The Class Was Stopped Twice: The First Time to Emphasize the Importance of Discipline in Their Organisation by Alex Mensing (Special to The Narco News Bulletin)
From August 11-17, the Zapatistas brought more than 1,500 people into their communities to attend the Escuelita Zapatista, the Little Zapatista School. According to a February comunicado by the EZLN, in a class entitled Liberty According to the Zapatistas: Autonomous Government I, “our compas from the Zapatista bases of support are going to share the little we have learned about the struggle for freedom, and the [the students] can see what is useful or not for their own struggles.”
The Escuelita was not your typical school, in many ways. The teachers had no degrees, the textbooks did not cite prestigious academic predecessors, and the classrooms had no blackboards. Class was in session 24 hours a day and the question and answer period was open all the time. And, to be sure, the subject matter was out of the ordinary.
Some of the lessons imparted at the Escuelita were delivered in the form of textbook readings and presentations by Zapatista authorities. But many of the most important lessons were learned by sharing lodging, meals, work, life and conversations with the Zapatista families and guardians who hosted students in their small, remote communities for several days during the week-long Escuelita.
According to the Zapatistas, the purpose of the Escuelita was to show people from outside their territory how they had organized their struggle for autonomy, in the hopes that students would share the experience with others and use what they learned to organize their own resistance movements. But the school was not so much a how-to as a show-and-tell. “This is what we do. Questions?” As such, observation was key to learning at this school.
Some basic principles of their organizing process can be culled from the textbooks and the experience, such as discipline and hard work, face-to-face community outreach, long-term planning, reduction of government dependence through collective work projects, avoiding confrontation with the enemy and emphasizing shared experience to convince unsympathetic neighbors. The structure of their autonomous government also reveals certain key aspects of Zapatista resistance and democracy.
Off to School
In the early morning hours of August 11th, dozens of passenger vans began to arrive at the Indigenous Center of Integrated Training (CIDECI, by its Spanish acronym) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, southern Mexico. The vans had emerged from Zapatista territory, “where the people command and the government obeys.” Each vehicle arrived with one female and one male driver, each one from a different Zapatista community. Some communities are over 10 hours away. They all arrived on time.
Later that morning began a second wave of arrivals—the passengers-to-be of the vans that would return to Zapatista territory later that day. They were the invited students for the Escuelita Zapatista, a week-long immersion course on the Zapatista autonomous government. They were from all corners of the earth, they were of all ages, and they were not all on time.
The Escuelita Zapatista (“Little Zapatista School”) was announced by the EZLN in early 2013, in one of many declarations since their public resurgence last December. Little by little, they released more information about the school. Students would be hosted by a Zapatista family, so they should not bring their own food or lodging. Nor should they come expecting to learn about the EZLN’s military—the school was to be about their self-governance and autonomy, not their armed resistance. The cost of attendance? Apart from getting yourself to San Cristóbal, 100 pesos for the four textbooks and two DVDs they would provide. Less than 8 USD.
In their characteristic political style, the first four announcements about the student body described the people who would NOT be at the school: leaders of social movements who had been disappeared, political prisoners, politicians, and those who came before and taught the Zapatistas how to organize and resist. As for those who WOULD be attending: 1,700 people, from five continents, aged 11 months to 90 years (with a heavy concentration in the 20-30 year range), independent or from collectives, academic institutions, and solidarity groups.
Students registered at CIDECI and were assigned one of the five Zapatista caracoles, as the autonomous regions are called. Those without invitations were dismissed. As organizers processed a long line of latecomers, live music entertained the crowd and collectives hawked the typical revolutionary goods: t-shirts, posters, notebooks, zines, etc. Meanwhile, the ski-masked Zapatistas waited.
Then came the first lesson in Zapatista organization: quick execution of orders. The departure of the first caravan was announced, destined for La Realidad, the furthest of the caracoles. Ten hours of travel lay ahead, and they wanted to get moving. Within minutes, the students bound for La Realidad were lined up at the entrance, including myself. Minutes later, we and our baggage were aboard… except for those students who had arrived late or were not listening for the announcement. Luckily for them, they were able to catch up quickly.
We were greeted in Caracol I, La Realidad, at 1:00 am by all of the Zapatistas in orderly formation, faces covered by ski masks or red kerchiefs. Tired students trudged through the mud and stood in the drizzling rain as the community sang the Mexican and Zapatista national anthems. Some students stayed out to dance after the greeting, many went to sleep on the concrete floor of the spaces designated for guest lodging.
When class began the next day, the Zapatista presenters announced that “through our voice speaks the voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.” All of the teachers, host families and guardians had been declared spokespersons of the EZLN for the duration of the Escuelita, making clear the point that to learn about Zapatista autonomy is to learn from all of Zapatista society.
That horizontality, as was emphasized in the first class, is a fundamental part of their autonomous government. Presenters introduced the structure of their government, with which many people are already familiar. The language of “good government” and “bad government” that Zapatistas use is very telling—their government has a sort of parallel structure to a typical government, but the mechanics and substance are different. Many of the characteristics of their autonomous government were explained by the Zapatistas in relation to the behavior of the Mexican government.
“We don’t use electoral campaigns,” explained a presenter. “We don’t spend tons of money to choose a leader. The representatives aren’t determined before the people vote.” All laws or projects, community representatives and public servants (teachers, health promoters, etc.) at all levels of government (local, municipal and zone), are chosen directly by people, who approve or disapprove proposals by the government.
Public service is performed out of conscience, and not for payment. Anyone can become a “leader.” In a strict sense, there are no leaders, only community members playing different roles. This ensures that the government, the organization, so to speak, cannot go against the will of the people.
During that first class, the importance of history to the Zapatista movement was also made clear. They understand their movement as part of a thread in history of oppression and resistance. One that builds upon itself and does not forget—the whole history is continuously relevant. The important events in their understanding of their history are well known:
- Before the Spaniards arrived, indigenous people had tightly-knit communities and cultural traditions that shaped their relationship to each other and the land they worked.
- The Spanish Conquest destroyed their social fabric and made people work as individuals in an exploitative system.
- In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo led peasants to take independence from the Spanish crown, but Mexico remained in the hands of the rich. They consider this the first important demonstration of nonconformity.
- In 1910, Emiliano Zapata fought in the Revolution for “Land and Liberty,” achieving the ejido system (community-owned farmlands).
- During the 20th century, landowners eat away at the advances gained by the ejido system and, together with the corrupt government, oppress indigenous communities.
- 1983, the EZLN is formed and arrives in Chiapas, beginning to train and organize.
- 1994, the EZLN’s armed uprising achieves a space for dialogue and autonomy.
- 2003, the Councils of Good Government are formed to organize Zapatista autonomy and governance.
When they talk about their autonomy in historical context, they consider what they have achieved in the last 19 years to be much greater than what was achieved in the past 500. This history was very present for the speakers, as well as all of the other Zapatistas I spoke with. In their opinion, it gives strength, meaning and context to their organizing efforts. My host family and guardian later on asked me, nonchalantly, about the history and present of civil resistance movements in my own country.
When a student asked the Zapatista panel if they had any plans to provide higher education, the answer revealed that their movement has certain objectives and their organization has priorities. According to the representative who answered the question, they want their children to learn to read, to write, to do the accounting required in their government and collective enterprises, to understand the true history of their struggle, and to understand the natural world around them and their traditional relationship to it. So no, they don’t plan to make a university, he said, but “that isn’t the problem. The problem is the #*$%ing system.”
Another presentation was dedicated to the importance of their own communication media. They have two community radios in each of the five territories, a presenter explained, which allow them to distribute their “voice, word and work” of everyone equally. When the government tries to trick them or sends paramilitaries, the presenter pointed out, their cameras and radios allow them to record what is going on and announce what is going on. The government has its own media, they explain, so they had to make their own. Later during the school, in fact, my guardian informed me that the Mexican air force had performed low-lying fly-overs of the some communities the previous night. He had found out through the community radio.
Other key lessons emerged in that first class: freedom is not something you ask for, but something you take for your own; their form of self-governance did not come from a book, but from analysis of their own society’s needs and structure; the work of civil resistance requires that people be conscientious and informed of what they are doing.
The class was stopped twice. The first interruption was one of several moments when the Zapatistas emphasized the importance of discipline in their organization, and when the representatives of activist groups around the world were shown to lack this particular skill. A Zapatista authority took the microphone and observed that many students were getting up to walk around, to go to the nearby shop and buy coffee or cookies, or who knows why else. “We don’t want you to be distracted. We remind you that pozol will be served at 1:00. We want you to understand the presentations.” Never completely without humor, the speaker called on Zapatista security to make sure nobody fell asleep. The second and only other interruption was, of course, the pozol, a corn-based drink that provides the mid-day fuel for most campesinos in Chiapas.
A second lesson on Zapatista discipline was given later that afternoon, but as with most of the teachings at the Escuelita, this one was only available through observation. Everyone was instructed to stand in formation while names were announced to join students with their guardians. As the Zapatistas began to announce names, it became clear that many students were not present. Many other students broke formation and began chatting. Every time a Zapatista’s name was announced, they appeared almost immediately. Many of the students’ names went unanswered for several minutes. A glance at the Zapatista guardians, calmly standing in orderly rows, was enough to deduce a tacit lesson. We would move faster and learn more if we practiced discipline. We took so long we had to spend an extra night there before traveling to our communities.
The advantage of staying another night in the caracol headquarters was that, with nothing else to do, we got a taste of Zapatista musical tradition. After all, you can’t keep up a fight for 30 years without a little song and dance. A Zapatista who plays guitar was finally convinced to perform some corridos that told their stories of resistance. Above all, the lyrics revealed in a very poignant way the deepness of the suffering felt by members of the movement. Some bits and pieces:
“He was killed by the damned government,
for nothing more than demanding justice”
“The assassins were soldiers
dressed as campesinos
while he was asleep
they killed his wife and children”
Not all is suffering, though.
“Look here now, the time has come
And you can’t be a spectator
The people’s struggle is without end
Until we see the people triumph.”
The next day, after three hours in a dump truck and a warm greeting from the Zapatista community of Rosario Río Blanco, the immersion period of the school began. For the next three days, my guardian Jorge, my host “father” Rodolfo and I got up at 4:30 am for breakfast, which Rodolfo’s wife, Rosa, had already made. We went to work in the fields until noon, with a break at nine for pozol, then rested, bathed in the river, and ate lunch. The rest of each day was dedicated to studying: reading the textbooks, talking about their self-governance, or visiting the few “institutional” buildings in the town. That is how the community of Rosario Río Blanco chose to run the Escuelita, though students in other towns had slightly different experiences. Reading, working, eating, and walking around town all yielded different lessons about Zapatista organization.
The textbooks for the Escuelita Zapatista, according to a February comunicado,
“are a product of meetings that the Zapatista bases of support in all zones have carried out to evaluate their work in the organization.
Compañeras and compañeros from the communities in resistance of the 5 caracoles, tzotziles, choles, tzeltales, tojolabales, mames, zoques y mestizos, gathered to ask and answer questions among themselves, exchange experiences (which are different in each zone), and to criticize, self-criticize, and evaluate what they have done so far and what they still have to do. These meetings were coordinated by our compañero Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, and were recorded, transcribed, and edited for the notebooks.”
One of the lessons that came up repeatedly in the textbooks was the importance of not overworking members of the organization. Since their creation in 2003, nearly all of the Councils of Good Government (the largest level of Zapatista representative bodies) have increased the number of representatives and decreased the amount of time they spend doing the work of governance. As a speaker in the caracol headquarters had mentioned, “we realize that we have families.” Each Zapatista family has to tend their own fields and maintain their own households. It is in addition to that work that representatives perform the task governance.
Textbook contributor Artemio from La Garrucha commented that “before, the work rotations lasted months, two or three months” and the Council representatives had other government positions. “When 24 people were elected just for the Council they organized three rotations of eight compañeros each, and each rotation lasted ten days. That was agreed upon to make the process more continuous, so we wouldn’t forget by the time it was our turn again.” Before that, many representatives failed to complete their work rotations, out of necessities back home.
Even with these changes, some Zapatistas tire of the work. Rosalinda, representative from the caracol Oventik, related in the textbooks that at one point 70 percent of their health and education officials had left their posts, and some had left Zapatismo entirely. Speaking to my guardian and family about this, I learned something interesting about the Zapatistas.
“What do you do to keep people from leaving their posts or the organization?” I asked them. They looked at me, somewhat strangely, and my guardian replied “Nothing. In this struggle, everyone is free. If we were to tell them to stay, they would feel obligated, and then we would be just like the bad government. If someone leaves the organization, it is because they have changed their way of thinking. We continue doing the work, and when they want to be a part of it, they can come back.”
I must admit that this was initially a surprise to me, coming from the USA where there is an overemphasis on growth. The Zapatistas have learned that an organization’s strength does not come simply from its numbers, but also from the quality and dedication of its members. Organizing and resisting are hard work, and there will always be people who do not want to participate, my hosts said. One of the seven principles of Zapatista autonomous government is “convince, don’t conquer.”
That is not to say that they make no effort to convince their neighbors to join the struggle. Besides leading by example, they practice a strategy that has been used to build many successful social movements: emphasize shared experiences. The Zapatistas always talk to unsympathetic community members (in person and through their community radio, which is listend to by many non-Zapatistas) about their shared indigenous identity and historic and continued oppression. They also practice non-confrontation with the people they consider their brothers and sisters, resisting provocation when the government sows intercommunity conflict.
The textbooks also taught the importance of converting external aid into internal independence. In other words, donations by solidarity groups are almost always invested in the establishment of some form of collective work project that will generate its own earnings. Collective work projects are part of the backbone of Zapatista autonomy.
One textbook included the testimony of Alex from La Garrucha, who described how his region had invested in the purchase of livestock, which are cared for collectively by members from each community on a rotational basis. “The goal of this work,” said Alex, “is that the donations to the Council are not misspent on any old necessity. That’s why we had the idea to form a regional collective so that one day we would have a way to sustain ourselves, and not have to wait for some NGO to give projects to the Council of Good Government.”
A word about gender equality in the Zapatista organization. One of the four textbooks was dedicated to the participation of women in the autonomous governments. To encourage women to participate, the Zapatistas from each community as well as their government representatives host assemblies to discuss the importance of women’s participation. They also have the long-term strategy of providing equal education, because many adult women never had the chance to go to school and do not know how to read, write, or do the math required to maintain financial accountability.
The challenges to female participation range from Zapatista men who do not allow their wives or daughters to work outside the home, to women who refuse to take government posts, arguing that they are are incapable or illiterate, or out of worry that their family will not be able to cook, wash, or perform other traditional women’s tasks. Some women leave government posts when they marry.
However, given the depth and generational momentum of traditional culture (something which, in many cases, the Zapatistas seek to maintain), the progress that the Zapatistas have made in gender equality over the last thirty years, while incomplete, is impressive. My guardian was an exemplary Zapatista compañero who cooks, cleans, and encourages his wife to participate, learn and travel. (Not that she needs much encouragement. After meeting her, it is easy to see that she would never have married a machista.)
How to Sharpen a Machete
The first morning of work, I learned to sharpen a machete. Unfortunately, since I learned to sharpen the machete before I learned to wield it, I promptly sliced my finger open.. When my guardian returned with a bandage (after picking the leaves off a plant that helps blood clot), we sat and chatted. This was the first moment when Rodolfo and Jorge began to ask me about myself. When I explained that I travel and write about the US influence in Latin America, they began to comment on US-based transnational companies, neoliberalism, and GMO crops.
The Zapatistas see social movements worldwide as relevant to one another, as part of a global capitalist system, and yet they understand each community and each movement as internally independent. When I asked them if they had anything in particular to say to a US citizen, they both said “no.” With prodding, they explained that everyone had to make their own movement. At the same time, they said, the Zapatista struggle is for the whole world. As the Zapatista phrase goes, they fight for “a world of many worlds.”
The next day, when we were taking a break to drink pozol in the corn fields, Rodolfo taught me to say “let’s drink pozol” in his native language, tojolabal. Wah kuti pichi, I repeated. Then he looked at me and asked, “do you know why we drink pozol together?” I could think of many answers to this question, but I had no idea what sort of answer he was anticipating.
“We drink pozol together,” Rodolfo said, “because in the Zapatista struggle, we do everything as a collective. Nobody in the organization gets more or less. To drink pozol by yourself in a group is individualist.” This sudden statement by Rodolfo took my understanding of Zapatista equality to another level. Of course, many people talk about equality and sharing and community cooperation. But what might seem to many to be an unnecessary degree of sharing was natural and matter of fact for Rodolfo and Jorge. When the Zapatistas say they practice a value, they mean it.
Undoubtedly, the most striking lesson to be taken from observing the Zapatistas at work, is that they work hard. They work very very hard. And that is why they have been able to build and maintain their movement, their resistance, and their independence. Men and women start working long before the sun comes up, and when they finish the work required to support their family, they participate in collective work projects to raise money for their community’s medicine or the transportation costs of their government representatives. Or they work the fields or cook the meals for families whose members are spending their time as health promoters, teachers, or Council members.
The Escuelita taught that the members of a civil resistance movement must not only work hard, but they must understand why they work hard. In thee case of the Zapatistas, if they do not support their own medical system, educational system, or justice system, then they will depend on the Mexican government for those services. And for two hundred years, the Mexican government has failed to provide those services or used them to control and manipulate the population. The average Zapatista understands this, talks about it, and works hard because of it.
A Walk around the Block
One afternoon, my guardian and host father took me on a tour of the Zapatista buildings in their town. Rosario Río Blanco has a local store, a regional store, a school and a health clinic. In the health clinic, the health promoter provided an example of the importance of long-term planning, skill-sharing and patience in the Zapatista organization.
Little by little, the Zapatistas have named community members to be trained as health promoters. Initially, external volunteers with medical experience trained Zapatistas, but as they gain experience, the new health promoters are able to train others, and in this manner they have trained enough people to have general practitioners in each community.
The Zapatista government held an assembly and determined 47 important factors for improving the health of the population, and now that there are enough practitioners, after years of training, they have begun to address those 47 factors in all Zapatista communities at the same time. But rather than trying to work on all factors at once, they chose ten basic factors to address this year, in 2013. The factors include personal hygiene, the use of dining tables and proper storage of firewood and dishes, etc.
By holding local assemblies and by visiting each household to help make sure they are implementing the improvements, the health promoters have already begun to see dramatic reductions in illness. But the organizational development required years of long-term planning and widespread training and skill-sharing.
Another important principle in the development of Zapatista autonomous government, which the health and education promoters embodied, is that you just have to start doing something even when you feel unprepared. In the case nearly all Zapatista government representatives, teachers, and doctors, they began playing their role with little to no experience. But by maintaining a healthy culture of cooperation, reflection, and periodic self-evaluation and critique, groups of individuals have been able to improve their skills in accordance with local circumstances and challenges. Learning from experience, in the end, has helped the Zapatistas to build a system that fits their own needs.
As I said goodbye to my guardian and thanked him, his reaction taught me one last lesson in Zapatista organization. When I acknowledged the difficulty of translating and thanked him for his effort, (he translated between tojolabal and Spanish for me), he replied simply that it was his job, and that everyone in the organization had done their part to make the Escuelita happen. Many students experienced this. The Zapatistas see their movement as a collective effort, and while each individual is responsible for their role, they do not take personal ownership over the successes of the organization. Social movements must share responsibilities and skills in order to achieve their objectives. Accordingly, the Zapatistas shared the credit for their accomplishments.
The Zapatistas invited people to come to their escuelita so that they would go back to their own communities, their own worlds, and organize social movements to fight against neoliberalism, against oppression, against the commercialization of people and of the earth. But the escuelita was not structured as a series of workshops, and was not intended to provide a blueprint for revolution. And most of the students I spoke with afterwards didn’t percieve the escuelita that way. In fact, many said that they already knew many of the things that were explicitly taught at the Escuelita.
What the escuelita Zapatista provided its students, above all, was immersion in a world where autonomy isn’t just talked about, it is lived. They saw in action the principles they had read about online and in pamphlets. They tasted the hard work and discipline required to build effective resistance to a powerful system. They spoke face to face with people who had suffered and persevered, looking them in the eye as they told stories of repression that few had ever come anywhere close to experiencing.
The real training, the real workshops, the real blueprints, must be built outside Zapatista territory. The students must become the teachers. They must design their own strategies for approaching autonomy, liberty, and justice; strategies that maneuver around the obstacles of their own worlds, which are inevitably quite different from the highlands of Chiapas, but which arrive at the same fundamental values. It remains to be seen, then, what role the Escuelita Zapatista will play as its first class of students make their way back to their places of oppression… err, origin.