Native peoples of the New World, even as they fell to disease and cultural onslaught, have fiercely resisted the colonial invader since 1492. In the case of the Zapatistas and their struggle against the loss of indigenous territory and indigenous culture, this resistance takes many forms, changing tactics with the times. The type of resistance varies according to the nature of the threat—armed resistance, passive resistance, vocal resistance, silent resistance. The very ability of the rural indigenous farmer—the campesino—to cultivate rocky hillsides while military helicopters circle above and troops stand just across the river awaiting orders to invade—a common scenario in Chiapas—is one type of hardened, passive resistance. In this sense, resistance has become the very soil in which native cultures grow.
Santos de La Cruz Carillo, a Wixarika (Huichol) lawyer from the state of Durango, and a delegate to Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress, says:
What does resistance mean? Resistance means to defend what belongs to us as indigenous people: territory, resources, culture. If, among our peoples, we didn’t have resistance, we would no longer exist as peoples. Thanks to our resistance, we have maintained our cultures.
For the Zapatista communities, resistance means rejecting handouts from the “malgobierno,” the bad government, and from any other national or international agency whose intention is not to build local self-sufficiency but to undermine it through paternalism, clientism, charity, or other forms of low-intensity warfare. This rejection is the “no” in the Zapatista slogan, “one no and many yeses.” Of course, for a people living at the margins of the capitalist economy, on poor soils and with only the most basic resources, this kind of resistance is accompanied by hunger, thirst, illness, and want. For the Zapatista communities, the decision to resist is a daily one, made next to a cold stove in an empty kitchen on yet another day without beans, let alone meat, or vegetables, or sugar.
The Second Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, issued six months into the uprising, on June 10, 1994, defines resistance and its cost:
We will accept nothing from the supreme government, although they may increase our suffering and our pain, although death continues to accompany us at our table, in our bed, and in our lands, although we watch others selling themselves to the hand that oppresses them; although everything hurts; although pain wrings tears from the very stones. We will accept nothing. We will resist. We will accept nothing from the government. We will resist until he who commands, commands by obeying.
There is an aspect of resistance that roots itself in language and in the symbols of culture, in the hidden meanings of ritual or custom, myths, and daily acts, in the stories and songs and in the dreams of a people. More than simply keeping literature or oral tradition alive, and not limited to something as programmatic as “propaganda,” we might think of this as poetic resistance, as the resistance of memory against forgetting. When the Spanish conquistadors forced the people of highland Chiapas and Guatemala to wear distinct patterns to mark their home villages, allowing insurrectionaries to be quickly recognized and reckoned with, the native women fought back, everywhere, by weaving stunningly beautiful huipiles. In the words of journalist and poet John Ross, they “turned apartheid into art.”
Again, poesis—creation, or creating—is the first front in the war against oblivion. Ofelia Rivas, Tohono O’odham from the Sonora/Arizona border, who insists on speaking her native language when she addresses a crowd, says, “my language is my resistance.” Poetic resistance—the resistance of language against the oblivion of silence—has been a part of indigenous survival for the last five centuries—the fiery blooming of flowers from the hardened soil.
A poetics of resistance develops around stories and histories, fables and fabrics and old wives’ tales, songs and symbols, all of the poetic outfitting that keeps a culture alive, that gives it memory and hope; it is the armature of belief, the means by which history is spelled out day by day becoming culture, becoming memory, becoming codes of action handed down by gods, heroes and saints. The poetics that crops up under dangerous circumstances is easy to find in any anti-imperial struggle: the songs of the Spanish Civil War, the murals of the Sandinistas, the street-theater of Yippies and Diggers during the sixties in the United States. We can find poetic resistance in hip-hop and tropicalismo and punk rock, in the hard bop and free jazz of the black arts movement, in the graffiti of French situationists and students of 1968 (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach!”) and the posters and pranks of dadaists in 1918, in the union songs of the American labor movement of the early twentieth century, in the quilts of abolitionists. Like any flowering of culture, and like the manifold expressions of life itself, once you begin to look for it, it’s everywhere. On the wall of the pub where I sometimes write are the words, painted in calligraphy, of the Irish freedom fighter James Connolly, intoning, “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression;” he is echoed by Roqué Dalton and Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, Daisy Zamora and Aimé Cesaire, Paul Eluard and June Jordan and Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka. Even the American Revolution, with its myths of Betsy Ross the flag maker, Paul Revere’s ride (“one if by land, two if by sea”), the Boston Tea Party, and young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and confessing, “I cannot tell a lie,” has a poetics born of anti-imperial struggle, a mythic language or lexicon of stories that has rooted itself in the consciousness of the United States. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” its singular lyric, is still sung fervently at baseball games, and the Pledge of Allegiance, hymn to American nationalism, has been recited in public schools since the 1950s, two centuries after the end of British colonial rule, in a perverse show of resistance to the “communist menace” of the Cold War years. Similarly, several Mexican revolutions have given birth to bodies of myth, narratives of hope and stories of national pride and unity, symbols of strength, songs and endless stories that roll together over the course of years to become history. Along with bread—that is, survival—history is the object of revolution. History is made by telling stories as you go.
Conant is speaking in Burlington, Vermont on September 9.
This piece is excerpted from Conant’s new book A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (AK Press, 2010).
Jeff Conant is an author and activist living in the SF Bay area. He is a Fellow with the Oakland Institute, a coordinating committee member of *La Red VIDA* (the InterAmerican Network for the Defense of the Right to Water), a permaculturalist, and is currently involved in efforts to promote climate justice at the grassroots as well as at the international level. He is the author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health, and the recipient of a 2010 Project Censored Award for his coverage of the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo from (Jose Villa) at VillaPhotography