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What We Can Learn from the Zapatista Rebellion on the 25th Anniversary of their uprising

January 1, 2019

Twenty Five years ago, the world became aware of a new resistance movement known as the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), or simply the Zapatistas.

In the southern most state of Mexico, the world became aware of the Zapatistas, as they interrupted the New Year’s celebration in the city of San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas. San Cristobal is a tourist city, but the EZLN came to destroy government records that falsely claimed that non-indigenous people controlled the land in a area that was made up of mostly indigenous people.

On that fateful night, on the eve of the beginning of 1994, the EZLN came out of the shadows to declare that they would not allow the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) be their death sentence.

Instead, the Zapatistas made their presence known to the Mexican government and to the world, with a bold declaration from the Lacandon jungle that they would fight this idea of globalization.

The EZLN stated early on in their struggle:

“Silence is what the powerful offer our pain in order to make us small. When we are silenced we remain very much alone. Speaking heals the pain. Speaking, we accompany one another.”

I have been grateful to have been part of international solidarity work in Chiapas, specifically in the Zapatista communities on three separate occasions – 1997, 1998 and 2001. In addition, I have read a great deal about their movement and learned from their struggle, as the EZLN has a great deal to teach us about our own struggles for liberation. As they stated during the First Intergalactic Encuentro in Chiapas in 1995, “we need to globalize the resistance” and “you all need to be the Zapatistas in your own community.”

9 things we can learn from the Zapatistas

  • While we can be in solidarity with other movements around the world, we need to be the resistance in our own communities. This statement is particularly true in the US, since US imperialism touches virtually every corner of the world. We have to be the resistance in OUR community and make the connections and the links between global oppression and the oppression in our own communities. Resisting oppression in our own community, therefore, requires that we identify and name the systems, organizations and members of the capitalist class, which were perpetrating oppression right here in Grand Rapids.
  • Mandar Obedeciendo – Lead by Obeying. The armed insurgency known as the EZLN is not a traditional insurgent movement, where the strategy and tactics are developed by political and military leaders. For the Zapatistas, they take their orders directly from the communities that make up Chiapas. One of the first things they did even before the January 1, 1994 uprising began, was to construct these open air assemblies, where people could meet, discuss and plan. The EZLN would visit these places in every community and ask, “What do you want us to do?” Such a notion of leadership is so foreign to how politics functions in the US. The type of leadership that we practice in the US, especially political leadership is very much top-down, where people are vetted by the political/capitalist class to make sure that their interests are the priority. This type of leadership even permeates movement politics at times, but if we are serious about organizing to confront systemic oppression, then we need to adopt a position of leadership that is to follow the will of those most affect, most marginalized and those who’s voices have been most suppressed.
  • We do not seek to take power, but to create spaces for civil society to be empowered. Another powerful lesson from the Zapatistas is the idea that real power doesn’t come from above or from those who run things, rather real power is the belief that we all can have power with each other. The EZLN have never sought to take state power or overthrow the government. Their goal has been to provide political, economic, social and cultural space for civil society to create the kind of power that is contrary to power over others, instead a power that is with others. Taking power, whether that is by force or through elections is still power that is dictated from above. In our work and our movements, we must never seek to take power that is from above, but to create spaces where people can have power with each other, instead of relying on the state to take care of them.
  • Comunidades Autonomo o caracoles. The EZLN believes that their communities should be autonomous – politically, economically, social and culturally. Autonomy is what the Zapatistas have fought for from the beginning. Autonomy is not some ideological notion, rather it comes out of the lived experiences of oppression communities and tells them that no one can represent you other than yourselves. This is why the Zapatistas have told the Mexican government and the state of Chiapas that they do not want to be governed, but to govern themselves. The other major benefit of autonomy is that you are not beholden to anyone outside of your communities. This means that you are not beholden to political parties, to nationalism, to the capitalist class, to funders or any other entity which claims to represent you. The Zapatistas call their autonomous communities caracoles, which is Spanish for snails, because their notion of autonomy moves very slowly, but it is consistently faithful to the principles of being autonomous.
  • We, the zapatista children, think that our work as children is to play and to learn. During the time that I spent with the Zapatistas, it became very clear that despite the constant harassment from the Mexican military, they wanted their children grow up in a world where children could simply be children. This didn’t mean that children didn’t help with chores – cooking, cleaning, working in the garden or gathering firewood, but they spent most of their days simply being children. This meant that children played a great deal, in the woods, in the streams or anywhere in the communities. The EZLN say: “In our dream children are children and their work is to be children… I do not dream of the agrarian redistribution, of big mobilizations, of the fall of the government and elections and the victory of a left-wing party, or whatever. I dream of the children and I see them being children.”
  • We have the right to defend ourselves. Our world is contaminated will too much violence. Everywhere you turn violence is being perpetrated by systems of oppression against those who are the most marginal. White Supremacy does violence against communities of color. Patriarchy does violence against women, children, men and those who are gender non-conforming. Capitalism does violence against the majority of the worlds population and it commits violence against all other living beings and ecosystems. However, just because violence is the dominant social narrative, it doesn’t mean that people don’t have the right to defend themselves. I agree that most of how we organize ourselves should be done in a non-violent manner, but when non-violence becomes dogmatic and rigid, it ends up not only causing harm, but it limits our radical imagination to do things that allows us to defend and protect ourselves. The EZLN has arms, but has rarely used them. They believe in defending their communities, but they do not seek to attack systems of oppression militarily. The Zapatistas have used global awareness, global communication and the invitation to global solidarity as their primary weapons against state repression.
  • Use methods of communication as a tactic to create change. One thing the EZLN did in 1994 and ever since, has been to “get the word out” about their revolution. The Zapatistas, through the use of communiques and the internet, have made it a priority to globalize the resistance. Their idea of communicating to the rest of the world was to develop as much solidarity as possible so that the Mexican government could not easily isolate them and marginalize their struggle. The Zapatistas have done this so well that even the prestigious RAND Corporation did a study of how effective the EZLN has been in what they call, The Zapatista Social Netwar. The Zapatistas Social Netwar consists of three main objectives: 1) Make civil society the forefront of the attention; 2) Make information operations a key weapon, by demanding freedom of access and information; and 3) Make swarming a distinct objective. Swarming is where you overwhelm your opponent with information that they (governments and other systems of oppression) cannot keep up with or easily suppress. We have to be as creative with our means of communication and see it as a strategic objective. Too often we put out a lot of information, but with no strategic objective.
  • Preguntando caminamos – Asking we walk. This is one of the most important statements from the Zapatistas. Asking we walk is a statement of solidarity. It is saying that if you want to be with us, walk with us in our struggle, then you need to keep asking us what we need and not what you think we need. This is critical for those of us who carry a great deal of privilege in society, whether is is racial, gender or class privilege. If we are to be part of movements for social change, then we must embrace this idea……asking we walk. This is the real meaning of solidarity and is the opposite of the practice of white saviorism.
  • We need to develop movements of resistance that are beautiful and poetic. This may be the hardest for those of us accept or to understand, since we may not make it a priority, but there is a poetic beauty in the way that the Zapatistas communicate and just how they are in the world. Instead of me trying to explain this, let me suggest that you watch this short video that I shot during the 2001 New Year’s eve gathering in the Zapatista community of Oventic. This video was shot on the 7th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and is from my film, Reversing the Missionary Position: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time, which you can watch at this link

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