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Revolution of the Snails: Encounters with the Zapatistas

January 15, 2008

Rebecca Solnit

I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of information that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The original use of the word revolution was in this sense — of something coming round or turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, for example. It’s interesting to think that just as the word radical comes from the Latin word for “roots” and meant going to the root of a problem, so revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to cycle, something those who live according to the agricultural cycles of the year know well.

Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it come to mean “an instance of a great change in affairs or in some particular thing.” 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less cyclical and more linear — as in the second definition of this new sense of revolution in my dictionary, “a complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it.”

The true revolutionary needs to be as patient as a snail.

We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our society revolving — or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be as patient as a snail.

The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come, but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson’s attack on the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962; certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere with a radical rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern Mexico called Zapatismo.

The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one Zapatista woman

Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its principal symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution spirals outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes of capitalism’s savage alienation, industrialism’s regimentation, and toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one Zapatista woman — and prophetic of the half-born other world in which, as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on their spiral.

Revolutionary Landscapes

At the end of 2007, I arrived on their territory for a remarkable meeting between the Zapatista women and the world, the third of their encuentros since the 1994 launch of their revolution. Somehow, among the miracles of Zapatista words and ideas I read at a distance, I lost sight of what a revolution might look like, must look like, on the ground — until late last year when I arrived on that pale, dusty ground after a long ride in a van on winding, deeply rutted dirt roads through the forested highlands and agricultural clearings of Chiapas, Mexico. The five hours of travel from the big town of San Cristobal de las Casas through that intricate landscape took us past countless small cornfields on slopes, wooden houses, thatched pigsties and henhouses, gaunt horses, a town or two, more forest, and then more forest, even a waterfall.

Everything was green except the dry cornstalks, a lush green in which December flowers grew. There were tree-sized versions of what looked like the common, roadside, yellow black-eyed susans of the American west and a palm-sized, lavender-pink flower on equally tall, airily branching stalks whose breathtaking beauty seemed to come from equal parts vitality, vulnerability, and bravura — a little like the women I listened to for the next few days.

“You are in Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys.”

The van stopped at the junction that led to the center of the community of La Garrucha. There, we checked in with men with bandannas covering the lower halves of their faces, who sent us on to a field of tents further uphill. The big sign behind them read, “You are in Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys.” Next to it, another sign addressed the political prisoners from last year’s remarkable uprising in Oaxaca in which, for four months, the inhabitants held the city and airwaves and kept the government out. It concluded, “You are not alone. You are with us. EZLN.”

As many of you may know, EZLN stands for Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), a name akin to those from many earlier Latin American uprisings. The Zapatistas — mostly Mayan indigenous rebels from remote, rural communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state — had made careful preparations for a decade before their January 1, 1994 uprising.

They began like conventional rebels, arming themselves and seizing six towns. They chose that first day of January because it was the date that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, which meant utter devastation for small farmers in Mexico…

READ THE FULL PIECE ON TOMDISPATCH.COM

The last time Rebecca Solnit camped out on rebel territory, she was an organizer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project that insists — with good legal grounds — that the Shoshone in Nevada had never ceded their land to the U.S. government. That story is told in her 1994 book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, but the subsequent inspiration of the Zapatistas is most evident in the book Tom Engelhardt helped her to bring into being, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She is 11 chapters into her next book.

Copyright 2008 Rebecca Solnit

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