This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.

Compañeros of the Word
Toward a Literacy of Rebellion
by GREG RUGGIERO

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 were compañero 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 of compa, 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 compañeros or 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 

Otra vez

Otra vez

Otra vez

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 compañero and 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.