Madrid, Spain – In the summer of 1521, Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes looted and destroyed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Today, 500 years later, Mexico’s indigenous Zapatistas are holding their own “invasion” of the Spanish capital to mark the anniversary.
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A delegation of seven Zapatistas set out by boat from Mexico’s most eastern point, Isla Mujeres, weeks ago in May, following the inverse route Spanish invaders took half a century earlier.
They crossed the Atlantic in 50 days and disembarked in Vigo, in northern Spain, on June 22.
Once they set foot on European soil, Zapatistas renamed the continent “Slumil K’ajxemk’op” which means “rebel land” in Tzotzil, a Mayan language.
But the Zapatistas say they did not come to conquer or to dominate.
Their mission, they said in a statement, was to “listen and to learn” from local struggles for social justice.
The purpose of the trip is “to talk about our mutual histories, our suffering, our rage, our successes and our failures”.
Spanish conquistadors, aided by an alliance of indigenous people, laid siege to Tenochtitlan until it surrendered on August 13, 1521.
The Aztec capital was devastated by violence and disease brought by Europeans.
Mexico City was built on its ruins.
“Even with the lowest estimates, around eight out of 10 people died from disease,” said Caroline Pennock, a senior lecturer who specialises in Aztec history.
“There was also horrendous violence and enslavement. The disruption and devastation of [indigenous] people’s lives are unimaginable.”
In 2019, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador asked Spain to apologise for the brutal conquest of Mexico. But the Zapatistas have made it clear they are not looking for an apology, and have reframed the anniversary as a commemoration of “500 years of indigenous resistance”.
“We are going to tell the people of Spain two simple things: one, they didn’t conquer us, we are still here resisting, in rebellion. Second, they don’t have to ask that we forgive them for anything,” they said.
‘We weren’t conquered’
In Madrid, the Zapatistas are commemorating the fall of Tenochtitlan on Friday with a demonstration under the slogan “We weren’t conquered – we won’t surrender.”
Zapatistas and their supporters will march from the city centre’s Puerta del Sol to Columbus Square, which features monuments to Spain’s colonial empire.
After the events in Madrid, the Zapatistas will continue their journey and visit other European countries, where they are planning meetings with groups that share the movement’s anti-capitalist and environmentalist values – from feminist collectives to migrant support initiatives and climate justice movements.
For Sylvia Marcos, a Mexican researcher and lecturer who focuses on indigenous movements, the main goal of the trip is to promote cooperation and solidarity.
“The Zapatistas are building connections with other places where people are also fighting to defend their land, to defend nature. Where people are fighting against extractivism and mega-projects, fighting for the survival of the planet,” she told Al Jazeera.
“These grassroots groups are marginal, but their power comes from these connections, from the attempts to join forces,” she said.
In July, a Zapatista delegation was in France to participate in a feminist meeting held at ZAD, a community built in opposition to the construction of an airport in Nantes, and joined a protest march held by undocumented workers in Montreuil, in the suburbs of Paris.
Other Zapatista delegations were to fly to Europe to join commemorations, but faced COVID-19 movement restrictions and ran into problems getting passports, which were denounced as “racist” by spokesperson Subcomandante Galeano, formerly known as Marcos.
From local autonomy to global relevance
Named after Emiliano Zapata, who led an agrarian rebellion in Mexico’s 1910 revolution, the Zapatistas first made international headlines on New Year’s Day 1994, when mostly Mayan indigenous rebels briefly seized several towns in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.
Chiapas is rich in natural resources, but many of its indigenous communities lacked access to running water, basic healthcare and education, while much of the land and resources were controlled by a small elite.
The rebellion was timed to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Zapatistas called the agreement a “death sentence” for impoverished indigenous farmers since it revoked their constitutional right to communal land and flooded local markets with cheaper US imports.
Since their uprising against inequality and the marginalisation of indigenous communities, the rebels have built autonomous municipalities with their own education and health system.
They reject government aid, and instead rely on land collectives and coffee and artisan cooperatives.
But beyond the local struggle for indigenous dignity and autonomy, the Zapatistas’ proposal of more democratic and equitable societies has inspired people and movements around the world.
“We can learn a lot from Zapatismo,” said Lola Sepulveda, who is from Madrid and has been following the movement since the 90s.
She was hosted in Chiapas several times, and is now part of one of the collectives organising Zapatista events in Madrid.
“They showed us there is another way of doing things,” she tells Al Jazeera, “a way that places life and human dignity at the centre.”