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Dancing with the Zapatistas

Diana Taylor, Lorie Novak, Authors

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La Frontera Zapatista

In 1994, thousands of indigenous people, burdened by the perceived invisibility of their lives and rights, decided to cover their faces so that the world would finally see them. They succeeded. The armed insurrection shocked the world with its sheer force and creativity—The New York Times considered the simple series of emails announcing the uprising to be the first cybernetic political action—and continues to generate surprising phenomena decades after its inception. 

Years of negotiations and of a political chess game played spectacularly by the masked commanders have allowed for the survival and consolidation of a populist democracy and government that functions as a state within a state, despite a permanent, passive war, in which persecutions, disappearances, and abuse of all sorts dictate the status quo.

The use of art and creativity is inherent to the Zapatistas' politics of resistance: it seems to have naturally flowed through its veins ever since the beginning of the movement. There is poetry engrained in a pristine dictionary of terms and concepts; autonomous community settlements are called caracoles (literally, snail shells), and encuentros intergalácticos (intergalactic gatherings) have long been a part of Zapatista organizing. The poetry symbolically accompanies the vanguardist political concepts and forms of direct democracy put in place by the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Councils of Good Government), true schools of leaders and rulers in which women, men, and even adolescents share an equal role.

In the same manner, visual literacy is utilized to its full potential. As sons and daughters of the Mayans, who wrote in pictograms, the Zapatistas are immersed in a reality where an amalgamation of indigenous languages is favored over the castilla or Spanish that is spoken with difficulty (if at all). The transmission of political discourse and edification operates in a universe of images in the form of video, photography, and, above all, murals.

In Chiapas, and particularly in the San Cristóbal de las Casas area, this situation generates a patent frontier phenomenon. In addition to the police and federal military agents, EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation) guards with handkerchiefs and ski masks control passports, presiding over access to autonomous areas.

It’s interesting to contemplate the commercial and touristic phenomena surrounding Zapatismo and its icons using concepts put forth by Claudio Lomnitz (who believes that all frontiers generate productive activity and are thus an improvement of the economy). It’s almost impossible to find a fair where small dolls of Subcomandante Marcos or Comandante Ramona are not sold. Also omnipresent are the red bandanas, t-shirts with slogans, and drawings, all inspired by the movement, as well as magazines and key rings from which the eyes of the “Sup” (Marcos) watch intently.

Like judo, the martial art in which the challenge consists of using an opponent’s strength in one’s favor, the Zapatistas use the impulse of contemporary capitalism (where money rules and all is banal) to generate resources and political propaganda in an efficient manner. Maybe the best example of this concept is the gift shop next to the security barrier at the entrance of the Oventic caracol, where one can purchase a ski mask or a CD packed with Marcos’ speeches. Or “Tierra Adentro,” a shopping center located on the Real de Guadalupe boulevard in the very center of San Cristóbal, where individual members of the movement and cooperatives of the Zapatista autonomous areas sell their products, collecting funds for the survival of the cause and its participants. It’s interesting to recall that the date chosen for the original uprising was the same date that the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (NAFTA) came into effect—in other words, none of this is coincidence or mere whim on the part of the Zapatistas.

Only with the knowledge of such creatively infused resistance is it possible to understand the levels of support that Zapatismo maintains, even as the indigenous population continues to be culturally, socially, and economically exploited by NAFTA; proof of this are the more than 15,000 people who, universally wearing masks, populated the zócalo of San Cristóbal (representing more than 10% of its population) on the “National March for Peace” on 7 May 2011, thus enacting a great display of political art accompanied by resistance.

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