|English | Español||June 21, 2018 | Issue #31|
What is Democracy?
Answers in Words and Deeds from Zapatista Lands
By Al Giordano
The sign explains that you are entering a “Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Municipality,” with a fingerprint converted into a face wearing a clandestine ski-mask that serves as the official seal: “This,” it notes, “is ours.” Aha! So there is something for ourselves. So, which is it? Is it nothing for ourselves? Or is it a fingerprint that is ours? Or both? Yes, it is both. It is nothing and it is also a fingerprint. It’s a paradox, too, isn’t it? If there’s no paradox, it’s not zapatismo.
Below the sign there is a man reading a newspaper: Okay, students and professors assembling on this brisk August day in the Chiapas highlands for the second session of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism: What does this picture, now a photo, tell us? The first clue is that newspapers are allowed here. And we can see that the man is smiling. He’s reading about himself. Well, to be more precise, he’s reading about 20,000 or more folks who are different than himself, but who are also like himself (here’s that paradox thing again), people who made long treks – as well as people who live here – we’re all here, to live, to die, to be reborn, in this Tzotzil-speaking indigenous town of Oventik Sacamch’en de Los Pobres at 5,000 feet above sea level “somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast.”
I’m another of these 20,000, who also counts himself with millions of people around the earth who, while not physically here in Oventik this weekend, have a caracol-shaped opening in their hearts that defines them as human beings and also as Zapatistas. This was, as one or two historians have noted, the town where Narco News was conceived, or at least made necessary, on a cold and starry night in the summer of 1997, without electricity or computer or telephone or Internet. The concept was penned on a yellow legal pad with a cheap Bic pen. Later that summer, after coming back down from this mountain, a mountain that I have just trekked up once again, I took $20 dollars of the last $150 I had to my name and express-mailed an open letter to a couple of old friends through my former newspaper, the Boston Phoenix. The newspaper kindly published it, even though, in that text, I took years of spectacular terrain I had developed in Gringolandia and tore it to pieces, upsetting many of the cicadas (Orianna Fallaci dixit), declaring civil war upon my then-former profession. Here is a snapshot – by way of introduction to yet another paradox – of my words from six summers ago:
...journalists cannot understand anyone who is not mercenary, who is not career-obsessed. Journalists have made their compromises, and they feel viscerally threatened by those who have not so compromised themselves, deformed themselves around capital and its media machines… It’s a sick profession. That’s a large part of why I defected from it.
Class is in session, and, kids, I have a question. We’ve discussed this before. It’s a question formulated last Winter by our colleague, professor Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, on a cold January afternoon in another part of our América.
What is Democracy?
By way of introduction to this question, let me, first, introduce you to some members of the Narco News Team who are with us on this mountain… Democracy, like journalism, is, first and foremost, about people…
Note the press passes. This is Andrea and Ava, two graduates of the first session of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism last February on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, standing here, in front of a cornfield, in Oventik. They’ve both got that School of Authentic Journalism smile thing going on.
The smile, I think, is what drives our enemies crazy.
Andrea Daugirdas, on your left, the 23-year-old first generation Lithuanian-American, authentic New Yorker, and documentary film producer, is the one who talked me into coming back to Chiapas, back to Oventik. I confess, I didn’t want to come. I wanted to stay in my bunker, the Narco Newsroom, and to send the students and professors to cover the story. I’m getting old and weary of so much travel… if this is August it must be Mexico. Or is it Brazil? Or Venezuela? Or Bolivia? Or the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan? I feel as if I have a permanent case of jetlag.
Plus, I have a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome from my early travels through Chiapas, back in an era in which immigration authorities pursued me and many like me, and also many different than me, for our shared crime of having entered rebel lands to report the truths that the Commercial Media hides. More than 400 of my journalism colleagues and human rights observers were expelled from Mexico during the years that I was the student in Chiapas. But now here I am, again, because Daugirdas insisted.
This is what I get for teaching my students not to ever take “no” for an answer. Twenty-nine hours of back roads and highways later, we’re here. The nomadic newsroom without a country has come… oh, my… we’re home. Thanks, Daugirdas.
Ava Salazar, on your right, is the 19-year-old great grandaughter of Mexican revolutionaries. She was our youngest student last February. She was very shy and quiet, but no more. Her faculty advisor was our senior professor, don Andrés Vásquez de Santiago, 93, of the Indigenous National Congress. In a way, Ava never left the J-School. She went directly from Yucatán to don Andrés’ hometown of San Bartolome, Guanajuato, where the Otomí-Nahñu language is still spoken. For more than five months she’s lived there, attended the fiestas and ceremonies, taken notes (she’s still working on her story for Narco News, which, I am sure, will be quite the world premier of her talents as a writer; we will publish no story before its time).
Well, I’m pleased to announced that today Ricardo files his first Narco News report (add him to the Contributing Writers roster, webmahster!) and it’s a great one: An interview with Mexican rocker Roco of the band Maldita Vecindad, which begins to explain what this “autonomy” thing that the Zapatistas are constructing is all about. Roco already knows Ricardo through his important work in the Mexican drug legalization movement and his website – www.vivecondrogas.com – and, well, in any case, those many attractive folks with the red-and-black Authentic Press passes that were ubiquitous at Oventik, well, that’s… our “banda.”
Here’s Ava with Juan, also from San Bartolome. This handsome young man, 22, is don Andrés’ grandson. He’s got his grandfather’s smile and charisma. The apple don’t fall far from the tree. Zapatistas, like Authentic Journalists, will never die, because we keep being born. Here comes the cavalry from below, from the youth. Yes, Daugirdas, I’m glad you dragged me by the ear to Oventik. I’m the one who is smiling from behind the camera.
Now, this pilgrimage is not all play. We are, in fact, busy working. Nobody believes us, due to that omnipresent, contagious, J-School smile; our own form of ski-mask that protects us from the consequences of our shared hatred for tyranny, bitterness toward injustice and hunger for Authentic Democracy, something that is only beginning to be born in this world. We’re angry, yes, but we love to be angry. And when we can be angry together, rather than alone, we can’t stop smiling. But here’s the scoop: Narco News is producing its first video documentary here in Oventik. The documentary’s director is our newest Authentic Journalism scholar, Sarahy Flores Sosa, 16, descendant of the Nahuatl, known around the world as “the Aztecs.” I’ve known Sarahy since she was 10-years-old, from when the first Zapatista Caravan – the one with 1,111 masked rebels trekking to Mexico City in 1997 – passed through her town of Tepoztlán, Morelos, in the region where General Emiliano Zapata was born… where he died on his feet… rather than live on his knees…
Last night, a week after the Oventik gathering, the Salón Chingón Cinema opened and we invited some guests to look at the rough cuts from the documentary filming in the Chiapas highlands. Sarahy’s parents, Veronica and Rubén (The Narco News J-School PTA!), were there, as was her sister Yael, 11, also a Zapatista and a potential recruit to the Authentic Journalism renaissance. We had two of the Chiapaneco granddaughters of Belisario Domínguez (1863-1913) with us in the cinema; Berta and Blanca. Their grandfather was the governor of Chiapas in the early 20th Century who gave meaning to the term “Civil Society.” It was he who most virulently opposed military rule in Mexico, and stood up against General Victoriano Huerta’s attempts to rule as a tyrant after Huerta had assassinated President Madero in the betrayal of the Revolution of 1910. Huerta then assassinated Domínguez. I don’t know how old Berta and Blanca are (or if I do, I won’t say), but suffice to say that they call me “young man.”
All revolutionary moments are inter-generational, especially those that are later called “youth movements.” That’s how I constructed Narco News and the School of Authentic Journalism, spanning four or five generations of talent and conscience, and that is how we keep being born.
Anyway, sixteen of us watched the rough video footage from Oventik and I asked, “Do we have enough for a documentary here?” Berta Domínguez Salkind, a successful Hollywood actress and screenwriter, a painter, a superb conversationalist in various languages, and a simply wonderful and wordly human being, said, “Oh, yes. I believe you have an excellent work developing here.” I mean, this is someone who hung out with Picasso and Dali and their wives… and also, please note, with the up-and-coming documentarian Sarahy Flores Sosa. I turned to Daugirdas – who, having graduated from the first session of the J-School and now invited back as a professor, is Sarahy’s faculty advisor and executive producer of the video-in-the-making – and complimented Andrea on the camera work. I had assumed that the steady hand and good eye behind the lens was hers. She corrected me: “No, all the camera work is by Sarahy!” So were the interview questions. Great stuff. You’ll see, kind readers, soon enough. Thus speaks Narco News.
Now, here is one of our newest professors, the poet Juan Balderas Vargas, with another potential future scholar whose name I don’t know, but he’s got that J-School smile thing going on – an authentic smile, not forced – and that gives him away to our team of recruiters. Juan is a member of the Indigenous National Congress, from Querétaro. I’ve known him for three years, ever since he came to the Narco Newsroom to help us celebrate don Andrés’ 90th birthday, where he regaled us with a new poem about the “Patriarch Andrés.”
Let me please pause and make a statement here: A lot of people from the so-called “First World” (that is to say, North America, Europe, and a few other corners of this earth) come to Mexico (and to other lands) in search of “the Indians.” They come with preconceptions that they are going to meet bongo-banging, patchouli-scented, feather-wearing “medicine men,” and there are always a few “professionals” around who dress the role, usually for a price. It’s sad to see this happen. The indigenous worlds of Mexico include 62 ethnicities, each with a distinct language, and inside some of those languages are idioms with distinct words and pronunciations… and the “uses and customs” change not only from town to town, but also from individual to individual. Broad generalities cannot fairly be made, in my experience, when describing the indigenous of Mexico.
The variety of human experience among the indigenous of Mexico is as wide as – no, I correct myself, it is wider than – the variety of lived experience inside all developed world “cultures” combined. The latter have been homogenized and colonized under the rule of El Señor Dictator, Dinero: Money, and its occupying army, the Commercial Media. The former have developed, as their parents and grandparents before them for more than 500 years, means of resistance to this colonization. Don Andrés and I love to make fun of these First-World “seekers” by responding to their gross generalities with grosser ones: “You know how you tell which are the real Indians?” we mock these travelers. “They’re the ones that look like Cowboys!” Of course, that’s not all-inclusive, either.
In the never-ending search for authenticity, though, one factor remains constant: The Word. In particular, the spoken word. The ratio of poets in Mexico’s indigenous rights movement is very high compared to any other “group” of people I’ve ever encountered, even among those who, back in my hometown of New York (“Nahuatl York,” says the poet Balderas), call themselves poets.
“Power cannot enlist true creativity,” as the situationist Raoul Vaneigem observed some decades ago from Paris:
“Poetry is the act which brings new realities into being, the act which reverses the perspective. The materia prima within everyone’s reach. Poets are those who know how to use it to best effect… True poetry cares nothing for poems… Poetry is always somewhere. Its recent abandonment of the arts makes it easier to see that it resides primarily in individual acts, in a lifestyle and in the search for such a style. Everywhere repressed, this poetry springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence. It plays muse to the rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while, until the bureaucrats consign it to the prison of hagiography.”
That describes what Narco News began to do with the “drug” issue, almost 50 million hits ago…
So there we were, Juan Balderas, other members of the “banda,” and I, drinking coffee (the strongest drug, along with tobacco, allowed in these rebel lands) on August 8th in Oventik. And Juan takes out his pen, spontaneously. And he writes an acrostic poem that you will someday see recited in Sarahy and Andrea’s upcoming documentary. It’s titled “Oventik,” and it goes like this:
Ocurren aquí los cuatro vientos
Vienen con ansias libertarias
Este-Oeste, Norte-Sur: Pensamiento
Negro, Blanco, Amarillo, Rojo: Cimientos
Tiempo-espacio, masa-energía: Movimientos
Incandescente, espiral: Refulgente
Caracol-libertad: Centro Insurgente – Juan Balderas Vargas, August 8, 2003, Oventik, Chiapas
Here, the four winds blow
They come with libertarian anticipation
East-West, North-South: The thought
Black, White, Yellow, Red: The groundwork
Time-space, mass-energy: The movements
Incandescent spiral: Brilliant
Caracol-freedom: Insurgent Center
We’re here in Zapatista lands, where poetry is constant, and sometimes even occurs in poems.
Democracy comes in glimpses, in fleeting moments, always from below, when those who have been silenced speak. Sometimes we speak with words or music or arts. Sometimes we yell. Sometimes we speak with guns and machete swords. Increasingly, we are speaking with cameras and microphones and pens and keypads… but, still, we are not often heard. Often, we thus must speak with silence.
Democracy doesn’t exist.
It is made.
Democracy is not a constant.
It happens.And Democracy only happens when it is born and reborn, in revolt.
Democracy, when it happens, never happens the same way twice. It is like Vaneigem’s definition of poetry: “Power cannot enlist true creativity.” And it cannot codify true Democracy.
No, kind reader, that job belongs to you and to me and to everybody else. “Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves.”
Our small corner of this Democracy being born has a name: Authentic Journalism. Power cannot enlist true journalism!
Let’s look again at Vaneigem’s words, substituting the word “journalism” for that of “poetry.”
“Journalism is the act which brings new realities into being, the act which reverses the perspective. The materia prima within everyone’s reach. Journalists are those who know how to use it to best effect… True journalism cares nothing for the media… Journalism is always somewhere. Its recent abandonment of the media makes it easier to see that it resides primarily in individual acts, in a lifestyle and in the search for such a style. Everywhere repressed, this journalism springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence. It plays muse to the rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while, until the Commercial Media consigns it to the prison of hagiography.”
What is Democracy?
It is a very good idea.
I leave you with one more photo from the inaugural session of our second semester of the J-School where even the most angry of us can’t stop smiling. It is titled, “Machete Over Oventik.”
See that sword raised to the heavens? See all those people out there? Do you see the mirror in this photo? Do you see the twins of Authentic Democracy and Authentic Journalism fighting to be born? Do you think you have “the right stuff,” the conscience, the commitment, the anger, the smile, the time, the space, and the necessity, to help us midwife this child? (If so, we’re taking applications at firstname.lastname@example.org again: For this session, candidates for our scholarships must write and complete your own questionnaire – in Spanish, English, or Portuguese -.or otherwise write an angry smile of words that reveal the coherence we seek for members of this team.)
I’ll repeat one of my recent predictions, one of those awful, transgressive, predictions that are generally scoffed at and mocked until they come true, this one from the report titled Mexico’s “New Democracy” Has Not Yet Been Born.
As the establishment version of “democracy” decays, the spaces widen for a more authentic democracy from below. “México bronco” – as seen in places like San Salvador Atenco last year when, with machete swords and sickles held high up in the air, peasant farmers stopped a multi-billion dollar airport project north of Mexico City – is likely to erupt from many corners, simultaneously, over the coming three years of political void.
Authentic journalists of the world, smile! You have nothing to lose already.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism