Our “¡Ya Basta!”
December 30, 2013
By James Anderson
With those indelible words — ¡Ya Basta! (Enough!) – the EZLN emerged from the Lacandón jungle early in the morning 20 years ago to challenge the exploitation of indigenous peoples in Mexico while making a statement against the greater global trajectory toward profit-dictated globalization.
Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, the Zapatista uprising coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that liberalized trade across the US and Mexico border while protecting investor rights and privileging transnational corporations. The agreement disadvantaged Mexican farmers who could not compete with US agribusiness, and it disempowered US workers by permitting companies to relocate production – primarily for the US market – to Mexico.
The Zapatistas, named for the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, occupied towns in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas during the rebellion. The Zapatistas demanded, “in essence, the right to live their lives with dignity,” Maria Armoudian wrote in “Kill the Messenger,” quoting also an EZLN communiqué that proclaimed: “Throughout the world, rural and urban workers celebrate their rebellion against exploitation and reaffirm their hope for a more just world.”
Zapatismo, the movement’s dialogue-oriented philosophy and praxis, resonates with contemporary struggles. Zapatismo is thus a pedagogical experience of which we are a part.
The “movement of movements” ignited by the Zapatistas illustrate the shared struggle against contemporary injustice, in its variegated forms.
The resonance of struggle refers to an empathic mode of identity in which heterogeneous peoples identify with the democratizing ethos to prefigure “a world where many worlds fit,” as the Zapatistas put it.
Bypassing traditional commercial media gatekeepers and institutional filters that keep discourse within narrow ideological bounds, the Zapatistas used a sophisticated communications strategy, utilizing nascent new media technologies to reach out to global civil society.
In response, state-corporate powers-that-be waged a smear campaign to discredit the Zapatistas and their oft-quoted spokesperson, Subcomandnate Marcos, by accusing him of being gay.
Marcos waxed poetically in reply:
“Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, Black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristóbal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.
“Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying, ‘Enough!’ He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable—this is Marcos.”
The Zapatismo maxim of mandar obedeciendo – “to rule by obeying,” encapsulates that emancipatory approach in another form.
“The National Indigenous Congress describes the guiding principles of this power as ‘To serve, not be served; to represent, not supplant; to build; not destroy; to propose, not impose; to convince, not defeat; to come down, not climb up,’” Laura Carlsen explained in the Introduction to “The Speed of Dreams,” a book featuring select writings from Marcos. “The principles of organization aim to develop grassroots leadership that is ‘horizontal, rotating, collective, inclusive, flexible, representative, plural gender-equal and non-partisan.”
Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini proposed a “secret rendezvous with history and the present,” characteristic of Zapatismo resonance, which courses through the multitude of movements and puts the democratizing impulse in context.
“Our movements are the shouting of ‘No!’ The ‘Ya Basta!’ The ‘Que Se Vayan Todos!’” Sitrin and Azzellini wrote. “They are our collective refusal to remain passive in an untenable situation. And so we pull the emergency brake, freeze time, and begin to open up and create something new.”
They emphasized the “historical consciousness of the role of past generations” in relation to construction of “emancipatory paths” – forged while “caminando preguntamos,” or “walking, we ask questions,” as the Zapatista notion of dialogue and reflective action has it.
In relation, Marcos insisted that “people without a past can have no future.” He once wrote that the powerful “look with disdain and repugnance at our past,” and juxtaposed Zapatismo with attempts to extinguish the past thusly:
“What matters is our eldest elders who received the word and the silence as a gift in order to know themselves and to touch the heart of the other. Speaking and listening is how true men and women learn to walk. It is the word that gives form to that walk that goes on inside us. It is the word that is the bridge to cross to the other side. Silence is what Power offers our pain in order to make us small. When we are silenced, we remain very much alone. Speaking, we heal the pain. Speaking, we accompany one another. Power uses the word to impose his empire of silence. We use the word to renew ourselves. Power uses silence to hide his crimes. We use silence to listen to one another, to touch one another, to know one another.”
Juan Ponce de León, described “Traveling Back for Tomorrow” in the Editor’s Note for “Our Word is Our Weapon,” another book with selected writings from the Zapatista’s public intellectual.
“Marcos manages to create a mirror where we can recognize the feature of our own concerns,” de León wrote. He entreated readers: “We must come to understand that each battle won for human rights and democracy is a battle won for all of us, that beneath the mask of our own personal struggles, we are all Marcos.”
What we are doing as graduate students appears worlds apart, but by prefiguring a “world where many worlds fit,” it is not so different. We struggle against exploitation and lack of participatory decision-making. Our union actively opposes the devaluation of graduate assistants and the denial of our dignity due to institutional structures and the pitfalls of concentrated power.
Activists in GAU likewise aim to lead by obeying, traveling down the difficult path of addressing injustices that would otherwise seem insuperable to those of us beleaguered by strenuous work assignments, tough coursework and mounting debt. We strive do this by reflecting upon the complexities of our situation, in dialogue with the University community – and beyond.
Our own not-so-secret rendezvous with the oppressed past and the contemporaneous now relates to what labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr. described as “a new unionism,” sensitive to the deprivations and desires of the community.
This new unionism remains simultaneously sensitive to the multifarious legacy of struggle waged by wage-earners.
That storied history runs the gamut. It includes the fight of the “factory girls” in Lowell, Mass., who inveighed against wage servitude during the height of the Industrial Revolution, wrote and published a class conscious monthly magazine and generally thought it intuitive that those who worked in the mills should own them.
A historicity of worker resistance recognizes the 1894 Pullman Strike, carried out in response to precipitous wage reductions.
This working people’s history recalls vividly the work of labor activist Cesar Chavez, who told the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in November 1984, just a few months before launching the longest grape boycott ever, his “one dream” was “to overthrow a farm labor system in this nation that treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings. Farm workers are not agricultural implements. They are not beasts of burden to be used and discarded.”
And, of course, a narrative of desire for productive, creative and mutually self-determined human doing cannot overlook each and every graduate student who has rejected obsequious subordination to repressive demands. This story of education-as-praxis recounts all the graduate assistants who have stood up for themselves and others in similarly vulnerable, precarious conditions.
Indeed, the recent history of related struggle has been overtly pedagogical, in more ways than one.
The Chicago Teachers Union strike in September 2012 offered “a stunning rebuke to the forces of privatization and corporate education reform,” Robert Barlett explained.
Teachers in Mt. Olive, Ill., channeled the spirit of Irish-American schoolteacher and labor agitator Mother Mary Jones, who is buried in the town’s Union Miners Cemetery, when they went on strike to protect the quality of education in their district this December. They reached a settlement to ratify their contract and returned to classrooms before the end of the year.
The Zapatistas also engaged in dialogue after their 1994 uprising.
“The question remained how to formally engage with existing structures of power,” David Graeber wrote in “The Democracy Project” regarding Zapatista tactics. “The solution was to engage in formal negotiations for a peace treaty—they came to be known as the San Andrés Accords—which would rather than compromise the newly created structures of local-level democracy, instead provide a reason to legitimate, develop, and expand them, since Zapatista negotiators (who were selected as recallable delegates by their communities) insisted that every stage of negotiations was subject to comprehensive democratic consultation, approval, and review.”
Democratizing public pedagogy continued thereafter. Alicia C.S. Swords provided examples of how and when the movement co-constructed meaning and re-configured social power:
- A May 2013 Hemispheric Conference Against Militarization in San Cristóbal to educate people about the effects of global militarization on Chiapas
- An “Other Campaign” and bottom-up “listening tour” in response to politicians’ usual speaking tours
- Collaboration with the Alianza Cívica-Chiapas (Chiapas Civic Alliance) to organize workshops and educate municipal authorities about how to learn from their constituents (“rule by obeying”)
Further, Zapatista-delegate popular referenda (consultas), an autonomous public education project, raised awareness about indigenous rights while building relations with other movements and organizations “through recognition of their mutual struggles, losses, and possibilities for healing,” Swords also documented.
“Flowing like the water of the river that beats the sword,” thousands of Zapatistas reemerged publicly, again, and marched in silence to be heard on Dec. 21, 2012, the day the Mayan calendar ended.
And around 1,500 activists came to Chiapas this past summer to participate in the escuelita, or Zapatista Little School.
Building on past encuentros, the Freedom School, as it was also known, articulated a democratizing public pedagogy.
“Democracy is at any moment, at every level of our life,” the Zapatistas explained.
They said they do not beg or accept crumbs. They do dialogue and listen, however.
“We are armed,” Zapatistas confessed to Little School students, “our weapon being our words, our thinking and our hearts.”
When GAU delivers our intent to bargain, we will enter into the process attentive to expressed wants and needs of graduate assistants. We do not face the same situation as indigenous rebels in Chiapas, but the resonance of Zapatismo can inform our praxis. Our goal for the New Year is to enlarge the democratic sphere within the University. In lieu of a formal communiqué at this juncture, we rather want to give language to the labor advancing workplace democracy so that we – and everyone else – might one day soon have a say in major decisions in proportion to the degree to which we are affected. This is our ¡Ya Basta! – a cry for dialogue that respectfully recuperates the past with an eye on the year(s) ahead.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis. To find out more about other pedagogical projects associated with the Zapatistas click here.