|English | Español||January 20, 2018 | Issue #38|
Growing Up Zapatista
The Ideological Children of Mexico’s Rebels Aren’t – or Soon Won’t Be – Kids Anymore
By Al Giordano
Photo: D.R. 2005 Francisco Alvarez Quiñones
It can be frustrating to watch, and it doesn’t need to be that way. These are young people with experience. In particular, many of these late-20-and-early-30-somethings are already veterans of their own war: the 1999-2000 general strike at the National Autonomous University (UNAM, in its Spanish initials), a strike that paralyzed the campus in Mexico City for ten months and was rudely abandoned by almost every elder on the Left (many of whom, of course, have at one time or another been on the payroll of the university system). They were left for dead by, it seemed, all their ideological elders… except for the Zapatistas.
Back then Marcos expended a lot of political capital verbally defending the then-youths and their cause from attacks against them, leading to intense and angry polemics from some intellectuals and personalities of the Left that had prior to that only praised (or tried to appear in the photo with) the Zapatistas. Five years later, though, Marcos and the rebels of Chiapas are reaping the harvest of their loyalty and their wisdom to bet on the seeds and not the stalks: Many of the 1,200 people gathered on wooden benches under this spacious tarp are the former student strikers, five years older and wiser.
A walk down amnesia lane is in order, but, first, I want to say something about this concept of “youth” in Mexican society and elsewhere: The advertising industry – that is to say, the interests it serves – counts on keeping humans infantilized in that market niche long beyond it makes sense to stay there. It is, after all, the Commercial Media (and its songs, its rock videos, its movies, its TV shows, its tee-shirts) that sell us the idea that youth is a product that can be bought and sold. And yet youth is one of those things that money definitively cannot buy. Aging and experience, paradoxically, don’t accept cash, credit, Visa or Mastercard: those bills are paid for with a finite currency called time. When we continue obsessing on our youth by the time most of our peers have become parents, that is a retardation and, sorry to say it, a consequence of imperialism.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Francisco Alvarez Quiñones
The time comes when the tattoos begin to fade, when the skin loses its tautness, and when inner beauty has to pick up the load that our good looks used to carry. As Marcos (the government says he’s 48) noted on Saturday, in response to some recent kidding about his own middle-aged paunch (not really as noticeable as the jokes imply, but still…): “The great majority of the attendees today are youths… we are youths. There are youths of the calendar and we have youths who call ourselves ‘young people with experience,’ taking care not to clarify if experience is a good or bad thing.”
“Before 1994, there were hardly any collective organizations in Mexico, and the non-governmental organizations dedicated themselves to the tasks that the State did not do: health care, education, monitoring the legal system,” Mexican historian and filmmaker Arturo Lomelí explained outside of this gigantic meeting of collectives, NGOs and artistic-cultural organizations. “After the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 there was an explosion of collectives of every kind. Meanwhile many NGOs became politicized. And, yes, as you can see here, this new wave was mainly formed of young people.”
One by one, spokespersons from many of the 275 organizations present stepped up to the microphone to speak their truths: student groups, video collectives, musical and theater troupes, anarchist brigades (many call themselves “libertarians” but in the original meaning of the term before hyper-capitalists of the United States began using it to define free-marketeers: “libertarios” in the sense of what we used to call libertarian communists who are of the Left, but rejecting the statist or dogmatic tendencies of the Old Left, have found much resonance with the indigenous forms of organization and expression that the Zapatista rebellion brought to their attention)… feminists, muralists, environmentalists, peace and anti-war activists, small, radical book publishing houses, radio pirates, fair trade distributors of coffee grown in Chiapas and other Mexican states, cultural forums, young anthropologists, gay rights defenders, and, of course, organizations formed across Mexico specifically to give solidarity to the Zapatista cause. They’re all here.
There were also some really kooky freakazoids present: Like the New York Times newbie Mexico correspondent James W. McKinley, who based on his report published Wednesday seems to have hallucinated that he was at Woodstock (Narco News urged him not to eat the brown acid! But do those Timesmen listen to us? Apparently not…) proving that the drug-and-alcohol-and-dishonesty-free Zapatistas, above all, are very, very, very tolerant hosts.
The masked, pipe-smoking Marcos paid homage to the trend toward horizontal organizations and networks when he spoke of rejecting the old style of Left organization in which “information is processed from above, defined, and a line is given to the troops,” calling instead for a wide network “without hierarchies.”
The microphone was turned over to the visiting collectives and organizations. As last week and in weeks before and to come, the insurgent Zapatista committee members remained seated in their ski masks, guarded by armed insurgents, at the front table, listening to hours of presentations. The listening began around 10 a.m. on Saturday and continued until 3:40 a.m. the next morning. It went on for an additional seven hours on Sunday.
At the head table were the masked members of a Zapatista working committee formed to plan, together with supporters around the country, their imminent ‘coming out’ of the jungle in which, the Zapatistas state very clearly, they want listen to the people and presumably, once the grievances are heard, to organize a more national movement.
After all, this is what happened when they first went into the jungle beginning in 1983: Listening to the locals, the organizers’ own worldviews evolved as to what could be done. Now, twenty-two years later, they’re heading into the concrete jungles, and to other distinct farming regions, to repeat the formula.
Since the weekend meeting, there have been various news reports that complained of a lack of concrete proposals. What were those reporters smoking? At least the Authentic Journalists like Marcos were taking notes. And they heard, as did anyone who listened, plenty of specifics, like in this presentation: A young woman and man from the Mexico City alternative nightclub Foro Alicia explained to the gathering, in detail, the obstacles to creating a cultural space in the capital where live music and performance can exist. Their world is far from this jungle, but their troubles parallel those of the peasant farmers that live along this muddy road from Ocosingo to San Quintin: they are trying hard to claim a place to stand in this world.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Francisco Alvarez Quiñones
She offered very specific proposals: a new law to govern cultural forums, the granting of abandoned buildings to non-profit cultural organizations, independent of any political party, to turn into cultural centers, the formation of a network “of social actors that meet these conditions,” adding a call for “a newspaper of the left,” among other demands.
Later, a spokesman for the “Son de Maíz” (Corn Song) collective mentions a theme that many of the presenters echoed: the problems in a society where the Commercial Media keeps dissident voices at the margins. “We need,” he says, “ a media controlled by the working people.” Amen.
Muralists: “We Paint Obeying”
Photo: D.R. 2005 Francisco Alvarez Quiñones
Then came the Kinta Brigada, or “Fifth Brigade,” and we’ll return to their presentation before this report is done. Indeed, Narco News will publish the entire transcript of their comments because we find them a kind of antidote to some of the problems and criticisms your correspondent is about to make.
Listening to some of the presentations by veterans of the 1999-2000 university strike, which was certainly the predominant demographic group at this gathering, I thought about something that pop-culture journalist Greil Marcus wrote (in his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century) about the veterans of the Dada art movement that was born in a space called Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland:
“For the rest of their lives, they returned again and again to their few days in a Zurich bar. They tried to understand what had happened to them. They never got over it.”
Today, many of these former student strikers are members of the art, video, pirate radio, and political organizing collectives that have answered the Zapatista call to this “Other Campaign.” (And as anthropologist Xóchitl Leyva Solano – who wrote an excellent account of the previous week’s Zapatista meeting with social organizations – mentioned to Narco News on Saturday, “there are others of those former strikers that aren’t here: they’re in the PRD party and with AMLO,” that is, with the Democratic Revolution Party that Marcos has so harshly criticized, and with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidential campaign.)
Five years after the strike, it sounded, at moments, like the internecine wars between competing currents of that moment in history were still being fought retroactively.
Jorge Orta, a very articulate and likeable 27-year-old, took the microphone and reflected upon what happened five and six years ago when university students rallied around six demands: “We didn’t know about political currents,” he told Marcos, the Zapatistas, and everyone else present. “We were just in favor of the six points.”
Orta recalled how the word “ultras,” in the vernacular of the strike, came to describe the most uncompromising groups and individuals of the General Strike Council (CGH, in its Spanish initials): “The word ‘ultras’ was imposed by the media. Unfortunately, some currents assumed it to describe themselves. But I didn’t strike to follow any leader. I just followed the six demands.”
Not one to mince words, the gray eminence of radical expat journalists in Mexico, John Ross, also present here, cut to the quick, commenting to Narco News: “Kids don’t know about history. They think their two years – ‘99 and 2000 – is history. Marcos dedicated himself to that strike. He turned out allying himself with the ultras of the ultras… That strike got twisted and sold and packaged in a hundred different ways. There were PRD people that got kicked out of the CGH. The point where I gave up was when they started hanging up barbed wire in the Che Guevara Hall (where the strike council held its endless meetings) so that you couldn’t get to the microphones. I was there with La Jornada and they escorted us out. La Jornada had been covering the strike from day one to day zillion. A lot of kids are coming to grips with that, saying ‘did we really get done in by these guys?’ They’re still processing the thing.”
Another elder statesman of the Mexican Left, former Congressman Gilberto López y Rivas, told Narco News: “The context of the (UNAM) strike movement is that it surged from the heat of another movement: Zapatismo. It was an awakening in the form of expressing their discontent with the system and their hatred for the political class.”
López y Rivas echoed what many of the older participants at this Zapatista meeting were grumbling behind the scenes about a lot of the presentations by that post-strike generation of activists, noting that the presentations by many of the collectives and others did not speak to the stated goals of the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
“The goal here is to construct a national campaign for all,” said López y Rivas. “But to do that every sector has to put the greater whole first. It seems that these youths presume that the details will come out later. Their speeches are very self-referential. They don’t discuss the what, the how, or the when of building alliances. You can’t build national alliances self-referentially. You have to sacrifice your own cause, your own proposal, and contribute to the Sexta, to listen, to understand.”
Indeed, there were more than a few moments when this middle-aged correspondent winced during some presentations. At times it seemed like the 20-somethings had come home to their parents from college trying hard to impress Mom and Dad that they really aren’t the screw-ups that they think everyone perceives them to be. Some of the discourses were more in the spirit of Show and Tell: “We made a banner… We held a concert… We attended the Zapatista caravan….” The tone was so very different from, say, that in the previous meeting by social organizations, when virtually every group spoke directly to the questions raised by the Zapatista Sixth Declaration.
I asked López y Rivas what this meant for the Zapatistas, that so many from this particular hodgepodge of not-so-young-anymore youths seemed more concerned with impressing Marcos than speaking to the questions that he had planted. (As a veteran “cat herder,” I felt a great wave of empathy for our masked hosts at this moment.) “The Zapatistas can’t go forward in a hurry,” López y Rivas explained. “Those of us who live on borrowed time are perhaps in a bigger hurry.”
López y Rivas – like others throughout the weekend – also commented on the length of so many of the presentations: “Respect the speakers, yes,” he said. “But also respect the audience.” By the end, many of the individuals and organizations that came great distances prepared to make a presentation did not get to do so. Meanwhile, this reporter saw various instances where members of the same small groups, already known to him (indeed, some of them are my friends, and I hope they will still be even after I offer this constructive criticism) used multiple organizational names so that each of them could get the microphone and speak. I felt a little embarrassed for them. The ploy was so evident… and so unnecessary. A related phenomenon occurred repeatedly when the members of these groups – all of them from Mexico City – would cheer loudly for their own but when folks from other parts of the country got up to speak they talked among themselves making it difficult to hear the others’ presentations. Although Marcos often says, “our style is listening,” there was not much listening going on. There wasn’t even interest in what others outside of their own groups were saying.
As another old giant of the Mexican Left, Pablo González Casanova, told those present in his very diplomatic approach, and in a reference to the Zapatista’s summer mascot, the chicken named Pinguino: “Here, we are all chickens who want to be penguins.”
I asked former UNAM striker (and friend of Narco News) Alettia Molina, 30, for a response to the complaints about the “self-referential” nature of so many of the presentations: “I wouldn’t call it self-referential,” she said, “but, rather, a youth movement of self-consumption. Young people talk about themselves all the time. The concern is the tone of saying it. You can see it in our tee shirts and our CDs. Among these youth collectives that are perceived as a bloc, everyone wants to do their own thing.”
Another complaint came from the provinces outside of Mexico City. Araceli Gil Archundia, who came from Oaxaca City, where she works in the non-governmental organization Nueve Lunas, aiding women and mothers, pregnant and not, said what many folks told us when she noted, “there are more than 500 NGOs and civic organizations in Oaxaca, but few are here.” And many of the few from the outer regions that were present never got to speak their peace, as chilango after chilanga from Mexico City, particularly from somewhat overlapping and incestuous post-’99 networks and collectives, so effectively dominated the microphone for so many hours.
There were many anthropology students and graduates from the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH, in its Spanish initials) and I couldn’t help but wonder if any might do an anthropological study of a particular trend in social organization in many of these Mexico City collectives and networks of not-so-young-anymore youth groups. It goes like this: In no small number of these groups, there tends to be a nucleus of five, six or seven individuals: one of them female and usually without children, the rest males, many of them with children who are back home supported only by their single moms as their dads go off being activists. Perhaps as a product of a single mother household I’m overly sensitive to this trend, but it also seems to me to be another way in which some activist circles in Mexico have grown to imitate the worst elements of gringo activists. Just like in the United States, the single moms, many of them, couldn’t come to the Zapatista meeting, because they are burdened back home with the work that two parents ought to be doing. And so the “political” events – including this one – end up skewing slightly male in population.
As one of the single mothers that did make it explained: “Recently, an activist that wanted to be my partner offered to pay the cost of sending my six-year-old girl to school. I asked him, ‘why don’t you first pay to send your own daughter to school?’ He said, ‘because her mother doesn’t want to be with me.’ Did he think I’d be foolish enough to accept his offer on those terms?”
None of these questions and criticisms seeks to disqualify or ignore all the good that is done by flawed and, after all, only human individuals and groups. (And, likewise, this pinche gringo welcomes criticisms and questions in return: This is the process by which we all challenge each other to be better. Without that, we all remain in social quicksand.) As Marcos himself noted in his written summation of the weekend’s proceedings:
“…if an anticapitalist movement doesn’t aspire to transform everything and not just the relations between property and production, then it’s not worth it and it will only repeat ancestral injustices but with a new alibi.
“If the transformation that we attempt to make doesn’t include the radical transformation in gender relations in between men and women, the generational relations between the ‘matures’ and the youths, those of coexistence between heterosexuals and to-each-his-and-her-own, the cultures between the indigenous and non-indigenous, those of life between human beings and nature, then that transformation won’t be anything more than just one more caricature like the many that fill the history book.
“Someone here said that if we can’t dance in this revolution than it is not our revolution. We will have to take measure that if in this revolution the relations between the differences that populate human beings don’t change than it’s not our revolution and there will have to be another one, then another, and another, until the ‘nobody’ that we are shines in all the colors that we are and in all the forms that we take.”
For some reason, the often acid-tongued Marcos – he who calls López Obrador a “serpent’s egg” and who has been a tough taskmaster with the older organizations of the Left, even those who are with him in the “Other Campaign” which is to say those who are also not placing all their eggs all in one serpent nest – still seems to treat the not-so-young-anymore self-referential youths with, well, “kid gloves.” Your correspondent wonders whether a little more “tough love” might be in order.
His acknowledgement of the seeming disinterest in listening to others who they perceive to be “not them” comes in uncharacteristically diplomatic language. Marcos wrote of last weekend’s meeting:
“There was also a tendency to seek and listen to the mirror. In other words, they listened to their peers: artists to artists, feminists to feminists, anarchos to anarchos, alternative media to alternative media, so on and so forth. The histories that referred to different and even opposite realities awakened little interest. As if even in the diversity convoked here, each sought to enclose them selves in the place and style of their own struggle.”
If that is not a lament, filled with resignation (from a man who almost never resigns himself to any sadness), what is?
Perhaps because, here, we define ourselves distinctly from (although certainly not in conflict or competition with) the “alternative media” movement but as one of “authentic journalism” we carry a distinct obsession with seeking out the words of “the other,” of those we don’t know best, of those we wish to understand better. But are there really that few of us? And are there really so many in this Other Campaign that seek only to wall themselves up – as Marcos observes – in grouposcules of demographic hegemony? In the United States, its called “identity politics,” a tired phenomenon has been so successfully co-opted by power and money, which has turned minorities into market niches, pride into product, and which has failed miserably to advance the cause of humankind or its identity groups.
Ah, but – in the inevitable grace that has been, is, and will long be Zapatismo – our story does not end on that down note…
Back to the Kinta Brigada, or “Fifth Brigade.” Its spokeswoman, Ninfa Alvarado, 26, from Mexico City, took the microphone in one hand and read from a collectively written text in the other. Your correspondent’s initial skepticism (caused largely, he admits, by an aesthetic preference for extemporaneous speech over reading from codices, and expecting, unfairly, another damn self-referential diatribe) turned to a grudging, and soon enough, admiring respect: This group had captured in words the story I had been wanting to hear and write.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Francisco Alvarez Quiñones
“We are a small collective made by compañeros and compañeras who stake our claim as anarchists, libertarians, libertarian communists, or whatever you want to call it. We have worked as a collective ever since the university student strike of the ‘General Strike Committee’ in 1999. Since then we have worked and participated together as the ‘5tA(kinta) brigada… (ay karmela)’ with our modest efforts in this conglomeration of struggles (inside and above all outside of the university environment), that is the fight against capitalism, the globalization of misery and the exclusion of the people, their men and their women, against neoliberalism and, as anarchists, we are in this fight against the State and its circus of electoral democracy, in this fight for freedom, for self-management, for autonomy, in this fight for a life that has dignity and equality for all, in this fight for equality among men, women and other inhabitants of our mother América, and above all of our mother that is the entire earth…
“We struggle against a system that imprisons everyone and beyond that imprisons all that grows on this earth, a system that keeps the people prisoners in a scam called democracy, in a trick called freedom. We raise the banners of the struggles of the peoples of the world, the struggles for land, for education and our own cultures, for health, work, home, for being the owners of our own histories, of our own pasts, for being able to be owners of our own lives, our present and future as individuals, neighborhoods, peoples, social groups, collectives, etcetera…
“We are determined to fight and construct a world where nobody steps on anybody, where no one subjugates anyone, where nobody is oppressed by laws, by judges, by institutions, by economic and political ideas that defend the supremacy of and looting by one social class to dominate the people who are exploited, who are torn from their own nature, a world where individuals live and think for their own wellbeing without forgetting the collective good, for a world where the collective never ignores the individuals that form it, a world where exploitation doesn’t exist, where there is neither wealth nor poverty, a world where social and collective entities decide together what path to walk, where there is no system where one or some individuals or groups determine the lives of anybody else, a world where the only authority permissible will be a collective decision, where the words ‘to lead’ and ‘to obey’ don’t need to exist, where collectivities organize and among them decide the future and their acts, a world where the individual can exist without falling prey to individualism, a world where collectivity is based on the needs of individuals…”
There it is: A formula by which we don’t need to lose our individuality in order to join together, collectively, with the great masses. Their concerns have crossed the abyss from self-reference to the totality of humankind. And although these sentiments have been raised at various moments of history by the likes of Peter Kropotkin and Ricardo Flores Magón, the language expressed here is decidedly tailored to our own era, our collective and individual present and future.
Your correspondent was curious about how this particular group of former UNAM strikers had found their way out of the self-referential morass and had begun to look to their commonality with the rest of society. And in a particularly poetic note for Narco News readers, the journey began when some youths from Mexico City journeyed up to the state of San Luis Potosí to take peyote in the desert. (“We haven’t been doing the peyote thing anymore for a while now,” one of the Fifth Brigadiers told us; interestingly, but of little surprise to Narco News, the medicinal plant worked in such a way to help form humans not to be dependent on the plant to be able to look outside of them selves.)
Anyway, after the 1999-2000 student strike, some of the Fifth Brigadiers like Italia Méndez, now 26, and Ninfa Alvarado, also 26, simply dropped out of the university (¡Vivan los y las autodidactas!). “The education they gave us was totally theoretical. It did not satiate me,” Alvarado explained. “But now we have to work in the practical realm.”
“The strike was a great experience in our lives and it formed us,” Méndez acknowledged. “We learned a lot from it.”
Another Fifth Brigadier, Jessica Cruz, 24, added, “Although the strike did not succeed in its goals it gave us the widest possible view of how things work.”
“What we learned from the strike was to get out of the university,” said Méndez. “Now we have come together in a project with specific goals, outside of the dynamics of the university.”
While on one of their trips up to the desert, the Fifth Brigadiers encountered some local campesinos who heard that one of the group’s members was a veterinarian, and asked for her help with the goats they herd in an arid, often water-less, environment. Much as the origins of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation came when some academic aspiring guerrillas began learning from the indigenous peasant farmers of Chiapas, the cross-pollination between the Fifth Brigadiers and the campesinos of the desert led to a learning process and an organizing project in the real world survival tasks of agriculture and managing water in the desert, of education, of appropriate technology, of culture, of self-management, and of goats and more goats. Various times each year, the Fifth Brigade leaves the city and goes to work with the farmers and herders of the desert. “We try to do this in a holistic form, not simply concerned with production,” Cruz noted. “That’s why the educational question is added, including working with the children of the community. It’s a long-term project.”
Paradox being a necessary ingredient of revolution: the words of the Fifth Brigade’s presentation last weekend in the Lacandon Jungle are very clearly in opposition to all forms of subjugation or domination. And yet they’ve gone outside of “their” urban world and, in a way, subjugated themselves to the world of the desert goat herders, where they’ve been able to apply all the theories that are discussed in the university and in the urban intellectual centers to the real life struggles of subsistence and survival. They are no longer, in a word, self-referential, and, again paradoxically, they seem to this observer better able to describe themselves, too, in the process.
They’re certainly not the only collective that has moved outside of its own demographic market niche in this nascent Other Campaign of networks, organizations, collectives and individuals. And that gives your correspondent glimmer of hope: That soon, as the Zapatistas are making their move outside of the jungle where they’ve been now for more than two decades, the revolution will make its great leap forward when the rest of us look beyond ourselves and those we perceive to be like us, and toward the other. Maybe that’s what growing up, in its positive sense, is: a growing out, a becoming outside of our selves. And it’s only natural that some are growing up Zapatista a little bit faster than others, but I’d like to think that we’re all headed there soon.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism