e-mail us

Winter Books

Words from the hot and muddy Mexican jungle

Edited by Juana Ponce de León, Foreword by José Saramago
Seven Stories Press, 456 pages, $27.95


The opening chapter of Our Word is Our Weapon describes the first offensive launched by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in southern Mexico during the cold early hours of Jan. 1, 1994, the day the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, was to be implemented. It tells the story of a group of indigenous women commanders, each one leading her troops to capture towns or strategic posts in the Chiapas region. Many Zapatista commanders are women.

After being robbed, oppressed and subjugated for centuries, the indigenous people finally decided to initiate a courageous struggle against the Mexican government and its neoliberal economic policies. Through the cursory portrayal of those critical hours of fighting, one gets a sense of the people involved, their motivations, aspirations and dreams. These are the kind of people who would know exactly what the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was talking about when he wrote the powerful lines: “I stood by truth:/to establish light in the land/I wanted to be common like bread:/so when the struggle came/she wouldn’t find me missing.”

Our Word is a compilation of the writings of the leader of that movement, Subcomandate Marcos. Many of his communications were written in the hot and muddy Mexican jungles and first distributed via the Internet to thousands of readers. Marcos was perhaps the first insurgent to use a laptop connected to cyberspace as a strategic weapon in the service of guerrilla warfare.

The book is divided into three parts: It begins with essays describing the Zapatista movement, its political views, actions and objectives, then turns to Marcos’ personal reflections, including letters to politicians and other activists, and concludes with a section introducing the reader to indigenous folk tales and myths that in many ways inform the Zapatistas’ revolutionary project.

Marcos is the man behind the ski mask, which he wears not only as a precaution against assassination attempts by security forces, but as Juana Ponce de León explains in her introductory remarks, because the mask “has a transformative power that allows Marcos to shed the idiosyncrasies of his birth and assume a communal identity. The non-self makes it possible for Marcos to become the spokesperson for the indigenous communities.” Indeed, the mask reveals much more than it hides because it urges people to look beyond the persona of the rebel and, in this way, helps expose the injustices perpetrated against the 10 million indigenous people of Mexico.

Before the Zapatista rebels donned the mask and began their struggle, most people were unaware that 54 percent of the indigenous population suffer from malnutrition, 15 percent do not have access to medical services, 10 percent are illiterate, and the vast majority have to cope with grinding poverty on a daily basis. Many of us didn’t even know where Chiapas was located.

“The thick mantle with which they try to cover their crime,” Marcos writes, “is called neoliberalism, and it represents death and misery for the original peoples of these lands.” Marcos’ goal, as he explains in the book, is “not to usurp power but to exercise it,” that is, to democratize it. This is precisely the reason the mask has become such a threatening symbol to the privileged few, for it has come to represent the momentous struggle to empower the people and to create a more egalitarian economic and political system.

It is therefore no surprise that in the New York Times April 8 review of Our Word, Tim Golden, the reviewer, rushes to tear away the mask so as to expose Marcos’ identity. He wants to undermine the Zapatistas’ goals. But the significance of the mask, as Marcos’ essays reveal, is even deeper, for it reflects the worldview underlying the Zapatistas’ struggle, a view informed by many of the beautiful folk tales that appear in the book’s third section.

The Zapatistas are attempting to “open a crack in history” by transcending the ubiquitous practice that reduces politics to a sphere of contestation among competing egotistical interests and by (re)introducing in its stead a politics that is concerned with questions of equality, justice and freedom. While it is hard for us to imagine a politics that is not intricately tied to interests, it is important to note that the word interest does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, nor do interests inform the words, deeds and political struggles of the great Jewish prophets.

The Zapatistas appear to recognize that even if they were to attain the upper hand, appropriating an interest politics standpoint would undermine their demand for social justice. Thus, the mask becomes a device that enables Marcos to lead a struggle that is not about his interests or those of the people he represents, but rather one that is seeking a common ground. It is precisely this message that the book so eloquently conveys.

Neve Gordon received his doctorate in the department of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame, and is currently teaching politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001