Some people would tell you that a modest-sized group of mostly indigenous people in a poor Mexican state on the Guatemalan border doesn’t matter, but that would be the voice of those who don’t understand how a revolution can work and what victory can mean. The Zapatistas have been a great inspiration to movements globally since they first appeared on the world stage on New Year’s Day 1994. Everything about them was new, except that they were also the voice of the indigenous cultures of the Americas saying, only two years after the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere: we are not gone, we are not defeated, we have not forgotten, and we have a future.
The future they dreamed of and realized in bits and pieces is one that opens up possibilities for us all. Since they rose up, so much has changed. So much else has risen up, including the indigenous activists of the Idle No More movement in Canada, facing down the tar-sands pipeline and fracking, and the astonishing triumph of the Bolivian majority in electing an indigenous leader and defeating so many neoliberal schemes to privatize and control their country’s resources. The Zapatista revolution has helped inspire many voices in this hemisphere telling other stories and demanding other futures than the one that Wall Street and greed laid down as inevitable.
Most of all, it’s the Zapatistas who taught us that revolutions are first of all ideas and not violence. It’s no mistake that the great anthology of the writings of their principal scribe and spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, is titled Our Word Is Our Weapon. The Zapatistas never sought to take state power or overthrow the Mexican government, but to take a stand against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and be free of the brutal domination of the local authorities and military in Chiapas. In that latter goal they have been imperfectly but astonishingly successful for these 20 years since they briefly occupied that state’s cultural capital, San Cristobal de Las Casas, and set afire the imaginations of countless watchers in Mexico and all over the world.
They made feminism central to their revolt. They questioned neoliberalism and the nation-state. They made humor and political theater part of their toolkit, while Marcos’s proclamations, manifestos, and other writings opened up a new political language that was poetic, playful, and a genuine step beyond the stale rhetoric of much of the left. I always thought Marcos deserved the Nobel Prize in literature, but at least Lannan Foundation supported him.
Most of the uprisings in North America and many in Europe over the past 20 years, from Reclaim the Streets in the mid-1990s to Occupy Wall Street in 2011, turned to the Zapatistas for inspiration and ideas. There is another history of the last 20 years, in which the devastating NAFTA goes into effect on January 1, 1994, but at almost the same moment resistance to corporate globalization rises, enough to derail the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas altogether and, starting in 1999, to throw some very large rocks under the tank treads of the World Trade Organization.
We — the we who want an egalitarian and ecologically sound future — have lost much in the past two decades, but we have won much, too. Without the struggles and voices and victories of the Zapatistas and other groups often seen as “marginal,” the present would be that much uglier, that much more destructive. And around the world, these forces are growing, not shrinking. They are hardly the dominant media’s dominant story, but they represent a genuine counterforce to that story and the power it serves. They are underground, in the streets, and in the mountains — and as Laura Gottesdiener reports so beautifully today, in the Lacandon jungle, too. TomDispatch regular Gottesdiener, who was part of Occupy Wall Street and last year published a powerful book on the foreclosure crisis’s impact on African-Americans, is in some sense a daughter of that revolution and in another is exactly the right voice to see why, 20 years on, the Zapatistas matter to all of us.
This week I have been looking at the viciousness of many anonymous trolls, petty bullies, and liars in the online world, which is easy to mistake for the whole world. There are other worlds in our world, the worlds of Desmond Tutu standing up for the rights of gays and lesbians, of the quiet toil of organizations like the Catholic Worker, of the Zapatista’s emphasis on “dignidad,” or dignity, of the human rights activists and caregivers and heroes who do the work that matters, of the great climate activists and the scientists to whom accuracy and truth matter deeply, of the current generation of fierce, funny feminists moving us all forward.
The Zapatistas have often spoken of a “world of many worlds” or said, “the world we want is one where many worlds fit.” Even to remember that they are out there, great experimentalists and improvisationalists in social and political possibility, is to feel better about this world. They remind us just how large and varied our planet still is, how many worlds it contains. The Zapatistas have given our world so much, and in her report from the Lacandon jungle, Laura Gottesdiener gives us the exhilarating pleasure of being inside their world by being inside her beautiful words.