Squadron 421: Zapatistas Sail Against the Grain of History

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation began a journey across the sea that goes in the opposite direction of the one the colonizers made 500 years ago. With their maritime delegation Squadron 421, they send messages of learning from their struggle and their history of building self-determination. This is an account of the farewell voyage, until they set sail. 

Text: Daliri Oropez
Photos: Idalia Ríe, Vanessa García y Daliri Oropeza

ISLA MUJERES, QUINTANA ROO — The Zapatista maritime delegation Squadron 421 watched the sunset from a ship that set sail in international waters: La Montaña. It is the second time that they are seeing the sunset from the sea. They wonder as they stand on the great sailboat: “And just as we defend the land, is there someone who defends the sea?”.

They ask the experienced sailors with whom they travel: “And how is it that you have food to eat if you don’t have anywhere to plant milpa?” “And how does the wind know that we are going over there?”

They call it “the Voyage for Life.” They carry the Mayan flag given to them by the peninsular Mayan delegation of the National Indigenous Congress. They recognize their common past. They are crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The route goes by way of Cuba. Here they begin a tour of the five continents in order to share the knowledge that they have set in motion since the uprising, and their history as Tseltal, Tsotsil, Chol, Tojolobal, and Mam peoples. Hoisting sails in international waters, Squadron 421 sets course toward the Port of Vigo, in Galicia, of the Spanish State.

The first sunset on La Montaña. Photo: Daliri Oropeza

On the farewell dock, subcomandante Moisés watches how the ship grows distant on the horizon of the sea. It leaves from a place that is sacred to the Maya, the casa de Ixchel (house of Ixchel), that is located on the southern tip of Isla Mujeres. There, at the edge of the sea, the waves breaking between reefs and rocks, is the temple of the Mayan goddess of fertility. After a silence, he [Moisés] gave an interview to the free media.

“We are following the route where it came 500 years ago, in this case we are following this route in order to sow life, not like 500 years ago, it is the opposite, Moi said, as they affectionately call him, when asked by Pie de Página.

The first passengers were the seven members of Squadron 421: Marijose, Lupita, Carolina, Ximena, Yuli, Bernal, y Felipe, who is Darío’s relief. They were accompanied onboard by the Tercios Compase1 and the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee General Command (CCRI-CG) with Comandantes David, Zebedeo, and Comandanta Hortensia, until the 2nd of May, the day that they set sail. At their farewell, they joined fists. Then they left La Montana (The Mountain).

From the beginning, subcomandante Moises was in cahoots with Ludwig, native of Germany, who bears a fang and a ring on his neck. He is the captain of the great sailboat Stahlratte, renamed “La Montaña.” It was built for fishing in 1903. Now it slowly approaches the horizon, where sky and sea meet, with Zapatistas on board.

Squadron 421, will rename Europe as  Slumil K’ajxemk’op, which means, “unsubmissive land” or “land that does not resign itself, that does not falter.”

Zapata Vive!” (Zapata Lives!) resonates between the waves,  the cries of people, activists, defenders of human rights and members of the National Indigenous Congress waving their hands, flags, banners and cell phones to bid farewell to the maritime delegation of the EZLN.

In the eyes of the delegates, one sees the contemplative thought of what is to come. They look at the sky, the sea, at those who bid them farewell. The facemasks are reminiscent of the pasamontañas (balaclavas) that they wear. On the ship, the Squadron remained, accompanied by the crew of Captain Ludwig, Gabriela Ete and Carl, natives of Germany, and Edwin of Colombia.

This farewell was planned before their departure in the caravan. They embraced and said goodbye from the Caracol of Morelia, to Patria Nueva to Roberto Barrios, and from there crossing through Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and part of Quintana Roo where all along the way there was construction of roads and rails for the Mayan Train megaproject.

Marijose says goodbye from La Montaña. Photo Daliri Oropeza

 The Farewell of the Caracoles

The Zapatistas performed rituals and formations to bid farewell to Squadron 421 in their voyage across the sea. 

In the Caracol of Morelia, they told them,“Seeds we carry, seeds we leave, seeds will germinate!” The free media like Pozol and Radio Zapatista give an account of what happened through their coverage. From the Caracol of Morelia, four kayaks that the same Zapatista collectives designed, cut, and painted with a prow carved in wood with the form of a jaguar or drawings made by Zapatista children were loaded onto the vans.

The kayaks that they carved with their own Zapatista hands serve to tell their own story, the story of their ancestors, that of the uprising in ’94, that of the path of autonomy, to highlight childhood and that which must be protected. 

The farewell included a prayer with blessings by the elders and a great popular dance.

The festive ambiance prevailed all throughout the caravan. As did the chants that Squadron 421 heard prior to leaving, by their Zapatista compañeras: “Over 500 years of humiliation and contempt, but here we are!” ; “Long live our Mayan roots!”; “Long live the compañer@s of the Zapatista delegation!”; “Long live the good seed that will be spread around the world!”

Ceremony of farewell of the elders in the Caracol Roberto Barrios. Photo: Idalia Ríe

In Patria Nueva, the next Caracol they went through, they were renamed the “Army of Global Liberation,” in Roberto Barrios the marimba played. The Good Government Council spoke, asking them to share “how we are doing the work of our autonomous health, our autonomous  education, the work of agroecology, the administration of justice within our communities and the region.”

Squadron 421, in addition to their passports, has a document from the Good Government Councils of all of the Caracoles. “Also, carry our joy, our hope, our freedom gotten through our struggle, the resistance and the rebellion. Carry also our hope, the flowers and fruits of our labor,” they were told, and to go with respect.

In Roberto Barrios, Pozol describes: 

“When the sun reached its zenith, on the 27th day of April 2021 at 12 noon, Zapatista militants emerged and positioned themselves in a circle around the majestic ceiba situated in front of the entry to the Caracol. Zapatista women immediately approached the trunk of the sacred tree of the Mayan peoples and, in silence, delicately placed their hands on it, recalling the deep roots of  life that they defend to the death.”

The moment in which the Zapatista maritime delegation leaves the Comandanta Ramona Seedbed in the Caracol of Morelia. Photo: Idalia Ríe

In that farewell, insurgenta Jaquelín delivered the word of the CCRI-CG:

“We were forced to make the decision to leave in spite of the virus that has us locked-down. The capitalist system doesn’t stop and advances with its plunder, its dispossession, and its destruction of living beings, as with the projects of the Mayan Train and the Interoceanic Corridor, among others.”

Now under the commission of these bodies of government and justice of the Zapatista Caracoles themselves, Squadron 421 continued its course through Campeche. There they encountered not only the renovation of tracks for a train, but also hundreds of kilometers of african palm monoculture, which emits an unpleasant odor.

Making a stop in Chablekal, Mérida, Squadron 421 had planned to spend the night there and have closed-door meetings with the National Indigenous Congress of the Maya peninsular region. However, they were postponed, and they continued on to Valladolid. 

That night, during the ride along the highway, the machinery of the ICA building company in its construction of the fourth line of the Mayan Train never stopped: Merida-Cancún. The darkness of the jungle contrasted with the extreme lights illuminating the giant cement bars of the highway expansion. The construction of stations was also visible. All of this was observed by the Zapatista maritime delegation and the three comandantes aboard.

View from the island toward Cancún.  Photo: Daliri Oropeza
The casa de Ixchel (house of Ixchel) sacred temple. Photo: Daliri Oropeza

Tension on the Island Where They Set Sail

An artisan woman with an embroidered blouse from San Juan Chamula2 walks the beach toward the stand where she sells with her family. She goes through at least three songs of different styles, techno-pop, reggaeton and ranchera, selling embroidered bracelets and necklaces on a tray. She goes unnoticed. She doesn’t sell much, the tourists dance, drink, lie on sophisticated beach beds. The sun is unforgiving. She reaches a shadow where she finds her daughter looking out of a stroller. Meanwhile an obese woman with a white complexion passes with an extra large stroller filled with hanging objects and a sleeping baby.

No one seems to notice that there is a large sailboat with a banner that reads “Zapatistas, a voyage for life.”

A taxi driver learned that the Zapatistas had arrived, from a cell messaging group in his neighborhood called the “Los Chiapanecos,” a territory taken by migrant families from Chiapas on the outskirts of Cancún, where it became a community that continues to receive relatives who are leaving their lands. These families work on the island, along with migrants from Yucatán or other states, such as Puebla.

The same goes for Maricruz Lozan, a 32-year-old woman that works as a waitress on the beach. She arrived from Puebla, and for her it is important that the culture “and the good” of Mexico are known to the world, which is why it seems timely to her that this Zapatista maritime delegation goes out and shows what they have done with their lands and culture.

She describes her life on the Island as sometimes monotonous. You have to work, and you always have to tend to foreigners. It is more common to hear people speak English than Tsotsil, Tseltal or Tojolobal.

Everyday’s a party for gringos on Isla Mujeres. Photo: Daliri Oropeza

The tourists seem to be in the majority, they stand out because they like to be on display in the pleasant breeze that refreshes the island; they use tiny open carts as if the island was a golf course. 

They follow each other in these carts, each hired for their luxury rides, and they look like ants advancing towards the south, where a significant archaeological zone for the Mayas is located: The casa de Ixchel is a sacred site for the Mayan people that, when seen from above, has the shape of a belly. 

The Zapatistas invoke her in their communiqués and choose her as the epicenter of the new taking (recuperation) now of the sea. Ixchel was the goddess of love, of the moon, of fertility, of the water, of medicine. Workers on the archeological site tell of apparitions, miracles and premonitions in this place. 

They say that on this southern point of Isla Mujeres appear ghosts of women that have not been able to give birth, or have died in childbirth. They speak of apparitions and of supernatural occurrences, and even of bad women who take men away.

The CNI delegation of peninsular Maya delivers the Mayan flag to Squadron 421.
Photo: Daliri Oropeza

But on this temple the Mayan cross reigns, dilapidated by the salt of the sea. It is just after a private ecological zone and at all hours there are light-skinned tourists speaking in English, asking for information that the site does not offer. 

From the bow of the boat La Montaña, delegate Marijose observes the house of Ixchel. The caravan has been full of offerings and rituals. This ship is no slouch. Before setting sail, the maritime delegation circles the ship. It is a cloudy afternoon with strong winds. The Navy posted that there would be bad weather and storms. But for the Zapatistas it is time. They will sail one day before the 3rd of May, the day of Chan Santa Cruz, when the rebel Mayans of the 20th century made their own government founded in autonomy and self-determination .

The Mayan flag with which Squadron 421 will cross the ocean has the colors of the different types of corn, it has the seven directions and carries the guardians of the people. Red is where the sun rises, black where it hides, white is where the air rises to the north, yellow where it hides, blue is the heart of the heavens, and the heart of the earth is the color green. They will hoist it on the high seas.

“We are going to share with them (in Europe) that Life is at risk, as much for those in the city as those of the countryside. It is time to wake up. Without life, there is nothing … We have to struggle against capitalism because it destroys Mother Nature, not us. The fact is, in 500 years we have not destroyed her, but capitalism has. She has been destroyed and contaminated. It’s getting worse all the time, and this is why we say that one day it will crumble and from there, it will take us all to hell,” assures subcomandante Moisés, who remains watching the line where you can no longer see La Montaña, where the sky and the sea meet.

La Montaña sails international waters and sees its first sunset at sea on May 2nd, 2021, the sails raised to travel offshore. Photo: Vanessa García Blanca

This article was published in Pie de Página on May 3rd, 2021. https://piedepagina.mx/escuadron-421-zapatistas-navegan-a-contrapelo-de-la-historia/ This English translation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.


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  1. Tercios Compas are Zapatistas trained in media arts and communications, who are responsible for much of the video and photographic footage of this journey
  2. A Tsotsil Maya municipality in the Highlands of Chiapas, just outside of San Cristobal
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