Tens of thousands of supporters welcomed Subcommander Marcos and 23 other Chiapas rebel leaders as their caravan rolled triumphantly into the Mexican capital's main square, ending a 2,100-mile trek from their southern stronghold and opening an uncertain political chapter in Mexico's modern democracy.
With his back to the stately colonial-era National Palace and gesturing toward the immense flag that looms over the plaza known as the Zocalo, Marcos declared to the throng: "It is the hour of the Indian people, of the people of the color of the earth."
Marcos and the other Zapatista National Liberation Army leaders thus concluded a 16-day pilgrimage through 12 Mexican states, their most dramatic venture beyond the southern state of Chiapas since they waged a bloody 12-day insurrection beginning Jan. 1, 1994.
The group's central goal is to pressure Congress to adopt legislation that would give broad autonomy to Mexico's approximately 10 million indigenous people, and Marcos ruled out immediate peace negotiations until several conditions are met. Still, the march raised expectations of progress toward a peace deal in Mexico's poorest, southernmost state, which would be a major victory for the government of President Vicente Fox.
The Zapatista leaders were scheduled to meet today with a congressional committee on the rights legislation, their first such meeting since negotiations deadlocked in 1996. The rebels say they will stay in Mexico City until the bill is passed.
Fox, who proposed the rights legislation as his first major initiative after taking office Dec. 1, said Saturday on his weekly radio show, "On Monday, the second phase begins: the political debate."
The Zapatista rally in the Zocalo was not unlike the huge political rally there for Fox during his successful campaign last year to end 71 years of one-party rule.
On the last leg of the "Zapatour," Marcos and his co-commanders followed the path traced in December 1914 by Mexican Revolution heroes Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa from Xochimilco, on the south side of the capital, to the Zocalo. Marcos and his fellow commanders traded the tour bus they had used for most of the caravan for a flatbed trailer so they could wave to the thousands of people who lined the route. Federal police, who would have been considered the enemy during the insurrection, protected the caravan. The only casualty during the entire march was a motorcycle policeman killed March 1 in an accident.
A crowd that appeared to approach 100,000 baked under a ferocious sun in the Zocalo, the heart of Mexico built on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which fell to Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes in 1521.
Vendors sold black pennants bearing portraits of Marcos alongside Zapata and the 1960s revolutionary Che Guevara, to whom Marcos is often compared.
One man in the crowd, Valente Corona, said the march was critical for Mexico's demoralized left. "I believe this means reclaiming our identity as a left," he said, but added a concern: "The fear I have is that they may just sign a peace agreement without addressing the real problems of the indigenous peoples."
Marcos, the last of five Zapatista commanders to address the crowd, spoke with the cadence of a poet and with the anti-capitalist fervor that has marked his verbal dueling with Fox throughout the trek from Chiapas.
The rebel leader, who, like the majority of Mexicans, is of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, emphasized the richness of the nation's rainbow of cultures, calling out the names of many of the Indian groups. "What they fear is that there is no more 'you' and 'us,' because we are all the color of the earth," Marcos said.
"It is the hour for Fox to listen to us, for Fox to see us," Marcos said.
Marcos has said the Chiapas peace talks can resume only after three conditions are met: The rights law must be adopted, seven army bases in Chiapas must be shut, and all Zapatista political prisoners must be released. Fox has submitted the rights legislation, which was shelved by his predecessor, and has closed four bases, leaving three in dispute. Most prisoners have been released.
Despite Marcos' fervent anti-capitalist rhetoric, commerce was not far behind. Merchants hawked calendars featuring the ski-masked rebel leader, along with masks, flags, T-shirts and EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) key chains. Others sported ski masks and carried pipes--Marcos' trademark paraphernalia--posing in jest as friends snapped pictures.
For Eduviges Carvajal, however, the moment and its message were somber.
"It is here that Subcommander Marcos is representing us--the poor, the indigenous," said Carvajal, an Otomi Indian from Toluca. "At last we have someone who can remind the president that we exist."
Middle-class families also turned out in numbers to acknowledge what for decades Mexico has in many ways appeared to want to forget.
"We are all indigenous," said Pilar Meneses, who came to the Zocalo from Villacoapa, south of the city, with her husband, a retired engineer. As the couple made their way through the narrow streets of the capital's historic downtown toward the square, they spotted prominent politicians and writers in the crowd, mixed in among indigenous workers and students with green Mohawk haircuts.
"Everybody wants this," Meneses said of the movement for indigenous rights. "But before, we didn't have a person to lead this movement. We all wanted it, and we did nothing."
The message of unity was repeated throughout the afternoon. "We are all Zapatistas. Welcome!" read one EZLN banner. "No estan solos!" or "You are not alone!" people chanted after Marcos delivered his speech.
Before he took the stage to cheers, representatives of indigenous communities addressed the crowd. One after another, they offered up the country's undisputed history, chronicling centuries of poverty and humiliation for native peoples. Still, the underlying message was one of cultural survival--and hope, at last, for protection under the law.
The implications of the movement could carry far beyond Mexico.
"This could set off a movement for indigenous rights throughout Central America," said Margarita Ledezma Fernandez, 50, a professor of English comprehension at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "This is a historic moment, not just for the country but for the world."