Otroa Compañeroas | Gender fluidity: A contemporary emergence with ancestral roots

By  Sylvia Marcos

Published originally in Camino al andar.

June 20, 2021.

… we know well that there are those who are neither men nor women

and that we call them Otroas

… and it has not been easy for them to earn that right to be what they are …

And are we really still going to force that they be men or women

and put themselves on one side or the other? 1

Photograph: Zapatista archives

Who is Marijose? The otroa, Zapatista compañeroa, chosen to invade Europe from below, being the first to disembark and put her plant on European territory.

What does it mean that Zapatismo has chosen this presence to arrive first and give the message of its struggles in these stormy times?

The Zapatistas have used (frequently and repeatedly) in recent years this term to designate an identity that outside we call “sex-gender.” What do they want to tell us by this use? A repeated use of the term that turns (transforms) it into a concept. What conceptual meanings can be read in this collective use of the word OTROA? [See editor’s note at end of article.] Compañeroa, but also: niñoa (children), ciudadanoas [citizens], hermanoas [sister-brothers], elloas [he-she-them] … All terms that we find in the speeches and documents of Zapatismo.

“… Major Irma approached her and said ‘tell her they’re not alone.’ ‘tell him they’re not alone,” added Lieutenant Colonel Rolando. “Nor they-he-she alone,” Marijosé ventured to add, who arrived to ask the musicians to play a version of Swan Lake but as a cúmbia.2

A concept with a persistent use; a use that summons and opens up to analogy. It is the fluidity between spaces, behaviors, ways that remake the boundaries between feminine and masculine in everyday life and in struggle.

What do they want to tell us? From Zapatismo, from that very new and ancestral project of political philosophy, they open up another analogical way to recognize, remake and decenter (explode) conventional gender identities.

They tell us: “Good afternoon, day, night, early morning, a todas, todos, todoas [to every-she, every-he, they, them].” They propose a great inclusion that escapes the dual binaries that creep into our language to define us as men and women as sharply opposed and diverse.

Zapatismo once again summons us with its radical thinking to question our axiomatic beliefs. Men and women are permanently different, with a static identity, an untainted identity of the feminine against the masculine, of confrontations because we are sharply and firmly diverse, and even antagonistic. The masculine is superior, the feminine subordinate. “That’s right,” the philosophical traditions in which modernity is rooted tell us.

The Zapatistas say with their corporeal practices, with their political practices, and their discursive practices, a firm: NO. We are fluent. We are flowing from a male border to a female border.

The empirical horizon defines us in intermediates as well. It challenges us, it seduces us with this innovation that is a reinvention that recovers looks and forms from the past that appear as new spaces, that are reinvented in the present.

Otroas, milicanoas, compañeroas, promotoroas, formadoroas: they are horizon concepts. They function as trainers of the empirical field. It can be said that they are cognitive and perceptual landmarks that make up the framework of the experience. They have the same epistemological configuration as the horizon. The horizon is distinguished from the other boundaries and limits, for example, from the border. It is not fixed, as Jean Robert affirms 3, and depends on the collective subjectivity that subscribes to it, in the case of Zapatismo.

I have been collecting excerpts from speeches these last few years, treasure them, connect them and conserve them with my notes. I think they want to tell us something, and something very important about their being women and men and fighters to create another world. I think that they open up, also here, an ethical proposal, an innovative path with their ancestral references. As in so many spaces, Zapatismo moves forward, moves backward (Walter Benjamin’s image of the angel), and they express it with their constant paradoxes. Thus they recreate a world of unprecedented possibilities: “We follow paths and routes that do not exist on maps or satellites and that are only found in the thinking of our oldest.” 4

The concept of otroas expresses an inspired theoretical reference, typical of the philosophical universe of Mesoamerican ancestral legacies; and from the present day of the Zapatista communities and peoples.

From the practices of their own struggles, they propose to embrace, incorporate and not discriminate, or reject, the various nuances of the mobile gender as they are experienced in their struggles and in their daily lives. Those nuances are there: they are collectively perceived pieces in the daily tasks and governance in the Zapatista autonomy.

As the Zapatistas say in their letter “and why are we going to force them to be men or women?” The creativity of Zapatista autonomy seeks to give an account without oppressing or rejecting, without judging, those other ways of being, and of being in community.

They rush towards the imprecise (the unknown) and name it, express it; but they go back to recover millenary inheritances of ways of living as men and as women, and with the intermediates between these two. Thus they recover, rebuild and propose less oppressive futures. These ancestral anchors did not even go away: they remained rooted in the experiences, myths, practices, rites, dreams of all living and lived communities, not only within Zapatismo, but also in communities of peoples of the Mesoamerican region.

“A Zapatista unoa is enough,” they say.

The Colony taught them to be ashamed of being able to be “neither man nor woman,” but both. They were subject to punishment from the catechists, who were eager to impose a sexual morality similar to the one they brought. The colonial Confessionaries express it clearly. All almost re-constituted on the basis of Fray Alonso de Molina 5, they are mainly inquisitions against incarnated lived eros that go against the prescribed distancing of a norm that establishes what is and how to be “only woman” or “only man.”

The conceptual dichotomy of bodies requires conceiving, also, a pathological nature that must be corrected from the anatomy, from the “natural” genitalia of socially constructed bodies, without taking into account other conformations.

By itself, nature demands her presence and respect. The so-called hermaphrodites seem to denounce with their bodies the dislocation (the lag) that the dominant philosophy and culture have made to name this variant –natural– proposing to castrate it, considering it pathological or as “monster” bodies, said, in the urban environment, a person born with this condition.

All this is considered, and implicit, on the basis of the concept otroas. It is to recognize the physical and corporeal variants and their permanent transit, even medically recognized, between one pole and the other. It is a proposal for a perceptual re-creation that can free us from created atavisms. Perhaps the original people’s (indigenous) cultures had already understood it that way?

And, the Zapatistas say, “. . . and why are we going to force them to be men or women and that they have to stand on one side or the other?”

Because, it could also be asked, why do we have to accommodate the world and our multiple, complex, mixed, heterogeneous, combined, bi-morpho body/being into mutually exclusive categories? Or in opposite and antagonistic binaries? In poles of gender identity that exclude each other?

This is alien to the Mesoamerican philosophical roots where what we could call gender is conceived as the fluidity between opposites as complementary, asymmetric, mobile and mutually constitutive. They are cognitive landmarks, as Jean Robert would call them, that we have to recover. 6

Why follow the norm, considered “natural, axiomatic” that one is either a man or a woman?

And what about all the leaks, the slips, in between?

Punished, rejected, invisible, demonized.

But Zapatismo advances by retreating. Certain ancestral nuclei [core practices, beliefs] prevail and reincarnate in today. They reincarnate experientially and politically with other terms, conceptual forms, other proposals to live, to be alive and fight.

Emerging from the Zapatista context, the concept of otroas cannot be subsumed under the concept of transgender, due to the ancestral weight in which it is framed. And this even when the “transgender” proposal has a complex multiplicity of meanings and its struggles refer to the field of social justice.

Nor can it be embedded as one more reference of the LGBTTT movements. Its context and its philosophical conceptual base dislodges this possibility, since it is placed outside the binaryisms that are inevitably recreated within these struggles. The Zapatista thought included in the concept of “otroa” demands a space of its own.

Gender fluidity has been a constitutive philosophical element of Mesoamerican thought and makes its appearance here, in the “sex gender identity.” Which sex? Which gender? Colonial categories that we have absorbed from the dominant philosophical sources.

Here, with living, revived and persistent cultures, there are philosophical matrices that come to us demanding their disappearance from our media. They also show how this absence has impoverished us. “How are we going to force them to be men or women?” “If these persons do not want to, we do wrong if they are not respected,” the Zapatistas ask and affirm with astonishment in that Letter from the Zapatistas in 2019. “Why don’t we respect their rights not to be a man or a woman? But both at the same time, in different gradations and in constant mobile fusion.” And they add: “… they have the right to be what they are without hiding.”

Even today, Marijose is going to be the first Zapatista to set foot on and, conversely, “invade” the European continent.

But to think this, from Zapatismo “as we think of the world,” said Sub Moisés, is not a novelty of modernity. It begins and prevails hidden in the ancestral traditions of the Zapatista Mayan peoples. Reworkings of the “hard core,” Lopez Austin would say. It is in their linguistic practices, in their preference to feminize (the problema, insurgentas, sergentas, jóvenas, comandantas, commissariatas, agentas); and not in generically masculinizing as when speaking of “the rights of man” (as if we women did not exist!). They are conceived within that “gender fluidity” as we would call it today in academia and in philosophy. Gender fluidity that implies the constant transition between the masculine and the feminine with their multiple and internal slips, but also the non-hierarchical organization between opposites, but rather that these are asymmetrically complementary and mutually constitutive.

Starting with Colonialism, suddenly, historically and philosophically, we humans and the world were built with binary and mutually exclusive categories. There is nothing more: You must be defined as “being a man” or “being a woman” to be accepted by the social majority. It is about imposing a static normativity on the movement and a spontaneous oscillation typical of the masculine and the feminine. This internal mobilization, also anatomical and hormonal, already investigated on a physical level, is discarded.

We must also forget the porosity of the body, its extension beyond the skin, its intermittent fusion with the four directions of the universe. All this belongs to the beliefs of the invaded, suffocated cultures, which gradually became references to be hidden clandestinely to protect their local beliefs, rites and myths. “Secretly, our people continued to transmit the wisdom of their ancestors” (Professor Javier affirmed at the Escuelita zapatista in August 2013).

But today Zapatismo emerges, with its strong and lucid women, who have advanced leaving us external feminists behind. They are recovering traditions that ennoble and dignify them in today’s times. They recover that intermediate possibility. They reclaim that fluid and communal place: neither man nor woman, but both at the same time. Memories of references to the fusion of the cat/dog of Sub Galeano, to explain those nameless fusions (of asymmetric and mobile complementarity), of the Mesoamerican cosmos revived today in the flesh of the other. And they come to teach us another way, as in so many other things. Another way, Another world where many quests are synthesized with the clarity and acceptance of the concept of “otroa” [he-she-them/other]: living the fluidity of the body/gender/cosmos.

And they open new paths for us, by invading the multiplicities of denominations of “gender sex,” which are constantly increasing. The Zapatistas synthesize this with an otroa, niñoa [child], compañeroa [companion], hermanoa [brother-sister]. A richness that simplifies and at the same time complicates their conceptual meanings; it makes us land in the philosophical traditions of our lands; It offers us ways to joyfully accept the variability of our bodies, of our flesh, of being born here without the rust of colonial philosophical heritages that overshadow and discard the philosophical core of being on our land.

Partaking of them, lightens us, exalts us, simplifies us and we broaden ourselves to embrace all the diversity of being as it comes to us on this earth.

And the Zapatistas choose one otroa to set foot on the European continent first.

Is it a little clearer to us now?

Open up unthinkable paths that are invigorated and resolved with peace and love.

Precious quotes that I have been carefully keeping. Summoned by this redundant Zapatista bet of expressing the depths of their sentipensar [feeling-thoughts]. Referring now to something they want to tell us, without saying it explicitly; but that they express with their political practices because of the priority space of struggle that they occupy:

Marijose. 39 years old. Tojolabal in the jungle border region. She speaks Spanish fluently… She has been a milicianoa, a health promoter, an education promoter, and an education trainer” Photo: Radio Regeneración

After listing these vital and central spaces for the consolidation of Zapatista autonomy, they add:

“They prepared for 6 months to be a delegadoa [he-she-they delegate]. They volunteer to travel by boat to Europe. They have been designated as the first Zapatista to disembark and, with that, begin the invasion … ok, the visit to Europe.” 7

Marijose occupies, as the otroa, crucial and fundamental spaces for the consolidation of Zapatista autonomy. They are, moreover, an otroa who does not suffer the exclusion of the margins, the discrimination and the violent rejections that they would suffer in external capitalist society.

Whoever can, understand. I only know that I don’t know anything and that I am beginning to walk in this unpredictable discovery of what they might want to tell us. From my world, from my time, from my way, from my direction….

And “with them, ellas [she], elloas [he-she].”

There are times when, if we want to keep thinking, we must think the unthinkable.


Sylvia Marcos, Cuadernos Feministas No 38, (in press). Written to honor Zapatista thinker Jean Robert; Cuernavaca, Morelos on June 11, 2021.



1 Letter from the Zapatista Women to Women Who Struggle Around the World: (February 11, 2019) Cited in: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2019/02/13/letter-from-the-zapatista-women-to-women-in-struggle-around-the-world/

2 Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. (October 9, 2020). Part Five: The Gaze and the Distance to the Door.

Cited in: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2020/10/11/part-five-the-gaze-and-the-distance-to-the-door/

3 In Spanish only: Robert, Jean. (1999) Las aguas arquetípicas y la globalización del desvalor. Recuperado de:http://umbrales2.blogspot.com/2021/02/las-aguas-arquetipicas-y-la.html

4 Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. (August 7, 2019). Communique from the EZLN’s CCRI-CG. And, We Broke the Seige. Cited in: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2019/08/20/communique-from-the-ezlns-ccri-cg-and-we-broke-the-siege/

5 In Spanish only: Marcos, Sylvia. “Erotismo indígena y moralidad colonial” p. 119-138, Tomado de los Labios, cap. 7, Abya Yala, Quito, 2011.

6 In Spanish only: Gil, Yásnaya A. Cumes, Aura. (2021). Revista de la Universidad de México. Entrevista con Aura Cumes: la dualidad complementaria y el Popol vuj. Dossier Descolonización. Recuperado de: https://www.revistadelauniversidad.mx/articles/8c6a441d-7b8a-4db5-a62f-98c71d32ae92/entrevista-con- aura-cumes-la-dualidad-complementaria-y-el-popol-vuj

7 Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. (April 17, 2021). 421st Squadron. Cited in: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2021/04/20/421st-squadron/

Translated by the Chiapas Support Committee. And originally published by Camino al Andar in Spanish at: https://www.caminoalandar.org/post/otroa-compañeroa-la-fluidez-de-género-una-emergencia-contemporánea-con-ra%C3%ADces-ancestrales


Editor’s Note: Otroa, niñoa, compañeroa, are the masculine-feminine fusion of binary words that can have gender, usually denoted by a word ending in “o” as masculine and in “a” as feminine when written in Spanish. The closest concept to otroa is the North American indigenous concept in English that could be used as a translation of otroa is “Two Spirit people.” See for example this explanation provided by Indian Country Today: 8 Things You Should Know About Two Spirit People


Translated by the Chiapas Support Committee. And originally published by Camino al Andar in Spanish at: https://www.caminoalandar.org/post/otroa-compañeroa-la-fluidez-de-género-una-emergencia-contemporánea-con-ra%C3%ADces-ancestrales

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