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The Zapatista Vision: A Listening, Embracing World

from the Feb. 2, 2022 Bulletin

indigenous peoples Mexico-US history

The grandson of a Zapotec Indian, Gustavo Esteva was recruited and hired as a young man to bring American-style development to México. But instead of working to “Americanize” México, his life has helped Indigenous peoples, campesinos, and marginalized urban dwellers build upon their own wisdoms. Over a quarter-century ago, during the original Zapatista uprising, Esteva found where he belonged, becoming the Zapatista advisor in peace negotiations with the Mexican government. The author of 40 books and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Esteva is still exploring with indigenous peoples ways to build communities comunalidad of health, dignity, and peace.

The Zapatistas in 2021 set out on an “invasion,” entering five continents by boat. How do they sum up the results of their world tour?

Gustavo Esteva: The Zapatistas didn’t set out to conquer other lands. They called their mission a “reverse conquest,” since they had an intention totally opposite the European colonizers, not to promote a model, not to preach — but to listen. They envision “a world in which many worlds can be embraced.” Their voyages became a source of inspiration.

The Zapatistas have evolved from when they first formed. Most importantly, they have learned to listen. The voyaging delegation loved meeting and listening to many diverse resistance groups, loved finding so much creativity from people not looking for saviors, but people who are saying, “Let’s do it ourselves!” In some cases, these groups lived in the same cities, but didn’t know each other. The Zapatista visit connected them.

The Zapatistas use humor, story, and art to convey their message. But they also use arms to defend themselves. What does this say about how they intend to change the world?

First, the Zapatistas are not “intending to change the world.” They are changing their own world. For this world, as subcomandante Marcos agreed with Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance in your revolution, I don’t want to be part of it.” And, yes, the Zapatistas have kept their arms, but they have abandoned the path of the guerrilla. They used arms for only 12 days, and not since.

Photo: wesleying.org/tag/gustavo-esteva/

Guns are tools like any other, with their appropriate uses, subcomandante Moisés once said. The Zapatistas practice self-defense, but they have not used weapons.

But “EZLN” stands for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, doesn’t it?

They gave themselves that name a long time ago, in 1983. The “army” part is outdated, and they have also abandoned the concept of “national liberation.” Or even nation. For many years, you could always see the Mexican flag in photos of Zapatista events. But those events no longer display that flag. Twenty-five years ago, at the National Indigenous Congress, it was said, “Never again, México without us.” The Indigenous peoples are saying now, “We, without México.”

The Zapatistas see México as a ghost. They see nation states created for domination as the past. They see millions of discontents with that horizon and global capitalism. Zapatistas are not planning a future México composed of autonomous regions. They are constructing a new world on a reality that already has other horizons.

Today, AMLO wants to bring about a “Fourth Transformation.” What does this mean for indigenous peoples?

In the “first transformation,” when Spanish rule was thrown off, the mestizos “fathers of the fatherland” saw the United States of America as a model, even for the name of their new nation, called the United States of México in the first Constitution of 1824. A little later one of them said in the Congress, “To deal with the indigenous peoples, we must do what the US did — eliminate them.”

But the indigenous peoples proved too numerous. So instead the Mexican government used education as a weapon to de-indianize the people. In the “second transformation” in the 1860s, the government dispossessed the indigenous of their land. After the Revolution of 1910, the “third transformation” moved to dismantle their communal way of life. More recently, NAFTA formalized what already existed: concessions to foreign entities. Control of 40 percent of the central valley of Oaxaca went to transnational corporations. Those transnationals then extracted more gold and silver in 20 years than had been extracted in all the colonial period.

And now, with AMLO and his “Fourth Transformation,” we are seeing further colonization. The Tren Maya project isn’t just building a train. It’s aiming to change the Southeastern part of México to bring in more tourists, build more cities, more large plantations and cattle ranches. This will destroy forests, pollute land and water, and force indigenous people off the land. This will erase indigeneity.

Are any negotiations going on between the Morena government and the Zapatistas?

The Morena government has made no official declaration regarding the Zapatistas and begun no negotiations. I am afraid 2022 will be a difficult year, with drought predicted, the Tren Maya, and elections. The one thing we know: We cannot accept any more aggressions.

In 2006, indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, the teachers’ union, and their allies closed all government offices and occupied all public spaces. That can happen again — or other methods of resistance may surface. In other words, a time of radical uncertainly. We don’t know anything about the future, but we are ready, the people are ready, to construct in the present a different kind of society.