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"The Sounds of Silence and the Zapatistas"

by Cecilia Rodriguez

"[January 1,1994 happened] so that the government would know that we exist and that we live" -Compa~ero Felipe Bases of Support of the EZLN Almu~ecar, Spain Press Conference Second Intercontinental Encounter July 31, 1997

Days before the Second Intercontinental Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity the rumors flew. The EZLN was not coming. The EZLN was sending a twelve member delegation. A Zapatista "General" was coming. On July 22nd, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos issued a communique stating that the EZLN would have a presence at the Encounter. No one knew how to receive it. Exhausted after weeks of sleepless nights and the enormous task of organizing a week of continual political discussion, the Encounter organizers hoped that it was set but it dare not think it.

It would be an enormous feat after all. It would mean that two Indian people from the depth of the Mexican mountains would have to travel halfway around the world. The two would come directly from the communities the Mexican government has erased in order to declare itself as an emerging democracy.

When Felipe and Dalia arrived that hazy night in Madrid in the midst of a bull ring they were received with disbelief. Some of the audience stared and pointed. Others clustered in little groups to whisper and exchange opinions. Others turned faces wreathed in smiles towards the stage lights. Their eyes were filled with tears.

The impossible had happened. A piece of the heart of the EZLN, part of those communities which had constructed and kept the secrets of an Army which would shock the world had arrived in Spain. The Indians, the objects of genocide and colonization had returned 504 years later to the lands of their conquerors. The two Tojolabal delegates Felipe and Dalia had traveled far in many ways. They had mocked the brutality of five centuries. They had penetrated borders being fortified by armed guards, barbed wire and laws of exclusion. They had mocked governments dismissive of their existence and their demands. They had defied many already speculating about their disappearance.

The Indians of Chiapas arrived with a message of hope. Their voices rang out into the bull ring, into a receptive audience. Their presence however, has suffered the same fate as the Encounter itself; it is the object of deafening silence.


"You don't know how frustrating it's been" said the Press Office at Almu~ecar. "You can't imagine how much we've hounded the media and look," she pointed towards a bulletin board with five or six clippings, "that is all there has been...I mean here we have present 3,000 people from all over the world...and it's as though we did not exist."

"The Encounter was a meeting of ecologists" one clipping said. Felipe, who is a member of the bases of support of the EZLN was called a guerrilla in another clipping.

The five sites of the Encounter were scattered across the breadth of Spain. The delegates traveled constantly in order to visit each plenary and leave behind a message of unity and of the need for struggle. For the Zapatista delegates, the Encuentro was a grueling travel schedule of winding roads and noisy gas stations, meals made of "bocadillos" (snacks) because their arrival time never quite fit into the regular schedule. At each site there was a sea of faces waiting at the end to hear their words. Only briefly could they touch the reality being shared by the participants at the Encuentro. Mostly they were unable to engage in the intense and rich political debates which filled each site, or even the unique cultural experience which the sites offered. Their visit to Spain exemplified the familiar Zapatista tenet "Everything for everybody, nothing for us".

They did find the ancient streets of Barcelona and Madrid, the placid bays of the Mediterranean. They found the sun-worn faces of farmers like themselves, who have taken lands and declared "autonomy" in their villages. They found the energy of city dwellers who have taken over schools and apartment building and housing. They found the movements of the landless, the hungry, the youth of the world who move like an army in every corner of the earth. They exchanged words and smiles with the indigenous people of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil. They found people who are faceless, who do not have names which are renowned, whose struggle and forms of organization are invisible to the dominant ideology and its media. In short, the Zapatista delegates have found themselves in other languages, methods, culture and lands.

Through the red paisley bandanas, the Zapatista delegates share the traditional kiss on each cheek of the Spanish. The organizers escort them gently through the crowds, juggling other multiple crises and controversies and struggling with their anxiety. The organization of the Encuentro entailed an enormous effort. A great deal of sacrifice was the toll the organizers had to pay in order to create this space. The courageous men and women who undertook this task smile now when they hear "Everything for everybody, nothing for us."

In the simple words of his introductory speech, Felipe shares their response to the low-intensity war which victimizes them.

"I want to tell you that our resistance is not easy. We confront some very difficult problems, but we get organized and we must conquer patience and hope in our hearts. As brothers and sisters in struggle for harmony in our world, we say it is necessary to suffer with the heat, the exhaustion, just as the farmer endures things because he has hope for what he has planted on the land, We, the bases of support of the EZLN do not despair and we also do not conform...we do not stand still when we resist...while we resist we also get organized."

Felipe and Dalia slip quietly in and out of the far reaches of Spain, their spirits tranquil with the power of conviction.

"We see that the struggles of the women is very long and very different in all places. We the women of the Zapatista communities see the struggles of women in other countries, but we see that they struggle for things that sometimes we do not understand. We want to say that we respect your way of thinking...perhaps to some of you it may seem that our struggle is very little and that we should fight for more...we say that our Struggle as women is barely beginning..."

The wisdom of the indigenous communities slip through the lips of Felipe and Dalia during the scattered conversations which pepper the grueling trips between sites.

"Many people think that struggle is about being better than another, about one task being more important than another, about always being on top. But the struggle is about always moving forward. It is very costly, it has great suffering. It is about many kinds of tasks. All are important. All are necessary. Sometimes people want to prove things, to attack their brothers. The struggle is about humility, so it is simple; while the powerful brag and beat their chests, we remain clear about who has the real power, we go quietly and get organized."

In the dry, hot oven which is the rocky earth of El Indiano, something incredible bakes and glows in the fire of resistance. Three thousand strangers walk the land. Some come because of curiosity or romanticism, or a particular agenda. Among them however are those who walk with the same quiet determination as Felipe and Dalia. It is a determination born of necessity to change things or live in misery.

The Encounter has ended. Surely its aftermath will include the usual; the inevitable political divisions, the usual ghastly tales of logistical problems.

Above the din of all this remains a basic issue; the war being waged on the poor, the war which includes, but is not limited to the Zapatistas. If indeed this war is to be challenged it cannot continue to be an abstraction. It is first of all, a war which is present in all corners of the earth. It is a war which in the wake of its devastation, leaves political and economic spaces because it abandons entire human communities. If the Encounter accomplished one thing it is to show that human beings are seizing those spaces, and filling them with exciting proposals of self-organization. It remains to be seen how and when these proposals of self-organization can nurture one another, how the silence created by a system determined to crush all forms of resistance into oblivion can be broken. Beyond critiquing what already exists and is being done, the challenge to be met is proposals for unity. Given the vast and rich tapestry of political approaches, unity cannot be interpreted as "homogeneity". On the contrary, unlike any other political proposal of the past, unity must serve to acknowledge and include as many diverse approaches as possible. This challenge was not resolved by the Encounter. More than likely it will take more time, and encounters and debating and struggling in order to begin to formulate proposals.

The "struggle," as defined by Felipe and Dalia, must in 1997 become truly global in character. Organizational practice must include first-hand experience, with the concept of autonomy and self-governance. There is also a need for networks at a local, national and global level as well. Resistance must go beyond the old-fashioned methods of activism manifest in marches and demonstrations. It must include economic independence, the generation of cultural and social mores, and the use of many methods of struggle.

The Zapatistas have never demanded that humanity kowtow to their example. They resist. They endure the militarization, the persecution and the exhaustion. They listen. They accompany. They applaud the chaos and the splendor of the Second Encounter. They do so with the wisdom of fifteen years of cumulative organizational strength, and the humility of a political practice which is nurtured by the blood and sacrifice of martyrs most of us will never know.

The Zapatistas spoke at the Encounter. But humanity spoke as well. It said that in spite of all the cynicism and hopelessness, the construction of new paths is moving forward with full force. In the words of Felipe we need only "patience and hope in our hearts" to be able to see and be nurtured by it.

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