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Dancing with the Zapatistas

Diana Taylor, Lorie Novak, Authors

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Zapatista Muralism and the Making of a Community

Luis Vargas-Santiago

Since 1995, hundreds of murals have appeared across the Zapatista territories. From the walls of the five caracoles (autonomous Zapatista municipalities) to those in the most remote communities in the heart of the Lacandon jungle, murals emerge as colorful markers of the rebel identity and work to differentiate the Zapatista settlements from their neighboring indigenous and mestizo communities. Murals have also served as the perfect backdrop in which the life of Zapatista communities is captured. However, even though these murals are ubiquitous, they have not been studied in depth, nor analyzed in relation to Zapatista imaginaries.

In its most widely known forms—the communiqués of the General Command of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), as well as Subcomandante Marcos’s writings— Zapatista thought appears to be a cultural and ideological pastiche. Jan de Vos (2002) notes that Zapatista literature closely echoes the neo-Marxist discourse that permeated Latin American guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called Indian theology as conceived by Samuel Ruiz, and the myths and traditions of contemporary Mayan groups (360–413). Zapatista murals can be read as the symptom and response of such a pastiche—an emblem of the Zapatista movement in images. However, to subscribe to this view implies adopting a partial interpretation that studies murals only as fixed signs and not as the changing space of community practices. It is this less visible process that I am concerned with here: one that allows for alteration, erasure, and destruction as it enacts historical memories and surviving traditions of the Maya while encompassing current political and cultural narratives. Zapatista murals are thus everyday spaces of redefinition, where a variety of voices and discourses converge and mutate through time and build community.

Origins: Visual Genealogies

From 6 August through 9 August 1994 the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) hosted the Convención Nacional Democrática (Democratic National Convention) in San Cristóbal de las Casas and the locality of La Realidad, in the heart of the Lacandon jungle. The convention gathered more than six thousand delegates from civil organizations and the media to propose a new national plan with leftist ideals: a plan that aimed to unify the hopes of many against the institutional power of the Mexican government (Stephen 1995). The first murals originated in this context. During the event at La Realidad, attendees spontaneously created ephemeral images on large pieces of fabric and directly on the wood walls of some buildings.

Making of a mural at La Realidad. Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Norma Vargas Macossay, 1994.

Mural at La Realidad. Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Norma Vargas Macossay, 1994.
These first creative gestures, along with the growing interest of art activists in the Zapatista movement, fueled more consistent art initiatives. Consequently, in 1995 the EZLN summoned the formation of the Caravana de Artistas y Trabajadores de la Cultura Nacional e Internacional (Caravan of Artists and Workers of National and International Culture). Many creators then arrived at the rebel territories to develop a wide range of musical, dance, photographic, literary, radio, audiovisual, and pictorial projects[1]  Artistic groups working on the creation of murals and banners primarily went to La Realidad and nearby communities.

Generally, the murals are conceived as pedagogic devices to narrate historical and contemporary events that inform the Zapatista ideology and serve to create a visual identity for new rebel communities. The making of a mural begins with an offer by an external artist to paint a work. This artist may or may not have an initial idea of what to depict. It is only through public assemblies or informal meetings that Zapatista members decide the final content of the mural in question. Murals are expected to reflect not the artist’s view, but the larger experiences and expectations of a community.

Zapata mural at Oventic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Adrián Mealand, 2007.
Materials for these works are provided by artists and community members themselves. The execution involves volunteers, mostly students and schoolteachers. Artists are perceived as facilitators, providing their technical ability to help others articulate what the community wants. In their most basic practice, murals operate as markers that distinguish rebel settlements from other indigenous and non-indigenous communities. The Zapatista regions share their territory with localities co-opted by state corporatism and paramilitary groups. Murals, therefore, affirm the existence of an alternative political project.

Muralism became a staple feature of Zapatista identity after the destruction of the famous Taniperla wall, which occurred only five days after its creation in 1998.

Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba, Portion of Vida y sueños de la Cañada Perla mural in San Francisco, California, United States, 1999.

Entitled Vida y sueños de la Cañada Perla, the mural was to commemorate the foundation of a new municipality (Municipio Rebelde Autónomo Zapatista Ricardo Flores Magón), of which Taniperla was the main administrative center. Members of 12 Tzeltal communities participated in its creation. A few days after the opening, the Mexican military forcefully entered the site, destroyed the mural, and imprisoned several people. The images of the extinct mural traveled around the world, transforming it into a symbol of the Zapatista struggle. Seven years after the brutal destruction, an identical replica appeared in the nearby community of La Culebra (Unzueta 1999). What this demonstrates, in my view, is the collective nature of the process: Taniperla gathered a variety of indigenous groups not only in order to exist, but also, importantly, to re-exist. Hundreds of murals have since been created in the five Zapatista regions and throughout the globe following similar patterns.

Zapatista iconography borrows themes from Latin American revolutionary visual culture, especially those from post-revolutionary Mexico and the Chicano cultural movements. In particular, Zapatista murals have a genealogy in socialist art, but their images also acquire a unique perspective in their revision of important Mexican images, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Coatlicue (Aztec mother goddess), Emiliano Zapata, Lucio Cabañas, and Diego Rivera, their depiction of local leaders, such as Ramona, David, or Marcos, and their incorporation of what can be considered Zapatista motifs, such as the ski mask, the scarf, the seashell, the snail, or Mayan textiles.

Mural detail at the seat of the Junta de Buen Gobierno. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural detail at elementary school Lucio Cabañas. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural at the Cooperativa Agrícola Zpojel Ixim. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural detail at the Cooperativa Agrícola Zpojel Ixim. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural at the Commission and Surveillance Office. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural detail at the seat of the Junta de Buen Gobierno. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural detail at elementary school Romero Zanchetta. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.

Mural detail at the seat of the Junta de Buen Gobierno. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2007.

Mural from Colectivo Babylon el Red de Artistas en Resistencia, Sociedad Cooperativa Xulum Chon. 
Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.
These icons are important insofar as they are inscribed in history and attempt to change it. In selecting certain themes, the community reclaims and reworks images—such as Zapata’s—because they think that they have been usurped by the centralized official discourse of the nation-state. In reading Zapata as an indigenous hero as opposed to a mestizo one, for instance, communities demand that he be represented as darker-skinned. Murals thus respond to creative collective patterns in keeping with community needs and beliefs, which in turn are also erased and revised as these artworks evolve; murals, in other words, are utopias in the making.

Becoming Utopia

Located in the Chiapas Highlands, the Tzotzil community of Oventic is home to what are perhaps the most prolific Zapatista murals. Officially Oventic San Andrés Sakamchem de los Pobres, the locality is one of the five Zapatista caracoles in Chiapas. Due to its proximity to the town of San Andrés—the town that witnessed the signature of the important San Andrés Agreements (1995–1996)—as well as a major city, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Oventic has been internationally known as el corazón céntrico de los zapatistas delante del mundo (“the heart of the Zapatista movement before the world”).

Sign outside of Oventic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.
It is this political relevance that explains this community’s vast media attention and, importantly, the ubiquitous presence of murals, which defy traditional notions of authorship and originality to generate instead a participatory art practice. 

Oventic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.

Mural at Oventic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.
There are three major artistic processes occurring in Oventic: alteration, erasure, and destruction. Arguably, these practices are authorized by the Junta de Buen Gobierno (Council of Good Government). Alteration takes place when an original image is restored or corrected. Oventic is located in a lush, highly forested area where murals rapidly deteriorate. A common technique is to use acrylic or vinyl paint on surfaces such as wood and cement. If a mural deemed to be of cultural value is damaged, a guest artist or community member is summoned to enact conservation procedures. This practice however, does not seek to preserve originality in ways a traditional western art historian would see it (color, brushstroke, light, materials, or even technique). The message of the work alone is of interest, and this process of alteration offers a good opportunity for “improving” it. Historical authenticity is therefore irrelevant. Here, to alter is to correct memory. A good example would be the Casa Comunitaria (Snail Mu’kta Tzob’onball) in the center of Oventic, a massive wooden structure with a painting of Emiliano Zapata by artist Gustavo Chávez and the collective art lab “La Gárgola.” In this image, Zapata holds a rifle in his right hand. Next to him are several farmers who echo David Alfaro Siqueiro’s Del porfirismo a la Revolución (1957–66).

Zapata mural on Casa Comunitaria (Snail Mu’kta Tzob’onball). Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Petra Binková, 1997.
In 2005, at the behest of Zapatista authorities, Gustavo Chávez altered the mural. The form and tonalities of the original changed significantly: Zapata’s skin was now darker, as was his hat, he held a machete, and his companions were deprived of all color to suggest their oppressed status. It is possible that the rifle-now-machete alludes to farming and the Zapatista demilitarization during 2003, which coincided with Oventic’s upgraded status as a caracol.
Updated Zapata mural on Casa Comunitaria (Snail Mu’kta Tzob’onball). Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Petra Binková, 1997.
Erasures are by far the most radical type of artistic process. Here, memory is not only corrected, as in the case of the Zapata mural, but rather, rewritten. Sometimes erasure involves covering entire murals or neglecting certain segments of their visual agenda; sometimes murals are reconceived to become new works. Consider one of the murals of 1 de Enero, the name of one of the secondary schools. In 2005, the mural depicted two children, a boy and a girl.

Mural on the secondary school 1 de Enero. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.
Wearing a white shirt and with his hand on his neck, the boy seemed to be putting on a red bandana. The girl was entirely covered by a red book, her two braids being her only visibly body features. The background consisted of mountains, cornfields, the sun, the moon, and a Mayan pyramid.

Updated mural on the secondary school 1 de Enero. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Gabriela Piñero, 2007.
In 2007, the only remaining portion of the mural was the girl holding the book. The rest was covered in black. In the three schools of the Sistema de Educación Rebelde Autónomo Zapatista (the Zapatista educational system), the reading girl appears as a clearly established icon of learning. Her face, covered by the book, alludes to the ski mask worn by Zapatistas. Usually the girl is depicted on her own, which may explain why, in the first example, the boy and the landscape were not useful to the mural’s larger political and cultural message. 

Mural of a woman reading. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.
But erasures can also affect an entire wall, as is the case of the Chicano mural on the left wing of La Guadalupana Community Clinic. In 1997, Oventic hosted an encounter between Chicana and Zapatista women. Chicana artists altered an existing mural on the left lateral wall of the clinic by depicting pre-Hispanic, indigenous, and contemporary themes that spoke to the struggle against capitalism and its perceived threats: death, destruction of nature, and oppression.

Mural on La Guadalupana Community Clinic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Petra Binková, 1997.

The left segment depicted an indigenous Zapatista in the arms of two women wearing ski masks, an image distantly echoing Michelangelo’s Pietà. Spray paint was used in substitution of more traditional materials.

Updated mural on La Guadalupana Community Clinic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2005.
In 2003, the mural was completely erased, and the wall remained blank until 2007. It is very likely that the mural disappeared due to its themes associated with death; murals are, according to post-2003 Zapatistas, representations of life. The new product was in many ways a corollary of the previous mural, which was in turn altered and retouched to provide a more realistic style. Major changes included substituting Mexican folk figure La Llorona for an indigenous woman who symbolized Mother Earth and removing a banner to replace it with a pair of revolutionary singers and a blue unicorn. This last image is clearly in keeping with the title of Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez’s song "Mi unicornio azul"("My Blue Unicorn"), a hymn that has come to symbolize Latin American leftist ideals. Next to the blue unicorn is a Virgin of Guadalupe wearing a bandana.

Updated mural on La Guadalupana Community Clinic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.

In 2007, the Colectivo Cangrejo painted the remaining segment of the mural by giving the Virgin a full body. As it stands today, the project is an allegory of music in revolutionary contexts. Images at La Guadalupana have changed drastically over time. No other murals have undergone more alterations, and therein lies their appeal.

Mural on the facade of La Guadalupana Community Clinic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Petra Binková, 1997.
Created between 1995 and 1996, mostly by Tzotzil schoolteacher Erasto Urbina, the façade of La Guadalupana depicts a tree with shields and a red star on the upper section, while the lower portion shows an indigenous woman with a speech scroll next to Ernesto Che Guevara, the doctor-revolutionary par excellence according to Urbina. On the lower right side, we find the face of Zapata, which was painted by Chávez and his group. 

It is likely that the original content of the 1995 mural was not discussed among community members. Instead, its themes appear to be the result of the artistic impulse of its creators. As muralism gained importance throughout the Zapatista regions, images and content were systematically agreed upon in meetings, as noted by one of the locals: “our brother and sister painters would paint what they wanted. Now it is us, the people, who decide what goes there and what not” (Híjar 2007).

Updated mural on the facade of La Guadalupana Community Clinic.
Oventic, Chiapas, México. Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.

La Guadalupana Community Clinic. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.  
Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.

The development of infrastructure in Oventic, the clinic’s refurbishment between 2002 and 2003, and the locality’s upgraded status that same year marked a decided interest not only to produce new murals, but also to alter the extant ones. It was in that context that the Junta de Buen Gobierno invited Gustavo Chávez Pavón and La Gárgola to produce more murals and redefine the visual agenda. As a result, Che’s face in the façade reads: 

This mural, painted in 1995 with the help of the Caravana Internacional de Artistas y Trabajadores de la Cultura Nacional e Internacional and 'La Gárgola' has been upgraded and restored with the brave and bold help of these artists: Manuela Estrella P, Tlaciuatl Carrillo O, and María Méndez.
-Gustavo Chávez. Lip-Gárgola: 24-XII-03. 10 years. EZLN

Only the lower part was modified in the 2003 façade. Essentially, what changed were the faces of the indigenous woman and Che Guevara that Urbina had originally created. The revised project now showed Ramona, a Tzotzil female commander from a nearby town, and a smaller-sized Che. Additionally, Zapata’s face was made to resemble the other Zapata faces found throughout Oventic and in the institutionalized Mexican muralism of the 1920s and 1930s. The new program also included a new set of images for the clinic’s new wing: a painting of Comandante David (also from a Tzotzil background), a snail, and a hand holding a maguey plant, which has medical purposes. However, that some of Urbina’s work was erased is proof that, to locals, the message is more important than the image itself, even if the image was made by an indigenous artist.

Finally, destruction is another important process. Many murals are destroyed or left to the inclemencies of rainy weather. Such is the case with the landscape painted by Urbina on the upper façade, which is currently deteriorating due to climate conditions. Throughout the Chiapas highlands region it is common to find murals in which color has been lost to humidity and natural decay. The deliberate “destruction” of these works happens when buildings are remodeled or demolished. At times, wood that previously featured a mural is recycled to be used in new buildings.

Recycled murals. Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. 
Photo: Cristóbal Jácome, 2007.

To the Zapatistas, what matters is recreating utopias and adjusting them to the present. In this sense, any image is grounds for destruction or improvement. In Oventic, disappearance does not exist. If a mural disappears, another will come along.

Transformative Spaces

Building upon Michel de Certeau’s (1984) concept of space as a “practiced place” (117; 130), I conceive of Zapatista murals as spaces of interaction through which communities affirm their everyday lives. A visual surface is made up of diverse, dynamic elements that interact with each other. In the case of the murals, these elements constitute a pastiche of iconographies linked by different creative phases. As de Certeau puts it, “space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities” (117). The spectator thus actively relates to the mural, a space that is neither fixed nor defined, but rather, altered or intervened. Oventic’s people are at once the mural’s producers (writers) and spectators (readers) (174).

Murals are, in my view, spaces for the construction of memory. The processes of alteration, erasure, and destruction mentioned in the previous section highlight their origin in collective memory. Murals are thus the space to forget, to remember, to cover up, to erase—to create or destruct history; spaces, in short, that rethink myths and genealogies and redefine political agendas. The painted product denotes immediacy, something with which a community identifies and feels at home; it is a point of reference that legitimates communities. In a way, a mural goes well beyond its visual program. Similarly, murals are the space of an embodied practice. They are not so much a linguistic discourse as they are a visual practice that reoccurs. People participate actively in their making, whether by discussing their content in meetings, by painting murals themselves, or simply by looking at the images as part of everyday life. In their ephemeral character, murals echo the foundational utopia of the Zapatista movement, which redefines itself as it goes, incorporating new experiences, revising history, and offering new challenges. This sense of progression and vitality is well documented in communiqués such as the Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona (Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle; June 2005): “This is our simple word for recounting what our path has been and where we are now, in order to explain how we see the world and our country, in order to say what we are thinking of doing and how we are thinking of doing it, and in order to invite other persons to walk with us in something very great which is called Mexico and something greater which is called the world.” (Márquez 2008, 283)

Because Zapatista murals are a form of fluid art, they also detonate organic methods of spectatorship. Art interacts with the people, opening routes for change; members of the community know that murals belong to them, and, as such, they are free to enact alterations. In rescinding authorship, murals produce a dialogical art that builds upon the community (Kester 2004, 154-63). These works, as a whole, constitute a successful model of participatory art. Nonetheless, unlike many manifestations of art, Zapatista muralism creates a bridge that narrows the distance between art-making and the production of social thought.


[1]Unless stated otherwise, the ethnographic data and interviews with artists and community members are drawn from the author's MA thesis on murals in Oventic (Vargas-Santiago 2009).

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Vos, Jan. 2002. Una tierra para sembrar sueños. Historia reciente de la Selva Lacandona. 1995-2000. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica; Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social.

Híjar, Cristina. 2007. “Zapatistas, lucha en la significación. Apuntes.” Discurso visual 9. Accessed 28 November 2007.

Kester, Grant. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Márquez, Iván, ed. 2008. Contemporary Latin American Social and Political Thought: An Anthology. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 282-300.

Stephen, Lynn. 1995. “The Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the National Democratic Convention.” Latin American Perspectives 22 (4): 88–99.

Unzueta, Gerardo. 1999. “El mural de Taniperla. Entrevista con Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba.” Memoria: Revista mensual de política y cultura 130: 27-32.

Vargas-Santiago, Luis Adrián. 2009. “El discurso en imágenes. Los murales zapatistas en Oventic, Chiapas, 1995-2007.” Master's Thesis, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

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