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The 1994 Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was the culmination of centuries of repression and exploitation of the country’s indigenous minority at the hands of its Spanish and mestizo leaders and the landed elite. The Liberal Reform initiated in 1854, followed by the “modernizing” policies of President Porfirio Díaz (1877–1880; 1884–1911), and then the revolution that ousted him, would strengthen and institutionalize a new set of institutional frameworks, discourses, and practices that lasted through the 20th century. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN) emerged from a history of complex and volatile relationships between indigenous peoples of the impoverished state and its economic and political elite, relationships that began a process of redefinition in the 1950s. Zapatismo is one of the expressions of indigenous and working-class struggles in this social and historical context. It can be distinguished from other rural and indigenous movements by its repudiation of the strategies of protest and negotiation within an institutional framework, its adoption of armed struggle, and its rejection of the conventional objectives of land and commercial agricultural production in favor of territorial autonomy and de facto self-government.

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Chinacos were mounted guerrillas of the War of the Reform and the French Intervention (1857–1860, 1862–1867) who fought on the liberal republican side, operated out of central Mexican regions, and were known for their wide-brimmed sombreros and battle lances. What is known about them is largely the product of popular perception shaped by print depictions, some of which were created long afterward. They first appeared in the press when the War of the Reform was winding down and the victorious Juárez government, in carriage and on horseback, prepared to enter Mexico City in January of 1861. Before the French invasion that began in October of 1861 with the naval landing at Veracruz, the “chinaco” designation applied to irregular fighters. The newspaper and propaganda organ La Chinaca gave such fighters an image and narrative that endures to the present day. Still known among many Mexicans, their appearance in print media resulted from times of crisis as Mexico, after a military defeat by the United States and a major loss of territory, encountered the French Intervention in the 1860s. Chinacos as symbolic figures on horseback exemplify a historic pattern of guerrilla warfare in Mexico, dating at least to the US-Mexican War. There are different versions of the label chinaco, although there is strong evidence that it has roots in the chino designation assigned to Afro-Mexicans during the colonial era. It is also linked to “china,” or rural women known for their distinctive attire as depicted in popular reading.