Let’s go back, to 35 Octobers ago.
Old Antonio watched the bonfire resist the rain. Beneath his dripping straw hat he lights his hand-rolled cigarette with a burning ember. The fire stays alive, hiding occasionally beneath the logs; the wind helps it, its breath reviving the coals, red with rage.
The camp is called “Watapil”[i] and is located in the Sierra Cruz de Plata that rises between the wet arms of the Jataté and Perlas rivers. It’s 1985, and October receives the group with a storm, presaging their future. The tall almond tree (which will become the namesake of that mountain in the insurgent’s vernacular) looks down with compassion at the small, minuscule, insignificant group of men and women at its feet, with their gaunt faces, haggard bodies, bright eyes (perhaps from fever, stubbornness, fear, delirium, hunger or lack of sleep), ragged brown and black clothes, and boots distorted by the knotted vines that are intended to hold their soles in place.
Softly and slowly, his words barely audible over the howl of the storm, Old Antonio speaks as if he were talking to himself:
“The Ruler will return again to impose his harsh word, his ego that kills all reason and his bribe disguised as a handout on the color of the earth.
The day will come when death will wear its cruelest clothes, its steps accompanied by the screeching cogs of the machine that sicken each path it takes with the lie that it brings abundance, even as it sows destruction. Whosoever opposes that noise which terrifies plants and animals will be killed, both in life and in memory: the first with lead, the latter with lies. Night will thus be longer. Pain will be drawn out. Death will be more deadly.
The Aluxo’ob [ii] will alert the Mother Earth: “Death is coming, mother, it’s killing as it comes.”
Mother Earth, the first mother of all, will wake up—shaking awake the parrots, macaws, and toucans—reclaim the blood of her guardians and speak to her people:
“Let some of you go to taunt the invader. Let others of you sound the call to our brethren. May the waters not frighten you; may neither cold nor heat discourage you. Cut paths where there are none, cross the rivers and seas. Traverse mountains, fly through rain and fog. Whether night or day or the small hours of the morning, go and alert all creatures. My names and colors are many, but my heart is one, and my death will be the death of everything. Do not be ashamed of the skin color I have given you, nor of the language I have placed in your mouth, nor of your stature, which keeps you close to me. I will give light to your gaze, warmth to your ears and strength to your feet and arms. Do not fear different colors and customs, or different paths. One is the heart I have passed down to you—one understanding, and one gaze.”
Then, under siege by the Aluxo’ob, the machines of deadly deception will fall apart, their arrogance broken, their greed destroyed. The powerful will bring lackeys from other nations to rebuild the broken death machine. They will examine the innards of the death machine and discover why it is so damaged: “it is full of blood inside.” In an attempt to explain the reason for this terrible wonder, the bosses will announce, “We don’t know why, all we know is that the blood is directly descended from Native blood.”
Then, evil will rain down upon itself in the grand mansions where the Power gets drunk and commits abuses. Unreason will enter into its territory and blood, rather than water, will run through its waterways. Its gardens will wither and the hearts of its workers and servants will turn cold. Power will thus bring in other vassals to use: they will come from other lands, and hate will grow between equals, spurred on by money. They will fight amongst themselves, and death and destruction will emerge between people with shared history and pain.
Those who before worked and lived off of the land will become servants and slaves of the Powerful on the very lands and under the skies of their ancestors. They will see misfortune befall their houses. They will lose their sons and daughters, drowned in the rot of corruption and crime. The practice of the “right of the first night” will return, by which money kills innocence and love. Babies will be ripped from their mothers’ breast, their flesh taken by the great Lords to satisfy their evilness and cruelty. Disputes over money will cause children to raise hands against their parents, and their houses will be cast into mourning. Daughters will be lost in darkness and death, their life and being killed by the Lords and their money. Unknown illnesses will attack those who sold their dignity and that of their loved ones in exchange for a few coins; those who betrayed their people, their blood, and their history; and those who created and spread the lie.
The mother ceiba tree, sustainer of worlds, will scream so loudly that even the most distant deafness will hear her injured cry. Seven distant voices will approach her; seven distant arms will embrace her; and seven different fists will join together with her. The mother ceiba will then lift her skirts and with her thousand feet kick and dislodge the iron railways. The wheeled machines will run off their metal tracks. The waters will overflow the rivers and lakes and the sea itself will howl with fury, and the entrails of the earth and the skies will open in all worlds.
The mother Earth, the first mother of all, will rise up and reclaim her house and her place with fire. Upon the arrogant edifices of Power, trees, plants and animals will grow, and in their hearts Votán Zapata will live again. The jaguar will again walk its ancestral paths, reigning once again where money and its lackeys sought to reign.
The Powerful will die only after seeing their ignorant arrogance crumble without making a sound. With its last breath they will understand that the Ruler is no more, no more than a bad memory in a world that rebelled and resisted death that its orders commanded.
They say the dead of always tell this story, those who will die once again but this time in order to live.
They say to carry this word to the valleys and the mountains, to the canyons and the wide plains. Let the tapacaminos bird [iii] repeat it as a warning on the path of the brotherly hearts; let the rain and the sun sow it in the gaze of those who inhabit these lands; let the wind carry it a long distance that it might nest in the thoughts of compañeros.
Terrible and awesome things are coming to these lands and these skies.
But the jaguar will once again walk its ancestral paths, reigning once again where money and its lackeys sought to reign.
Old Antonio falls silent, and with him, the rain. He sleeps not at all, and dreams everything.
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast,
Mexico, October 2020.
From the Notebook of the Cat-Dog: Part II: The Canoes
I should remind you that the divisions between countries are solely for the purpose of classifying contraband and justifying wars. There are clearly at least two things that stand above borders: one is the crime—disguised as modernity—of distributing poverty at a global level; the other is the hope that shame only arises when you mess up a dance step, not every time you look in the mirror. For the former to end and the latter to flourish, it is merely necessary to struggle and be better. Everything else carries on by itself and tends to end up in libraries and museums. There’s no need to conquer the world; it’s enough to make it anew. Cheers then, and keep in mind that for the purposes of love, a bed is just a pretext; for dance, a tune is just decor; and for struggle, nationality is merely circumstantial.
—Don Durito de La Lacandona, 1995
SubMoy was telling Maxo that maybe we should try making the raft out of balsa wood (“cork” as it’s called around here), but the naval engineer [Maxo] argued that, being lighter, it would be even more easily pulled by the current. “But you said there’s no current in the ocean,” SupMoy reminded him. “Well, what if there is!” Maxo retorted. SubMoy told the other CCRI [Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee] members to move on to the next experiment: dugout canoes.
They began carving. Under their axes and machetes, the tree trunks that were originally destined to become firewood began to take on a maritime shape and function. SubMoy had left for a moment so they went to ask SupGaleano if seafaring vessels should have names. “Yeah, of course,” the Sup responded distractedly, as he watched el Monarca check out an old diesel engine.
The canoe-carvers began tracing and painting in names—measured and rational, of course—on the sides of the boats. One read “Chompiras the Swimmer and Puddle-Jumper.”[iv] Another: “The internationalist: One thing is one thing, another thing is no me jodas man.” Another: “On my way love, be right there.” And another: “Well why’d they invite us then, it’s on them [v].” The CCRI members from Jacinto Canek baptized theirs “Jean Robert,”[vi] their way of bringing him along on the journey.
Another canoe a little further away read, “Why cry when saltwater abounds?” Which was followed by: “This boat was built by the Maritime Commission of the Zapatista Autonomous Municipality in Rebellion [MAREZ] going under the name of ‘We get criticized for giving the MAREZ and Caracoles really long names but we don’t give a shit,’ headed by the Good Government Council named, ‘Neither do we.’ Perishable cargo. Expiration date: depends. Our boats don’t sink, they expire, which is different. Canoe manufacturing contracts and musicians available at the Centers of Autonomous Zapatista Rebellion and Resistance [CRAREZ] (marimba and sound system not included—because what if they sink and stop working—but we’ll sing with gusto… maybe). This canoe’s value is calculable only in terms of resistance. To be continued on the side of the next canoe…” (You had to walk all the way around the canoe and even peer in to read the inside walls to see the whole “name.” Yes, your assumption is correct, it would take so long for an enemy submarine to transmit the whole name that by the time it finished, the vessel it was going to sink would have reached European shores.
As they carved the logs into canoes, word got around of what was going on. Beloved Amado told Pablito who told Pedrito who informed Defensa Zapatista who discussed with Esperanza who whispered: “don’t tell anybody” to Calamidad who then told her mom who announced it to the whole group of women.
When SupGaleano heard the women were coming, he shrugged his shoulders and handed the half-inch ratchet wrench to el Monarca as he spit out pieces from the mouthpiece of his pipe.
After a bit Jacobo arrived asking, “Hey Sup, is SubMoy going to be long?”
“No idea,” SupGaleano responded, looking, disconsolate, upon his broken pipe.
Jacobo continued, “Do you know how many people are going to make the journey?”
“Not yet,” the Sup answered, “Europe from below hasn’t told us yet how many people they can accommodate. Why?”
“Well… you better come see for yourself,” Jacobo replied.
SupGaleano broke another pipe when he saw the Zapatista “fleet.” Six canoes with eccentric and extravagant names lined the riverbank, loaded down with plants and flowerpots.
“What’s all this?” the Sup asked, just as a formality.
A very resigned Rubén answered, “that’s the women’s luggage.”
“Their luggage?” The Sup inquired.
“Yeah, they came and loaded all those plants and just said, ‘you’re going to need these.’ Later a little girl came, I don’t know her name, but she was asking if the trip was going to take a long time, like if it would be long before we got to where we’re going. I asked her why, if her mom was going or what. She said it wasn’t that, but that she wanted to send along a little tree and if the trip was going to take awhile, well by the time we got there the tree would be big and we could take a break for pozol [vii] in its shade if the sun was strong.”
“But they’re all the same,” argued the Sup (referring to the plants of course).
“No, they’re not,” Alejandra, a CCRI member replied, “This one is a prairie sage, it’s for stomachaches; this one is thyme; that one is spearmint; over here we have chamomile, oregano, parsley, cilantro, laurel, epazote, aloe vera; this one is for diarrhea, this one for burns, that one for insomnia, that one for toothache, this one here is for cramps, this one is known as “cure-all,” that one over there is for nausea, and also here we have hoja santa, black nightshade, wild onion, rue, geranium, carnation, tulips, roses, mañanitas, and so on.”
Jacobo felt obligated to clarify, “As soon as we finished one canoe we turned around and they had it full of plants already. The second we finished the next one, same thing. We’ve finished six so far, which is why I’m asking if we should keep going, because they’re just going to fill them up.”
“But if they want to send all that along, where will the compañeros sit?” the Sup tried to reason with a compañera, one of the women’s coordinators who was carrying two potted plants in her arms and a baby on her back.
“Compañeros? There are men going?” she answered.
“Whatever, either way, women aren’t going to fit either,” argued the Sup, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Oh,” she replied, “we’re not going in the boat. We’re going by plane so we won’t get nauseous. Well, maybe a little, but less.”
“Who said you all are going on a plane?” the Sup asked.
“We did,” she answered.
“These decisions you are telling me about, where are they coming from?”
“Well, Esperanza came to our women’s meeting and told us that all of us would die wretchedly if we travel with the damned men. So we discussed it as an assembly and determined that we weren’t scared and are quite decided that the men can die wretchedly without us.”
We did the math and calculated that we can rent the plane that Calderón bought for Peña Nieto and that the bad governments in power now doesn’t know what to do with. They say it costs 500 pesos per person. We’ve got 111 compañeras signed up already, though I don’t think that’s counting the milicianas’ soccer teams. But let’s say there were just 111 of us, that would be 55,500 pesos, but women and infants pay half price, making it 27,750. From that you’d have to take off taxes and speaker’s fees, so let’s say some 10,000 pesos for all of us. That’s if the dollar isn’t devalued in the meantime, if so, then even less. But we don’t want to be quibbling over the money, so we’re going to throw in my compadre’s ox, which acts like a you-know-what, but what can you do, that’s what all machos are like.
SupGaleano remained silent for once, trying to remember where the hell he left his emergency pipe. But when he saw the women begin to carry out chickens, roosters, chicks, pigs, ducks, and turkeys, he urged el Monarca: “Quick, call SubMoy and tell him to come now, it’s urgent.”
The procession of women, plants, and animals stretched past the pasture. They were followed by Defensa Zapatista’s gang: headed up by Pablito (now acting on the premise of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) with his horse, followed by beloved Amado with his bicycle with the flat tire, followed by the cat-dog herding along some cattle. Defensa and Esperanza were measuring the canoes to see if soccer goals would fit. The one-eyed horse had a bag of plastic bottles hanging from its snout. Calamidad followed holding a piglet squealing in terror that she’d throw it in the river just so she could rescue it… and for good reason.
At the end of the procession was someone who looked extraordinarily like a beetle, with an eye-patch over his right eye, a piece of twisted wire on one leg in a version of a pirate’s hook and something mimicking a peg leg on the other, really just a splinter of wood from where the canoe-carving was going on. This strange being, wielding a little piece of tin as a face mask, recited with admirable oratory:
“The breeze fair aft, all sails on high,
Ten guns on each side mounted seen, She does not cut the sea, but fly, A swiftly sailing brigantine; A pirate bark, the “Dreaded” named, For her surpassing boldness famed, On every sea well-known and shore, From side to side their boundaries o’er.”[viii]
Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, head of the expedition in the making, returned to find SupGaleano smiling inexplicably. The Sup had just found another pipe, unbroken, in his pants pocket.
I give my word.
[i] “Watapil” was the name given to one of the early jungle encampments (circa 1985) of the small group of insurgents that would later become the EZLN. See https://www.alterinter.org/?The-Fire-and-the-Word
[ii] In Mayan folklore, the Alux are small, mythical beings primarily inhabiting the jungle and other natural areas, something like elves in English folklore. Aluxo’ob is the plural in Mayan.
[iii] Pájaro tapacaminos is a nocturnal bird in Mexico with a loud, distinctive call that can be heard up to 1km away.
[iv] Chompiras is the name of a renowned three-ton truck in Zapatista territory, used for many solidarity efforts.
[v] “Pa’ qué me invitan” (Why’d you invite me then?) is a meme that originated with a viral cell-phone video of an extremely inebriated man being dragged out of a party who complains to the hosts that if they know he always gets hammered, well then what did they invite him for? See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fn1TgATT6hs
[vi] Jean Robert was a philosopher and architect based in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, who long supported the Zapatista movement. He recently passed on October 1, 2020.
[vii] Pozol is ground corn mixed with water, commonly consumed in the Chiapas countryside as a midday meal.
[viii] José de Espronceda’s “Song of the Pirate,” translation from James Kennedy, published in Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets, ed. Thomas Walsh. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1920.