Nosotros: An Interview with a Zapatista
Diana Taylor and Jacques Servin
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, August 2013
Transcribed and translated by Gabriel Burgazzi Rodriguez and Oscar Lozano Pérez
In August 2013, a mestizo member of the Zapatista movement agreed to meet with us in response to several requests we had sent him by means of a common friend. He was reluctant in part because Zapatistas do not speak for others, and he did not want his words to be taken as "speaking for" or "on behalf of" the Zapatistas. After getting to know us he agreed to let us audiotape our conversation with him about how Mayan words reflect the worldview that has nourished part of the Zapatista philosophy. We agreed not to identify him.
Diana Taylor: We wanted to ask you about the Mayan worldview and how to approach each other through the words that are made for that way of thinking.
Jacques Servin: Yes, we were talking about the ch'ulel...
Z: Yes, “ch'ulel, kolabatik, antsetik, Lekil kuxlejal, Ich’el ta muk’ baktun... Lekil kuxlejal:" dignified and full life. "Ich’el ta muk’:" the respect and recognition of the other’s greatness. Respect for the other person, for their greatness. Yes, exactly. As we were talking about, the Mayan worldview is already very well known in that sense, and being there [in the Zapatista caracol, or autonomous municipality] for some years, it is the first thing that grabs your attention. You start to confront the Mayan worldview from our westernized worldview, and the first thing that you start to learn, and to unlearn, of course, is: what is the meaning of "us"? For example, in Tzotzil and Tzeltal things themselves have a sense of us. There is a plurality in things, and even more in people. The "I" is almost never used, while "us" or "we" are much more common. And when you hear the language being spoken—even if you don’t know the language—you can repeatedly hear the syllable -ik; "kolabalik, antseltik, ik, ik," just as [Carlos] Lenkersdorf tells us. They are the plurals; “-ik” is the plural. In fact, you were in Oventic [also spelled Oventik], which is the plural form of “oven,” which is a wild fruit, a kind of smaller avocado that you eat with the skin and everything. That fruit in Tzotzil is "oven." The place of those fruits, of those "ovens," is literally Oventic. So this plural aspect is fundamental in the Mayan worldview, which is based on the community, and an important emphasis placed on the “us.” This “us,” we need to clarify, is not like the Spanish “us,” because we use “us” in Spanish in an indeterminate manner, as a simple plural, nothing else. Their “us,” however, is both an inclusive and an exclusive “us.” There is an “us” that includes us all in this world, and there is the internal “us,” for the community and its way of life, which is different from other “us.” Therefore, as an example, if we are in an assembly, a big assembly, of various communities, the representative of a community has to distinguish, to be able to tell all of “us” in the assembly [inclusive]: not only the “us” he represents [exclusive], but all the other “us,” from his or her “us,” whatever they think. So, it becomes a dialogue between “us,” between groups, a dynamic interaction between exclusive and inclusive “us.”
Something else that this implies is that, to be able to differentiate the exclusive "us," the family’s or the community’s, this has to be constituted by an ensemble of people that guard their singularity very strongly. That’s where the principle of Ich’el ta muk’ comes in, when we recognize the greatness of the other, because it is then that I am respecting their singularity; and, at the same time, in this respect for the other’s greatness, I am enlarging my heart. Then, reciprocally, the other also respects my greatness, because I respect his or hers. There is an interaction where the other is the one who constitutes me, and vice versa. If this is not understood in this particular way, it could be interpreted as an identity loss. But I would say it is more of a winning of identity, because in the modern western "me" that we defend so much, this individual "me" as a supposed warranty for identity, we are actually losing our identity. We face a continuous threat to being ourselves, to following patterns that deny ourselves. Therefore, that individuality is actually not a warranty of identity, or it has never been so far. However, amongst the indigenous Mayan people, the necessity of the other’s singularity is included in that reciprocity that is implied in the Ich’el ta muk’, in the respect to the other. In other words, saying: “Diana, that is, Diana in her greatness." Because what is more singular than that? There is no other Diana, and Diana can’t be repeated, she can’t follow the same pattern as others. There is a singular guaranteed identity that finds its origins in the Ich’el ta muk’, the respect. So, as I was saying, this "us’," whose expression is precisely the community, is constituted by singularities. A community is an ensemble of singularities. A community is an ensemble of diversity.
JS: And are languages inherent in that?
Z: Yes, it is there that it is expressed, right? Language is permanently expressing this relationship to diversity.
DT: But if there isn’t an "I," how do you reflect this singularity?
Z: That is, the "I" is a collective "I". But when we talk about the collective "I," we put interaction as a condition. All the elements of an interaction are the singularities, the personalities. Then, the mode of differentiation exists only in the interaction, obviously. On the other hand, in the figure of the individual and western "I," these things are not clear, and the "I" can even have a tendency to deny the "us" to assert itself, which is how all power repressions appear – all the possible abuses in that concentration of the "I" that signifies the denial of others. Of course, in psychology it is recognized that this is not healthy, but always taking as a premise the constitution of a self-asserted "I." However, what we want to express, a healthy "I," would be the "I" that is constituted with the other, whose interaction is based in the respect for that other’s greatness that at the same time constitutes me and whose interdependence is self-asserted. In psychology, this kind of interaction is treated almost as an illness that must be cured, while what we assert is the interaction that Lenkersdorf calls "intersubjective."
JS: Is that Mayan thought or Zapatista thought?
Z: Well, it is Zapatista thought in as much as they are Mayan indigenous people; that is, the Mayan thought being recuperated by the Zapatistas in their practice. Zapatismo has that strength, that powerful and profound characteristic of having a historical background. It has a set of values, of cultural principles that constitute their singularity as Mayan people coming from centuries ago, who have been resisting all along. But, of course, that’s not a guarantee it will stay like this forever, right? Now this thought is being threatened, sometimes wounded to death, but it fights and keeps being reborn...
Zapatismo is the movement that asserts this vitality, this validity of Mayan thought by updating it. Many people who study Mayan worldviews always refer to them as an exterior and past thing. Zapatismo, however, is rooted in that, but makes it present, which means recreating it, but also transforming it. For example, Oventic is one hour away from San Cristóbal, and there is a relationship with Oventic and the urban culture, with that halfway modernity that we have here in Latin America. The Zapatista people have contact with that urbanity, and they have the ability to set their place there; not to deny it, but to set their place. Setting their place means taking whatever is useful for them to be vitalized: not simply participating in the urbanity and that’s it. Not to be alienated, or to enter a process of a new form of alienation, but to appropriate for themselves the elements that allows them to be fed to live. To be vitalized. That is the wonder of Zapatismo, that which sustains it—all the things that have been shown until now, and many others, many others. In fact, I don’t know if you are familiar with the principles that first defined Zapatismo and the values of a predominantly Mayan movement, which are extracted from the communal praxis. There are seven principles, which are, if I can remember them [laughter]: Going up, not down. Building, not destroying. Serving, not serving oneself. Proposing, not imposing. Convincing or persuading, not defeating. Representing, not supplanting, not substituting. And this other one, which needs to be properly understood: Obeying, not commanding. In the sense that it is necessary to command through obeying, because authority must obey; it can’t only command. These are the seven principles that Zapatismo has translated in many senses.
In the Mayan stories, these seven principles are not literally expressed like this, not in Tzotzil nor in Tzeltal. But these people practice them, and then Zapatismo recognizes them, and it sees the necessity to enunciate them in Spanish and to communicate them. If you examine these concepts, you will see that they are interdependent, they are like the definition of what a community is. That is, a community, to be able to exist as such, and concretely indigenous communities, they obviously need to maintain these principles or otherwise the community is debilitated. There are no perfect communities, as we know that communities are not safe—they are threatened, penetrated by different systems of power. This is not typically pure, but it’s where Zapatismo finds what to hold onto, to be able to assert itself, to generate combat while knowing that, of course, it isn’t easy. They are the principles of the community.
An authority in a community is, really, the representative that the community has chosen in an assembly. In general agreement, he has been told: “you’ll say this, you’ll bring up these issues, or you’re going to do this task. We can’t all go, so you go in our representation: you are the authority.” And he will do it, but always being very strict in accomplishing this. If there is a situation that is outside of the field he has been assigned, the way you can immediately recognize a good authority is when he or she says, “Oh, well, then I’ll ask them,” or “I have to consult the others about this.” If an authority tells you this, you say: “look, this is a good community authority.” The response of the politicians of our system is quite different in that they start negotiating or improvising arbitrary solutions, or I don’t know what. They make decisions unilaterally, and people don’t even notice; in our political system, in Mexico, it works like this. Here, in the community, it doesn’t. If they did that, they would be taking personal benefit out of it, individualizing themselves and, by that, hurting the community.
JS: In this formidable vision, is there a vision for all of Mexico? Because all of Mexico has immense problems right now, doesn’t it? And Zapatismo has a clear vision of how to live here; but is it also for Mexico or for the rest of the world?
Z: Yes. Well, the Zapatista government does not attempt, by these same principles, to impose or to speak for others. They only share and communicate their experience. And from their experience, of course, come the escuelitas, which try to explain what is liberty for the Zapatista people, how to wake up, how to motivate, how to instill unrest, how to incite. Further than that, Zapatismo doesn’t go in, it has never tried to. Because of that, as we say, the initiatives that Zapatistas have taken since the National Democratic Convention in 1994 have always been proposals to move a Mexico that was asleep, or passive, or unable to find itself, whatever reason for which it was necessary to shake – and Zapatismo comes and shakes it up. But under no circumstance does it try to command them. The Subcomandante Marcos has explicitly said that “we don’t want to Zapaticize; it is not about Zapaticizing, about commanding, not at all.” He says that the moment that happens we are dead.
JS: Is it because of that that it is unthinkable to support any politician, candidate, or party?
Z: Of course, that is the nature that comes from the Mayan worldview, because from that historical background the people have been through a path, a process, a trajectory. Now, in Latin America, they have proposals that have been awakening around the last 20 years. I would say they’ve been there forever, but mostly in the last 20 years all these people that haven’t existed with this political system have become more visible to us. For me, it is common sense to respect this process, which comes from a very long path and has different proposals. It would be terrible if those who have traced this path so deeply in our history and who have come from far away suddenly had to be accommodated in a regime of political participation that would annul them, that would cancel them. They have always resisted all kinds of imposition, like the still-present colonialism, as Pablo Gonzales Casanova says: the internal colonialism. So, being confronted with this, their own way of defending themselves is by updating this historical background that they already have, and it is incredible. The Ich’el ta muk’, in the case of these people, they don’t use it to deny others—it is not in order to impose, but in order for them to be respected in the sense that they don’t have anything to do with the current political system in Mexico. This Mexican political system is not the “otherness;” it is not based on the greatness of the other. Similarly, in this path they have been through, the people have learned to identify what is the domination system that threatens them, that still threatens them. They know how to identify them already: before they called them neoliberalists or neoliberals, and now capitalists, clearly. They are, therefore, anticapitalists. And we have to make it clear that in this idea of the "other," it’s not simply all the others, like the capitalists that are not part of our otherness. They are not our "other." When we talk about our "others," we are talking from the world of the below, in the sense that it is an antagonistic world to the system of capitalist power; the below not sociologically, but antagonistically. For example, Noam Chomsky, sociologically, is a middle-high class man, but that’s not what we are referring to. The point is that, from his perspective, from his positions or from his practices, he is an antagonist to the system. The below is not defined from the perspective that Chomsky has this many thousands of dollars a month, and I don’t know what else. The below is defined from the perspective that he has an antagonistic position to capitalism.
DT: So, the principle of “going down, not up” refers to staying in that antagonism; that is, not being absorbed.
Z: Exactly. I mean, in the world that we are trying to build, a world where many other worlds are possible, the tendency is for there not to be some people over others. And that works as a movement, a tendency in the sense that, obviously, these things are typically not pure, they are not black and white, right? But the tendency is always to maintain a harmony, knowing that there are always disharmonies, but that those disharmonies shouldn’t be cultivated or fed. It is a very long process, but yes, it is exactly this.
DT: You said that we had only talked about one of the points in Mayan worldview. What would be the other important points, the ones you would consider fundamental, in this thought?
Z: Well, what we talked about last week, for example: everything has its ch'ulel.
DT: Could you explain to me again what the ch'ulel is, in order to understand it properly?
Z: Yes. There’s the trap of translation, of course. The ways people translate this concept tend to be mystical or religious: some people use it as "soul," but the concept of soul comes directly from a Catholic culture, and that is where the meaning of souls or spirits or even consciousness comes from. But let’s say ch'ulel refers to the life that everything has. It is that presence that constitutes and completes all the things that exist in this universe, and for that same reason, they are important, they have a greatness to them. Because they constitute this universe, they are part of us—we can’t deny it. That is the ch'ulel. Some people, in the European tradition, find this concept similar to Baruch Spinoza’s. We were talking about this, too, right? About everything being God. In pantheism, Spinoza proposes himself that everything is God. Saying it like this is a bit of a simplification on my part, but I think it is useful. By saying that everything is God, God can’t be found in transcendence, but one recognizes that everything has this divinity. Therefore, we are always amongst divinities; we are all divine, let’s say, and we can appreciate each other from that. Of course, Spinoza wasn’t really talking about God. He was talking more about a concept like the one the Mayans thought of, but without knowing it—like God, but closer, a divinity of the everyday world, of the universe. Spinoza didn’t have the language to be able to say it like this, mostly because of the Inquisition, which obliged him to write in theological terms, and I don’t know what. But the subject can also be associated to the references to Lenkersdorf in that everything is a subject. Everything is a subject.
JS: Corn, too, for example?
Z: Corn, of course. We are the men and women of corn. Therefore, corn is even constituted, symbolically, as an expression of the ch'ulel we all identify with.
JS: And you would say that the technology, not only Monsanto's GMOs [genetically modified organisms], but also the immense North American crops, gringa of corn, means disrespecting the ch'ulel?
Z: It is hurting the ch'ulel. It is destroying the ch'ulel.
DT: What happens in a world without ch'ulel?
Z: Well, that would be the worst, wouldn’t it? It’s the same for us now, when we are already feeling right now how capitalism is leading us to the limits of our coexistence with the planet. The destruction is terrible. So, it’s like these subjects grab our attention much more. We start getting close to them because we feel them in our own flesh. They are already visible. And that is precisely what, when we imagine this world—if capitalism persists or a new system of domination arrives—makes us ask ourselves: what will become of us in 50 years? What we imagine, in this sense, is terrible: without ch'ulel, which basically means like being dead. In a way, in the most recent Zapatista communiqués there are references—and this is me interpreting them—or certain warnings in the figures of zombies. Like we are starting to become zombies. The way that the systems of control operate, the media, everything, turns us almost into zombies. Let’s say that is a warning that the world might end up like that. In some spaces, it is already like this, but, well, there’s still hope that we are not all like this.
JS: If we are able to resist.
Z: Of course. In a world of zombies, everything is dead and stuff, right?
DT: We have already surpassed George Orwell so much, that...
Z: And we can see that it is a very real possibility, isn’t it?
DT: No, I think that already...
Z: We have already passed it.
DT: Yes, we are even beyond that, beyond that vision that was so scary to us.
Z: Well, so it is.
JS: I was talking today about this subject with an archeologist who said that we already passed the 13th baktun.
Z: Oh, yes. The year count, time count, yes.
JS: Yes, the baktun cycle, the 13th. And that is the end of the men and women of corn, according to the Mayans. This baktun was the baktun of the people of corn, and it already finished. He said: “yes, it finished. It was the coup de grace.”
Z: The coup de grace.
JS: It’s the thing about Monsanto with GMOs, that’s what he said. But with an absolute conclusiveness and pessimism. I asked him, “And what can we do?” And he said, “laugh,” and he laughed.
DT: He started laughing.
JS: Yes, he started laughing.
DT: And so what follows if that cycle already finished?
JS: I don’t know.
DT: No one knows what comes next.
JS: Do Mayans today think this way? What about the Zapatistas?
Z: Yes, well, all this has been more promoted by the “academics.” Yes, it is a subject that is lived by the Mayans themselves, as they have a way of equaling their memory, their knowledge, the year count, and I don’t know what. Mostly old people. But it isn’t literally like this that the Mayan time has been managed. Mayans have a symbolic language. Their time counts, actually, don’t have the exact date corresponding to the Gregorian calendar, but they do have a symbolic "date," to say it in a way. Finally, we are entering a terrible phase, but the way that the people live it is through the ethics of dignity. That is, more than worrying about what already finished, embedded in dignity is the fact that, despite the destructive advance of the system of domination, they never stop fighting. And that does not refer to simply fighting for a movement, almost for no reason, but fighting because there is something alive, some kind of hope, obviously. Then the thought of never giving up their fight is what dignifies it: it forces us to do what we have to as sons and daughters of the earth—that is, even dying, if it is necessary, because what ultimately gives us meaning is being part of this earth, of this nature. For example, to be able to understand, in our code we would say that being part of a threatened, harassed, or repressed family, any member of the family has the right to say, “Well, it’s quite complicated, but there is no other option, and I must keep defending my family, and I will carry on. I won’t stop.” They feel they are part of something, and that is a very powerful cause. Then, a consequence of being daughters and sons of the earth is that they can’t abandon it, right? It’s a profound ethic, this one, but it differs from some “new age” esoteric or even mystical readings that have been done about this "being sons and daughters of the earth." In the case of the people, it is something very profound—and not only the Mayan people. But in the Mayan people you can find this powerful idea: “The powerful have upset the balance of this world; we must reset it. Our world, our mother earth, has been heart, and because we are its daughters and sons, how are we supposed to simply stay with our arms crossed?" The Mayan people, organized through Zapatismo, have the trust that, someday, the result of their work will flourish. That’s the hope, which is not a hope of the kind where you cross your arms and you say, “I have hope.” Theirs is the hope of trusting what they do, what they are building. When seeing this, one says, “Look, at the disproportion they are fighting in technological terms, the threats, the wars, the military technology, so powerful that the indigenous people’s way of defending themselves seems ridiculous.” But they know what they are doing, they know how to do it for the long run, and that is what they trust. Obviously, that strengthens them.
DT: And in terms of what happens to other people originating in the territories, especially in the United States and in Canada, where there is a lot of alcohol consumption, a lot of desperation, many suicide cases, et cetera... Are those problems that you also face here in the Zapatista world, or is that something that is more common in other Mayan people? Or, how can we think of all of this?
Z: Like the experience that the people in the United States had, you mean.
DT: I mean that, among some Mayan people, there is a lot of alcohol abuse, a lot of domestic violence, et cetera, but when we went to Oventic, we saw that they didn’t allow alcohol, that people weren’t allowed to bring that. Then is it a way of managing the situation through limiting or eliminating alcohol, or how does it work?
Z: Well, the people would say that alcoholization is a loss of ch'ulel, right? Or that they are losing their ch'ulel, and you can clearly tell it’s happening in the non-Zapatista places where there is alcohol. Power uses the resource of alcohol to the point where people lose everything. And there, the ch'ulel is the first thing you lose. Why? Because just as you said about corn, we have to develop a whole explanation about it. GMOs reveal the capitalist regime’s circuit, which has finally made a business out of all of this, in which what is privileged is the profitability and nothing else. Then that is exactly what capitalism does by merchandising everything, even relationships. Capitalism objectifies: that is, it eliminates the ch'ulel of things. It "thingifies."
JS: And about alcohol, was this the Zapatistas' decision at some concrete point?
Z: It was the Zapatista women’s decision.
JS: The women decided not to participate in this alcohol-capitalism.
Z: Yes, but it wasn’t mainly because of this motive in those times. When they made the decision, they thought, "Let’s organize ourselves to make steps to defend our rights." The women said, “We have a series of problems in our households.” That is, like saying, “Oh, it’s really beautiful to be against these things like the injustice and the violence that they do to our people, but look in your own house.” Then the women advocated for that to be included in the women’s revolutionary law.
JS: And so alcohol is prohibited in the caracoles or in...?
Z: In all the Zapatista bases, of course.
JS: If you want to call yourself Zapatista, you can’t have alcohol?
Z: Well, it’s not because of moralizing abstention. It’s mostly about the fact that alcohol is hazardous: it is a cause of violence, and therefore it is something that unbalances the communal relationships, and it is prohibited in this sense. For example, abusing a woman is associated with alcohol, or should be associated in our minds, because the experience has been like this. So, alcohol has these implications. And therefore it is prohibited—and legitimately prohibited, right? Because there are a series of consequences: not only the violence to women and children, but also the family suffers other kinds of situations, just as the community.
DT: But if someone wants to drink a beer, can they?
Z: In the communities, inside the communities, it is not allowed. And a Zapatista community’s base is not going to drink either. Not because of moralism, but because women put up the Women's Revolutionary Law.
DT: And what does the law say? Apart from...
Z: One of the biggest promoters of the law, before 94, was precisely Comandante Ramona, who passed away. And it was in the assemblies that the women fought with their comrades, because the comrades, although they finally accepted, said, “Yes, yes, well, we understand that this is very important, but for afterwards. Now the most urgent thing is this..." And woman refused: “There is no afterwards; it is now,” like Subcomandante Marcos reveals. Then was the moment when women were able to put forth the Women’s Revolutionary Law. This women’s law establishes, among other things, the right to participate in all jobs at all levels. Even at the military level, having military ranks, being authorities—participating in all the jobs. Imagine, they achieved this when the conditions were completely against them. It’s what we were talking about the other day: that in the communities, the woman walks behind the man. The non-Zapatista woman even sees how much being a woman means having no authority, as outside Zapatismo, there are no indigenous women authorities. They say, “They won’t respect her, if they see a woman. And if a man goes to an authority to expose his problem and sees a woman, he feels it doesn’t work.” Then, in Zapatismo, it’s the other way around. Even men recognize that it is difficult to get used to the new idea, but as Zapatistas, they recognize it, and they are in the process of transforming themselves, because he is recognizing it and assuming it. And the woman who is doing the tasks inside the house, with her triple job, doesn’t try to exclude her husband, but to educate him. Then, the women’s fight, in this sense, is not only for their right to participate, or the right to own the land, which is already another subject, but more as an educator.
About the subject of women not being allowed to have land, it happens that if her husband dies, other people come and take their land. And the argument is, “If you are a woman, how are you going to have land?” And there have been situations like that, but women have learned how to defend themselves. Women, this way, have reached even 50% of participation as authorities.
JS: As owners?
Z: As women authorities.
Z: In all the territories, they have at least one woman. In addition, this also implies, obviously, that we can already see the impact on the men of new generations. For example, now you can see the men knitting, amongst Zapatista men. I don’t mean to say that there are no exceptions in the Mayan world, but those exceptions are strange. In Zapatismo, there is already a culture in the new generation where you can see men who know how to knit. In the knitting workshops that they do, for example, in the Language School of Oventic, as part of the activities to be able to think in Spanish or in Tzotzil, you’re surprised because, although you expected a woman, there is a man to teach you how to knit.
Z: Yes, yes.
Z: And well, that becomes part of the imaginary of the indigenous people themselves afterwards. Women attend the secondary school of Oventic, and it’s already 35 to 40% of women who go to the school. And I am referring to secondary, which is only an example. And they go and they stay there, because it’s a boarding school.
DT: Like the one in Oventic?
Z: That one.
DT: That one is a boarding school?
Z: Yes, it is boarding.
Z: And there they are. According to the traditional idea, it is impossible to let your daughters, girls, or adolescents, like that, in a place outside their community. Traditionally, if a woman goes out like that, she can even become the victim of insults. And they have to bear whatever some non-Zapatistas say to them. But the ones who are not Zapatistas are also learning in an indirect way. They see that it wasn’t something from another world. Seeing the man carrying the baby or knitting is saying something to them. And without proposing it to themselves, or doing it maybe—who knows: Zapatismo also has a resonance in non-Zapatistas.
DT: And those are non-Zapatistas who work in the caracol?
Z: Oh, no, no. There’s only Zapatistas there.
DT: So outside...
Z: In the communities, I mean. In the communities, there are Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, and therefore, in a strict sense, you can’t call them Zapatista communities. There are very few purely Zapatista communities. They call them communities with Zapatista bases because in them there are some families who are Zapatistas and are part of the community, and others, adjusting themselves, who are not.
DT: Then, how do you define the caracol? Because I thought that it was really like a caracol: that is, like an administrative center, and then there are the communities who live there, but I thought those communities would be Zapatistas. But you’re saying those communities can be anything.
Z: Yes. Where the Junta del Buen Gobierno is, that space is now called a caracol. There is no traditional life there, only projects. And the communities, which are dispersed, are communities that have been there forever, and there are Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas.
DT: So it’s not the kind of thing where...
Z: But yes, in terms of, let’s say, the vision of their organization, it is a caracol. It doesn’t matter that they are not physically a caracol [snail shell], but their functioning is like a caracol. That is, it goes in a spiral movement, and its heart is the Sitio Caracol, which is in Oventic in this case. And not only for the indigenous communities, but also for the world. For example, now that many have come this way, there was a movement because the ones who come in allow the others to get out. It is symbolic. Because you don’t go away: you are actually there. But you learn. That is, you go out to the world through the ones who come in. And for the ones who arrive it is the same thing. The ones who go out make the others come in.
JS: And part of the symbolism is the slowness, the slowness of the caracol, right?
Z: Slow but sure, they say. Yes, that is also related to temporality. Of course, from our modern perspective, this time is terribly slow, but there is a short story, precisely by Julio Cortázar, in the book you are reading, Cronopios y Famas, that is called “The Turtle and the Cronopios.” In the story, a "fama" comes across a turtle, sees it, and makes fun of it. “What a slow turtle,” he says. A "cronopio" comes, and he paints a seagull on its shell. Now, maybe inspired by that, the caracol repeats the same image that speed is relative, very different.
JS: This, compared with 500 years, is nothing.
Z: Yes, of course. In regards to itself, it is the path that is marked by necessity. In regards to us, of course, in our industrial time modernity, capitalist time that makes things accelerate, well, yes, it is very slow.
JS: About the subject of resonance, now I am thinking out loud, but there are many movements now, like Occupy Wall Street, Yosoy132, or the antiglobalization movement, that don’t want to participate in normal politics because they think, “No, this is the other’s system: it’s something bad, something we can’t participate in.” And I think all of those movements ultimately come from Zapatismo, in some way. It seems like this way of thinking comes from the Zapatistas in 1994. I don’t know—it’s a theory. But this Zapatista way of thinking, does it come from something previous, too?
Z: From their own experience as indigenous people. They tried almost everything, and fundamentally, from the moment that the conquistadores came and threatened their physical existence, they started defending their existence as indigenous people. Because if the conquistadores gave them the possibility to live, it was only in order to live as servants, as slaves. So, if what you wanted was to save your flesh and bones, it was possible. But they didn’t feel that was their way of life, and from the very beginning, they defended their existence as indigenous people. Maybe they didn’t call it autonomy, but it was what they were defending. Obviously, it was impossible for anyone to help them, because it was a fight for autonomy 500 years ago, 400, 300, 200 years, and even right now! It was impossible for them to be understood in this sense at that time. Therefore, they already have an extensive experience in fighting, and they have had many, innumerable experiences with governments, even participating in governments, and all as strategies of resistance. And in that long search, in the long searches, they have learned that they can only trust their own strength. And even more, they have discovered that this system they have to refer to, they have to appeal to, with which they always have to negotiate, is a system that never gives you exits. It’s a system, moreover, that is already on its way towards extinction, and it is only held through the resources it possesses. In this sense, we have to point out the terrible responsibility that the institutional left has, in the case of Mexico, in terms of sustaining this system that should have fallen already. And it isn’t falling for this same reason, because there are many who sustain it, who recreate it.
JS: Is it because of that that they refuse to support the government?
Z: It’s not in their nature. In addition, asking them to mold to governments of this system would be to denaturalize them, and that would be terrible. Why can’t they open up and accept that there’s the possibility of a diversity of fights, a diversity of thoughts and political practices? They need to understand that what we need is a system of diversities, of pluralities, and not of concentration, of centralization, of structures that close instead of opening up.
JS: But the Zapatistas made it concrete. They practice separation from the government. Before, this was the practice of the colonized: not participating, not having hope in the government. But the Zapatistas made it explicit that they won’t participate.
Z: Yes. Look, in the past 20 years—and let’s not even talk about before 94, but from 94 until now—if you see the Zapatista initiatives, they speak for themselves. In the San Andrés Accords they proposed dialogues with the government. What were they proposing? "Let’s talk, let’s reform the constitution so the indigenous people have a place." They were talking with the State. They weren’t denying it, but dialoguing with it. They proposed the Democratic National Convention, and they proposed the Movement for National Liberation. They even told the leader of the PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática], Cuáhtemoc Cárdenas, in a Zapatista initiative: “You lead the movement for national liberation.” In the first elections of 94, for the governor of Chiapas, Zapatismo supported the PRD candidate.
DT: So they did support them.
Z: Yes, but they gathered a series of evidence of treasons when Cuáhtemoc Cárdenas didn’t accept the proposal because elections were coming, and they saw that in the political calculations, getting into the project of national liberation wasn’t good for their elections. He even came to the jungle, and there are pictures that prove it. There’s a whole history there. And the so-called civil society wasn’t able to respond. "Long live the Zapatistas," of course, but only when they are political capital. But when the Zapatistas say, “Well, we understand that we are joining others in order to fight, and we’ll put on the table what are the subjects of our fights,” then, suddenly many of those subjects are not “politically correct,” et cetera, et cetera. Then, in 2001, there was clear evidence of political treason by all the parties, all their representatives and senators. In 2001, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was one of the representatives, and the PRD, the PAN [Partido Acción Nacional], and the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] voted in Congress for an alternative to the constitutional reformation, which was a betrayal of the San Andrés Accords. Then why don’t they say it, right? The amount of cynicism and oblivion is incredible.
DT: So what did AMLO do?
Z: He was a representative of the PRD, and all the PRD members voted like this. Then, in 2001, the indigenous people appealed to the justice system, to the Supreme Court, in order to declare that the Congress’ decision was unconstitutional. And, obviously, the Supreme Court said no. So the people ended up with nothing. The state, the government, the political system of Mexico gave them a very clear message: “You know what? You have nothing to do in this path. That is, you can only, if you want, be as we say you should be.” In that case, yes. So, what happened? They did a silent voting, and they definitely resolved that they couldn’t deal with this political system anymore. And we understand that the same thing is happening here as in Bolivia, and the same as in South America in general. The political systems are corrupt already, and the solution is not to save them. Evo Morales is there because there was a movement in which the people who voted in this political system overcame political parties. And they reestablished, or they are trying to reestablish, another political system, another Bolivia. Even the Subcomandante said it explicitly: “What we want is something like what they did in Ecuador and Bolivia.”
JS: Will it be possible in Mexico?
Z: In Bolivia, when there was all this movement against political parties, no one got saved. Because the MAS is a result of this movement, it is not part of the traditional political system. And it’s as if in this time when fights occurred, an institutional left came and said: “no, no, no, here we’re going to solve it through elections!” No, in Bolivia and in Ecuador the people got out into the streets and took the system down. And they said “now we’ll put ours.” That’s what we want for Mexico.
JS: Is it possible here?
Z: Yes, it is possible. It has been proven that it is possible. It hasn’t been possible because here things are more complicated, but also because of an institutional left that is always hanging from others’ interests and preventing it from growing. Sometimes this has been a factor for the dissolution of a popular movement. If you analyze the situation, you realize that it is not an ideological issue. Zapatismo is not ideology; it doesn’t work through ideologies, but through practices. But if you see the autonomous movements that have appeared in Mexico in the past 15 years, you’ll see that they are also always co-opted through the PRD. Do you remember Tepoztlán? What happened after a year? The movement was co-opted by convincing them to try to win the elections, and therefore the candidate from the PRD was imposed on them. The possibility of autonomy wasn’t treated in depth. “But the conditions weren’t there,” they say. Those are, precisely, the arguments to keep hanging onto the idea of institutionalizing everything.
JS: Occuppy Wall Street’s refusal to participate in political systems maybe comes from the same logic, but not the Zapatistas?
Z: I think so. I think they have their own thing. You’ll find some sectors of occupation movements that have similarities with the Zapatistas, but I think that is a movement beyond Zapatismo. The Zapatismo, or the indigenous movements, in 94, find this movement that comes from earlier on in Europe or Latin America. Even the Paris Commune is very close to the movement. And these movements never had hegemonic discourses. They had, in terms of theoretical results, very important things, but not organizational terms: they are not successful, although there wasn’t an obsession with power either. Regarding these movements, Zapatismo creates a space for encounter. That’s where the intergalactic in 96 comes from. It’s not that Zapatismo was going to inaugurate something there, but it puts the space knowing that there, and in the whole world, we need to encounter each other, because we are many in this world in the same kind of wave.
DT: Do you have a more formal relationship with other indigenous people, or is it also like this intergalactic space where people can come, share, but without a more formal or stronger association?
Z: That’s exactly where the part about representing, not supplanting, comes in. In Zapatismo, you won’t realize that there are relationships with organizations so easily. We are used to the leaders of an organization being the ones who relate to the leaders of the other, that then inform people, if they do at all... But it’s always the leaders who talk among them. In Zapatismo it isn’t. It has to be the people who enter the conversation; the people should be the ones who name the representatives to talk for them. And they tell the other party the same thing. It would be like saying, "I am not going to talk with your leader. Does your leader represent everyone?" If yes, perfect. But what we won’t do is to gather assemblies and name our representative for her or him to talk with a leader from over there who doesn’t represent his or her people. We can’t do that.
JS: And is that a Zapatista innovation, to allow the people to talk to each other, to...?
Z: No, no, that’s very old. Before, this mechanism had the identity of anarchism, of the libertarian movements especially, but not only, as many movements had practices that you can identify as anarchist or libertarian that already have done it. All the indigenous movements in Latin America, at least, were of this kind, where people would name their representatives, and they didn’t look for power. Of course, this was at the beginning of a long path, and they didn’t have a project to the extent of wanting to change the whole world: only at a very local dimension. But that comes from a lot of practice.
JS: But I have the feeling that Zapatismo, in 94, and after, has given so much energy to the movements in the Western world.
Z: That’s true, precisely because it succeeds in putting together, in making a space for encounters. That’s when the Aguascalientes, what are now called caracoles, are born. Precisely for that. Because they proposed: “What we need here is to encounter each other.” And that was said in 94 at the National Democratic Convention. And the Aguascalientes was created for that, in a space to encounter each other. That’s also what the San Andrés Accords say. It is said in the Other Campaign: “Let’s encounter each other, let’s all meet each other,” and it is said now, again, in this initiative of the Sixth Declaration, when many people of Mexico and the world are called to come to the communities: “Let’s encounter each other.” That has motivated and awakened many people who found in Zapatismo a space for listening, for encountering, where it is possible to resolve problems amongst us, and where we also have to unlearn, as part of the fight. We are educated, habituated to repeat the codes; and even if we call ourselves leftists or hyper-revolutionaries, finally these structures have been molded, domesticated, and we have trouble confronting that situation. But, well, we are all in that, and we are starting the along path to unlearn it.
JS: And when you talk about Mayan thought, which is the base, is it really Mayan thought, or is it Mayan thought after 500 years? Because earlier on, it also included many other things, didn’t it?
Z: Yes, yes, you are completely right. You see, when we classify and we put the label "Mayan thought," we are not being very fair, because there is a process to everything: there is a series of transformations, things that we don’t know. Well, we refer to Mayan thought as the existence of Mayan people, in the sense that they still exist, they still exist with their languages, with their thought, with that identity that being Mayan gives them.
JS: And being Mayan after the conquest.
Z: But inheritors of the previous Mayan people. There is a fascinating book by [Carlos] Lenkerstor and also here from Andrés Aubry. They criticize the famous idea of the “Mayan decadence,” which some scientists like talking about a lot. It is that moment when the classic Mayans suddenly get to a point when they don’t go on, and they interpret that, because it doesn’t go forward, therefore there is decadence, therefore they don’t exist anymore. Because they have the idea of progress engraved in their minds. Because there isn’t an ascending line, then it means that the Mayans are in decadence. And their mental structure does not allow them to accept that what happened there was a moment of transformation that can’t be called decadence. Maybe you can call it decadence if you follow the model that they think of, but, in the life of the Mayan people, there was a revolution, a Mayan civilizing revolution. They left their ways of life; they didn’t want them anymore. There was a critical moment, obviously, and in that kind of moments there is always the opportunity to find alternatives, to think, to rethink everything you’ve had. There are several theories: that there was a lack of food, a pest, illnesses, an alien attack [laughter], or maybe a mix of all these. The point is that there was a critical point that obliged them to give an answer, and that answer was a transformation. They abandoned their system, and they started another system for their lives. Those are the communities that are born then, and that more or less are the ones that reach our days.
JS: Since 900 or something...
Z: That’s it. 900 year ago, the process of dispersing into communities begins. They said, "No more pyramids, no more hierarchies, no more verticalisms, now we will build our lives in communities." And these communities start extending, searching and organizing themselves, creating their nets of relationships. They were in the process of creating a network. There were centers, important reference centers, which during the conquest they would call señoríos. We should see what is being transmitted through this, with the charge that the term señorío has. But, well, there were centers such as, for example, San Andrés, the geographical center because its geography allows it, in the passage through the Altos to the eastern and western sides of Chiapas, split by the mountains of the Altos. This finally becomes a passing point that facilitates exchange, and therefore it also becomes a resting place, where there is also a sacred cave, a market area. It starts to be an meeting point, bigger, with more activity. When the conquistadores come, they qualify it as a "center," as an important settlement, but it is a different kind of dynamic. In any case, there is still a lot to be researched about this. But what I mean to say is that they were in the process of building a new world, and it is then that the conquest arrives, and it forces the people to withdraw. All that creative energy, which was expanding in this process for around 400 years, is forced to be in a defensive mode, to use all the resources they had to survive in order to defend themselves. Therefore, there is something pending historically. For 500 years, these have been people who have always had a pending process. Now, Zapatismo, very consciously, comes and starts to realize this pending process. But of course, they aren’t the same as 500 years ago. Now you can’t refer to the transformation only here: now it needs to be the whole world.
JS: And there is the consciousness of this change.
Z: Yes, yes, of course, that’s it.
Z: Yes, it is very powerful. That is why the Zapatista movement has so much resonance. Because otherwise,it would be the act of a genius. But there are no geniuses. What is there is the geniality of people who have an enormous historical background, who have been cultivating and cultivating like a continuous fire, sometimes about to extinguish, and they have reached a moment when, "Basta!" And they made it stronger.
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