“Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is in solidarity, it is a radical posture.”—
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Roberto Arenas is a small tseltal(1) community of twenty-three subsistence farmer families located in the Chiapas Lacandon Rainforest, a six hour drive from the nearest major commercial center, the market town of Ocosingo. The occupants, adherents of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, its Spanish acronym), formed a nuevo poblado, a new community, here about three years ago. The land makes up part of the territory that was taken over or ‘re-cuperated’ by the Zapatistas in the midst of the January 1st 1994 uprising, as the land owners fled and the rebels took control of the zone. Under the mantle that the land is owned by those who work it, the Zapatistas began slowly dividing out the vast swathes to Zapatista militia and support base families – usually landless indigenous peasants or campesinos who previously labored on large fincas under difficult conditions. About 300,000 hectares of land were recuperated by the insurgent Zapatistas after the tumultuous state-wide uprising. The newly formed community of Roberto Arenas, fell under the jurisdiction of the Francisco Gomez Autonomous region, a self-governing Zapatista municipality where there is no state authority and, as the sign entering the municipality announces, “Here the people govern and the government obeys!”
Like hundreds of other little villages dotted throughout the region, theirs is a community characterized by pastoral simplicity. The roughly hewn, earthen floor dwellings are scattered around the undulating hills, and converge on a grassy community plaza with a muddy basketball court, flanked by a couple of rustic wooden structures that serve as church, community hall, and school. Although the community would probably be considered to exist in extreme poverty by any standard indices, they are poor mostly in the sense that they lack buying power—surviving on less than $2 a day. Nevertheless, all vital needs of daily life are satisfied with farming and the natural resources around them, and only a small part of their needs are satisfied in the market. Roberto Arenas is a frugal rather than impoverished community, it is self-sufficient in a traditional way, and would only approach extreme poverty if they lost the forests, rivers, and commons that are part of their home.
Like most other indigenous settlements in the region, Roberto Arenas has no electricity or potable water. Water for washing is hauled from the jungle river and drinking water is carried from a small water-hole 1 kilometre away. There are few latrines, and, as is customary, adults and children alike mostly use the natural surroundings. Almost all water sources are contaminated by human and animal feces. Waterborne illnesses affect the population (predominantly children) including those related to amoebas and giardia, and there is a threat of cholera and typhoid. Lack of potable water sources increase the risk of scabies infection, lice, salmonella, ascariasis and enterovirus diarrheas.
Good, sweet water is available from an abundant freshwater spring 2 km up the mountain, but is unattainable as the villagers lack everything they need to pipe it into the community. The cost of basic materials like pipes and tools is beyond the community budget, and they lack the technical know-how to implement such a project. Historically, generations of colonizers of the Lacandon jungle dealt with this problem by taking basic precautions like adding iodine or boiling the water—but these are inadequate. Some communities would make do with the most basic of water systems, budget allowing—a makeshift concoction of pipes connected to the nearest water source. If the community was fortunate it might get some institutional support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities, or church organizations. In a region where the government does nothing to provide basic services, water systems are few and far between. The lack of this basic necessity, added to the long list of communities’ grievances and the injustices suffered, ultimately resulted in the Zapatista uprising. Off the political map in the eyes of the state, they are ignored and cast into the void. So, typical for the region, Roberto Arenas has received no institutional support from either government or NGOs.
Without government or state, how does political autonomy work in the Zapatista zone? How do the people organize to get things done, like realizing a water system for the community? In Roberto Arenas, like all Zapatista villages, the community assembly—with representatives from each household—meets in the community hall, weekly—or more frequently if there are things to decide. Together they determine the manner and method of developing their own village, taking into account what resources are available. Decisions are made by the assembly, preferably by consensus. If there is a split and no clear decision, the debates and discussions go on until the assembly reaches a consensus. Occasionally, this can take days on end. This is participatory democracy in action, warts and all.
This kind of assembly-based decision-making process is not unique to the Zapatistas: indigenous communities throughout the region have always worked like this, most likely since pre-colonial times. It is in this forum, that all the major decisions concerning the community are taken – from land issues to community development, to justice—and are then passed on to the relevant commission for fine tuning. The decision to join the Zapatistas and go to war on January 1st, 1994 was taken in such an assembly. And if asked what influence the EZLN has had on the traditional community assembly procedures, compañeros and compañeras will mention how more women and youth are now involved in the decision making than before. Previously the assemblies were dominated by older male members but with Zapatista influence, the old patriarchal ties are not as binding.
So it was that Roberto Arenas decided that their biggest priority was getting a fresh water supply. This necessity was prioritized over other pressing needs, like electricity, new work tools, a hammock bridge to span the river that separated them from the dirt road, and the construction of a church building.
The assembly nominated three water “commissioners” to investigate the matter and to petition the local autonomous council for help and support. The three made their preliminary survey of what would be needed and walked the arduous mountain paths through the jungle, arriving at La Garrucha, the regional autonomous municipality center. They attended the weekly council meetings— or juntas— overseen by the council representatives there by rotation, and attended by community members from any of the several hundred communities in this particular autonomous municipality (one of seven throughout the Zapatista zone of influence). This system of local governance is part of their aspiration to organize in a participatory manner, from the bottom-up instead of the top-down. The Zapatista slogan— to lead by obeying— captures this concept.
The de-facto autonomy of the Zapatista zone is a result of the never-ratified San Andreas Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture negotiated between the EZLN and the Mexican government in 1996. Under provisions of the agreement approved but never sanctioned by the government, majority indigenous municipalities would be granted limited autonomy over land, habitat, exploitation of natural resources, the environment, education, health, and agrarian policies. Authorities and municipal posts would be designated by traditional usos y custumbres(2) instead of being divided up among political parties. In response to the government’s betrayal of the San Andreas agreements, the Zapatistas set up autonomous structures without official state authorization. Such pirate action has resulted in a burgeoning and successful system of rebel autonomy that exists under the constant threat of dismantlement by the Mexican Army.
The three compas of Roberto Arenas patiently wait their turn at the autonomous municipality seat of La Garrucha, prosaically entitled the Good Government Council “The Path of the Future” Caracol. The wait could be days as the business of the municipal council is long and complicated, but eventually they will present their petition. The various representatives listen, take note of the petition, and discuss the project. Everything is taken into account and the three compas return to their village to await the outcome.
The good government committee of the autonomous municipality refer the case to their elected water commission and the options are weighed. The commission consults various parties including the local EZLN commander and clandestine committee members, and so, in the end, after the issue has been bandied around what seems like half the inhabitants of this particular region of the jungle, the community of Roberto Arenas is notified about the eligibility of their request. It’s a process similar to what happens anywhere in the world at a local council level, except for one significant difference: the state authorities have no involvement whatsoever; this is an autonomous process overseen by the communities’ people. There is no separation between who is governed and who is governing—they are one and the same. The various committees and bodies are overseen not by elected or appointed officials, but by members of the community, a duty performed by rotation. Here, in a place off the map, a nowhere of sorts, the people have adopted an enlightened form of governance. This is how an autonomous administration functions. This is peoples’ power in action.
And, most significantly, for this particular little story, the decision for the community is… Affirmative! Yes to assigning a water project to Roberto Arenas! So the momentum to bring potable water to the isolated rural community on recuperated Zapatista lands begins. Now to find a way to make it happen!
Not surprisingly, the Zapatista autonomous municipalities are chronically lacking in funding and resources. Revenue comes from their own base—from Zapatista agricultural ventures like coffee or honey, from NGOs (local, national, and international) and from solidarity groups. In the case of getting water to a base community, the municipalities have a couple of options: A fairly basic project—a DIY job—can be self-financed, though is often only a temporary solution. A more sophisticated water system is very costly and requires local engineers and plumbers to be hired to oversee the project. Another option is to petition an NGO or solidarity group to support and realize a community water project.
2. Enter the Water Boys and Girls of Solidarity
The first solidarity-inspired water projects in Zapatista-liberated territory occurred about six months after the 1994 uprising and the initial consolidation of a rebel zone. Activists who had been embedded in Central American war zones during the 1980s arrived to employ their skills, seeing what was happening as a continuation of the anti-imperialist struggle in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The first water projects were initiated in strategically important communities— like Patiwitz, historical kernel of Zapatista insurgence that was now suffering an internal division because of a split between the main families. The water project had the potential to re-unite the community around a single vital initiative, a piped water system supplying all shared community places—school, church, village basketball court, collective kitchen, etc. Even with the first small projects, the political capital involved in water systems became obvious. A water project not only supplied a village with potable water, but represented a potent political weapon, as well.
More Zapatista sympathizers arrived from other places—around the country and world—keen to get involved in a hands-on way in the Chiapas struggle. One could spend days or weeks idling around a rustic peace camp, accompanying the rebels, or participating in more office-based work like media, fundraising, or compiling human rights reports in San Cristobal de las Casas (the picturesque colonial town that is the regions’ administrative center and tourist hang out). But volunteering on water projects seemed the most practical way to get stuck in, to get your hands dirty (and blistered), and start digging, mixing cement, laying pipes, assembling tap-stands, shoulder to shoulder with the compañeros, the indigenous men, women, and children in the remote and isolated jungle or mountainous communities.
Water projects were a favored occupation in solidarity work, particularly among the more direct-action-oriented, anarcho crowd. By the end of 1996, the initial wave of water project development workers with roots in NGOs, church and Central American leftist organizations, gave way to a fresh new generation of activists who were generally more inspired by the Zapatista model and had a history of anti-authoritarian, anti-systemic organizing in their homelands. So it was that the Water Project collectives came together and formed self-organized and autonomous groups that oversaw the construction of fairly basic, but quite efficient, gravity-fed clean water systems for Zapatista-affiliated communities. Crucially, in turning the NGO-recipient relationship upside down, the solidarity workers operated under the broad jurisdiction of the Zapatista autonomous councils. It was the indigenous peasant campesinos themselves, through their own organization, who decided where and how the national and international solidarity workers went. In a sense, the water project collectives served the Zapatistas. The initial question – what can we do to help the Zapatistas?—tempered by the fire of experience, with a salsa picante of ideology became: What is it that the Zapatistas want us to do?
The point of intersection, or encuentro, between the Zapatista insurgents/base of support and outsiders is in the designated centers in five locations around the rebel zone. Originally known as Aguascalientes (after the famous point of meeting of the revolutionary armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata outside Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution), they later became known as the Caracoles (snails, representing slow, solid progress forward)—a place for political and movement connectivity. And it is here, in these important physical spaces, that indigenous base and solidarity activists join, face-to-face, not as idealized figures, but as human beings in the flesh.
So it was that the three Tseltal compañerosfrom the isolated hamlet of Roberto Arenas (population 200) came down from the mountains to speak to the autonomous council of the La Garrucha caracol (population 300) and present their petition for a water system. So it also was that three compañeros from the water project collective came into the jungle from their base in the old colonial town of San Cristobal (population 100,000) in the central highlands of Chiapas, to talk with the autonomous council about their next project…
In what must be considered an extraordinary and fine thing in this day and age of homogeneity, two distinct and unequal worlds merge, indigenous and solidarity workers, find common ground, and begin to work together. And underlining the radical or even revolutionary nature of the endeavor, they attempt to go beyond solidarity—with all its somewhat paternalistic interpretations—and towards reciprocity. People helping each other in the spirit of mutual aid.
3. Journey into the Desert of Solitude
What must Don Sisifo and his two water commission delegates from Roberto Arenas have thought when they set eyes on us— the three “water technicians,” Maria, Praxedis and me—for the first time that morning in La Garrucha?
In our defense, we were weary and disheveled, having left San Cristobal at 2 AM to avoid military and migration checkpoints on the five-hour drive into the rebel zone. We had a pickup truck full of work equipment and our two foreigners, violated tourist visas by entering the designated “conflict zone.” The federal army checkpoint approaching La Garrucha had, surprisingly, been manned, as early as 5 AM. We knew their routine by now, and it was very unusual that the troops were out so early.
“Fuck,” says Maria.
We slow down as we approach. The young soldier is taking his time to come out.
“You know what? Fuck this,” says Maria.
In a decisive act of insolence, she speeds up, swings the 4 Wheel Drive to the other side of the dirt road and drives past the checkpoint. She waves prettily at the guard, who is standing there somewhat dumbfounded, his rifle still by his side.
And we are gone. Around the bend and into the darkness.
“Fuck them, we got more important things to do than be detained by those assholes.”
“You have no respect for armed men, Maria,” laughs Praxedis.
I remember meeting Maria for the first time a couple of years ago and thinking she came across as quite straight, quite conventional, with the competitive air of a typically ambitious NGO operative. It was a delight to see the mischievous, subversive, and positively scandalous side of her emerge as she engaged more with the Zapatista milieu and copper fastened her political outlook to the extent that she was now one of the most staunch and diehard Zapatista activists around. She still looks totally straight and her militancy is veiled behind a hard-working, hyper-organized, and very capable public persona. Running the military road-block at dawn is definitely a courageous, through somewhat reckless act, but such is Maria: determined and ready to take a chance or two.
So we pull into the nearby Zapatista caracol and feel safe, enveloped in its bosom. The soldiers won’t or can’t pursue us in here.
The Roberto Arenas delegation receives us and we are tired and weary, scruffily attired and resembling a punk rock trio with a penchant for survivalist expeditions. The three campesinos look like…well, three campesinos. Dark rugged faces burnt from the sun; strong, short, angular bodies clad in well-worn, much scrubbed and somewhat ragamuffin clothes. Each carries a machete.
Introductions are modestly made and hands are shaken. Don Sisifo, (3) the community leader does the talking while Juan, his teenage son, busies himself with saddling the horses. Completing their party is Alfredo,(4) a brawny young man who, Don Sisifo informs us, has been designated one of the water responsables (in charge of, responsible for the water project) and who will work closely with us. Alfredo carries himself with some pride. This is apparently the first major post (cargo) of responsibility given to him by the community and he is keen and attentive. We introduce ourselves – Praxedis(5) from Mexico City, Maria from the USA, and me, from Ireland.
“Are you from a foreign NGO?” asks Sisifo.
“No,” explains Maria, “we don’t work for any state institution or formal NGO, we are autonomous solidarity workers. That means we are not sent here by anybody, but come here as activists in solidarity with the Zapatista struggle. We are here to work together doing water projects, not just to bring the community sweet water, but also to strengthen rebel autonomy against the malgobierno [the unjust government].”
The campesinos thank us for our solidarity with the cause and for helping the community. Don Sisifo addresses us as “compañeros” and “compañera” which is a noteworthy first step. They seem extremely shy and reticent and we think it might be that they are not terribly confident communicating in Spanish. Unfortunately, none of us speaks their mother tongue, Tseltal.
Since the autonomous municipality authorities granted us permission to conduct an initial feasibility study, we propose that we get to work immediately, to draw up an engineering and work plan with the community, and sign a contract. If all goes well, within about eight to ten weeks, there should be a functioning system delivering clean water into the homes of the village occupants. The campesinos nod readily in agreement.
“Esta bien – it’s all good,” says Don Sisifo, hurriedly. “Vamanos.” Let’s go.
He doesn’t mean to be impolite, but points out that we have a long trek ahead of us and it is best to get going right away, to avoid having to cross the mountain under the scorching midday sun. Don Sisifo tells us we have a five and a half hour hike ahead of us. Three horses carry the water system equipment and materials and we three carry our own backpacks. Sisifo and his teenage son lead the horses, and we plod along in the mud after them while Alfredo takes up the rear.
Before us looms a horizon of mountains and forest. It may not be the heart of darkness, but the Lacandon jungle has its specters, and is known colloquially as the Desert of Solitude. Once, this vast, lush rainforest, covering 6,000 square kilometers(6) was mostly uninhabited, but waves of twentieth century migration by disposed and landless migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero ensured the slow but steady colonization of this virgin territory. By the 1980s, the rainforest was reduced to about one-third of its original size as, alongside the massive colonization, the government intensified exploitation of the forest with logging and mineral extraction, and large-scale cattle ranching cut vast swathes of pasture from forestland. In this fertile wilderness, campesinos cut out a basic living. The population increased from a few thousand to roughly 400,000. Industry and subsistence farming came in conflict over limited resources. The migrants were caught between their own farming and work seasonally as peons on the farm estates or coffee plantations of wealthy landowners. Poverty and misery, pervaded by a sense of hopelessness, was their lot. Despite the promise offered by the forests, canyons, and glens of the Lacandon region, from the back lands of Chiapas came not development or progress but its antithesis: rebellion. Some people’s solitude or fear is other people’s refuge. It was here amongst the population—the poorest of the poor—that the Zapatista resistance took root. As Sub-comandante Marcos has remarked, “That’s why the Lacandon is what it is—a kind of breathing space at the end of the country.” For ten years the Zapatista rebellion grew in the shadows of the Lacandon Jungle and emerged on January 12th, 1994, as a state-wide insurgency. And so, from a semantic perspective, from the Desert of Solitude was born the War against Oblivion.
The sun is already climbing in the sky and making its presence known as we set off on the trail. With a coordination that no doubt impresses our hosts, I manage to slip and tumble into the river as we cross a rickety bridge. Don Sisifo helps me out of the knee-deep water (politely not laughing, while Maria and Praxedis laugh heartily in unison), and I silently curse myself and my shitty Doc Marten boots, which are already falling apart, and now are drenched to boot. Every step becomes painful.
The first part of the trek is through green, fertile land, and the trail is covered in deep mud—sometimes up to our knees. Around us, as the eye can see, are cultivated fields, corn plots and some cattle pasture. Soon we emerge from this lush ecosystem and begin the climb up the steep paths of the mountainside into more arid territory. After a couple of grueling hours hiking up rough trails, we come upon a bleak ridge, free of agriculture, barren except for a smattering of rugged trees and sparse bush. We sit and take a rest, thirstily sipping at our water supplies. The sun is rising high in the sky and the heat is becoming unbearable.
We use the moment’s respite to ask a few questions of the compas. It’s like extracting blood from a stone, but we do manage to get them talking a little.
“My family came to this region in the 1970s,” Don Sisifo tells us. “We left Oxchuc in the Highlands because there was no more land there. My father joined a group coming to occupy land in the canyons. But the land was poor and we had to keep moving deeper into the mountains. And when the Zapatistas came to the region, many campesinos joined the organization and plans were made for a big land takeover.
“How many campesinos joined the organization in this region?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A lot. Thousands!”
“What happened then?”
“After the uprising in ’94, the owners fled and the compañeros took all this land, and so it became re-occupied land. The organization divided the land up between the communities and here we remain.”
How about in Roberto Arenas? Is the land good there?
“Yes, the land is very good. We are the first to plant there. The land gives a lot.”
“And how many Zapatista communities are there in the region?”
“Well, I think about fifty. Some have left the organization.”
“Saber,” he says with a shrug. Who knows…
Now he seems a little uneasy with the interrogation. It is clear that Don Sisifo is a man of few words and he gets a bit flustered. It’s like he doesn’t like hanging around indulging in idle banter.
“Let’s go. We have a long way yet.”
The sun beats down, the mountain trail gets steeper and we are all sweating profusely. But finally, about five hours in, the climbing part is mostly over, and after a final push upwards, we reach the crest and are soon heading slowly downwards into the valley. We descend into the verdant green basin of the Jatate River and here the moist, tropical terrain is cultivated with corn fields and plantain and coffee plantations. Almost at the end of our tether, it’s a huge relief to, at last, arrive at river’s edge, to feel its cool beautiful jungle freshness, and fill our empty water bottles. But we must wait an excruciating 20 minutes of parched pain for the iodine to sanitize the water. I don’t have the will to wait and take a chance after 10 minutes, wolfing down the most delightful liquid I have ever tasted in my life. I am perfectly aware that I will no doubt pay for this impatient indulgence in the days ahead with the runs and cramps, but I don’t care; I am dehydrated and feel like I’m literally dying of thirst. The campesinos eye us with amusement. I notice they don’t appear to even be breaking much of a sweat. As we sprawl about under the shade of an old tree, gulping down water after our heroic march, the campesinostell us that they set out before dawn to meet us in Garrucha, climbing this very mountain—and so this was their second trip today. Even though Maria, Praxedis, and I had worked in these mountains for a good while now, and are in excellent shape, we feel pretty useless at this very moment.
Enjoying a second wind, we stroll the last stretch and finally, five and half hours after we set out, the forest parts and we enter into the flat plain of the village. Roberto Arenas is a picturesque settlement nestled by the side of the broad, majestic Jatate River, surrounded by lush, fertile—if hilly—land. The community centre is located on a wide grassy knoll, flanked on one side by a wooden shack serving as a school, and another that serves as a church. Beyond the village center, there is a scattering of rough, dirt-floored huts where the people live. Despite the rural frugality, it is a very calm and beautiful place. It is not like the other Zapatista villages where I’ve been. There is a strange quietude, an absence of children, and the lack of colorful murals is apparent, unusual for a Zapatista community. Don Sisifo leads us to the school building and apologizes for our rough quarters. No, we all say, it’s wonderful. But where is everyone?
“They are shy. Visitors are unusual here. But you will meet the people soon.”
I notice a few colorfully dressed women peek out shyly from the darkened doorways, and little by little, bands of ragged, shoeless children come out to stare at us, too timid to approach or engage us.
We wave at them and they dart back into the shadows of their houses.
Beneath the tin roof, on few sparse boards serving as walls, we three hang our hammocks and finally rest.
Some time later the good Don Sisifo brings us to his kitchen, and his wife Dolores serves us beans and tortillas, as numerous little kids run around the place. After the long hike, it feels like one of the finest meals of our lives and we eat with such savage appetite that the children laugh at us. Dona Dolores shoos them away. She is a quiet, industrious, middle-aged woman, who speaks to us in a mix of Tzeltal and Spanish, smiles a lot, and makes us feel welcome. Don Sisifo, who is starting to relax a bit more with us and overcome his shyness, begins to explain the situation in the community, the lack of everything—running water, electricity, latrines, a health clinic, teachers for the school, transport to the nearest town, even the lack of basic farming tools. These people have nothing, absolutely nothing except their land, their will to work, and their pride in being Zapatistas. Sisifo himself, he tells us, has been a Zapatista for sixteen years.
How must things have been before he was a Zapatista or before he farmed this occupied land?
Before he has a chance to answer Alfredo, the water responsablecomes in and whispers in his ear.
“It is time,” announces Don Sisifo. “The compañerosfrom the water commission have assembled and are ready to receive you. Lets go.”
We thank Dona Dolores for the food with such overt gratitude that she must think we are a bit mad. She just stands there shaking her head and smiling widely.
“We are happy that you have come,” she says, a gaggle of children hanging from her apron and skirts.
Our first working meeting takes place in the rustic, bare schoolroom, sitting somewhat squashed at child-sized wooden bench and tables, initially with just the two members of the water commission—Alfredo and Vicente—and Don Sisifo. They describe the different options for fresh water supplies, the location of various springs in the surrounding hills and their attributes. We decide the most likely option is a spring some 2 km from the community, situated high enough in the hills to deal with the problem of head or gravity for the water to flow with enough power. The compañeros had begun trying to construct their own water system here last year, DIY style, but ran short on funds. Maria has the most technical and on-the-ground experience of our team and takes charge of the questions and answers.
“Considering this option,” she says,” it sounds like it should be a pretty straight-forward system. But we need to do the survey to be absolutely certain.”
Little by little, as dusk falls, more men and children, returning from their days work in the milpa(7) drift in and gather around our meeting table until there is meeting quorum. In the near pitch darkness of the schoolroom, the men of the community gather around a couple of candles. There is something archaic and holy about the atmosphere, the quiet murmuring, the shadows moving about, the shy humble campesinos, all wearing ragged shirts and pants and boots, shaking our hands and thanking us for coming.
Eventually, all the men and youths of the community are present, as well as a gaggle of pre-teen boys and girls. No women are present because, as we are told, they are preparing the evening meal in their kitchens. Despite the use of water being one of the main preserves of the women—bathing kids, cooking, washing—water systems are perceived as men’s work in the traditional, conservative culture of indigenous communities such as this one.
It is the women (and children) who benefit most directly from piped water in the communities, since it is they who have to bear the burden of carrying the water on their shoulders from the stream or nearest well to the kitchen every single day. On average, they spend about an hour a day fetching water, carrying the ten or fifteen liter vessel mecopal(8) style, with a strap supported by their forehead. Some women balance whole jugs of water on their heads. It is grueling work, balancing this weight on your head over hills and along muddy tracks to the house.
“We will need some women representatives on the water committee,” says Maria.
“Yes,” says Don Sisifo, “we will talk to them.”
Maria takes the lead as our primary spokesperson. At first the campesinos seem confused, looking to me and Praxedis to lead. But as they see us deferring to Maria, they soon enough accept her authority. She speaks slowly and clearly for the benefit of those with basic Spanish, and allows time for a little translation into Tseltal to be done. She explains how we are going to use the most basic, gravity-fed system to pipe water into each house in the community, that the process will take about two or maybe three months depending on the pace of work, and if all goes to plan, the system will function for at least 20 years—more if it is maintained well. The system will consist of 2 km of plastic PVC piping running from the spring to a 13,000 liter cement reservoir tank situated in the village. This will allow for a perennial water supply for every family in the village and take into account a 3.5% annual population growth.
Ultimately, the idea is to not just install the water system, but to train the people at the same time, so they can manage their own system, and maintain and repair it as the years pass. They themselves will oversee the system and all its workings. I reflect: how many people in my world know how their own plumbing system works, beyond turning on the tap? Here these people will learn it all, from source to tap, and this will become part of the arsenal of their community autonomy.
Maria outlines what each party’s responsibilities are. We will all work side by side, but everyone has their more specific role: those in the water team will concentrate on the technical stuff, while community members will provide the labor and a willingness to learn. We solidarity workers will share the burden of the backbreaking work, but our skills lie in the technical field, and Maria emphasizes, we are not bosses, nor well-paid NGO agents; we are fellow compas, and down with the Zapatista struggle.
A compañero called Gordoo—ie Fatso, because he is slightly less lean than the rest of his fellow campesinos—who is the sometime school teacher and best Spanish speaker in the community, steps forward.
“Who pays you to be here then?” asks Gordo. A fair enough question.
“No one pays us, but we get stipends from the water group to cover our expenses. The water group raises money from people who support the work we do. People give money as their form of solidarity with the Zapatista struggle.”
The compañeros discuss this information at length and quite animatedly.
Gordo turns to us after a while and, summing up their conversation with some brevity, says,
“But, the compas want to know why you are here if nobody sent you and nobody is paying you.”
We three visitors look at each other. Christ. International Solidarity—where to begin? Do we start with the international brigades supporting the anti-fascist struggle in republican Spain, 1936? We could begin with what it is not: we are not development workers. It is not about charity. We are not here to provide a safety net for the absence of government infrastructure.
Praxedis, generally a quiet, taciturn person, steps up to explain, putting forward a political and somewhat philosophical explanation:
“It is about political and social justice, compañeros. What can we do to move the Zapatista struggle and the process of autonomy forward? We do it by working together, side by side, with unity of purpose. While we construct the water system together, we will share our basic engineering knowledge with you, and you will be teaching us the ways of the indigenous Zapatista communities. And learning together we not only build a water system, but we also build a bridge of solidarity between both of our political communities, bringing them closer. This is how constructing a water system becomes a concrete manifestation of our solidarity with your rebel autonomy.”
Maria and I stare at him, impressed and feel like bursting out into spontaneous applause. Right on, Praxedis.
After conferring with the compañeros, Gordo turns to address us.
“The compas’s say they are glad that you are here and support the struggle. They offer to build a kitchen for you, and they will bring tortillas and firewood for your duration here—to help with your expenses.”
We offer our thanks in return. We are off to a good start. However it’s getting late and we are ready to sleep. Maria wraps up the meeting, thanking everyone for receiving us. A few questions are asked and then everyone there signs a contract. Many of the men are completely illiterate and sign with a symbol.
The long meeting winds down and the compañerosapproach us one-by-one, shyly shaking our hands and thanking us for coming. It is quite moving, and despite being exhausted, the gesture gives us a little more energy and raises our spirit. We chat a while, answering questions about how many hours it took to travel from our home cities and such like, and finally the last of the compas departs. We three exhausted solidarity activists, a long way from home, hitch our hammocks and fall into deep slumber, despite the swarms of mosquitoes and chaquistas11 biting us. Each bite is a sting, each sting inducing a feverish effect. Sleep comes as a mighty relief.
4. The Cartography of Thirst.
I awake but feel as if I haven’t slept. It rained heavily during the night, and the open-sided schoolroom allowed all the valley’s bugs to take shelter under our laminated roof. My face is covered in chaquista(9) bites, and feels aflame. The mosquitoes had a field day too, as the night heat made the sleeping bag unbearable and my exposed arms were bitten extensively. My feet are all fucked up—grotesquely discolored, swollen, and blistered from the five hour march. The others mock me, christening me Trench Foot.
It is shortly after dawn, and a group of men are waiting outside the hut, ready for work. They all carry machetes, a file for the machete, lunch bags with pozol, water mixed with ground corn, and a Zapatista neckerchief, fashioned rebel style. Despite the early hour, they are all jolly, and joke in Tseltal. Somewhat disheveled, we stagger out and ritualistically shake hands with everyone. The compañeros are giddy with excitement; we are still half asleep.
Today is the first step towards bringing piped water to the village: the topographical study. We will do a geological survey of the territory between the mountain spring and the village. It is, in effect, a feasibility study—will the water arrive by gravitational means at all? For the system to function, there has to be sufficient head, or power in the gravity of the channeled water, to journey the two kilometers over hill and dale to the final destination. The study is to establish the altitude difference (the head) between the water source and the projected reservoir tank in the community. It’s a mathematical conundrum, but people with an eye for these things—like Maria—will tell you that if the source is ten meters higher than the village, the piped water will arrive. More recent additions to the water teams, like Praxedis and me, still have to rely on the technical data.
Maria unpacks the transit level, an engineering device that resembles an early-twentieth century tripod camera, is used to measure the angle from it to poles held by compañeros a hundred meters downhill. With that information, considering the angle and distance, using trigonometry and a pocket calculator, we can calculate the head of water, and figure out what size of piping is needed. If the pressure is too strong for a pipe, it will burst. If the pressure is too weak, it won’t travel the distance. More precisely speaking, if the drop in elevation between any point of the pipe system and the spring was to fall below ten meters in the hilly terrain, an air-lock could develop and an expensive valve would have to be installed to prevent a block.
We are all set, but the good Don Sisifo notices the three technicians are still reeling from yesterday’s endeavors. Breakfast in his house, he proposes, while the other men go off to prepare the trail through the mountain with their machetes. We retreat to his house.
There is a warm, nesting environment about this simple hut, filled with children, chickens, ducks, cats, and dogs. Don Sisifo pours water upon our hands—a campo cleansing ritual—before we eat. Dona Dolores smiles kindly and remains quiet and receptive to our perceived demands. On a rough table, we are served eggs and beans and tortillas. It tastes absolutely delicious. We eat in silence, humbled, and slightly embarrassed by the family, all standing in corners watching over us, as if to make sure we are completely satisfied. Spartan and clean, the dirt-floor hut is filled with gentle smoke from the open fire and the delicious smell of cooking tortillas. We sip sugary coffee from metal cups. The children gaze upon us with wonder, as if we, as caxlanes12—that is, outsiders—eat in some extraordinary manner. Dona Dolores is demure and polite; and we reciprocate. Despite a thousand insect bites and little sleep (and let’s not forget trench foot) we feel ridiculously pampered, our bellies full and sated.
Around 8 AM we set off over the hills and towards the spring, a two kilometer journey. The mud is heavy and the surrounding forest rich and fecund. Up at the spring, we are happy to see that the compas have already made a solid concrete spring box as part of a previous attempt to build a water system here. Water has been walled in at the source to form a well that funnels the liquid into an exit-flow valve. A difficult job, pitting gushing spring water against stone and mortar with the time it takes cement to dry. So we “water techies” are satisfied that we are off to a good start, as two or three days of planned labour have already been done. What’s here is a solid wall, a good spring box. It’s not how we would have constructed it, but it’s obviously appropriate to the site. We measure the flow of the water, a litre every nine seconds—a good and strong flow. Maria takes a water sample in a bottle for chemical and bacteriological tests that will be done back in a clinic in San Cristobal.
The spring is situated in a lush bower, surrounded by a dense forest of old-growth trees. The compañeros clear the brush around the spring and then start on the trail where we will dig a trench to bury the pipes. Machete in one hand and a clawed stick to pull back the debris with the other, the campesinos go to work with precision. Gordo is in charge of the measuring tape. As the occasional math teacher in the school, he has, unlike the others, a good grip on measurements. He takes the lead in measuring the path 100 meters at a time through the forest, across gullies, up and down hills, and across streams. He’s an outgoing guy and speaks good Spanish, is constantly inquisitive and asks all the right questions. Soon he is calculating the gradation with the transit, and teaching other campesinos how to do it. The shining sun, the hum of activity, and productive work, informs the pleasant nature of our activities. In the broadest pedagogical sense, the compas are already doing it for themselves.
Maria sets off early the next day with Don Sisifo to survey the community and to make a detailed map we’ll use to design the pipeline. She will visit each of the twenty three houses to talk to the occupants about the project, and will take the opportunity to meet the women and ask them of their specific water needs.
Accompanied by Vicente and Alfredo, the two responsables who will be in charge of overseeing the ongoing maintenance of the water system, Praxedis and I are dispatched up the mountain to fortify the spring box. Machete in hand, we hack through the thick undergrowth all the way to the source of the fresh water. It’s September, the rainy season has been an abundant one, and the mud is so deep that we are sometimes struggling up to our knees. The clearing at the spring is a truly enchanting place, filled with a dizzying array of plants, trees, and animal life. This virgin water, running anciently and mysteriously out of the deep earth, is gorgeous and cool to touch. We are surrounded by the powerful perfume of feral nature blooming and blossoming. The pungent odor of decay and growth, of lush ecosystems and regeneration permeates the air.
We begin to dam the spring, in order to stop leaves and debris from entering the capitation tank and blocking the pipes. We can also use heavy rocks from the surrounding area to construct a solid wall. One of the compas strips off and wades into the water digging up half-submerged rocks. I scout the area and notice, almost invisible in the dense foliage, an encampment. Tables and chairs and posts hued from branches and forest wood around a campfire pit. Now it is overgrown and obviously derelict, but my imagination bounds. I’m certain it’s a guerrilla encampment, used by a group of transient Zapatistas. Even though there has not been any combat since the early days of 1994, rumors still abound about the presence of EZLN guerrillas in the mountains. Hidden from public view, they have become the stuff of village lore. Have I stumbled across something I was not meant to see? Of course, beside a freshwater spring, and hidden deep below the forest canopy, is an ideal location for a clandestine camp. I cast my gaze around and notice a variety of wooden structures that look vaguely familiar from diagrams in Che Guevara’s Manual For Guerrilla Warfare. It seems a magical place, filled with clandestinity and memories, resonant of dreams and struggle.
“Vicente!” I call. “What’s this encampment over here?”
He looks at me curiously, “This is where we held a ceremony on Santa Tomas Day, the day to bless the water…”
That was a little disappointing.
But it is not like the compas are hiding their affiliation. As we work, Vicente and Alfredo, little by little, begin to open up and chat to us, telling us a little of their lives and tales.
We break for a mid-morning snack of matz, a corn porridge drink popular in these parts. I remember first trying it a few years ago when I began working in the zone, and almost vomited. Other volunteers did vomit. Just took a swig of the heavy, ground down corn and water, and, straight up, vomited. It’s slightly fermented flavor makes it an acquired taste, which I think I have acquired now. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and lots of residue, but it is filling and, as the compas never tire of telling you wherever you go in these canyons—matz gives you strength.
Vicente is a young man in his early twenties, married with two little kids. Although short in stature, he appears sturdy and strong, muscles bulging everywhere, and exudes good health. Must be the matz.
His family came from further down the valley because there was no land left in his community for the next generation. He, like most of the landless youngsters there, joined the Zapatistas to fight for new land. He tells us how on January 1st 1994, his unit descended upon the town of Ocosingo, and fought the military. They lost some compañeros in the battle.
“My brother Jorge fell,” he relates, and falls into silence, ruminating upon his dead sibling.
“Sorry,” we say.
Alfredo, who is a couple of years older than Vicente, and has a couple of kids more, participated in the takeover of Ocosingo too. The battle of the market a few days later was one the worst in the whole war. Dozens of compañerosand civilians were killed after the army surrounded them in the town market. He doesn’t say much about it.
“It was very hard,” says Alfredo, “but we managed to escape out the back way. Many of our compañeros were not so lucky.”
Since the conversation has taken a dark turn, I change the subject.
“Are you two related?” I noticed when they introduced themselves, that one’s name was Lopez Santiz, and the other Santiz Lopez.
“We are second cousins.”
They begin to explain but it gets complicated. A lot of Lopez and Santiz marrying each other and it seems almost everyone in the community is connected by family in some way or the other. I suppose that explains the one-big-happy-family atmosphere all around.
Back to work, the supply of water gushing out of the exit pipe is plentiful and we hook up the connections with a flood-gate valve, a globe valve, and a metal ring to connect the supply to the first roll of the PVC pipe. We do everything slowly and carefully, wrapping all the parts with tape; if everything is done well this water system should work suitably for twenty five years. However, there are a few problems with the materials—the floodgate valve is slightly malfunctioning. Because of budget restrictions we had to buy a cheap model, and this has proven a bad call. Vicente curses the device, blaming it on sub-standard Chinese engineering. I am surprised that this particular prejudice reached even here, the heart of the Lacandon Jungle. Praxedis considers the defective piece from a different perspective.
“Probably forced prison labor.”
Nevertheless, it functions, and we decide to leave it be. And so the spring is ready to start feeding a pipe network. All we need to do is get the pipes here.
Back at base, all the men have gathered outside the school for a water workshop. We invite them in and as they ask a few questions I notice that, though guarded, they are slightly less shy towards us techies—a good sign.
Maria begins a short presentation on water and health, and after a while mentions that it would be useful to have the women present for this too. She points out that it would be good to include them in the process, not least because water is a primary concern of the women. The men talk amongst themselves in Tseltal and eventually, Gordo turns to us and explains that the women are busy in the kitchen at the moment, but they will participate in the next stage.
Not wanting to push it, Maria continues, explaining the details of the water system, basic engineering, and finally, that the cost of the system will be covered by the project, but each individual household will have to pay for its own tap-stand, about 100 pesos, or $10 US. The project pays for public tap-stands, but private ones cost. The thinking behind the strategy is that people will take more care of the system if they have paid a little money into it.
Gordo has translated all, but at this point, a problem arises. A heated discussion ensues between the assembled men but, we are not privy to the details.
“The compas are discussing,” is all Gordo will tell us, although it is obviously about the cost, as the word tak’in—money—is bandied about a lot.
We are witness to how the indigenous Zapatistas make decisions and come to agreement: the argument flows back and forward in the gravelly clack of the Tzeltal tongue for half an hour. Almost everybody has their say, and eventually they come to a decision by consensus. Everybody is onboard.
“The compas say it is all fine,” says Gordo. And that is it—we have no idea what they were discussing or why, but we are told its all OK. I suppose in the same manner that we tell the compas everything is fine with the topographical study and they shouldn’t worry about it. There is a distinct problem in communication and we have not quite yet bridged the gap. It is something we need to work on.
Praxedis and I retire back to the schoolhouse at dusk. Maria is elsewhere, staying with a family. The village seems deserted, except for the sound of the children play-marching around in the distance, chanting Zapatista slogans. The sadness of the dirt-floor school-house, empty but for a few rustic wooden desks, a ragged map of the world and a chalk board with the remains of a short list of names written on it. A few dusty books on a shelf, and a forlorn compass. But mostly, it is the sense of interruption, like the school stopped functioning one day and everything is caught in a purgatory of waiting.
5. Trench Warfare
It’s now 5:20 AM. I am probably the last person out of bed in the whole community. I can hear people active all around the valley in the crepuscular dawn: preparing tortillas, chopping wood. There are children laughing, babies crying, dogs barking. The little huts dotted around the horizon glow with soft fires. It’s noticeably quiet in the absence of cars, machinery, and electronic devices.
The heavy lifting for the water project starts today. Praxedis and I are going to oversee the strengthening of the spring box, while the compañeros begin digging the two kilometer trench to the distribution tank in the village. We will lay the pipes in the ditch, one 100-meter roll at a time, and connect them. The plan is to have water flowing through the pipe to the community in one week’s time.
Maria calls a meeting with Don Sisifo and the water responsables, and together they hatch a plan. We work collectively, but some personalities are more dynamic than others when it comes to making things happen, and Maria is one of them. Maria pours over charts and maps and works out the engineering of the project, consulting Don Sisifo and showing him the plans, and people get down to business.
Outsiders working in the zone often get carried away and think they know it all. Academics would call it “the pathology of privilege”—where individuals from the US, Europe, or indeed, urban metropolises like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo, think they have all the answers, and think that people on the ground—rustic indigenous, “backward” and uneducated—exist as mere receptors of their great knowledge.
We’re aware of this pattern and try to deal with it as best we can. Maria, as the brains of the operation, combats this pathology, or paternalistic attitude, by prioritizing the perspective of the community, the grassroots, at all levels of decision making and learning. By putting the indigenous voice and opinion first and then focusing on the process, our progress might be slower or our efficiency less—as we explain everything and involve the locals every step of the way—but that’s the nature of the work and goal. It’s not just that the water must be delivered, but that the people participate and become owners of their own system. They take control of their everyday life, heighten the community’s self-organization and strengthen their ability to pursue their social, political, economic and cultural goals and growth—this is autonomy. Revolution from the bottom up.
The twenty-one compañeros have begun digging in earnest with the new tools, dividing the trench up into ten-meter sections. Each man works at his own pace using pick, shovel, and machetes to hack through roots. A couple of youngsters move up and down the ditch with heavy mallets breaking cumbersome rocks that impede the trench. As they zoom ahead, it’s clear that these men can really work and they are highly motivated, but upon closer inspection, the trench seems too shallow in most places—only fifty centimeters when ideally it should be seventy. So we have to assume the overseer role, telling the toiling campesinos to dig deeper. We feel guilty—like we’re bosses—this notion that we are “engineers” overseeing the operation while the others toil and labor digging through the rocks. It sucks.
I remember picking coffee alongside peasants in Nicaragua—people as poor as here in Roberto Arenas—and the mood was always boisterous and noisy. There was always salsa or some other form of raucous music blasting from battered tape recorders, and the sound of singing and laughing and shouting and arguing and playing around. Here everything is done more in silence than sound. Quietude abounds. Now, of course, digging a ditch is hardly easy-going work compared to picking coffee but here, no matter what the task, it is done very quietly. People talk their soft clicking language in hushed tones. The compas don’t make any sound when they walk. The silence becomes surreal. It’s like living in a waking dream populated by phantasmagorias, remote people who move fleetingly in and out of shadows and reflections. Not better, no worse, just different.
We dine in Dona Dolores’s kitchen, enveloped, of course, in rich silence. The food is reduced to just the basics: beans and stale tortillas—and we reckon it’s probably time to set up in our own kitchen and stop imposing on this kind family. A group of women and teenage girls are lingering around the doorway of the kitchen. We attempt to engage them—particularly Maria—but they are ferociously shy, and turn away giggling when addressed. Being the first caxlanes(10) to work (or even visit) in this hamlet, we feel a pressure to break through this wall of wary distance, particularly among the women. So far they seem unsure how to deal with us. Shy and withdrawn, they give us all the space in the world and appear to try to make us feel welcome without actually saying anything. They assume a most humble demeanour, besides the fact that few of them speak Spanish, rarely addressing us . As with the men, the women, too, use the common moniker “compa” hesitatingly, and sometimes completely disregard it for the more polite “Don” (or “Dona” for Maria). We feel uneasy using the familiar “tu” form when speaking with them, as if it might be perceived as patronising instead of comradely.(11)
“Compañera,” begins Dona Dolores, addressing Maria.
“The compañeras would like to invite you to visit the hortaliza [vegetable garden] with them tomorrow. They would like you to see their work and the food they are growing. Will you accept the invitation?”
“Of course! I would love to!”
Dona Dolores relates this news to the gaggle of young women lingering in the doorway.
“And can the compañeros, Praxedis and Ramon, come along too?” asks Maria.
Dona Dolores asks the women in Tseltal.
“Yes, they say. They are welcome.”
As they leave, each one comes in to the kitchen and delicately shakes our hands. Maria, Praxedis, and I are delighted. It is a big thrill to get invited to the hortiliza. The community is opening up to us!
We feel the quiet glow of incipient acceptance.
I have begun to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by candlelight. I didn’t choose the book for any special reason—it just appeared as I left San Cristobal so I put it in my backpack. I didn’t like it when I read it in college, years ago, and I don’t like it now, but it is quite an apt book for this jaunt. Not so much for the jungle location, nor the white man’s experience in alien cultures, and the reminder of a brutal colonialist past—although these are useful subjects to dwell on—but for the comparison between the torment these early capitalist adventurers suffered in Congo at the hands of the locals, compared to the rich, enveloping welcome we receive from our hosts. Of course, while we may be the first outsiders/foreigners ever to step foot in this hamlet we are not extracting mineral wealth, enslaving the locals or whipping them to work harder, but volunteer comrades who support their revolt and are working with them. Some would say that, as activists, we are extracting something more precious than all the coveted metals in the world: hope. It’s something to take back with us to our homelands and our own political struggles, but I think that is a cynical take. Anyhow, who is going home? Where is home? We are here to stay, throwing our lot in with the Zapatistas and even if we are extracting hope, dreams, metaphysical wealth, in receiving we are doing our best to give back as well.
It is a fine thing to read Heart Of Darkness critically, as a lived-experience rather than a literary text to study. So while Conrad may be attempting to portray the Heart of Darkness as the white man’s soul’s descent into horror in the bleakness of darkest Africa, we subscribe more to the political critique of Chinua Achebe. That Nigerian author sees Conrad’s book more useful as a study of the despicable nature of raw capitalist exploitation and the ideology of imperialism that renders Africa “a place of negations,” devoid of history, culture, and language. Worse still, Africa and its people serve as a mere backdrop for Conrad, in which he explores the mental disintegration of one rogue imperialist. As usual, it is all about whitey.
“Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance,” writes Achebe, “in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”
The heart of darkness, the “horror, the horror” that Conrad discovers, is not the Congo jungle environment, nor the savage, cannibal natives, but the morally repugnant nature of the white colonizer’s endeavours there within.
Of course, we as solidarity activists, place ourselves more in the tradition of another whitey, the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, who famously exposed the barbarity of the European operated rubber trade in Congo in his Casement Report of 1904, and subsequently organized a successful worldwide campaign against such brutal capitalist exploitation. Casement was initially positioned in the Congo as a British consul, but in an early harbinger for international solidarity practice, he turned his position of privilege into a weapon for justice against the marauding imperialism.
Conrad and Casement were in the Congo at the same time and serve as interesting contrasts, showing how two people can look upon the same situation from different perspectives. Where Conrad saw the horror of a white man’s mind disintegrating, Casement saw the horror of a culture and people being decimated.
So Heart of Darkness is a fitting book to accompany the work, lots of food for thought as we spend the next few days laying the lines and digging the trench. Carrying heavy and bulky 1 inch rolls of plastic pipe to the point where the water flows from the last pipe, we stagger past the men toiling in the trench and hook the pipes up to the line. Then we busy ourselves with more technical details, figuring out pressure and head and mapping the territory. And I wonder what the compañerosare thinking of us? Maria, Praxedis, and I, dilettantes fiddling with the pipes while they do the heavy lifting, and digging? Because we are “engineers”—ahem, intellectual workers—we are exempt from the hard labor?
“Time to join the compas at the coalface,” Praxedis suggests, and Maria and I are on-board.
Putting aside the pipes and our “engineer” caps, we pick up hoes and get working with the compañeros on the trench. After the initial mirth—men put down their tools just to watch the caxlanes digging the ditch, particularly a woman caxlan!—our proximity and shared endeavour ultimately allows for a new intimacy.
“The men are impressed that you can dig,” Vicente, the water responsable tells us.
“We thought rich people couldn’t do hard labor like us indigenous.”
Which is ironic, of course—we can dig and have done so throughout our lives. Will I tell him how I worked on various construction sites across Europe since I was a teenager? Or that Maria was a gardener and carpenter, and Praxedis has done every kind of physical labor imaginable in Mexico City and beyond? Neither are we rich! But it is all relative. I suppose we aren’t condemned to a life of eternal labor without remittance. Their toiling Sisyphus to our fanciful Jason searching for golden fleeces.(12)
But soon such cerebral meanderings are superseded by the discomfort and pain of the hard, monotonous digging. Hands are covered in fresh blisters, muscles ache, backs are sore, and the sun beats down unmercifully. The soil is hard and stony, and teeming with life: worms, insects, and various strange and tiny creatures. Soon my hands and arms are coated with sticky mud and flies loiter irritatingly around my sweaty head. And then, with sudden intensity, a tropical rain shower drenches us and everything else for ten dramatic minutes, and just as abruptly, the sun reappears and we are dry and parched again. And when we rest on our picks and shovels, conversations strike up. Other compas join in a discussion with Maria, Praxedis, and me about Heart of Darkness. We give a brief outline of the plot and the events of the book. The compas are not terribly shocked about the conditions in Congo—a place none have heard of—or the gruesome punishments such as cutting off the hands of unproductive, rubber-extracting native workers.
“Such things occurred on the fincas [plantations] in the time of our fathers and grandfathers,” says Gordo.
“Or worse,” says Alfredo.
“Much worse,” says Vicente.
“In the time of our great-grandfathers such things happened all the time,” Gordo says, authoritatively.
“The indigenous who slaved long hours logging the great trees by hand for the big companies, were beaten and flogged, hung alive from trees and left for days and nights in the jungle.”
Ah yes, the infamous mahogany industry of Chiapas in the early 1900s as documented by the other book I am reading at the moment, B. Traven’s Rebellion of the Hanged. Traven describes scenes to match the worst of the Congo excesses as the mahogany cutters on the monteria (labor camps) rebel against their intolerable conditions and start a local revolution.
Traven, a mysterious German anarchist who fled Europe after the failed Bavarian Soviet uprising in Munich, 1919, wound up in Chiapas, and reputedly lived for several years amongst indigenous tsotsils in the isolated highlands. His six famous books, which are set in this region—“the Jungle Novels”—are an interesting literary contrast to Heart of Darkness. Traven turns the all-pervasive ‘whitey in exotic lands’ perspective—a narrative I’m sure you dear reader are quite getting bored with by now—on its head. Narrated from the indigenous perspective instead of the colonialists, it ends with insurrection, rather than capitulation. Though in contrast to Roger Casement, the clandestine Traven didn’t engage in any kind of solidarity with the wretched of the earth whom he found himself among, nor did he start a campaign, or join a revolution—he merely wrote stories about what he saw and heard and imagined.
“One becomes a philosopher,” wrote Traven, “by living among people who are not of his own race and who speak a different language … A trip to a Central American jungle to watch how Indians behave near a bridge won’t make you see either the jungle or the bridge or the Indians if you believe that the civilization you were born into is the only one that counts. Go and look around with the idea that everything you learned in school and college is wrong.”(13)
6. Women Working
Dawn outside. Light creeps slowly into this mountain-framed valley. Horses move around outside in the grass, pigs and chickens loiter. It’s 6 AM.
“Wake up, imperialists!” says Praxedis—already doing push-ups outside the doorway. He mocks Maria and me for being quasi-imperialists because we have brought mosquito nets to cover our bare board beds. And we have sleeping bags. How indulgent!
Today has the makings of an exciting day because we have a date to visit the ladies in their vegetable garden! Accordingly, it means we are only working a half day in the trench, because the limited supply of hoes is needed for the hortiliza. My whole body sighs in relief.
Our field kitchen is very basic—a wood fire upon an earthen table—and we emerge to find Praxedis has kindly prepared eggs and an ocean of coffee. Our food supplies are tied from the roof in bags because the rats are having midnight feasts of whatever is left on our lone shelf. There are ants everywhere. Nevertheless, it feels homey and we are content here. Garbed in our now-muddy, ripped, and well-worn working clothes; heavy boots caked in mud; machetes by our sides, we set off. Every day we resemble the compass more, except that their clothes and boots, despite being well worn, are always immaculately clean and fresh every morning. The men’s wives—the clothes washers—are doing a great job.
The men are already up in the trench, digging away. By midmorning, the temperature will soar above 40 degrees celsius. Even they look completely knackered by working in this heat—some look close to heat exhaustion. Each has their quota of ten meters a day, and on scorching days like this, it must feel like ten kilometers. We notice some men are only going down thirty cm on the rocks, which is not good enough—must dig deeper!—but to not to sap morale on this challenging day, we decide not to say anything. We can come back to it later.
Meanwhile, we three caxlanes are too parched to dig a second longer, and, recognizing our own personal limits, busy ourselves preparing rolls of pipe and coupling connections. It’s time to hook up another three rolls of pipe—300 meters more in total.
A group of compañeros unroll the pipe by hoisting the heavy tubing on a pole and unwinding it awkwardly. If it gets kinked, the tubing cracks, rendering it useless, so this job has got to be done right. It is slow, tricky work.
The tubes are laid out in the trench, but now connecting the pipes is proving difficult. We need to insert short plastic couplings between the two pipe-ends, and the problem is that it’s always a tight fit, and the connection needs to be made with force. And the whole exercise is complicated further because water is flowing out of one of the pipes with plentiful force. Time and time again we heat the hard PVC with the highly flammable oil resin ocote, then push and huff and puff and pull and get wet and fall over and the coupling just won’t fucking go in! Not enough lubrication! Once more, and somewhat comically, Praxedis and I face each other, heat up the pipes, and trust down, pushing with all our might, grunting and gasping. The spectacle brings more compas around to watch the show. They laugh and whistle and act as if it is the funniest thing ever. Eventually, kid gloves off, we both exercise maximum force—strained muscles, Neanderthal screams, and it finally slides in. It’s still half inch shy of being flush but fuck it, we say, let’s put on double braces to secure. I had indeed forgotten the joys of putting that stuff together.
Now the line is 500 meters long, but the water is gulping out in spurts, suggesting an air-bubble further up the line. So we fiddle about with the reservoir tank at the spring, securing the globe-valve even more tightly, trying not to interrupt the flow of water. This constant revision and tinkering is time consuming but obligatory—it’s what “engineers” do.
It is time to visit the hortaliza. The patch is located a little beyond the community, down a small valley beside the river—a pretty location with easy access to water. About fifteen women are gathered there, many with babies on their backs, rebozo style, (14) and lots of very small kids are playing at the edge of the patch. Each woman wears the traditional dress, a blaze of lurid primary colors, and each has a machete or hoe in hand. They greet us cheerfully, and half of them, the younger ones, are giggling uncontrollably, at what exactly, I don’t know, but it is amusing to see. So we are all off to a smiley start.
The vegetable patch is roughly a square half-acre of well-worked soil in raised beds, enclosed by a chicken wire fence. In one luxuriant corner a blaze of green vegetables are beginning to spout.
“The women’s collective began the hortaliza earlier this year, after we attended a workshop in the caracol,” explains Dona Dolores, who seems to act as the spokesperson for the rest, and whose command of Spanish is greater than she had been initially letting on. She is referring to the regular hortaliza workshops in the Zapatista center at La Garrucha. “The compañeras learned how to improve the diet of the children, to give them more vitamins.”
Were there vegetables in the community before?
“A little,” replied Dona Dolores. “Just what people grew in their backyard. But this hortaliza produces plenty for every family.”
With a tap on location—as is planned with the water project—it will be easier to water the hortaliza and will be more efficient.
We are shown around the budding rows of cabbage, celery, onions, tomatoes, and radish, all grown without chemical fertilizer—it is organic. The soil in the raised beds is loamy and well drained. The women have begun turning over the soil to begin another larger growing patch. They received a batch of new seeds at the Caracol, and are planting today. These women are no strangers to agricultural work of course. Apart from kitchen work, raising children, tending to livestock in the yard, they also work in the family corn-patch, whether planting, weeding, or harvesting. So the hortaliza is one more responsibility on top of an already busy schedule.
And yet, everyone is cheery and excited by the tasks at hand. What is noticeable is the unity of purpose in their manner of working. They line up and work together at the same pace, side by side, raking the earth, and moving in cohesion, almost as one. It seems a very natural, collective way of working.
If solidarity is unity of purpose or togetherness, then these women have perfected it. But it’s not just solidarity; it is something else. Nobody told every one to get in line and work in tandem, they just moved instinctively into place and form a single, non-separated body. This kind of cohesion is born in community, of people living in each others’ shadows. This isn’t solidarity—not even reciprocity—it is more an intrinsic form of community harmony.
And so the afternoon evolves and we all lend a hand—raking, weeding, planting—busy as bees. The compañera’s are so good-humored, and despite language difficulties, laughter blossoms between us. At the finish, a young compañera, Adelita, invites us to her house to eat.
She is a gregarious twenty-something-year-old woman with an easy silver-toothed smile, and, having overcome her initial shyness with us, reveals a good command of Spanish. She and Maria are getting on famously.
Adelita’s house is typical for Roberto Arenas: wooden structure, earthen floor, and sheet metal roofing, but it is warm and welcoming, and the cooking fire in the corner is like a hearth. She lives with her mother, brother, and her two children. We ask about her husband, and she replies only “He is gone,” not revealing whether he left or died.
Sunlight flickers through the cracks in the wall and the beams of light dance around the smoke from the fire that Dona Consuela, Adelita’s elderly mother, tends. It’s a sumptuous rustic vision that disguises the deadly effects of the open fire—it causes so many pulmonary ailments for the kitchen workers—predominantly the women of the house.
We are served beans on freshly made corn tortillas. It is a delicious treat. The rest of the family lingers in the background and, breaking protocol a little, we insist that they join us at the table.
We don’t really talk much, just compliment the food, laugh with the children, and ask a few questions, which Adelita translates for her mother. The family came from a community further up the valley and we learn that Dona Consuela has never been to “the city”—Ocosingo—having spent her whole life in the forest and mountains. Adelita has been to the city and that is why she has a little Spanish. She explains that she brought her little five-year-old daughter there for medical attention. The gorgeous little girl, named Marisol, smiles widely as she hears her mother mentioning her name. “Marisol was very sick, and we had to take her to the nearest hospital in Ocosingo. She almost died. But, thank God, now she is almost better.”
“What was wrong with her?”
“Measles,” she explains. “With diarrhea, and pneumonia.”
We all look at this smiling, shining orb of a child, and thank God too.
Maria hugs her.
As the night begins to envelop us, we sit in comfortable silence around a single candle. There is only sound of the crackling log fire in the corner and the flickering shadows from the soft flame dancing on the rough wooden walls as we journey towards night.
As we leave, we shake hands with everyone, and Dona Consuela talks to us directly and quite earnestly in tseltal. She then gives each of us a glancing embrace.
“My mother thanks you for coming here and helping the poor people. May God bless you.”
It is a very touching gesture. We are all a little speechless and feeling very humbled we stumble out of the smoky hut into the quiet night,
7. Digging with Conrad
And the next day we lose Maria. While Praxedis and I sleep soundly—as is wont in the jungle—accompanied by a rich, evocative dreamscape, poor Maria spent the night running for the nearby bushes, emptying her entire insides again and again, the victim of some foreign agent. It doesn’t matter how long one spends in the communities, one is always liable to fall prey to a vicious tummy bug. Shit happens. We all know what it is like, this spontaneous evacuation of the entire contents of one’s bowels; we all hate it, fear it, and can’t avoid it. The horror, the horror. So Maria has been vomiting and shitting all night along, and now she is lying on her bed—pale, groaning softly—and there is nothing to be done. “I can’t move,” she says. Don’t worry, stay there, we’ll bring you water, it will pass.
There is no point giving her anything to eat. Everything will come up or out immediately. Water with a little salt will be the sum total of her input today.
Praxedis and I leave her to rest and we head to work. We bump into a gaggle of children, who ask
“In bed, sick.”
And they rush off to see their favorite gringa. No rest for the weary, but at least she will have company.
And then there were two. We, the water team, are having a disastrous week, health-wise: I sliced my hand with a machete while cutting wood for the kitchen fire, adding to my two festering blisters from working the pick. I wrap my wounded mitt in bandages and tie it in my old Zapatista palicate, rendering the scarf less ornate than when I sport it, revolutionary chic, around my neck. The same day, Praxedis slipped in the watery ditch, twisting his ankle and almost putting his back out. We have to laugh at ourselves; we resemble a mini-disaster zone for petty ailments. At least my trench foot from the journey over the mountains is getting better now. I come across more debonair when not limping like Quasimodo.
Despite the battlefield conditions today, we advance.
And now, it’s porter time! Not the Guinness, but the one-inch pipes. One hundred meters of it—thirty kilos worth to be portered over one kilometer. We are connecting more sections of pipe and getting soaked in the process. What does it matter though, when there is a sudden and instant downpour—a flash flood, as such? The heavens open and a deluge is unleashed; an astonishing exhibition of the sublime power of nature. We smile disconsolate and continue the slog, wet to the bone, and splashing about in pools of rain that have filled the trench, and it is comically absurd.
Soon we’re connecting the pipes again with glee. When they slide in as they should we are elated, and when it’s not happening, we’re incessantly frustrated. Today the work flows well, and Vicente smiles at us. We smile back; a smile of complicity, of fraternity, not a mask of a smile. Other compas still treat us referentially or as objects of bizarre interest. They laugh at our antics, but not with us. It’s an important breakthrough, Vicente and Gordo and a few others are smiling withus. Midday, we make our way home in the mud, covered head to toe, soaked, but content that we did three rolls today and water now flows steadily out of the pipes at 900 meters—almost half-way there. The compas are encouraged to see it functioning.
In the afternoon, Praxedis and I join the men in the trench to dig, and as usual I fuck myself up, gouging out a piece of my palm with the pick. Adding that to the wickerwork of cuts, blisters, and sores, I have a proper medical case in my hands alone. Today I’m feeling the dying. My limbs are sore, covered in cuts and blisters, aches and pains everywhere.
“This labor is hard on the body. Are you suffering, Ramon?” asks Gordo sympathetically.
He gets an earful of grumbles and complaints. I show him my mangled hands.
But nothing compares to putting things in perspective. Gordo begins to wax lyrical about various accidents and injuries sustained by people here in the community. Like the compa who chopped his thumb off with a machete, the kid who fell into the river and almost drowned, and—the most chilling, the compa Alberto, who poked himself in the eye with a stick as he dug a hole and lost the eye, because it took him a day to get himself to the nearest clinic. At the state hospital in Ocosingo, they decided to remove the injured eye rather than treat it, cheaper probably. There he is, the same Alberto who accompanied us over the mountains, still wandering around with a paliacate tied around his head. I had assumed he had a temporary infection or something, but the notion that he has that neckerchief tied over his missing eye for the rest of his life is deeply disturbing.
OK. That puts me in place; I shut up about my minor woes.
Returning to the schoolhouse in the afternoon, we are greeted by the cutest sight: little Marisol, Adelita’s daughter, is sitting by the edge of Maria’s bed as she sleeps. The child is watching over her through her illness.
Praxedis cooks up some lovely rice and beans, and a couple of kids drop off some hot tortillas in a pretty napkin—fine delicious tortillas, handmade of corn grown in the milpas just on the other side of the hill. Absolutely scrumptious. Don Sisifo drops in to the kitchen. He is upbeat and happy with the progress.
“The compas are very content,” he tells us. “It is all good.”
He lingers a few seconds in the doorway. Will he actually chill out, stay for a moment, and chat for the first time ever? No, he quickly excuses himself after informing us that he has some fences to mend. Well built, sturdy and muscular, he is a relentless work machine. When carrying cement or whatever on his back, mecopal style, he assumes the gait of a sturdy shire horse. Although a comparison to a Greek god would be more appropriate than a shire horse, the metaphor remains constant: Don Sisifo, the man who never, ever stops laboring.
Like this new day, which, like the day before, brings more toil: hours and hours of digging under the hot sun. Don Sisifo leads by example, and he is the first to carry the plastic rolls, clambering up and down gullies, over boulders, along rough riverbank, acting like it’s a stroll in the park—as if work absolves the body, sweats out impurities. Prompted by his lead, the compas dig faster. This particular section of the dig, in the river basin, is through pure soil. With no roots or rocks, things move more swiftly. Everyone is quite happy. The sun is shining majestically and Praxedis and I have got the joining of the tubes down pat. He does the pushing and I am the anchor. It works. It’s almost there. Fast work.
“Praxedis!” exclaims Gordo, as he comes up the line. “There’s a bit of a leak in the pipe!”
I spoke too soon. Alarm Bells!
Praxedis and I rush to the emergency spot, and find that there are two small holes in the pipe at about the 1,000 meter point. It’s moles! A certain mountain variety who have developed a taste for plastic pipe. It has all gone too smoothly until now and no project is ever without its formidable difficulties. However, seepage from the little gnawed holes is derisory. We apply some tape and voila!, it’s fixed—but the resident moles could present difficulties later on.
Back at base, two days into her intense tummy bug, Maria still alternates between chills and fever, not seeming to be getting better. The kids’ constant attention hasn’t had physical benefits and she is still feeling pretty wretched.
Don’t worry, I tell her, give it a couple of days, you will be fine.
“Fuck this shit, dude. I’m thinking I might cut out. I’m completely exhausted, and I can’t fucking work if I’m pissing out my ass every ten minutes.”
I reckon another factor is that she probably just doesn’t want to be a non-productive entity, a burden on the water project and the community. We have only a few more days of fairly straightforward digging work ahead of us here, so her presence won’t be that necessary. What’s more, there is plenty of preparation to be done, back in San Cristobal, for the next phase.
We have a group of five volunteers coming to participate in the final stage of the water project: constructing the distribution tank and distribution lines within the community. These newcomers need to be introduced to the project and prepped. Maria could well occupy her time with them, as well as do accounts and get supplies for the next stage. And then there is the international donor, solidarity, and NGO sector to follow up on. Seeing as the estimate for this water project is in the region of $6,000 for materials and transport alone, Maria needs to get on top of all that stuff, the “industry” side of solidarity business.
We call a meeting with Don Sisifo and the water responsables, and ask Adelita and another compañera from the Hortaliza to come along too. Maria wants to help the women and knows that things will only happen if the agreement is made at a group meeting. Other compañeros join the meeting—like the Galician fishermen look-alikes, for no other reason than because they want to. Add the gaggle of children and we now have a good twenty people in the schoolroom. Maria, visibly shaking with globs of sweat matting her brow, outlines the next stage of the work.
We draw up a plan for Maria’s absence and reflect on the work already done.
There is a moment of tension when Maria asks Adelita a question about the hortaliza, and Don Sisifo answers.
“I am wondering what the compañerathinks of this,” asserts Maria.
But Adelita only says quietly, “As Don Sisifo said…”
An uncomfortable silence.
Maria leaves in the middle of the night, dragging herself out of the schoolroom, and heads to the riverbank, where Don Sisifo waits to row her across to catch the only bus to town, which passes around 4 AM. A dingy, rust-bucket of a chicken bus picks up Maria for the journey back to San Cristobal. It’s remarkable that it can make it through the rough mountain path.
Praxedis and I are taking the reins. There is a ton of work to be done but we are confident that we can get it all done in a week. We need to finish the trench, lay the rest of the pipes, and prepare a concrete base for the distribution tank.
The days pass by, punctuated by digging, digging, and more digging. Like a chain gang, we take our positions in the trench each morning, mark out ten meters and begin our day’s labor. One grips the pick and its dirt-encrusted wooden stalk receives dirt-encrusted hands; like a hand in a glove they become one, body and tool merging. The first crunch as the metal thuds into the hard earth resounds throughout one’s entire body, and then the body resigns itself to a long day of heavy laboring, begrudgingly accepting its role. It is only later in the day, when the muscles are worn and the mind gets weary that the body starts refusing. But in between, when your body is dealing, your mind can rise above, thoughts flourishing. Sometimes one dwells on the immediate job at hand and the rocks and the stones, the method, sometimes one thinks of people and times, melancholy or nostalgic. Occasionally the mind soars, and digging becomes a transcendental joy. Those moments, however, are rare. Usually one is more preoccupied with blisters and mire.
Drained from toiling under the burning sun, Praxedis and I climb out of the ditch and begin the more leisurely task of casing out the location for the village’s distribution tank. We have chosen a spot on protected, high, flat ground. We need to completely level the area where the tank will sit. Sharing a single pick we work the earth and clear a patch for the tank, grading a spot seven meters squared. We stop for matz and a smoke and enjoy what feels like the first rest in days—and well deserved it is, too. Could it be the first break in eleven days? Campo life: it’s all physical.
But, soon enough, we’re back at it again. The site has to be perfectly level, because a 13,000 liter concrete water tank will be sitting on top of it. It is tedious work, done mostly on our hands and knees, taking approximations with the leveling tool. We attached the short level to a long pipe and that suffices. We mark out a circle, flatten it down, and level it again. Like 19th century work, but it gets done: appropriate technology and us covered in mud.
Then we take another long break and tramp off up the trench with another roll, the two-and-a-half inch size rolls are too heavy for one, so we carry it between us on a pole. The compasdigging have reached the two-thirds mark! That was quick! Are they digging deep enough? I would say yes, more or less. We can go back later and revise the shallow spots. This constant worry that the trench not deep enough is an albatross on the shoulders of us conscientious engineers.
By now, the compas are digging along the banks of the river—treacherous, rocky terrain filled with trees, roots blocking the trench’s trail. Despite constant hacking at the roots, the workers can only get down about thirty centimeters. The digging is haphazard, slow, and awkward, and there is the added problem of potential flooding here if the river breaks its banks, which would wash away the pipes. Praxedis and I wander up and down this section with a couple of heavy sledgehammers, smashing rocks that block the line. It is mind-numbing and brutal work, whacking at heavy boulders, the thumps shuddering the core of our beings. Can’t take too much of that without inducing a lobotomy, so off we go to the more leisurely activity of connecting lines of pipe. By the end of the day, we have connected three 100-meter rolls—that’s 1,300 meters done. There’s no more engineering work to oversee, and no other reason to not return to the trench, so like two condemned men we pick up a couple of sledgehammers, and join the men, knee deep in the ditch.
Lobotomy-inducing solidarity work.
Back at base, the children march around chanting with greater excitement, sensing the adults’ growing anticipation of the arriving water. The children’s young voices are shrill and enchanting: “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue,” “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido,” (15) etc.
Tonight, Praxedis cooks up some yummy, spicy-bean tacos in home-made tortillas—someday he will make someone a very happy spouse. Over sacred coffee, we talk of other places: of Brazil, of Greece, of Praxedis’s travels, of my travels, of other worlds, of the globe, our love of the sea, of the road, of moving, of exploring, the usual.
How did Praxedis arrive here, today, digging ditches in Planet Lacandon?
Destiny or default, he is not sure, but he grew up a rebel in Mexico City. From a tender age, Praxedis was involved in the radical milieu that has a long and profound history of flourishing in the great and monstrous metropolis. Anarchism attracted him for its spirit of emancipation and practical application, and he, like a few other of his fellow city activist-kind, heard the Zapatista clarion call and came down to join in. As an urban worker whose skills were not so necessary in the rural makeup of the battlefront, finding the right role was difficult for him. He put his hand to jungle life for a while, before the Zapatista command stepped in and requested that he and his ilk of urban radicals employ their talents in other fields. “We have plenty of local volunteers here, go foment revolution in other places,” they ordered. So he went back to Mexico City, tried for a while to ‘foment revolution,’ but felt crushed by the Sisyphean task in such a giant urban space. He drove a taxi, traveled a bit, read theory and philosophy, and then realized he yearned for the Zapatista environment. And so he returned, getting involved in water projects.
Was it the right thing to do?
“For me, yeah. I wasn’t getting anything done in Mexico City. The city was sucking my soul dry.”
It is true, he does thrive in the rural setting.
So are you here for the long term then?
“Yeah. I’m only going back to Mexico City at the head of a long rebel column taking over the Capital!”
But Praxedis, I intervene—playing the devil’s advocate—first of all, the Zapatistas are not anarchist, and secondly, I very much doubt that taking over Mexico City in a long rebel column is part of the program.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “I’m projecting.”
“So what are you doing here with this ‘armed reformist outfit?” I pose, using a term hard-left detractors often ply.
“Look, we know the Zapatistas, in the here and now, are not some revolutionary ideal. Yeah we know the EZLN it is a top-down, authoritarian, paternalistic organization, and we are fully aware that the majority of the base is devoutly religious, superstitious, nationalistic and socially conservative.”
I’m on my way out the door to start packing my backpack.
“But, he continues, what we do have is a radical anti-state and anti-capitalist movement, and they are organized and resisting. There is nothing like them in the whole of Mexico, or indeed anywhere. And they are in movement, moving towards a better future. Reality and politics are in flux, and the Zapatistas are still in the becoming stage. They are addressing their internal problems like authoritarianism and patriarchy, and they are confronting the external ones, like taking a clear anti-capitalist line. The Zapatistas are going the right direction; they are vibrant and I’m here to push it a little more in an anarchistic direction if I can. But I don’t mean just me—me as a part of a collective effort: all the other caxlan compañeros here. We are all in this together.”
OK, unpack the bags, the revolution is still on course.
“So what do you think is the basis of the relationship between anarchism and Zapatismo? Why are all the anarchists so excited about the Zapatistas?” I ask.
“Anarchists and Zapatistas are not one and the same,” continues Praxedis. “We are fellow travelers, at best. Anarchists are attracted to the organizational model of the Zapatistas: community-based participatory democracy and the demand for autonomy. We admire their militant resistance to neo-liberalism. We share their anti-capitalist stance. But our support for the Zapatistas is not unconditional. We are not blind followers of Marcos and the EZLN leadership. We are here in solidarity with the base and recognize that the EZLN are compañeros in struggle. This is where Mexico’s at, at this moment in time—the coal-face of the struggle—and we anarchists are here to lend our support and solidarity. And despite not having any real role in the decision-making process, we try to give voice to a more emancipatory line.”
This pretty much reflects how I see my presence here too. I muse on that fact that, despite our primary aim in Roberto Arenas being to build a bridge of solidarity with the indigenous Zapatista compañeros and compañeras, inevitability we end up building really solid bridges of solidarity with each other, the caxlan part of the solidarity equation. So it is with me and Praxedis—we are forging a strong comradeship that stretches far beyond this very water project. Although, he hails from Mexico City, and I from Dublin, we actually share, not just an ideological affinity to anarchist thought, but also a somewhat similar political background. And so perhaps it is that that one of the by-products of the Zapatista insurrection is to bring like-minded people together, beyond national frontiers.
9. Heart of the Community
Idle curiosity or else a sense of foreboding brings me out in the late afternoon to check the water flow from the pipes. This conscientious act—on a Saturday to boot!—is rewarded by the discovery of the worst possible plumbing news: the flow is halved! The pipes are way too light when I pick them up. Fuck!—a leak, a hole or an air-block! A faulty connection, something fucked up, and at moments like this one’s mind tends to run riot: Is the water system completely ruined? Is there some fundamental flaw and it has all been a terrible waste of time? Rushing back to the community center I bump into Gordo.
“Are you OK?” he asks. “You seem in a hurry.”
“There’s a problem with the flow in the pipes, but I’m sure it will be fine. I’m going to get Praxedis and sort it out.”
“Maybe just turn the globe valve open to the full,” suggests Gordo.
“Yeah,” I say, “that could be it.” I need to relax. He is probably right. It is all fine, under control.
I grab Praxedis, swinging gently in his hammock, relishing the prison writings of Flores Magón.
“Fuck it, man. The water flow is halved. We have a crisis! Come on!”
Praxedis jumps up with his usual military discipline and ideological zeal.
“Lets go!” he says and jogs out the door.
We rush along the line apprehensively. The pipe is half empty the whole way. Fuck. Now we are doomed, and things have been going so well. What could it be? We slowly inspect each segment of pipe and each connection. The pipe is light and therefore almost empty, the whole length of the line. No signs of leaks or holes anywhere, so the problem must be up at the spring. All sorts of fears cross our minds. What if we worked out the head wrong, and there are air-bubbles in the system that will make it permanently unworkable? We inspect the spring box carefully: the tap looks fine. We uncover the mesh wire protecting the entrance. Fuck! There’s a big chunk if wood jammed in the mouth of the entrance pipe! How did that get through all our various defense walls and layers of mesh, wire, and net? Bizarre. Would a kid have shoved it there to fuck it up as a joke? No, that can’t be it. Would somebody have tried to sabotage the system? No, that’s inconceivable too. Somehow this chunk of wood got through a hole in the defense walls and wire netting and got sucked into the tube entrance. Quite bizarre.
With a great sense of relief, we remove the despised object. The water is pulled in by the gravity of the half empty pipe, and after a bit of farting and gulping, it soon goes full speed into the system. With a spring in our stride, smiling widely, we jaunt back into the community. At the end of the line, open, lying on the side of the ongoing trench, the water is pumping out at full pressure: a litter every four seconds. It’s mended! If there was a bar in this village, we would go celebrate with a few triumphant beers. Instead we can puff heavily on some filter less Alas cigarettes and tell the story of the chunk of wood again and again to anyone who will listen.
Praxedis plays basketball with the youth in the late afternoon. I write in my journal. The sunset is deep red and resonant. People retire to their darkening huts, lighting candles. The animals of the day—hens and dogs and horses—are replaced by the sounds of the animals of the night—crickets, frogs, cats, the occasional monkey in the distance. The night sky envelopes us, black and brooding; no moon tonight.
Back at work, laying the pipe to the village. We are on the cusp of the distribution tank location; we are almost there and everyone’s excited. We connect the last three and a half pipes (350 meters) ignoring the trench, and just running it along the ground. The trench is bogged down for a hundred metres with knee-deep swampy sludge because of the near-impossible digging conditions—every shovel full extracted fills with slush immediately. In a big budget operation we would build a bridge over this swamp for the pipes, but here we have to make do with the cheapest option. The men decide to do the stretch collectively, battling through it foot by foot, together.
“With twenty-three men we will do it in a few hours!” says a smiling Don Sisifo, as if relishing the task. Damn, he would have made a great British officer during WWI. Over the trenches, chaps!
These men like to work. They bounce each other’s energy off one another and work as an enthusiastic team. They are buzzing, and their comradery is tangible. A bunch of men without myriad confusions, hang-ups, bravado or rivalries between them. Strange. I don’t know what it is exactly that is so refreshing to be around, but I do know that this whole project is a big deal for the community. The water system will mean much more than just the women and children not having to carry water for a kilometer on their heads over a slippery treacherous mud track, or an improved supply of water all around—it represents the consolidation of this rebel community. A concrete and pipe representation of all that rebel autonomy means. This is significant. These people have never had piped water in their lives, never had the simple pleasure of turning on a tap in one’s own home and have water gushing out.
Praxedis and I get stuck-in with the picks—that fine, capable tool—digging into the moist earth, hacking chucks out and throwing them to the side of the emerging ditch. I like the weight of the pick in my hands. It feels like an extension of my body, comfortable, exquisite, and powerful, even if it is not. (We should have a fucking JCB backhoe here digging the ditch. Now that’s power!) The earth is unusually soft. It feels rich to dig into, even though it is quite a violent act, tearing at the earth surface.. This earth receives our tools generously, like a caress of the surface. Not all violence is destructive. Although, as I work it, it feels like this pick is doing me more damage than I do to the earth.
The long dig is almost complete. The last hundred meters of pipe is left out of the trench, bypassing the work in progress temporarily. It carries the water all the way to the community. Piped to the site of the tank, at the highest point in the community, the flow of water is good. Praxedis and I pull on our engineering caps again and hold one-liter water bottles under the flow to time how long it takes to fill: over one liter every four seconds. That means there is a sufficient supply for everyone. It’s that simple.
It is all smiles and pride as the water arrives in the heart of the community. Women come out to fill their buckets. A young compañera dressed in de-rigeur colorful dress with shiny plastic adornments and stuff in her hair approaches cautiously and eyes the gushing pipe lying in the grass.
“Can I?” she asks, timidly. Of course! She fills her bucket, and sips the water in the palm of her hand with apprehension. She flashes us a big smile,
And so she is saved the hike to the river. Next, some emboldened children wander up and begin washing their hands and faces with the water. Yes, it’s for real: water is arriving! There’s a sense of excitement building.
Vicente presents us with a large pumpkin from his garden, a gift of thanks.
“It really means a lot to us,” he says. “We are a young community. We can count on having a church, a basketball court, a canoe, and now water.”
We accept his gratitude with suitable humbleness.
“Can you help us with building a hammock bridge across the river?” he asks.
“We have a lot of work to finish the water system,” says Praxedis. “It’s only a little over half done! We have a tank to build, and a distribution system. One thing at a time, compa!”
The water system represents stability and permanence for the community. It says, “We are here to stay!” in plastic pipe and concrete, on this occupied rebel territory. We are not squatters; this land is ours!
Later will come the next steps—a concrete basketball court, a cinder-block church, maybe—if they can score a transformer, a lot of cable and a few tall wooden posts—some electricity pirated from the lines a few kilometres away. This is oil-rich Mexico in the twenty-first century, a country of mega-businesses controlled by a cabal of billionaires, and there is almost no electrification in this part of the vast jungle zone. It is a fucking disgrace.
A new day, we return to the construction site of the capitation tank. Having already levelled the site, we measure out a three meter circle with string and a stick, and mark it in the ground. Then we dig a shallow trench outside the circle, filling it with rocks. This will serve as an outside foundation for the tank.
The compa’s join in mixing cement. It is something they are all good at, having at some time or another worked on construction sites outside of the community as laborers. We are ready to lay the concrete foundation for the tank base, but we need a sizeable quantity of gravel and sand. To lay a solid three meter circular floor with a five-inch-thick base, firm enough to support the 13,000 litter cement tank, we need a lot of sand and gravel. Don Sisifo brings us up the hill to an abundant source of fine sand, and another pit filled with stonier sand, which he hopes could be used as gravel.
“This soil is way too sandy,” says Praxedis, the gravel expert, “we need well-formed gravel.”
So off we go, deeper into the hills, on a treasure hunt. We cut our way through the woods with machetes. There is better gravel to be found here but it’s still sandy and brittle. We all spread out and search around the hillsides and ravines. As time passes, the variety of soil and earth we encounter in our search is astonishing—in one or another mountain or hill there has been just about every variety of soil, sand, and gravel under the sun. From a distance, it just looks like a big fucking contiguous mountain, and yet, this mesmerizing variety I had never even conceived of surrounds us.
Eventually, Praxedis comes across a little ditch with the right kind of gravel. It’s not perfect, but adequate for the job at hand. And better to return with something to keep the show on the road. It is a good two kilometers from the construction site, though. Portering time again!
Now these madmen want to carry forty kilos each of gravel, mecopal style, down the steep, slippery hills to the community. Everyone fills their sack and slings it over their shoulders. I can hardly lift the fucking sack off the ground. Two compashoist it on my back, and we set off together down the treacherous, muddy path in a long single line, like a mule train. Each and every man carries a full bag, young and old alike, from the fifteen-year-old boy Juan to the somewhat-elderly Don Job, and Praxedis and I too, all doubled over with this weight on our shoulders and back, held by a rope around our foreheads. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do this properly, this portering extravaganza, and I, for one, am struggling.
So with the gravel delivered, we begin the cement work to lay a floor for the distribution tank. Teams are set up for sifting the sand, then mixing the gravel and cement powder. Finally, the whole mixture is shoveled into a mound and the water is poured slowly into a little lake in the center. It’s left to permeate the mix for a few minutes and then a group of men begin to shovel it all without letting the water escape from the sides. It is hard, labor-intensive work, and my body aches even though we take turns with our limited number of shovels. Yearn for a cement mixer, one of the construction industry’s greatest inventions!
A few sweltering and chaotic hours later, a large, thick concrete floor, capable of supporting the tremendous weight of the distribution tank, is in place. We did, however, over-extend the floor a little, using two extra bags of precious cement that took such work to get here. We should be more economic!
And then there is the never-ending tale of gravel and its woes. We made an error the day before up at the gravel pit, calculating that we’d need 800 shovelfuls of gravel for the whole tank and base. We got our calculations wrong—we only need 400. All day, compañeros have been trekking up the mountain and returning with sacks of gravel on their backs. We already have about 200 shovelfuls too much and still it keeps coming. Some bright spark has even thought to bring a horse up and, at this very moment, he’s arrived back from the gravel pit. The beast has a double load tied around his saddle.
“Fuck!” say Praxedis and I, jointly. “Please no more! That is more than plenty…”
We are a little embarrassed, trying to think of something, anything to do with the extra 200 spades-full of gravel—a growing mound. We almost drop with fright as yet another couple of horses arrive laden down with tons of gravel.
“We shall use it for something,” says Alfredo. “But it has to keep coming.”
Each compañero has an allotted quota, and has to deliver it whether it is necessary or not.
“Must comply to the quotas,” insists Don Sisifo. And then he himself scoots off up the mountain with his Rocinante(16) to collect his remaining quota. Oh dear, oh dear, the occasional tyranny of collectivization. This ode to useless labor and the myth of Sisyphus comes to mind.
Myths are made for the imagination to breath life into them. I’ve always considered the myth of Sisyphus a good analogy for revolutionary struggle, especially anarchism—endless struggle—but here in the jungle and the mountains of the Lacandon, I am getting a whole new understanding of the notion.
The usual symbolic figure associated with Zapatistas is their namesake, Mexican Revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. Sometimes the image of Che Guevera is evoked. And for sure they are both potent symbols for the image of the Zapatistas, or more specifically, the EZLN. But at the risk of introducing another western figure into a distinctly non-western cultural environment, I would draw on the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to represent the kind of folks, like Don Sisifo, who make up the Zapatista base. It is not a heroic representation in the traditional sense, but more saliently, a symbolic figure who represents unremitting hard work or boundless endeavor.
Sisyphus was the mortal who challenged the pantheon of Greek Gods and for his insolence is condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill throughout eternity. Each time he reaches the top of the hill, the boulder rolls down again to the bottom. His predicament is usually understood as a metaphor for humanity’s futile and ceaseless toil, condemned, at least according to the mythology, to an infinity of punishment and frustration. And so we have the indigenous Zapatista Don Sisifo (not his real name) rolling his rock up the mountain, a life of toil without remittance, his own struggle for survival and for that of his family and community, a Sisyphean task. What sustains him and his ilk?
Albert Camus’s 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is helpful here for understanding this dilemma. In it, Camus rejects the standard interpretation of Sisyphus as a tragic victim of a terrible punishment meted out by unforgiving gods. Instead, he imagines Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life in general, in an existential sense. More significantly, Camus’ Sisyphus is a hero, though an absurd one.
He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. That is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.
Camus argues that what sustains Sisyphus is the certainty of his fate; having rebelled, he accepts his absurd condition, and the source of his contentment is the notion that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”(17) Camus presents Sisyphus as a proletarian of the gods, one who defies his terrible fate by being conscious and aware of what he is doing and of the need to continue on.
And that is how I envisage this flesh and blood Don Sisifo before my eyes—not as a revolutionary hero like Emiliano Zapata or an epic guerrilla legend like Che Guevara, but a humble man, a conscientious worker, a rebel, and—in a Camus sense—a proletarian of the gods.
Amongst a chaotic symphony of slapping cement, the last of the concrete work is done by five madmen. We just want to make sure the floor is level and fortify the foundations. What if there is an earthquake and the whole thing just collapses? Using strings that don’t measure up we attempt to make concrete floor. Is it level? It has to be level, the whole 13,000 litter tank stands on it! I’m not convinced. By afternoon we have a floor, and a ton of cement that we will leave for a week to harden sufficiently to begin work on it. Over goes the tarpaulin to protect it from rain and shine.
Here we are, 1,968 meters from the fresh water spring, and before us we have a PVC pipe spouting clean water at a rate of.4 liters per second. We have a five-inch solid concrete base with a good foundation and we are all set. These three weeks have been very productive. After our work is finished, the people’s lives will be changed immensely, and lives will be saved, to boot.
9. Building Bridges of Solidarity
Saturday night in Roberto Arenas. The immense, starry sky over the valley and the natural silence is overwhelming. In the distance, we can make out various houses illumined by flickering candle light. We are warm in the bosom of the valley by the river, and it would be perfectly tranquil except our candlelight is attracting a bad crowd, and we are being devoured by swarms of jackistas and mosquitoes.
A voice in the darkness calls out to Praxedis.
“May we enter?” requests a voice in the blackness.
Three compañeros enter shyly and we invite them to sit around the candlelight. An awkward silence ensues.
Gordo, the outgoing one of the group, begins:
“We have come to talk to you.”
“OK,” says Praxedis and another two minutes of silence passes.
In a decisive act of social bonding, I crack out a packet of cigarettes and offer them around. The three compañeros accept them gratefully. It soon becomes clear that the other two are overcome with intense shyness and speak no Spanish. They whisper to Gordo for a few minutes in Tzeltal, and then point at us.
“You are the first caxlanes to ever visit our community,” says Gordo. “The compañeros are very pleased you came. They wanted to come to welcome you.”
The two silent ones smile and nod their heads in unison. It’s very touching.
We smile back and say “jocolawal”—thank you, in Tseltal.
“Do you come from the United States?” Gordo asks of me.
“No,” I say, “ Ireland.”
Gordo looks confused.
“Europe,” I offer.
He nods, and explains to the others. They look disappointed.
“The compañeros thought you came from the United States.”
“I’m sorry, no.”
And what country does your compañero come from?”
Now this is the thing. Praxedis may be a bit of a quiet fellow, but he is most definitely Mexican and speaks with a very pronounced Mexico City accent. Why is the compañero asking me, the non-Spanish speaker about Praxedis?! I am taken aback.
“He is from Mexico! A chilango!”(18) Gordo turns quite excitedly to his companions and reveals to them this gem of information! They discuss this at length and then turn to Praxedis, somewhat uncertain.
“You are Mexican?! We thought you were from another country!”
“Well, DF does seem like another country from here, it’s true,” says Praxedis, and everybody laughs.
“Why did you think he is from another country?” I ask.
“Well, he is not like the other mestizos we have seen.”
True enough, the small provincial town of Ocosingo—probably the extent of these campesinos travels— would not have many inhabitants like Praxedis, with his tattoos, punky-look and pronounced chilango accent.
And so the conversation begins and we end up talking deep into the night, with Gordo acting as informal moderator between the rest of us.
The two quiet ones are introduced—they are brothers, Ricardo and Enrique, and it must be noted that these two look completely different from everyone else here in the community. For a start they have beards, while most of the other men, typical for indigenous, have no facial hair. They are several inches taller than everyone else and resemble Galician fishermen, perhaps from a few centuries ago. Neither has a word of Spanish, but they emanate a natural friendliness and warmth. We share cigarettes and talk—we in Spanish, they in Tseltal. Although we don’t understand much, it’s enough to laugh and smile while enjoying the hushed darkness.
After discussing the price of our boots and how much plane tickets cost from Ireland, the talk turns to the United States, the work situation up north, and how to get there. They know people who have tried to migrate without papers, without success, but they all entertain ideas of going there anyhow, somehow.
“What of the Zapatista struggle to stay and fight for a better world here?” asks Praxedis. The three campesinos speak in Tseltal among themselves for what seems a long time.
Eventually Gordo turns to us and says, “We can do both. Work up north, and fight down here. But there is no money here, so we must seek work up there.”
He goes on to describe how $3 a day is the best they can hope for working locally in Chiapas as hired farm-workers. In the United States, he says—his face lighting up—compañeros can make $10 an hour, as much as a $100 a day!
“Sure,” he explains, “we get by working on our milpas here, growing corn to feed our families and we can survive. But… (Gordo points at my black punk-rock boots) how can we afford anything more if we have no money?”
The pressure on youths and young men and women to make the dangerous and uncertain trip north is greater as the government’s neo-liberal policies undermine the traditional peasant economy. Imports of mass-produced corn from the US, undermines the local market for this basic good, and campesinos are literally forced off the land because they are priced out. Some farmers change their focus away from corn and plant cash crops like coffee or start palm-oil plantations for biofuel, but with the perennial shortage of good land, a sizeable portion of the youth are forced to migrate. The Zapatistas counteract this pattern by imploring campesinos to stay and fight, to take over more land and to work together collectively to produce more efficiently through farmers’ cooperatives.
“No hay tak’in – there’s no money here,” laments Gordo. “We can’t afford to buy anything.”
To labor the point he reaches over and picks up an old walkman I have by my side. It is a real piece of shit I picked up back home after someone threw it away.
“How does this work?” he asks.
After spending a while in the indigenous communities in the Lacandon region, one begins to see patterns emerge. Like how sometimes our presence—as caxlanes—represents a disruptive influence in these rural communities. Even though we come with good intentions, invited to be here and are participating in valuable projects requested by the people themselves, our presence still has a powerful impact. Compañeros up and down the canyons or in the jungle always ask: How come you can travel the world, have all this electrical equipment, fancy clothes and boots, expensive sleeping bags, etc., when we, as campesinos, have none of this?
“Do you work harder than us?” Gordo asks rhetorically.
No, of course we don’t.
Praxedis tries to explain it in terms of capitalist inequalities, but I can see that the language he uses is going over Gordo’s head. He gets neo-liberalism, exploitation, and class war, but looks confused when Praxedis tries to explain surplus value and means of production—I must confess to being a bit lost myself.
Gordo asks him to elaborate.
Praxedis likes to make an effort at popular education with the compas. Political theory is his forte, and I have seen some compañeros in other communities really take to Praxedis’s political lessons. And sometimes, like tonight, they bomb. He sees it as part of his duty as an anarchist to share his political theory with the Zapatista cadre. How else, he insists, will they ever hear these important ideas?
Praxedis comes from Mexico City and his political outlook comes from the radical urban milieu there. The anarchist movement in Mexico City is (relatively) sizeable and broad enough to have several competing tendencies and factions who seem to be eternally at loggerheads. Praxedis’s group have made it a priority to be actively involved in autonomous and popular movements as their praxis for building an anarchist platform. For them political solidarity is inserting oneself as an anarchist in the movement with the aim of pushing it further, while sharing the common goal of the specific campaign—broadly considered the especifismo tendency. Praxedis’s outlook is premised in the idea that people who have different political ideas can work together, and paradoxically, unity is discovered in diversity. Most of all, this kind of anarchist practice prioritizes movement building over political correctness and eschews promoting a “correct line” like other, more fundamentalist, practitioners on the left.
Proselytizing in the indigenous communities is problematic: while the ideology and the aspirations of an anarchist may carry many similarities with the struggle of the Zapatistas, it is the cultural divide between the city and the countryside that seems a wider chasm to cross. The life experiences of the indigenous peasant and the urban mestizo are worlds apart.
In an attempt to bridge the gap in understanding, in theory and practice, I relate the long history of uprising and armed struggle against occupation and “bad government” in my country, Ireland—and this comes as quite a surprise to Gordo.
“There is an armed struggle against bad government in your country?” he repeats as if to make sure he heard right, and when he relays this back to the others, they are clearly perturbed.
“We thought only poor people like us had to fight, not rich gringo caxlanes like you…”
Interactions like this don’t bring us any closer, they just consolidate the idea that there is such a huge distance to cross in international solidarity. It begins to resemble a never-ending task that cannot ever be realized, a Sisyphean endeavor.
Outsiders are often drawn to the Zapatistas through the eloquent pen of Sub-comandante Marcos and recognize their own struggles his exquisite words. These communiqués swirled around the globe in the mid-1990s, as internet-savvy supporters employed new technologies with great effectiveness to circulate the rebel texts. The reality on the ground was of course far different. Many European and US radicals came to Chiapas with great expectations only to be disappointed by the authoritarian, patriarchal, and conservative movement they encountered at the base. For those activists, the gap between the image of the Zapatista struggle created by Marcos’s words and the actuality in the communities was a bridge in itself to cross.
In this piece, I am attempting to portray the Zapatistas as they are, at the grassroots, beyond the mythologizing of Marcos and the public face of the rebellion. As it did for many others, the content of the myriad communiqués and letters resonated powerfully in the political work I was participating in Europe. Zapatista discourse on autonomy, diversity, resistance to power, and neo-liberalism reflected a political reality confronted at the center of the world systems as well as the peripheries. However, it was not my political background in autonomous and anarchist circles in Europe that helped me relate to the situation within the Zapatista communities. What was far more helpful in enabling me to understand the reality in Chiapas was experiences being active with other campesino struggles in other parts of Latin America, time spent with revolutionary groups in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Colombia. In these scenarios, ideology or theory takes a backseat to the daily exigencies of the struggle for basic survival.
Surely no writing on the Zapatistas is complete without quoting at least one poetic epistle from Subcomandante Marcos! I try to avoid using Marcos’s rose-tinted prose to illuminate the Zapatista reality, but this one passage from a communiqué attributed to the Clandestine Committee, but clearly written by Marcos, expresses the perplexing and sometimes contradictory nature of encountering Zapatismo at its base. This sentiment really resonates, I discover, having dug ditches for years with the Zapatistas.
“Zapatismo is not a new political ideology or a rehash of old ideologies. Zapatismo is nothing. It doesn’t exist. It only serves as a bridge, to cross from one side to the other. So everyone fits within Zapatismo, everyone who wants to cross from one side to the other. Everyone has his or her own side and other side. There are no universal recipes, lines, strategies, tactics, laws, rules, or slogans. There is only a desire: to build a better world, that is, a new world.”(19)
1. The tseltal are an ethnic indigenous group of the Maya family numbering some 400,000 located mainly in the east-central of Chiapas. The language spoken by the people is also called tseltal .
2. Uses and customs. A phrase meaning the traditions of the indigenous communities.
3. Don is like a polite form of Mr. It denotes a certain authority and bequests respect.
4. All names of Zapatista’s have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.
5. All names and identities of water technicians have been changed as a measure of protection.
6. Originally the Lacandon rainforest covered an area of about 19,000 square kilometer. This is about the size of the Basque Country, or Chechnya. A half century of colonization and industry reduced the forest mass by two thirds.
7.A milpa is a corn field plot, where the campesino grows the three basics, corn, beans and pumpkin.
8. Mecopal – a traditional way of carry loads supported on ones back with a rope supporting from the bottom of the sack or water jug that is wrapped around the forehead.
9.A kind of voracious jungle midge that descends in swarms and feeds unrelentingly on humans.
10. Caxlan is a catch-all phrase in tseltal and tsotsil that refers to outsiders, whether they be from other parts of Chiapas, from other parts of Mexico or foreigners. Ladinos, or non-indigenous. The word is sometimes spelt kaxlan, or even jkaxlan.
11. tu is used informally between family and friends. Usted is the formal form of tu and is used to address figures of authority. Furthermore, if someone addresses you as ‘usted’ and you respond in ‘tu’ it can be perceived as patronizing.
12. Jason was an ancient Greek mythological hero, famous as the leader of the Argonauts who wandered the oceans in their quest for a gold-haired – winged ram – the mythical golden fleece.
13.Traven. B. 1966. The Bridge in the Jungle. New York: Alfred A Knopf p. 23.
14. slung over the shoulder in a woven blanket.
15. “Zapata lives, the struggle continues. The people united will never be defeated.” Two popular chants at any Zapatista demonstration.
16. Rocinante is the name of Don Quixote’s skinny but hardy horse, in the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
17. Camus, Albert. 1942. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. New York: Vantage International. p. 34.
18. Native of Mexico City.
19.Cited from Luis Hernandez Navarro, Zapatismo Today, Five Views From the Bridge. Americas Program, Interhemispheric, Resource Centre (IRC) January 2004.
Ramor Ryan is based in Dublin, Ireland. Over the past dozen or so years, he has traveled extensively throughout Latin America and has worked on a dozen water projects in different regions of the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas. His book Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile, for which he received an IAS grant in 2002, was published by AK Press. Ramor received a second grant to support the writing of this project in the summer of 2005. This essay will appear as a chapter in a book, Zapatista Spring, by Ramor published by AK Press in April, 2011.
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