"Visiting the Zapatistas reinforced to me the strength of women and the vital role they play in the community."
-Prita Lal, 26, Organizer and Student in NYC
Earlier this summer, Prita and I traveled together with over 70 other people as part of the Another Politics is Possible delegation from New York City to the US Social Forum in Atlanta. Below is an in-depth interview where she reflects on her organizing in NYC, her life, and her experiences at the Second Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World.
Also this week, an effective action in NYC against representatives of Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz; an excellent new film on Oaxaca is out, the Other Campaign mobilizes to defend itself; a national encuentro of the Other Campaign has been called for by collectives and individuals from Los Angeles, Fresno and Santa Barbara; Elvira Arrellano continues her struggle from México; and protests, police provocateurs, and sabotage against the Harper/Bush/Calderón meeting in Canada...
Interview with Prita Lal
August 23, 2007
RJ Maccani: Before we get into discussing the Zapatista encuentro you attended, I want to ask some questions about you. For starters, what do you do in your daily life?
Prita Lal: I live in NYC and am part of two community organizations: Center for Immigrant Families (CIF), which is a community organization of low-income immigrant women of color that uses popular education to organize for personal and social transformation in upper Manhattan; and Casa Atabex Aché (Casa), which means House of Womyn’s Power, and is a natural health and wellness center for womyn of color in the South Bronx that organizes for personal, spiritual, and collective transformation through earth-based, holistic and alternative healing techniques. I am also a graduate student in history and anthropology.
Have you always lived in NYC? How did you find yourself working with CIF and Casa?
My parents migrated to the U.S. from India in the early 1970s. I was born in Queens, NY but then (after over a decade of living in the NYC area), my family moved to Louisiana when I was 3 years old. I grew up in small towns between Louisiana and Georgia until I was 17. Having been raised in the Deep South as a child of South Asian immigrants really helped politicize me at an early age because of injustices I experienced and witnessed both because of race and class.
I went to college in New Orleans and developed my political analysis through living there and experiencing the gross disparities between the mostly white and wealthy college campus that was located in a predominately black and very poor community. I moved back to NYC four years ago and had been working with immigrant worker rights groups (specifically with grocery delivery and domestic workers in the West African and South Asian communities) before I began working at CIF and Casa.
Could you tell us a bit more about the history of Center for Immigrant Families and what the day-to-day work looks like?
Center for Immigrant Families (CIF) is a collectively-run organization of low-income immigrant women of color and community members in Manhattan Valley (Uptown NYC). Committed to a holistic vision of organizing, our stories and lived experiences are central to building a community that works towards social transformation and promotes justice, mutuality, love, trust, and dignity.
CIF was founded in 1997 in response to the increased forms of institutionalized oppression facing immigrant families and communities. Assaults have consistently mounted in recent years, from the passage of the 1996 immigration and welfare "reform" laws, which gratuitously attacked and unfairly targeted immigrant communities, particularly women and children of color, to attacks on bilingual education, the push for English-only laws, and the further criminalization of undocumented immigrants.
CIF's founding program, the Escuela Popular de Mujeres/Women's Popular Education Program, is driven by a deep understanding of and faith in the transformational and healing power – for individuals and communities – of sharing our stories. At CIF, this is where we begin, with our migration stories; for us, these stories are not mere reminders of when we arrived or of our cultural heritage, but they are also about why we came, who and what we left behind, our expectations for life here, and what we found when we arrived. Our stories become the foundation for developing a collective analysis of why we are here as well as of the realities and challenges we face in the U.S. and what we can do collectively to address them. Integrated into our work is also leadership development and skills building to organize for justice.
From the Escuela program (since many of our members have identified public education as one reason we continue to live in this country in spite of the hardships), our Project to Challenge Segregation in OUR Public School System arose—in which we are fighting to take back our schools and make them accountable to our community. We're addressing public ed within a broader context of community displacement, as the schools have become a gateway for exclusion, displacement, and segregation in all the neighborhoods that comprise our school district. As part of the Escuela, we also have an English Literacy Project--we offer English classes that challenge the traditional ESL model thereby making English language learning a tool of resistance. To support the work of the Escuela, we developed the Women's Circles program, which provides a space for healing from the ways in which the system affects us internally. Lastly, we have developed a Resource Center library, in the face of dwindling community services, that complements CIF's work and shares information about advocacy and other organizing on a wide array of issues, including but not limited to violence against women, immigrants' rights, housing, and health.
…and what about Casa Atabex Aché?
Casa began to take form since the 1960s; the founders were part of the Black Panthers and Young Lords Parties. They saw that community members were constantly being given drugs to treat illnesses caused by all the injustices happening in their communities, but that this did nothing to challenge the systems causing the oppressions—namely capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The founding womyn sought to develop a space to heal from the violence that people internalize as a result of living in this society—we heal through our tears, experiences, and knowledge of our ancestors.
We organize monthly healing circles in which women of color come together to break the silence around issues affecting our community and heal from various kinds of trauma and violence we experience. Casa has developed an emotional release model that integrates different indigenous healing modalities such as herbology, aromatherapy, yoga, the seven chakras, and seasonal nutrition to move toxic energy out of our bodies so that they do not develop into diseases. We use earth-based spirituality to create sacred space to align ourselves with the healing elements of the season for the healing of our mind, body and spirit.
The monthly healing circles are part of ACHE, which is the first alternative Womyn’s Health & Wellness Cooperative in the South Bronx. Through ACHE, we are creating our model for sustainable and accessible healthcare for community members, activists & organizers. The cooperative will support the health and wellness needs of womyn while being a respite to integrate self-care into our daily practice and heal from internalized oppression. We also have a Young Womyn’s Fuerza/Power program and a “Healing the Rainbow” program that is geared towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirit, and Queer community.
When and how did you first learn of the Zapatista struggle?
I came to know about the Zapatista struggle through these past few years of work within immigrant communities of color in NYC. Casa went to visit the Zapatistas over a year ago. Inspiration from that visit led to the creation of “ACHE” (Alternative Cooperative for Healing and Empowerment), our autonomous alternative health and wellness initiative in the South Bronx.
Similarly, CIF has learned from and draws inspiration from the Zapatistas, among many other movements. Recently, we had a series of workshops that lead up to our participation in the US Social Forum. Some of the intentions of the workshops were to build the leadership skills of members and develop our political analysis. For one of the workshops, we read a recent essay by Subcomandante Marcos entitled “Qué tan grande es el mundo?” (How big is the world?). To me, this piece speaks about the scope of injustices happening in the world and the importance of relating our struggles to those happening everywhere else. I think this piece relates to CIF’s work because it helps us to think beyond our organizing work locally and put our struggle in a larger context of movement building in solidarity with oppressed people all over the world.
Could you give us a general outline of what you participated in and experienced in this trip to Mexico and to the Zapatista Caracoles?
We went to 3 Zapatista Caracoles (Caracoles literally means ‘snails’ and they are the centers of Zapatista autonomous government): Oventik for the first 2 days, Morelia for the next 4, and then La Realidad for the last 2 days. Oventik is located close to San Cristobal, so traveling there was pretty easy, while La Realidad was deep in the jungle close to the Guatemalan border, so we spent a good bit of time traveling there via truck. It was really a special opportunity to have the chance to go so far into the jungle and experience the natural beauty of this area. We basically camped out in all 3 caracoles. During the day, in each caracol, there would be ‘mesas’ that we would participate in—which were basically plenaries about various themes like health, education, struggles of women, the juntas de buen gobierno (“councils of good government”), autonomy, and collective work done by different municipals within the caracoles. The plenaries were 45 minutes each and then there would be 15 minutes at the end for questions (hand written).
There was also a delegation of farmers and representatives from farmer’s organizations who are part of an international network called Vía Campesina. Delegates came from South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Brazil, U.S., Canada, and Mexico. During one day in Morelia, Vía Campesina held a program in which delegates spoke about the injustices and oppression experienced by farmers in their native countries.
There were also cultural performances during the evening after the plenaries finished, such as Zapatista youth performing theater pieces, and the evenings would usually finish with a band playing and a ‘baile popular.’ There were also kitchens and stores set up to provide for our nourishment. There were also collectives from different parts of Mexico that would have tables or share info about the work they are doing—such as artists or indy media collectives. I also had plenty of opportunity to talk with and get to know folks doing interesting work—I mainly met people from the global north and Mexico City.
Having never visited the Zapatistas before, why did you decide to attend this Encuentro?
My friend told me about the Encuentro and said it would be an amazing opportunity to visit the Zapatistas. Since Casa is located in the South Bronx (with a large Latina community) and CIF’s membership is primarily Latina, I was already traveling to Guatemala to study Spanish in order to make my work in NYC more effective. So I was already close to Chiapas, and since I am a part of two organizations that are working to build autonomous communities, and since building autonomous and collective leadership is a struggle in our capitalist society, I was hoping to draw inspiration that would inform the work we’re doing and learn any lessons from the Zapatista struggle.
And were there lessons you were able to learn from the Zapatista struggle?
I’m still discovering the lessons I learned from the Zapatistas during this Encuentro as I continue to reflect on this experience. Some of the things I have learned from the Zapatistas deals with their courage and commitment. The fact that they are in a low-intensity war against the mal gobierno ["bad government"] means to me that they have developed a mastery (if you will) of fear such that they are ready to literally fight for their values and autonomy.
I also feel like lessons can be drawn from their courage to rise up against the oppressors and stand firm in their beliefs to the point that they resist efforts to be bribed into complying with the system by refusing to receive benefits or privileges from it. For instance, the Zapatistas would mention the attempts made by the mal gobierno to provide funds for community development projects, but that they would remain solid and not accept these funds so that they can retain their autonomy. I feel like they can see through these attempts to receive benefits from the mal gobierno as attempts to co-opt their movement and find it to be admirable and something to learn from. I also really appreciated their veneration for their ancestors and their knowledge as central in their work.
In regards to their ancestral knowledge and practices, they seemed to be at the same time very deliberate and careful about how much and what knowledge they would share with outsiders. I seemed to get the strong impression (based on the plenaries and discussions with other people at the Encuentro) that the Zapatistas are not interested in having outsiders come in and join their community. For instance, they seem to place limits on how long outsiders can stay within their communities and they seem to have a deliberate and careful process of sharing information about their work with outsiders. It seems to me that these are efforts to protect their knowledge and hence their autonomy.
I also feel like movements in the U.S. can draw lessons from the Zapatistas going beyond the demanding rights from the state model and actually creating alternatives. The Zapatistas said that they refused to continue waiting to get rights from the state, because they would actually only get lies. To me, this shows their commitment and belief in their people and in their community—that they don’t need to rely on a state to regulate their relations, but that they can do it themselves. I also felt like it was powerful to see their commitment to collective work as critical to their communities. This is especially an important lesson because in the U.S., we get so trained to operate in hierarchies and we internalize assumptions that hierarchies are the most ‘efficient’ and effective way of organizing our relations, so its really important to see entire communities thriving through collective organization as a source of inspiration.
Also, visiting the Zapatistas reinforced to me the strength of women and the vital role they play in the community. Their firm commitment to prioritizing the leadership of women is also an important lesson.
What were the most powerful aspects of the Encuentro for you?
It was a very powerful experience to stay in the caracoles—I felt a connection to mother nature that I haven’t felt before. Living so one with nature is an experience hard to describe, but there was this feeling in the air, the spirit and energy present, its like I could feel the spirit of the ancestors in the area and the efforts to hold on to indigenous knowledge. The Vía Campesina program was very powerful as well. They began their program with a theater performance in which the stage was set up with crops and different fabrics to represent the earth. Some delegates were pretending to farm and cultivate the earth until they got forced off their land from people representing the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc. One of the people from the delegation was singing a powerful song during this reenactment about the plight of farmers. I was so moved I was brought to tears! It was also very powerful to see thousands of people from so many countries gather in solidarity with Zapatismo.
Was there anything you were hoping to experience, share, learn or connect with at the Encuentro that either did not happen or -if you had a question- that you still feel unclear about?
I did expect the Encuentro to be more participatory, and to have more space to talk directly with the Zapatistas. I can understand for security reasons why the Zapatistas would be weary of sharing too deeply about their work given the large number of attendees (perhaps to protect their autonomy), however, I did leave feeling like I would have appreciated the opportunity to dialogue more directly with them. I also hoped to have seen more people from the Global South represented. Although the Vía Campesina delegation was very powerful, it was disappointing that the farmers from the U.S. and Canada were white. I wonder why there couldn’t have been indigenous or African-American farmers represented in the delegation.
It was also disappointing that there was supposed to be a Vía Campesina delegate from Africa participating in the Encuentro, but their visa was denied. I was also expecting to meet more people from other Latin American countries, but felt like most of the folks I met were from Mexico and mainly from the capital city. I actually was talking to folks in Guatemala about this and learned that even to travel to Mexico as a Guatemalan, for instance, is difficult because the authorities would assume that they would be trying to cross the border into the U.S., or stay and work ‘illegally’ in Mexico. So, I was surprised to realize that even traveling to Mexico is a privilege not accorded to many.
What questions do you bring from the Encuentro back to your life, work, and communities in the USA?
How do we challenge neoliberalism and capitalism in our daily work? Attending the Encuentro reinforced the idea for me that there is no such thing as a utopia—so long as capitalism exists, we are all implicated in it. I did notice some contradictions within the Zapatista struggle such as a gendered division of labor in which women were predominantly responsible for preparing food while men collected money—in spite of an explicit attempt to prioritize the leadership of women and challenge machismo in their communities; the selling of corporate products like Coca-Cola in the stores; and the attendees of this ‘Encuentro de los Pueblos Zapatistas con los Pueblos del Mundo’, not exactly reflective of the people of the world (i.e., large number of attendees were white and from the Global North—and in my perception—very sparse representation of working-class folks from the global South)). I also think that although the Zapatistas are firmly committed to living autonomously from the mal gobierno, they are nonetheless connected and perhaps I could even say beholden to the state system in some ways. For instance, I noticed in the Junta de Buen Gobierno’s office that attendees were expressing interest in donating funds or other resources to the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas indeed repeated during the Encuentro that support from the national and international community has afforded them the opportunity to develop their projects better, and I got the impression that one of their intentions for the Encuentro was to continue building this support so that they could raise more resources for their projects in the future. Thus, national and international support has played some kind of role in the Zapatista’s movement, yet the attendees of the Encuentro (as well as other folks who visit Zapatista territory) had to pass through state controlled immigration officials in order to get to the autonomous liberated zone, and indeed state authorities play a role in determining who is able to enter the country (and hence Zapatista land). All this to say that the Zapatistas are still connected to state systems and, I may even say, rely on them to some degree in their struggle for autonomy. I don’t bring up these contradictions to judge the Zapatistas in any way, just to point out that to me, social transformation is really a process and not an end result and so the importance of constantly reflecting on how we are challenging these systems of oppression in our daily lives and work.
Were you able to attend the plenary in San Cristobal that preceded the Encuentro; the one where Marcos discussed different forms of anti-capitalism and the use of Coca-Cola as a replacement for alcohol in the communities?
No, I was not able to attend this plenary. I certainly would have appreciated attending it since I am only beginning the process of thinking through the relationship between the Zapatistas and Coca-Cola, so I am sure there are complexities and nuances that I have yet to discover or understand. However, just to share some of my initial reactions: I understand that Marcos has made speeches in which he criticized people for critiquing their selling of coke products, etc, and to them, it’s more important to seize the means of production than simply change consumption patterns. I also think we need to do much more than simply change consumption patterns—especially since no matter what, so long as global capitalism exists, we are all perpetuating its systems regardless of how hard we try to avoid patronizing certain oppressive corporations. So, I agree with this discourse, but I guess I am just wondering why the Zapatistas would sell products produced by a company that is responsible for the murder of folks in Latin America and campesinos in other parts of the third world. I just find it to be a bit of a shock, to be committed to taking over the means of production in an anti-capitalist way, but at the same time help support a capitalist enterprise that is causing their injustices and the injustices experienced by compas in the global south.
I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, meaning that we don’t have to do either one or the other. I think it’s important that the two go together; because otherwise it’s kind of like we're stabbing ourselves in the back (creating autonomous alternatives/taking over the means of production, but at the same time, supporting the very institutions that are causing the oppression our communities experience in the first place...).
What else do you bring back with you?
An increased respect for the earth and nature. A firmer commitment to the importance of reclaiming our indigenous knowledge. One of the Zapatista health promoters talked about how their community lost the knowledge of their ancestors in regards to health and healing because of the Spanish invaders who said the knowledge of their grandmothers was savagery, and how they have been working hard since their revolt to reclaim indigenous healing modalities. I can really relate to these sentiments just from my own community, so really take this to heart and find inspiration in it.
And by “my community” I am referring to my upbringing in the South Asian diaspora—always feeling like I was living in exile—never really at home in the U.S. or in India. It was difficult growing up in the Bible belt south while being raised by devote Hindu parents. I felt the pressure to assimilate at a young age—by feeling ashamed of my family’s language, culture, and habits.
Also, my schooling was very euro-centric and we were not taught the value of the histories of people of color. It was very enlightening (for lack of a better word…) for me to have the opportunity to take ethnic studies classes in college. Indeed, my last trip to India was very different than ones I had taken before that. After having studied the history of India intensively in grad school, I felt much more connected and comfortable in the country in a way I had not before (although I still do recognize the tensions within this given the oppressive role the academy plays and/or can play as well…).
One of the challenges growing up in the diaspora is having to deal with the ways in which Western culture exoticizes my native culture—it’s offensive because white people try to have it both ways: to retain their white privilege while taking the culture of brown people. After experiencing how protective the Zapatistas were with their knowledge and community, it seems to me that this is important to retain the autonomy of one’s community and to resist efforts at co-optation and the stealing of knowledge. For instance, by being open and allowing outsiders to join your community and soak up the knowledge, it helps facilitate the theft and co-optation of this knowledge.
Before, I had always felt like something was wrong with me because I did not retain elements of my ancestral practices and knowledge and felt like there was so much I didn’t know. But after visiting the Zapatistas, I realized (since they also expressed that their indigenous knowledge got lost through colonialism, assimilation, etc,) that this loss of knowledge is something shared by all colonized peoples. It was inspiring to hear that this process of recuperating lost knowledge is not something I am alone in doing, but that it is shared by other communities as well.
Do you have any plans to stay connected to the Zapatistas, the Other Campaign, and/or the Zezta Internazional? If so, what are some next steps?
Definitely feel renewed inspiration and commitment to the work I am doing with CIF and Casa. I do feel like our work is strongly connected to the ideas of Zapatismo so, yes, I am feeling a stronger commitment.