EZLN: A Thirty-year Dawn (I)

Juan Villoro, Chiapas. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

Three decades after the EZLN uprising, more than a thousand pilgrims—speakers of native languages, retirees from Latin American guerrillas, Europeans in search of a geography without maps, Christians outside the ecclesiastical hierarchy, romantics dedicated to the task of improving the world— gathered in Dolores Hidalgo, Chiapas, to renew hope in a struggle that endures: “We are going slowly,” the Zapatistas affirm, “because the path is long.”

On January 1st, 1994, a friend who I will call Andrés had the bad luck to be bitten by a dog. He was undergoing a treatment of fourteen injections, left his house in search of the dose he was missing and found another form of rage. The Zapatistas had taken San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Since then, Andrés has not stopped traveling around Chiapas. The young man who at twenty walked through streets without electric lights in search of a pharmacy, thirty years later has found remedies for hopelessness in the movement that transformed living conditions in a region approximately the size of Belgium and that has influenced the social struggles of numerous countries. Before the protests in Seattle and Porto Alegre, the Mayans of the present had already called to fight against the disasters of globalization.

At the end of 2023, I traveled with Andrés to Caracol Dolores Hidalgo, in the lowlands of Chiapas. On the way, we talked about the insecurity that holds the country in stress. The stretch from San Cristóbal to Ocosingo, supposedly patrolled by the National Guard, was considered dangerous; on the other hand, from Toniná to Dolores Hidalgo we would travel through a country within a country, where various logics coexist. Within the Zapatista zones there are populations that are not Zapatista. The federal highway was interrupted by countless speed bumps that forced you to stop next to shacks that sold soft drinks. On the side of the road, we saw other establishments of commerce and faith: a roasted chicken business, a Church of Christ, a house with an immense crest of Guadalajara and the red star on wooden planks that accredited the Zapatista condition of the region.

We also found messages displayed for the occasion and that greeted visitors with the irony that already typifies the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). One of them said: “Wake up, sleepyheads”, another: “Why did you come? Do you enter or not?” A banner imitated road signs and announced that Caracol was one kilometer away. Some travelers listened to him and got off the trucks that had given them a lift. But the Zapatistas play with time and space. The time zone is one hour ahead of the center of the country and the kilometers may be a guess or even a joke for them. Those who abandoned their transport before the banner t that promised a kilometer to the destination, had to take another truck. The Zapatista destiny is not quantifiable: it occurs when it is reached.

EZLN backsides. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

The landscape, covered in vegetation where pine trees alternated with palms, seemed to quote Goethe: the hills surrounded us imposingly, but “calm reigned on each peak.” Andrés improvised an aphorism to explain the surrounding tranquility: “People take care of people.” Nothing could happen to us if there were many of us and, above all, if we were welcome.

On December 29th, 899 participants had registered at the Universidad de la Tierra in San Cristóbal to attend the double Zapatista anniversary: forty years of struggle and thirty of uprising. In 1994, the EZLN took San Cristóbal de Las Casas and other towns to protest the entry into force of the Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada, which favored the free market from which the poorest in the country were excluded. They asked for dignified treatment that would end five hundred years of oblivion: “Never again will there be a Mexico without us,” they said.

The number of participants increased with the indigenous communities who arrived by different routes and with those who registered in Caracol itself. Unlike the Aguascalientes Convention, which in August 1994 brought together six thousand members of civil society in the Tojolabal jungle, in this case the attendees were not only outsiders. The Mohawk haircuts and tattoos of the international middle class mixed with hats, baseball caps and regional textiles. The extreme appearances of the global and the local coincided on the grassy esplanade of Dolores Hidalgo.

In one of the first statements about the celebration, the violence that is rampant in Chiapas and that takes over the roads with blockades, land use charges, kidnappings and extortions was warned of. Touring the state means facing various forms of plunder. Those who arrived by plane to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and had rented a car were surprised that “there were none.” Instead of offering another vehicle for the price already paid, the agencies asked five times more for the “only” truck available. This corporate corruption manifests itself in another way in the remote confines of Chiapas. The town of Oxchuc, between San Cristóbal and Ocosingo, has become a customs office that is difficult to navigate. Real shortcomings led to protests blocking the road and demanding money to survive and continue the fight. Over time, that resource became an end in itself. The protest against one problem created another problem, as disturbing as the “mouse soup” that is prepared locally and in which the protagonist of the stew floats.

The habit of interrupting traffic has created a school. Suddenly, four or five children place branches in the center of the road and only remove them in exchange for a few pesos in payment for alleged “cleaning work.” These are the mild annoyances of a state where migrants arriving from Central America are victims of kidnappings that condemn women to prostitution and men to act as hitmen.

In 1994, the EZLN took San Cristóbal de Las Casas and other towns in protest against the entry into force of the Free Trade Agreement, which favored the free market from which the poorest in the country were excluded. They asked for dignified treatment that would end five hundred years of oblivion: “Never again will there be a Mexico without us,” they said.

Participants at the celebration. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

The New Year Tribe

Despite the difficulties of getting there, more than a thousand pilgrims visited the professionals of hope. The first thing that was discussed in the wooden huts of Dolores Hidalgo, where the coffee and tamales pots were smoking, was the enigma of the arrival. The communists of Nayarit had traveled twenty-five hours, a huge effort that, however, was put into perspective when hearing the stories of those who came from Greece, Italy and Germany, not to mention Iran. Very complex itineraries had allowed them to join the multicolored tide of tents, to enjoy splendid food at low prices and endure the discomfort of a ground softened by mud and the challenge of latrines. There is no pilgrimage without reward, but neither without penance.

There are verbs that are used in very specific circumstances. One of them is “confront,” which only serves to allude to the heroic masochism that the national anthem demands or the sacrifices of social struggles.

Dolores Hidalgo was created just three years ago and has a small population. There are few traces of human life in the enormous valley that extends towards an imposing cliff of rectilinear hills, blue-green in color, covered with vegetation. On December 30th it had rained; fog covered the sky and white clouds cascaded over the mountains. What kind of people attended the event? Most of them were repeat offenders who have made the unorthodox become typical.

We traveled by road in a caravan with Clowns in Rebellion (Payasos en Rebeldía), who came from Lugo (their shirt said “Pallasos”, in Galician) and who are dedicated to making people think through laughter in places where reality conspires against humor. They were recently in Gaza, now they were returning to Chiapas. In accordance with the plurality of the cast, the driver of his truck was a Catalan physicist.

Distant pilgrims were as common there as indigenous people meeting for the first time. In the Dolores Hidalgo Infirmary I heard a dialogue between a man and a woman that advanced with respectful slowness, as if each question led to another question. After a while I learned that he spoke in Tzeltal, a Mayan variant of the area, but she in Tzotzil because she came from the Highlands of Chiapas. I asked them if they understood each other. “Enough,” he said with a smile.

We were in a territory of signs and representations where we would understand “enough” without most things losing their mystery.

There are verbs that are used in very specific circumstances. One of them is “confront,” which only serves to allude to the heroic masochism that the national anthem demands or the sacrifices of social struggles.

EZLN march. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

Interpreting the Sky

The Zapatistas are organized into Caracoles, which are equivalent to municipalities. Until recently, they were managed by Good Government Councils. At the end of 2023, the EZLN was restructured into Local Autonomous Governments (GAL). Instead of having a “municipal head” where public management is decided, now each town can have a GAL. Within the Zapatista zone there are residents who do not belong to the EZLN, so this new form of organization will allow shared administrations. The central idea is to avoid excessive travel to resolve procedures and control a territory in permanent threat in a more horizontal and secure manner.

Before arriving at Dolores Hidalgo I was in Toniná with Juan Yadeun, an archaeologist who has been working at the site for 43 years. Trained as an architect, he has rebuilt pyramids of a height unparalleled in the Mayan world. His work has generated controversy, something inherent to a profession where conjecture always surpasses certainty. Other archaeologists prefer to consolidate the findings without intervening in them. Yadeun’s knowledge of archaeology, astronomy and numerology, and his fierce passion for putting it into practice, have allowed him to recreate a citadel that is not only spectacular, but perfectly plausible.

Each pyramid is a stone clock that measures the works of the cosmos. On the sides, 52 steps add up to the “binding of years” of the Mesoamerican world. Each side has a staircase, but only one leads to the temple. The buildings can be climbed and descended incessantly, making the journey a form of prayer.

According to Yadeun, the Zapatista Caracoles are related to this archaeological zone: “For the Mayans, Caracol is equivalent to a city,” he told me with his usual enthusiasm, shortly after getting off his motorcycle. We visited the garden of his house, where he has reproduced the pyramids in white cement models. The rebuilder of palaces rests making other miniature ones. There he told me: “The large door on the façade of the Toniná museum is a Caracol that gives access to the plaza surrounded by four pyramids, similar to the entrance arch in Labná.” Emblematically, a building in the archaeological zone is the Palacio de los Caracoles.

In Toniná, the buildings follow the orientation of the Mayan cross, which represents the intersection of the Milky Way with other galaxies. In vernacular cosmogony, the polar star became a bird that, upon approaching the Earth, became the sun, generated heat and allowed the emergence of other species, including vipers, the antecedent, according to Yadeun, of our national coat of arms.

It is possible that Toniná’s ball game is what inspired the Popol Vuh. Also, vulcanization began there, mixing the sap of the rubber tree with the ashes of those sacrificed to make death regain life and movement in the sacred ball.

Each archaeological site guards keys to its origin. True or false, scientific or legendary, the explanations allude to a world whose passwords have been lost. The possibility of controversy multiplies the number of interpretations.

The Caracol that we visited was no less mysterious than the four directions of the sky and the three levels of reality of the Mayan world.

In Toniná, a windowless room served as a night school. There, astronomers got used to the darkness to sharpen their gaze; by returning to the open air in search of stars, his eyes were prepared to see better.

We required similar learning, but there is no night school for social movements.

Juan Yadeun. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

Representing Reality

On December 30th, plays were staged on the grassy esplanade of Dolores Hidalgo, the size of three or four soccer fields, which had the main stage at one end and, on the sides, small wooden stands with palm roofs.

Zapatismo has settled in agricultural spaces that produce beans, cocoa, coffee, corn, honey and cilantro that improves the stews of the Chiapas cities. Their idea of progress reverses the history of agricultural exploitation. I spoke about it with Carlos González, lawyer for the Indigenous Government Council. Recently, Zapatista legislation approved a new norm: non-ownership of land. Instead of collectivizing the territory, nature is considered the sole landowner. Only if necessary, and requesting due forgiveness, can it be converted into work material.

González is used to taking on disputes that have been passed down from generation to generation and come from wrongs committed eighty or a hundred years ago. He has just recovered 2,585 hectares that had been taken from the Huichol people. “The ranchers’ argument was that those lands did not belong to the indigenous people because they did not work them,” he says. This idea is based on a lack of knowledge of the native peoples, who do not emphasize exploiting nature to the maximum, but rather preserving it. These are not, therefore, “idle” lands, but conserved ones.

With the same criteria, the Zapatistas preserve biodiversity. The biologist Julia Carabias, who was Secretary of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries from 1994 to 2000, and now works at the Chajul Station, in the Lacandona Jungle, told me about it: “The Zapatistas have managed the temperate forests very well, where there are pines and oaks: they extract wood without destroying the ecosystem. In the Oventik region there is a clear difference between the density of the vegetation that they conserve and the deforestation of other sites.”

Logically, the plays created by different Caracoles addressed the issue of land ownership. In one of them, a girl exclaimed: “We have to change the world!”, and she received a response of Brechtian distancing: “This is theater.” Then, the girl reported that theater also changes reality.

On the 31st, shortly before 11:00 p.m. Central Mexico time (Zapatista midnight), the anniversary ceremony began. The EZLN anthem, based on the melody of “Carabina 30-30,” was not sung. Without further protocol, there was a parade of hundreds of militiamen who marched to the rhythm of cumbia. They carried no other weapon than the batons that they struck in time with the music. If a military parade is, above all, an exhibition of force, in this case, the choreography was a disciplined aesthetic exhibition. When they received the order to break ranks, the militia women went from marching to dancing. Another choreography was also expected, with the numerous bicycles parked on the edges of the field, but this mobile celebration did not take place.

Masters of suspense, the Zapatistas managed to increase attention with the wait. Since October 23rd, they had reported on the anniversary with messages that could be direct, lyrical or allegorical. In a statement, Subcommander Moisés announced that the meeting would be “just behind the mound.” It was not easy to understand the allusion. The quote referred to the popular philosopher of Mexico, José Alfredo Jiménez, who in “Camino de Guanajuato” sings: “There just behind the hill / you see Dolores Hidalgo”, but almost no one knew that in Chiapas there was a Caracol with that name.

After twenty announcements, long journeys to reach a place without connectivity or registration on Google Maps, a night in a tent on freshly rained ground and a whole day of plays, a kind of miracle was expected. Whatever came next was likely to be anticlimactic, but the atmosphere couldn’t have been more festive. Although alcohol is prohibited in Zapatista areas, the dancing, laughter and shared hugs had produced a happy intoxication. Even a friend who survived the ordeals of dictatorship and the wear and tear of the guerrilla, and who has developed a fine sense of paranoia and finds strange satisfaction in anger, seemed happy.

In this climate of atmosphere came Sub-commander Moisés’ speech.

Zapatismo has settled in agricultural spaces that produce beans, cocoa, coffee, corn, honey and cilantro that improves the stews of the Chiapas cities. His idea of progress reverses the history of agricultural exploitation.

EZLN celebration. Photo by Sofía Grivas.

Original article by Juan Villoro at https://gatopardo.com/reportajes/ezln-un-amanecer-de-treinta-anos/
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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