyes, explained that he might be the public face of the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), but he was merely a Subcomandante. The woman was Comandante Ramona, one of a Revolutionary Committee of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan Indians he said were the real leaders of the guerrilla group. He spoke for them because they did not speak fluent Spanish, only their native tongues.

His modesty was something of a PR exercise by the charismatic poet-guerrilla billed by many at the time as a new Che Guevara and seen to this day as the public face, or at least eyes, of the Zapatistas. But it was Ramona who led the rebels into the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas on New Year's Day 1994, demanding greater rights for the indigenous people of Chiapas and protesting at Mexico's involvement in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) which came into force that day.

The rebellion effectively ended after 12 days of fighting, in which around 150 people died, but Marcos, Ramona and the Zapatistas remained in the Lacandon jungle as a powerful lobby group and recently a potential political movement.

It was Ramona who was sent to the first peace talks with the Mexican government, in the colonial cathedral of San Cristóbal in February 1994. She was by now adopting a Marcos-style balaclava with a jaunty tassle, and the media dubbed her "The Petite Warrior". In the tourist markets of San Cristóbal, woollen Ramona dolls depicted her with balaclava and rifle, sometimes on horseback.

By 1996, she was suffering from serious kidney disease and received a transplant. But in October that year, though sick and frail, she defied a government ban and showed up in Mexico City for a National Indigenous Congress. The government had been prepared to tolerate the EZLN if it was not militarily active and remained isolated in the jungles of Chiapas.

Zapatista sympathisers from all walks of life formed a security guard around the Comandante to ensure she was not arrested and she was showered with flowers at the Congress. Later, she addressed a crowd of 100,000 supporters in Mexico City's massive central plaza. "Basta!" ("Enough!"), she told them, noting there was still no hospital in the town of San Andrés de Larrainzer, the nearest to her home village, forcing indigenous people to walk for up to 12 hours for treatment.

While the men in the crowd chanted "Todos somos Marcos" ("We are all Marcos"), the women responded with "Todos somos Ramona". By now she had become almost a mystical figure among indigenous women in Chiapas, some of whom compared her with the Virgin Mary for the strength and self-respect she brought to them. "Es una mujer de mucha enagua," they would say. She's a woman with a lot of petticoat, equivalent to saying a man has a lot of cojones. Even before the Zapatista uprising, she had been a leading women's rights activist, helping draw up, in 1993, a "Revolutionary Law on Women".

Ironically, she was on the road from San Andrés de Larrainzer to the bigger town of San Cristóbal, because there is no hospital in the former, when her kidney finally failed on Friday. Her real name and details of her pre-revolutionary life were never revealed.

Phil Davison

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