Rebecca Solnit, Journey into the Heart of an Insurgency

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The Zapatistas, the Mexican rebels who emerged from the jungles of the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico, on New Year’s Day in 1994, have been on the mind of — and in the writings of — Rebecca Solnit since almost the moment she arrived at Tomdispatch. In 2004, she spoke of their uprising as “a revolt against the official version of history”; in 2006, she suggested that they had “staged a revolution, not only in what the status of Indians would be in that country but in the nature of revolution too”; and, at the end of 2007, she called them collectively “the most powerful voice coming from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas.” Now, 14 years after they burst dramatically into world consciousness, she’s traveled to Chiapas to visit Zapatista-held territory and spend a New Year’s Day with them. The author of the inspired Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities returns with this report. Tom

Revolution of the Snails
Encounters with the Zapatistas
By Rebecca Solnit

I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of information that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The original use of the word revolution was in this sense — of something coming round or turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, for example. It’s interesting to think that just as the word radical comes from the Latin word for “roots” and meant going to the root of a problem, so revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to cycle, something those who live according to the agricultural cycles of the year know well.

Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it come to mean “an instance of a great change in affairs or in some particular thing.” 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less cyclical and more linear — as in the second definition of this new sense of revolution in my dictionary, “a complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it.”

We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our society revolving — or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be as patient as a snail.

The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come, but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson’s attack on the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962; certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere with a radical rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern Mexico called Zapatismo.

Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its principal symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution spirals outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes of capitalism’s savage alienation, industrialism’s regimentation, and toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one Zapatista woman — and prophetic of the half-born other world in which, as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on their spiral.

Revolutionary Landscapes

At the end of 2007, I arrived on their territory for a remarkable meeting between the Zapatista women and the world, the third of their encuentros since the 1994 launch of their revolution. Somehow, among the miracles of Zapatista words and ideas I read at a distance, I lost sight of what a revolution might look like, must look like, on the ground — until late last year when I arrived on that pale, dusty ground after a long ride in a van on winding, deeply rutted dirt roads through the forested highlands and agricultural clearings of Chiapas, Mexico. The five hours of travel from the big town of San Cristobal de las Casas through that intricate landscape took us past countless small cornfields on slopes, wooden houses, thatched pigsties and henhouses, gaunt horses, a town or two, more forest, and then more forest, even a waterfall.

Everything was green except the dry cornstalks, a lush green in which December flowers grew. There were tree-sized versions of what looked like the common, roadside, yellow black-eyed susans of the American west and a palm-sized, lavender-pink flower on equally tall, airily branching stalks whose breathtaking beauty seemed to come from equal parts vitality, vulnerability, and bravura — a little like the women I listened to for the next few days.

The van stopped at the junction that led to the center of the community of La Garrucha. There, we checked in with men with bandannas covering the lower halves of their faces, who sent us on to a field of tents further uphill. The big sign behind them read, “You are in Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys.” Next to it, another sign addressed the political prisoners from last year’s remarkable uprising in Oaxaca in which, for four months, the inhabitants held the city and airwaves and kept the government out. It concluded, “You are not alone. You are with us. EZLN.”

As many of you may know, EZLN stands for Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), a name akin to those from many earlier Latin American uprisings. The Zapatistas — mostly Mayan indigenous rebels from remote, rural communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state — had made careful preparations for a decade before their January 1, 1994 uprising.

They began like conventional rebels, arming themselves and seizing six towns. They chose that first day of January because it was the date that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, which meant utter devastation for small farmers in Mexico; but they had also been inspired by the 500th anniversary, 14 months before, of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the way native groups had reframed that half-millenium as one of endurance and injustice for the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere.

Their rebellion was also meant to take the world at least a step beyond the false dichotomy between capitalism and the official state socialism of the Soviet Union which had collapsed in 1991. It was to be the first realization of what needed to come next: a rebellion, above all, against capitalism and neoliberalism. Fourteen years later, it is a qualified success: many landless campesino families in Zapatista-controlled Chiapas now have land; many who were subjugated now govern themselves; many who were crushed now have a sense of agency and power. Five areas in Chiapas have existed outside the reach of the Mexican government, under their own radically different rules, since that revolution.

Beyond that, the Zapatistas have given the world a model — and, perhaps even more important, a language — with which to re-imagine revolution, community, hope, and possibility. Even if, in the near future, they were to be definitively defeated on their own territory, their dreams, powerful as they have been, are not likely to die. And there are clouds on the horizon: the government of President Felipe Calderón may turn what has, for the last 14 years, been a low-intensity conflict in Chiapas into a full-fledged war of extermination. A war on dreams, on hope, on rights, and on the old goals of the hero of the Mexican Revolution a century before, Emiliano Zapata: tierra y libertad, land and liberty.

The Zapatistas emerged from the jungle in 1994, armed with words as well as guns. Their initial proclamation, the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, rang with familiar, outmoded-sounding revolutionary rhetoric, but shortly after the uprising took the world by storm, the Zapatistas’ tone shifted. They have been largely nonviolent ever since, except in self-defense, though they are ringed by the Mexican army and local paramilitaries (and maintain their own disciplined army, a long line of whose masked troops patrolled La Garrucha at night, armed with sticks). What shifted most was their language, which metamorphosed into something unprecedented — a revolutionary poetry full of brilliant analysis as well as of metaphor, imagery, and humor, the fruit of extraordinary imaginations.

Some of their current stickers and t-shirts — the Zapatistas generate more cool paraphernalia than any rock band — speak of “el fuego y la palabra,” the fire and the word. Many of those words came from the inspired pen of their military commander, the nonindigenous Subcomandante Marcos, but that pen reflected the language of a people whose memory is long and environment is rich — if not in money and ease, then in animals, images, traditions, and ideas.

Take, for example, the word caracol, which literally means snail or spiral shell. In August 2003, the Zapatistas renamed their five autonomous communities caracoles. The snail then became an important image. I noticed everywhere embroideries, t-shirts, and murals showing that land snail with the spiraling shell. Often the snail wore a black ski mask. The term caracol has the vivid vitality, the groundedness, that often escapes metaphors as they become part of our disembodied language.

When they reorganized as caracoles, the Zapatistas reached back to Mayan myth to explain what the symbol meant to them. Or Subcomandante Marcos did, attributing the story as he does with many stories to “Old Antonio,” who may be a fiction, a composite, or a real source of the indigenous lore of the region:

“The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women are in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents exiting from the heart to walk the world. The caracoles will be like doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside; like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to hear the words from the one who is far away.”

The caracoles are clusters of villages, but described as spirals they reach out to encompass the whole world and begin from within the heart. And so I arrived in the center of one caracol, a little further up the road from those defiant signs, in the broad, unpaved plaza around which the public buildings of the village of La Garrucha are clustered, including a substantial two-story, half-built clinic. Walking across that clearing were Zapatista women in embroidered blouses or broad collars and aprons stitched of rows of ribbon that looked like inverted rainbows — and those ever-present ski masks in which all Zapatistas have appeared publicly since their first moment out of the jungles in 1994. (Or almost all, a few wear bandannas instead.)

That first glimpse was breathtaking. Seeing and hearing those women for the three days that followed, living briefly on rebel territory, watching people brave enough to defy an army and the world’s reigning ideology, imaginative enough to invent (or reclaim) a viable alternative was one of the great passages of my life. The Zapatistas had been to me a beautiful idea, an inspiration, a new language, a new kind of revolution. When they spoke at this Third Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the People of the World, they became a specific group of people grappling with practical problems. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said he had been to the mountaintop. I have been to the forest.

The Words of the Third Encounter

The encuentro was held in a big shed-like auditorium with a corrugated tin roof and crossbeams so long they could only have been hewn from local trees — they would never have made it around the bends in the local roads. The wooden walls were hung with banners and painted with murals. (One, of an armed Zapatista woman, said, “cellulite sí, anorexia, no.“) An unfinished mural showed a monumental ear of corn whose top half merged into the Zapatista ski mask, the eyes peering out of the corn. Among the embroideries local artisans offered were depictions of cornstalks with Zapatista faces where the ears would be. All of this — snails and corn-become-Zapatistas alike — portrayed the rebels as natural, pervasive, and fruitful.

Three or four times a day, a man on a high, roofed-over stage outside the hall would play a jaunty snippet of a tune on an organ and perhaps 250 of the colorfully dressed Zapatista women in balaclavas or bandannas would walk single file into the auditorium and seat themselves onstage on rows of backless benches. The women who had come from around the world to listen would gather on the remaining benches, and men would cluster around the back of the hall. Then, one caracol at a time, they would deliver short statements and take written questions. Over the course of four days, all five caracoles delivered reflections on practical and ideological aspects of their situation. Pithy and direct, they dealt with difficult (sometimes obnoxious) questions with deftness. They spoke of the challenge of living a revolution that meant autonomy from the Mexican government, but also of learning how to govern themselves and determine for themselves what liberty and justice mean.

The Zapatista rebellion has been feminist from its inception: Many of the comandantes are women — this encuentro was dedicated to the memory of deceased Comandante Ramona, whose image was everywhere — and the liberation of the women of the Zapatista regions has been a core part of the struggle. The testimonies addressed what this meant — liberation from forced marriages, illiteracy, domestic violence, and other forms of subjugation. The women read aloud, some of them nervous, their voices strained — and this reading and writing was itself testimony to the spread both of literacy and of Spanish as part of the revolution. The first language of many Zapatistas is an indigenous one, and so they spoke their Spanish with formal, declarative clarity. They often began with a formal address to the audience that spiraled outward: “hermanos y hermanas, compañeras y compañeros de la selva, pueblos del Mexico, pueblos del mundo, sociedad civile” — “brothers and sisters, companions of the rainforest, people of Mexico, people of the world, civil society.” And then they would speak of what revolution had meant for them.

“We had no rights,” one of them said about the era before the rebellion. Another added, “The saddest part is that we couldn’t understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had told us about our rights.”

“The struggle is not just for ourselves, it’s for everyone,” said a third. Another spoke to us directly: “We invite you to organize as women of the world in order to get rid of neoliberalism, which has hurt all of us.”

They spoke of how their lives had improved since 1994. On New Year’s Eve, one of the masked women declared:

“Who we think is responsible [for the oppressions] is the capitalist system, but now we no longer fear. They humiliated us for too long, but as Zapatistas no one will mistreat us. Even if our husbands still mistreat us, we know we are human beings. Now, women aren’t as mistreated by husbands and fathers. Now, some husbands support and help us and don’t make all the decisions — not in all households, but poco a poco. We invite all women to defend our rights and combat machismo.”

They spoke of the practical work of remaking the world and setting the future free, of implementing new possibilities for education, healthcare, and community organization, of the everyday workings of a new society. Some of them carried their babies — and their lives — onstage and, in one poignant moment, a little girl dashed across that stage to kiss and hug her masked mother. Sometimes the young daughters wore masks too.

A Zapatista named Maribel spoke of how the rebellion started, of the secrecy in which they met and organized before the uprising:

“We learned to advance while still hiding until January 1. This is when the seed grew, when we brought ourselves into the light. On January 1, 1994, we brought our dreams and hopes throughout Mexico and the world — and we will continue to care for this seed. This seed of ours we are giving for our children. We hope you all will struggle even though it is in a different form. The struggle [is] for everybody.”

The Zapatistas have not won an easy or secure future, but what they have achieved is dignity, a word that cropped up constantly during the encuentro, as in all their earlier statements. And they have created hope. Hope (esperanza) was another inescapable word in Zapatista territory. There was la tienda de esperanza, the unpainted wooden store of hope, that sold tangerines and avocados. A few mornings, I had café con leche and sweet rice cooked with milk and cinnamon at a comedor whose handlettered sign read: “Canteen of autonomous communities in rebelliondreams of hope.” The Zapatista minibus was crowned with the slogan “the collective [which also means bus in Spanish] makes hope.”

After midnight, at the very dawn of the New Year, when men were invited to speak again, one mounted the platform from which the New Year’s dance music was blasting to say that he and the other men had listened and learned a lot.

This revolution is neither perfect nor complete — mutterings about its various shortcomings weren’t hard to hear from elsewhere in Mexico or the internationals at the encuentro (who asked many testing questions about these campesinas’ positions on, say, transgendered identity and abortion) — but it is an astonishing and fruitful beginning.

The Speed of Snails and Dreams

Many of their hopes have been realized. The testimony of the women dealt with this in specific terms: gains in land, rights, dignity, liberty, autonomy, literacy, a good local government that obeys the people rather than a bad one that tramples them. Under siege, they have created community with each other and reached out to the world.

Emerging from the jungles and from impoverishment, they were one of the first clear voices against corporate globalization — the neoliberal agenda that looked, in the 1990s, as though it might succeed in taking over the world. That was, of course, before the surprise shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and other innovative, successful global acts of resistance against that agenda and its impact. The Zapatistas articulated just how audacious indigenous rebellion against invisibility, powerlessness, and marginalization could be — and this was before other indigenous movements from Bolivia to northern Canada took a share of real power in the Americas. Their image of “a world in which many worlds are possible” came to describe the emergence of broad coalitions spanning great differences, of alliances between hunter-gatherers, small-scale farmers, factory workers, human rights activists, and environmentalists in France, India, Korea, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, and elsewhere.

Their vision represented the antithesis of the homogenous world envisioned both by the proponents of “globalism” and by the modernist revolutions of the twentieth century. They have gone a long way toward reinventing the language of politics. They have been a beacon for everyone who wants to make a world that is more inventive, more democratic, more decentralized, more grassroots, more playful. Now, they face a threat from the Mexican government that could savage the caracoles of resistance, crush the rights and dignity that the women of the encuentro embodied even as they spoke of them — and shed much blood.

During the 1980s, when our government was sponsoring the dirty wars in Central America, two U.S. groups in particular countered those politics of repression, torture, and death. One was the Pledge of Resistance, which gathered the signatures of hundreds of thousands who promised to respond with civil disobedience if the U.S. invaded Sandinista-run Nicaragua or otherwise deepened its involvement with the dictatorships and death squads of Central America. Another was Witness for Peace, which placed gringos as observers and unarmed protectors in communities throughout Central America.

While killing or disappearing campesinos could be carried out with ease in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, doing the same to U.S. citizens, or in front of them, was a riskier proposition. The Yankee witnesses used the privilege of their color and citizenship as a shield for others and then testified to what they saw. We have come to a moment when we need to strengthen the solidarity so many activists around the world have felt for the Zapatistas, strengthen it into something that can protect the sources of “the fire and the word” — the fire that has warmed so many who have a rebel heart, the word that has taught us to imagine the world anew.

The United States and Mexico both have eagles as their emblems, predators which attack from above. The Zapatistas have chosen a snail in a spiral shell, a small creature, easy to overlook. It speaks of modesty, humility, closeness to the earth, and of the recognition that a revolution may start like lightning but is realized slowly, patiently, steadily. The old idea of revolution was that we would trade one government for another and somehow this new government would set us free and change everything. More and more of us now understand that change is a discipline lived every day, as those women standing before us testified; that revolution only secures the territory in which life can change. Launching a revolution is not easy, as the decade of planning before the 1994 Zapatista uprising demonstrated, and living one is hard too, a faith and discipline that must not falter until the threats and old habits are gone — if then. True revolution is slow.

There’s a wonderful passage in Robert Richardson’s biography of Thoreau in which he speaks of the Europe-wide revolution of 1848 and says of the New England milieu and its proliferating cooperative communities at that time, “Most of the founders were more interested in building models, which would be emulated because they succeeded, than in the destruction of the existing order. Still American utopian socialism had much in common with the spirit of 1848.”

This says very directly that you can reach out and change the state and its institutions, which we recognize as revolution, or you can make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is also revolutionary. This creating — rather than simply rebelling — has been much of the nature of revolution in our time, as people reinvent family, gender, food systems, work, housing, education, economics, medicine and doctor-patient relations, the imagination of the environment, and the language to talk about it, not to speak of more and more of everyday life. The fantasy of a revolution is that it will make everything different, and regime revolutions generally make a difference, sometimes a significantly positive one, but the making of radical differences in everyday life is a more protracted, incremental process. It’s where leaders are irrelevant and every life matters.

Give the Zapatistas time — the slow, unfolding time of the spiral and the journey of the snail — to keep making their world, the one that illuminates what else our lives and societies could be. Our revolution must be as different as our temperate-zone, post-industrial society is to their subtropical agrarianism, but also guided by the slow forces of dignity, imagination, and hope, as well as the playfulness they display in their imagery and language. The testimony in the auditorium ended late on December 31. At midnight, amid dancing, the revolution turned 14. May it long continue to spiral inward and outward.

The last time Rebecca Solnit camped out on rebel territory, she was an organizer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project that insists — with good legal grounds — that the Shoshone in Nevada had never ceded their land to the U.S. government. That story is told in her 1994 book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, but the subsequent inspiration of the Zapatistas is most evident in the book Tom Engelhardt helped her to bring into being, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She is 11 chapters into her next book.

Copyright 2008 Rebecca Solnit

Twenty years ago this October, Rebecca Solnit was writing about the Kennedy assassination for her first book when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. She hit save, stood in a doorway until the shaking was over, and marveled in the days after at the calm, warm mood of the people of her city and her own changed state of mind. She's written regularly for TomDispatch since the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Her just published new book, A Paradise Built in Hell (Penguin, 2009), is a monument to human bravery and innovation during disasters.