The Zapatista uprising, rebellion, and ongoing attempts to create a new way of life inside Mexico is unique. While Zapatistas have purposely isolated themselves from the Mexican government, they are not isolated from surrounding communities. Zapatista influences can be seen in the practices and organization of cooperatives and in the altered role of indigenous women in the surrounding communities. This study focuses on four cooperatives: one located in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, and the others in rural surrounding areas. The selected collectives produce traditional artisan work, basic food staples, natural personal care products, and herbal medicines. Using a snowball sampling technique, the investigator identified prospective interview participants. Nineteen women participated in 1-2 hour formal interviews, four individually and the others in small group settings; all formal interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Participants ranged in age from early 20s to early 50s; the majority self-identified as Tzotzil and Tzeltal, which represent approximately 71% of the indigenous population in Chiapas. Of the four cooperatives represented, two had direct working relationships with Zapatista cooperatives, and all had practices modeled on the Zapatista movement. Based on a phenomenological analysis of the transcripts, this paper argues that while the cooperatives were developed in response to forced internal displacement and extreme poverty, they were sustained because they provided a new kind of partnership, influenced by the Zapatista Movement, for the women to participate in the support and survival of their families. These findings suggest the potential of cooperatives as a cost-effective tool of development to promote gender role equality worldwide as well as provide recognition that this complex study and novel findings were only possible through a multidisciplinary and transnational academic and community partnership, integrating social work, women’s studies, and geography.

Key Take Away Points

  • Support is found for the potential of cooperatives as a small-scale, cost-effective tool of development to promote gender role equality worldwide
  • Encouraging women in similar conditions to partner more with each other, and less with outside organizations or entities, might prove a more productive and empowering model
  • Partnership development among the women helped them to be stronger, and less vulnerable to the harsh realities of economy, culture and gender
  • The Zapatista goal of opening up the democratic process to a larger and larger number of people is supported by this study

Author Biography

Dawn McCarty is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Program Director at the University of Houston Downtown. Since 2006, she has lived and conducted research on both sides of the US-Mexico border, studying the contributing factors and the consequences of unauthorized immigration to the United States. Damaris Cortez is a Licensed Master Social Worker and a founding member of the Latin American Initiative at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She works and travels frequently to El Salvador in support of the development of the social work profession with students and faculty. Beth Bee is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography, Panning and Environment at East Carolina University. Beth’s work explores the theoretical and empirical intersections between socio-environmental change, feminist theory, and rural livelihoods in Mexico. She holds a PhD in Geography and Women’s Studies from Pennsylvania State University.