Zapatista Literary Life


“Flor y Canto” (literarily ‘flower and song’), the literary and musical expression of the indigenous peoples of Meso-America, is close to the heart of the Zapatista rebellion. No rebel celebration is complete without harps and accordions, songs and anthems, dramatic recitations, parodies, and poetry, and the 11th anniversary of the uprising marked this past New Year’s eve at the “caracol” of Oventic, the Zapatistas’ most public cultural-political center in the highlands above San Cristobal de las Casas, was no exception.

Guided by its silver-tongued mouthpiece Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos, the Zapatista rebellion can be interpreted as an 11 year-long literary workshop informed by Mayan Indian tradition and the culture of revolutionary struggle. The EZLN General Command — the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI) — has filled five volumes of communiqués in the on-going ERA (a major Mexican publishing house) series assembling the documents of the rebellion, most of them penned by Subcomandante Marcos, reputedly a university philosophy professor who wrote his doctoral thesis on the demented French ‘filosophe’ Louis Althusser. Over the years, the communiqués have been translated into English (two competing “complete” editions) as well as French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Turkish, and a dozen other languages.

2004 proved a banner year for Zapatista literary fortunes as the Subcomandante-Literateur added to his oevre with more than 30 new epistles, essays, denunciations, greetings of solidarity, and political fantasies. The output was the most voluminous since the early days of the rebellion when Marcos served up fresh screed daily lampooning Mexico’s corrupt and tyrannical political class.

Although he produced no published poetry in 2004, the Subcomandante’s prose is infused with poetic metaphor. “A world without giraffes?” the Sup asked in his “(Self) Defense of The Giraffes” published in October. The answer: “a world without giraffes would be like a ‘taco de pastor’ without the pork or the tortilla or the onion or the chile or the cilentro — just the paper and a little nostalgia.” The communiqué is a reasoned rant against a globalization that would homogenize native peoples into one faceless market: “the giraffes are like the Indians of the animal world — like us, they are ‘muy otra’ (‘very other’)âothere are lady giraffes who do not conform to the norms of feminine beauty and giraffe youth that is partial to piercings.” Both the Indians and the Giraffes “need a law to protect us as species in danger of extinctionâowhen we defend the giraffes, we are defending ourserlves.”

The Subcomandante clearly did not suffer from the writers’ block that has sometimes kept him silent for as long as 18 months at a time, cranking out fresh communiqués on his laptop from a writing hutch in the mountain camps above the Zapatista village with the haunting name of La Realidad (‘The Reality”) on an average of one every 12 days in 2004 — as has been the practice for the past 11 years, virtually all of Marcos’s writings appeared first in the national left daily La Jornada.

The Sup’s literary production included a three part series “The Velocity of Dreams” which asked how fast dreams can fly, and an eight part series “Videos To Read”, a detailed study of first year experiences of the “Juntas de Buen Gobierno” (‘Good Government Committees’) which now administer Zapatista autonomous territory. The series was produced by “The Zapatista Intergalactic Television Service — television you can read.”

In “The Torn Pocket”, the Subcomandante analyzes the brutal world of global capitalism through the prism of kids’ candy transactions in La Realidad. In “The Boot”, Marcos muses Susan Sontag-style on a photograph of a single abandoned boot in Iraq, comparing it to a boot lost on a jungle road by a young Zapatista woman named Tonita — the young women of the zone eschew wearing their boots while walking the roads, preferring to conserve them for Sunday soccer games. Readers first came to know Tonita ten years ago when she was four and refused to kiss Marcos goodbye as the Mexican army was closing in because he was “too scratchy” (“se pica.”)

Marcos’s writings in 2004 also feature a vitriolic debate with Mexico City district attorney Bernardo Batiz over the “suicides” of two activists, an official inventory of the Zapatista dead in the 1994 rebellion, messages of solidarity for a jailed Chilean political prisoner and persecuted globalphobes. Enlivening the Sup’s repertoire was the reappearance of two of his most popular characters — Old Antonio, an ancient farmer who speaks like the Mayan sacred book, the Popul Vuh, and Durito, a jungle beetle with a galloping Quijote complex. Collections of Old Antonio and Durito stories have been published in Mexico, the U.S., and Europe in recent years.

Nor did the Quixotic Zapatista spokesperson miss an opportunity to immerse himself in major literary brouhaha at the Guadalajara Book Fair, Mexico’s prime literary klatch. When a letter from Sub Marcos was read during a homage to the late Catalan detective fiction writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Sealtad Alatriste, Vazquez Montalban’s Mexican publisher, ommited several paragraphs chiding the city of Guadalajara for mistreating and imprisoning anti-globalization activists last May (nine are still in jail.) The blatant censorship was protested by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, a member of the Guadalajara panel — Saramago himself has visited the Zapatista zone on three occasions, often spending the afternoon in serious conversation with Comandante David, singer-songwriter commander of highland forces up at Oventic.

Other literary lions who have journeyed to Zapatista territory include the late Sontag, Regis Debrey, the Uruguayan maestro Eduardo Galeano, and the aforementioned Vazquez Montalban who published an acclaimed book-length interview with Marcos “The Lord of The Mirrors”. The Subcomandante exchanges correspondence with the Anglo-French guru of the simple life, John Berger, and periodically communicates with both Carlos Fuentes and the prominent Mexican social commentator Carlos Monsivais, although not always amicably.

The Sup’s literary reputation on the continent is further burnished by occasional contributions to Le Monde Diplomatique. In Mexico, the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN), a non-Indian support group, publishes a monthly review “Rebeldia” (the 25th issue hit the stands in December) in which Marcos’s musings are often spotlighted.

Marcos’s literary production in 2004 was further spurred by dozens of children’s stories like “Pamfila the Witch” that he has recorded for Radio Insurgente, the short-wave and internet service that now link up Zapatista communities in the jungle and the highlands with each other and broadcasts Zapatista flor y canto to the rest of the world.

The broadcasts are not the Sup’s first stab at the childrens’ book market. “The Story of Colors”, Marcos’s first effort in the field (but suitable for all ages) borrows a page from the Popul Vuh to tell how the macaw got its many colors. A bi-lingual edition published by the El Paso-based Cinco Puntos Press has sold nearly 30,000 copies at last count despite a last-minute nixing of funds by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts whose director justified the cut-off by insisting a tale told by a notorious left-wing guerillero was “not an appropriate use of U.S. taxpayers’ moneys.”

But the piece d’resistance of Marcos’s literary year is a serendipitous outgrowth of the brouhaha at the Guadaljara Book Fair. As a tribute to Vazquez Montalban, who had once proposed that the Sup join him and his astute Catalan gumshoe Pepe Calvaho in a collaborative effort, Marcos enlisted the spectral talents of Mexico’s most sophisticated detective fiction writer, the left historian Paco Taibo II, to produce a “policiaca” (detective novel) that would honor the roly-poly Catalunian’s memory.

“Incomodious Dead Men” (“Muertos Incomodos”), a novel written “with four hands and 20 fingers” now appears Sundays in La Jornada and is a sort of literary pingpong match in which the Subcomandante scribes one chapter and Taibo II the next. True to the genre, Taibo II has trotted out his battered, kind-hearted, Irish-Basque-Mexican private eye Hector Belascoaran Shayne whom the author has killed off and revived by popular demand on several occasions.

Marcos’s shamus, on the other hand, is a Tojolabal Mayan Zapatista with the nomme d’guerre of “Elias Contreras” — although Contreras was killed at the battle for Las Margueritas in the Lacandon jungle in January of 1994, he is apparently still on the job.

By the sixth chapter, Contreras, who insists he is not a detective at all but rather a designated representative of the Zapatista Commission of Investigation, had traveled up to the urban jungle from the Lacandon one where he is expected to soon encounter Shayne under the great dome of the capital’s Monument to the Revolution. What happens after that is anyone’s guess (one hint: Shayne has been receiving arcane messages left on his answering machine by a long-disappeared guerrilla leader.)

“Incomodious Dead Men” is Marcos’s most ambitious foray into fiction and fabula yet. The writing of both the Sup and Taibo II is lively, mordant, appropriately hard-boiled, and full of false clues as merits a solid policiaca. In one instance, a young Catalan solidarity worker in a peace camp near La Realidad describes daily life in the village for two and half pages when he suddenly interrupts himself: “I’m sorry. I have to go. They just came to inform me that I’m not supposed to be in this novel. Its all a mistake.”

The Mexican publishing house Planeta will issue “Muertos Incomodos” here and in Spain when it is completed and Seven Stories in New York is bidding for the U.S. rights. All proceeds from sales will be channeled back into indigenous communities.

Although he has yet to be reviewed on the pages of the New York Times (the NEA’s censorship story made the front page — but below the fold), 2005 is shaping up to be Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos’s break-out year as the world of letters’ most prolific guerrillero-literateur.

JOHN ROSS is at home on the Aztec island of Tenochtitlan nursing a bum back. Pray for him — and buy his latest instant cult classic “Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left“.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to