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Walking Together:
Chican@ Artists and the Zapatistas

The Story of the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista

by Roberto Flores
El Sereno, California

The following article is taken from "The Role of Network Informal Learning in the Creation of Another World: Chican@s and Zapatistas Walk Together Doing, Reflecting, Learning” -- a research proposal.

Nos Re-encontramos Caminando Juntos Preguntando...Reflejando
We meet each other walking together asking ….reflecting

In 1994, the Zapatista struggle, consisting primarily of indigenous people from Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, introduced and presented a global challenge and contestation to globalized corporativism, to Mexico’s accommodating neoliberal policies as well as to the dominating role of the United States.(1) Esteva (2001), Zibechi (2002) and Holloway (2002) suggest that perhaps more important is Zapatismo’s profound questioning of the established reform-or-revolution that enveloped traditional social justice and liberation of traditional movements and their resultant fundamental aims, method and strategy, forms of organization and forms of struggle.

While Zapatismo does not exclude statist parliamentary approaches or armed insurrection as tactical tools, this new social justice paradigm rejects the primacy or strategic role of both. In place of reforming the system or overthrowing the system by force and replacing it with another top-down system, Zapatismo proposes to the Mexican nation that the main goal be “the construction of a new system” through the creation of a bottom up participatory process (Esteva 2001). The questioning of global corporativism as well as the challenges put to the traditional struggle methods and goals resonated with participants in social justice movements throughout the world, including Chicano activists throughout the US. The positive response was particularly numerous from a new generation of Chican@ artists, throughout Los Angeles, who in 1994 were in their late teens and early 20’s.

Soon after the uprising (in 1995) several local squatter struggles for youth spaces converged with the Zapatista sentiment and set up a dual-purpose support and local issues organization called the Big Frente Zapatista. One of the bands that formed during the takeover of the Job Corps building in down-town Los Angeles was Todos Somos Marcos, which two years later became the now internationally known Ozomatli.

Ten years have passed since the uprising, yet new Chican@ individuals and organizations in Los Angeles continue to dialogue, struggle and learn hand in hand with Zapatistas through on-going and renewed informal learning connections and events. One of the initial and most important exchanges and dialogues occurred in the summer of 1997 at the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista. This encuentro took place between over 120 Los Angeles based artistic youth and several hundred Zapatista representatives. This proposal plans to initiate the research with a close examination of the preparation, actualization and the follow-up to the encuentro, as told by its participants. From the examination of the encuentro the plan is to move to the localized expressions of what was learned in the lives of the artists and those they have impacted. My hope is that this study can help uncover the role of informal education through a transnational network relationship as a response to the globalization of capital.

Brief Historical and Political Context of Zapatismo

Zapatistas’ argue that the impoverishment and drastic decline in the quality of life, particularly of Mexican indigenous and among the campesino population has been brought about by the confluence of corrupt government, increasingly stringent neoliberal austerity programs as well as unfair international trade agreements such as the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (CCRI, 1993). Critics point out that this combination of national and supra-national systems has provoked responses such as the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and the appearance of the Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR) in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Morelos (Ross, 1995). In 1997 CIHMA (Centro de Investigaciones Históricas de Movimientos Armados) researchers pointed out that in addition to these two better-known groups, there existed at least 12 other self-proclaimed armed groups throughout México.(2)

El Despertar (The Awakening)

On January 1, 1994, a relatively small army of indigenous peasants from the state of Chiapas, in Southern Mexico, came into the world's view when they seized six municipality seats, including the mythical colonial Jovel also known as San Cristóbal de Las Casas. On that day the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), now often referred to as ‘EZ,’ demanded changes in the Mexican economy and political structure, which would guarantee increased democracy and self-determination for the Mexican people, in particular indigenous groups.(3)

The Ejercito Zapatista, who with two or three exceptions consists of Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Tojolabales, Choles, Lancandones and Mames (all from the Mayan language group), focused their criticism on the impact of the current globalization of economies experienced in many countries. In particular, Zapatistas targeted the policies and practices of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and such trade regulatory treaties as NAFTA and GATT (the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs). Calling these policies and practices and their cumulative effect "neoliberalism," the Zapatistas describe their over all impact as not only devastating to people around the world but as virtual death to the indigenous of Mexico (CCRI 1994).

The Evolving Nature of the Zapatista Movement

From the onset of the current movement, the Zapatistas have developed their views based on a massive experiment in dialogical participatory democracy, sharing, gathering and exchanging perspectives and reflections with millions of people in Mexico and throughout the globe. Since January 8, 1994, eight days into the fighting, the Zapatista Army has not fired a single bullet in spite on hundred of incursions and killing by auxiliary paramilitaries under the direction and leadership of wealthy landlords and military forces. Since that historic moment, the Zapatista Movement began a process that eventually transformed them into a globally networked pedagogical movement that has had impact far beyond its initial miniscule size. Today, Zapatismo, with its approximately 2000 autonomous communities, stands as a case of a globally connected local response to the ill effects of what the Zapatistas call neoliberalism.

Zapatismo can be understood as a transformative pedagogical approach for four reasons: (1) it is a new and necessary critical ideological, political, and organizational intervention (Freire, 1970, Stromquist, 1996, in Rolland, 1996) contesting the status quo, (2) its goals and means are focused on the creation of liberated spaces embodied by the autonomous community which is constructed by a learning of democratic participatory principals and methods, (3) because Zapatismo does not rely on reforming or forcibly replacing a corrupt regime and is therefore a challenge to traditional ideas of how to address social injustices, (4) because they transform themselves through a method of practice-reflection-practice.

Zapatismo’s stated and practiced central premise is that there will be no real change (or creation of something new that is lasting) until civil society takes back and once again develops its role as a subject and assigns itself the sole responsibility to learn how to do this (Segunda Declaracion de La Selva Lancandona, 1994). (4) (5)

The Civil Society Revolution

Zapatistas primarily depend on what they call “autonomía de hecho.” Comandante Ramona captured the notion of autonomía de hecho in a saying, “no tenemos que pedir permiso para ser libres.” Although the saying is attributed to her, it is now ubiquitously utilized to explain the recent establishment of the caracoles or autonomous municipal governments (Lee, Jan 2003, cited in Revista Rebeldía). Explicit in this saying is that Zapatistas can liberate themselves regardless of whether the state recognizes it or allows it by legal decree. Zapatismo thus, through their practice and discourse, puts civil society in front, center stage and calls on it to act on its own behalf.

One example of this civil society approach is the inclusion of over 100 of Mexico’s intellectuals and at least 40 indigenous groups in the drafting of the Agreements of San Andres, the proposed Indigenous Civil Rights bill. This inclusive and engaging construct has resonated among thousands of organizations throughout the globe with a bottom-up proclivity whose main method and goal is participatory democracy and horizontal relationships, including significant sectors of the Chican@ Movement.

Brief Background of the Chicano Movement

The definition of Chican@ movement is extremely problematic. My own definition is no less simple: The Chican@ Movement is an amorphous and fluid complex social justice movement within the United States borders, reflecting the coexistence and coalescing of several socio-economic classes with common ethnic, cultural, and historic roots engaged in a common struggle against the inhumane treatment and general oppression of people of Mexican and Latin American descent. Garcia (1997) argues that Chicanismo is more of a political sentiment than a nationality, ethnic group, or ideology. Because of the variegated political tendencies and trends on both side of the United States-Mexico border, not all Mexican economic refugees living in the U.S. are Chican@s in their political orientation. On the other hand, self-included in the Chican@ political movement are many Latinos from Latin American countries other than Mexico, who fall into the historic pattern of oppression, and perhaps because of that identify with Chican@ politics and ethos of resistance. (6) The definition utilized in this proposal also attempts to include the cultural and political sentiments and sensibilities brought in by ever growing numbers of recent immigrants.

Some people who today consider themselves Chican@s (Californios, Tejanos, and New Mexican and Colorado Manitos) were never part of a consolidated and independent Mexican state; that is, these groups of Chican@s are indigenous to colonial Spanish land grant territories and post independence (1824) Mexican territory that is now part of the US and they never migrated to the United States. While some Chican@ people came from migrants that crossed pre-1848 undefined and fluid national borders, and others are indigenous to these lands, the vast majority of Chican@s can trace their ancestral roots to post 1848 (more like post 1960) crossings.

Although concentrated in Southwestern US territory, annexed by the US between 1845 and 1848 (Acuña, 1969; Powers cited in Sanders, May, 2002), today Chican@s can be found in growing numbers in almost all states of the United States (Ramirez & Therrain, 2001).(7) A recent report by several Spanish speaking newspapers citing published research conducted by the Mexican Secretary of the Interior states that at least 600 Mexicans successfully migrate to the US on a daily basis which adds up to 2,000,000 per year (La Jornada, 27 de April, 2004).

Between 1514 and 1824 Mexico was a colony of Spain and many Chicanos view their second-class citizenship status, the discrimination, and immigrant status in the US tied to successive systems of oppression: Spanish Colonial rule (1514-1824), US imperialism and today global neocolonialism (1836 to present). The dire historic economic situation in Mexico is commonly referred to as the “push factor” that results in the constant and increasing flow of what Marcos calls “human export.” The “pull factor” refers to the need for cheap labor of US agrobusiness, textile industries, and service sector, to name a few, as well as the support provided by relatives and friends that are already in the US, alleviating the difficulty of an illegal passage and existence. Once in the United States, Chican@s resist total assimilation by persisting on practicing their traditional ways of knowing, language, and culture as they are pressured to abandon Mexican ways by a general US culture and economy.

Given a history of imposition by imperialist powers, Chicanos do not primarily identify with the Spanish part but with the mestizo and the indigenous. The effort to resist assimilation is nothing new to the Chican@. Central to the formation of the Chican@ Social Justice Movement ethos is the historical resistance to forces of cultural assimilation beginning with Spain on to the Mexican Europeanized political class. For newly arrived poor immigrants resistance to the racist assimilation processes in the United States seems to be second nature. My experience as an English as a Second Language teacher for 16 years is that, while it would be unthinkable to find anyone who would not want their children to be fully literate in English, most feel that this does not have to occur at the cost of not learning, recuperating, and maintaining their Mexican or general Latino culture.

Similar to the indigenous of Mexico, Chicanos along with Blacks and Native Americans are culturally, socially, and economically at the bottom -- the most marginalized. The cultural, national, and political identification between Chicanos and indigenous becomes the basis for further openness, for shared communication and the basis for further articulation of a common social political economic analysis. This initial identification becomes part of the bridge for a new and different type of solidarity, which the Zapatistas call “walking together.” Walking together includes supporting each other as equals and learning from each other (Marcos, 1992).

Historically, artists in the Chican@ movement have played an extremely important role in not only reflecting the struggles but in guiding them (see Center for the Study of Political Graphics). Many of the Chican@ artists simultaneously reflect a microcosm of an undeveloped and repressed state as well the particular class and political interest of the artist. Broyles-Gonzalez (1994) recounts the role of the Teatro Campesino in the mid 60’s, and its impact on the Chican@ movement. The Chican@ movement is not just a political movement for civil rights but a social and cultural movement by Mexican American social activists to assert the rights of the Chican@ community (Griswold del Castillo, McKenna, & Yarbro-Bejarano, 1991, 362). This movement not only produced artistic expression but was shaped by the participation of artists. Chican@ artist were influenced and informed by the works of Mexico’s great muralists, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. The Chican@ renaissance of the 60’s and 70’s included the poetry of Alurista, Corky Gonzalez, and Malaquias Montoya. In the late 70’s more Chicana participation developed and challenged the male domination in the arts. Inspired in part by the life and works of Frida Khalo, Chican@ feminism moved the male gate-keepers to one side and busted the gates down and have contributed to a shifting paradigm within the Chican@ politic. Today, we are experiencing a second cultural renaissance of artists that were not only influenced by previous movements but that are also critical of them. Born in the early 1990’s, the new Chican@ renaissance is more broadly inclusive in that it destabilizes the male/female heterosexual domination with the growing open participation of gay and lesbian expressions and embraces the sensibilities of poets, writers, and artists such as poet Cherrie Moraga, writer Gloria Anzaldua, poet Luis Alfaro, muralist Alma Lopez and performance artist Gregory Ramos, to name a few of the more prominent openly queer artists. Related to this sentiment, my personal reason for the use of “@” mark is not only as a symbol closely connected to the cybernetic element in Zapatismo but that it began while I was in Chiapas in 1996 to be not only inclusive of both male and female but, given its likeness to a “Q,” I here use it to include the queer community.

The Chicano-Zapatista Relationship

On the 3rd of January, 1994, three days into the Zapatista uprising, a delegation of 12 Chicano human rights activist including myself, UCLA biochemist, Prof. Jorge Mancillas, Prof. (and now California senator) Dr. Gloria Romero, actress and playwright Maria Elena Fernandez, and human rights lawyer Evangeline Ordaz were frantically organizing to make our way to San Cristóbal, Chiapas. This was in response to the global significance of the uprising as well as to the strong affinity that Chicano activists felt to the Zapatista Indigenous uprising. There was one other Chicanas, C X who had been already networking with the Zapatista communities prior to the uprising via their academic work and participation with NGOs. It was these initial contacts that set the stage for multiple channels of communication with Zapatistas and their supporters.

Since the uprising, different groups of actors from the Chican@ Movement have been -- through a multiplicity of channels -- relating to different contacts within the Zapatista Movement. The Catholic Church, locally in Los Angeles through the work of Fr. Miguel, Fr. Loren Ribe, Sister GS, and others helped establish lines of communication. US-based NGOs such as Humanitarian Law Project, Pastors for Peace, SIPAZ, Global Exchange, Peter Brown school project in Oventic, and others also opened contact with different Zapatista communities. I was involved in the establishment of Estación Libre, a space that provides room and board and occasionally airfare scholarships to working class and people of color youth that would be interested in understanding Zapatismo as one example of a variety of responses to neoliberalism.

In September of 1996, I returned to Chiapas this time on a Fulbright research grant and for an 11-month period. While there, I helped to organize a historically defining encuentro between Chicano Artist and the Zapatistas. During the Fulbright research year, I was asked to assist a group of young Chican@ artist to help facilitate an encuentro that would enable dialogue and reflection, and understanding between Zapatistas and Chican@s. Within a few weeks of floating of the general idea, a handful of initiators turned into hundreds of participants, mostly from the Los Angeles area. In late August 1997, 120 young Chican@ artists (representing a much larger group that could not go) participated in the Encuentro Chicano-Zapatista sobre La Cultura, Arte y la Autonomía. The Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista consisted of 4 days of intense dialogue on 4 major themes: Nos Encontramos, La Mujer, Using Art as a educational and political tool, and Autonomy. These themes were marked by sub-themes of Education, Salud (Health), Economía, and Struggle for Autonomy. The resolutions and workshop products were presented to the general assemblies in one or several art forms that included performance art dance, murals, music, poetry, spoken word, and teatro.

The 1997 encuentro experience, led to continuous contact with friends and contacts that were made during this encuentro. Some Chican@s have stayed in Chiapas for protracted periods of 2, 3 and 4 years. The Chican@-Zapatista connection has been constant through the participation in three intercontinental conferences and major projects such as the Caravana por la Dignidad de Los de Color de la Tierra, (Caravan of those of the Color of the Earth), a caravan from Chiapas to the Mexican state of Michoacan and back to Mexico City in 2001 where contingents of Chican@s from Los Angeles were part of the security traveling with the Zapatistas. The Chican@-Zapatista connection is daily refreshed by new contacts and projects on both sides, such as the economic projects with the women’s cooperative Kinal Ansetic and the joint ventures with the coffee cooperatives. Emails, frequent visits, joint economic projects, and new websites dedicated to the reflection of Zapatista action and reflection are part of the relationships that continue to lay the basis for network learning.

In summary, this dissertation hopes to contribute to the body of information and knowledge that will help us understand the content including the relationship or vehicle (as part of that content) through which plática de reflexión or communication is generated between the Zapatista Movement and the Chican@ Arts Movement of Southern California.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 3, 2005.

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