Being a Zapatista Where You Live

The snow was frozen to the gutters and a gritty wind blowing hard out of the north this past Valentine’s Day when I kicked off this odyssey at an anarcho outpost down by the railroad yards, La Semilla, in Albuquerque. Two hardscrabble hoboes eyed me through the chain link fence when I walked out into the front yard to bust a joint. Could they come inside and get warm, the white guy asked. He was from New Jersey and the black man with him from Brooklyn. That’s what he called him: “Brooklyn.”

The two were heading west, California if they could get there. No, it wasn’t a pleasure trip. The railroads bulls had kicked them off the freight they had hopped in Texas and they had pooled their change to buy a short dog of wine to keep out the cold.

The black man squatted stoically by the wood stove and said nothing. What kind of place was this anyway, New Jersey wanted to know? “We’re Wobblies, the IWW, one big union” Clay told him and called the rescue van to book them a bed at the shelter.

There are a lot of homeless people walking the streets of Albuquerque this winter. They get booted off the freight trains or are thrown out by the family or just got out of prison with no fixed destination. Sasha just sent me a clip that reported there are 16,000,000 Americans living in deep poverty in this, the most overfed nation on the Planet Earth, a 26%increase in the six years since Bush declared the Terror War. We have 2,000,000 more locked down behind bars in American prisons – they’re not included in the mix – and 7,000,000 undocumented workers who are not counted anywhere. That’s about ten times the number of troops in the U.S. Armed Forces who are otherwise occupied with getting whacked in Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers of the hopeless should be enough to incite serious social disruption but the fuse is damp. How can we jumpstart the revolution? That’s what I’m trying to find out out here on the road.

New Mexico is outlaw country. It is up near the top of all U.S.A jurisdictions in incarcerations per capita, heroin deaths, drunk driving arrests, radioactive contamination, and private prisons. The nuclear poisons are in the wind, leaking out of Los Alamos and Alamogordo and the slag heaps of yellow cake up in Navajo country. The skag comes up the pipeline from Sinaloa, Mexican Brown, and has cut a swatch of death through northern New Mexico. Read Chellis Glendinning’s “Chiva” to weigh its deadly embrace. Chellis lives out in Chimayo and knows where the bodies are buried.

My pal Tilda knows its terrible toll only too well. She lost her eldest to an o.d. and her second son is in his ninth year of a stretch for a teenage convenience store heist. Nine years! He was supposed to have been paroled in November but just got jacked up again for getting in his p.o.’s face and now his mom can’t even visit him. To stay sane, Tilda channels her rage into the prisoners’ rights movement, stalking the legislature up in Santa Fe for change.

Tilda came down from Pecos to a session at the Albuquerque Peace & Justice Center on “being Zapatistas where we live”, an interchange between activists that I’ve been convoking as I travel between the coasts. By being a Zapatista where we live I mostly mean doing our work in a Zapatista way under the governing principal of “mandar obedeciendo”, that is serving the community and taking decisions together without hierarchies or patriarchy, confronting power with truth, ripping the mask off capitalist exploitation and building a new American left from the bottom up. Like the compas down south, we need to get off the mal gobierno’s grid and construct autonomous spaces and become the subjects of our own destiny. We can’t do this alone. We have to do battle with sectarianism, spread solidarity, and make coalitions. Talk to each other, I’m always urging the folks who come to these meetings.

I saw this being a Zapatista thing where we live taking root at South Central Farms in L.A, last summer where Zapatista solidarity people and white anarchists, undocumented workers and Chicano activists took on Wal-Mart and the Sheriff’s deputies and the first Mexican-American mayor of the city since 1842. Up and down the coast, Zapatista groups were working on immigrant rights and issues of homelessness, racism, juvenile justice, and the war. In New Mexico, activists circled up and spoke about taking on the prison system, water rights and the asequias of the pueblos, childcare, coal power plants and the trashing of the state’s once pristine environment. The Wobblies are trying to organize Starbucks and the war is driving people to take risks. The Hispanic community in particular is paying an awful price for the carnage in Iraq.

Up in Taos where the domestic Zapatistas gathered at an oasis with an “openly subversive” sign planted in the front yard, the issue was what to do about Donald Rumsfeld who has lived in that weird burg for too many years. Now the anarchists are carrying around paper towels and asking Rummy to wipe the blood off his hands whenever they spot him prowling the upscale haunts.

Keith McHenry, the big papa of Food Not Bombs is in residence these days fanning the flames in New Mexico these days and back in Burque, a posse of youngish anarchos decked out in red and black escorted me to the Mexican bus on their skateboards the morning I lit out for Las Cruces and the border.

Jeff Conant, a colleague who was kicked out of Chiapas back in ’98 for celebrating the advent of the autonomia named for the old anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon (Jeff returned to San Francisco to paint the mural the army had rubbed out on the wall of City Lights bookstore facing Jack Kerouac alley) thinks there’s a lot of “The Almanac of the Dead” in everyday New Mexico – the magic realist novel written by the Native American writer Leslie Marman Silko that prophesized the Zapatista rebellion. Jeff took me along to see a purported Mayan shaman living east of Albuquerque where he would hold a mic in front of Flor de Mayo for an interview someone else was conducting from the Bay Area.

Flor de Mayo turned out to be a short stocky woman in a gorgeous huipil who resembled a cross between Mother Jones and a pit bulldog and spoke in a sensational Bronx accent – she claimed that she had been spirited off to New York as a young girl from the jungles of Central America. Although Flor de Mayo appeared to know no Mayan, she did produce a volume bound in red leather that bore the legend “El Destino” (“The Destiny”) which fixed the final day of the current Mayan cycle at November 28th 2011. You read it here first. The volume sat cheek by howl on the bookshelf above her desk with a book on how to sail.

Flor de Mayos’s husband restored old Airstreams – several were parked in the back yard. She spoke of flying up Mount Everest in a helicopter with the Dali Lama and didn’t think much of the Zapatistas. Shamans, healers, fakirs, high priests, Ayahuascos, peyote eaters, and other variegated visionaries have always formed an important part of the northern New Mexico tax base.


The border runs like a raw scar through the desert. The U.S. military, private contractors, and Israeli advisers are building The Wall to keep the global south from penetrating Fortress Amerikkka. Small mammals and reptiles will be denied passage between the two sides. Migratory birds will have to get visas to maneuver the flyway in from Canada. Larger mammals are being captured in record numbers (the toxically-named “Operation Return to Sender”) or else being taken as trophies by armed safaris.

At the Sleep Inn outside of Las Cruces, the National Guardsmen and women sporting their best Baghdad camou were changing shifts. “Kill a few for me!” I heard one incoming murderer yell joyfully at a comrade on his way down to patrol the border at Columbus where Pancho Villa once invaded. Where is the old revolutionary when we need him? I decided not to wear my kaffia down to the complimentary breakfast that morning for fear of triggering a flashback or being busted for impersonating a haji.

El Paso-Juarez is right at the heart of the war zone. A lot of bodies turn up floating face down in the Rio Bravo. Life is cheap on the southern bank of the river where 300 women have been slaughtered in the past 12 years and it’s not worth much more on El Otro Lado.

The Zapatista solidarity movement was chartered here back in the ’90s but the revolution has been spread by the four winds since then. Back then, we would send our old clothes to Chiapas to express solidarity – Subcomandante Marcos walked around with one pink pump (size six) in his rucksack, the “Cinderella Syndrome” he called it, to illustrate his frustration at such useless “material” aid. Now we are trying to do solidarity in a different way by being Zapatistas where we live.

Bobby Byrd, the soul of Cinco Puntos Press (Lee Byrd is the heart), the border booksellers who defied the National Council on the Arts by publishing Marcos’s “Story of Colors”, took me out to dinner in Paso del Norte with Reyes Tejirina, the legendary leader of the 1967 raid on the courthouse at Tierra Amarilla New Mexico, since enshrined in Chicano history – although if the truth be told, the bold, armed action was actually in defense of the land grants the Spanish Crown had bestowed upon the first Hispanics to settle the land which, of course, really belonged to the Indian pueblos.

Despite the confusion, the raid, coming at a moment when the Panthers were picking up the gun and the Nation of Aztlan was being reborn, galvanized identity politics in America for a generation of would-be revolutionaries. Reyes is in his 80s now, broke and unwell. When we picked him up at the El Paso apartment Bobby found for him, he seemed so enfeebled that I thought he might give up the ghost over supper. But a big steaming bowl of Pho seemed to revive him and he was soon boiling over with unruly advice. Marcos needed the Indians more than the Indians needed Marcos, he opined and I agreed. Could I name the Seven Jews who had built the Atom Bomb? (I could – my uncle was one of them.) The old man, still as chiseled and ruggedly handsome as he was as a younger icon with a great shock of white hair under his battered Stetson, seemed obsessed with the Jews. He had been to the Holy Land and stood with the Palestinians against “the Synagogue of Satan” (Apocalypse 2,9 and 3.9 – you could look it up.)

Despite the looniness, sitting down to table with Reyes was like eating dinner with history and I handed him the new Zapatista book to chew on. He rang me up the next morning and called me “a warrior” and said he loved me and I carry that conversation proudly as I stumble through the country trying to convince another generation of American rebels to be Zapatistas where they are.

Over on the other end of Texas, I would meet other folks being Zapatistas where they live. Dianne Wilson, an unreasonable woman, was one. She’s the shrimp boat captain who launched hunger strikes and scuttled her own shrimper to protest Big Plastics’ poisoning of the Gulf, then flew off to Baghdad to try and stop the war and even took herself to Washington where she sat and starved in front of the White House for a while in pursuit of the justice of which we have all been denied.

I bumped into this valiant companera at the Texas Bend Social Forum over in Corpus Christi where we both keynoted the conclave, about 150 souls out there in the wilderness learning how to be Zapatistas in their own backyard. Some of those backyards are the Colonias where unscrupulous land speculators have sold off squalid lots without any services whatsoever to impoverished families of undocumented workers, converting the south Texas scrubland into an extension of squatter colonies that now extend from Nuevo Laredo all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

The southwest leg of this endless perambulation took me back through Austin and Houston for a hot reading with old camaradas – ex-Sandanista guerrillero Roberto Vargas and the honored elder Raul Salinas at his Resistencia bookstore, and an afternoon with the prescient Mexican historian of anarchist uprising John Hart. and even a day with Lluvia, the three year-old granddaughter of la bella Elizabeth, my eternal editor, who played the strings of my heart like it was a busted ukulele.

But something was missing in Tejas this time around. Maybe it was its sense of humor. They have taken Molly Ivins from us and suddenly George Bush and the rest of those bastards are not so funny. The business about which we are about is so serious, Subcomandante Marcos once counseled, that if we can’t laugh at ourselves we will soon go nuts. I fear for the country. Molly Ivins, presente!

Next stop, the New Old South.

JOHN ROSS is on the road at Cape Fear North Carolina with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. and will be touring the south (North Carolina, Berea Kentucky, Atlanta Georgia, New Orleans) and the Midwest (Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, Cincinnati) in March before hitting the east coast in April. He can be reached at:



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