"Indigenous Performance"
By Anna Brígido Corachán.
(Work in progress).

"Performing Identity: Zapatista Narratives of Resistance"

"You don't have anything
If you don't have the stories."
(Leslie Silko, Ceremony)

On the 1st of January of 1994 a group of indigenous people took over several villages in the extremely poor region of Chiapas, Mexico, in the name of anti-neoliberalism and social justice. The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), commanded by one of their most charismatic leaders, el Subcomandante Marcos, had symbolically declared the war to the government on this particular day, a few hours after the signing of the NAFTA agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
If there have been many other uprisings and protests by indigenous groups in the continent throughout the 500 years of oppression of their communities and cultural practices, and most of them were rapidly, silently suffocated, how did the Zapatistas manage to gain so much media attention? How have they survived, for the past 8 years, the capricious character of the "society of the spectacle" and Empire? The uniqueness of the Zapatistas does not stem from their ultimate agenda: the traditional claims of land, justice and dignity for the indigenous people of the Americas; instead their most attractive proposal, one that is shared with many other indigenous and peasant movements all over the planet, is its self-location as an attack and response to the new politics of neoliberalism and globalization, a resistance to the homogenizing, global reterritorialization of the world that undermines the voices and cultures of the minorities . For the past eight years the Zapatistas have developed or reinvented a series of creative cultural and political strategies in their peaceful struggle for social justice. These strategies of resistance have always been common among the inhabitants of the Mexico Profundo. According to anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla there is a México Profundo that confronts the México Imaginario - an imagined México, organized according to Western discourses-. This México Profundo "resists utilizing the most diverse strategies according to the circumstances of domination he is being subdued to. It is not a passive, static world, but a world that lives in permanent tension. The peoples of México Profundo constantly create and recreate their own culture, they adjust it depending on the changing pressures (…), make foreign cultural elements theirs, put at their service (…), they remain silent or rebel, following a strategy that has been sharped by centuries of resistance" (11, my own translation).
The practices of resistance adopted by the Zapatistas -which unveil the oppressive structures orchestrated by/in the México Imaginario-- are a combination of "modern" and traditional forms: writing, storytelling, songs, political marches, but also media, self-fashioning devices, a good doses of spontaneous marketing and what Native American author Gerald Vizenor has described as the practice of transmotion: the ability to move between different territories -local, national, international--, the ambiguity of not constituting a fixed category, the ability of escaping the construction of the passive, victimized Indian.
A very fruitful Zapatista proposal has certainly been their efforts to mobilize Mexican Civil Society, to turn it into an immense politically active group that has enabled and supported new measures that promote cultural and political representation for the deprived communities of the country. They have build "alliances of difference" (Arturo Aldama) with many groups all over the world and have been a crucial inspiration in the creation of an anti-globalization network that can constitute a real counter-Empire, i.e. "an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges" that can resist and reorganize the advances of globalization and the neoliberal order (Hardt and Negri, xv). Despite the fact that the uprising of the 1st of January had very specific local demands, it hit a note in distant territories across the globe because the Zapatistas reminded us that we cannot easily escape a new antagonistic relationship developed within Empire: globalizer versus globalized.
McChesney points out that "(t)he neoliberal system (…) has an important and necessary byproduct -a depoliticized citizenry marked by apathy and cynicism" (10). The Zapatistas have been an inspiration to many anti-globalization movements and struggles across the globe, as we saw in Seattle -where many demonstrators adopted their famous ski masks-or among the mapuches, in the south of Chile, who have held posters of Marcos and the comandantes in their demonstrations.
Part of their national and international appeal stems from the performativity of their practices and the original "image" they have created of themselves as a group; that is, a device that attempts to make visible the invisible. They make apparent, through their ski-masks, the invisibility of the indigenous communities all over Mexico. Their self-fashioning strategies like the ski-masks or Marcos's pipe are identity-constructing procedures that attempt to create a specific extravagant identity for their group, one that can surely call the attention of a society, for which the show does indeed need to be highly original if it is to make an impression in our minds. Precisely because of their strategies: clothing, pastiche, usage of media -specially Internet and video--, irony, literariness and intertextuality, or Subcomandante Marcos's famous remarks --such as the answer he gave to a complaining tourist in San Cristobal de las Casas, on that 1st of January: "Lamento las molestias pero esto es una revolución"-- because of all their imaginative approaches to make their cause known, they have constantly been labeled as Postmodern in the worst superficial and apolitical sense of the concept. A big percentage of the press, and notorious books like La Grange and Rico's Subcomandante Marcos: la genial impostura compare Marcos with an extremely qualified Hollywood actor, a showman, a new Zorro. His image has given rise to a considerable commercial industry, as these authors mention "pictures, t-shirts, posters, pins, dolls and even condoms, which were sold under the suggestive brand "Alzados" (Risen, which obviously plays with the uprising)" (La Grange and Rico, 342). Marcos is being portrayed as a guru, a new Che, the new myth in the revolutionary imaginings of the left. Chiapas has got to be called "Zapatiland" an "amusement park for the left," due to the high numbers of celebrities that come to meet the Subcomandante -Oliver Stone, Daniel Miterrand, Eduardo Galeano, to mention a few--. However, this Postmodern labeling and media-constructed mesianism can also be seen as an undermining strategy of the globalizers to disable the Zapatistas's claims of lands and justice. (What a better way to undermine an idea than reify it into t-shirts and pins?). Nonetheless, the Zapatistas's way of striking back is by reappropriating all these "postmodern strategies," using them on their own behalf, without forgetting their own cultural manifestations. Marcos is an invented character, an invention created not only by Rafael Guillén, the man behind the mask, but also by the whole community of zapatistas that reappropiate some rules of the system in order to subvert it. Mystery and extravagance become peaceful weapons that have, in fact, brought more supporters than a gun.
As Marcos pointed out in his speech of the 11th of March at the Zócalo, in Mexico City, after the three -week March to the capital, they are fully aware of the dangers of becoming an empty spectacle, a Postmodern simulacrum. He says: "(d)icen que somos pocos, que débiles nos estamos, que no somos más que una foto, una anécdota, un espectáculo, un producto perecedero con la fecha de caducidad cercana." (La Jornada, 12 March 2001).
And if well it's true that they make use of certain show business traits, these are not intended to lead to fame, but rather to bring back the recognition of their dignity as people, and their lands and traditions. The little Zapatista dolls which are sold at the markets of San Cristóbal de las Casas or San Juan Chamula are design and sewn by the indigenous groups of the region and these same communities are the receivers of the economic benefits, that is, the profits (even if humble) that come from the selling of this specific constructed image of the Zapatistas goes straight to the communities and not to the EZLN. Moreover, video has become for them one of the best means of cultural empowerment and socio-political resistance. For example, since 1997 the Chiapas Media Project, a Mexican-US association, has been providing video and computer equipment together with training workshops, to several indigenous communities in Chiapas. These videos, together with Marcos' stories, communiqués, and letters to the press, and their collaboration in web pages, have become what Michel de Certeau defines as an "index locorum" for they entail a "redistribution of cultural space" (68). They found a "locus of utterance," a new discursive, political and legal space where native peoples can reclaim human rights and justice that had been long denied by the institutional apparatus. Videos can be used as legal proof to evince human right violations and abuses on the part of the military. They become a peaceful but strong weapon to defend political wins -the Zapatista self-declared autonomies-- cultural values and rights in front of a legal system that has traditionally mistreated and mistrusted indigenous peoples. In the video entitled "Recovery of the Autonomous Presidency of San Andres Sacamch'en" (1999) an indigenous narrator accuses the government of invasion. On the 6th of April of 1999 public security forces had taken over the municipality of San Andres, which had previously proclaimed its autonomy following the Zapatista re-territorialization of the area. The running political party PRI had also set a mayor of its affiliation in order to bring an institutionally imposed order to the village. The video shows how people from different municipalities around San Andres peacefully protested, and massively took over the area the following day. Faced by cameras rather than weapons, the military forces felt unsure about a violent display and left the village, allowing the re-occupation of San Andres by its native population. Despite its technical problems -in terms of irregular sound and image-- this video serves the purpose of historical documentation and supports social action. Its homemade quality is also very appealing in making the audience feel the dramatic tensions of the reality we see. The camera moves into the village with the indigenous protesters and runs among them in the moments of confusion, both occupying a real social space in terms of its physical position and also helping them reinforce the political and social space they are trying to open within the nation for the indigenous communities.
The walking march they organized last year, which ended up with the comandantes speaking at the Mexican congress, was also socially effective, even though the communities were, once again, deceived by the Mexican government who approved a law that did not incorporate major changes in the situation of the indigenous groups. Proof of their appealing campaign was the fact that most Mexican TV stations did not dare broadcast the Zapatista speeches at the Zócalo that March of 2001, when they had set a solidarity concert for peace on primetime, just a few weeks before. Because the Zapatistas use video or the internet they are also called Postmodern, as if they had not been adapting "Western" tools (which Bonfil Batalla calls "universal") for the last 500 years, without losing their identity, an identity that has never been fixed except under Western eyes. Contrary to the demonizing procedures that the status quo used to deploy in order to turn society against so-called subversive groups, we find now that the Postmodern labelling is, hence, the new strategy of Empire to undermine legitimate claims of social justice and recognition of dignity for the Other. Rebels are no longer demons, but Postmodern vacuums. From demonization to infantilization, the aim is still the same: blatant oblivion.
As we have already pointed out, another of the strategies used by the Zapatistas is their conscious indefinition. They fall under the category of semantic nomads, precisely in order not to fall under any recognizable category proclaimed by the neoliberal system. As Marcos says: "El zapatismo no es una nueva ideología política o un refrito de viejas ideologías. El zapatismo no es, no existe. Sólo sirve, como sirven los puentes, para cruzar de un lado a otro. Por tanto, en el zapatismo caben todos los que quieran cruzar de uno a otro lado" (Vázquez Montalbán, 371). Their semantic nomadism can be related to the practice of transmotion that, according to Native American author Gerald Vizenor, is intrinsically associated to survivance, and which can be defined as the ability to move between different territories, the ambiguity of not constituting a fixed category, even though their political position is very clear.
Thus, in relation to their association with previously failed "revolutions" Marcos explains: "Son intentos de catalogar que una y otra vez entran en quiebra. Porque somos muy escurridizos. Somos tan escurridizos que no nos podemos explicar ni nosotros mismos. Entre otras cosas, fundamentalmente, porque somos un movimiento, nos estamos moviendo(…). Nosotros no fijamos la línea hacia la que avanzar. Vamos construyendo esa línea." ( In Vázquez Montalban, 147). At the same time that they are vague as an ideological movement that does not want to be contained within previous political structures, but which has a very clear socio-political agenda, they often come as who they are, with names and real presences behind their masks. In his speech of the 11th of March at the Zócalo last year, Marcos underlined that it is the indigenous communities with their five hundred years of fight and that should be on that stage. And as much as they are a mirror of specific problems, they are also what Marcos calls a Prisma, a prism, a crystal ball (and not a disco ball as the media constantly implies) that sends their message to other communities across the globe, and where similarly oppressed movements in the Americas can see themselves reflected.
Moreover, they use modern forms of communication like video or Internet without renouncing to their traditional forms. The stories written by Marcos and the Zapatistas, their addressing everyone in public speeches all over Chiapas, and in their marching north, to other indigenous communities of Mexico, they are maintaining forms that originate in indigenous oral traditions. Marcos's stories are a crosscultural storytelling that mixes Mayan gods with rock and roll or Don Quixote. The didactic stories of the scarbat Durito or old Antonio also work as an "index locorum," a redistribution of cultural and ultimately socio-political space.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau identifies two types of spatial discourses. On the one hand, we find the polemologic space, "a socio-economic space, organized by an immemorial struggle between 'the powerful' and 'the poor' presented itself as the field of constant victories by the rich and the police" (16). According to him, in this space the rich and strong man always wins, because he is able to manipulate the "network of innumerable conflicts covered up with words" (16). On the other hand, de Certeau describes "the utopian space," which can be reappropriated by anybody, by means of his/her daily practices, such as walking, cooking and, specially, the telling of stories. Songs, poems, proverbs and indeed stories and myths create "another space, which coexists with that of an experience deprived of illusions" (17), but a space that can be turned into a "song of resistance"(18). Stories are, for de Certeau, "spatial trajectories" (115), which lead our minds to other spaces without physical movement. However, they do not leave us in utopian worlds but bring us back to reality with new strategies and ideas. Stories become crucial, as well, through their "foundational function." They legitimate spaces, they go "ahead of social practices in order to open a field for them" (125). Moreover, stories function as bridges that relate spaces and peoples. They are nexus between familiar and unknown worlds. Marcos's stories serve the purpose of being such nexus, carrying us to "utopian spaces" that look uncannily similar to our world and which, therefore, confront us with our realities. Through their intertextuality, the stories/letters/songs manage to appeal to different civil groups, within and even outside from Mexico. Feliciano Sántiz Pérez, the indigenous editor of the video "Mujeres Unidas", a 16mm video in Tzeltal made by indigenous videomakers, which features the daily activities of a group of women that have formed a collective, explains that their videos are also part of the resistance: "the video (is) made so that other communities in this and other regions can watch it, and learn to organize themselves." Videos are therefore used to communicate among the villages as well, to share harvesting methods, cultural practices, ways of economic autonomy and political resistance. Moreover, with their stories and political activism, with their walking and telling the Zapatistas have also managed to establish a further alliance with Mexican civil society
In his "Siete piezas sueltas del rompecabezas mundial," Subcomandante Marcos mentions the "resistance bags," the "bolsas de resistencia" against neoliberalism and globalization that are appearing all over the world. He explains: "Al mismo tiempo que el neoliberalismo lleva adelante su guerra mundial, en todo el planeta se van formando grupos de inconformes, núcleos de rebeldes. El imperio de las bolsas financieras enfrenta la rebeldía de las bolsas de resistencia" (262). These "bolsas" are multiplying themselves; "(c)ada una de ellas tiene su propia historia, sus diferencias, sus igualdades, sus demandas, sus luchas, sus logros. Si la humanidad tiene todavía esperanzas de supervivencia, de ser mejor, esas esperanzas están en las bolsas que forman los excluídos, los sobrantes, los desechables" (265). Against Hardt and Negri's notion that struggles have become paradoxically incommunicable in the age of communications (54), the Zapatistas prove to be a movement that has managed to get publicity all over the world. They have reappropriated the old tradition of epistolary art, through their constant letters addressed to different world celebrities and presidents, and even to the Civil Society, that they call "señora." Moreover, they have learned to use Internet, video and other forms of media to communicate with other "bolsas de resistencia" in the world. In his closing speech at the First Intercontinental Encounter for the Humanity and Against Neoliberalism read by Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas declared that they "will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity." This network "recognizing differences and acknowledging similarites, will search to find itself with other resistances around the world." Like Hardt and Negri's Empire, which has no center, the Zapatistas proposal for a counter-Empire has "not an organizing structure; it doesn't have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies." The people are the network.
Thus, the Zapatistas are confronting Empire with many of its same weapons: self-fashioning structures -marketing--, ambiguity -the confusions created by the fact that nobody knows exactly what globalization means-and the reinvention of stories, new fictions and videos of their own that contradict "official" versions of reality and History. The Zapatistas have been able to reinvent their own traditions and actively fight adverse socio-political circumstances. They have opened up a new "locus of utterance", a new space where they can empower their identities, reinvigorate their own cultures, reclaim their territories and transcend their local reality to inspire people all over the world.

"The story now belongs to you too, and much as pollen on the legs of a butterfly is nourishment carried by the butterfly from one flowering to another, this is an ongoing prayer for strength for us all."
(Joy Harjo, The Woman who Fell from the Sky)


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1. I would like to associate the economic paradigm of neoliberalism to the global politico-economic space that Hardt and Negri have called Empire, but which is most familiar to us under the widely spread terms globalization, or the global order. According to Robert McChesney, neoliberalism "refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit" (in Chomsky, 7). Defenders of neoliberalism claim that it ultimately benefits everyone, and also that, after all, we should capitulate to it, for there is no other alternative, once the conservative discourses of the post-Cold War period have disabled any kind of "commonsensical" proposal from the Left. The only common sense, it is entailed, becomes the happy marriage of the consumers with the free market scheme. After the events of September 11th, any notion of resistance to the market seems to have been wiped out even more. Both Mayor Giulianni and President Bush's first responses and recommendations to overcome trauma and return to some distinctive normality in everyday life patterns was an encouragement to go out and shop, consume.


2. Indeed such flows and transnational networks can also become extremely dangerous formations as in the case of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, but still international alliances such as those supported by the Zapatistas should not be discredited on the mere base of their indefinition, for they are crucial to the development of counter-globalization groups all over the globe, most of which are peaceful, and seekers of "democratic" justice.

3. For an analysis of the figure of Marcos according to Foucault's notion of the "author-function" see José Rabasa, "Of Zapatismo: Reflections of the Folkloric and the Impossible in a Subaltern Insurrection."

4. The critic José Rabasa also underlines that the Zapatista movement "should not be reduced to a postmodern phenomenon: Zapatismo is and is not (post) modern; (…) Subaltern movements should be seen as cultural forms where the modern and nonmodern are compatible."