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Yucatán Awaits the Arrival of Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos

In the Capital City of Mérida, Many Don’t Know Who “Delegate Zero” Is… But in the Farmlands, the Air Is Heavy with Expectation and a History of Rebellion


By Al Giordano
The Other Journalism With the Other Campaign in Yucatán

January 10, 2006

MERIDA, YUCATAN, JANUARY 2, 2006: Twelve years after the indigenous people of Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas rose up in arms with the banner “Liberty! Justice! Democracy!” the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in its Spanish initials) chose New Year’s Day 2006 to send its spokesman and Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos on a six-month tour of every corner of the Mexican Republic.


From the Newsreel: Yucatán Awaits Marcos
The Mission: “To listen to the simple and humble people who fight,” said Marcos last August.

In Yucatán, where this tour arrives on Wednesday, January 18, simple and humble people who fight have fought for five hundred and more years.

It took the Spaniards 170 years to conquer the Maya indigenous of this region, and the centuries since then have been no picnic for the parade of outside powers that have tried to impose their will here. Once the invaders established “control” they imposed a caste system — in which the Europeans and wannabe-Euros enjoyed more legal rights and freedoms over the natives — on this Caribbean Peninsula. To this day the mercantile elites of Mérida are known as “The Divine Caste,” (some even refer to themselves that way).

Then, in 1847, after another century and a half of conquest, began the Caste War of Yucatán, in which the indigenous Maya chased the upper castes — Europeans, Mixed Blood (mestizo), and those who considered themselves “former Maya royalty” (your correspondent makes no endorsement as to whether such haughty claims of lineage were true) — out of every hamlet on the Peninsula to take refuge behind the then-walled fortresses of Mérida and Campeche (today, state capitals). It was a Caste War that, according to historians, took the invaders 85 years to extinguish. There’s more, much more, including the time, in 1918, when The Socialist Republic of Yucatán preceded the Russians in forming the first independent socialist state on earth (the U.S. had to send in the marines to quell it) and, kind reader, we will get to that in the coming two weeks, but first, the question of the hour:

Why Is Marcos Coming to Yucatán?

As Zapatista Lieutenant Colonel Moises explained last September 16th, when the Zapatistas announced they would be sending Marcos — in the role of “Delegate Zero,” preceding a second and larger wave of Zapatistas that will fan out across the country starting next summer — to do this job:

“…it is our duty to explore the terrain where we will bring our compañeros and compañeras of our people, as well as our soldiers. There is always someone who goes as a vanguard. We call whoever goes forward and views the terrain that we still don’t know the vanguard. And the task of he who goes forward as the vanguard is to detect what is there: if the terrain is swampy, stony, or spiny, and of other situations the vanguard observes, and this informs us so we can know what to do and how to do it.

“We know that you understand a vanguard to be someone who leads, or those who know how the fight should be waged, or who give orders, and who are the only ones who are right, those who know more and better… But we don’t understand it that way. The vanguard for us… is he who goes to understand the terrain, for us unknown terrain, and it is necessary to go to that terrain to advance the struggle. This is soldier’s work, the exploration of the terrain…

“The vanguard’s work of exploration of the terrain for the Other Campaign has been given to compañero Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. He will be the first to go out and we will come behind him in turn to do the work…”

The acknowledgement was specific: Marcos is coming out to scout “the terrain that we still don’t know.”

Minutes later, in that same jungle meeting in La Garrucha, Chiapas, Marcos detailed the plan and itinerary of his six-month voyage that began last Sunday. It may well be twenty-one years (he first went to the Chiapas jungle in 1983 or 84), perhaps more, since he’s seen the Yucatán reality with his own eyes. But in his words that night, he showed that he is conscious of its rebel history:

Historians recount, if we are to believe them, that the first places in Mexico where critical anti-capitalist thought, and the effort to build a new society with new social relationships, arrived were the Chiapas coast and the Yucatán peninsula, among coffee and henequen fiber plantation workers. That is where the Other Campaign is going to begin.

One of those critical anti-capitalist thinkers, Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1872-1924), remains a hero throughout the peninsula today: A journalist and defender of indigenous rights he was elected governor in 1922. Carrillo Puerto had already fought together with the original Zapatistas (of General Emiliano Zapata), had been a member of the Communist Party and later the Socialist Worker Party. He (like Yucatecos in general) was one of the early Mexican advocates of Women’s Suffrage. A renaissance man, don Felipe was also the lyricist of the popular folk song “La Peregrina” (“The Pilgrim”) about his lover and fiancée, the California muckraking journalist Alma Reed. For two years, as the democratically elected governor, he began construction of a democratic socialism here.

The Mexican military dictatorship put him before a firing squad two years later. But the construction of a democratic, indigenous-born socialism — if you look at the town halls of places like Tekax (population 22,000, most of whom speak Maya or Chol), the words atop them say: “Socialist City Hall” — still has not been halted by the daily assault of money, military might and media whose job is to stop it.

It would seem a perfect fit: Marcos, spokesman for so many hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Maya of Chiapas and speaking the languages of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol, heading out to the other great Maya region (where the language is simply known as Maya: linguists say all stem from the same family of words and idioms), home of revered pyramids from Chichén Itza to Tulum with such a rich history of rebellion and refusal to be conquered.

On the Streets and in the Markets of Mérida

And so, ever-optimistic about this marriage made-in-the-seven-Maya-heavens, the road team of the Other Journalism With the Other Campaign arrived in Mérida on New Year’s Eve and went out to the streets and marketplaces to interview the simple and humble people about the imminent visit of their revolutionary comrade.

“And — kind Yucatecos — what do you think about the visit that Zapatista Marcos will make here next week?”

The following quotations are verbatim and representative of the majority of comments we heard:

  • “The truth is I’ve heard people speak of them (the Zapatistas), but I don’t know much.”
  • “I’ve heard talk of Marcos but I’m not informed about his politics. Is he from Chiapas? Really, I don’t know anything about his life.”
  • “The truth is I don’t know much. I’ve heard their leader is Marcos, but I don’t know anything about their work.”
  • “We have no opinion here. We haven’t heard anything about him.”
  • “I don’t know who he is. It’s a bad thing that he comes here because we don’t know about him.”
  • “He’s going to come here? Anyone who comes here is the same.”
  • “If he comes to do good, that’s okay.”
  • “I’m not interested. I don’t know anything about it.”
  • “We don’t even know why he’s coming. I saw in the newspaper that he’s coming but I don’t know why the comandante comes here. It’s the same to me if he comes or he doesn’t come. We haven’t seen his thoughts on the table. We don’t have a clear vision.”
  • “He’s the president of Chiapas, right? Yeah, he’s welcome here.”
  • “Sincerely, I don’t know much about the guy. I don’t know if he’s changed things over there where he is.”

Some folks did know something about the Zapatistas and their Delegate Zero. But for six journalists — also people who fight against the media industry that exploits, silences, censors and marginalizes us — that have worked to spread the good Zapatista word for so many years, the news was hardly encouraging on the streets and in the markets of Mérida:

  • “To me, it doesn’t seem right that a person hides behind a mask. I think he should show his face and give concrete proposals, to help us to create new jobs, to not put people in a position to have to rob or to beg.”
  • “I think he is directed by the government. I would like to tell him that to his face.”
  • “He will find that here is a very peaceful place. There won’t be any need to bring weapons. They (the Zapatistas) destabilized a state.”
  • “It’s not good that he’s coming because this is a very peaceful state, the most peaceful in Mexico. We don’t want a government or anything like that. Yucatecos are very peaceful.”

Kind reader: You can listen to these people give their word — you can even watch them as they say it — in the video and audio presentations that this Brigade provides you as evidence of this story. A pattern emerges from the preponderance of comments, but it will be easier to believe if you watch their facial expressions and listen to their vocal intonations — and see the kind of manual labor many of them are doing — as they speak their word.

Others, still (but a distinct minority of those working people encountered at their jobs or on the streets of working-class neighborhoods of this capital city), were more encouraging:

  • “I’ve heard they’ve helped the poor over there (in Chiapas), especially that comandante. They should do the same here!”
  • “I don’t know his proposals. God willing, he will bring ideas to get us out of the jam we’re in. Because the economic situation here is bad. Every day it is worse. Other people from the business class think the government is good. Not me. God willing, Marcos will bring something good to the country. We are living in misery and they, the politicians, go on TV with all this cynicism as they are robbing the country. We need new ideas to change this corrupt system.”
  • “It’s good that he’s coming. I’d love to talk with him, to hear his opinions about the government. Everything here is bad. And while he’s here he should eat some cochinita pibil, some papadzules, and escabeche… It would be good if someone who knows how to cook it does that.”
  • “It’s okay. It would be good to get to know him. He’s just visiting. That’s good. He’s not coming to lead us or anything like that. We Yucatecos always have our arms open for any visitor.”

It’s the Message that Resonates

Although the great majority of people the Brigade interviewed professed a lack of deep knowledge about Marcos or the Zapatista cause, when they began to speak of the problems of this region and in their daily lives, another pattern emerged: Their message is in many cases identical to that of the Zapatistas, and their distrust of politicians, political parties, and the economic system imposed upon them runs just as deep:

  • “(The political party leaders) will never help me. I don’t even have a bathroom. I have nothing. They are all the same. They just do things to stay in power.”

  • “I don’t know much about Mexican politics, but the crisis here in Mérida is real, especially for the humble people. The government needs to have more of a connection with the people. Those who lead don’t listen to the people. We need more communication between the government and the people.”
  • “Politics is a bag of tricks. All they (the politicians) know is how to steal, and steal, and steal some more.”
  • “Who, in any country, doesn’t want a change for the good of all?”
  • “The situation is bad here. Sales are lower than in previous years…”
  • “The government doesn’t help the people much. They just help themselves. They come to power in order to have a lot of money. They promise and promise but they never change anything.”

But the overall zeitgeist awaiting the Zapatista “Delegate Zero” in this mercantile capital with 800,000 inhabitants — at least from the very random series of interviews conducted — is disinterest, or only slight interest. The visit is not generating grand passions among the general public — at least not before the visitor arrives. As one young woman told the Other Journalists of Marcos’ visit: “It’s something unexpected. He doesn’t have much influence here, so there won’t be any problems.”

That, from the once-walled-in city of Mérida. But outside of the vestiges of those colonial walls a different voice can be heard, one that clamors for the witness and the rebel mirror that Marcos in his black ski-mask represents to the vast mass of country people that wallow in material poverty but are enriched by fighting spirit.

Kanxoc Wants to See the Subcomandante

Among the legendary Maya towns whose resistance to impositions from above goes back to the Conquest and the Caste War is Kanxoc, Yucatán, where 3,000 campesinos (peasant farmers) and their families saw their corn crops devastated this year by Hurricanes Emily (July 18, 2005) and the more destructive Wilma (October 22, 2005). Kanxoc is a brave land where neither the state nor federal police nor the Mexican military dare enter. Once, the townspeople held a state governor hostage until promises made to them were fulfilled. A year ago, a reporter from the Diario de Yucatán who had published stories that the townspeople said were dishonest about them entered the town square only to be besieged by the residents, who dragged him around and around in the street by his hair.


Your brigade sent word through an interpreter to the town’s Mayan-speaking authorities that we wanted to come interview townspeople about their lives — and their thoughts on Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos’ upcoming visit to the state. The visit was approved and on January 3 six Authentic Journalists arrive at 11 a.m. in the town square.

As our two vehicles pull up to the town square, about 100 residents are already gathered, awaiting the reporters. Within 20 minutes of our arrival, the crowd has swelled to 300: women in their floral huipil dresses, men, children, and elders. Your reporters switch on video cameras, minidisc recorders and put pen to notebook. Our interpreter translate your correspondent’s greeting to the Maya tongue: “Thank you for receiving us. We are journalists who struggle against the big media industry just as we know you also struggle against wealthy powers. We are here in Yucatán to report on the visit of Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos. We do not represent any political party nor do we represent him or the Zapatista Army. We only represent ourselves. We are only here as independent journalists to listen to every one of you — men, women, children, and elders — that wishes to tell us of your lives and your reality in Kanxoc. And we of course want to know your honest opinions about the Subcomandante’s visit.”

“In regard to the Subcomandante’s visit,” begins one man. “The visit is to see an example of the poverty of the people. He should come to see it. There are people who come here only to do politics… But when they come to power they abandon the people.”

The señor launches in to explain one of the townspeople’s most burning complaints: About how, after the total devastation of the town’s subsistence corn crop last year by the hurricanes, after the government signed papers agreeing to provide 840 pesos (about $80 dollars) per hectare to the peasant farmers who lost their crops, “it’s not going well. They’re not paying.” Worse, others chimed in, some envelopes containing even partial payments had been robbed; a farmer with four hectares received just ten pesos (less than one dollar) instead what had been promised. Others received only partial payments of 250 pesos per hectare, less than a third of what had been authorized. Nobody has received what was promised. “They don’t give anything to us to replace what was lost,” one woman speaks up in the Maya language. “They don’t give our husbands even one peso.”

And meanwhile, the people are hungry. They have to pay money to purchase the food they once grew: corn. But there is no money, because they have no corn to sell. “We ask you,” another says to the journalists, “to pressure those in power to attend to our demands.”

Another big complaint, heard again and again on this 90-plus degree day, is about the unfinished new road to the town. After many years of struggle, the state government of Yucatán, in the late 1990s, finally built a road to Kanxoc from the city of Valladolid (population 62,000), a small metropolis on the Mérida-Cancún highway. But the road was never finished, leaving 1,200 of Kanxoc’s citizens with only footpaths to bring the corn they once grew — and will next season grow again — to market. “They have to carry the corn on their backs, many kilometers,” shouts out one citizen. Politicians of each of the institutional political parties in Mexico have come to Kanxoc promising to complete the road. But after election, nothing happens. The people of Kanxoc have had enough with politicians.

“We won’t vote for anybody, right, compañeros?” he shouts out to the assembled. A hubbub of voices expressed what appeared to be strong agreement in the Maya language, nodding their heads up and down.

“They give us dispensas (small packages of food) and that’s okay, but they need to comply with what they promised.”

Furthermore, “the schoolhouse is falling down. The doors are rotted and broken.”

Another man jumps in:

“We don’t want another person who comes here to trick us. We want a person who comes and complies with his word… We’ve made six trips to see the government to demand that they pay what they promised. I have the papers they signed promising it. The payments haven’t arrived… Every time a politician comes here he asks for the force of the campesinos. And when they get into power, they leave us behind.”

Another man from Kanxoc adds:

“Regarding Subcomandante Marcos’ visit: I think it’s very good because he is doing it without political ambitions.”

The women of the community push forward toward the microphones en masse. Various speak at once as the interpreter tries to keep up. As it has been now since the reporters got here, there’s not even time or space to ask anyone his or her name, so eager to speak and be heard are the townspeople. The women want to talk about the health clinic, about how there is no doctor on weekends, the doctors don’t speak Maya — “only one nurse speaks Maya” — and about how the clinic charges 20 pesos even to pregnant women if they have not donated labor (through a concept that dates from the times of slavery here, known as the “fajina”) to the government.

A 56-year-old man introduced to us by the name of Bartolo speaks:

“We see the visit of Subcomandante Marcos as important because everything that Subcomandante Marcos demands is good for everyone, and for indigenous peoples. The government says everyone is equal but it’s not true. Subcomandante Marcos is a good fighter. The poor have no rights in the Constitution. If we have some land, the rich invade it.”

“We lack drinkable water,” comments another citizen of Kanxoc, “electricity, streets, sidewalks… there is no high school here…”

“We have no cattle. We produce with what little we have,” says another. “Today, we are very abandoned.”

“I’m the police commander,” says one man. “But I have no police. The politicians promised to send me ten police, but they didn’t send them. I’m a comandante but I can’t do anything without police. Sometimes the teenagers cause problems, they fight with each other. One comandante can’t take on ten teens. We have no vehicle to send them to the authorities in Valladolid. Sometimes they even invade the church and use it to smoke. There is no safety. We have no lights on the streets.”

This is a people left to fend for itself, on lands destroyed by cyclones, isolated (the road to Kanxoc ends there — it leads nowhere else).

A woman speaks up: “Many people and children are ill — colds, malnutrition, diarrhea, stomach pain. It’s worse since we lost the cornfields.”

A group of women come to the reporters and, through the interpreter, ask us to visit the town church with them: an ancient colonial-era edifice, rising high up toward the hot and penetrating sun. Upon entering, the church caretaker appears, and speaks in Maya: “We know it is very ugly. The doors are rotting. That ancient altar will fall down soon.”

Precious artwork from the 1500s adorns the walls of the church, rotting from mold and falling apart. A crack runs down the side from the ceiling, where lightning struck one night. The journalists are invited to film the town from the roof. Walking up an unlit circular staircase made of chunks of logs, we film the horizon for 360 degrees of this flat-as-a-pancake peninsula. Upon descending, a group of men approach…

The San Joaquín Cenote

“We would like to invite you to see the cenote,” beckons their appointed spokesman, pointing in the direction of an underground spring of crystalline water similar to those that, in some towns along the Mérida-Chichén Itza-Cancún-Playa de Carmen-Tulúm tourism trail, are attractions for tourists and scuba divers. “We request that you tell the world about our cenote, so that maybe someone will help us develop it to draw tourism.”

“The problem is,” says another, “that the highway passes near here, but there is no exit ramp to the cenote.”

“Another problem is, the electricity doesn’t reach there to light it.”

A while later, we drive two kilometers past thatched-roof homes, clothes lines, and the storm-destroyed cornfields, and walk some meters into the woods over limestone rock, to find a hole in the ground, and a stairway of rocks. Following the locals, we descend to the first level. The brutal heat of the day turns to natural air conditioning.

“We want to work this cenote, to clean it, so it can look better,” says one of our companions from Kanxoc. “But to do this job, we need help. We, alone, can’t do it. We don’t have enough resources to do this. There are some other towns that have cenotes and many visitors come. The people sell their crafts. What we need most is the support to do this, plus to bring the electric light so it can be seen, how beautiful is the crystalline water.”

Stalactites droop from the stony ceiling. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, they become more defined. A man brings a flashlight. The battery runs out. He hits it, but still no light. Another man brings another flashlight. This one works. The journalists descend down another level, carefully handing cameras and tape recorders to each other down each level. And below, as the eyes adjust to the darkness, there is a spring of water. “How deep is it?” someone asks. “Very deep.”

And there, in the darkness, the dampness and the cool natural air conditioning, in the quiet, thoughts and memories come. And one thinks back to other back roads, other isolated places, besieged by poverty and misery, with five hundred years of domination versus five hundred years of resistance… to a land called Chiapas… with its own beautiful canyons, and waterfalls, and cascades, and caves, and natural wonders like that encountered here in Kanxoc… And how for years the people in those place waited for someone to come — “maybe someone will help us to develop it…” — but in the places where the government or where the grand powers of money and might came to “help” the aid simply led to more exploitation, more poverty, more misery…

And one day, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two years ago, a small band of rebels including one young man in his 20s came with ideas of “helping” the impoverished natives, but found, instead, that in place of having something to teach the indigenous of Chiapas, he had everything to learn from them. And somehow during this 21-year conversation, a rebel army was born, a “war machine outside the state,” a Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and a subcomandante named Marcos… and today, in various places throughout that land called Chiapas, where there once were abandoned and forgotten wonders of nature there are now places where people come from all over the world. And, yes, they visit those precious places, and, yes, they buy crafts, and provide some marginal help to the marginalized, but that is beside the point.

The point is that the rebel indigenous of Chiapas stopped waiting for someone to come and “help” them, and although they had to do it with no money, with ill health, with inadequate food, with inexistent or, worse, malevolent “education,” with violent enemies all around them — current and former plantation owners and their paramilitaries, political bosses, police, the military — somehow in that massive conversation that began between a few people and grew to include hundreds of thousands, everyone began to help each other in place of waiting for someone to come and help. The same proved true after Tropical Storm Stan (September 18, 2005) dropped a torrent of water over Chiapas, among other lands, causing mudslides and floods, destroying corn crops much as Wilma and Emily did here in Kanxoc, wrecking roads and bridges, leaving many Zapatista towns cut off from the rest of the world, hungry, and unprotected from the cold front that followed. And even then, the rebels organized relief efforts that were independent of the governments, a campaign of aid “from below and to the left,” instead of waiting for someone else to come.

And today, life is improving in those places. And today, people run their own lives. And today, the people there — Maya people, as are the people here in Kanxoc — refuse any help at all from the government, but their lives are demonstrably better. A place where they no longer seek “help,” but, rather, in their autonomy, are helping each other, and, coincidentally, helping the entire world find a way out of this jam of an inhuman system that squeezes all of everything it can from each of us that are still human.

And, there, in the meditative darkness of the Cenote of San Joaquín, there is no help, there is no State, there is no system, but there is a silence that speaks, no, it whispers… perhaps like a Talking Cross of the kind that provoked a Caste War so many years ago… It whispers… liberty… justice… democracy…

Somewhere from deep inside this well, in this cool cenote, something beckons. A thought, perhaps, or better said, a dream… That, finally, somebody might come with the absurd but irresistible dream that whispers that nobody else needs to come… that there is no State, that there is no higher power, that there is nobody left to “help.” But there still is the hand of man and woman, ready to build miracles.

And maybe someday, maybe someday soon, somebody might come to demonstrate that nobody needs to come. Maybe. But maybe this is just a daydream on a 90-degree day invoked by the cool water that bubbles up from the San Joaquín Cenote, in the earth below a land called Kanxoc, Yucatán, where the simple and humble people still struggle and fight.

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