The Politics of Listening

In the city of Campeche, under the slow-turning ceiling fans of a converted carport behind a pastry shop, 66-year old Emiliano Centurron picked up a microphone for the first time. He stood between a crowd of 200 people packed under the shade, fanning themselves with pamphlets and newspapers, and Subcomandante Marcos, who sat facing the crowd, hunched over a notebook crammed with writing. Dozens of photographers clumped at the edges of the crowd and down the center aisle. Centurron held the microphone a few inches from his face and, in steady language colored with well-placed expletives, told his story.

listening in xpujil

A subsistence farmer who never went to school, Centurron co-founded a beekeepers cooperative in the 1960s and spent the next 20 years working and reinvesting with other small farmers. By the late 1970s the cooperative, Campeche Honey, had a processing plant with 70 tanks capable of producing millions of gallons of honey a year. In 1977, the state government loaned the co-op $700,000 to purchase storage facilities and cargo trucks. By 1981 the co-op had paid off the principal and was chipping away at the interest when the state government took control of the co-op by force, sold the land and equipment and cashed in the investments and pensions of the by then 1,200 worker-owners, for a sum of around $15 million. 

Centurron spearheaded a 20-year effort to fight for the stolen life-savings. He traveled to Mexico City to file complaints with the federal government. He pressured the state treasurer to conduct an audit of the co-op’s financial record—which he had meticulously preserved—and subsequently proved that the state government had cooked the books to take over and sell the co-op. He turned down a settlement offer to pay $300 to each worker-owner. He turned down blank checks and offers of positions in local government in exchange for dropping the fight.

“I have always preferred to live by my own work, not on the backs of others” Centurron said. “Those who live in the governor’s mansion live on the earnings of the people. For me those sons-of-bitches are not governmental authorities, if they were authorities of any kind they wouldn’t insist on giving me $300, they would pay me back my investments.”

This is the Other Campaign, a place where Mexicans who have never held a microphone in their hands can voice their complaints and concerns, their stories of resistance, their thoughts and feelings about their communities and their country. Seven days a week Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN’s Delegate Zero for the Other Campaign, convenes this space by listening for hours to any and all who sign-up, raise their hands, or stand up and shout from the crowd.

Some, like Centurron, unfold stories of a lifetime of work eviscerated by corruption. Some decry the general direction of Mexican politics: privatization, concentration of landownership, foreign intervention, impunity, kleptocracy. Some want to express their appreciation for the visit, or their support for the Other Campaign. Some just want to get up close to Marcos and don’t really say much at all. And, of course, some only want to hear their own voices through the powerful, though inevitably faulty, sound system.

After Marcos sits down and the press photographers, groupies, and spies finally heed the pleas of the local event organizers and back away from the table, the real heart of the Other Campaign gets going. And this is what neither the local nor the international correspondents write about: who comes to talk and what they say. (Two national Mexican newspapers—La Jornada and Milenio—stand out for sending top-notch correspondents who don’t just focus on Marcos, his mode of transportation, and his entrance and exit from the building or park where meetings are held. Both of these Mexico City-based papers have published articles that probe the issues brought up during the Other Campaign stops.)

Attendance at Other Campaign meetings is broad and diverse. The university educated, non-profit professionals so common in left political meetings in the United States make up a tiny fraction of the audience and participants here. Most are working class men and women, old and young, indigenous and mestizo. One reason for this is that the Other Campaign spends most of its time going to the small rural villages and the abandoned neighborhoods on the periphery of large cities where the working class lives.

And while many see flyers or hear radio announcements of Marcos’ visit, many also just happen to be walking by when they see a crowd forming. In Tonala, Chiapas, Mario Francisco del Alba was on his way to buy a bull at the stockyards when he saw a thick crowd clotted at the entrance of the old Palacio Cinema. Del Alba, walked up to the door to see what the fuss was about and decided to go in. He sat down and he stayed, listening to 6 hours of testimony. 

Since leaving Chiapas on January 14, the Other Campaign has traveled through the other four states of the Mexican southeast—Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche and Tabasco—stopping to hold meetings everywhere from the unpaved streets on the outskirts of Cancun to the half-sized basketball court in the indigenous Chol village Francisco Madero Primero. The Other Campaign does not stop at Holiday Inns, convention centers, big houses or fancy restaurants. Meetings are held mostly outdoors, in public spaces, or the offices or backyards of social cooperatives and organizations that have signed the Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and invited the Delegate Zero.

For hours in the stifling heat, people take up the microphone to speak. No one polices for content or time.  The meetings go for as long as people keep lining up to talk. And the listening is strenuous, at times exhausting: the length of the meetings, the relentless seven-days a week, two-to-three-meetings a day pace, the heat, and the inevitable droning of attention seekers. But mostly, the intensity of so many of the interventions requires a fierce level of concentration. Truly listening, as the Other Campaign proposes, is a mental marathon unlike anything I have ever known.   

The majority of those who come to the meetings stick it out and, from what I can tell by watching, truly listen. And this, perhaps even more than Marcos’ prodigious note taking, will be the true achievement of this first 6-month phase of the Other Campaign.

After nearly eight hours of testimony in the small village of Chablekal, Yucatan, Lupita Guano stood up to take the microphone. “I’ve been listening and have come to realize,” she said, “that the wisdom of this man is that he keeps quiet so that we all have to listen to each other.”   

The long hours of listening are the most “other” part of the Other Campaign. Here the idea of the candidate who has all the solutions is turned inside out, revealing an anti-candidate with no solutions, but instead a convocation for all to speak and listen, to think and debate, and, when the meetings are over, to organize.

But what good will all this listening do? For the immediate problems facing those who attend the several hour stops of the Other Campaign, the meetings themselves do not offer solutions, as Marcos constantly reiterates during his closing speeches. The listening is only the beginning, a first step towards national organizing.

In the short term, though, the EZLN hopes that the Other Campaign meetings will catalyze the creation of broader networks of resistance at the local level. Just in the past month, the campaign has succeeded in uniting various cities and rural villages where inhabitants refuse to pay their exorbitant electricity bills and bringing together Mayan communities threatened with displacement for the construction of resorts and airports in Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche.

In this respect, the hardest work of the Other Campaign begins when the Delegate Zero, the caravan, and the press all depart. Then, without the energy jolt of a masked rebel and the swarms of television cameras that follow him, the disenfranchised indigenous, working poor, students and professional, non-profit class have to put aside old turf battles and surmount the hostility of local officials to build up the new alliances and put them to work. It is far too early to tell how successful this first organizing phase will be in spurring such local and regional networks.

But the EZLN has been clear from the beginning that the primary goal of the Delegate Zero’s trip is to listen, and this is not the sort of goal that sits easily with the foundation-dependent left and its worries over project deliverables and grant reports. Luckily, however, Subcomandante is not a grant contingent position.       


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