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Program 9927
July 6, 1999


Monika Firl

Tatiana Shriver

Aliza Sherman, President, Cybergrrl Incorporated, founder, Webgrrls International

May Leong, Director, Webgrrls International

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

MONIKA FIRL: There’s a terrible problem of instigated violence. And so the question of trust and safety is, becomes a very, very real concern of peoples. In a context that one lives here in Chiapas, it’s, it’s—you just can’t afford to be too trusting.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, coping with conflict in Chiapas, Mexico. And later, we’ll hear about women on the World Wide Web.

ALIZA SHERMAN: I began getting e-mails from women around the world asking, “Can I start a Webgrrls chapter too?” And very organically this network grew—both on-line and off-line—it now represents almost 100 chapters around the world. This is an opportunity for women at all different levels to share the information and share the experiences and knowledge that they have with other women so we can help each other succeed.

MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

In December of 1997 a group of Tzotzil Indians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico, were ambushed inside a church, dividing up clothes that had been donated to the community. Everyone tried to flee but they were chased and in the end 45 people were killed, mostly women and children. After the massacre many more people fled the community for fear of further attack. Some 10,000 are still refugees in their own country. A year-and-a-half later reporter Tatiana Shriver visited Acteal to find out how the community was coping and what their hopes are for the future.

TATIANA SHRIVER: Once you live the village of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the thriving tourist-oriented colonial city in the mountains of Chiapas, any sense of comfort you might feel as a tourist quickly falls away. To get to Acteal or any of the communities in the so-called “conflict zone” you go through several army checkpoints.

[sound of soldiers conversing with tourists]

SHRIVER: The soldiers are young men, mostly indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indians like the majority of the peasant farmers who live here. They say they are part of an effort to crack down on drug trafficking and they insist on seeing identification for all Mexicans and passports for all foreigners. You’re asked where you’ve come from, where you’re going, and how long you’ll be.

[sound of soldiers conversing with tourists]

SHRIVER: In 1994 an armed uprising in southern Mexico surprised Mexican leaders and others around the world, especially because the brief but intense fighting came just as Mexico was joining the US and Canada as a trading partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The government quickly moved to negotiate with the Zapatista rebels, who are calling for broad rights and political autonomy for indigenous people. There‘s been an uneasy peace over the last five years but militarization of the region is escalating. Some 70,000 soldiers are based in camps around the communities thought to be sympathetic to the Zapatistas and several anti-Zapatista paramilitary groups operate in the area as well.

After passing through the Army barricades outside Acteal the community requires a letter of introduction from one of the human rights organizations that work in Chiapas.

[sound of people conversing]

SHRIVER: But visitors are welcome. In fact, a new visitors’ house is being constructed so that foreign observers will have a place to stay.

[sound of people conversing]

SHRIVER: The house, like most here, will be of wood planks with a corrugated tin roof, nestled among coffee plants and fruit trees providing shade from the hot sun.

[sounds of hammering]

SHRIVER: The people who were attacked in the massacre here are members of the civil organization called “Las Abejas,” “the bees.” They’re a pacifist Catholic group and they believe they were targeted by paramilitaries because they refused to take up arms against the Zapatistas.

[sounds of person talking]

SHRIVER: Mariano Perezcura leads a human rights delegation into a tiny wooden structure with a dirt floor. The church, were in December 1997, 45 people, including 21 women and 15 children, were killed when the building was ambushed.

MARIANO PEREZCURA: [via a translator] So on the 22nd some people were here to give the clothes out to the people and others were praying there for peace, when at around 11:20 people came from different directions, from there and from over there, to attack the people who were praying. And so people started fleeing down there to a little creek and to the other side as well. But they were coming from all sides, heavily armed. And the shooting started at around 11:30 and didn’t end until about 4:00, when they actually went, got to the creek and started shooting there as well.

[sound of people conversing in Spanish]

SHRIVER: The building is empty now except for a small altar. On the walls marked by bullet holes, signs in Spanish and English call on visitors to pressure the government to punish the perpetrators of the crime and remove the Army and police from the community. After the massacre a large military base was installed 100 meters from the village. Augustine Vasquez is a leader of Las Abejas in Acteal. He says the presence of the military has changed daily life.

AUGUSTINE VAZQUEZ: [via a translator] The presence of the military makes life different and sad. Because they bring war and they violate the rights and they violate women. They have orders from the government. Las Abejas tries anyway, try not to get very sad. You always have to have time for happiness so that people do not get sick because they feel frightened. There must be days in which we have, we have to think about happiness and about continuing and that is how the struggle goes on and the resistance continues.

[sound of Mexican music]

SHRIVER: After the massacre about 4,000 members of Las Abejas left the area for fear of another attack. Some 6,000 members of pro-Zapatista villages nearby also fled to the safety of three large refugee camps. Last year these displaced people lost their entire coffee harvest, the only source of income for most farmers in this area. This year, not wanting to depend entirely on humanitarian aid, they tried to return to their fields to harvest the crop.

[sound of people working and talking in the fields]

SHRIVER: The coffee fields are like a thick forest cultivated up and down the steep mountain slopes.

[sound of people working and talking in the fields]

SHRIVER: Meeting a group of Tzotzil women hiking uphill with their coffee baskets, Andres Perez Perez says they’re a brigade formed to help Maria Vazquez Gomez, a woman who lost nine members of her family in the massacre.

[sound of people working and talking in the fields]

SHRIVER: Perez explains that in order to harvest this year a team of observers from two human rights groups and the Red Cross accompany each farmer to the field. In one community the teams were confronted by armed men who threatened their lives, so they had to turn back.

[sound of people working and talking in the fields]

SHRIVER: Perez and Maria Vazquez Gomez are among a small number of Abejas still living in Acteal. Maria, speaking Tzotzil, says that after the massacre she couldn’t work at all because she was too sad.

MARIA VAZQUEZ GOMEZ: [via a translator] After the massacre, when I realized that everyone had died, I wanted to go somewhere else, to look for another place to live. There was no one with me. I thought I was going to die also. Now, it’s a little more relaxed. I don’t feel the same way as before, when all my people died. I am working, more or less. It’s not like it was when my mother and my siblings were alive. I’m suffering. I always remember my mother and my siblings but now they are all dead. But I can’t abandon the land. I can’t abandon theparcela, nor can I abandon the children that are with no parents, as I am now.

SHRIVER: Vazquez Gomez says working herparcela, or coffee patch, has given her some hope for the future and a happier life for the children.

[sound of children playing]

SHRIVER: Eleven of the displaced families from the highlands are living in a religious community in San Cristobal, called “La Nueva Primavera,” “new spring.”

[sound of people talking]

SHRIVER: Most of the houses here are wooden, a sign that they’re temporary and the family still hope to return home. But Alonzo Lopez Mendez is building a two-room concrete house on rented land nearby. And though they have no furniture or shelves, he’s moved in with his wife and three of their six children.

[sound of children playing]

SHRIVER: The children, happily playing on a mat in the corner, seem to be doing fine. But the pain their parents feel is evident. Alonzo and Faustina still seem shocked trying to understand what happened to them.

ALONZO LOPEZ MENDEZ: [via a translator] They want us to take up arms and kill our brothers, the Zapatistas. But we are not just an organization. We are catechastias. We are followers of God, of the Bible. Why should we kill our brothers? We are the same blood, the same race. That’s the way we feel. But the Priistas, the paramilitaries, they say, “Ah, you are Zapatistas, because you don’t want to help us.”

SHRIVER: Lopez Mendez and other members of the Abejas are convinced that the paramilitaries are sponsored by the ruling party, the Pri, so when they talk of the paramilitaries they often say “Priistas” in the same breath. The government denies any connection and some 80 arrests have been made of those thought to be responsible for the massacre. But Lopez Mendez says he can’t go back, because some of the perpetrators are still free in the community. And Faustina, speaking in Tzotzil, says she’s doing better here.

FAUSTINA VAZQUEZ PEREZ: [via a translator] And now I feel a little bit calmer. And in my community I was locked in my house and people were ready with their guns. Here I am not suffering any more. I don’t feel afraid. We see that people from all around the world come here and we feel that we are not alone and that we are many.

SHRIVER: When her husband was forced to flee under threat, Faustina was left alone with her children. She says the paramilitaries made her pay thousands of pesos or they’d burn down the house and kill her children. She gave birth to her youngest daughter, now 16 months old, while still alone in the house.

Padre Rodrigo is a Catholic priest who came to Chiapas to work with the displaced. He says one of the hardest things for them is to be away from their land.

PADRE RODRIGO: [via a translator] They consider the land as the axis of their life, fundamentally. To be so removed from the land has hurt them very deeply inside. It has changed their vision of the world, their sense of security, and culturally speaking, it’s a verity.

SHRIVER: In the past, members of Las Abejas sold their coffee through a cooperative called Mahamut. But, since the massacre, for various reasons most of the Abejas stopped selling through Mahamut. Monika Firl is a staff person with the coffee producer organization in Chiapas called “campesino a campesino,” “farmer to farmer.” Firl and others say the presence of the paramilitaries in the communities has sown seeds of mistrust.

FIRL: There’s a terrible problem of instigated violence. And so the question of trust and safety is, becomes a very, very real concern of peoples. So I think it’s forced a lot of organizations to split. In a context that one lives here in Chiapas, it’s, it’s—you just can’t afford to be too trusting.

SHRIVER: Now the Abejas want to start their own organic coffee enterprise. Despite the splits and mistrust, Father Rodrigo believes the Abejas, because of their particular values, are playing an important role in Chiapas, that could contribute to real peace in the region.

RODRIGO: [via a translator] It’s very moving to see this in the relatives of the victims. I can testify that I haven’t heard them say anything bad against the aggressors. No, I’ve found this other attitude, this desire to overcome the situation, find harmony within their communities and with other indigenous people even though they belong to other organizations.

SHRIVER: But for many individuals, like Faustina Vazquez Perez, reconciliation may be a long ways away.

VAZQUEZ PEREZ: [via a translator] Our brothers in Acteal didn’t do anything. They were just praying. Why? Why, why did they kill them? Because we don’t want to kill our brothers. They too away all of our things. And we were left with nothing. We didn’t do anything. That is why our hearts changed.

[sound of people singing]

SHRIVER: In the Catholic church in San Cristobal Bishop Samuel Ruiz presides over a special mass commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Center’s work in the region. In the front pews are two rows of Zapatista delegates who’ve come to San Cristobal to promote a national plebiscite on indigenous rights. The Abejas and other victims of the violence now prevalent in Chiapas are putting their hope in this and other movements, away from armed conflict, and towards negotiated peace.

For Common Ground I’m Tatiana Shriver.

MC HUGH: Coming up next, a report on an international organization for women on the Web.

SHERMAN: The Internet is absolutely an amazing communication tool across the board, perfect for organizing. Webgrrls is extremely specific about what we stand for and what we’re here to do. We are here to empower women to use technology for their personal and their professional gain.

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MC HUGH: From its beginning, the World Wide Web has had a predominantly male and predominantly American user base. Common Ground Senior Producer Keith Porter spoke with a couple of women who are trying to change that.

PORTER: Aliza Sherman is President of Cybergrrl Incorporated, and founder of Webgrrls International. In both cases “girl” is spelled “grrl.”

SHERMAN: Webgrrls International is a networking group and so much more. It is an opportunity for women to meet in the real world, to network about the Internet, technology, new media. To mentor one another, to teach skills, to learn, to intern, all around trying to get women involved in technology, be part of the process of creating it, and to use it in their everyday lives as well. The mission of Webgrrls is to help women succeed in an increasingly technical workplace and world. And it is really a bridge to get them from the learning process to the using process and the creating process, of technology.

PORTER: Webgrrls is spelled with two “r’s” and no “i.” How come?

SHERMAN: For no major political reason or anything more than when I first went on the Web and I created my personal home page and I was calling myself “Cybergrrl,” I didn’t want to spell it g-i-r-l; it sounded like a little girl. I tried “Cyberwoman” and it didn’t quite have the right ring to it. Cyber came from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and I switched the “i” to an “r” and I liked the attitude. I thought it had a sense of humor. It was playful and it was representing a cartoon character, which was representing me. And she was a cyber super-heroine, champion of women on-line. When I discovered other women’s web sites and wanted to link to them from my Cybergrrl web site I wanted to give them a name and I called women with web sites “Webgrrls.” And the name has since evolved to really express the Web and the network that we’ve created around the world for women. So it’s taken on more of a meaning. You don’t have to have a web site to be a Webgrrl.

PORTER: Now, you mentioned the worldwide aspect of this. Tell us something about that?

SHERMAN: Cybergrrl Inc., as a company, based in New York City; the most amazing thing about what we do in terms of creating web sites for women and resources for women, is the fact that we can reach an international audience. Webgrrls, when I first met other women who had web sites and they happened to live in New York City, in April of 1995 we met in a cyber-café here in the City, in the East Village, and we had the common thread of a our web sites. And we enjoyed meeting one another and we continued to meet and I started to write about it on my web site. I began getting e-mails from women around the world asking, “Can I start a Webgrrls chapter too?” And very organically this network grew—both on-line and off-line—it now represents almost 100 chapters around the world, of women, everything from women in college, graduating from college, entering the workplace, to women who are established in the industry, transitioning from other industries, starting their own businesses, executive women. It runs the gamut. This is an opportunity for women at all different levels to share the information and share the experiences and knowledge that they have with other women so we can help each other succeed.

And then it crosses borders. Because of the Internet. Because of the fast communication of e-mail and using the Net and the Web to connect. It truly is unlike any traditional professional women’s organization out there.

PORTER: As you’ve expanded worldwide have you found cultural differences or things that you’ve had to overcome that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise because you’ve moved into other countries in other parts of the world?

SHERMAN: Well, absolutely. Because of the international reach there are many subtleties and issues that we never would have imagined, if your just dealing with an American or regional or local group. One incident that comes to mind immediately is a woman joined from the Middle East. And was very anxious to be in touch with women from other countries and to learn a lot more about technology. And unfortunately she was very taken aback by the active and lively debate on our e-mail list, which is the way that the leaders communicate. We all subscribe to an e-mail list and communicate almost daily via e-mail with one another. And these conversations can get pretty colorful as we talk about our different philosophies, about business and the Internet. And she was not used to that and actually dropped out because she just felt it was completely foreign to her. And actually she was offended.

And it really opened our eyes to the fact that even something as simple as an open debate via e-mail can pose a threat or be taken in a different way than what we’re used to. We’re so used to freedom of expression. So I think being more sensitive to different cultures, different needs, is very important, because we do reach so far around the globe.

PORTER: Do you have men who want to be a part of this?

SHERMAN: Every once in a while we do get the occasional e-mail or phone call from a man who more often than not is demanding to be involved. And I would welcome anyone who would like to participate if they truly believe in the mission, if they can contribute to it in the same way that all the women are contributing. But ultimately when you explain to a man, “you know, it’s really nice for a women to have an environment that’s noncompetitive, where they have the opportunity to feel comfortable about being vulnerable or saying what they don’t understand, and to give them that opportunity to catch up,” almost every man says, “You know what? It’s awesome. I’m gonna send my wife,” “I’m gonna send my girlfriend,” “I’m gonna send my sister.” Which is really great.

We certainly don’t exclude men but a lot of men who do attend, they’ll sit in the back and they’ll observe and afterwards they’ll come up to us and say, “You know, it’s a really wonderful network. I totally don’t belong here. But if I have some job leads I’ll certainly let you know.” So it’s unique, it’s a unique environment. And I think that there’s a place for it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such a big demand.

MAY LEONG: I was teaching at a small university located in the middle of rice fields, three hours north of Tokyo.

PORTER: May Leong is Director of Webgrrls International.

LEONG: It was a very small university, the International University of Japan, which was a two-year graduate school and students got their MBA’s or M.A. in International Relations. And the student body was about 200, mostly men. And our school went from old bit net connection to suddenly a T-1 connection. And it was a great opportunity for me to get on the Internet and read CNN news without having to wake up at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. So at that time I was thinking about transitioning away from teaching and trying to look for a project that I could sink my teeth into.

Well, I read an article about Aliza Sherman in the New York Times on-line. And when I read about the noncompetitive alliances and, you know, what the Webgrrls’ mission was about, the light bulb went off in my head. And I thought, “Okay, the Internet is very new in Japan, it’s something I’m interested in, it’s something that women need here.” And I thought, here was a great opportunity for me to meet other women that, who I could learn more Japanese from and also be doing something that I really enjoyed, and that was using Internet and technology in general.

PORTER: English has become the universal language of the Internet. Does Webgrrls operate exclusively in English?

LEONG: Well, right now out of headquarters we are operating in English. Yes and No. No, because we do have groups in Germany and if you go to their web site it’s all in German. In Japan the web site is mostly in English but, however, right before we left we had our first Japanese html class, which I was so happy about. So what we do want to do is eventually get into having more materials and be operating in the different languages. That’s my ultimate dream.

PORTER: I have one last question for you Aliza. There’s a lot of talk about the fact that the Web is a incredible political organizing tool. Do you or your chapters have, do you use it for that purpose? Or do you have plans to use it as a political organizing and an issue-oriented organizing tool?

SHERMAN: The Internet is absolutely an amazing communication tool across the board, perfect for organizing. Webgrrls is extremely specific about what we stand for and what we’re here to do. We are here to empower women to use technology for their personal and their professional gain, to provide them with a platform and the resources and the benefits, and the network in order for them to achieve. We are very, very specific that we’re not a political organization, we do not encourage any chapter to get involved in political or cause-related issues that are not directly related to empowering women and girls to use technology. There’s been a lot of opportunity, there’s been a lot of discussions about this, and debate—colorful debate—about that. And yet there are so many organizations out there that do that. We want to remain focused, we want to remain very accessible to anybody regardless of their personal politics. This is not about personal politics, this is about the general empowerment of women. So, while it is a fantastic political tool, people have definitely said that because we are Webgrrls, because we are women-oriented, that that’s a political statement unto itself. Well, that’s the side issue. We’re really here focused trying to make sure the women aren’t left behind and that they’re recognized for their achievements in technology areas, and that they can truly be part of the creation of the technology we’re all going to use today and in the future.

PORTER: That is Aliza Sherman. She’s founder of Webgrrls International. You can see the organization’s web site at And remember, Webgrrls is spelled “w-e-b-g-r-r-l-s. For Common Ground I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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