Che, but with a sense of humour

Our Word is Our Weapon
September 28, 2001

Alan Robinson on why Mexican rebels prefer the internet to the sword.

Try to think about the things in your life that are essential but that you take for granted: the right to education, to work, to freedom of expression and the right to pursue a better life for your family. Imagine for a moment that you have none of these. Your children cannot learn because there is no school to go to. They become ill and often die from curable diseases because there is no medical care nearby. It is impossible for you to save money because what you earn is pitiful, no matter how hard you work. You have no way of pursuing a better life for your family.

Surely you would protest. Even knowing that, at best, your voice will not be heard, at worst you will be made to "disappear". Your basic human rights are denied and nobody cares. You are not pursuing some radical dream. You would be asking for the recognition you are guaranteed constitutionally.

Multiply your anger by 4 million and you have Chiapas.

Famous around the world for its natural beauty, its charming colonial towns and its archaeological treasures, Chiapas is a favourite tourist destination. Most tourists will not know that Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico. Before 1994, not many Mexicans knew this either. But on January 1 1994, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) came into force in Mexico, Mexicans woke up to find a masked face on their televisions. This masked face claimed that war had been declared on poverty and injustice: "Enough is enough!" The man with the mask revealed his nom de guerre to be Marcos, and his rank subcomandante. "Through me speaks the voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army," said Marcos on that historic morning to a stunned and slightly hungover nation.

The Zapatista uprising, however, did not spring fully armed and organised out of thin air or overnight. One could, however, be forgiven for believing so; the world's media failed to recognise the pressures pushing Mexico's Maya towards armed insurrection in the 1980s. Decades of false promises and treachery led the indigenous communities and the peasant organisations to unite and form civil resistance groups in an attempt to reach the government and the nation as a whole. The Zapatistas emerged from these failed attempts shouting to the world: "We exist! We are here!" As Subcomandante Marcos would declare later on: "The door was not opened when we knocked; we had to kick it and burn it down simply to start talking." The Zapatista, or EZLN, is nevertheless not an army bent on violence and destruction. It, not the government, called a unilateral ceasefire as soon as the world had taken notice.

The EZLN understands that the problem of poverty in Mexico is not merely a lack of resources. It believes that whatever efforts are made will only postpone a solution unless these efforts are made within the context of new local, regional and national political relationships. These relationships should be marked by the values of democracy, freedom and justice.

The Zapatistas are not fighting for a new world, nor do they want to take over the government. Their political maturity is shown by the recognition that their political philosophy represents a sector of the nation and they do not want to impose their proposals on the country. They believe that a more just and democratic Mexico will emerge only when all have the right to be consulted and to make decisions freely and collectively. Others have rebelled against injustice in Mexico's recent past and all of them have been killed, wiped out by the army. No Mexican believed the pen was mightier than the sword until Marcos discovered the internet. That was his weapon and he used it with consummate skill. Literally surrounded by thousands of hostile troops armed to the teeth, the Zapatistas kept them at bay by telling the world what was going on, making it extremely difficult for Nafta's newest member to offend its US and Canadian partners by obliterating a peasant rebellion. Chiapas had captured the eyes and ears of the world.

Marcos writes satirical essays that he emails directly to the president and to others around the world. For example, in 1997 he sent President Zedillo the following recipe on how to get your face on Time magazine, and other publications, as Man of the Year: "1. Carefully combine a technocrat, a repentant oppositionist, a sham businessman, a union bully, a landowner, a builder, an alchemist in computational arts, a 'brilliant' intellectual, a television, a radio, and an official party. Set this mixture aside in a jar and label it 'Modernity'.

2. Take an agricultural worker, a peasant with no land, an unemployed person, a teacher without a school, a dissatisfied housewife, an industrial worker, an applicant for housing and services, a touch of honest press, a student, a homosexual, a member of the opposition to the regime. Divide these up as much as possible. Set them aside in a jar and label them 'Anti-Mexico'. 3. Take an indigenous Mexican. Take away the crafts and take a picture of her. Put her crafts and the photo in a jar and set aside. Label it 'Tradition'. 4. Put the indigenous Mexican in another jar, set it aside, and label it 'Dispensable'. One must not forget to disinfect oneself after this last operation.

5. Well, now open a store and hang a huge sign that says, 'Mexico 1994-2000: Huge End-of-the-Century Sale'. 6. Smile for the camera. Make sure the make-up covers the dark circles under the eyes caused by the many nightmares the process has caused. (Note: Always have on hand a policeman, a soldier, and an airplane ticket out of the country. These items may be necessary at any time.)" Marcos's versatility extends beyond manifestos and satirical letters. Some of his most interesting works are his fables. Each story is a vehicle for messages that the reader does not see coming until they have hit him right in the heart. They are written with colour and humour. He writes in the fine tradition of Latin American magical realism. Take for example the stories of Don Durito. Durito, a bespectacled, pipe-smoking beetle whose real name is Nebuchadnezzar, wandered into camp to keep "El Sup" (Marcos) company one day. Durito is a mirror of the future, showing us what might be.

He has travelled the world on a turtle that he believes to be a horse called Pegasus, righting wrongs, rescuing damsels in distress, aiding the weak, instructing the ignorant and exalting the humble. Forget Don Quixote; Durito is the best practitioner of knight-errantry. He comes and goes, sometimes disappearing for years only to come back and captivate El Sup with tales of impossible adventures.

Marcos does not take himself too seriously, as titles such as "The story of the schizophrenic pig" and "The tale of the nonconformist toad" testify. He does not go on as long as Fidel Castro and has a sharper sense of humour than Che Guevara and some of his own long-faced Mexican predecessors. On one occasion when Durito demands that El Sup communicate to the entire world the good news of his return, the beetle says: "And you do not have to make it one of those long, dense, boring communiques you torture your readers with." El Sup's literary alter ego (Durito) reveals things about the subcomandante that one would never expect from a revolutionary leader: doubts, insecurities and yearnings dressed with imaginary and fantastic journeys illuminated with fun.

This book brings together a precious collection of the unusual works of a special kind of author, which give a rare insight into the vision of a revolutionary individual and the people he represents. It is illustrated with carefully chosen black-and-white photographs covering the time of the 1994 insurrection and onwards, and it is complemented with pieces by literary critic Juana Ponce de León and Nobel prize-winner Jose Saramago, which explain the Zapatista raison d'être and the historical evolution of the movement. The translation from Spanish to English is good, considering the tremendous task.

Just as the Argentine vocalist Alberto Cortez sang "There is nothing more costly than poverty", Marcos's tales and essays bring home the desperation that drives people to take up arms against injustice.

Alan G. Robinson is an archaeologist who divides his time between Mexico and Britain.

Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings

Author - Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Editor - Juana Ponce de León
ISBN - 1 85242 691 8
Publisher - Serpent's Tail
Price - £20.00
Pages - 456

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