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Chicano Artists and Zapatistas Walk Together
Asking, Listening, Learning:

The Role of Transnational Informal Learning Networks
In the Creation of A Better World

Part 1: Network Learning

by Roberto Gonzaléz Flores, PhD
Los Angeles, California

The following is part one of a dissertation presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Southern California in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Education), August 2008. Footnotes and references will open in a new browser window for easy reference. For Part 2: Findings -- Centrifugal Motivation, visit here.


In an era of globalized capital, informal learning is particularly important to emancipatory struggles. This qualitative study examines the informal learning relationship between the Zapatistas and 9 Chican@ artists from Los Angeles, California. The Chican@ artists are inspired to learn with and from the insurgent Zapatistas’ experiences and messages as they too attempt to liberate themselves from what they consider institutional oppression in the U.S. Much of the initial learning examined revolves around the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista of August 1997.

The purpose of this study is to advance our understanding of the role of transnational emancipatory informal network learning in an era of globalization. To explore the informal learning process it was important to ask the guiding questions: Why, how, and what did the Chican@ artists learn from their contact and interaction with the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas, Mexico and what impact did it have and is having on the Chican@ Movement?

The study shows that the 9 Chican@ artists were initially attracted to Zapatismo because of centrifugal negative experiences in the U.S. as they encounter institutional racism, social marginalization and exclusion from the social justice movements on the one hand, and positive centripetal identities and relationships that draw them towards Zapatismo, on the other. The Chican@ artists are critical of the traditional social justice organizations’ strategic aims to either reform capitalism or to take state power. The study shows that the Chican@ artists related to the Zapatistas through a centripetal positive learning process that includes ethnic cultural, spiritual and political affinities. This research demonstrates that the informal learning relationship between Zapatistas and Chican@s is inter-subjective or horizontal because the learning style is between persons that value their differentness. While this study agrees with Peter Mayo’s and Greg Foley’s research on transformative learning, it is implicitly critical of Paulo Freire’s approach given that the Freirean facilitator or change agent’s role evokes a directive rather than a horizontal method. This research implies that the artists’ echoing of the Zapatista message reinforced and enhanced the initial Zapatista call and has facilitated the initiation of a transformational paradigmatic shift within the Chican@ movement.

Introduction to the study

Through this research I aim to contribute to deepening our understanding of the nature and growing importance of informal education, which Foley (2004) defines as a process through which “people learn, as they live, through their experiences, in their struggle.” (p. 1) The particular importance of this study lies in the potential role that informal education can play in learning how to address new global challenges resulting from the globalization of capital. To carry out this study I will look at the transnational learning network relationship between two social justice movements within two different nation states dialoguing and reflecting on today’s global and local “what is to be done;” the Chican@ Movement in Los Angeles, California and the Zapatista Movement, in Chiapas, Mexico.

My interest in informal education flows from a life-long search for pedagogical approaches that can help create and sustain systems of social justice and participatory democracy. I thus approach this study with a critical pedagogical lens.

One of the underlying premises of critical pedagogy is that state-sponsored education has historically served and reflected the ideological, economic and political needs of those in power (Gramsci, 1971; Apple, 1999; Esteva, 1992; Freire, 1993). Consistent with this premise, research shows that in the present global (neo) liberalization of capital and the globalization of market structures, formal and state-run non-formal education, such as adult education, work together with corporate forces, particularly media, to serve global market needs (Foley, 1999, 2004; Stromquist, 2000, 2002; Schugurensky, 2003; Walters et al., 2004; Apple, 1999). The role of corporate media, as informal education sustaining corporate control, can be seen in the appropriation of Orwellian progressive language such as “education for empowerment,” “decentralization,” “multiculturalism,” and “diversity.” This informal educational medium has become an important pedagogical strategy of corporate-based politicians intent on passing neoliberal policies. The neoliberal legal framework, in turn, has aided in shrinking the ideological spaces once enjoyed by progressive educators for contestation and reform aimed at democratizing education and society.

At the top of today’s global market’s agenda and on the educational policy priority list of a growing number of countries are: privatization of education and social services, emphasis on efficiency business paradigms, cutting of the state’s contribution to education and the training and retraining of a global work force to meet its rapidly changing global market needs (Stromquist, 2002; Schugurensky, 2003; Walters et al., 2003; Apple, 1999).

The neoliberal global economy thus provides a new context in which the formal and non-formal educational system as well as informal education tends to develop new ways of cooperating with the present political and economic system. In this new context informal learning, as a type of independent grassroots learning, is taking on new significance, for those contesting power. Since the Zapatista anti-neoliberal uprising of 1994, for instance, there appears to be the emergence of such a global independent grassroots movement with a pedagogical liberatory praxis of learning through struggle (their own and from other’s) that is intent on not only resisting new forms of domination but on building and creating new forms of governance.

Globally Networked Informal Learning

Castells (1997) and Gonzalez Casanova (2003) point out that in this era of globalized capitalism, domination, isolation, destruction and poverty are not the only social and cultural conditions that are globalized through networks. Gonzalez Casanova and Castells point out that a kaleidoscope of grassroots struggles are utilizing radical participatory democracy and informal education as their vehicles for change and are spontaneously combusting at local sites throughout the globe. Importantly, these grassroots struggles are not only utilizing informal learning methods internally but are also creating connections to each other in an ever-expansive informal learning network (Esteva, 1998). Learning through and in struggle through a practice-reflection-practice method, these struggles are learning to learn from others as well as learning how to share their experiences with others struggling in similar circumstances. This multitude of connections has extended beyond the local into the regional, national, and transnational and is boldly visible in the development and practice of anti-(corporative) globalization transnational movement of networked movements.

This dissertation proposes to explore the methods and transformative possibilities of direct people-to-people informal learning through transnational network connections. Specifically, I am proposing to explore how a group of young Chican@ artists (between ages of 18-26 in 1997) from Los Angeles learns from their experience with Zapatismo and Zapatistas as a case study of transformative transnational network informal learning.

Can Education Help Break or at Least Weaken these Monopolies?

The demise of the Soviet Union, in 1989, signaled the end of the Soviet Bloc and the beginning of a new economic political era. Unfettered by the absent state-centered economy of the socialist sphere, gone the soviet military and political presence and its ideological critique and challenge, the capitalist venture has since vastly expanded its global reach. Although the influence and dominance of transnational corporations (TNCs) had been developing for some time, never has humanity seen the breath and depth of economic, cultural and political hegemony. Stromquist and Monkman (2000) respond to the overwhelming fact that globalization of capital is characterized by the monopolistic control of “technology, worldwide financial markets, global natural resources, media and communications and weapons of mass destruction,” with the question: “Can we [educators] change the nature of these monopolies?” and with, “Can education help break or at least weaken these monopolies?” (p. 20).

Given the present vigorous symbiotic relationship between state-sponsored formal education and the global capitalist system (Darder, 1991; Stromquist in Foley, 2004; Walters et al. in Foley, 2004), the question this proposal possess is; what role does informal learning experience of networked struggles play in supporting the breakup of monopolies and the democratization of society, particularly education? Utmost, in my mind, are pedagogies utilized by grassroots movements in struggle that are confronting new forms of domination and exploitation.

This proposal intends to research pedagogies that utilize participatory democracy and, thus, become the change that they aim to develop by including the vast knowledge of the common people. Of maximum interest are pedagogies that demystify the nature and possibilities of connected community-based self-governance that facilitate the development of perspectives and methods of struggle that can be effective in the long-term work of movements for social justice in an era of globalization.

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 (2003) and Holloway (2002) suggest that perhaps more important is Zapatismo’s profound questioning of the established reform-or-revolution paradigm that enveloped traditional social justice and liberation 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 no less intense from a this 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.

Fourteen years have passed since the uprising, yet new Chican@ individuals and collectives continue to develop 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.

Research Questions

To accomplish the above stated goals this research will be guided by addressing the following general questions:

-- How did Chican@ artists learn about, with and from the Zapatistas?

-- What was learned by Chican@s about the nature and meaning of Zapatista practice, written text, and interaction?

-- How has the Chicano-Zapatista experience transformed the artist-participants and through them the general Chican@ movement social change that they are a part of?

Organization of the Proposal

I have organized this proposal into three distinct parts: The first part is dedicated to introducing the subject of network learning as an expanded form of informal learning. In the second part I will review the literature through a discussion of major theoretical constructs used to frame this research on informal education and network learning. In addition, I will discuss the macro political backdrop of corporative globalization, the significance and nature of Zapatismo as a pedagogical network movement, the Chican@ Movement and its connection to Zapatismo. In the third part I will establish the purpose and significance of the study and layout the proposed design of the study, justify its use, and present the method proposed for gathering and analyzing the data.


Theoretical Framework and Review of Literature

There are two major constructs that need theoretical scaffolding: informal network learning and transformative learning. Foley’s extensive research of informal education becomes particularly important to support and explain the general notion of “informal network learning.” In terms of “transformative learning,” Daniel Schugurensky’s research on the subject informs this study and helps to frame it theoretically.

There are five theoretical constructs that frames this research:

1) A broad conception of education that includes informal learning as a critical and important component of learning (Foley, 1999).

2) A conception of education that emphasizes the relationship of education and learning and collective emancipatory struggles; that is, struggle for people’s right to exist as different (Foley, 1999).

3) A conception of education that includes transnational network learning as an increasingly practiced expanded and linked form of local collective emancipatory struggle.

4) A conception of education that looks at the role of artists as a critical sector of organic intellectuals (Gramsci, 1971) reflecting learning, provoking reflection, and facilitating learning through their art.

5) An analytical framework that allows connections to be made between learning and education and analysis of the overarching macro-political economy, the local micro-politics, ideologies and discourses among and between different struggles (Foley, 1999).

I have added to Foley’s theoretical framework for researching adult education articulated in his book Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education (1999) four important dimensions: the conception of network learning, the inclusion of the view of Chican@ artists as one group of many types of organic intellectuals that initiate and facilitate the informal learning process. In addition to the analytical framework which Foley borrows from Sonia Alvarez, (2) I add the conception of network learning as a transnational form of informal educational intervention and an analysis of globalization and global situation as part of the macro context. Lastly, while Foley’s work has been focused on adult learning, this research includes participants as young as their mid teens at the time of the encuentro. Below, I discuss each of the framework components further.

Emphasis on Informal Education

Foley (2004) defines informal education as “the sort of learning that occurs when people consciously try to learn from their experiences” (p. 4). Ironic and interesting is that significant anecdotal evidence and empirical research show that it is the informal and incidental learning within the formal educational experience that is best recalled. Darder (1991) for instance, points out that what is really learned from formal schooling is how to obey and serve a system poised to exploit and give orders.

The broad conception of education offered here allows scholars who study learning to examine non-classroom and “un-official” components of education as no less significant learning. This conception of education concurs with the Freirean (1968) pedagogical notion that does not view people as empty headed, a tabula rasa, at the beginning of a learning experience and full of information post formal educational event. It is a conception of learning that sees learning taking place constantly and one that recognizes that everyone represents and contains a reservoir of knowledge accumulated through their daily experiences. This conception also allows us to recognize the significant role that informal education plays in learning how to intervene and struggle for social and political justice. Complementing Foley, Schugurensky (2000a) has developed three categories of informal education which he describes in the following manner: “Self-directed (which is intentional and conscious), incidental (unintentional but conscious), and socialization (unintentional and unconscious) (p. 1).”

Learning Through Collective Struggle

According to Foley (1999), it is important to view learning and education as a complex, diverse contextualized and contested activity. Foley (1999) points out that history can be seen as a series of struggles (contestations at different levels) between those that need to and want to dominate and those that learn to struggle against and resist domination and thus strive for emancipation. Part of the struggle is learning effective strategies on how to counter (contest) the discourse (ideology) sustaining and justifying that domination. Struggle for emancipation includes ideological, organizational, and political aspects. Foley (1999) further argues that the complexity of learning on the part of the people being oppressed includes learning strategies that consist of temporary compromises and some compliance mixed in with resistance as well as with proposals to reform the system.

The Zapatista uprising has increased the complexity to include global dialogical reflections and broader collective units learning at further distances and across national borders. The main activities of many of these collective units seems to be centered around the question of building alternative systems within but outside of the capitalist system, that is parallel to the present globalized local, regional and national systems and their formal institutions. (3) Existing parallel and outside seems to give informal education the liberated space and independence necessary to freely carry out the task of reflecting and learning through struggles.

Globalized Network Learning

Although Foley’s primary research is informal education and looks at the global context within which this is occurring, his research does not include informal education within global learning networks. Most of what Foley and Schugurenski examine is what happens within a group within a particular struggle and not what happens between groups in struggles, including what is shared and learned between two different groups in different countries. Thinking of informal education as both a local and a global process expands educators’ understanding of how common people are learning to struggle on a daily basis.

In early March 2004, I received an email from Puente de la Esperanza, an organization based in Mexico City dedicated to supporting struggles for community autonomy, with an invitation to a mini-conference to discuss issues facing a small village of Tlanenpantla, Morelos, Mexico, which intended to set up a politically independent governing council. The globalization of technical advances in communication has made it possible for common folks to learn from other people’s experiences anywhere, right now. Today, the Internet and email through a host of technical communication venues make it possible for the non-professional common person struggling in country X to be in daily contact with an entire collective struggle against the same multinational corporation in country Y (Castells, 1997).

While the Internet makes this communication possible, globalization of capital makes grassroots global networking (whether via Internet and email or in person) essential and inevitable. (4) Zapatistas consider their reflection on practice part of their living practice. Much like the Freirean (1968) conception of praxis, it is the back and forth development of practice, reflection, and transformed practice. Sub-comandante Marcos, a ubiquitous mouth piece philosopher-poet-translator for the Zapatistas, known for his satiric literary works particularly his allegorical pieces as well as for his sharp social economic political analysis, warns international civil society that (2003) their practice, which he refers to as meta-theoretical practice because it is reflection on reflective practice, is based on and about their particular conditions.

Castells (1997) points out that the achievement of the Zapatista uprising was mainly due to their transnational communication strategy. He goes on to describe the international encuentros, the consultations, the back and forth conversations with civil society, the reflections with other “armed” groups as examples of this communication strategy. In addition to the internal reflections of their local practice, what the Zapatistas were and are carrying out are a reflective conversation processes at the international level.

In his description of localization, Esteva (2001) conceptualizes the Zapatista pedagogical process as “localization, opposed to neoliberal globalization and simultaneously opposed to localism (p. 2).” Esteva (2001) explains that the struggles against globalization such as the struggle against Wal-Mart in Cuernavaca, Mexico or Inglewood, California, although they takes place at the local level, can have a global impact and now can be shared so that people can learn from each other’s struggle on real time, that is, as the people who carried out the struggle sum it up. In this sense, network learning can be thought of as globalized localization; that is, local struggles connecting globally.

The informal learning network, as applied in popular struggles for social justice, such as the anti-globalization struggle, although aided by different technological advances, is not just a technological result, but seems to be a world view; one that acknowledges the interconnectedness, interdependence, and equality that exist between peoples and struggles. Network learning seems to allow the possibility that emancipatory struggles throughout the globe will not be carried out in isolation and that struggles in one part of the globe can serve to strengthen struggles occurring elsewhere. (5)

The Role of Organic Artists

Gramsci’s (1971) conception of counter hegemony evolved from the need to develop and articulate a response to the hegemonic narrative to make explicit hidden subtle forms of control. Gramsci’s assumptions and research showed that no matter how dominating a state was, it could not sustain forceful domination of its people (Burke, 1999).

In this proposal, Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectual is applied to the role of Chican@ artist that carries out the task of facilitating the development and articulation of an alternative or counter “common sense” (Gramsci, 1971). His conception of hegemony as both state ideological control and willing consent, helps us understand the role of formal education as a state institution which uses subtle “neutral” assumptions to effect values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that supports the status quo. Artists who consider themselves as part of the Chican@ Arts Movement by self-definition are part of a movement that attempts to deconstruct dominating discourses or ideological hegemony. As organic intellectuals of the Chican@ community, they provoke reflection, challenge the prevailing wisdom and initiate motion toward something new, something different through their artistic expression. Because of the dearth of academic organic grassroots intellectuals, artistic intellectuals become essential.

Holloway (2003) proposes that the role of those who practice the Zapatistas ethos has been exactly that of making explicit what is implicit and bringing out what is already there. Holloway (2003) points out that Zapatismo proposes that the task facing organizers is not one of bringing consciousness from the outside but one of becoming conscious of the knowledge that is already there albeit in embryonic, repressed, and/or contradictory form. He adds that this task requires that the common person be seen differently, not just as a person but as a volcano ready to erupt with rebellion. This task, Holloway suggests, is therefore better carried out in poetry because it involves bringing out invisible passions, the unspoken and repressed NO to oppression. Holloway’s suggestion contradicts what Friere (1968) refers to as concientización, a process by which one becomes conscious through outside intervention of the internalization of the oppressor’s point of view and of the reality that he or she really knows.

In an interview by Luis Hernandez Navarro, (2002) writer Arundhati Roy agrees with Holloway stating that future hope rests in the arts. Roy states that it is the artists, poets, and singers that are most capable of offering a new space for a new common sense, one where the “invisible becomes visible, the intangible tangible, the impalpable palpable” (2002). Hernandez who has written and researched extensively on the connection between rock, hip hop, and Zapatismo, points out that Zapatismo (2003) was born in the theatrical, in the arts, with Sub-comandante Marcos becoming an internationally renowned poet and literary personality. Castells (1997) refers to the use of staging, masks, pipes, and theatrics as a centerpiece of the communication genius of Zapatismo.

Gramsci and Zapatismo agree that the role of (local) artists as organic intellectuals is especially important in thinking about general solutions and the need to deconstruct the hegemonic processes, as initiating a process that brings out suppressed rebellious critical thinking that questions and debunks the prevailing “truth.”

The Relationship of the Macro, the Micro, and Informal Learning

The theoretical framework used in this proposal needs to include a way of making the relational connections between education and learning, and the macro political economic (that includes both national and international) and micro or local manifestations. Because of the expansive possibilities of network learning, the temptation to want to create a universal model of struggle is powerful. Zapatistas will however warn “don’t follow us, we are developing our theory about the conditions facing us in southeastern Mexico, from our practice” (Marcos, 2003). Marcos (2003) makes this observation about the relationship of theory and practice:

In our theoretical reflections we talk about what we see as tendencies, not consummated nor inevitable facts. Tendencies, that have not only have not been converted into hegemonies and homogenies that cannot be (and should be) reversed.

Our theoretical reflection is usually not about ourselves, but about the reality in which we move. And its character is one that is approximate and limited in time and space in its concepts and in the structure of those concepts. That is why we reject any pretensions of universality and perpetuity in what we say and do.

The answers and questions about Zapatismo are not in our reflections and theoretical analysis, but in our practice. And, in our case, practice has a strong moral responsibility, ethic. That is to say, we strive (not always successfully, …) to act not only according to our theoretical analysis but also according to that which we consider to be our duty. We try to be accountable, always. Perhaps that is why we are not pragmatists (another way of saying “a practice without principles”). (6)

The demise of the Soviet Union and the disentanglement of its sphere of influence opened up an entirely new era, one of unregulated domination of globalized capital; one in which it is expected that formal education play a major part in its construction and one in which informal network learning is being called to play a counter-hegemonic liberating role.

In terms of understanding the overall lack of neutrality of formal education it is important to recognize that state systems and their educational systems have for the most part been either incapable or unwilling to challenge the globalization of capital. In the main, the tendency seems to be that neoliberal state systems, in general, and their educational institutions, in particular, have put themselves at the disposition of the global market.

It is equally important to have a macro and micro analysis of why network learning is on the horizon as an important form of informal education learning by which people in struggle can transform themselves to effectively address the situation of growing social injustice. A look at the macro and micro contextual situations of both the Indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico and the Chicano people in the United States will help us analyze the content in the interviews.

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. (7)

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 Ejército 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. (8)

The Ejército 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 (North American Free Trade Agreement) 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 of hundred of incursions and killings 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 the Zapatistas 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). (9), (10)

The Civil Society Revolution

Zapatistas primarily depend on what they call “autonomía de hecho.” Comandante Ramona captured the notion of autonomía de hecho in the dicho or 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. Explicit in this saying is that Zapatistas can liberate themselves regardless of whether the state recognizes it or allows it by legal decree. The Zapatistas 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. identify with 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. (11) 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 come 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 crossings with the thick of population descending from post 1960 migrations.

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). (12) 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 (Ensino 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). (13) 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.” (14) The “pull factor” refers to the insatiable need for cheap labor of US agribusiness, 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 extra-legal 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 what many consider to be a Euro-centric US culture and political economy.

Given a history of imposition by imperialist powers, Chican@s do not primarily identify with the Spanish part but with the mestizo and the indigenous. (15) 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 or even eliminating their Mexican or general Latino culture.(16)

Similar to the indigenous of Mexico, Chican@s along with Blacks and Native Americans are culturally, socially, and economically at the bottom-- the most marginalized. The cultural, national, and political identification between Chican@s and indigenous seems to be 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). (17)

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). (18) 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 60s, and its impact on the Chican@ movement.

This movement not only produced artistic expression but was shaped by the participation of artists. Chican@ artist were inspired, and informed by the works of Mexico’s great muralists, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. The Chican@ renaissance of the 60s and 70s included the poetry of Alurista, Corky Gonzalez, and Malaquias Montoya. In the late 70s 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 thus 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 Anzaldúa, 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 immediate and intense affinity that Chicano activists felt to the Zapatista Indigenous uprising. There was one other Chicana, C X (19) 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 marginally 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. A few weeks after they floated 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. Many of the young Chican@ artist that I propose to interview for the dissertation were participants in this encuentro.

The 1997 encuentro experience, let 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 years or more. 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 in which 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 cooperatives, such as, Kinal Ansetic and 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 structures through which relationships continue to lay the basis for network learning.


This dissertation hopes to contribute to the body of information and knowledge that will help us understand the content, the relationship and the 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.

Purpose of the Study

While the overall purpose of this study is to examine network learning as a dialectical symbiotic relationship between Chican@ Arts Movement in Southern California and the Zapatista Movement, the specific objectives that serve this purpose are:

1) Enhance our general knowledge and understanding of the network learning process and content that goes on between two points of a transnational network: the Zapatista and Chican@ artists movement in Los Angeles.

2) Enlarge our grasp of the role that Zapatista pedagogy has had in the self-transformation of the Chicano Arts Movement and in turn on its own transformative potential.

3) Expand the knowledge base and understanding of the Zapatista movement as a non-violent and proactive pedagogical response to the ill effects of neoliberalism and to the subsequent negative aspects of the neoliberal organic crisis, and

4) Engage in and contribute to the discussion on what are the most effective educational methods for transformative, profound and permanent change towards the democratization of education and of general society.

Importance of the Study

The potentially independent position of informal learning through struggle allows it to freely imagine grassroots possibilities for a new world. Informal education as reflection of struggle in and among movements for social change is much less obstructed or restricted by government budgets, policies, and therefore able to freely develop as a space of creative critical thinking. Gramsci (1971), as other critical pedagogues today, brings out the importance to continue resisting the closing of liberated and autonomous spaces within formal and non-formal education. However, the level of privatization and corporate domination of formal and non-formal education (Stromquist, 2003) has provoked the importance to incubate, privilege, and develop informal learning which can in turn inform and strengthen those working within the formal and non-formal systems.

Progressive changes within the formal educational system have historically depended on the work and perspectives of the informal educational experiences of grassroots movements, such as the civil rights movement and the movement for multicultural education. Today’s tight corporate grip on formal education seems to be prompting a growing number of grassroots movements not to depend, or expect much change from the formal institutional area. Under these conditions grassroots learning seems to be moving away from exploring how to change the formal system and instead moving towards creating innovative changes to be kept, practiced, and developed by and for the local.

Gustavo Esteva (2001) points out that during the era of neoliberal politics people everywhere, not only in Mexico, have become increasingly disillusioned with the ballot box and have naturally tended toward direct democratic participation. The Zapatistas, Esteva argues, provide the possibility that people take their destinies into their own hands and create a new and legitimate grassroots body politic. Indeed, it has been my initial observation that, through the Zapatista communication method of reflecting and sharing their experiences through encuentros, consultas, email and the Internet, it has been possible to contemplate on and learn from Zapatista reflections and actions.

In this era of global crisis, a study of network learning is useful for the common person, the “non-professional” that today is faced with the awesome task of not only resisting increased oppression but of designing another, an alternative form of governance, a long with another way to change. Designing government has traditionally been left to the “experts,” “authorities,” the elite or an enlightened vanguard. The independent popular nature and milieu in which informal education thrives, seems to lend itself to contestational learning in struggles whose adversarial unit is the state bureaucracy and its institutions, and global supra structures, which, in turn, utilize the formal educational system for their perpetuation.

The study of the Zapatista-Chicano informal learning network has been of major interest not only for social justice activists but also for the common person who may not be able to get involved as a full-time activist but who nevertheless wants to participate. The informal education of Zapatismo is one of the whole community taking itself through a process of action, reflection, action. The action taken is actually living a different way despite what the dominating system prescribes and dictates. In this sense Zapatismo is no less than a liberated learning zone, an incubated location of independent learning in contact with other independent learning points. The Zapatista autonomous community is an experiment in the development of participatory democracy being carried out not by activists but by common people, by entire communities which are networked locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.

Global Network Transformative Learning

In a January 2003 article titled Siete Palabras, Marcos points out that reflective discussions on a global level are not just for better understanding and explanation but for transformation in practice. He also addresses the need for global forums that can help to develop a global grassroots agenda. Freire speaks of concientización in the same manner, looking at transformative consciousness as the result of reflection on practice. Arundhati Roy talks about the importance of making the invisible visible through art and artist: practice that has transformative impact. Mayo, Gramsci, and others place the importance of educational and learning experiences that would bring about these transformations. Castells’s research is instructive in describing the development of global networks as communication systems that help us understand how these transformations are occurring at the global level. Schugurensky’s (1997) and Foley’s (1999, 2004) research and reflections of other research emphasize the role of informal education in the transformative process. This brings me closer to a model that I can then expand as relationship between individuals expand to relationship between groups, areas and regions and between points in two different nation states. The following are two figures depicting these models.

Figure 1: Internal Transformative Process Driven by Participatory Democracy
Figure 2: Global Transformative Learning Process Through Participatory Horizontal Relationships

Figure 1, depicts Schugurensky’s conception of the relationship between Participatory Democracy and transformative learning or informal learning through practice (doing). Schugurensky (2000b) talks about some of the virtues that can be developed by its participating denizens through participatory democracy.

Figure 2 represents the process of developing the bottom up governance capacity by a spiral. In Figure 1, transformative learning is occurring at the local level. Figure 2, shows the intersubjective relationship of networked community groups that exist in different countries but that are in communication through phone, the internet, email, and through occasional visits.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 15, 2008.

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