Monday, May 05, 2008

Zapatismo and Solidarity

“Be A Zapatista Wherever You Are”
Learning Solidarity in the 4th World War
By RJ Maccani
for the upcoming issue of the RESIST Newsletter

Behind our black mask, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind what you see of us, behind this, we are you. – Major Ana Maria of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) at the First Intercontinental Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Chiapas, Mexico. 1996.

In their words and in their actions, Mexico’s zapatista rebels have developed and propagated a powerful conception of solidarity. Through exploring a bit of their history, as well as the work of several of their supporters and allies within the USA, I seek to share here some of my understandings of what solidarity means to the zapatistas and, thus, what it might mean for those of us who seek to act in solidarity with them.

Everything for Everyone, Nothing for Ourselves

Perhaps the EZLN got lucky when they picked January 1st, 1994 to be the day they would rise up in arms. As the prominent Mexican intellectual Gustavo Esteva describes it, there wasn’t much else happening at the time:

Not a plane crashed. No tsunami came. No princess died. No president had any sexual escapade. Nothing happened on earth. The media was empty. They had nothing to present us. So, on January 2, we had a thousand journalists in San Cristobal. CNN was projecting Zapatistas. We had beautiful images with the ski masks and all the emotion. It was perfect for the news. Six hours a day, CNN was presenting Zapatistas.

From Mexico’s southeastern state of Chiapas, the zapatista cry of “¡Ya Basta!” (“Enough is Enough!”) quickly traveled around the globe not only through the corporate media but, unfiltered and direct, over the Internet as well. A virtual army of volunteer translators and web-junkies ensured that anyone who wanted to could engage directly with the communiqués, stories and letters of the zapatistas. In the same moment that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, the EZLN –in image and word- and the poverty of southern Mexico were catapulted into the consciousness of people around the world.

Although they succeeded in liberating over a million acres of land from plantation owners in the first days of the uprising, the zapatistas’ rag tag army of poorly equipped peasant soldiers could never have dreamed of matching the violence of the Mexican military. Demanding “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace,” they called on their fellow Mexicans to join them by rising up in arms to depose the one-party rule of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). In response to this call, the zapatistas instead found themselves confronted by a global “civil society” that echoed their demands but sought to achieve them through nonviolent means. That the zapatistas were not annihilated by the Mexican Army has less to do with their military prowess and more to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of Mexico City and other cities around the world in support of peace.

Taking a cue from the people they had hoped to lead into battle, the Zapatistas decided to stop speaking with “the fire” in order to strengthen the path of “the word”. And so in the 14 years since the uprising, the zapatistas have hosted countless consultas (mass consultations), encuentros (gatherings for listening and speaking), and other engagements with various segments of a national and international “civil society” that was attracted to them and who the zapatistas recognized as their peers. As Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson of the zapatistas, remarked in a recent interview,

…it so happened that we, the EZLN, were almost all indigenous from here in Chiapas, but we did not want to struggle just for our own good, or just for the good of the indigenous of Chiapas, or just for the good of the Indian peoples of Mexico. We wanted to fight along with everyone who was humble and simple like ourselves and who was in great need and who suffered from exploitation and thievery by the rich and their bad governments here, in our Mexico, and in other countries in the world. [emphasis added]

Since their public emergence, the zapatistas have sought to sustain an open and non-vanguardist style, communicated through the aphorisms “Walking, we ask questions” and “Lead by obeying.” Their commitment to struggling not just for themselves, but for all of humanity, is expressed powerfully and clearly in their “Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.”

Breaking the “Cinderella Syndrome”

Seeking dignity in their struggle, the zapatistas have sought allies in the form of compañeros. "Compañeros" is a word for which I’ve found no equivalent in English that, taken literally, suggests “people with whom you share bread.” The zapatistas have found, however, that some supporters have been unable to break with their own solidarity frameworks based on pity and charity. With playful style, Subcomandante Marcos described this as the “Cinderella Syndrome”:

We are not reproaching you for anything (to those from civil society who came to the communities), we know that you are risking much to come and see us and to bring aid to the civilians on this side. It is not our needs that bring us pain, it's seeing in others what others don't see, the same abandonment of liberty and democracy, the same lack of justice. From what our people received in benefit in this war, I saved an example of "humanitarian aid" for the Chiapaneco indigenous, which arrived a few weeks ago: a pink stiletto heel, imported, size 6 1/2 without its mate. I always carry it in my backpack in order to remind myself, in the midst of interviews, photo reports and attractive sexual propositions, what we are to the country after the first of January: a Cinderella. These good people who, sincerely, send us a pink stiletto heel, size 6 1/2, imported, without its mate, thinking that, poor as we are, we'll accept anything, charity and alms.

Through their paternalistic behavior, some international aid agencies and NGOs were also diagnosed with this “Cinderella Syndrome.” So in the Summer of 2003, the Zapatistas officially announced the creation of the "Caracoles" and Good Government Councils, structures through which their over 40 autonomous municipalities, grouped into five regions, could, amongst other things, filter and coordinate collaboration with supporters in a more organized, dignified way.

The Fourth World War

The Zapatistas’ desire to build dignified relationships of mutual aid and collaboration with their supporters is reinforced by their analysis of the current conditions that we all face in the struggle for a better world. The struggle today is referred to by the zapatistas as the Fourth World War. In this analysis, the Third World War was the Cold War, in which a group of nation-states (the United States and NATO) defeated another group of nation-states (the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact) for control of discrete territories (Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America). As El Kilombo Intergaláctico, a people of color collective in Durham, North Carolina explains it in their book, "Beyond Resistance: Everything":

…the Fourth World War is a war between what the EZLN has termed the “Empire of Money” and humanity. The main objectives of this war are: first, the capture of territory and labor for the expansion and construction of new markets; second, the extortion of profit; and third, the globalization of exploitation. Significantly then, for the first time, we are in the midst of a World War that is not fought between nations or even between a nation and an externally identifiable enemy. It is instead a war for the imposition of a logic and a practice, the logic and practice of capital, and therefore everything that is human and opposes capital is the enemy; we are all at all times potentially the enemy, thus requiring an omniscient and omnipotent social policing. As the EZLN explains, this qualifies the Fourth World War as the first truly TOTAL war because, unlike even the Third World War, this is not a war on all fronts; it is the first world war with NO front.

This understanding of the threat we are facing today means that none of us have the privilege of standing “outside” of the conflict, content to lend our charitable solidarity to those struggling within the trenches.

The Sixth Declaration

Building off the strength of their Caracoles and Good Governance Councils, formally established in the summer of 2003, the zapatistas released their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle two years later. The Sixth Declaration, like the five that have preceded it since their 1994 uprising, announced the major steps the zapatistas would be taking in their next phase of struggle. In the case of the Sixth, they announced that they were seeking to actively build a national movement to liberate Mexico “from below and to the left” and to build more relationships of mutual support and respect with people and movements around the world “fighting against neoliberalism and for humankind.”

Groups from around the world responded to the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration, amongst them were many groups from within the USA whose practices highlight many of the different ways that their supporters have taken to heart the old zapatista suggestion to “Be a Zapatista wherever you are":

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), made up of over 2,500 largely Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida, are perhaps one of the best known adherents to the Sixth Declaration. The connection may not seem clear at first because the CIW is not anti-capitalist, for example, or pursuing an autonomous path to change. Something they do share with the zapatistas, however, is an openness and respect for their supporters that stimulates active engagement and innovation. An even deeper connection is the fact that the CIW and the zapatistas may, in fact, share overlapping membership. When Melody Gonzalez of the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) traveled to Chiapas, Mexico in September 2005 to represent the CIW at an early meeting of Sixth Declaration adherents, she encountered a zapatista who had been working in Immokalee’s fields until 1992 when he returned to Chiapas to participate in the uprising! Currently wrestling with fast food giant Burger King, the CIW continues to win major victories in the struggle for “fair food, dignity, and real rights” for farm workers thanks to their capacity to mobilize themselves and inspire a vast range of supporters.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an organization of approximately 400 immigrant and low-income families of color, fights gentrification in Manhattan’s East Harlem drawing inspiration from the zapatistas’ consultas, encuentros, and other methods of building strength through popular engagement. In the summer of 2006, MJB began their “Consulta del Barrio” in which they consulted over 1,500 residents of their neighborhood to guide them in their next steps. Last fall, MJB hosted the first NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism to build horizontal relationships with other people struggling against gentrification. The Encuentro attracted representatives from 27 groups, some coming to East Harlem from as far as Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. This spring MJB launched their International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, an initiative that will connect them with supporters around the world to stand with them in facing down any “global, national or local threat to [their] right to dignified housing, autonomy and self-determination.”

El Kilombo Intergaláctico (El Kilombo), a people of color collective made up of students, migrants, and other community members in Durham, North Carolina have emphasized creating a social center with which “to strengthen [their] collective political struggles while simultaneously connecting these struggles with the larger global anti-capitalist movement.” Drawing on the example set by the zapatista communities, El Kilombo’s strength is rooted in its community assembly and autonomous institutions created to meet educational, health, cultural, and other needs of the community. Made up of people from the communities who use and maintain the center, the community assembly is a collective decision-making body that “directs the center’s programs, discusses community needs, makes decisions about program changes and innovation, and designates tasks.”

The CIW, MJB and El Kilombo have all made trips to meet
with the zapatistas and other participants in the national movement coming out of the Sixth Declaration, referred to as the Other Campaign, and the global movement, called the Zezta Internazional.


As someone who has been inspired by the zapatistas for over eight years now, I’ve been wrestling for some time with what the zapatista conception of solidarity means for my own life. I first learned about the zapatistas through a workshop facilitated by the Cincinnati Zapatista Coalition (CZC), and soon became an active member. Part of what we did as the CZC was typical solidarity work: educational video and literature distribution, fundraising through sales of zapatista coffee and artisanry, and workshops. Much of our work, however, involved participating in struggles much closer to home such as protests against police brutality and the racist representation of indigenous people through sports mascots, campaigning for the liberation of political prisoners Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and building the global justice movement in Cincinnati. We recognized all of these activities as necessary components of our solidarity and identification with the zapatistas. This was also the case for me when mobilizing as a student in support of striking workers on Ohio State University’s campus and when working as a union organizing the year following college.

After moving to Brooklyn, New York to stay with my long-time partner, I became an active member of Critical Resistance NYC (CR). Having spent my early years growing up in poor neighborhoods and as a white boy attending primarily black schools, I found CR’s identification of a “prison-industrial complex,” with roots in this countries legacy of African enslavement, to be very compelling. CR’s positing of “abolition” as the necessary response to this problem continued a legacy of struggle in this country that felt as powerfully rooted to me as the zapatistas’ struggle did in Mexico.

A couple of us who found ourselves doing a lot of childcare at CR meetings and with other groups, in order to facilitate the participation of low-income mothers of color in the organizing, eventually decided to devote our organizing energy primarily to this work. Our founding of Regeneración Childcare NYC two-and-a-half years ago was for me not only a way to create these powerful partnerships between radical parents and caregivers, their children, and us childcare volunteers, but also a way for me to draw from my own experience of growing up as the child of a young, single, low-income mother in the city. Adding transformative justice work around child sexual abuse, something I have also experienced directly, to this organizing has been perhaps the most personally transformative work I’ve engaged in yet.

I am still very active in consciousness-raising activities and in mobilizations in defense of the zapatistas. I believe these forms of solidarity are effective and necessary. That being said, what I’ve learned from the zapatistas about solidarity is that we must also find and struggle from those places that most directly intersect with our own lived experiences of oppression and privilege. In other words, we are all in this Fourth World War together.

Behind Us, We Are You

I don’t believe the quote with which I began this article is to be taken metaphorically. If we in some way identify with the zapatistas, then we must ask ourselves what it truly means for us, and for the communities of which we are a part, to be rebellious. As El Kilombo puts it, “We face the question, as if the zapatistas have asked us, do you believe that, behind our masks, we are you, or do you believe that, behind your masks, there is nothing?”

1 comment:

Come Ride The Whale said...

Great blog---thanks so much for your efforts--I just finished, "Fire and the Word" by Ramirez---googled zezta and up came your blog--keep up the good work folks are listening.