|By Anna Brígido
(Work in progress).
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
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
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)
-Aldama, Arturo. Disrupting Savagism in the Borderlands of Identity: Violence,
Resistance and Chicana/o, Native American and Mexican Immigrant Struggles
for Representation. DAI, Section A: 1997 Feb;57 no.8:3481
-Chomsky, Noam. Profit over People. Neoliberalism and Global Order. New
York, Toronto and London: Seven Stories Press, 1999.
-De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, Los Angeles
and London: University of California Press, 1984.
- De la Grange, Bertrand and Rico, Maite. Subcomandante Marcos. La genial
impostura. Madrid: El País-Aguilar, 1998.
-Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire. Cambridge, MA and London:
Harvard University Press, 2000.
-Harjo, Joy. The Woman Who Fell from the Sky. New York and London: W.
W. Norton & Company, 1994.
-La Jornada (periodical). Several issues, February and March, 2001. México.
-Marcos, Shadows of Tender Fury. The letters and Communiqués of
Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1995.
-Marcos. Desde las montañas del sureste mexicano. México
D.F.: Plaza & Janés, 1999.
-Montemayor, Carlos. Los pueblos indios de México hoy. México
D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2001.
-Rabasa, José. "Of Zapatismo: Reflections of the Folkloric
and the Impossible in a Subaltern Insurrection." Politics of Culture
in the Shadow of Capital. Ed. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd. Duke University
-Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking Press, 1977.
-Vázquez Montalbán, Manuel. Marcos: el señor de los
espejos. Madrid: El País-Aguilar, 1999.
-Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence
and Presence. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
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
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."