Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 418 | Mayo 2016



A history of challenging messages

The Zapatista movement has proved to be exceptionally collective and provocative in its thinking, actions, feelings and transformations. In only a brief review of its messages, we can capture this movement’s essence, crucial in our continent’s history.

Jorge Alonso

Insurgent Subcomandantes Marcos and Galeano are the same person yet at the same time are two outstanding personalities in the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). For many years Marcos was the only spokesperson for the Zapatistas. More recently, as Galeano, he has shared this role with Insurgent Subcomandante Moisés.

Marcos/Galeano has been an exceptional exponent of not only Latin American but world critical thinking. There are 1,267 writings by Marcos, several by Galeano and still more by Galeano and Moisés together on the Zapatista’s web page (enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx)

The impact of this complex personality’s speeches has been palpable on the Internet, where a search shows us half a million visits. With over 10,000 citations, he has also made a dent in the academic world. Marcos’ writings, as well as books based on him, have been referenced by a large number of researchers from different countries and in several languages. He has been interviewed by Mexican and international media, most memorably by Elena Poniatowska, Carmen Aristegui, Julio Scherer, Gabriel García Márquez, Ignacio Ramonet, Yvon le Bot and Vicente Leñero.


The man known as Subcomandante Marcos came to Chiapas with academic formation and with political training based on the concept of guiding the masses to take power with revolutionary slogans. He had the good sense to listen to the indigenous peoples and open himself up to their wisdom. With this profound change of mentality he put himself at the service of the indigenous worldview, struggles, aspirations and transformations they had already been making from the bottom up. It was then that he took on the role entrusted to him by these peoples: to be their interpreter to Mexican civil society and the world, explaining the feelings and proposals of original peoples who not only claimed their place in geography and time but also contributed findings for a wider-ranging emancipation.

The Zapatista’s spokesperson was himself changed by the process the movement was going through. When the EZLN burst publicly on the stage in January 1994, it issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in which it declared war on the State of Mexico and made demands about work, land, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.


While the Mexican Army responded by massacring rebellious indigenous peoples, much of Mexican civil society was open to considering the analysis and demands broadcast by Marcos and went out onto the streets demanding a peaceful solution based on dialogue. The Zapatistas agreed to the peace movement’s proposal and in mid-1994 made its own new proposal in the Second Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. In it they still demanded freedom and justice, but no longer with weapons; instead it would be based on the building of a new political culture.

The Zapatistas accepted dialogue as a way to find solutions to the serious injustices all those from below have endured for centuries, without limiting them to the specifically indigenous rights that are still pending. At first they agreed to enter into the discussion about democracy and didn’t oppose the holding of elections in their territories. However, they soon detected that the electoral option and connections with political parties wasn’t any way to achieve profound changes.


The Zapatistas set out to insure that the rights of indigenous people would become concrete by listing them in the San Andrés Accords. Knowing that Mexico’s executive branch wasn’t to be trusted, they pressed for the legislative body to take up the accords and turn them into law but the Mexican State as a whole betrayed the Accords with legislation that contradicted them. Marcos responded by making it known that the Zapatistas would remain in resistance and rebellion.

In this lengthy phase there were long silences from the Zapatistas and Marcos promised “the words will come when they come.” Mexican society was fascinated with the Zapatistas’ most visible aspect, its spokesperson. They were won over by his questioning, acid, relaxed language, far removed from the stuffiness of politicians and academics, full of metaphors and parables and with dazzling depth.

Achievements and mistakes

In early 2003 Marcos again began broadcasting the Zapatista message and impacting the country by reporting on the consolidation of the autonomous Zapatista municipalities, which had adopted self-government in what they called Caracoles. Marcos pointed out that they were already making “govern by obeying” a reality.

Knowing that the Zapatistas had no chance militarily and were thinking about life, not martyrdom, Marcos continued to employ his mastery of language to advance the struggle, basing his discourse on what he heard in the Zapatista communities and the desires of those from below.

At this stage Marcos announced various initiatives. The Tijuana Reality Plan involved linking all of Mexico’s resistance movements in order to reconstruct the Mexican State “from below.” Marcos said that one of the fundamental goals of the Zapatistas was to build “a world holding many worlds.”

Marcos’ messages not only evaluated the positive things that had been achieved in the Caracoles but also pointed out their mistakes. The most regrettable one he detected was the subordinate position given to women. He saw the relationship established between the EZLN’s political-military structure and the autonomous governments as another mistake. Identifying mistakes involved trying to correct them. Another of Marcos’s phrases, which showed the Zapatistas’ continual effort to fine tune their autonomy and correct their mistakes, was: “We’re still missing what’s missing,” combined with “We have to build something else.”

Mexican civil society learned from Marcos that Zapatista communities were immersed in internal consultations; that the Zapatista way wasn’t to rule anybody but rather to look for paths, steps and company. The Zapatista peoples examined these routes and analyzed what would happen if they decided to follow each one.

The invitation

The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which sought “to touch the hearts of plain, ordinary, decent and defiant” people, appeared in mid-2005, after one of these consultations. Through their spokesperson, the Zapatistas stated where they were, what their worldview was, how they saw Mexico, what they were thinking of doing and how they would accomplish it, and invited people of that definition to walk the same road. “According to our way of thinking and what we see in our hearts, we’ve come to a point where we can’t progress further and, moreover, it’s possible that we’ll lose all we have if we remain as we are and do nothing more to advance. In other words the time has come to once again take risks and take a dangerous but worthwhile step because, perhaps together with other social sectors with the same shortages we have, it will be possible to obtain what we need and deserve. A new step forward in the indigenous struggle is only possible together with laborers, peasants, students, teachers, employees and workers from the cities and the countryside.”

Since then, the Zapatistas’ “we” sought to include all the rebels abounding in Mexico in a more organized way. Through Marcos, the Zapatistas announced that they proposed making an agreement with leftist people and organizations in which they wouldn’t tell anyone what they should do or give orders. They proposed coming to an agreement on struggles unconnected with each other, but assembling a civil and peaceful movement. And when they said “with everyone” they were also including migrants who had had to go to work in the United States to be able to survive.

The Other Campaign
According to what they were hearing

and learning, the Zapatistas wanted to participate in the building of a national anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal leftist program of struggle. Marcos stressed that the Zapatistas would try to help build another way of doing politics. At that time they aspired to achieve a new Constitution with new laws that recognized the demands of the Mexican people: roof, land, work, food, health, education, information, culture, justice, independence, democracy, liberty and peace.

Marcos said they would create a policy of alliances with non-electoral organizations and movements that defined themselves as leftist, but with several conditions. They wouldn’t make agreements from the top to be imposed below, but would agree to go together to listen to and “organize the indignation.” They wouldn’t set up movements that would later be negotiated behind the backs of those who made them, but would always listen to the opinions of those involved. They wouldn’t seek gifts, positions, advantages or political posts; they would go beyond the electoral calendar; they wouldn’t try to resolve the problems with Mexico from the top but instead would build an alternative from and through the base.

Other conditions involved reciprocal respect for organizations’ autonomy and independence and their forms of struggle, organization and internal decision-making processes. In this way, Marcos, on behalf of the Zapatistas, officially announced the invitation to the “National Campaign with Other Politics, through a National Program of Leftist Struggle and a New Constitution.” And because the name came out a tad long, he decided to abbreviate it, calling it “The Other Campaign.”

The tour

By then the Zapatistas had succeeded in uniting the universal with the local and had rearticulated and redefined the national and social struggle, the struggles of indigenous peoples and of workers, communities and citizens. The project involved society defining its own politics geared to a social Left.

Marcos spent several months in 2006 travelling around the country. He didn’t present himself as a leader, but as a friend, putting himself at the service of the cause that encapsulated the sympathy the Zapatista movement was generating so that those who otherwise wouldn’t even talk to each other could struggle together.

Once out of Chiapas, the Right began to demand that he remove his ski mask, a demand some provocateurs repeated at certain public events where he officiated. Marcos answered that if he spoke without the Zapatista emblem many wouldn’t know who he was. They only saw him with the balaclava on. The indigenous struggle, he said, needs to hide itself in order to make its demands visible, and he invited those who demanded he remove his mask to insist that the rich remove theirs.

Joining the Other Campaign in the tour through the country were peasants, trade unionists, commune members, fishers, cooperative members, teachers, nurses, employees, students, cultural groups and advocates defending natural resources, opposing privatizations and favoring the release of social and political prisoners.

The Zapatista tour didn’t try to form a political party. Marcos was emphatic: they weren’t seeking political office nor were they backing any candidate. “The Other” was the place for people without a party. Marcos called on “those from below” not to fight each other but to focus their energies on those responsible for poverty.

In so doing way he was weaving a network where people were learning to listen, to lose or control their fear, to not be alone, boosting their dignity, courage and rebellion, fighting for and conquering rights through organization and promoting a national program of struggle. The goal was to transform Mexico into a new, fair, free and democratic country. “Let’s sweep everything away and make everything new.”

The theory

In late 2007 a seminar was held at the University of the Land in San Cristóbal de las Casas involving many of the world’s leftist intellectuals. Marcos presented a set of reflections titled “Neither the center nor the periphery.” In the first, subtitled “The geography and calendar of the theory,” he began by saying he would present the basis of a theory “so ‘other’ that it’s actually practice.”

He explained how the conceptual stone, when it touches the surface of theory, produces a series of waves that affect and modify various scientific and technical tasks. These waves are maintained until a new conceptual stone drops and a new series of waves changes theoretical production. Reaching the edge of reality depends on the density of that theoretical production. He criticized the aseptic zeal imposed by today’s social sciences, which lead to the idea that if reality doesn’t behave as indicated by the theory, “so much the worse for reality.”

He said that theory is used to hide reality and ensure impunity and presented some theses about the anti-systemic struggle, among them that the capitalist system can’t be understood and explained without the concept of war. He rejected the theory that capitalism would collapse by itself. He insisted that major transformations don’t begin from the top but rather with small movements, with the organized awareness of groups and collectives that know and mutually recognize themselves to be “below and to the left.”

Marcos also referred to the theories coming out of the metropolises and exported to the periphery, giving as an example metropolitan feminism that wants to impose itself on the communities without consulting or understanding what was already being done. He mentioned what the Zapatista women and those from the Other Campaign have been doing in one of the anti-systemic struggles that are “more weighty, complex and constant through equality and difference, which will not only shake the whole patriarchal system but also those who are just beginning to understand the strength and power of that difference.”

The movement

More important than the number of people in a movement, its media impact or the forcefulness of its actions or its program’s clarity and radicalness, said Marcos, is its ethics. The top’s lack of ethics is the ethics of fear. He defined the capitalist system as “the empire of fear”: fear of gender, which not only involves women’s fear of men and vice versa but also women’s fear of women and men’s fear of men; inter-generational fear; fear of otherness; fear of race…

He said that there’s no hierarchy of areas among the Zapatistas: the struggle for land isn’t prioritized over the gender struggle, nor is the gender struggle more important than recognition and respect for difference. The Zapatistas only asked for their rights to be recognized, leaving them to be what and how they are. They want to be able to get up each morning without fear: be
it of being indigenous, women, workers, homosexuals, lesbians, young people, seniors, children… and this isn’t possible in the capitalist system.

Marcos explained how different indigenous peoples—Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Ttojolabales, Choles, Zoques and Mames—and also mestizos converge in the Zapatista movement. Indigenous peoples had communities that formed zones, and in each zone was a non-military, organized collective leadership. Each zone had its own way of dealing with and resolving problems and the EZLN was like a bridge linking the zones. EZLN represents all the zones as a whole against the outside. When male and female comandantes spoke, or when Marcos did so, it wasn’t in a personal capacity.

Marcos told how the Zapatistas were astonished by the sympathy and support they received since the start of their uprising from so many different sectors of the population: indigenous people; women; young people; homosexual, lesbian, transgender and transsexual people and sex workers. All these groups had understood that what they had in common was “otherness:” excluded, persecuted, discriminated and fearful.

The anger

The Zapatistas went to the 2007 seminar to express their anger and take responsibility for it. In an atmosphere of analysis and celebration everyone shared their anger. The Zapatistas weren’t concerned how and with what they would aim this anger, nor at what pace, rhythm or speed. What concerned them was if the world that emerged from this anger would be like the one they were currently suffering in. They were worried that a world generated from so much struggle might still see women with all the kinds of contempt imposed by the patriarchal system, see people with diverse sexual preferences as strange or sick, want to tame young people and still scorn and humiliate indigenous peoples.

In this context, Marcos confessed that the EZLN was at one point tempted by hegemony and homogenization so as to impose ways and identities, presenting the Zapatista way as the only truth, but the peoples had prevented that from happening. Having overcome that temptation, the Zapatistas proposed the plurality of anger and differences in the way of feeling it. They were convinced they had to “come to an agreement to struggle together for the whole group and for each and every one in it.”

The wars

Early in the 21st century’s second decade Marcos elaborated on the subject of war. There was a “top war,” in which the winners aren’t content with military triumph but try to defeat the losers morally by gaining legitimacy through propaganda broadcast by the mass media.

He also elaborated on the “geography of war.” In the scenario of a nuclear war, he said, there would be no winners or losers, only total and irreversible destruction, and that’s why we’ve gone from great wars to medium and small ones, combining international diplomacy with regional and national wars. And that in turn is why there are innumerable conflicts at all levels, with millions killed and displaced by war, with nations destroyed and millions in profits for the transnationals. The aim is to annihilate everything that gives society cohesion and rebuild what’s been destroyed, reordering the social fabric with a different rationale and other actors. Today’s wars impose new geographies.

Marcos also mentioned Mexico’s top-down war. With abundant and precise data taken from various official sources, he showed that war in Mexico is big business for some people. The Mexican government has combined its military war with another against decent work and fair wages and the result of the latter is economic gains, thousands of dead and a destroyed and broken nation.

Marcos criticized many self-proclaimed left contingents for not having mobilized their forces to stop this war so the country could survive, and for making miserly calculations with the aim of mobilizing only for voting in the 2012 elections. In that year the Zapatistas supported the peace movement led by the poet Javier Sicilia.


Marcos reported that in recent years the indigenous Zapatistas’ standard of living had improved and was higher than in the indigenous communities under the auspices of the government in power, which receive alms and squander them on alcohol and other useless things. For Marcos, beyond the many mistakes and difficulties, the Zapatista way is a new way of doing politics. And in his usual style of splitting hairs, he warned that it isn’t enough to criticize machismo, patriarchy and misogyny, because it’s one thing to be a woman at the top and something very different to be a woman from below. There was also a Left at the top and another from below.

In reviewing the seven years that have passed since the Sixth Declaration, he said the Zapatistas already knew who not to walk with when he launched the Zapatista invitation to what he called “the Sixth.” They invited but not to recruit, supplant, subordinate or use. One of the Zapatista ways had been to walk and question. Looking, Marcos said, is a way of asking and it matters what they look at and from where. They differentiate themselves from those who want to lead the masses that will follow them, because the Zapatistas accompany and listen; they don’t say what to do and not to do, and they seek to be what they can be. He criticized all hegemonies and vanguards and encouraged taking care of autonomy and growing it well and “very gently.”

This was when the Zapatista spokesperson changed. It would no longer be exclusively Marcos, who announced that it would also be Subcomandante Moisés.

The replacement

In late March 2013 Subcomandantes Marcos and Moisés began making invitations for the first-level course on “Freedom according to the Zapatistas.” All that was needed to enter this “little school” was the willingness to look and learn. The teaching-learning place would be the community.

The Mexican government always insisted on trying to defeat the Zapatistas with various strategies such as using the paramilitary to attack the communities. In one of these attacks they killed a Zapatista teacher who had taken the name of Galeano, the Uruguayan writer. On reporting the crime, Marcos said they didn’t want revenge but justice. In late May 2014 Marcos spoke as Marcos for the last time.

It was a collective decision. After 20 years the Zapatistas would replace their spokesperson. The first reason was generational. Those who were young or not even born in 1994 were now leading the resistance. At the same time they replaced the mestizo leadership with a clearly indigenous one. Throughout those two decades there had been a change of thought, going from revolutionary vanguard to governing through obeying, from taking power from above to creating power below, from forgetting professional politics to making everyday politics. The Zapatistas had also gone through another change: from gender marginalization to women’s direct participation. They also changed from mocking others to celebrating difference. Therycreated a grassroots government without specialists in it. Another change was that an indigenous man became their spokesperson and leader.


When Marcos began to call himself Galeano he confessed that he had to learn to see a world he had already passed through. In 1994, he said, they didn’t see indigenous people who had risen up and only saw a mestizo in a balaclava.

He explained how the idea that he would be the spokesperson had emerged. The indigenous people said they had to put up someone so that people by looking at him could see them. They built the Marcos personality as a distractor so the Zapatistas could be seen for what they are.

The Sixth Declaration, he said, had been the boldest of the Zapatista initiatives. And in the little school’s course on freedom according to the Zapatistas, seeing that there was a new generation that could look straight at them, listen and speak without waiting for a guide or leader or for submission or follow-up, they understood that the Marcos character was no longer necessary. They had shown that leaders or strong men weren’t needed in order to struggle.

Marcos recalled the teacher Galeano as an extraordinary person, like so many in the Zapatista communities. By killing him those from above had wanted to kill the Zapatistas. And for Galeano to live, the Marcos character had to die. Marcos’ time was over and a new stage was opened with the spokesperson Galeano.

Galeano had been talking with Moisés in the Zapatista spokesperson role. His most outstanding contributions can be found in the book El Pensamiento crítico frente a la Hidra capitalista (Critical thought versus the capitalist Hydra).

In the most recent 2016 communiqués, Galeano has referred to the arts and not to politics, because it’s the arts that rescue the essence of what is human showing the possibility of another world. He also appeals to the sciences because they have the possibility of rebuilding the now global catastrophe, not to patch together what has fallen but to remake it as new.

The women

When Moisés and Galeano reviewed the Zapatista communities they found that those who had advanced the most in production and trade collectives were the women, that they were better administrators than the men. They recognized that progress doesn’t happen evenly and knew they had a challenge. Galeano says that the key to understanding the Zapatistas’ underground message is “to imagine what, through necessity and urgency, is seemingly impossible: a woman who grows without fear,” because chains have been added onto women: “indigenous, migrant, worker, displaced, illegal, missing, subtly or explicitly subject to violence, raped, murdered, forever condemned to have more burdens and sentences added to her condition as woman.”

The Zapatistas want “women to be born and grow without the fear of violence, harassment, persecution, contempt, exploitation” and “to make a world where women are born and grow without fear,” without “being afraid because they are small or big, thin or fat, pretty or ugly, pregnant or not pregnant, fearful for being a girl, young, mature, old….”

The Zapatistas are pledging their life so that women can grow without fears. The other, new world has to abandon patriarchy and machismo and open up to the dynamism of fully respected women. This, one of the latest of the Zapatista messages, is profoundly emancipating. 
iJorge Alonso is a researcher for Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) West and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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