Dispatches from Zapatista Territory

In this episode we speak with two of our fellow co-producers about their recent trip to autonomous Zapatista communities in the highlands of the Mexican southeast. For more than 24 years, the Zapatistas have inspired countless struggles across the globe to build “a world in which many worlds fit.” While the Zapatistas are not explicitly penal abolitionists, we reflect on how the Zapatista construction of autonomy may help us re-imagine the challenges and possibilities we face as Abolitionists.

Image credit: photograph by a Maria, mural in Caracol Oventik, 2018.

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Episode Transcript:

Andres: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andres. In this episode,  “Dispatches from Zapatista Territory,” we speak with two of our fellow co-producers about their recent trip to autonomous Zapatista communities in the highlands of the Mexican southeast. For more than 24 years, the Zapatistas have inspired countless struggles across the globe to build “a world in which many worlds fit.” While the Zapatistas are not explicitly penal abolitionists, we reflect on how the Zapatista construction of autonomy may help us re-imagine the challenges and possibilities we face as Abolitionists.

But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.


Kaif Syed:

Thousands of Inmates in Florida across 8 prisons have been involved with a statewide prison strike, which started on MLK day. The strike, which has been dubbed “Operation PUSH”, was called by inmates demanding fair wages, fair pricing of commissary goods, and the restoration of parole. Many Florida inmates do not get paid wages for their labor — instead, Florida prisons can deduct time from inmates’ sentences for their labor, a practice often open to manipulation and abuse by prison officials. In the two weeks prior to “Operation PUSH’s” launch, several organizers on the inside were thrown into solitary confinement. The Florida department of corrections has denied that any strike is taking place, but several organizations and media outlets have confirmed ongoing uprising.

The US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia has dropped charges for 129 anti-fascist protesters who protested the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th, 2017. This follows the acquittal of the first six J20 defendants in December, all of whom were facing decades in prison for defying the Trump administration. There are still 59 defendants facing significant time in connection with the J20 protests.

On January 17th, a trans inmate in an English prison went on a hunger strike to protest the Ministry of Justice’s refusal to recognize her gender. Marie Dean, who is held in the all-male HMP Preston prison in Lancashire, England, wrote a letter to the outside describing her imprisonment as a nightmare and that she would rather die than to be denied her gender. Marie Dean’s hunger strike follows the suicides of at least 3 trans-women in male prisons in England this year.

On February 4th, after ten months of imprisonment for killing her abusive father in self defense, 16 year old Bresha Meadows from Ohio has been released. Meadows has been incarcerated and institutionalized since she was 14 years old. The release of Meadows, who took a plea deal to shorten her sentence, makes her case exceptional in a white supremacist, patriarchal system that regularly criminalizes women of color for acts of self defense. Check out our April 2017 interview with Mariame Kaba on Bresha’s struggle and the campaign to free her at our website www.rustbeltradio.org.


David Langstaff: I’m David Langstaff, here with co-producers Andres, Catalina Rios, and Kaif Syed. And today we’re going to be in conversation with our fellow co-producers Alejo Stark and a Maria. So Alejo and a Maria, you just returned from the second Zapatista Conciencias for Humanity in Chiapas, Mexico. Before we get into some of the details of your experience, can you tell us briefly who are the Zapatistas? And why should their history and legacy be important for those of us who are struggling for abolition, or who are variously situated in struggles against, what the Zapatistas refer to as the capitalist hydra?

Alejo Stark: Yeah, I think people think of the Zapatistas as being very influential in the 90s, and I think there’s a sense in which contemporary movements are perhaps not as connected to the Zapatistas. So I’m glad we’re doing this talk, first of all. The basic timeline is: in 1994 in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatistas, which are a very heterogeneous group of particularly indigenous people, in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico with different Mayan ethnicities, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and others, emerged in the public sphere in a very unpredictable way.

On January 4th, 1994, they attacked and took over three or more cities in Chiapas, one of which is San Cristóbal de las Casas, and also Ocosingo, and in the process declared war on the Mexican state, in what later became known as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. The group actually emerged in the mid-80s, in 1984. It was a very small group of about ten or so, half indigenous half mestizos, and then the composition changed. Folks then literally went into the jungle, and sort of the continuity of Latin American guerrilla movements of the 60s and 70s, tried to basically start a revolution in the state of Chiapas. And then very quickly these revolutionaries, who thought of themselves as Marxist-Leninists, had to come to terms with the very different reality of mostly indigenous and very different conditions than perhaps they were used to. Because they’re coming, a lot of these, from the student movement as well, in the 60s and 70s. So they had to shift their whole paradigm, so to speak.

They were supported by the indigenous communities and slowly began to grow, mostly in the wake of what was a land grab in the 80s and some of the shifts in the Mexican constitution, around the ejido land structure and so on. So that’s I think one of the pre-conditions of the uprising, but also as the First Generation of the Lacandon Jungle states, it’s about democracy, education, and healthcare, in some ways we can say self determination. It’s both the fight against the capitalist hydra and hundreds of years of colonization. This is kind of early history. The Mexican state tries to claim that the EZLN is dead, is no longer around. And I think in some ways, we have forgotten about them. The anti-globalization movement was very much inspired by Zapatistas, but there’s a way in which we have to recover that. And I think the important part here is to mark some of the shifts, in the wake of the 2006, what became the other campaign around that same time. The good government councils tried to create a separation between the army organization to build autonomy. So they shifted from the intensification of the war in 1997,1998, 1999, in the mid to early 2000s towards building autonomy. Building autonomous schools, building autonomous hospitals, and coordinating also production of coffee, and corn as well. So it’s important to also keep that in mind, the support bases. And the army have also evolved, in the 20+ years.

David Langstaff: And hopefully we’ll get more into some of the trajectory of the Zapatistas, and of Zapatismo, and resist this narrative that neither are any longer relevant to contemporary struggle. But can you begin by telling us, a little bit more specifically, about the ConCiencias from which the two of you just returned?

Alejo Stark: Yeah, the ConCiencias. I guess technically I’m an astrophysicist, I just finished my doctorate. And so I was invited last year to go to the first encounter of basically scientists and Zapatistas, December 2016 and December 2017. What’s important to highlight about this is: the Zapatistas have now also created a generation of kids that grew up under Zapatista autonomy. And so it is those kids right –it’s not coming from high command– those kids that are asking, and are in some ways also wanting, to have more science education in the autonomous schools. And I think part of the ConCiencias, what they try to do was both bring in scientists; they literally brought together dozens, like 50+ scientists from all over the world to talk about the ways in which capitalism and the capitalist hydra, and what its relationship to science and technology is. Which is sometimes get mixed up, you don’t want to confuse science with technology. What is the function of science in society today? How does it produce and reproduce the capitalist hydra and racial domination of other forms? So that was one of the questions.

But also the other thing we were asked to do is to develop classes and develop ways of engaging, have us do workshops and other things, in Zapatista territory in particular. Which as of today is kind of on standby, but I think the Zapatista comrades are really wanting to emphasize that we need science, and we need the arts as well if we’re going to transform the world.

Andres: So both of you, in your own ways, have been deeply influenced by the Zapatistas in the course of your time doing work with radical left movements. And you’ve both traveled to Zapatista territory before. So why and how have the Zapatistas been important to your own political development, to your participation in various movements for radical revolutionary social transformation?

a Maria: I first encountered Zapatismo as a teenager in the early 2000s, and understood it at that time, because of the educational context that I was in, in the series of rebellions that have happened in Mexico over the last 500+ years. It wasn’t until working in a collective of other Xicanos and working with high schoolers, that I came to both study the communiques collectively with people. And then within Xicano youth organizing, came to understand that the EZLN was impactful for all of us, and really helped to reframe some of the questions that we had in relation to radical organizing and movements for autonomy that were happening. One of the important things in our process of understanding the world comes about through the language that the EZLN has built over decades, for how we understand this moment in relation to both capitalism and also colonialism in the Americas.

Alejo Stark: Yeah, I feel like thinking back on it, it’s almost always been there in some ways. But I think for me, it really emerged as something I related to really just in the past two years. I was undocumented most of my time living in the US, and though that was in the background, it’s been very influential since then because it’s a movement that has been able to outlive repeated attacks over the past two decades. Which is obviously not only inspiring because as we have seen, particularly in Latin America in the past decade, many social movements coming and going so to speak. It was inspiring to be there, just last year, or this past New Year’s Eve – for them New Year’s Eve is not just New Year’s Eve, but it’s a celebration of the uprising – and so being there and seeing what they call autonomous organization, literally seeing bands of Zapatistas playing corrido –a type of music– and the kids dancing – it’s another world. When they talk about making a world in which are possible – I mean, I’m not trying to be rosy, the situation is quite difficult there, right? – but it’s inspiring that they’ve been able to make a crack in the wall, so to speak – that’s a metaphor they use – even though life is hard, right?

Life is not easy in Zapatista territory, particularly in the past years, and just the constant harassment by the state and paramilitary forces. There’s a way in which the persistence, and the continued emphasis on creating spaces of encounters, like the ConCiencias, I think, teaches us, in relation to abolition, how to create those space of encounter, right? How do we think about solidarity and struggling beyond, perhaps, the usual organizational forms – to me, Zapatismo represents that. Not only the wish of another world, but the making of it and the everyday, as slowly and as painstaken as it might be. The metaphor of the caracol, of the snail, you’ll find across the territory that’s what they do. They race snails. So it’s this kind of slowly building another world, to me it’s something that’s very inspiring, I think. Particularly in a moment in which we find ourselves having to react to things so often, particularly in the past two years. The struggle will have to be thought of in the long term, insofar as we want to build something, and we’re not just reacting to things. To me, it is key, thinking about the long term struggle.

Kaif Syed: Just shifting a little bit, the period commonly referred to by critics as neoliberalism, has coincided with a massive expansion of the carceral state. Particularly in the US, but increasingly globally. What relationship do you see, if any, between the exploitation, expulsion, and low intensity of worker to which poor, rural, largely indigenous people that comprises Zapatistas; and for example, “the organized abandonment and organized violence”, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, that has been the fate of people of color and working class communities along the Rustbelt?

a Maria: It’s interesting, one of the differences in terms of the state of Chiapas, it wasn’t even a question of abandonment. The state didn’t extend in certain ways and forms, and so of the successes of the Zapatistas was for instance, building autonomous schools where people could have access to education or building access to healthcare. Similar to the way that the Panther’s Free Lunch Program opened up these spaces, that both address the needs the people are facing, and then the state moved in to displace those radical sites of autonomous movement and growth. That’s also been happening in Chiapas, by building schools and clinics where they never would have before, and hadn’t for decades. The building and expansion of roads, in order to bring in the military. So for instance, in ‘94 one of the reasons the bombings were so severe, is that the army just couldn’t mobilize ground forces in the ways that they would be able to now.

Alejo Stark: Just to answer to what a Maria was just saying, the Zapatistas also have their own conception of this period. They call it the “Fourth World War”. So the first and the second you know about, and then the third is the Cold War, and the fourth world war is what you called earlier on neoliberal globalization. And so as a Maria just mentioned, part of this implies both low intensity warfare through building state schools and so on. But also because of the moment in which we’re in in the history of capital, and what capitalism needs to reproduce itself, they characterize the situation as it being a moment of elimination or incarceration. And so there’s you can call it a surplus population, people that are not needed for the needs of capital, that have to be dealt with in some way or another. Obviously it’s easier to deal with people that are racialized, that are less than. And so what they see as being for instance the drug war in post 2006 in Mexico, as well as just recently in Mexico, they also passed an internal security law that basically allows military to operate as the police more or less. With this drug war that has killed tens of thousands of people, as Dawn Paley calls it in her book Drug War Capitalism, so Zapatistas call this the Fourth World War.

It is a war of elimination and incarceration, and what I think has resonance is also with the Rustbelt. The prison emerges in the wake of not only the rebellions in the Rustbelt, but also in the wake of processes of automation, and also processes of removing workers from very concentrated sites. Like the River Rouge, and plants in Detroit and other places.

David Langstaff: We’ll return to the conversation after listening to part of a corrido by the zapatista band Originales de San Andres.


Una leyenda famosa de un pueblito partidista
Tenían chivos y vacas, ordenaro sus riquezas
repente aparece, la hidra sin llenadera

Al bostezar esa hidra, suelta un veneno sopla
Que mata la madre tierra, destruye la humanidad
La gente con rabia ataca, violento y desordenado

Una mujer aparece, quinientos años de historia
Un cabal conocimiento, como derrota la hidra
Cortar la cabeza madre, incinerar ese monstruo

a Maria: That was La Hidra Capitalista, or The Capitalist Hydra, by the Originales de San Andres, a Zapatista corrido band from the highlands of Chiapas. The Hydra is a metaphor the Zapatistas use to describe the many-headed monster that is racial capitalism. Because as we know, even if we cut off one of its heads, capital regenerates another.

David Langstaff: Staying with this thread about the specific historical moment in which the Zapatistas emerge, though the Zapatistas certainly understand their struggle as resisting a war that goes back half a millenia; they also emerge on the world stage as an insurgent force at precisely the same moment when the ruling classes, particularly in the global north, were loudly celebrating the so-called “end of history”. That is to say, the supposedly definitive triumph of racial capitalism over all other possible or all other existing social formations and forms of life. So how did the Zapatista rebellion instantiate and contribute, to renewal of radical imagination against, and beyond racial capitalist triumph? How might we think about the fact that another moment in the renewal of the radical imagination, namely that which was given through a new language and politics of abolition, occurred in the US just a few years after the Zapatista rebellion of the mid-90s?

a Maria: I mean, to answer the second part of the question: the EZLN was hugely impactful throughout the Americas. In part because of how they decided to work in relation to media, and also through the ways that they imagined resistance. So for instance, the phrase “one no many yeses” or “a world in which many worlds fit”. It’s a way for people to understand local struggles and regional struggles as all being connected. And I think also in relation to the media work that they did, which led the now dead Subcomandante Marcos calling essentially for the creation of Indian media, to support our movements in the One No throughout the Americas. And globally, it was hugely impactful.

Alejo Stark: And I think the ways in which it intervenes at a key moment, and disrupts this narrative of “the end of history”, I think is also about not only just media but also with the encuentros that they created. It’s in some ways not anti-globalization, but it is an alternative globalization. So it’s not a negation of a world in which many worlds fit, but rather a way of encountering and creating networks of solidarity and struggle, that were deeply needed in a moment in which as you said the idealogues of capital had pronounced that neoliberalism and capitalism had one from now on. And here’s the thing with abolition also, because maybe in those years people were trying to find a way out, a crack in the wall so to speak. And even today, we need to be able to imagine a way out.

And what’s so inspiring I think about Zapatistas, is precisely they have a very anomalous way of relating to and disrupting, the normative and the expected that is common sense so to speak. And I think abolition tries to do the same thing, it’s precisely to disrupt the common sense of the carceral, and prisons, and what we take to be just normal. Some would say hegemony, just the common sense ways that we understand punishment, and discipline, and justice. And so I think there’s the recognition for me there, in precisely trying to posit that another world is possible and needed. And trying to work in the long term, in very slow ways to chip away at those walls continuously.

a Maria: Yeah, and a line in the call for the “Festival of Dignified Rage”, that took place in Chiapas and Mexico City in 2008; they say that “if the world does not have a place for us, then another world must be made”. In these spaces of encuentro, of encountering, that are created where people attend globally but especially from Latin America. They are spaces of imagining and creation, and affirming that we are still here, and we’re still fighting.

David Langstaff: And I’m struck by the way that those things are always linked for the Zapatista imagination, of what hasn’t previously been possible to imagine, in the creative gathering that’s embodied in the encuentros. But at the same time, understanding the practice of imagining, and enacting, and inhabiting other worlds. Being grounded in a 500 year long indigenous struggle, to protect and preserve the other worlds that have already been here, that are already here with us.

Alejo Stark: Capitalism, you cut one head and another one grows back. So it’s constantly shifting, and it’s a dynamic thing. So it’s shifted in these past 500 years. And so one thing we have to learn is, and what I think they’re implicitly telling us, is that the kind of protest politics that maybe we’re very much used to in the US is dead. That doesn’t work. In a situation in which what we’re facing is the fourth world war, the only thing which we can survive the storm we survive the catastrophe that capitalism has put us through, is to build our own ship. To build our own autonomy, to build our own world. I’m not saying that blockades and disruptions are necessarily not also about building another world, but I do think that in the US we have a sense of, “protest is kind of what we do”. And then we just sort of go back to living as wage workers, whatever our life is. And I think we have to go back to what a Maria was saying before is, the struggles against the state, we’re living in a very different place too.

So we have to consider the very different material conditions of both the states in United States, as opposed to Mexico. The strength of the military power of the state, but also the insertion and presence of the state, as well as previous forms of organization that have existed and co-existed for many years in Chiapas that also made Zapatismo possible. So the communal land holding, which I think in relation to the US has a different history, I’m not saying it’s not there but it has a different history. So when we’re thinking about what we can learn, we also have to be very careful in thinking about specificities of US context in relation to the Mexico context.

Catalina Rios: I’ve been reading the book Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories. Can you describe your experience of the impacts you see women making in the movement for liberation in the Zapatista movement? How have you seen them evolving, and what can we learn from them?

a Maria: Yeah, the first encuentro that I went to in 2008, “The Encuentro of Zapatista Women and the Women of the World”, that was important because Zapatismo has been strongly influenced by the women’s struggle, from the beginning. They often talk about “the struggle within the struggle”, to address the way that gender violence became normalized both under the Mexican state and the introduction of different forms of, not even wage labor, but essentially, servitude, in Mexico. Especially in rural Mexico. I think in learning from “the struggle within the struggle”, it’s important just to take very seriously that this work needs to be happening, simultaneous to all the other battles that we’re fighting.

One of the important things that came out of calls from women is the banning of alcohol in caracoles, as a way of both dealing with security risks, but first and foremost as a way of tackling domestic violence. So that’s a really important part that comes out of the revolutionary women’s law, specifically to address domestic violence that was happening. Some of the other elements of the EZLN’s women’s revolutionary law are also that women have the right to education, have the right to choose their partner, and aren’t obligated to enter into marriage. That women have the right to participate in matters of the community, and have the right to work and receive a just salary, and that women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle, in any way that their desire and capacity determine.

Alejo Stark: Just to add to what a Maria was saying, I think part of the book which people should read called Compañeras that you mentioned, also tells the story of how prior to the 1994 uprising the women’s revolutionary law called for autonomy of the women within the movement. So those demands created cooperatives, specific women led, women only cooperatives, where women felt comfortable working together and organizing together to also be economically autonomous. So they can make their own decisions, but at the same time, the movement has also been critiqued from without. So there’s been a lot of back and forth between certain feminist movements, saying “you haven’t done enough in this regard”. And the EZLN responding with saying “well the women here will take their own pace”. So I think we have to be very careful.

a Maria: In the final meeting of ConCiencias this year, the Zapatista women invoked the “First International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport, and Culture for Women in Struggle”. That is going to be happening in March, coinciding with International Women’s Day, in which Zapatista women and women of the world will continue to encounter one another and be in dialogue. For instance, in order to make this materially possible, men are invited if they are accompanying and supporting women who will be engaging in the encounter. So men are invited if they want to come and be available for childcare, or cleaning and cooking.

David Langstaff: Is there anything else that either of you would like to add, either about your experience with the ConCiencias, or your reflections on Zapatismo more generally?

Alejo Stark: I would just add one last thing, that I think the news hasn’t really made it here. But when we were there in December about 5,000 indigenous people in Chenalhó and Chalchihuitán, which are two nearby cities to San Cristóbal de Las Casas nearby to the Oventic caracol, 5,000 indigenous people were displaced by paramilitary groups. And these paramilitary groups are in direct work with political parties. What that’s meant is also not only that people’s houses were shut up and people left, but because this is in the highlands of Chiapas, at least a dozen or so people have died. Mostly children and elder people because of the cold, and lack of access to water, and so on. So one thing for us to think about, is in the ways in which we are in solidarity with folks inside. What would it mean to continue to be in solidarity with the struggles in Mexico, and beyond? There’s been a lot of connections between Black Lives Matter and the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, and Zapatistas themselves have sent coffee with the name “Fuck Trump”. And so the question is how do we think about solidarity within abolition, that extends beyond not only the walls and cages of the prison, but the walls and borders that bourgeois nationalism makes?

David Langstaff: Well thanks so much for being in conversation with us today.

Alejo Stark: Yeah, thank you. Hopefully it’s a way to continue to think about Zapatismo moving forward as well. For a world in which many worlds fit.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.