“Building Another Reality: Zapatista (Re)surgence and (Re)birth”


“Building Another Reality: Zapatista (Re)surgence and (Re)birth” in the panel titled Building Another Reality: Radical Democratic Theory and Zapatista (Re)surgence” for the Left Forum Conference on “Reform and/or Revolution: Imagining a World with Transformative Justice,” May 30-June 1 2014.


My initial idea for this paper, which was to focus solely on the premise of what does it mean to ‘build another reality’ (a quote lifted from a communiqué by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, now Galeano of the Zapatistas). I wanted to parse out the idea and think about what this Zapatista world looks like – wood, walls, wells, education and health care, the sounds, smells and color and sights. Dignity and life, how that is another reality, but recent developments death and rebirth demands that we consider more behind this idea of ‘building another reality.’

So lets begin at the end (or is it the beginning?), with death. On May 2nd 2014, members of the paramilitary organization CIOAC-Histórica (known as the guardias blancas) planned and executed an attack on the Zapatista autonomous community of La Realidad. Chiapas since the outset of the Zapatista Uprising in 1994 has become a militarized state. Military installations dot the pine forests leaving the colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas as roads wind down into the jungle. For women, heavy military presence is dangerous. However, more disturbing is the presence of paramilitaries, these shadow armies. The use of hired-guns by hacendados is a long held historical practice.

The Highland Maya and the Zapatistas know well the struggles in what they call their “war for humanity and against neoliberalism and globalization.” They live the layered experience of what they also call “the war from above” rooted in structural violence of poverty, racism, and history.


May began with the murder of José Luis Solis Lopóz, known as Subcomandante Galeano, a teacher at the Escuelita Zapatista and the destruction of the autonomous school, a health clinic and water system. In the wake of tragedy, the Zapatistas made a momentous decision announced in the early morning of May 25th, a decision deeply rooted in Mayan cosmovision – a reminder to everyone that this is first and foremost an indigenous movement. Marcos read his speech “Between Light and Shadow: Marcos’ last words” noting that in the wake of death, the collective body of Zapatistas reflected on the reality of losing one of their own, that death was not an end but rather a beginning. Indigenous ways of thinking is cyclical (not linear). Life, death and rebirth; the cycle of the days, the cycle of life. This isn’t just hybrid thinking blending indigenous and Christian traditions, it is rooted in indigenous thinking and to see this we must suspend our notions of what is reality and what is possible.


El Sup details how Marcos was a creation, was born not as a man but as an idea, a persona. And while we know that Marcos was not the intended spokesperson for the EZLN a Mestizo academic from Tamaulipas, he was the right man for that moment in history to catapult the ‘war for humanity and against neoliberalism’ to the world stage. Over the weekend, El Sup reminded us that Marcos was created to meet a need. Now this need has ended. “Everyone is Marcos, No one is Marcos.” Demonstrating radical democracy at the community-based level, the Zapatistas collectively decided that for Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano to live, someone must die. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos went as the honorary victim, sacrificed to ensure the continuation of life. Marcos died, but was also reborn on May 25th as Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano.


The taking of a nom de guerre of a fallen comrade is a long held practice. And martyrdom is a deeply Latin American tradition, in death one lives on. But it was the crafting of language of how Marcos presented the collective idea of and by the Zapatistas as to how the group was to respond to the attack and death, but also unveil the new direction of the Zapatistas 20 years on into their movement. Marcos no longer needed to be the mouthpiece of the EZLN. After 20 years of struggle, the EZLN has grown, matured and given birth to a whole new generation of voices and leaders. In his astute reflection on Marcos’ “Between Light and Shadow” speech, Leonidas Oikonomakis (co-editor for ROAR Magazine) reminds us that in Chiapas, in the mountains and selva, “there are people who have learned how to govern themselves in an autonomous, horizontal way. There are children who have studied in autonomous schools, patients who have been treated in the autonomous clinics, women who are no longer considered inferior to men. And all of this should be known to the world without the distraction of the persona of Marcos.” (“Farewell to Marcos, Long Live Subcomandante Galeano!”) A bittersweet public unveiling, an unveiling that actually began on December 22, 2013 with the silent march into San Cristóbal de Las Casas when Mayan indigenous emerged masked, marching four by four through the rain. The communiqué read,

Do you Hear?

That is the sound of your world falling apart.

It is the sound of our resurgence.

That day was the day, was night.

And night will be the day that will be the day.




The march heralded not so much resurgence – as the Zapatistas had not disappeared, gone away, demobilized, but rather a reminder. We are here.


EZLN strategy changed drastically after the failure of the San Andres Peace Accords. The Mexican government betrayed their agreements. Zapatista response after 2003 was to withdraw from engagement. Paola Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed tells us that once the oppressed realizes that it cannot ‘reason’ with the oppressor; then it should disengage and no longer negotiate. This is exactly what the EZLN did after 2003 when it created Councils of Good Governance (Juntas de Buen Gobierno – a name originating from the notion of ‘bad’ government). Within these Councils of Good Governance, the EZLN created local laws, created an agreed on system to enforce law and to apply punishment. This form of radical, sustainable democracy was wholly a community-based system created from indigenous community practices. There are 5 established Caracoles (bastions of resistance): Roberto Barrios, La Garruch, Morelia, Oventi and La Realidad. Over the weekend, Marcos reminded us that after the dilemma between fighting and negotiating, that the EZLN chose against “dedicating [itself] to training guerrillas, solders, and squadrons,” and instead “developed education and health promoters, who went about building the foundations of autonomy that today amazes the world.” He continues, “Instead of constructing barracks, improving our weapons, and building walls and trenches, we built schools, hospitals and health centers; improving our living conditions.” (“Between Light and Shadow”) Each caracol has an autonomous health clinic and autonomous school. The abandonment of dialogue in 2003 was a watershed towards internal, grassroots radical democracy.


To understand the philosophy behind the shift, lets examine what Freire tells us about what he termed “conscientization.” Freire’s critical work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed has us not only think about how a liberated education delivers oppressed persons from their ‘fears of freedom’ helps us frame the notion of ‘building another reality’. The critical consciousness of ‘conscientization’ is “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and to take action against oppressive elements of reality.” (Freire, 15) This knowing empowers the oppressed to enter into history, becoming an actor of change. Key to the Zapatista Movement has always been the demand for dignity. Freire argues that subjects must assert their humanity, force the issue of humanization … to make the dehumanization visible, the contradiction; the hypocrisy; the centuries of atrocities. The fight though to humanize is a protracted one where the shadow of the former oppressor looms, as Freire says “casts a shadow over them.” (Freire, 23). The Zapatista know well this shadow threat.


The step forward the oppressed makes once they realize they cannot reason with the oppressor is momentous. Freire writes, “When they discover within themselves, the yearning to be free, they perceive that this yearning can be transformative into reality…” (Freire, 24) In 2003, the EZLN turned inward, into the caracoles. In June of 2005, the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona (La Sexta) continued the word into action deeply woven into Zapatista tradition. The radical democracy of the Zapatistas eschewed the notion of a revolutionary vanguard giving way to the controversial notion of “governing by obeying,” a deeply Mayan way of thinking. No vanguard. No individualism. Moving away from the cult of personality, the caudillo tradition of a strong man to govern all, power from above. The EZLN shifted power from above, to “from below and to the left” but rooted in horizontal collective traditions.


In January 2006, the EZLN announced their Other Campaign — the focus on creating Escuelitas. Traditional education in Mexico was done in Spanish, rarely in indigenous languages. Zapatista influence pushed for bilingual schools, but the idea of Escuelitas invited onlookers into the EZLN world to study the Zapatista experiment with autonomy through lived experience. What would it be like to live a Zapatista reality? What does autonomy and freedom look like? A world built of their experience. The Zapatista reality was one that smelt of burning ochote; that sweet smelling pine kindling used to light cooking fires. It was a reality of hard work in the milpas. It was a world rooted in community, living on the edge, discriminated against, spit on and always under threat. But it was also a reality full of hope, fighting to live.


The ingenuity of the EZLN message is that the Zapatista world was but one type of reality. Unlocking the critical consciousness opens possibilities of many realities. The model resonates.


At present, the EZLN is in yet another transition. Subcomandante Galeano was a teacher at the above-mentioned Escuelita in La Realidad. The ever-present oppressor struck and killed, again. This heinous murder by an unsanctioned military apparatus should have never happened and the EZLN plan to find the murders.


The Zapatista met this reality holding to their cosmovision and words. At nearing 3am on May 25th 2014, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, at the end of his speech, lit his pipe and existed the stage in the caracoles La Realidad, killed by those who created him.


Then, from somewhere over the loud speakers, the crowd heard:

“Good morning, compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano. Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Anyone else here named Galeano? [The crowd cheers, “We are Galeano”] Ah, that’s why they told me that when I was reborn, it would be as a collective. And so it should be.”



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