collective Let’zapatistas –

On 22.06.2021, the ship La Montaña touched land in Vigo, Spain for the Travesía por la Vida, Journey for Life. The Zapatista expedition Escuadrón 421, composed of four women, two men and one otroa, renamed Europe, Slumil K’ajxemk’op (Insubmissive Land, Tierra Insumisa) to mark their arrival as a symbol of a reverse conquest, a consensual conquest. According to Jérôme Baschet, “To make this voyage in reverse is to nuance a history that has assigned deeply entrenched and unambiguous positions to the vanquisher and the vanquished, and unlock the possibility for an alternative history.”1

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), widely known as the Zapatistas, fight for indigenous rights in Mexico. They reside in Chiapas and they are mainly indigenous peoples with Mayan origins. Their uprising took place on January 1, 1994 with NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) going into effect in Canada, USA and Mexico. The Zapatistas called NAFTA a death sentence not only to indigenous people but to life itself as a premonition of the coming globalization. That day the Zapatistas declared war to the Mexican government. After 12 days of the Zapatistas’ insurrection, the Mexican government and the Zapatistas sat down for dialogue. It concluded with the Acuerdos de San Andrés in 1996. Nevertheless, the government ignored the agreements and increased military presence. The Zapatistas have today 28 years of self-organization, autonomy, resistance and rebellion based on ideas of a libertarian socialist and radical democracy. In 2020 the Zapatistas decided to travel for what they call a Journey for Life, Travesia por la Vida, to plant the seeds of rebellion.

Such an absurd quest seemed impossible in the midst of covid19, international political and economic uncertainty, and constant closed borders. But it happened.

The Escuadrón 421 was not the only one to invade. On 14.09.2021, the so-called Extemporánea formed by 177 Zapatistas arrived in Vienna, Austria by plane. Their name, Extemporánea, gives reference to how inadequate, inappropriate and out of time their presence was: the fact that many of the Zapatistas had no Mexican birth certificate or official documents as if they practically did not exist; the fact they confronted immense trouble at bureaucratic offices to get a passport and they were told they were out of place and time; the fact the Zapatistas chose such inappropriate moment (during an unraveling pandemic); and the fact that for many of the Zapatistas, it would be the first time they travel outside their region, outside Mexico, and outside of the continent America. In all, this was an absurd counterintuitive ridiculous idea… that actually happened.

The Zapatistas came to Slumil K’ajxemk’op for dialogue to share their struggles and dreams and to listen to the struggles and dreams of other corners of the world. Such audacity and boldness to dream was refreshing and appealing for a wider public beyond the longstanding supporters of the Zapatistas in Europe. The interest extended to environmental, women’s rights, antifascists, anticapitalists, agriculture, and autonomous movements, among others.

The simple idea to dare to dream to reach Europe to share and listen to stories, struggles, and hopes, was in itself revolutionary, or better said, rebellious.

La Extemporánea

The Extemporánea was formed by “grupos de Escucha y Palabra”, groups of around 5 or 6 persons prepared to listen and to speak. More than half of the Zapatistas were women. The Extemporánea was led by SubMoises and other 5 sub comandantes and they coordinated the whole quest across Europe. The strategy was to divide and conquer, as they spread the groups across regions and countries. One larger group called El Comando Palomitas, was formed by children and their mothers. The Zapatistas considered the inclusion of children in such a quest as part of their rebellion.

The Extemporánea practically visited most of continental Europe (eastern and central Europe, Iberian peninsula), Nordic countries and UK, and even Cyprus. Although they had invitations to visit Turkey and Greece, it was not possible to visit those countries. Their visit lasted the maximum time possible, three months.

The Extemporánea did not arrived alone, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI, Consejo Nacional Indígena)2 also came with a smaller delegation (16 persons). The purpose of their visit to Europe was to denounce the ongoing or planned destructive megaprojects in Mexico, like the Tren Maya, in which European corporations are involved. The spokespersons had a clear message: such projects are for the profit of corporations and the native indigenous people were not consulted nor are their interests taken into account. Furthermore, such projects extend the destruction of nature.

The invitation and the visit to Luxembourg

At the beginning of 2021 a group of independent persons involved in different causes reunited to formally invite the Zapatistas to Luxembourg. The dynamic of the group was spontaneous and organic and consolidated as the months passed. The collective named itself Let’zapatistas… and ultimately it was enlarged to include persons in the neighboring countries of the Greater Region (Arlon, Belgium; Trier, Germany; and Thionville and Commercy, France).

Despite the uncertainty of not knowing when and how the Zapatistas would arrive and the difficulties to contact them, the group committed to invite one group of Escucha y Palabra for one week. Nevertheless, at the end of September 2021, the collective Letz’apatistas extended their commitment to receive a group of 5-6 persons for four weeks. The time available to plan the one month visit was one week.

La Travesía por la Vida in Luxembourg and the Greater Region

Our group of “Escucha y Palabra” arrived in Luxembourg on 12.10.2021 (coincidentally, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492) and stayed until 6.11.2021. They were all women: one had been part of the (the Good Governance Councils)3, another one came as a support team, and four younger women who explained they also worked on the land back in Chiapas.

Arrival of the bus with Zapatistas and Europeans collectives heading to Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Let’zapatistas organized one day in advance lunch (a traditional mexican bean dish, frijoles charros, and sandwiches for around 50 persons) at a parking lot.

The Zapatistas had a dialogue almost every day with different collectives in the Greater Region. The meetings were generally small. We estimate the Zapatistas met around 150 persons at least. Among them, we count people from Rise for Climate Luxembourg, ASTM asbl, CELL asbl, Terra coop, Life asbl, gillets jaunes in Commercy, Extinction Rebellion in Arlon, the collective Besch bleibt which is an occupied forest near Trier, the collective for Rojava in Luxembourg, women’s rights groups, among others.

The Zapatistas came prepared to tell their story that included five themes: the uprising, resistance and rebellion, the autonomous Zapatistas communities, and their governance. No attempt was made to communicate the visit to mainstream media outlets. The collective did not have the capacity or the interest to address it to such channels. Let’zapatistas understood the aim was to talk with the “left and below” in small meetings and kept that focus.

Dia de Muertos celebration in Luxembourg with the Zapatistas that visited the Greater Region.

In all, it was a huge challenge to receive the Zapatistas due to the pandemic, but also due to the language (their mother tongue is not Spanish and some just barely learned to speak Spanish for the trip), and more so, due to a very different cosmovision about words, work, leisure, time, etc., and due to the fact that they and we are just humans. Still, the collective found wide empathy, respect, cooperation, and care among each other. Let’zapatistas met many of the different collectives and discovered their stories and similarities in our struggles and hopes. The teamwork and the dialogues were rewarding in general. People were open to listening and more cautious to share.

It was an opportunity to dream that another world is possible, but also to question ourselves: our aims, forms of struggle, the path behind… and more important, the path ahead. Some of us cried with their story, others came with questions to construct or deconstruct them. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that there was dialogue. And at every dialogue, the Zapatistas provided a mirror for reflection and self-critique of each collective’s experiences to enlighten them by their own light. It was a mirror that reminded us of the need for listening and, again, for reflection. And in that context, the Zapatistas reminded us several times that this journey was just the beginning.

Their message

Several of us heard the story of the Zapatistas more than once. Enough times to reconstruct better the puzzle of their message and aims. Those who received them at their homes could get a better glimpse as well. Still, it would be insufficient and unfair to try to summarize or translate it. After all, the Zapatistas requested to have at least two hours to talk and two hours to listen to their counterparts. If possible, they requested three hours each. The Zapatistas explained they are used to such long discussions. At the Caracoles the dialogues to decide democratically take 5 or 6 hours… non-stop, for a couple of days, until they find an agreement. In our western lifestyle, we do not have such an amount of time for dialogue… Therefore, no attempt is done here to summarize or translate their message, but only by their own words:

Words of the Zapatista Communities at the March against the Destruction of Nature4 at Vienna, Austria in the voice of compañera Libertad, September 24, 2021.

Good afternoon.
These are our brief words in the form of a short story:

There is a woman.
The color of her skin does not matter, because she has all colors.
Her language does not matter, because she understands all languages.
Neither her race nor her culture matter, because all ways of being live in her.
Her size does not matter, because she is huge and nevertheless fits in one hand.
Every day and at all moments that woman is assaulted, beaten, wounded, raped, mocked and despised.
A male exerts his power over her.
Every day and every hour, she comes to us [nosotras, nosotros, nosotroas].
She shows us her wounds, her pain, her grief.
And we only give her words of consolation and pity.
Or we ignore her.
Perhaps as alms we give her something with which to treat her wounds.
But the man continues his violence.
We all know how this ends.
She will be murdered and with her death everything will die.
We can continue to give her only words of encouragement and medicine for her wounds.
Or we can tell her the truth: the only medicine that can cure her and heal her completely is for her to confront and destroy the one who is hurting her.
Knowing this, we too can unite with her and fight by her side.
We Zapatistas call that woman, “Mother Earth.”
As for the man who oppresses and humiliates her, give him whatever name, face, or shape you want.
We, the Zapatista peoples, call that murderous man capitalism.
And we have arrived at these geographies to ask, to ask of you:
Are we going to go on thinking that we can treat today’s blows with salve and painkillers, even though we know the wound will be bigger and deeper tomorrow?
Or are we going to fight alongside her?
We the Zapatista communities have decided to fight together with her and for her.
That is all we can say.

Thank you for listening to us.
Vienna, Austria, Europe, Planet Earth.
September 24, 2021.


Footnotes and references:

  1. Jérôme Baschet, 30.06.2021, The “Zapatista invasion” has begun! in Progressive International at . Published in English, Spanish, German, Italian, French and Hindi.
  2. The CNI is an organization of communities, nations, towns, neighborhoods and indigenous tribes of Mexico.
  3. The Juntas de Buen Gobierno marked a major turning point for the Zapatistas as they transitioned from a military to a civilian governance. The Juntas de Buen Gobierno are the highest authorities for the Zapatistas. The creation of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno marked the end of their demand for state recognition and autonomy towards the Mexican government.
  4. The global climate strike demands urgent action to tackle the ecological crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people in 99 countries have taken part in this coordinated event. It is the first worldwide climate action since the coronavirus pandemic hit.