The battered little yellow school bus filled with notebooks, pens, paint and fruit bounced into Los Angeles looking for donations for a new indigenous school in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
At the wheel was Chris Farmer, a 29-year-old UC Berkeley graduate hoping to entice others to join him on his Zapatista mission that would take him from Santa Cruz to the jungles of Chiapas. Though he found no takers in Los Angeles for the monthlong bus ride through Mexico, he aroused plenty of curiosity. From college students to community activists to church leaders, people wanted to know what this yellow bus to Chiapas was all about.
"People keep asking why I'm doing this, and I just wonder how can you not do this," said the lanky, goateed Farmer, who became interested in the Zapatista rebel movement in college. "Until yesterday, I was known as just 'the driver.' Now, I feel like I've become spokesman of this little school bus for peace."
After Farmer delivers the supplies to the school, he plans to join a pilgrimage of Zapatista rebels and supporters led by their leader, the man known only as Subcommander Marcos, who will march from Chiapas to Mexico City, tracing the historic route taken by Gen. Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution. In an event that is attracting international attention, Marcos and other members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army are expected to urge the Mexican Congress to pass legislation strengthening Indian rights.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army, a rebel group composed overwhelmingly of Maya indigenous people, took up arms in an uprising on Jan. 1, 1994, demanding indigenous rights and political power. Since then, the Zapatista movement--led by the pipe-smoking intellectual Subcommander Marcos--has grown into a global movement with activist groups embracing their struggle as a larger fight for the poor and the oppressed.
The idea to take a busload of school supplies into Chiapas and join the Zapatista march arose from a San Diego-based organization called Schools for Chiapas. The group, founded by San Diego teacher Peter Brown, supports construction and development of indigenous schools in Chiapas. In 1998, they helped build a technical junior high school in the village of Oventic. The school, named the First of January Zapatista Rebel Secondary School, became the first institution for Maya Indian children taught by indigenous teachers.
After the school opened, Brown was expelled from the country for violating terms of his tourist visa by becoming involved in politics and directing the school's construction. The Mexican government regards the Zapatista school--and another one set to open--as unconstitutional because it was built without authorization of the National Educational System.
In addition to Schools for Chiapas, several other local groups will be traveling to Mexico City next month for the Zapatista march, including the Humanitarian Law Project and Chiapas Coalition '98.
It was through the Schools for Chiapas student group at Berkeley that Farmer learned of the schools--and the plans to bring supplies to them in the yellow school bus. The thought struck something inside him.
"I always wanted to get a bus and drive around with a bunch of friends. When I heard about this, it seemed like an opportunity to do that and help a worthwhile cause.
"This is a really fundamental approach to solving problems in poor communities like Chiapas. We're helping them build schools," said Farmer, an aspiring architect. "It's education, and that's a powerful weapon in itself."
Farmer embarked on his trip from Santa Cruz on Feb. 1. His first stops were in Oakland and San Francisco, where he picked up artwork and school supplies from several public schools. He arrived in Los Angeles on Monday and spent the night at a Wal-Mart parking lot, sleeping on the bus alongside life-size Zapatista puppets to be carried in the march. On Tuesday, he made stops at Occidental College in Eagle Rock and Echo Park United Methodist Church, gathering more donations and fans on each stop of the tour. Today, he is expected to stop in San Diego to pick up 20 activists who would accompany him through Mexico.
"I would love to go with him. But I would have to drop out of school to do it," said Occidental College student Matt Horner. "I think it's a great cause. The Zapatista struggle reaches into the feelings of powerlessness that everyone senses."
Farmer acknowledges being an unlikely advocate for Zapatistas. But, in his eyes, oppression comes in different forms and flavors.
"What oppression do I face?" he asks himself. "I come from this white privileged background, just graduated from college. But we're facing such pressure to make money and make money. I just had to ask myself, 'Do I want to be a part of that or make a difference?' "