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Zapatistas' Revolution of the Snails

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    Revolution of the Snails: Encounters With the Zapatistas By Rebecca Solnit TomDispatch.com http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011608C.shtml I grew up listening
    Message 1 of 1 , May 4, 2008
      Revolution of the Snails: Encounters With the Zapatistas
      By Rebecca Solnit

      I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of
      information that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The
      original use of the word revolution was in this sense - of something
      coming round or turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies,
      for example. It's interesting to think that just as the word radical
      comes from the Latin word for "roots" and meant going to the root of a
      problem, so revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to
      cycle, something those who live according to the agricultural cycles
      of the year know well.

      Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it
      come to mean "an instance of a great change in affairs or in some
      particular thing." 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first
      voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented
      moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less
      cyclical and more linear - as in the second definition of this new
      sense of revolution in my dictionary, "a complete overthrow of the
      established government in any country or state by those who were
      previously subject to it."

      We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living
      through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices
      toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our
      society revolving - or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be
      as patient as a snail.

      The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come,
      but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of
      us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery
      Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson's attack on
      the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962;
      certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of
      Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their
      Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined
      the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for
      Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native
      peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th
      anniversary of Columbus's arrival in this hemisphere with a radical
      rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or
      even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern
      Mexico called Zapatismo.

      Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its
      principal symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution
      spirals outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes
      of capitalism's savage alienation, industrialism's regimentation, and
      toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words
      and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come
      from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past - "we teach our
      children our language to keep alive our grandmothers" said one
      Zapatista woman - and prophetic of the half-born other world in which,
      as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on their

      Revolutionary Landscapes

      At the end of 2007, I arrived on their territory for a remarkable
      meeting between the Zapatista women and the world, the third of their
      encuentros since the 1994 launch of their revolution. Somehow, among
      the miracles of Zapatista words and ideas I read at a distance, I lost
      sight of what a revolution might look like, must look like, on the
      ground - until late last year when I arrived on that pale, dusty
      ground after a long ride in a van on winding, deeply rutted dirt roads
      through the forested highlands and agricultural clearings of Chiapas,
      Mexico. The five hours of travel from the big town of San Cristobal de
      las Casas through that intricate landscape took us past countless
      small cornfields on slopes, wooden houses, thatched pigsties and
      henhouses, gaunt horses, a town or two, more forest, and then more
      forest, even a waterfall.

      Everything was green except the dry cornstalks, a lush green in
      which December flowers grew. There were tree-sized versions of what
      looked like the common, roadside, yellow black-eyed susans of the
      American west and a palm-sized, lavender-pink flower on equally tall,
      airily branching stalks whose breathtaking beauty seemed to come from
      equal parts vitality, vulnerability, and bravura - a little like the
      women I listened to for the next few days.

      The van stopped at the junction that led to the center of the
      community of La Garrucha. There, we checked in with men with bandannas
      covering the lower halves of their faces, who sent us on to a field of
      tents further uphill. The big sign behind them read, "You are in
      Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the
      Government Obeys." Next to it, another sign addressed the political
      prisoners from last year's remarkable uprising in Oaxaca in which, for
      four months, the inhabitants held the city and airwaves and kept the
      government out. It concluded, "You are not alone. You are with us. EZLN."

      As many of you may know, EZLN stands for Ejército Zapatista de
      Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), a name
      akin to those from many earlier Latin American uprisings. The
      Zapatistas - mostly Mayan indigenous rebels from remote, rural
      communities of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost and poorest state - had
      made careful preparations for a decade before their January 1, 1994

      They began like conventional rebels, arming themselves and
      seizing six towns. They chose that first day of January because it was
      the date that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into
      effect, which meant utter devastation for small farmers in Mexico; but
      they had also been inspired by the 500th anniversary, 14 months
      before, of Columbus's arrival in the Americas and the way native
      groups had reframed that half-millenium as one of endurance and
      injustice for the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere.

      Their rebellion was also meant to take the world at least a step
      beyond the false dichotomy between capitalism and the official state
      socialism of the Soviet Union which had collapsed in 1991. It was to
      be the first realization of what needed to come next: a rebellion,
      above all, against capitalism and neoliberalism. Fourteen years later,
      it is a qualified success: many landless campesino families in
      Zapatista-controlled Chiapas now have land; many who were subjugated
      now govern themselves; many who were crushed now have a sense of
      agency and power. Five areas in Chiapas have existed outside the reach
      of the Mexican government, under their own radically different rules,
      since that revolution.

      Beyond that, the Zapatistas have given the world a model - and,
      perhaps even more important, a language - with which to re-imagine
      revolution, community, hope, and possibility. Even if, in the near
      future, they were to be definitively defeated on their own territory,
      their dreams, powerful as they have been, are not likely to die. And
      there are clouds on the horizon: the government of President Felipe
      Calderón may turn what has, for the last 14 years, been a
      low-intensity conflict in Chiapas into a full-fledged war of
      extermination. A war on dreams, on hope, on rights, and on the old
      goals of the hero of the Mexican Revolution a century before, Emiliano
      Zapata: tierra y libertad, land and liberty.

      The Zapatistas emerged from the jungle in 1994, armed with words
      as well as guns. Their initial proclamation, the First Declaration of
      the Lacandon Jungle, rang with familiar, outmoded-sounding
      revolutionary rhetoric, but shortly after the uprising took the world
      by storm, the Zapatistas' tone shifted. They have been largely
      nonviolent ever since, except in self-defense, though they are ringed
      by the Mexican army and local paramilitaries (and maintain their own
      disciplined army, a long line of whose masked troops patrolled La
      Garrucha at night, armed with sticks). What shifted most was their
      language, which metamorphosed into something unprecedented - a
      revolutionary poetry full of brilliant analysis as well as of
      metaphor, imagery, and humor, the fruit of extraordinary imaginations.

      Some of their current stickers and t-shirts - the Zapatistas
      generate more cool paraphernalia than any rock band - speak of "el
      fuego y la palabra," the fire and the word. Many of those words came
      from the inspired pen of their military commander, the nonindigenous
      Subcomandante Marcos, but that pen reflected the language of a people
      whose memory is long and environment is rich - if not in money and
      ease, then in animals, images, traditions, and ideas.

      Take, for example, the word caracol, which literally means snail
      or spiral shell. In August 2003, the Zapatistas renamed their five
      autonomous communities caracoles. The snail then became an important
      image. I noticed everywhere embroideries, t-shirts, and murals showing
      that land snail with the spiraling shell. Often the snail wore a black
      ski mask. The term caracol has the vivid vitality, the groundedness,
      that often escapes metaphors as they become part of our disembodied

      When they reorganized as caracoles, the Zapatistas reached back
      to Mayan myth to explain what the symbol meant to them. Or
      Subcomandante Marcos did, attributing the story as he does with many
      stories to "Old Antonio," who may be a fiction, a composite, or a real
      source of the indigenous lore of the region:

      "The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women
      are in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their
      hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods
      and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that
      they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the
      heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They
      say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents
      exiting from the heart to walk the world?. The caracoles will be like
      doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come
      out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside;
      like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to
      hear the words from the one who is far away."

      The caracoles are clusters of villages, but described as spirals
      they reach out to encompass the whole world and begin from within the
      heart. And so I arrived in the center of one caracol, a little further
      up the road from those defiant signs, in the broad, unpaved plaza
      around which the public buildings of the village of La Garrucha are
      clustered, including a substantial two-story, half-built clinic.
      Walking across that clearing were Zapatista women in embroidered
      blouses or broad collars and aprons stitched of rows of ribbon that
      looked like inverted rainbows - and those ever-present ski masks in
      which all Zapatistas have appeared publicly since their first moment
      out of the jungles in 1994. (Or almost all, a few wear bandannas instead.)

      That first glimpse was breathtaking. Seeing and hearing those
      women for the three days that followed, living briefly on rebel
      territory, watching people brave enough to defy an army and the
      world's reigning ideology, imaginative enough to invent (or reclaim) a
      viable alternative was one of the great passages of my life. The
      Zapatistas had been to me a beautiful idea, an inspiration, a new
      language, a new kind of revolution. When they spoke at this Third
      Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the People of the World, they
      became a specific group of people grappling with practical problems. I
      thought of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said he had been to the
      mountaintop. I have been to the forest.

      The Words of the Third Encounter

      The encuentro was held in a big shed-like auditorium with a
      corrugated tin roof and crossbeams so long they could only have been
      hewn from local trees - they would never have made it around the bends
      in the local roads. The wooden walls were hung with banners and
      painted with murals. (One, of an armed Zapatista woman, said,
      "cellulite sí, anorexia, no.") An unfinished mural showed a monumental
      ear of corn whose top half merged into the Zapatista ski mask, the
      eyes peering out of the corn. Among the embroideries local artisans
      offered were depictions of cornstalks with Zapatista faces where the
      ears would be. All of this - snails and corn-become-Zapatistas alike -
      portrayed the rebels as natural, pervasive, and fruitful.

      Three or four times a day, a man on a high, roofed-over stage
      outside the hall would play a jaunty snippet of a tune on an organ and
      perhaps 250 of the colorfully dressed Zapatista women in balaclavas or
      bandannas would walk single file into the auditorium and seat
      themselves onstage on rows of backless benches. The women who had come
      from around the world to listen would gather on the remaining benches,
      and men would cluster around the back of the hall. Then, one caracol
      at a time, they would deliver short statements and take written
      questions. Over the course of four days, all five caracoles delivered
      reflections on practical and ideological aspects of their situation.
      Pithy and direct, they dealt with difficult (sometimes obnoxious)
      questions with deftness. They spoke of the challenge of living a
      revolution that meant autonomy from the Mexican government, but also
      of learning how to govern themselves and determine for themselves what
      liberty and justice mean.

      The Zapatista rebellion has been feminist from its inception:
      Many of the comandantes are women - this encuentro was dedicated to
      the memory of deceased Comandante Ramona, whose image was everywhere -
      and the liberation of the women of the Zapatista regions has been a
      core part of the struggle. The testimonies addressed what this meant -
      liberation from forced marriages, illiteracy, domestic violence, and
      other forms of subjugation. The women read aloud, some of them
      nervous, their voices strained - and this reading and writing was
      itself testimony to the spread both of literacy and of Spanish as part
      of the revolution. The first language of many Zapatistas is an
      indigenous one, and so they spoke their Spanish with formal,
      declarative clarity. They often began with a formal address to the
      audience that spiraled outward: "hermanos y hermanas, compañeras y
      compañeros de la selva, pueblos del Mexico, pueblos del mundo,
      sociedad civile" - "brothers and sisters, companions of the
      rainforest, people of Mexico, people of the world, civil society." And
      then they would speak of what revolution had meant for them.

      "We had no rights," one of them said about the era before the
      rebellion. Another added, "The saddest part is that we couldn't
      understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had
      told us about our rights."

      "The struggle is not just for ourselves, it's for everyone," said
      a third. Another spoke to us directly: "We invite you to organize as
      women of the world in order to get rid of neoliberalism, which has
      hurt all of us."

      They spoke of how their lives had improved since 1994. On New
      Year's Eve, one of the masked women declared:

      "Who we think is responsible [for the oppressions] is the
      capitalist system, but now we no longer fear. They humiliated us for
      too long, but as Zapatistas no one will mistreat us. Even if our
      husbands still mistreat us, we know we are human beings. Now, women
      aren't as mistreated by husbands and fathers. Now, some husbands
      support and help us and don't make all the decisions - not in all
      households, but poco a poco. We invite all women to defend our rights
      and combat machismo."

      They spoke of the practical work of remaking the world and
      setting the future free, of implementing new possibilities for
      education, healthcare, and community organization, of the everyday
      workings of a new society. Some of them carried their babies - and
      their lives - onstage and, in one poignant moment, a little girl
      dashed across that stage to kiss and hug her masked mother. Sometimes
      the young daughters wore masks too.

      A Zapatista named Maribel spoke of how the rebellion started, of
      the secrecy in which they met and organized before the uprising:

      "We learned to advance while still hiding until January 1. This is
      when the seed grew, when we brought ourselves into the light. On
      January 1, 1994, we brought our dreams and hopes throughout Mexico and
      the world - and we will continue to care for this seed. This seed of
      ours we are giving for our children. We hope you all will struggle
      even though it is in a different form. The struggle [is] for everybody?"

      The Zapatistas have not won an easy or secure future, but what
      they have achieved is dignity, a word that cropped up constantly
      during the encuentro, as in all their earlier statements. And they
      have created hope. Hope (esperanza) was another inescapable word in
      Zapatista territory. There was la tienda de esperanza, the unpainted
      wooden store of hope, that sold tangerines and avacados. A few
      mornings, I had café con leche and sweet rice cooked with milk and
      cinnamon at a comedor whose handlettered sign read: "Canteen of
      autonomous communities in rebellion?dreams of hope." The Zapatista
      minibus was crowned with the slogan "the collective [which also means
      bus in Spanish] makes hope."

      After midnight, at the very dawn of the New Year, when men were
      invited to speak again, one mounted the platform from which the New
      Year's dance music was blasting to say that he and the other men had
      listened and learned a lot.

      This revolution is neither perfect nor complete - mutterings
      about its various shortcomings weren't hard to hear from elsewhere in
      Mexico or the internationals at the encuentro (who asked many testing
      questions about these campesinas' positions on, say, transgendered
      identity and abortion) - but it is an astonishing and fruitful beginning.

      The Speed of Snails and Dreams

      Many of their hopes have been realized. The testimony of the
      women dealt with this in specific terms: gains in land, rights,
      dignity, liberty, autonomy, literacy, a good local government that
      obeys the people rather than a bad one that tramples them. Under
      siege, they have created community with each other and reached out to
      the world.

      Emerging from the jungles and from impoverishment, they were one
      of the first clear voices against corporate globalization - the
      neoliberal agenda that looked, in the 1990s, as though it might
      succeed in taking over the world. That was, of course, before the
      surprise shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999
      and other innovative, successful global acts of resistance against
      that agenda and its impact. The Zapatistas articulated just how
      audacious indigenous rebellion against invisibility, powerlessness,
      and marginalization could be - and this was before other indigenous
      movements from Bolivia to northern Canada took a share of real power
      in the Americas. Their image of "a world in which many worlds are
      possible" came to describe the emergence of broad coalitions spanning
      great differences, of alliances between hunter-gatherers, small-scale
      farmers, factory workers, human rights activists, and
      environmentalists in France, India, Korea, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, and

      Their vision represented the antithesis of the homogenous world
      envisioned both by the proponents of "globalism" and by the modernist
      revolutions of the twentieth century. They have gone a long way toward
      reinventing the language of politics. They have been a beacon for
      everyone who wants to make a world that is more inventive, more
      democratic, more decentralized, more grassroots, more playful. Now,
      they face a threat from the Mexican government that could savage the
      caracoles of resistance, crush the rights and dignity that the women
      of the encuentro embodied even as they spoke of them - and shed much

      During the 1980s, when our government was sponsoring the dirty
      wars in Central America, two U.S. groups in particular countered those
      politics of repression, torture, and death. One was the Pledge of
      Resistance, which gathered the signatures of hundreds of thousands who
      promised to respond with civil disobedience if the U.S. invaded
      Sandinista-run Nicaragua or otherwise deepened its involvement with
      the dictatorships and death squads of Central America. Another was
      Witness for Peace, which placed gringos as observers and unarmed
      protectors in communities throughout Central America.

      While killing or disappearing campesinos could be carried out
      with ease in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, doing the same
      to U.S. citizens, or in front of them, was a riskier proposition. The
      Yankee witnesses used the privilege of their color and citizenship as
      a shield for others and then testified to what they saw. We have come
      to a moment when we need to strengthen the solidarity so many
      activists around the world have felt for the Zapatistas, strengthen it
      into something that can protect the sources of "the fire and the word"
      - the fire that has warmed so many who have a rebel heart, the word
      that has taught us to imagine the world anew.

      The United States and Mexico both have eagles as their emblems,
      predators which attack from above. The Zapatistas have chosen a snail
      in a spiral shell, a small creature, easy to overlook. It speaks of
      modesty, humility, closeness to the earth, and of the recognition that
      a revolution may start like lightning but is realized slowly,
      patiently, steadily. The old idea of revolution was that we would
      trade one government for another and somehow this new government would
      set us free and change everything. More and more of us now understand
      that change is a discipline lived every day, as those women standing
      before us testified; that revolution only secures the territory in
      which life can change. Launching a revolution is not easy, as the
      decade of planning before the 1994 Zapatista uprising demonstrated,
      and living one is hard too, a faith and discipline that must not
      falter until the threats and old habits are gone - if then. True
      revolution is slow.

      There's a wonderful passage in Robert Richardson's biography of
      Thoreau in which he speaks of the Europe-wide revolution of 1848 and
      says of the New England milieu and its proliferating cooperative
      communities at that time, "Most of the founders were more interested
      in building models, which would be emulated because they succeeded,
      than in the destruction of the existing order. Still American utopian
      socialism had much in common with the spirit of 1848."

      This says very directly that you can reach out and change the
      state and its institutions, which we recognize as revolution, or you
      can make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is
      also revolutionary. This creating - rather than simply rebelling - has
      been much of the nature of revolution in our time, as people reinvent
      family, gender, food systems, work, housing, education, economics,
      medicine and doctor-patient relations, the imagination of the
      environment, and the language to talk about it, not to speak of more
      and more of everyday life. The fantasy of a revolution is that it will
      make everything different, and regime revolutions generally make a
      difference, sometimes a significantly positive one, but the making of
      radical differences in everyday life is a more protracted, incremental
      process. It's where leaders are irrelevant and every life matters.

      Give the Zapatistas time - the slow, unfolding time of the spiral
      and the journey of the snail - to keep making their world, the one
      that illuminates what else our lives and societies could be. Our
      revolution must be as different as our temperate-zone, post-industrial
      society is to their subtropical agrarianism, but also guided by the
      slow forces of dignity, imagination, and hope, as well as the
      playfulness they display in their imagery and language. The testimony
      in the auditorium ended late on December 31. At midnight, amid
      dancing, the revolution turned 14. May it long continue to spiral
      inward and outward.


      The last time Rebecca Solnit camped out on rebel territory, she
      was an organizer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project that insists
      - with good legal grounds - that the Shoshone in Nevada had never
      ceded their land to the U.S. government. That story is told in her
      1994 book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the
      American West, but the subsequent inspiration of the Zapatistas is
      most evident in the book Tom Engelhardt helped her to bring into
      being, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She is
      11 chapters into her next book.



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