Guillermo Bonfil put it well: “One of the most common ideas about Indian cultures is that they are conservative and reject change, even when that change might constitute a significant improvement. This is a prejudiced image within colonial ideology, which sees those colonized as causing their own colonization. Cultural resistance is a real fact, but it has a meaning very different from that attributed to it.”
As Native American activist Jimmie Durham explains, “We define a ‘traditional’ Indian as one who maintains the whole body of his people’s vision (political system) and that includes total resistance to colonization, speaking his own language, etc. So our progressives are what look like to you our ‘conservatives’.” Bullseye.
The Zapatistas are first and foremost an embodiment of the Mayan struggle for self-determination and autonomy. The Maya may or may not be a nation in a conventional European sense, but they are certainly a civilization, a people. They are a people who have lived in their ancestral territory for millennia, who have common linguistic roots and much common culture and heritage, including hundreds of years of anti-colonial struggle. At the same time, they are a people made up of peoples. There are several separate cultural groups within the Maya, most of whom also have a determined ancestral territory, separate lifeways and cultural attributes. The various Mayan languages have evolved independently to the point that they are sometimes mutually unintelligible.
Under colonialism, the Maya have faced wave after wave of painful forced migration, a fact that has put formerly isolated communities into contact and often mixed them. Maya have also been forced to deal with latino culture, which they have confronted through multiple strategies—resistance, diversion and appropriation for their own use. Today, as in the past, the Maya are defending and reinventing themselves in order to survive genocidal attacks and throw off the latest form of colonialism. This is the stage on which the EZLN is an actor."