Dreamtime with the Zapatistas


In The Speed of Dreams, the necessity and romance of specific words and language is revealed, in the poetry that gave birth to the revolution.

There is no single word that adequately translates "campesinos." The word means comrade, partner, and close friend, but not one of these can replace the word campesino. The word "peasant" is not adequate, either, which refers to the people of the fields.

There are other words that resist translations, as revealed in The Speed of Dreams, selected writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 2001 – 2007.

For many of us who journeyed with Marcos and the Zapatistas on the caravan through Mexico, and spent decades going back and forth between Arizona and the Zapatista strongholds in Chiapas, the specific words and translations were not what we sought. We were attracted, and propelled forward, by the spirit of the movement, the deep love of humanity by those within the struggle, and the necessity of the resistance.

Now, nearly two decades after my first trip to the southern mountains of Chiapas, I find myself once again in southern mountains, this time it is the desert mountains of southern Arizona. In a silent home, a copy of The Speed of Dreams has been left behind. There is no television, telephone or Internet to distract me. There is only this silence and The Speed of Dreams. I am, at last, alone with the words of Marcos.

Among the profound messages shared within The Speed of Dreams is the power of words. There is the reality that the unspoken word ultimately becomes the act.

There are words woven deep within the heart of language that resist even the best translators.

"Ejidos," like campesinos, is one of those words, which refers to the communal land shared by the people of the community. Ejidos, which refers to the historic struggle for Mexican land reform, "prioritizes subsistence and collectivity as opposed to profit and hierarchy," explains the book's editors Canek Pena-Vargas and Greg Ruggiero.

In the careful use and play of words that signifies the struggle with brilliance, the editors also speak of immigrant words. "These immigrant words – as of yet undocumented by Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionary – have no single-word English equivalent."

Words, as Marcos explains, ultimately and naturally became the Zapatistas weapons.

Marcos speaks of the respect and dignity that is the object of the struggle that has risen from the indigenous Zapatistas.

"But for us, pity is an affront and charity is a slap in the face."

 Pulling from his chest full of memories, Marcos remembers a single pink stiletto heel, size 6 and a half, that arrived without its mate, in the piles of useless computers, expired medicines and extravagant clothes that were donated to the movement.

"I always carry it in my backpack in order to remind myself, in the midst of interviews, photo reports, and attractive sexual propositions, that since First of January what we are to the country is a Cinderella. These good people who, sincerely, send us a pink stiletto heel, size six and a half, imported, without its mate, thinking that, poor as we are, we'll accept anything, charity and alms. How can we tell them that we no longer want to continue living Mexico's shame?"

Marcos also describes a type of sophisticated charity that comes from some NGOs and international agencies that decide what the community needs, without consulting them. A community that needs clean running drinking water or a school, might be offered instead a class on herbs.

It is possible, Marcos says, to live without welfare, and "to govern for ourselves without the parasite that calls itself government."

Leftovers, paternalism, or allowing others to impose their projects has no place in the struggle. Zapatistas say, "Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves, and if we say it, it is what we live."

Marcos celebrates those who support the Zapatistas with their peace camps, caravans, attentive ears, the companera word, and all of it that is without pity and charity.

In "When the Word Appeared," there is the story of how the word appeared and gave birth to thought.

"And so the history of the world is the history of that struggle between those who want to dominate in order to impose their world and their way, taking away the wealth of others, and those who do not allow themselves to be dominated, those who rebel."

Marcos describes the efforts of those who have not surrendered, those who have not sold out. In naming the champions, Marcos recognizes Mapuche in Chile and companeros in Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and beyond.

"To the indigenous brothers and sisters of Ecuador and Bolivia, we say you are giving a good lesson in history to all of Latin America, because now you are indeed putting a halt to neoliberal globalization," Marcos says in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.

The declaration was made in June of 2005. In the years that followed, Ecuador and Bolivia led the world by adopting the Rights of Nature as law. Bolivia hosted the Conference on Mother Earth and Climate Change, resulting in declarations by Indigenous for the protection of Mother Earth.

With the creation and formation of the words, there has been a great amount of reflection.

Wrapped within The Speed of Dreams, there is the beauty, simplicity, and struggle of life in the Lacandon Jungle. There's the struggle of getting dry and staying warm during the July rains and the inevitable wearing out of boots, with the front toes gaping like open mouths. Marcos shares a great story of a trip to the river to bathe, and another about the fierce indigenous Mayan football games in the villages. Marcos also describes the weight of walking, bent over, from carrying the burdens of others. Those stories are the heart of the book, so it is best to get the book and read those stories for yourselves.

For those who traveled in delegations to Chiapas through the years, and always wondered what the Zapatistas might be saying about you before you arrived, there's an interesting dialogue as a group approaches. Marcos speaks of the multiplicity of the groups that would visit the jungle, and how one of the rebels referred, not in a negative way, to those in the group as "absolute chaos."

The Speed of Dreams describes the right of education for girls and women, upholds women's freedom of choice in regards to marriage and the right of women in roles of leadership.

As for culture in this movement that has risen from below, Marcos says, "… culture is a bridge for everyone, above calendars and borders, and as such, must be defended."

Now, here in the southern Arizona mountains, so close to that imaginary border of the US and Mexico, it is so quiet. There is no sound from airplanes or traffic. Outside, the tiny hummingbird makes a deafening racket. When I open the door, I hear the desert quails. There are no electronics to distract and steal away precious time. There is only The Speed of Dreams.

The same July rains that turn the Lacandon Jungle to mudslides and threaten the feet in the southeastern mountains of Mexico, are a celebration here in the dry desert mountains that are a fortress of the Sonoran Desert.

With the approach of a monsoon storm, there's colossal thunder echoing in the canyons. Then, the sudden violent winds threaten to strip bare the pungent chaparral and the mesquite trees towering above them which are heavy with dry and crackling beans. The dark clouds gather, looking as though it might begin raining and never stop. But it does stop. The clouds offer only a whisper of rain, just enough to keep the saguaros and chollas alive and leave behind enough moisture for the planting that is to come. It is a grand event. On this day, the sky has had its own rodeo and these cowboy clouds are moving on.

The monsoon rains have come in late July and hang around for August.

During the mornings, at first light, there's the hike out before the drum roll of the brutal Arizona heat. The Speed of Dreams, however, is waiting. It occurs to me that journalism, when done right, is an act of revolution, carried out by insurgents who have mastered their words as weapons. When there's time to reflect, the truth becomes clearer, the words offer themselves and the words carry a personal voice.

After many years when translations failed in the backs of trucks, on dirt footpaths in Chiapas mountain villages, I can now read the exact words in The Speed of Dreams that describe the creation of the Caracoles, the centers of community within the autonomous governments.

As for the translations, from Mayan dialects to Spanish to English, those of us who did well enough with our Spanish when ordering a bowl of chicken soup, or buying a bus ticket, found our pitiful Spanish was lacking when it came to translating the conceptual realities of the Zapatista movement. Those who were more or less bilingual on our journeys would stumble and hesitate, searching, grasping for the perfect words.

But we went anyway.

Those pristine and carefully chosen words have now been translated into English, and packaged nicely in a book, The Speed of Dreams, a world away from the grinding of corn, the laughter of children and the constant stalking by the Mexican military with their assault weapons.

As Marcos says, it is all evolving, with time turning back on itself, back to the beginning, then rolling into the future, doubling back, and turning inside out, and into the present again.

With the words, there comes the voice, if one can be quiet enough, and still enough, to hear it.

Before closing, I'll share a couple of little stories of my own. On the first trip to Chiapas, I became lost and alone in the mountain highlands.

We were in Chiapas as a human rights delegation to support the Zapatistas during the fierce Mexican military persecutions and executions of Zapatistas in the spring of 1995. Between villages, I became lost from the indigenous delegation from North America. Walking into a clearing, I saw a Mexican military helicopter hovering overhead. I knew this might not end well, and no one would ever know what happened to me.

Already, while riding in the back of a pickup truck to the mountain, a Mexican soldier had shoved his AK-47 in my face. (I was unfamiliar with AK-47s, and said to myself, that's the biggest gun I've ever seen.) Now I was alone and could not find the right footpath back to the village below. Suddenly, I saw a bright red chile in the grass. The chile had fallen from our lunch bag, a piece of cloth stuffed with corn for our journey. After sliding down a slick and steep incline, I turned back. Mysteriously, and magically, one by one, the fallen red chiles marked my way back to the village below.

My favorite memory of traveling on the Zapatista caravan, years after the chiles rescue, was near the birthplace of Emiliano Zapata. A blind man, Miguel from Nogales, was seated next to me on the caravan bus from Sonora, which carried many Yaqui and O'odham. Miguel asked me to describe the colors of the flowers in the field, waves of bright colors out the window. Calling out the colors of those flowers as the fields rolled by, I could see the smile on Miguel's face as he too was seeing. These moments became a metaphor in my memory of that place in history, our time in history with Marcos.

Days later, hundreds of thousands of us arrived in Zocalo Plaza in Mexico City.

The Zapatistas have other funny stories about me, like when they thought I was a dead body because I was wrapped in a large amount of black plastic. I was trying to stay warm, asleep in a wooden shed which, I didn't know, was usually reserved for pigs. But I'll leave those stories for them to tell. There are other stories to share of the times when Marcos and the Comandantes came to Sonora, just south of the Arizona border. We'll leave those for their time in history.

The Speed of Dreams is a call to dreaming, as it was then, as it is now.

So, my companeros, thank you for your words and the times we shared, all turning round, inside out, and back into the present. 

Brenda Norrell has been a journalist in Indian country for 31 years, covering the west and Mexico. She spent 18 years on the Navajo Nation and now publishes Censored News http://www.bsnorrell.blogspot.com 

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