THE ART OF CONSTRUCTING A NEW WORLD: Freedom according to the Zapatistas
Written by Raúl Zibechi August 29, 2013
Ever since the media stopped paying attention to it, many believe that the Zapatista Rebellion no longer exists. In silence, far from the lights and cameras, they have deepened the features of their autonomous construction to the point that now one can talk about a different society, governed by rules, codes and laws different from those of the dominant world.
From his six-year old height, Carlos Manuel hugs his father’s waist as if he would never let go. He looks at the roof and smiles. Julián, his father, attempts to get loose. The child gives in but remains together with the father. Irma, his eight-year old sister, observes from a corner of the kitchen where her mother, Esther, works over the fire turning the corn tortillas that continue being the principal food of rural families.
The other three children, including the eldest, Francisco, 16, observe the scene that is repeated during the meals as if it were a ritual. The kitchen is the place for talks that scatter as slow as the smoke that rises above the zinc roofs. The words are as frugal and flavorful as the food: beans, corn, coffee, bananas and some vegetable, all grown without chemicals, harvested and prepared by hand. Bred in the open field, the chicken has a different flavor, like all the food in this Tojolabal community.
When the meal ends, each one washes his plates and tableware, even the father, who at times collaborates in the meal’s preparation. I ask if it’s what’s normal in these lands. They answer that it is the custom in the Zapatista communities, not so in the communities of the “bad government,” in reference to those that, without scorn, they call “PRI brothers.” Those communities, neighbors to those that clutch the red star on a black background, receive vouchers and food from the government, which builds houses of block and soil material for them.
There was not the least gesture of aggressiveness between the father, mother and children during the week; not even gestures of bad humor or reproach. Apparently, prohibition of alcohol consumption softens human relations. The women are the ones that most enjoy the changes. “I distinguish the Zapatistas by the way in which, above all, the women stand up,” the experienced journalist Hermann Bellinghausen comments.
The day of the end of the world
The new stage that Zapatismo is traveling started on December 21, 2012, the day marked by the media as the end of the world that for the Mayas is the beginning of a new era. Tens of thousands of EZLN support bases concentrated in five municipal seats of Chiapas, the same ones that they had taken on January 1, 1994.
The reappearance of Zapatismo moved a good part of Mexican society. Not only had they not disappeared, but rather that they re-emerged with more strength, showing that they were capable of mobilizing an important number of people in military formation, although without weapons.
In the December 30 communiqué Subcomandante Marcos assures that “in these years we have strengthened and significantly improved our living conditions. Our level of life is superior to that of the indigenous communities related to the governments, which receive alms and waste them on alcohol and useless articles.”
He adds that different from what happens in communities related to the PRI, in the Zapatista communities “the women are not sold like merchandise,” and that “the indigenous PRI members are going to our hospitals, clinics and laboratories because in the government’s there is no medicine, or apparatus, or doctors or qualified personnel.”
Something like that could verify who went to the first Escuelita between August 12 and 16. In reality only fellow travelers were summoned, which supposes a profound turn in their ways of relating with civil society: “Starting now, our word will begin to be selective in its destination and, save on rare occasions, will only be understood by those who have walked and walk with us, without surrendering to media and popular fashions,” the communiqué recites.
He adds that: “very few will have the privilege” of knowing the other way of doing politics. In a series of communiqués titled “Them and Us” emphasized the differences between the political culture of the system and the culture of below or zapatista, assuring that they do not propose: “to construct a big organization with a directing center, a centralized command, a boss, be it individual or collegiate.”
They emphasize unity of action must respect heterogeneity of the modes of doing: “Every attempt at homogeneity is no more than a fascist attempt at domination, hidden with a revolutionary, esoteric, religious or similar language. When one speaks of “unity,” one omits pointing out that that “unity” is under the leadership of someone or something, individual or collective. On the deceitful altar of “unity” not only are differences sacrificed, the survival of all the little worlds of tyrannies and injustices that we suffer is also hidden.”
To comprehend this focus, which led Zapatismo to promote the August Escuelita, you must comprehend the problems that pierced relations with the electoral left and with people that, in their opinion, “appear when there are stages and disappear at the hour of work without noise [publicity?].”
The logic of the Escuelita is opposed to that political culture. It’s not about going to listen to the Indian commanders or to Subcomandante Marcos, but rather to share daily life with the common people. It’s not about the discursive and rational transmission of a codified wisdom. The thing goes another way: experiencing a reality to which one can only accede through a ritual of commitment, in other words staying and sharing.
A new life
“We no longer have difficulties” Julián says, seated on a rustic wood stool, in his house with a metal plate roof, walls of wood and tamped-down dirt floor. He says that naturally in front of someone who has spent four days sleeping on wooden boards, barely covered with a fine sheet. Julián entered the clandestine organization in 1989. Marcelino, my guardian or Votán, entered a little before that, in1987.
With enjoyment they tell about the clandestine meetings in remote caves in the mountains, to which dozens of Zapatistas arrived at night, while the plantation owners and their overseers slept. They walked all night and barely returned by dawn to go to work. The women cooked tortillas for them in the dark, to not arouse suspicion. Well viewed, he’s right when he says that it was worse before: the whip of the plantation owner, the humiliation, the hunger, the violence and rapes of the daughters.
On January 1, 1994 the plantation owners fled and the overseers ran away. The “8 de Marzo community,” to which fifteen of us student strangers (half Mexicans, one a 75-year old Yankee, a Frenchman, a Colombian, two Argentinians and a Uruguayan) is on the land that used to be occupied by Pepe Castellanos, brother of Absalón, lieutenant colonel, ex governor and the owner of fourteen fincas (plantations) on lands usurped from the Indians. His kidnapping, in that distant January, was the spigot that precipitated the flight of the big landholders.
The community has more than one thousand hectares of good land. They no longer have to plant on the rocky and arid slopes. They harvest traditional foods and at the recommendation of the la commanders they also grow fruits and vegetables. Not only did they free themselves of the whip; they are also better fed and get to save in a very particular way. Julián harvests six sacks of coffee, some 300 kilos, from which one sack is for family consumption and he sells the rest. According to prices, he gets to buy between two and three cows with each harvest. “The cows are the bank account and when we have a necessity we sell them.”
By “necessity” he means health problems. His eldest son had to submit to a treatment and he sold a bull to pay for the expenses. The community applies the same logic. They carry out collective work around coffee on the community’s land and with the harvest they buy horses and cows. Between animals of the families and those of the community they have 150 horses and almost 200 vaccinated cows.
Days before the students were to arrive the water filter wore out and they decided to sell a cow to repair it. In that same fashion they maintain health services, the school and all the expenses that transportation and lodging require for the comuneros to fulfill their duties at the three levels of self-government: the local or community government, the autonomous municipal government and the Good Government Juntas (regional).
The women also have community enterprises. In that community they had a coffee field with which they bought six cows and a chicken coop with half a hundred birds whose savings are used for travel and other expenses the women have that occupy positions or attend courses.
The few necessities that the families do not produce (salt, sugar, oil and soap) they buy at the municipal headquarters in Zapatista stores, installed in places that they occupied after the 1994 Uprising. That way they don’t need to go to the market and their whole economy is kept inside of a circuit that they control, self-sufficient, linked to the market but without depending on it.
The comuneros take turns tending the stores. Julián explains that at certain times it falls to him to be in the Altamirano store for one month (an hour from the community), which obliges him to leave home. “In that case the community maintains his milpa for 15 days and I support in the same way that he has to go to the store.” Esther was in charge of the Junta, in the Caracol of Morelia, one half hour from the community, and her duties were covered the same way, which we can call reciprocity.
Health and education
Each community, no matter how small it is, has a school and a health post. There are 48 families in the community of 8 de Marzo (March 8th), almost all Zapatistas. The assembly elects its authorities, half men and half women, its teachers and those in change of health. No one can refuse because it is a service to the community.
The school functions in a room of the big house abandoned by the plantation owner. An iron bar still survives through which he paid his peons, who could hardly see the hand that let coins fall, since the darkness hid the plantation owner’s face.
Early in the morning, the children form on the basketball court in front of the big house. They march in file with a martial step, guided by a youth from the community that must not be more than 25 years old. Zapatista education suffers from a lack of infrastructure; the classrooms are precarious, just like the benches and the buildings. The teachers are not paid a salary but are sustained by the community just like those in charge of health.
Nevertheless it has enormous advantages for the students: the teachers are members of the community, speak their language and are their equals, while in the state schools (those of the bad government), the teachers are not Indians but rather mestizos that don’t speak their language, and even scorn them, live far away from the community and maintain a vertical distance with the children.
The climate of trust in the autonomous schools enables more horizontal links and facilitates the participation of parents and students in the management of the school. The children participate in many of the community’s tasks and, among them, in the support of the school and of its teachers. A distance does not exist between the school, its teachers and the community since they are part of the same grouping of social relations.
If the official school has a hidden curriculum through which it transmits values of individualism, competition, vertical organization of the educational system and the superiority of the teachers over the students, Zapatista education is the reverse. The curriculum is constructed collectively and they want the students to appropriate the history of their community, to reproduce it and sustain it.
The transformation and the critique are permanent and work to construct knowledge collectively since the students are accustomed to working in teams and a good part of the school time transpires outside the classroom, in contact with the same elements that configure their daily life. What in state education is separation and hierarchy (teacher-student, classroom-recreation, knowing-not knowing), is integration and complimentary in the autonomous schools.
In the little room for health medications from the pharmaceutical industry live side-by-side with a wide variety of medicinal plants. A very young woman is in charge of processing syrups and pomades with those plants. The hall has a bonesetter and a midwife, who complete the basic health team in all the Zapatista communities. In general, they attend to relatively simple situations and when they seem overwhelmed they transport the patient to the clinic in the Caracol. When they cannot resolve [a situation], they go to the state hospital in Altamirano.
Health and education are arranged in steps on the same three levels as autonomous Zapatista power. The most advanced clinics usually function in the Caracoles, including one that has an operating room where they perform operations. In the Caracoles, which shelter the Good Government Juntas, the autonomous secondary schools are usually located.
The Little School
It took seven hours to tour the hundred kilometers that separate San Cristóbal from the Caracol of Morelia. The caravan of thirty trucks and cars left late and advances like a turtle. About two o’clock in the morning, we arrived at the Caracol, an enclosure where a group of constructions are seated that house the institutions of autonomous region: three municipios, twelve regions and dozens of communities, governed by the Good Government Junta.
There is also a secondary school and a hospital under construction, clinics, amphitheaters, stores, dining rooms, a shoe shop and other productive enterprises.
Despite the hour, a long line of men and another of women were waiting for us decked out with their paliacates. We arranged ourselves by gender and one by one we met our Votán. Marcelino extends his hand and asks that I accompany him. We go directly to the enormous events hall to sleep on the very hard benches.
In the morning (there were) coffee, beans and tortillas. Later the members of the Junta talk and explain how the little school is going to function. In the afternoon, almost at night, we left for the community. Among the students we were able to see Nora Cortiñas, of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and Hugo Blanco, campesino leader and ex Peruvian guerrilla, both around 80 years old.
We arrived in the community around midnight after a half hour of tumbling in the back of a small truck. The whole community, formed in lines of men, women and children with their ski masks, receive us with their fists raised. They welcome us and each student is introduced to the family where he will live. Julián introduces himself and when everyone has recognized his family, we went off to sleep.
First surprise. They divided the house with a partition, left a room for the guest with its own door and the seven family members crowded together in a similar surface. We woke up at the first light of dawn to eat breakfast. Later we go to work cleaning the family coffee field, machete in hand, until the dinner hour.
The second day was the day to tie up cattle to be vaccinated and the third for cleaning the community coffee field. Thus each day, the work combined with detailed explanations of community life. Afternoons were the time to read the four notebooks that they distributed about Autonomous Government, Autonomous Resistance and the Participation of Women in the Autonomous Government, with stories from the indigenous and the authorities.
Each student could formulate the most varied questions, which doesn’t always mean that they were answered. We were able to live together with a different political culture than that with which we are familiar: when they are asked a question, they look at each other, dialogue in a soft voice and, finally, one person responds for everyone. It was a marvelous experience, of learning, doing, sharing and savoring the daily life of the peoples that are constructing a new world.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, teacher and investigator on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina (Franciscan Multiversity of Latin America), and an advisor to various social groups. He writes the Monthly Zibechi Report (“Informe Mensual de Zibechi”) for the Americas Program (Programa de las Américas) www.cipamericas.org/es.
Originally Published in Spanish by the Americas Program
Translation: Chiapas Support Committee
En español: http://www.cipamericas.org/es/archives/10446