<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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New Zapatista “Caracol” Created in Mexico

A Conversation with Veteran Social Fighter Don José Félix Serdán Nájera


By Juan Trujillo Limones
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

November 17, 2005

SAN ESTEBAN XOCHIMILCO, MEXICO CITY, OCTOBER 2005: The struggle of the Mexican social left is producing relevant and unprecedented results in southeast Mexico City. The form of autonomous organization that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN’s) “caracoles” — base communities — have followed since 2003 is being taken up by residents of the San Esteban neighborhood of Xochimilco (an old town now part of a sprawling Mexico City). Here, the land floats on what Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history has patiently prepared as a source of ancient crops. The fertile land of a 100-square-meter chinampa (one of the small islands where traditional agriculture developed on Xochimilco’s canal system) hosts the Zapatista Caracol “Tecpanpa,” its name a Nahuatl word meaning “place of the palaces.” It is here where public space and concern for one’s community transcend the private sphere to become another pillar of resistance against social injustice in Latin America.


Zapatismo and neo-Zapatismo united in a corner of Mexico City..
Photos: D.R. 2005 Juan Trujillo Limones
The caracol’s inauguration was held on the morning of October 22. One of the main events was the christening of a trajinera, one of the colorful boats that serve as the traditional means of transport on the canals that connect Xochimilco’s chinampas. From that day on, the caracol’s first official rebel trajinera has born the name “Digna Ochoa,” after the Mexican social fighter and human rights defender who died in 2001. Her death was, to many, obviously the result of a murder, and not a suicide as was the official explanation. Those responsible for the crime remain shrouded by the veil of impunity.

Amidst the spirit of the inauguration ceremony, the presence of don José Félix Serdán Nájera (b. 1917) — a man who carried on Emiliano Zapata’s struggle as a member of Rubén Jaramillo’s army in the state of Morelos — was highly significant.

Assisted by several collectives who identify with Zapata’s ideals, the maxim that “the land belongs to he who works it,” and the neo-Zapatismo of the EZLN that strives for the building of “a world in which many worlds fit,” the Zapatista caracol seems to be taking its first substantial steps with this inauguration. However, Tecpanpa has received little or no attention in the media; even the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada, which has widely covered the struggle of the indigenous Zapatistas, has not published a single article. One exception has been Radio UNAM, the National University station.

The Ladies’ Assembly

The participating political groups — Xochimilco Zapatista, Bridge of Hope, and the Zapatista Jetitas Collective — are now social actors in the history of this small corner of the canals and chinampas southeast of the ancient city of México-Tenochtitlán. Their collaboration and coordination with the Asemblea de las Tías, the Ladies’ Assembly, is what has made this effort possible. The history of this council goes back to pre-Hispanic and colonial times. Its organizational structure comes from the generation-to-generation transmission of authority through the figure of the woman elder. According to Teodora Alonso Yedra: “Since pre-Hispanic times, since the beginning of these farms, the Tías have been together. We have carried this education for a long time… We hope for the best, for a free Mexico, to live in harmony and love, without repression or deception,” she told this reporter, securely and firmly. And so, the historic character of this assembly brings a particular ingredient to the women’s’ struggle, one that embraces and internalizes its millennial roots.

The Zapatista Caracol Tecpanpa is the product of nearly five years of work and planning, during which the Tías, organized around their moral and maternal authority, have tried to articulate that “other” struggle at the margins of the political parties and rigid state institutions. Here, in this small ray of hope, the Tías propose to “lead by obeying,” towards what Alonso, a member of the council, calls the “formation of good Mexicans.” The hope is that the influence of this project in autonomy and self-management in the region, despite not being part of an autonomous indigenous Zapatista municipal government like those in Chiapas, will begin with promoting education among children and youth.


Cultural performance during the inauguration of Caracol Tecpanpa.
The initiative to build a caracol comes from a process of political consciousness-raising. For Teodora Alonso, the initiative “was really an idea that several compañeras came up with, thinking that we had to do something… that Mexico is slipping out of our hands and that the old women, the grandmothers, really need to respect the youth and their parents in order to form another, different Mexico, with a basis in education. The older ones here in Xochimilco are called the Tías… and there is where the most damage is being done, because the young parents no longer want to commit to being good citizens, good Mexicans, and the youth are being lost.”

Tecpanpa therefore hopes to be a project in education toward the raising of young people conscious of their environment and of social struggles. “We are going to take great care of the seed that we are planting,” said Alonso, “and, now that it’s growing, stake and straighten it with our traditions, our ways of education that we had when we were children… We have told everyone we talk to that we’re going to sow these seeds, but that we are going to start by preparing the land so that the plants don’t come out twisted, so that the plants bare fruit that we older ones may not even live to see… But we have hope for a better future.”

Don José Félix: Legacy, Struggle, and Hope

The inaugural ceremony began with the words and presence of those “from below.” Memory of the pre-Hispanic past was visible with an indigenous offering and ritual, performed by the Calmecac Altepetl Zacapan group. Men and women called upon the history of Mexico, to connect it with the present in the neo-Zapatista struggle, with collective and spiritual memory. The group Mauissuj Phallay took charge of artistic and musical expression and reflection on the indigenous world, in Mesoamerica and in the Andes. The approximately 70 people in attendance enjoyed a fresh and sunny day on the banks of one of Xochimilco’s canals, where the good trajinera Digna Ochoa now docks. This delicately adorned ship also commemorates the ancient practices of agriculture and trade in the region.


Don José Félix Serdán Nájera and his compañera, Emilia Sosa Marín.
And the legacy of the Zapatista struggle in Morelos early in this century, later carried on by Rubén Jaramillo, appeared in the flesh with don José Félix Serdán Nájera, who arrived accompanied by his compañera Emilia Sosa Marín. The words of don Felix, 88 years old and a loyal living representative of the Zapatista struggle throughout the 20th century, were a constant journey between the present, past, and future.

In an interview with this reporter and María Eugenia Guillén, from Radio UNAM, the former Jaramillista speaks not only with his words but also through an honest and committed face that always expresses humility and compassion. His voice, his gaze, and his heart move in synchronicity; he is a great time-traveler when he speaks of his long trajectory in the armed struggle, or when he refers to the Caracol Tecpanpa and its significance to the people of Xochimilco and of Mexico.

The path of one so distinguished within the struggle of the people is long and full of anecdotes that stretch through the years, from 1917 to the inauguration day of this new space for popular resistance. His memory remains fresh, as if the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had just begun yesterday.

“Well, in the first place, in Morelos we had a man who carried on the Zapatista struggle. His name: Rubén Jaramillo Menes. He was 17 years older than me… I was born in the year 1917. He was a Zapatista soldier at age 15, first cavalry captain at age 17, and with Zapata’s death (1919) he continued to fight for Zapata’s ideals… He struggle peacefully for, I don’t know… more than 20 years… and his struggle was always for and with the people, on the side of the poor. I joined this struggle in 1942; the legal struggle, the peaceful struggle. In ’43, Rubén decided that he needed to take up arms again, and in that same year I joined the armed struggle. I was injured… the army captured me, and I was lucky that they didn’t kill me. They took me with Ávila Camacho; he declared me completely free and sent me to a military hospital to heal…” says don Félix, modestly, with his simple hat on his head, while between sentences he clasps his cane in his hand, as if it were supporting his statements.

From Zapatismo to Neo-Zapatismo: The EZLN’s Highest Honor

One’s involvement with Zapatismo is not just a question of timing and circumstance, as don Félix helped us to understand. For him, a conviction for humane principles and the reproduction of life through the earth continued after January 1, 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in arms, and he reinvented himself as a neo-Zapatista. About this, he says: “On March 27, 1994, we held a clandestine meeting of the old Zapatistas who were left, of the Jaramillistas, the sons of a few of those, even their grandchildren and sympathizers. Then, we analyzed three important documents: don Emiliano Zapata’s Plan of Ayala, Rubén Jaramillo’s Plan of Cerro Prieto, and the EZLN’s First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. We found the three documents to have small differences, but essentially very similar principles: the people’s struggle, the struggle of the poor for better living conditions. So, this made us think: ‘well, we shouldn’t abandon the new Zapatistas.’ We agreed to produce a document in which committed ourselves not to leave them. The document was written, we signed it, and then we said, ‘what do we do now?’

“I was lucky enough to be commissioned to take this document to Chiapas in the first days of April with Flora Guerrero, a great compañera. We went to Chiapas to hand over the document. We arrived in the jungle and Marcos received us; we gave the document to Marcos, and he recognized me by giving the Highest Honor of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Well, that is a great honor for me, a privilege, and I am always… I am always at the service of my people.”

Caracoles and Armed Struggle

For don José Félix, this new caracol is a project consistent with the old Zapatismo of Emiliano Zapata: “I was born a few years before General Zapata died, but I can tell you what my parents would tell me… It had a certain similarity [to the caracol], because Zapata’s ideals were always on the side of the humble people; this is the same thing that’s happening now. Zapatismo, represented at a national level by the Chiapas revolutionaries, has the same ideal… Zapata struggled because the land belonged to the peasants, he struggled to give liberty, to give culture, so that the people could govern themselves… how can I say it… cleanly.”

This former Jaramillista’s conscience and historic memory are as clear as the hope that this Zapatista chinampa holds; their visual and bodily expression oblige one to think that this fighter looks wisely at time and events: “Right now, we unfortunately have the problem that we are governed by the corrupt, by those that don’t aspire to serve the people, but rather to be served by the people! To enrich themselves or at least raise their own economic status at the cost of the people’s hunger. So, my view is that this caracol could be the beginning of a more concrete struggle in favor of the oppressed.” Such a simple conclusion is related to the current paradigm that presupposes the discredit of the “formal” way of doing politics in many Latin American countries.

Don Félix lived his youth during the construction of the post-revolutionary Mexican state, whose consolidation would come in the 1930s, with General Lázaro Cárdenas. Modernity and capitalism were still not fundamental axes of the concentration of wealth, and the neoliberal policies of the 1980s were still far away. Nevertheless, in the midst of this so-called “postmodernity” of the 21st century, don José Félix demonstrates his conscience and knowledge of the issue when he was asked about the future of the caracoles: “I think we should begin to push for these kinds of struggles: if we the poor do not organize ourselves against those who rule us in order to serve the gringos, well, we aren’t going to get out of this. We need to organize, we need to create a new culture of our own, without imperialism’s domination.” Although his voice carries a tone of fatigue, one can feel what his long 88 years of life have evoked in him.

The relevance of the caracoles’ organization for don Félix is obvious: “The important thing is that the people are becoming conscious of the fact that only in an organized way can we get out of the submissive misery in which neoliberalism keeps us.”

To the question of whether it is likely for a new social movement, based on the Zapatista ideal, to develop among wide sectors of the Mexican population, the former Jaramillista gives a powerful answer: “Yes, of course; there is restlessness throughout the entire country… there are people everywhere that are repudiating the way in which they are governing us… There are many political parties, but for what, really? Do these people fight for the people’s wellbeing? No, all they want are public posts, but not in order to serve the people. We need to spread consciousness of the fact that, with or without being paid for it, we must work so that our people wake up, organize, and fight to break off their chains.”

Political Parties and Good Government Councils

The chat’s atmosphere becomes more intense when this Zapatista gets into the thorny issues of popular insubordination and criticism of political organizations; he introduces the “chains” metaphor with a voice slow and clear. His revolutionary gaze obliges this reporter to ask him whether, in the case of Xochimilco, organizing and fight to break the people’s chains means armed struggle. To this, the Zapatista responds: “It is not necessary. I mean, if the people were more organized, if the people were more conscious of the misery in which they live… it wouldn’t necessarily be armed struggle; we need to create and develop that consciousness. The people are already tired of neoliberal politicians parading as revolutionaries. We have an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in its Spanish initials) that governed us for many years and corrupted us to such a degree that we became accustomed to simply waiting for handouts. We have a Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), most of which… I can’t speak in detail, but in their great majority the people tend to aspire to some post, to make a lot of money without working hard. We have other parties that are all the same… we need to create consciousness so that, whether or not they are from a party, we have honest people in government, people who support the popular struggle.” He says this with anger visible on his face.

The reoccurring question of the de facto autonomous political organization in Chiapas’ Zapatista Good Government Councils, and whether they contain the answer to building power outside of the political parties, comes up in our chat. The social fighter answers affirmatively: “Something like that; we need honest officials. As long as we keep achieving these honest governments, our strength will continue to grow, and we will win wider and wider spaces.”

It’s interesting how much don Félix has informed himself about the various efforts toward neo-Zapatista resistance. During the interview, this reporter is reminded of the effort carried out in the state of Michoacán, when he speaks of how the Tecpanpa caracol and the five others that exist in Chiapas are a new dawn for the Mexican people: “…. And not only that, there is another new caracol in Michoacán, and we hope that more and more of them keep poping up, in such a way that we obtain a force capable of changing the situation in which we live.”

Within the political context that has permeated Mexican society since the EZLN published the Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle last July, the Caracol Tecpanpa is a focal point of resistance, which has enlisted itself in the “Other Campaign.” The Other Campaign has begun to spark actions in different parts of the country, such as the Zapatistas’ act of “naming our own dead” to celebrate Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2. These activities continue, with political/cultural events and workshops happening across the country from November 11–20, organized by collectives, free media, and individuals. It now falls on the people of Xochimilco to prepare their caracol to join this collective journey.

But the journey is just beginning for Caracol Tecpanpa. It will be a long trek toward the construction of alternative and autonomous spaces, where power is built from below, for those from below. Don Félix’s salute and Digna Ochoa’s name are strong symbols aimed at recovering collective memory and imagination. The principles of the reproduction of life through Mother Earth (the goddess Tonantzin), through the pre-Hispanic chinampas, represent an ancient struggle that gives shape to this new hope in Xochimilco, in a rebel corner of this Mexico that still wears the appearance of the 19th century.

juan_trujillo26@yahoo.com

Con la Sexta: News from the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign”

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