Home | Zapatista Stories

Translated by Dinah Livingstone. Published by Katabasis (2001)
Book launched at the Ethical Society, 10 November 2001
Reviewed by Sandra Smith

The Zapatista movement of indigenous peoples in Mexico demands a just share in the land, local autonomy and full citizenship. Beyond that, it provides a vital critique of the new, ultra-aggressive global capitalism and an inspiration for anti-capitalists everywhere.

Under the slogan: Por un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos --'For a world in which there is room for many worlds' -- Zapatismo stands for fair sharing, diversity and dignity in the face of 'coca-colonisation' and the bulldozer of profit.

That this movement of the marginalised resonates with so many outside the mountains and forests of south-east Mexico is due in no small measure to the writings of Subcomandante Marcos. Passionate, tender, witty, self-deprecating, multi-dimensional, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes simple, always in colloquial language, his stories are a world away from the stereotype of 'political' writing.

First published in the Mexican press and on the Internet, they have been collected and translated in this book by Dinah Livingstone. Dinah has also provided a useful chronology and an excellent, informative and erudite introduction to which this reviewer (who previously knew little about the Zapatistas except some of their fundamental principles, which she is learning the hard way) is indebted.

More To Learn Than To Teach

Marcos came to the Lacandon jungle as part of a Marxist guerrillero vanguard, but found, on making contact with the people who lived there, that he had more to learn from them than he had to teach them. Subcomandante translates as 'Lieutenant'; the Zapatista Comandantes are indigenous Mayans, who 'govern our peoples by obeying them'. Marcos' stories are about his teachers and the lessons he has learned from them: the old man, the children, and his comic alter-ego Don Durito de la Lacandona, who is Don Quixote, King Arthur and anti-capitalist polemicist rolled into one. (He is also a beetle.)

Durito writes articles with titles like: Promissory Elements for an Initial Analysis as a First Phase of the Original Approach to the Primary Fundamental Considerations about the Supra-Historical and Superealifragilisticspiralidosous Basis of Neoliberalism in the Decisive Situation of 6th April 1994 at exactly 0130 hours, South-Eastern Time, with a Moon that tends to Empty Itself as if it were a Worker's Purse at the Peak of Privatisations, Structural Adjustments and other Economic Measures so Effective that they Provoke Encounters like that a La Realidad (first of 17,987 parts).

He makes speeches to an audience of I5 million ticks and four cows. But his paper clip lance is sharp and so is his critique of neoliberalism -- 'History as a bad comic strip', where 'the powerful are the heroes because they are the powerful, and the villains are the 'expendable', those who can be eliminated.' In constant danger of being trampled underfoot, he knows his enemy as perhaps only those in such danger do -- neoliberalism is: 'the chaotic theory of economic chaos, the stupid exaltation of social stupidity and the catastrophic political conduct of catastrophe.'

In the Zapatista struggle there is room for dreams, for the imagination, for humour and humanity. Old Antonio's stories may well be as old as the Mayan people, though they come to us through the voice and experience of one particular man, who tells Marcos:

The story I am going to tell you was not told to me by anybody. Well, my grandfather told it to me, but he warned me that I would only understand it when I dreamed it myself. So I am telling you the story that I dreamed and not the one that my grandfather told me.

Old Antonio tells us of the mirror given by the gods, called dignity, the moons in the breasts of mothers to feed new men and women with dreams, how the gods found and named the colours: red in blood, brown in the heart of the earth, green when searching for a colour to paint hope, and yellow, 'which was a child's laughter'.

In 'Toņita on International Women's Day', Marcos tells the story of one small girl in Chiapas during the Army's invasion of Zapatista territory in 1995. She returns with her family from the mountains to which they have fled, to find that the Army has destroyed everything in her house. Like Durito, Toņita is very small. To the people who make such calculations, she is also someone who can be crushed underfoot without anyone significant raising much objection. But Marcos shows us her strength as she quietly begins her own programme of reclamation and repair:

Toņita sits on the ground and, using a mixture of earth and spit, she begins to stick the teacup pieces back together. Toņita does not cry, but there is a hard, icy glitter in her eye. Brutally, like indigenous women for the last five hundred years, Toņita ceases to be a child and becomes a woman.

Marcos' writing ranges from the mythic and the dialectic to the play of a particular small child, a moonrise or a muddy boot, but always it is about reality, the reality in which we all live, no matter what virtual realities we in the rich world have constructed to numb ourselves to it. The powerful may operate in a brutal comic strip but in the real world there is always space for complexity, subtlety, laughter and above all hope for something better. Marcos does not overestimate the importance of the work he is doing: '...it is a question of the survival of humanity.'

This is a book that everyone who is not asleep will want to read and re-read. It might even wake a few of us up. I will leave the last word to Marcos:

Remember, hope is like a biscuit: it is good for nothing if you don't have it inside you.

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