(Artwork above created in celebration of the Zapatista Journey for Life and Declaration)
From the mountains of Mexico and across the Atlantic, a delegation of Zapatistas have arrived on the shores of Europe. Etceteraz explain the significance of their journey.
On 1st January 2021, the Zapatistas – as the alliance between the EZLN and the autonomous communities in Chiapas is commonly known – issued a new proclamation to the world titled: ‘A Declaration …For Life.’ Since then, they have announced a series of tours, their ‘Journey for Life,’ across the five continents to meet those who have signed the Declaration. In June 2021, the first contingent of Zapatistas landed in Spain, reversing the journey of the colonizers 500 years ago, peacefully ‘invading’ Europe with the help of their allies.
Upon setting foot on European soil, a Tojolabal (Maya) trans woman named Marijose promptly renamed the entire continent. In speaking for the Zapatistas and flipping the proverbial script on ‘invasion,’ she stated:
On behalf of the women, children, men, elders, and other Zapatistas, I declare that the name of this land, which they now call Europe, will henceforth be called: SLUMIL KAJXEMK’OP, which means ‘Unsubmissive Land.’ And this is how it will be known by locals and strangers alike as long as there is someone here who will not give up, who will not sell out, and who will not give in.
What is noticeable about this statement is that, rather than condemning any group in the new land they were encountering––as colonizers would––the Zapatistas instead chose to explicitly acknowledge and pay respect to the political agency, resistance, and defiant spirit of anyone in Europe who is not content with the capitalist status quo. That their initial message was focused on building solidarity and recognizing the fighting spirit of people ‘from below and from the Left’ in Europe is not insignificant. Building solidarity is, notably, the very reason the Zapatistas have embarked on their ‘Journey for Life,’ despite the fact that the oppression and threats they face as Indigenous people in the Global South are not necessarily the same as those that communities in struggle across Europe are up against.
For context, the Zapatistas came to public attention on 1st January 1994. On that day, an army of Indigenous insurgents from the EZLN led an uprising ‘against neoliberalism, for humanity’ by reclaiming land in the state of Chiapas, which is in southern Mexico. In effect, the Zapatistas were recuperating lands that had been stolen from them 500 years ago, at the onset of contact, colonization, and the ‘conquest’ of Mexico. During their uprising, Zapatista insurgents burnt property records for these territories, which had been converted into plantations by colonizers and large landowners. They did this because the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force on New Year’s Day 1994. NAFTA threatened to further undermine legal statutes related to communal land holdings, which had safeguarded Indigenous and peasant populations up to that point. Rather than awaiting further waves of dispossession via the privatization of land, the Zapatistas decided to act and take their fate into their own hands. Importantly, their uprising was preceded by over a decade of underground organizing and clandestine mobilizing.
The term ‘Zapatistas’ encompasses a hugely diverse movement. Key to it is the Ejército Zapatista para la Liberación Nacional (EZLN), which works with differing Indigenous communities, all of whom are based in Chiapas. The EZLN emerged from an organization of revolutionary socialists that had originally come from the cities, but then immersed itself within the Indigenous communities in the mountains and jungles, later becoming almost entirely Indigenous. The EZLN works with and for ‘support bases’, which are civilian Indigenous communities who have built up their own autonomous structures of self-government, healthcare, security, justice, and education. The communities took this step when the Mexican government disregarded key points of a peace agreement after their rebellion. Rather than returning to armed struggle, the Zapatistas opted for pursuing self-organization and autonomy. Since a ceasefire in January 1994, the EZLN has not used its weapons and insists that it is a peaceful organization that is accompanying a process dedicated to ‘freedom, justice and democracy.’ In short, the Zapatistas say they are committed to ‘building a world where many worlds fit.’
During the 1994 Uprising, the EZLN – acting as spokespeople – announced their First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Over the next two decades, they released five more declarations, which have always been an important means of communicating with the wider world. Instead of remaining insulated in rural enclaves, the Zapatistas, via their communiques and declarations, reach out to civil society in Mexico and what they call ‘global civil society.’ Since 1994, through organizing a series of gatherings (‘encounters’) in their territories, they have turned the words of their declarations into experiences. These Zapatista ‘encounters’ have created opportunities for those from elsewhere and other places to get to know their ways of being, living, and organizing. The gatherings are held in a spirit of combating sexism, racism, male and white supremacy, embracing migrants’ rights and, in relation to Europe and its Islands, expressing deep solidarity and an affinity with anti-fascism.
The declarations are powerful expressions of intentions, and of the Zapatistas’ understanding of the political realities in which each declaration has been written and published. The declarations are written after long-term processes of meaningful consultation, shared analysis and reflection, and communal decisions on what writing style to use to convey their aims and aspirations, meaning a Zapatista declaration represents their consensus, which they then share with others.
Normally, the declarations are signed by the EZLN as spokespeople of the communities in Chiapas. From 2005 onwards, the declarations were opened up to other parts of national and global society. 2005 saw the publication of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. After they issued it, the Zapatistas undertook the ‘Other Campaign’, a journey through Mexico to meet with their supporters and listen to their struggles. At that time, collectives and individuals across the world were invited to become ‘adherents’ to the Sixth Declaration, espousing its principles of anti-capitalist and anti-racist collective organizing and of building autonomy. Across all of Europe, this project is inextricably linked in with anti-fascism. The result was the ‘Sixth International,’ a network of those who had declared themselves willing to pursue these ends.
In March 2020, when the Zapatista communities in Chiapas and the EZLN closed their territories and introduced strict measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, they promised a new wave of struggles: ‘The word, the listening ear, and the heart have many ways—paths, calendars, and geographies—in and on which to meet. This struggle for life can be one of them’, they wrote in their communique regarding Coronavirus issued in March 2020. The most recent Zapatista declaration, ‘For Life,’ is different to any of the previous declarations in that it contained an invitation to sign. A long list of collective and individual signatories then emerged. For the first time ever, the Zapatistas will now leave their territories, which is distinct from the invitation to come visit them in Chiapas they typically issue. Additionally, over the next few years, the Zapatistas are planning to send delegations to the five continents of the planet. Their declared aim is to meet with collectives and individuals who, by signing the Declaration for Life, affirm that they, too, see capitalism as a threat to life on this planet and are committed to fighting ‘for life.’ That is, a life in dignity and, importantly, a life that is anti-capitalist.
As noted at the outset, the Zapatista ‘Journey for Life’ has begun. As we speak, in the territories of Scotland, England, Wales, and the north of Ireland, collectives have come together to sign the declaration, prepare the ground for a possible visit of a Zapatista delegation, and to network with each other. As part of the preparation, regional collectives are currently organizing a ‘viral summer,’ which is a series of events and meetings that will spread the ideas put forward in the Zapatista Declaration for Life. The viral summer is a continuation of Zapatista politics: organizing from the bottom-up for autonomy and in a spirit of solidarity.
Active Distribution has published a booklet which brings together the series of communiques and the declaration, with art included. The booklet is available on their website and at News from Nowhere bookshop. All proceeds will go towards the Zapatistas’ ‘Journey for Life’.
In Liverpool we launched this booklet, accompanied with a food stall, on Saturday 17th July.
Next to Nowhere social centre has also signed the Declaration for Life and been active in coordinating with groups from across the islands of WISE (Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England). Collectives are running a series of events throughout the summer. If you would like to get involved in Liverpool, email info[at]liverpoolsocialcentre.org
The UK Zapatista Solidarity Network is on Facebook
You can read more about the ‘Journey for Life’ at: https://viajezapatista.eu/en/
Regular updates from the boat crew can be found here: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/
If you’d like to keep updated or get involved, you can join the mailing list at: https://lists.riseup.net/www/subscribe/ezlneneuropa_uk