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Sharbach Lecture Focuses on Women in the Zapatista Movement

April 28, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

“Who I am here at home informs my work in other places.” That’s how Dianne Rocheleau opened the Sarah Sharbach Memorial Lecture on April 23 in Ghosh Science and Technology Center Auditorium.

Rocheleau, associate professor of geography at Clark University, is a first-generation college graduate, a founding member of Worcester Peace Works and a resident of Main South in Worcester. She has been at Clark since 1989.

Rocheleau’s academic interests include environment and development, political ecology, forestry, agriculture and landscape change. Gender, class and popular vs. formal science in resource allocation and land use are further intellectual interests.

The work she discussed Thursday night was entitled “Women in Social Movements in Oaxaca and Chiapas: Making Another World in Which Many Worlds Are Possible.” About 80 students, faculty and community people heard her lecture.

Land use and ownership are the basis of the indigenous movements in the two Mexican states. The Zapatista struggle in Chiapas is tied to land rights and indigenous autonomy and has been going on for decades. The struggle became visible January 1, 1994, the date NAFTA went into effect and the Zapatistas staged protests.

In the early days of the Zapatista movement, which is closely tied to liberation theology in the Catholic Church, women were allowed to join convents to work with bishops. Their literacy levels increased, Rocheleau said. They learned Spanish and were translating documents into their indigenous languages.

Thus, women began to have leadership roles not only in the church but also in civil society. They were trained as community organizers and established schools, hospitals and clinics.  In their indigenous communities, there is a long tradition of women healers and spiritual leaders, Rocheleau said. The church and liberation theology built on this.

Women and women’s leadership and activism have been incorporated into these social movements. The Zapatistas accepted women in the insurgency, she said. And these women entered the insurgency on their own terms.

The Zapatistas want a world where lots of different worlds can live together, Rocheleau said. They want the freedom to live the way they want, which includes letting women live the way they want.

In Oaxaca, women and women’s groups have also joined the movement for social and economic change. Women have retained their indigenous culture while moving into the public sphere, taking over radio stations, performing civil disobedience and conducting cultural demonstrations even as paramilitary forces have taken over their cities and towns. Women there also have equal representation in the local governing bodies.

“What have we in the United States heard of the involvement of women in these movements?” Rocheleau asked. “Nothing.”

She and her husband, an ecologist, spent their sabbatical year in 2006-07 working on sustainable forestry projects in these two Mexican states. Through this experience, Rocheleau met women involved in these movements and learned of their resistance, courage and resilience.

Letting people outside of Mexico know of the political repression in these states, the indigenous movements against that repression, and women’s involvement in these movements is Rocheleau’s mission.

It is one that Sarah Sharbach, a faculty member in the Worcester State College history department until her untimely death in 2004, would have shared. Sharbach’s research interest was Latin America and her passion was social justice. Each year around the time of her April 1 birthday, the Women’s Studies program sponsors a lecture in her honor.  Sharbach was a founding member of the WSC Women’s Studies program.

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