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A Debt to the Zapatistas

My Red Bandana

by PETER LINEBAUGH

My red bandana was a gift from R.A., my host, along with his wife, E., and three children, D., C., and J.  They lived in a small hamlet, or ejido, named Emiliano Zapata.  I stayed with them as a guest and student as part of the escuelita of the Zapatistas in January 2014.

I was happy there.  It seemed to be paradise or utopia.  Certainly it is ‘another possible world.’  Education and health care were free; there were no prisons or police; automobiles were completely absent; the air was clear and clean; there was no rich and poor, no capitalists and proletarians.

Subcommandante Marcos had invited the Midnight Notes Collective to the escuelita, and as part of it I went just after Christmas with my daughter, Riley.  Riley knows the Spanish language and I do not, so I wanted to be in the same ejido to benefit from her translations.  As a dutiful daughter she was willing to assent to my wish, though it took no great insight to see that as an independent young woman she preferred to go her own way.  In the event it was outside our control anyway, the Zapatistas made the assignments.  She went to a different ejido, San Pedro, named for an early casualty in the revolution of January 1994.

In the evening I asked my votán, or guardian, to take me to the brow of the elevation of the ejido, so that I could take a moment at twilight to look south towards the uplands of Guatemala, some twenty or thirty miles away.  Within that distance I could see lesser hills and valleys and among them were a few twinkling lights indicating other ejidos, the small hamlets of the Zapatista communities.  It was a magical view among ranges of mountains and miles of forest and a liminal time at dusk between day and night, when if I known any prayers I’d have said them. Instead in the fullness of feeling, I’d say out loud, “Buenes Noches, Riley.”

But I was speaking of my red bandana.  V., the votán, stopped me on the path to point out a particular tree blossom and then to point out its likeness in part of the design of the bandana.  We often stopped as we went along.  Once it was to point out the path taken by a jaguar through dense undergrowth and a fence.  Overall there was no hurry, no hurry at all.  Only Toby the dog, would sprint along the path and then joyfully double back to us.

Of course I am proud of my red bandana.  I still wear it around my neck but not as a mask, outlaw style.  I did make such a gesture as if to cover my face but both R.A. and V. instantly told me not to, and I have complied.  I was a student, not a Zapatista!  However, I did feel that I had to find something to give in return, something also meaningful and useful.

What could it be?  Ah, yes, a t-shirt.  I’ll give him my Magna Carta t-shirt.  It would be perfect.  I bought it some years ago at the Runnymede tea-shop in England when I was writing The Magna Carta Manifesto.  In an odd way that book was actually inspired by the Zapatistas.  Marcos had spoken of “the carta magna.”  What I didn’t know at the time owing to my ignorance of Mexican history and the Spanish language alike was that he referred to the 1917 constitution which provided for the ejido or village commons.  Truth to tell, I was also ignorant of the medieval English document of liberty and didn’t know that it made provision for the commons.  That’s why I wrote the book.  So then, the perfect gift in exchange.

I searched deep into my backpack.  There was only a dim light from a single overhead bulb.  My host and his wife had given me their bed, a raised plank of wood under mosquito netting.  On this particular evening they crowded into my section of the hut (V. slept on the other side of a partition), and with their two boys, age ten and eleven, we were showing photographs to one another of our families.  R.A., E., D., C., V., and I altogether made six in a space scarcely larger than ten feet by four.  I produced the t-shirt and pronounced it a gift.   R.A. and V. left to consult quietly in another part of the hut.  They returned and gently explained to me that they could not accept it.  Worried that I might misunderstand, V. sent one of the boys out into the night to go down the lane to a neighbor’s for help.  Soon he returned with two others.  This was turning into a mini-assembly.

Israel knew some English.  Like me, he was a student, and unlike me he spoke Spanish.  Days earlier when we crowded onto a bus taking us from San Cristobal to the Zapatista caracol called Morelia, he had sat next to Riley speaking English to her Spanish, and they conversed enjoyably for the hours of the journey.  When they parted he volunteered kindly to her that he’d “look after” her Dad, for by that time it was clear that monolinguism was just one of my limitations.  So when he was asked that night for help with translating in this matter of an exchange of a t-shirt for a red bandana he willingly came over, with his votán.  Now, we were eight assembled around the plank of my bed.  No, make that nine to include J., the sleeping baby wrapped to the back of her mother.  Conversation now was rapid in Spanish and Tzotztal with frequent worried glances over to me who understood next to nothing.  Israel was having a devilish time finding English words to explain the situation to me.

I was tired from the day’s mountain air and tropical sun.  In the morning we had walked for an hour to do some coffee bean picking.  Up and down small hills and steep gullies along a muddy footpath we walked before arriving at a lovely glade. Here was a grove of coffee trees beneath the shaded forest canopy.  I was determined to pick beans perfectly as if I were a Soviet stakanovite or as if I were cutting cane on behalf of Fidel Castro.  I’d
stopthief show them that this elderly scholar could still carry his own weight.  At six foot two inches I thought I’d find my advantage in the higher branches.  My companions being shorter, I reasoned, would be grateful for my reach.  I began to pluck the ripe, red berries in earnest.  Reaching, stretching my limbs, brushing away from my face the lower branches, on tip toes and mindful of my footing, actually I loved it:  the soft forest floor, the mottled mix of light and shade, leaf and shadow, even the occasional fly buzzing around.

It was R.A. who came over to my part of the gully to work near by.  He simply grabbed the trunk of the tree and pulled the higher branches down to him.  So much for being tall.  Still in my ear from Christmas time was “The Cherry Tree” carol when Jesus, still inside his mother’s womb, commanded the tree to bend so that the pregnant Mary might reach the fruit.  Remember Joseph was sulking over the paternity of the child and had refused to gather cherries.  Not that this was our story:  I was a student at a school in the jungle, and it was my duty to learn.  Besides, there’s nothing messianic about the Zapatistas:  democracy is a collective project, requiring time and patience of all.  Come to think about it, even Jesus as a revolutionary grown-up gathered a crew about him, the salt of the earth.

There’s no hurry.  Take it easy.  It’s not a competition, not even a Soviet or Cuban contest ‘to build Socialism.’  Soon we were seated on the forest floor, Toby happy at a slight distance, and the two men murmuring in Tzotzal.  The jug came out with water to mix in our bowls with the compacted corn meal into something with the consistency of stew and to be eaten with bits torn from one of the tortillas taken from a plentiful stack which E. had evidently prepared early in the morning for our little expedition.

So much felt like a miracle, or seemed miraculous only because I was unaware of the labor.

I was exhausted.  Otherwise you’d think that I would have learned something from the classic 1925 essay by Marcel Mauss, “The Gift,” or from David Graeber’s contemporary contribution Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Ever since childhood, especially at Christmas, the gift, to me, had really been one half of an exchange.  I learned the lesson of the commodity early in life.  Even among my brothers monetized calculation was the rule and competitive accumulation the goal.  My debt to the Zapatistas (if that’s the way I chose to look at it) would not be discharged so easily.  Israel explained to me that the t-shirt could not be accepted because it violated a central principle of the Zapatista project, the principle of autonomy.  I tried to imagine the ill consequences if strict reciprocity was permitted.  Karl Marx wrote that “the whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form.”  However I was not there to exchange congelations of “abstract human labor.”  I was a student, if I insisted on making it an exchange, it had to be the production of a kind of politics which we are still trying to figure out.

J. played several roles.  He was the main translator between Spanish and Tzotzal.  He was the person who welcomed us in the church when we arrived and who bade us farewell when we departed; he was the person who explained the economics of coffee when we took a meal break from the collective coffee-picking in the forest glade; he was the first man to operate the hand-crank of the coffee bean shell remover after we returned to the ejido.  He was tall, friendly, and had about him an air of confidence that came from the authority entrusted to him by the whole community.  A righteous rectangle of a man (I thought) who personified the spirit of zapatismo itself.  He wore a much used, threadbare army jacket with square hip pockets into which his large hands would go when they were not gracefully gesturing to accompany a point or serenely clasped in front of himself while speaking.  J. wore a red bandana around his neck which he sometimes would lift over his mouth and chin, reverting to the anonymous, collective identity of the Zapatistas.

The elementary exchange is a “mere germ” of the commodity “which must undergo a series of metamorphoses,” says Marx, before it can ripen into the price form.  A germ theory of economics!  Money will destroy the social relations of the ejido as surely as a virus, or drugs which are prohibited or alcohol which led so often to domestic violence.  Not that money is totally forbidden.  One morning at breakfast we ate rabbit.  I mimed out:  did you shoot or trap this rabbit yourself?  No, evidently it was purchased.  So, some goods are bought.  The beans were grown on the local milpa but the rice which accompanied them was probably grown in Texas or Louisiana.  At the next day’s breakfast we feasted on a food baked in Fair Lawn, N.J., cut with rotary dies, and since 1902 packaged in boxes to hang from Xmas trees.  Animal crackers!

So, exchanges are potentially dangerous, the germs might grow and transform into beetle-like monsters as Kafka described in his story “The Metamorphosis.” Exchanges were subject to discussion at the level of the ejido.  We estudiantes were invited to attend an assembly.  We were gathered into single-room wooden hut, evidently a school judging from some of the sketches on the walls.  This is where we had our first collective meal on arrival, only now instead of benches around the table, the table was removed and the benches were re-aligned parallel to each other all facing the front.  Women sat on one half of the room more or less, men on the other, just like in the church.

By the way, liberation theology was evident at the church service I attended.  Several guitars accompanied the hymns, a reading from the Book of Matthew was read aloud by one of the musicians, who stood next to an elderly man and a young woman, deacons I surmised to his ministry, or was it the other way around? The folks listening were asked to comment.  A woman compared the political party in power in Mexico to Caesar and the EZLN to Jesus.  There was a crêche in the church with the baby Jesus in a cradle and animals around but no Kings.  I took this to be a political statement but others cautioned me saying that they may have been withheld until Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the Three Kings Day.

Well, back to the assembly.  J. introduced three other men and one woman who were elected leaders of the ejido.  Behind them was a blackboard and a man with chalk.  He recorded the agenda by topics and the votes by gender.  The business of the day was a fiesta!  There was much to be decided – the events, the dance, the food, the time to begin, &c.  I understood little.  Only once, when exceptional excitement caused an elderly woman in the back to say something pianissimo, to be repeated by a younger woman in the front fortissimo.  Conversation in Spanish and Tzotzal ensued back and forth.  Several votes were taken on related matters.  It appears that the planners of the meeting had included tomales on the menu for the day without consulting the cooks who would have to get up an hour earlier to make tomales, and they didn’t want to!  The sovereign people deliberated, debated, and voted.  There would be no tomales.

I made friends with the two boys, D. and C.  They collected plastic bottle caps.  They could shoot them by holding one between the first knuckle of the thumb and the tip of the index finger and applying a lot of force and then suddenly with a micro finger movement release the cap.  It would fly, nay, zoom, to its target.  With a stick they drew an elaborate field of play on the dirt.  It was a game of accumulation besides being a game of skill, accumulation of different colored plastic bottle caps.  I had no idea how to play or how to shoot the wretched bits of plastic trash but I watched with admiration and they patiently attempted to instruct me.  They put me in mind of the 19th century ‘utopian socialist,’ Charles Fourier, who observed that children are drawn to play with what grown-ups throw away.  Maybe D. and C. were on to something!

They participated in the fiesta of Sunday, 5 January.  The children of all ages of the ejido danced for us in costumes of woolen blankets folded and belted as tunics and crowned with beautiful head-dresses consisting of large, carefully secured turkey feathers.  Each dancer carried a short spear tipped with a harmlessly blunt wooden point.  The students were divided into four squads of about a dozen each and performed complex evolutions across the grass commons advancing as follows:  the dancers skipped three steps forward with their short spears pointing upwards, followed by skipping backwards two steps with their spears pointing downwards.  In this way the four squads and all ages moved according to the same beat of the drum, three steps forward, two steps back.  Despite setbacks, these children, the community of the future, advanced beautifully, powerfully, inevitably.

When we arrived at Emiliano Zapata after patiently waiting for hours, after a bus journey of hours, after a sleepless night at the caracol, and then hiking for an hour, a very long day for me anyway, the entire hamlet, perhaps seventy to a hundred individuals, lined up in the dying light in two rows upon the commons in front of the church clapping their hands as we trudged, now more lightly, past them into the welcoming church.  Days later we left.  Again the people turned out, now in single file, so that we could say good-by to each person individually one by one, clasping each person’s hand with two of my own in eternal gratitude.

Meanwhile the red bandana …  both a souvenir of the past and a reminder of the future.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com