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In the markets of the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico's poorest state, Chiapas, locals have sold small wool dolls to tourists for years. Since 1994, when the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) staged a short-lived armed uprising followed by the establishment of self-governing communities, the dolls have been Zapatista-fied. The one in a black mask with a little pipe is the famous one, Subcomandante Marcos, a charismatic and verbose former communications professor prone to writing surrealist parables. The one with black braids, traditional embroidered blouse and black ski mask is Comandante Ramona.

On Friday night, Ramona died after years of kidney disease; she was 47. Mexican and foreign newspapers carried only brief mentions. But she deserves attention as an important indigenous leader and as a fighter for women's rights on the ground. Details of her life are sketchy. Like her effigy, Ramona was tiny, with those dark braids, an embroidered huípil and the black balaclava. Sometimes on horseback, sometimes with a rifle. She was a Tzotzil Maya with little formal education and poor Spanish.

Ramona was the first Zapatista to appear publicly, in Mexico City, after the 1994 uprising. She was part of the Zapatistas' governing committee but worked primarily in rebel-protected communities. When the government offered her first-class private medical care, she refused, saying she wasn't fighting for her own privileges but for health for all. She gained time when her brother donated his kidney in 1996.

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In Mexico, poor indigenous women are easily the most disenfranchised group, and empowerment of the usually powerless is a cornerstone of the Zapatistas' philosophy. In a speech to Mexican university students in 1997, Ramona said: "For the EZLN, the woman's struggle is very important. Not only through weapons, but through political organization in the communities." How successful this struggle has been is debatable.

Women occupy senior positions in the Zapatista army and play prominent and substantive roles in negotiations and public events. Ramona's work in Zapatista-protected communities included determining women's needs as they saw them. They demanded access to power in decision-making; free choice of a spouse; not to be beaten or physically mistreated by family members or by strangers; to choose for themselves the number of children they would have and the right to nutrition and health care.

On the other hand, access to land, so basic to the EZLN's demands as a whole, is not addressed in the Revolutionary Law developed from these consultations. While sexual-health workshops are part of the painstaking work of the Zapatista women, Ramona was evasive on the issue of abortion. Attitudes are slow to change, and women -- even Zapatista supporters, even guerrillas -- continue to endure the worst of poverty and its children: domestic violence, malnutrition, illiteracy and diseases such as AIDS.

Ramona's work advanced the position of indigenous women in Chiapas, even if the pace of change is as slow as the snail, or caracol (also a word for the Zapatista base communities). More impressive, in her life and work, she has shown that even citizens jaded by the circus of scandals and corruption that make up much of Mexican politics can recognize dignity when they see it. Comandante Ramona demanded dignity, not just in words, but in practice. From there flowed all of the specific demands that she and her sisters made on the Zapatistas, the government and the men in their lives.

Anyone who wears a mask knows her force as a symbol. Ramona once said: "What we're saying is, broadcast this struggle so that many women elsewhere might take the example and do something elsewhere, not so they might come here where we are." It's an inspiring example for Ramona's indigenous sisters in Canada. Despite an absence of attractive political options in Mexico, perhaps Ramona's example will inspire something better as Mexicans head to the ballot box on July 2. And when little girls play with the small, gun-toting doll on its little knitted horse, they will be imagining their fundamental role in a new Mexico.

Carlyn Zwarenstein is a Toronto freelance writer who spends part of each year in Mexico City.

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