Flashlights in the Tunnel of Hate
To purloin a bit of Brecht, this is indeed a dark age. The war grinds on like an unbending migraine. While the vultures chow down on the bones of Iraq, Bush grows more surly with each new massacre and the democrats, despite their constituents’ disgust with this carnage that brought the party pyrrhic victory in November, vote up fresh billions to feed the American murder machine.
Meanness rules this bleak Christmas – Homeland Security’s Dia de Guadalupe raids on western meatpacking plants decimated whole families just as the ice storms blew in from the Arctic. 92 homeless Americans have died on the streets of Seattle so far this year. Deck the Halls with their frozen corpses.
I have retreated home to Mexico. While I’ve been on the road, the new regime here crafted cruel repression, crushing the Oaxaca Commune and shipping hundreds of political prisoners to prisons in the north just as in the days of Porfirian dictatorship. Calderon seems determined to govern the nation on television with the military in the street, a depressing prospect.
My back aches from hauling too many books around, the Willie Loman of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. My marriage blew up in Istanbul. Sometimes it feels like I am deep in the bowels of the drainage tunnels that twist and turn beneath Nogales Sonora and Nogales Arizona where, they say, it is so pitch black that the Migra and the migrantes brush past each other in the dark – popular legend has it that the Mexicans have intuitive built-in flashlights that enables them to elude capture down there.
I thought of that tunnel often as I crawled up the left coast of North America all the way to Vancouver BC hawking my "making another world possibles" and a highly subversive chapbook "Bomba!" and trying to listen hard to what my mostly young audiences had to tell me instead of talking all the time, my own private "Other Campaign." Like "La Otra", the idea is (I think) to weave the little resistances down below into a tapestry of defiance right here inside the belly of the beast. As Marcos once instructed us in the first months of the rebellion "haces el Zapatismo donde vives", that is, be a Zapatista where you are.
It has taken a decade for this interpretation of Zapatismo to take root. The solidarity movement used to send their old shoes to Chiapas and host delegations of victimized Indians. Now it confronts power locally, working on a nucleus of issues that bring together new constituencies in a very Zapatista way.
The carpeted lecture hall at Cal State Los Angeles is packed. Up on the hill above East L.A., Cal State is where the Chicano student movement was cradled in the late 1960s and successive generations have kept the flame alive – I often meet young people who have heard me speak there in Chiapas or on the barricades in Mexico City.
Tonight the talk is fixated on the stealing of the Mexican election, the listeners hungrily digesting every arcane detail. They become particularly animated when I speak of the civil insurrection led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the wake of the July 2nd fraud and how, along with popular upsurge in Oaxaca and the on-going rebellion in Chiapas, the beans of a new Mexican revolution are boiling on the stove. 1810! 1910! 2010! Amidst the fervor, one young woman meekly raises her hand and, Rodney King-like, asks why we all can’t just get along? The room erupts in chants of "No Justice! No Peace!"
Cal State activists joined forces with Mexican farmers and Anglo anarchists in the struggle to keep South Central Farm from being bulldozed by "Mexican" mayor Antonio Villaraigoza to make way for a mammoth Wal-Mart warehouse. The farm, covering several city blocks in a warehouse zone of the megalopolis, fed hundreds of poor immigrant families with its bounty. Those who worked the land grew the crops of their home countries: yucca and nopal, fragrant cilantro and epizote, braided rows of maize grown from pure Zapatista organic seed smuggled in from the highlands of Chiapas, still uncontaminated by transgenic mutilation.
South Central was, in fact, a kind of Zapatista street piece, an autonomous space run collectively by and for the community, a way of getting off the mal gobierno’s grid and, in the end, the mal gobierno had to snuff out this anarchist germ that had dug its way into the stomach wall of the belly of the beast.
The defenders of South Central stood strong on the land confronting the bulldozers for days until the robo cops dragged them off, cut down the trees, paved over the fields, and imprisoned the property. Jordan C., a transplant from Tupelo Mississippi who caught the Zapatista bug at Humboldt State and helped organize the U.C. Santa Barbara compas on the line, blames the eviction on tactical errors – the L.A. anarchists got up too late to stop the bulldozers. What would Rachel Corrie have said?
Santa Barbara is a peculiar point of illumination in this terrible darkness. UCSB is an unlikely Chicano Mecca – MECHA was founded there in 1975 and the papers of Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, who vanished into thin air at a crucial moment in the awakening of Aztlan consciousness, are housed at the University. Being Zapatistas where they are, the Santa Barbarians take on immigration rights issues in one of the wealthiest enclaves in the California firmament where the only good Mexican slaves in the kitchen. Roberto Hernandez, who is writing his thesis on indigenous Mexico’s migration north, grew up right on the border down Dairy Mart road in San Ysidro and once organized volley ball games over the rusting border wall. "I have to be near a border" he confesses, "no place else feels right."
Up in Fresno, I speak at an anarchist café over on the west side. Anarchos and Chicano activists chop vegetables together and talk about being Zapatistas where they live. Last spring, the anarchists and the Chicanos joined with church groups and labor unions to put together the May 1st march for immigration reform. 20,000 took to the streets of this Central Valley agribiz nexus, the largest political demonstration in recent memory. The myriad and massive marches all over the U.S. that day also celebrated the 120th anniversary of the first May 1st in Chicago led by other immigrant workers – many of them anarchists too – for the eight hour day.
At a forum up at CSU Fresno before a hundred or so activistas of all stripes and hues, we hashed over the resistance to electoral fraud in Mexico and what that translates to north of the Rio Bravo where Bushwa stole two straight presidential elections with barely a whimper from the citizenry. The debate zeroed in on taking it to the streets. "I have waited for this meeting for 25 years," rejoiced Dr. Manuel Figueroa with whom I shared the podium.
Seeking out common ground on local issues characterizes the new Zapatismo I encountered in California and the Northwest in the autumn of 2006. At Humboldt State University in far northern California, I spoke on the "coyuntura" (the coming together) of revolutionary forces down south in Mexico. The next night, Accion Zapatistas was part of a coalition that sponsored a Dialogue on Racism. Angela Davis was next up at the mic to denounce the prison-industrial complex.
At Evergreen up in Olympia Washington – Rachel Corrie U. – folksinger-activist Jim Page opened the session with his ballad to the school’s most lamented dropout, "I’d Rather Be Dancing", and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Peter Bohmer’s class on movement building which draws deeply from the Zapatista experience was gearing up for a public meeting on homelessness that night – the Olympia City Council recently passed an ordinance making it a crime to loiter on the sidewalk.
After class, Evergreen activists invited myself and Cecilia Santiago, a Zapatista activista from Chiapas with whom I kept crossing paths as we brought our mutual visions of Zapatismo to the Pacific Northwest, to hear what the kids inside a state juvenile prison had to say. Be a Zapatista on the inside.
The resistance in Oaxaca was raging as I traveled the left coast this fall and in many locales, Oaxaca was a local issue. Oaxacans, first the Mixtecos and then the Zapotecos and Triquis, are the most peripatetic of indigenous migrant workers, having long ago established communities in the San Joaquin Valley and as far north as the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa, following the fruit-tramp trail into Oregon and Washington and political exile in British Columbia. Now they are in New York City and Nome Alaska. The Oaxacans have their own newspapers and radio stations that broadcast in their mother tongues. They are organized farm labor unions and marching for immigration rights and when the shit hit the fan back home, they were a lightning rod for local action.
The uprising and repression in Oaxaca brought together Mexican nationals, undocumented workers, Chicano movement people, and the Zapatista solidarity network.
Each Sunday in San Francisco’s Mission District where the Caracol de la Mision is headquartered at the perpetually-buzzing Café Boheme, Oaxacan painters Calixto Robles and Arnaldo Garcia unfurled their banners and posters at Plaza Sandino i.e. the Bart Plaza on 24th. "Oaxaca Vive! La Lucha Sigue!" The murder of Indymedia journalist Brad Will on the barricades October 27th just outside Oaxaca city, brought the anarchists on board. Adrian Zanini had Brad’s picture up on the big screen when I spoke at New College that night within an hour of the killing and 50 supporters showed up at a City Hall wake the next day. By Tuesday, hundreds were marching on the Mexican consulate, which had been daubed blood red by unseen hands for the occasion. Protests were staged outside Mexican diplomatic sites in over 30 cities – in New York. consular officials had 11 of Brad’s comrades busted when they locked down at the front door. Demonstrators marched for weeks from San Diego to Vancouver.
Up in Portland, the protest at the consulate was led by companeros from Juxlahuaca in the Mixteca, delegates from the Organization of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities in Oregon (OCIMO) who demanded, among other items, the dropping of charges against two anarchists who had been busted the previous week at the Mexican offices.
The anarchists had gathered the night before the demo at the IWW Liberty Hall to commemorate the 91st anniversary of the execution of that fearless old wobbly Joe Hill – a band called General Strike supplied the tunes – and the march was slated to leave Pioneer Square, a venue that that troublemaking troubadour often played. But the Portland police quickly descended on the milling swarm handing out warnings that Pioneer Square was not a free speech area. In an aberrant display of solidarity, the warnings were issued on red paper edged in black, anarchist colors.
Nonetheless, the Oaxacans – the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon murdered at Leavenworth prison in 1924, was a native son – were not to be shushed and jumped up on the nearest balustrade to tell their story in no uncertain terms. Oaxaca Oaxaca No Es Cuartel! Fuera El Ejercito de El!" (Oaxaca is not a barracks. The army must leave.)
Oaxaca was a live wire issue on the other side of the other border up in Vancouver, a city where Mexican political exiles have taken refuge – the daughter of Gloria Arenas, an imprisoned leader of a Guerrero-based guerilla band lives in Vancouver and the corrupt chieftain of the Mexican miners union is said to be in hiding there – and because it is an exile community coming from many distinct left skews, the fracture lines are seismic. There are two Other Campaigns, one spurred by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Stalinists from Mexico City’s National Autonomous University. The other Other is a loosely coiled amalgam of anarchists but the two Others have come together around Oaxaca, protesting frequently at the local consulate – such actions have been galvanized by the arrival of Mixtec activist-poet Raul Gatica. "As long as we are moving together, there are no quarrels," observes a friend codenamed Demapaz who was one of the first Mexican activists to win asylum in this damp town. Demapaz is leading a delegation of First Nation peoples to the Zapatista "Intergalactica" set for the end of December in Oventik to mark the 13th anniversary of the rebellion.
The map of resistance is being redrawn up and down the left coast. I spoke in Portland on the eve of the first northwest regional SDS conclave since that acronym was resurrected. The Green Scare anti-enviro terror attacks of the Bush regime and invariably the war were on the top of the agenda. There is a new Brown Beret brigade down in heroic Watsonville where the first Mexican field hands migrated in the 1870s, and the new Black Panther Party chaired by Fred Hampton Jr. is moving in Oakland. While the handles are on the retro tick, they do signify de facto recognition of what came before that is sometimes difficult for younger activists to acknowledge. Be a Zapatista no matter how old you are.
The darkness of the hollow days swaddles a haunted USA with fear and loathing, the meanness encapsulated in the death rattle that emanates from Fox News. Stuck in the gleaming snowdrifts up in northern Washington that had whited out four straight presentations, I punched the remote and paused to study the Weather Channel. The forecast was for continued shit storms broken up by scattered clearings. Yes, the light is dim at the end of the tunnel of hate but it is definitely down there. Keep on keeping on – another year is possible!
JOHN ROSS’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 is just out from Nation Books. Ross will travel the left coast this fall with the new volume and a hot-off-the-press chapbook of poetry Bomba!–all suggestions of venues will be cheerfully entertained–write firstname.lastname@example.org