Them vs. Us: the Gaze
To Look and Communicate
“ … the passage to humanity today is called ‘rebellion’…”
I’m going to tell you something very secret, but don’t go spreading it around…or, go ahead, spread it around, it’s up to you.
In the early days of our uprising, after the ceasefire, there was a lot of talk about the eezeelen. There was, of course, all of the media paraphernalia that the right usually uses to impose silence and blood. Some of the arguments that they used then are the same ones that they use now, which shows how dated the right actually is and how stagnant their thinking. But this is not what we are going to talk about here, nor are we going to talk about the press.
Okay, now I will tell you that back then, they began to say that the EZLN was the first guerilla group of the 21st century (yes, we who still used a digging stick to sow the land, things like teams of oxen – no offense intended – we had heard people talk about, and tractors we only knew from photographs); that Supmarcos was a cyber guerrilla who, from the Lacandón Jungle, would send into cyberspace the Zapatista communiqués that would circle the world; and who could count on satellite communications to coordinate the subversive actions that were taking place all over the world.
Yes, that’s what they said, but…compas, even on the eve of the uprising our “Zapatista cyber power” was one of those computers that used big floppy disks and had a DOS operating system version –1.1. We learned how to use it from one of those tutorials, I don’t know if they still exist, that told you which key to press and when you pressed the right one, a voice with a accent from Madrid said, “Very Good!” and if you did something wrong it would say “Very bad, you idiot, try again!” Besides using it to play Pacman, we used it to write the “First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle,” which we reproduced on one of those old dot matrix printers that made more noise than a machine gun. The paper was from a roll that jammed every time we printed, but we had carbon paper and managed to print as many as two every few hours. We made a shitload of copies, I think like 100. We distributed them to the five command groups, which, a few hours later would take seven municipal seats in the southeastern part of the state of Chiapas. In San Cristóbal de las Casas, which was the municipality I was assigned to take, they surrendered the plaza to our forces and we used masquinteip [aka masking tape] (as they say) to put up our 15 copies of the Declaration. Yes, I know that it doesn’t add up, we should have had 20 copies, who knows what happened to the other five.
Well, when we left San Cristóbal in the early morning hours of January 2, 1994, the damp fog that covered our retreat dislodged the proclamations from the cold walls of the magnificent colonial city and some lay strewn in the streets.
Years later someone told me that anonymous hands had torn some of those declarations from the walls and guarded them jealously.
And soon the Dialogues at the Cathedral followed. At that time, I had one of those light, portable computers (it weighed six kilos without the battery), made by HandMeDown Inc., with 128 ram, that is to say 128 kilobytes of ram, a hard disk with 10 megabites, so as you can imagine it could hold everything, and a processor that was so fast that you could turn it on, go make coffee, come back, and you could still reheat the coffee, 7 x 7 times, before you could start to write. What a fantastic machine. In the mountains, to get it to work, we used a converter attached to a car battery. Afterwards, our Zapatista advanced technology department designed a device that would let the computer run on D batteries, but the device weighed more than the computer and, I suspect had something to do with the PC expiring in a sudden flash, with a ton of smoke, which kept the mosquitos away for three days. What about the satellite telephone that the Sup used to communicate with “international terrorism?” It was a walkie-talkie with a reach of some 400 meters, max, on flat land (there are probably still photos floating around out there of the “cyber guerrilla” ha!). And you think we had internet? In February of 1995, when the federal government was pursuing us (and not exactly for an interview), the portable PC was thrown into the first stream that we crossed. After that we wrote our communiqués on a mechanical typewriter lent to us by the ejidalcommissioner of one of the communities that took us in.
This was the powerful and advanced technology that we had, the “cyber guerillas of the 21st Century.”
I am really sorry if, in addition to my own already battered ego, this destroys some of the illusions that were created out there. But it was just like I am telling you now.
Anyway, later we learned that…
A young student in Texas, USA, maybe a “nerd” [original English] (or however you say it), created a web page and simply named it “ezln.” This was the first webpage of the EZLN. And this compa started to “put up” all of the communiqués and letters made public in the press on that site. People from other parts of the world who had found out about the uprising through photos, recorded video images, or in the newspaper, went to that site to find our word.
And we never knew this compa, or maybe we did.
Maybe he came one time to Zapatista lands, as others did. If he came, he never said “I’m the one who made the ezln webpage,” or “thanks to me, people know about you all over the world,” nor did he say, “I came so that you could thank me and honor me.”
He could have done this, and the thanks would have been minimal, but he didn’t.
And you may not know this, but there are people like that. Good people who do things without asking for anything in return, “without making a fuss,” as we Zapatistas say.
And so the world kept turning. Compas arrived who knew something about computers, and soon they started other webpages, and we got things to the way that they are now, that is, with this damned server that doesn’t work like it should, even though we sing “la del moño colorado” to it and dance to the rhythm of cumbia-corrido-ranchera-norteña-tropical-ska-rap-punk-rock-folk ballad.
Also without making a fuss, we thanked this compa: may the first or supreme gods or god that he believes in, or doubts, or doesn’t believe in, bless him.
We don’t know what became of this compa. Maybe he is part of Anonymous. Maybe he continues surfing the web, looking for a noble cause to support. Maybe he is despised for his appearance, maybe he is different, maybe his neighbors and colleagues from work and school look down on him.
Or maybe he is a regular person, one more of the millions who walk the earth with no one noticing them, with no one looking at them.
And maybe he will somehow read what I am recounting to you, and read what we now write to him:
“Compa, here now there are schools where before only ignorance grew; there is food, not much, but it is dignified, in a place where before hunger was the only guest at the table; and now there is relief where before the only medicine for pain was death. I don’t know if you expected this. Maybe you already knew. Maybe you saw some future in those words that you relaunched into cyberspace. Or maybe you didn’t, maybe you only did what you did because you felt that it was your duty. And duty, we Zapatistas know well, is the only kind of slavery that one willingly embraces.
We learned. And I don’t mean that we learned the importance of communication, or the knowledge of the various sciences and techniques of information. For example, other than Durito, none of us has been able to figure out how to successfully tweet. Faced with the 140 character limit, not only am I useless, so dependent am I on commas, (parentheses), ellipses…but time after time, by the end, I’ve run out of characters. I think it improbable that I will ever be able to do it. Durito, for example, has proposed a communiqué that complies with the character limit of a tweet and it says:
123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 123456789 1234567890
But the problem is that the code to decipher this communiqué occupies the equivalent of the 7 tomes of the encyclopedia of “Differences” that humanity has been writing since it began its sorrowful walk on this earth, and whose publication has been vetoed by Power.
No, what we have learned is that there are people out there, near and far, who we do not know, who perhaps do not know us, who arecompas. And they are compas not because they have participated in some march of support, or because they have visited a Zapatista community, or because they wear a red bandana on their neck, or because they have signed a petition, or because they have signed a letter of affiliation, or because they have a membership card, or however you say that.
They are compas because we Zapatistas know that just as there are many worlds in this world that we inhabit, there are also many forms, modes, times, and places to struggle against the beast, without asking, nor hoping, for anything in exchange.
We send you a hug, compa, wherever you may be. I am sure that you can, by now, answer the question that one asks oneself when they begin walking: “will it be worth it?”
Maybe you will hear that in a community or in a barracks there is a Zapatista computer room called “him,” like that, in lowercase. And maybe you will hear that some of our guests came upon this room, noticed the sign, and asked who “him” was. And that we answered: “we don’t know, but he does.”
OK, take care, and yes, it was worth it, I think.
From etc. etc.
We Zapatistas of the eezeelen dot com dot org dot net or dot whatever you call it.”
And this is all to say that, as you may have already noticed, we have a lot of faith in the free and/or libertarian media, or whatever you call it, and in the people, groups, collectives, and organizations who have their own means of communication. Also people, groups, collectives, organizations who have their own webpages, their blogs, or whatever you call it, who provide a space for our word, and now, the music and images that accompany it. And also people and groups who maybe don’t even have a computer, but nevertheless who through talking, or flyering, or making a newspaper-mural, or making graffiti on a wall or in a notebook or on public transport, or in a play, a video, school homework, a song, a dance, a poem, a canvas, a book, or a letter, spread the words that our collective heart has written.
If they don’t belong to us, if they aren’t an organic part of us, if we don’t give them orders, if we don’t tell them what to do, if they are autonomous, independent, free (that is to say if they govern themselves), or however you say that, why do they do it?
Maybe they think that everyone has a right to information, and that everyone is responsible for what they do or don’t do with this information. Maybe it is because they are in solidarity with and have a commitment to support those who also struggle, even if by other means. Maybe it is because they feel it is their duty.
Or maybe it is because of all of this and more.
They themselves must know. And they probably have it written there, on their webpage, on their blog, in the declaration of their principles, in their flyer, in their song, on their wall, in their notebook, in their heart.
That is, I am talking about those who communicate among themselves and with others that which we feel in our hearts; that is to say, they listen. Those who look at us, and look at themselves thinking about us, and make themselves a bridge and then discover that these words that they write, sing, repeat, transform, do not belong to the Zapatistas, that they never did, that those words belong to you, they belong to everybody and to nobody, and that they are part of a larger whole, and who knows where that larger whole may be, and so you discover or confirm that when you look at us looking at ourselves looking at you, you are touching and talking about something bigger, something for which there is no alphabet yet, and that through this process you aren’t joining a group, collective, organization, sect, religion, or whatever you may call it, but rather that you are understanding that the passage to humanity today is called “rebellion.”
Maybe before you “click” on your decision to put our words on your sites, you ask “will it be worth it?” Maybe you ask yourself if you won’t in fact be supporting Marcos’ stay on a European beach, enjoying the lovely climate of those calendars in those geographies. Maybe you ask yourselves if you aren’t serving a creation of “the beast” to deceive and simulate rebellion. Maybe you tell yourselves that it is our job, as Zapatistas, to answer this question of “will it be worth it?” and by clicking on the computer, the spray, the pencil, the guitar, the cd, the camera, you are committing us, the Zapatistas, to respond to that question with a “yes.” And so you “click” on “upload” or “post” or “load,” or you play the initial chord, or make the first step-color-verse, or whatever you call it.
And maybe you don’t know, although I think it is obvious, that you’re giving us a hand, as they say. And I’m not saying this because our webpage crashes sometimes, as if it were in a “slam,” and upon hurling itself into the void there was no friendly hand to break the fall, which if it is on cement, will hurt regardless of your calendar and geography. I point this out because on the other side of our word, there are many who do not agree with us and openly express it; there is another much greater number who are not in agreement and don’t even bother to say anything; there are a few who are in agreement and who openly express that; there are a few more who are in agreement but don’t say it; and then there is the immense majority, who haven’t even heard about the debate. It is to this last group that we want to speak, that is to say, to look, that is to say, to listen.
Compas, thank you. We know. But we are sure that, even if we did not know it, you would. And it is exactly this, we Zapatistas think, that is what changing the world is about.
(To be continued…)
From whatever corner, of whatever world.
Originally posted in Spanish on Enlace Zapatista
Translated into English by El Kilombo Intergalactico
Compañeros of the Word
Toward a Literacy of Rebellion
In the dead of winter, 1994, a mysterious caller left a voice-message on my answering machine. Speaking in English, but with a Mexican-sounding accent, the female voice simply said, “The compañeros asked me to call you to thank you for the pamphlet you made about the struggle.” Compañeros? It was the first time that I had consciously heard the word, and it would be years before I really understood it.
A few weeks earlier, I had opened that day’s New York Times and stood, without moving, while reading the paper’s cover story. It was January 3, 1994. An indigenous uprising was taking place in Chiapas, Mexico. The article described how a well orchestrated, surprise action staged by thousands of Mexican rebels had managed to seize control of several towns. Photos showed the rebels, many armed with nothing more than sticks. Without words, the faces in the photos spoke: Estamos aqui. No queremos morir, ya no! Somos ustedes. Ustedes son nosotros. Ven, compañero. Ven, compañera. Levantanse!
Day by day, coverage of the rebellion deepened, and day by day, bits and pieces of the words of the indigenous communities and their spokespeople made it into print. When they did, phrases floated out like lines from great writers like Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Benedetti or Walt Whitman; words you never forget, words that hold you in their hands, words that call you, invite you, and stay with you as if they were those of someone you have always known and loved, but have never met.
A young woman, Barbara Pillsbury, began posting her translations of the rebels’ writings on the website of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy. From these initial translations, the Mexican rebels’ own perspectives began to gradually emerge in their own voice, in their own rhythm, and in their own words. Declarations of indignation, dignity, justice, democracy and freedom flowed like mountain springs from remote Mayan communities to the rest of the world.
“Here we are, the dead of all times, dying once again, but now in order to live,” began one of the rebels’ communiqués. Through simple and heartfelt language, 500 years of indigenous resistance was being signaled out as both a local Mexican struggle and as a global defense for humanity itself. As an activist and a movement publisher, everything about this resonated and inspired. By February 1994, my friend and I began publishing pamphlets of the Zapatistas’ first communiqués and declarations. No long after, the mysterious voice message was left on the answering machine. But it wouldn’t be until August 1999 that I made my first trip to Chiapas, met with the insurgent communities, and began to hear the living voice of the people in struggle and learn bits and pieces of their language of community, dignity and struggle.
In the meantime, I learned by reading Zapatista literature. As support for the movement spread, new translators emerged with new styles of translating that preserved some terms in the Spanish original. Among the words that appeared most abundantly werecompañero y compañera. For example, many of Zapatista letters and public presentations begin with greetings to others in the struggle: “Brothers and sisters, compañeros y compañeras….” In Chiapas, compañero, or compa for short, is how Zapatistas refer to one another, and to anyone or anything in solidarity with the movement. You might also hear “compita,” an affectionate version ofcompa, which I first came across through written correspondence with freed Zapatista political prisoner, Javier Eliorriaga.
Time, memory and oral history all flow differently in the Zapatista communities. Their braid of struggle is woven equally with strands of the past, the future and the present, and whatever helps them weave it is a weapon against oblivion. “We have other arms,” states one of their letters. “For example, we have the arm of the word. We also have the arm of our culture, of our being who we are…We have the weapon of the mountain, that old friend and compañera who fights along with us, with her roads, hiding places, and hillsides, with her trees, with her rains, with her suns, with her dawns, and moons…”
Paolo Freire said language is never neutral, and Alfred Korzybski said words are like maps, but never the territory to which they refer. In the case of insurgent discourse, the territory to which the terms of struggle refer is the possible world, experienced in glimpses through collective acts of the imagination, conscience and yearning. The genius of Zapatista literature is the narrative it voices to protect its historical memory and parent the possible. “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live. We saw that in this world there was no need for armies; peace, justice and liberty were so common that no one talked about them as far-off concepts, but as things such as bread, birds, air, water.”
The words dignity, dream, democracy, justice, struggle and liberty are among those central to the Zapatista vision, but perhaps it is the word compañero, the building block of the community and the organization, that holds and contains all of these other words in it. In the words of Araceli and Maribel, Zapatista women from the La Realidad region, describe how the original insurgents introduced them to the word: “After visiting us several times, they began to explain the struggle to us: what they were fighting for and whom they were fighting against. They told us there was a word we could use to show our respect for each other, and that word was compañerosor compañeras. Pronouncing it meant that we were going to struggle together for our freedom.”
While its meaning may change from place to place, the word compañero is common in conversation, movement songs, and the literature of resistance throughout Spanish-speaking culture. You can hear it in the dialogue of the characters in the film Corazon del Tiempo, in the one-word title of Jorge Casteñada’s biography of Che Guevara, and in the lines of Argentine poet Juan Gelman:
Nosotros vamos a empezar otra vez la lucha
Otra vez vamos a empezar
Otra vez vamos a empezar nosotros
Contra la gran derrota del mundo
Compañeritos que no terminan
O arden en la memoria como fuegos
In art as in life, the word carries the love and aspiration of people who use language, like territory, to struggle for a better world.
* * *
As of the time of this writing, authorities have arrested 7,719 people have been arrested at events and actions organized by Occupy movement. I was among the 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2012. Spending the night in a jail cell with 115 other protestors was a galvanizing and affirming experience. During my first court appearance I was reunited with many of the movement people with whom I marched and spent the night in jail. With great joy, I passed around copies pamphlets I had published since our arrest and chatted with young organizers about plans for upcoming actions. A few blocks away, Zuccotti Park was roiling with activity. When the judge called out my name, I made my way up from my seat, passed through a small wooden gate, and stood before the bench. I declined the court’s offer for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, and chose to fight all charges against us. As I turned from the judge and began to exit the space before his bench, a Latina woman from the movement was called up. For a moment we stood facing each other, the gate between us.
It was for me to exit before she approached the bench, but I said, “After you, compañera,” and opened the gate for her to come forward first.
“Gracias, compañero,” she answered.
We looked at each other again, but now with new eyes, a new understanding connecting us. Unlike the very real bond we also shared with everyone else in the room through the movement, the march, and our mass arrest; this stranger and I, through a single world, communicated and connected with something deeper. In calling each other compañeros, it was as if the struggle we were waging went far beyond one arrest, one place, one time, one movement, one people, one language, one history. It was as if the tables were turned: a whole world was now ours to speak, and the silence that came with sharing it was clandestine and beautiful.
* * *
“Words are deeds,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. They can divide and conquer or tie things with possibility; they can serve systems of domination and control or help overturn them. In learning words and phrases from other struggles, and creating new ones, a literacy of resistance and emancipation is advanced that creates territory out of consciousness itself. “It is the word that gives form to that walk that goes on inside us,” say the Zapatistas. “It is the word that is the bridge to cross to the other side. Silence is what Power offers our pain in order to make us small. Speaking we heal the pain. Speaking we accompany one another. Power uses the word to impose his empire of silence. We use the word to renew ourselves.”
As an act of renewal, social struggle succeeds most not when it focuses on winning a single-issue reform, but when it relocates power from authority to the people and community. A literacy of struggle and solidarity, drawing on terms borrowed or those just born, can open the way to thinking and acting outside of set of choices imposed by the system in much the same way achieving traditional literacy opened the path for Frederick Douglass to pursue and win his own liberation, fomenting resistance and movement organizing in the process.
We live in a time of indignation, outrage, uprisings, rebellion, and insurgent democracy movements against systems that have become hostile to the public interest. Developing a literacy of solidarity and resistance can not only help break step with corporate controlled society, but also assist people identify and articulate with the traditions of resistance developed over generations of struggle by the indigenous, people of color, women, and defenders of the Earth’s natural environment.
“Challenges to the system,” writes Rául Zibechi, “are unthinkable without spaces beyond the control of the powerful.” After almost two years of coordinated repression against the Occupy movement, 7,719 arrests, timed entrapment cases, mass surveillance, and a police-state presence waged against public plazas and squares, language offers itself as an open yet clandestine space to occupy and mobilize in the effort to freely name the world, its injustices, and our narratives toward common emancipation. Like Zapatistas, as “incompleted beings conscious of their incompletion,” we mentor one another to build networks grounded in a literacy of rebellion.
“Those who look at us,” wrote Subcomandante Marcos last week, “and look at themselves thinking about us, and make themselves a bridge and then discover that these words that they write, sing, repeat, transform, do not belong to the Zapatistas, that they never did, that those words belong to you, they belong to everybody and to nobody, and that they are part of a larger whole, and who knows where that larger whole may be, and so you discover or confirm that when you look at us looking at ourselves looking at you, you are touching and talking about something bigger, something for which there is no alphabet yet, and that through this process you aren’t joining a group, collective, organization, sect, religion, or whatever you may call it, but rather that you are understanding that the passage to humanity today is called ‘rebellion.’”
With our word as our weapon, the passage to humanity opens. At the same time, repression against us, blocking what we open, intensifies. As it does, we learn to find one another and connect in new ways, learning from one another as we go, finding solidarity in disobedience, in stories of community and resistance, and in simple words we carry in from sister struggles, words like compañeroand compañera.
Greg Ruggiero is an editor with City Lights Books. He is author of Microradio and Democracy: [Low] Power to the People, and has co-edited several collections of Zapatista writings, including Our Word is Our Weapon and The Speed of Dreams. He is currently working with the communities on a print and music project, Radio Zapatista: The Songs, Lyrics and Stories of a Rebel Radio Network.