Memory of the Machetes of War

By: Hermann Bellinghausen

Photos: Mario Olarte

It’s night at the end of 2022. A half-moon hangs over us. In the backyard of his plot the family gathers to talk with visitors. Around a bonfire, two board benches and two stool-like logs form a circle. Seated very formal and hospitable are Javier, Magda and their offspring of daughters, sons, a grandson. Anselmo, veteran Zapatista miliciano,[1] father and neighbor of Javier, soon joins.

Javier leans on a couple of logs, at his feet a short, pointed machete, almost a knife or small sword.

“If this machete could tell everything it has seen. It was my dad’s when the war started.

Anselmo, in his baseball cap, nods with a brief sigh in Tseltal. He laughs like one who peers into a pit of inexhaustible memories.

Jonah, the little boy, great-grandson of Anselmo, still shows signs of mute activity. A few steps away are the two stick bars between stakes that serve as a walker to teach you to walk. In the arms of young Nely, he is a fourth-generation Zapatista who soon falls asleep in his mother’s milky sea.

The night of the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s Uprising Javier was 10 years old, Anselmo about 30 years old and a miliciano. He speaks little, and half in Tseltal, but makes it clear that he had to remain in the rear guarding the women, the elderly and the minors, and did not participate directly in the fighting in the city of Ocosingo on the first days of January 1994, where he did lose his little brother.

“The little brother carried his machete like this but he wasn’t lucky and didn’t return,” says Javier. Other comrades did, and they told how they were tucked behind some sacks in a ditch when the armies arrived. They saw the soldiers’ legs, they unleashed a machete blow at them, they fell and then quickly drew their weapons.

As part of the conversation, Magda cuts splinters from a piece of ocote wood with the same old machete of so much use and so very sharp. Someone says that it also serves to shell corn.


The lands where this autonomous community sits were part of a large cattle farm until 1993. The owner, from Ocosingo, never returned. Their cows and land remained, badly battered.

“Pure pasture land,” Magda recalls dreamily.

For three decades now, the recuperated lands have served better for milpa, acahual (fallow land), vegetable gardens, banana groves. A few lands remained for pasture. There are much fewer cows here than before, and few horses, the pasture is small. They have several clean springs on the hill.

Javier was a child that night and remembers his fear:

– We only saw how the compas went to war. We went to the shelter of the mountain. We got into a cave; it was very cold. My dad was one of those who took care of us in the mountains. Even before that day, we children were afraid when soldiers began to pass by, looking for the guerrillas who had surprised them in May in the Sierra Corralchén. It was in the news. The soldiers went all over the cañadas (canyons) and it seemed that they were going to go into the houses. After the war it was different, we had our army to defend us, and we no longer felt the same fear when they patrolled.

However, Javier acknowledges that with “Zedillo’s betrayal,” the military occupation in February 1995 was also very traumatic. They took refuge in the mountain again, but this time they had with them their own army, as they do now.

He adds that everyone knew that the uprising was coming weeks before. They began to take a lot of meat from the farmer, who sold it or trusted it to peasants and laborers and then forced them to pay, very scumbag. But people already knew about the war and that they wouldn’t need to pay him. Laughter and sparkling comments follow in their language.

“When the war started, we had eaten a lot of meat,” Javier says jovially, as a prank.

The memories of those days and nights that are now part of Mexico’s history led him to the news that the combatant compas brought in the days that followed, the epic or tragic stories that would resonate in the mountains, valleys and ravines in the months and years to come.

-Two compas who were from Altamirano got lost on their return from the taking of San Cristóbal and came out through Chanal. They were only carrying their machete. They met some people and asked them the way to their community and they said yes, we’ll guiden you right now, and two started walking with them at night. The compas were looking at their milicianos’ report and the people saw it. The compas confided, they took them further, and suddenly one of the people hits one of the comrades with the machete from behind in the neck and cuts off his head. That’s how it was, hanging forward. The other comrade sees that they are being attacked and defends himself with his machete, kills one of those accompanying him, but the other one goes for machete blows, cuts off his arm. The compa starts running with his arm hanging. At last, he runs into his platoon that was looking for them. They took him away and were able to heal his arm, he was maimed but alive.

This bloody tale opens the range of conversation to stories, dreams and stories of apparitions, where Javier’s children also participate. They invoke the Sombrerón, who is presented in different ways. Sometimes he whistles at the horses, takes them to the hill, braids them and lets them return. The braid gives more life to the animal, one cannot undo it.

They also tell of Señora Cortada, with her stump of a leg, who sits on a standing log like those we occupy tonight. And that the Sombrerón, if he takes you, puts your clothes back on inside out so you can come back.

“A disheveled girl appeared here in the yard. Only my mom saw her. She passed right here through the entire patio, screaming, and even Canela (the nice lame dog who now dozes around here) followed in her footsteps, says Javier.

Nely then reveals the kind of nightmares they give her teenage brother Antonio, who laughs shyly next to her.

-One night he got up sleepwalking repeating: “Uncle’s tacos belong to someone, Uncle’s tacos belong to someone. “

The remembrance is hilarious for everyone, except Antonio, who smiles wishing he would be swallowed by the earth.

Such was the family box painting that I witnessed and heard, I was lucky, somewhere in the Lacandón Jungle a few nights before the 29th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising that shook these peoples in 1994. In the background, on a wall of the wooden house cleanly painted green is a red star and reads in large letters “E.Z.L.N.”

In the various rebel communiqués, as made clear by the signs on their edges or the murals on some houses, regularly made of wood and in good condition, although they contrast with the constructions of material that mostly belong to the families that accept the government programs. In Javier’s community, this difference is less evident, unlike other parts of the vast indigenous region of Chiapas where people live in rebellious autonomy.

In Los Altos and other parts of the jungle, inequality manifests itself much more markedly, especially in San Juan Chamula, Chenalhó and Las Margaritas, where illegal businesses and official support have created a kind of middle class or even indigenous bourgeoisie throughout the recent decades of persistent political and economic counterinsurgency policies.

Javier is clear that living autonomously and being Zapatista implies an additional effort. But it’s worth it. He and his family are not alone. They live in dignified conditions, even with room for good taste details and savoir vivre, where hospitality and joy fit. Having dared to rise up against all possibilities, take back the lands of his native land, defend them and work them to sustain autonomy all these years, fills Javier with pride.

What he still does not know, or does not reveal, is whether there will be a party or assembly in his Caracol on New Year. At least that’s what he says, you see that the Zapatistas are always mysterious.

This photo looks like La Garrucha at the bottom of the hill. [2]

[1] Milicianos in the EZLN are similar to a National Guard. They are civilians, but have military training and live in the civilian communities. Milicianos participated in the 1994 Uprising.

[2] There are no captions under any of the photos used in the original piece. However, some of the scenery looks very familiar to those of us in the Chiapas Support Committee who have often visited the Zapatista Caracol of La Garrucha.

Originally Published in Spanish by Desinformémonos, Monday, January 2, 2023, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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