“We Will Win One Hundred Times Over”: Translating the Zapatista Resurgence

Zapatistas march in Ocosingo, December 21, 2012. Source: Roarmag.org
Zapatistas march in Ocosingo, December 21, 2012. Source: Roarmag.org
On December 21st of last year, as many across the world were speculating about the end of the Mayan calendar, 40,000 actual Mayans marched silently into five cities in Chiapas, Mexico, putting the Zapatistas and the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) back into the forefront of grassroots political discourse the world over, and mainstream political discourse in Mexico. A stream of provocative communiques from the EZLN’s spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, have followed.

For the better part of the last decade, Kristin Bricker has been documenting popular struggle in Mexico, particularly the Zapatista rebellion, and is one of the most prolific English translators of material produced by grassroots social movements across the country. Given the occasion of the seemingly sudden re-emergence of the Zapatistas, and her translations of its almost-daily literary flourishes, it seemed appropriate to catch up with her and solicit her reflections on the moment.

Joshua Stephens: I think a lot of people reading the pieces you’ve been translating the last month or so are wondering, so I’m just going to ask: Why now? Generally, the Zapatistas have mobilized at this volume in response to discreet events or conditions – North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the post-Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) electoral landscape, and so on. Do you have the sense that something in particular has sparked the resurgence?

Kristin Bricker: The current resurgence began with the December 21st mobilization in which 40,000 Zapatistas staged a silent march in five Chiapan cities. In their December 30th communique, they explained why they decided to step back into the limelight:  “After the media-driven coup d’état that exalted a poorly concealed and even more poorly disguised ignorance to the federal executive branch, we made ourselves present so that you would know that if they never left, neither did we.” Here they are referring to the election of Enrique Peña Nieto to the country’s presidency.

Peña Nieto is Mexico’s George W. Bush. He won the 2012 election thanks to massive vote-buying. Everyone acknowledges that he is impressively stupid and not at all ashamed of it, and for the Left he’s the devil incarnate. His godfather and puppet master is former president Carlos Salinas, who was in office when the Zapatistas staged their 1994 uprising. In order to pave the way for NAFTA, Salinas reformed Mexico’s Constitution, essentially removing the land rights Emiliano Zapata and his peasant army fought and died for in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As a result, Salinas continues to be even more unpopular than Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who launched the drug war that currently has Mexico embroiled in a deadly quagmire.

As governor of Mexico State, Peña Nieto laid a deadly trap for the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), a civilian peasant organization that has strong ties to the Zapatistas. In 2006, his government negotiated a deal with the FPDT that allowed flower vendors to sell flowers in the downtown area of Texocol, near Atenco. When the vendors, accompanied by the FPDT, showed up to sell flowers at the agreed-upon time and place, Peña Nieto’s riot police were waiting for them. In the clashes that followed, police killed two protesters (including a fourteen-year-old boy, shot in the chest with live ammo) and gang-raped over twenty female detainees on a bus in front of other arrested demonstrators. No police have been punished for these abuses, but some demonstrators spent years in jail. Peña Nieto proudly claimed responsibility for the police’s actions.

When he won the presidential election, it meant that the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seventy years as a one-party dictatorship, would return to power after just a twelve-year hiatus. The Zapatistas were an important factor in the PRI’s ouster following the 2000 elections, so it’s fitting that they’ve chosen to go back on the offensive now.

JS: The initial communique following the late December march pretty openly acknowledged a widespread sense that the Zapatistas had eroded – as a force or presence – rather considerably. I remember conversations we had about the ebbing of The Other Campaign, autonomous communities’ land-loss, and journalists’ claims about Marcos being “put out to pasture”. Was the “they don’t need us in order to fail” comment simply an artful way to stage a return to visibility, or do you feel like it was taking aim at something?

KB: I actually have a different interpretation of that communique. I interpreted it as a response to all of the chatter in the Mexican and international media over the past few years that the Zapatistas had run out of steam, were losing ground, had failed to make any gains, and that Marcos was either dead or had been fired. As Marcos says in that communique, “We never left, even though media from all over the spectrum have dedicated themselves to making you believe that, and we are reemerging as the indigenous Zapatistas that we are and will be.”

It’s important to note that while this new set of communiques hopefully means that the Zapatistas are planning something proactive, they haven’t been invisible over the past few years. In 2011, Marcos had some public written exchanges with two prominent men, intellectual Luis Villoro and writer-turned-activist Javier Sicilia. That same year, thousands of Zapatistas mobilized to march against the drug war in support of Javier Sicilia’s peace movement. So if the Zapatista’s disappeared from anywhere, it was from the corporate media’s echo chamber. In reality, the Zapatistas never went away.

“They don’t need us in order to fail” is an allusion to Karl Marx’s assertion that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Earlier in that same communique, he argues that the political class is “too incapable and dishonest to see that within themselves they had and have the seeds of their own destruction.” Marcos has said that over and over; he even wrote a children’s book called “The Story of the Lion and the Mirror” where the lion represents capitalism and the mirror, which kills the lion in the end, represents how capitalism contains the necessary contradictions for its own destruction.

Current and previous presidential administrations have made it very clear that Mexican politicians and their Yankee puppet masters are perfectly capable of failing miserably without the Zapatistas’ help. No one can blame the hell that we are living in Mexico on the Zapatistas. The kidnappings, the guns that are held to our heads, the bodies that hang from bridges as we go to work or take our kids to school–the Zapatistas had nothing to do with that. It is a direct result of the United States-backed drug war that former president Felipe Calderón started with guns blazing in order to distract the country from the fact that he’d stolen the election.

JS: Has the resurgence had effects on the ground? There are references in these texts to collaboration with adherents to the Sixth Declaration, but it seemed in recent years as though that network had languished some.

KB: The Other Campaign’s success has depended entirely on the people who make up the local collectives and regional networks. Yes, in some areas, collectives have languished somewhat as they wait for the Zapatistas to tell them what to do next. But one thing that you have to keep in mind is that the Other Campaign is comprised of a lot of groups that have been organizing since before the Other Campaign. That’s the case in Guerrero, where human rights organizations and autonomist community policing organizations united under the Other Campaign umbrella. They’re on the front lines against the dirty war and drug war violence in that state; they don’t sit and wait around for the next Zapatista communique to tell them what to do. They’re always proactive, because it’s a matter of life and death for them.

The Other Campaign also resulted in like-minded individuals coming together under the pro-Zapatista banner to do community organizing that they might have not been doing prior to the Other Campaign. That’s the case in Chalco, a poor, crime-ridden area of Mexico State. In 2010, following a foreseeable disaster where a canal burst and covered Chalco with raw sewage (in some areas putting the entire first floor of houses under what the residents politely referred to as “mud”), a collective of Other Campaign adherents in Chalco built relationships with the local church to do the disaster relief the government refused to do. Operating under the Other Campaign mantra of “If they touch one of us, they touch all of us,” the Chalco collective called on Other Campaign adherents in the region to help out. The Chalco collective used the church as a base of operations where Other Campaign adherents from Mexico City and surrounding areas could drop off donations and provide free services. A collective of doctors who are adherents to the Other Campaign came out to Chalco to provide medical care to people who were suffering infections due to their exposure to raw sewage. A hairdresser came out to give kids haircuts before they went back to school. Brigades repainted walls to cover up the flood lines that reminded people of the few days they spent living under a few feet of feces. Having the wall of a government-maintained above-ground canal burst and cover your town with poop is just about the most undignified experience a working class community could possibly suffer. The Other Campaign brought dignity back to Chalco, and the collective there is as strong as ever.

The Other Campaign has also strengthened the movement to free political prisoners.  Instead of every jailed Zapatista sympathizer all over the country having to fight for their freedom in isolation, they’re essentially guaranteed a support network, not just in Mexico, but all over the world. Just look at how hard the New York-based Movement for Justice in the Barrio has fought for Mexican political prisoners. The release of these political prisoners over the years is a constant tangible win for the Other Campaign. [Interviewer’s note: Since the time of this interview, Zapatista political prisoner Francisco Sántiz has been released, a day after his being mentioned in an EZLN communique.]

That said, so far I haven’t seen any tangible effects of this resurgence–just a lot of anticipation. The latest communique from Subcomandante Marcos said “to be continued…” So I think everyone is anxiously waiting to see what the Zapatistas have up their sleeves. I imagine that Other Campaign collectives all over the country are meeting to analyze and discuss the latest communiques.

Personally, I think the new communiques are uplifting. We’ve suffered so much under the drug war, myself included. It’s debilitating to be constantly bombarded with carnage, guns held to your head, kidnappings, extortion… Can you imagine what it is like to be afraid to look out your window to see what that noise was in the street because you’re afraid that you’ll be seen seeing something you shouldn’t have? I think that, for many people outside of Mexico, it’s impossible to imagine living under those conditions, much less organizing under them. When 40,000 Zapatistas took the streets and then they began releasing these new communiques, I felt hope and energy for the first time in two years. I think a lot of other people feel the same way. I’m excited to see what they have to say, and I’m excited to be a part of it. If anyone knows how to go through hell and emerge stronger, the Zapatistas do.

JS: I remember seeing middle school-aged kids studying at the Zapatista school in Oventic back in 2008, and realizing that I was looking at 13 and 14 year olds who had effectively always been Zapatistas, inasmuch as they were born after the ’94 uprising. By now, those kids have reached adulthood, entirely within those communities and the mode of being cultivated in them. Is what we’re seeing reflective of that generation coming into the fold, as it were?

KB: That is something that a lot of people noticed: how many of the Zapatistas who marched on December 21 were young adults. The Zapatista autonomist process officially kicked off in 2003 when the EZLN unilaterally implemented indigenous rights in the territory it controlled. That’s when the EZLN, the Zapatista’s military apparatus, created the civilian Good Government Councils to govern in the newly created autonomous territory, which was divided into five caracoles, or regional capitals.  Positions on the five Good Government Councils are rotative and decided through the indigenous tradition of choosing leaders based on their prior service to the community.

The Zapatistas who are now reaching adulthood, getting married, and having children of their own were babies during the uprising, and they were about nine when the autonomous governing system was created with its own schools and healthcare. So they still attended government elementary schools and were neglected by government health clinics when they were sick. They grew up with the feeling of being an outsider, different, inferior, or, as the Zapatistas call it, “other.”  Part four of Marcos’ “Them and Us” communiques talk about that feeling. But these young adults also spent their very important formative years living under an autonomous indigenous governing system where their indigenousness is celebrated, not scorned. That has to be very important for them. And now they’re old enough to serve on the Good Government Councils.

JS: Indigenous resistance is increasingly visible, the world over, especially in light of the Idle No More actions coming out of Canada. And that resistance is increasingly networked. Is that part of the conversation on the ground in southern Mexico?

KB: Since their uprising in 1994, the Zapatistas have been at the forefront of globalizing leftist–not just indigenous–struggle in the new information age. Many people have argued that the protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999–an event that radicalized and mobilized my generation–were to some extent inspired by the Zapatista uprising.

Of course, indigenous and anti-colonial struggles have always had a special place in the Zapatistas’ hearts. Some of the first people to visit them after the uprising were Irish freedom fighters and leaders from the American Indian Movement. The Zapatistas have organized international meetings of indigenous peoples so that they can share their struggles and strategies. They organized the founding of Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress so that the country’s indigenous peoples could participate in the indigenous rights negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government. While the Zapatistas haven’t specifically mentioned Idle No More (it’s still relatively new, and there is a language barrier), Marcos has repeatedly expressed support for Palestinians resisting Israeli colonization. A lot of people in the United States, even leftists, seem to forget that the conflict in Palestine is centered around colonists (although they call themselves settlers) attempting to seize indigenous land and resources by displacing Palestinians and imprisoning them in open-air prisons akin to what the US calls reservations. This fact is not lost on Marcos and the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas are now closely watching the indigenous Mapuche’s struggle for autonomy and indigenous and land rights in Chile. Marcos has mentioned the Mapuches in three of the four “Them and Us” communiques that have been published, at this point. I think we’ll see a greater collaboration between those two struggles in the near future.

Video of the Zapatistas’ December 21, 2012 march in Chiapas, Mexico:


Kristin’s translations of the recent Zapatista communiques can be read (along with her coverage of struggle in Mexico more broadly) at My Word is My Weapon. Follow her on Twitter at @kristinbricker.

Joshua Stephens is a writer, editor, activist, and board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and co-editor at Counter Conduct. He splits his time between Brooklyn, NY and the Mediterranean. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuacstephens.