Anita Fuentes interviews professor Margaret Cerullo, a professor of Sociology and Feminist Studies at Hampshire College and a member of the Lightning Collective, which put together the book “Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World by Subcomandante Marcos.”
In this gorgeous collection of allegorical stories, Subcomandante Marcos, idiosyncratic spokesperson of the Zapatistas, has provided “an accidental archive” of a revolutionary group’s struggle against neoliberalism. For thirty years, the Zapatistas have influenced and inspired movements worldwide, showing that another world is possible. They have infused left politics with a distinct imaginary—and an imaginative, literary, or poetic dimension—organizing horizontally, outside and against the state, and with a profound respect for difference as a source of political insight, not division. With commentaries that illuminate their historical, political, and literary contexts and an introduction by the translators, this timeless, elegiac volume is perfect for lovers of literature and lovers of revolution.
For the video interview, click here.
For the Security in Context podcast episode associated with this interview, click here.
Anita Fuentes: Today I have the pleasure to talk to Margaret Cerullo, a professor of sociology at Hampshire College and a member of the Lightning Collective, or Colectivo Relámpago, a translators’ collective of Zapatista solidarity activists based in Amherst, Massachusetts, which recently published the book “Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World by Subcomandante Marcos.”
Margaret Cerullo: And I'm very happy to be here with you.
Anita Fuentes: I’d like to start by asking you about the book. What is the book about and what motivated its release?
Margaret Cerullo: Well, here's the book. It's a collection of twelve Zapatista stories that were gathered in 2010 by a group of Argentine solidarity activists working with Zapatista secondary school students. And they produced a beautifully illustrated volume called Los otros cuentos (the other stories) that was produced in a recovered factory in Argentina. And this is how long ago it was. It was accompanied by a CD where the stories were read by well-known figures in Argentina; one of the mothers of Plaza de Mayo... And we formed our collective to produce a rapid translation of those stories and that's why we called ourselves “Lightning Collective.” And, again, it was a solidarity project. It turned out that our name was ironic because it took us twelve years to produce the book. Why? Because we began to investigate the context of each one of the stories, and that made them infinitely more interesting to us as we discovered the way in which each one of them, though extremely poetic and really... they can certainly stand on their own, they were also political interventions. And that's what we wanted to capture with our commentaries. And, as I said, they're very layered so we were always discovering something new. And then the collective grew, and shrank, and grew... And I think we didn't want it to end. So we kept inventing new things that we should investigate.
The book came out last year and it turned out to be timely. We worried about whether it would be useful at all after so much time, and it turned out that in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, in what seemed like a fit of madness, the Zapatistas decided to launch the first leg of a five-continent expedition and set off for Europe in 2021, five hundred years after the conquistadores had left Madrid for Chiapas to reverse the conquest. In fact, there's a film about the European voyage that is just being released in Mexico called La montaña (Diego Enrique Osorno, 2023). So everybody should have a look at it.
Anyway, so it just turned out that in 2021 the Zapatistas were again in the news. In the news of the alternative media, at least, of the left and progressive forces. So people were again asking: “Who are the Zapatistas?” Or if they had known of them: “They're still alive almost thirty years after the uprising of 1994?” So the book entered, ironically, as I said, in a very good moment. So that's the story of Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World.
Anita Fuentes: In your view, what sets Zapatismo apart from other revolutionary political movements, both in terms of their philosophy and their way of organizing? I’m interested in concepts such as: “encuentros,” “caminar preguntando,” and engaging or learning “from below and to the left.”
Margaret Cerullo: Well, I think you yourself called attention to some of the key Zapatista notions “caminar preguntando,” which is “we walk by asking questions,” and the notion of the “encuentro,” or encounter-dialogue. As well as learning from and listening to those “from below and to the left.” So I'll address each of those three core Zapatista ideas or principles. The first is this wonderful notion of “caminar preguntando,” we walk by asking questions; what that means is that the shape of the struggle, its demands, its goals, are not and cannot be and must not be set in advance, but they have to be shaped by those that one encounters in struggle along the way. So that's the idea of “caminar preguntando,” we advance by asking questions. I think that approach undermines a lot of the rigidity of traditional, sort of revolutionary movements, which thought they knew what the goal was, what the destination was, and pretty much how to get there.
And so central to that idea of “caminar preguntando” is the “encuentro.” Zapatismo has been characterized over the nearly thirty years of its existence by constant encuentros, or meetings, that they've called under the most inauspicious, unlikely circumstances in Chiapas, where they've invited people who in solidarity with their movement from Mexico and around the world. As they said about one of their encounters, they even invited intergalactic visitors. So over and over again they've called people together in Chiapas to discuss how they were experiencing the neoliberal onslaught and how they were going to organize themselves. Again, the Zapatistas, on their trip to Europe, didn't go to teach Europeans how to organize, but to hear and listen from them about what they were facing and how they were organizing. So that notion of the “encuentro” as what constructs a “we” that will struggle together. So that's another central idea... the Zapatistas, as I've said, they've had encounters with women, artists, scientists... all sorts of people in Chiapas. They had a little school where they invited people to come and live with Zapatista families for a week and learn what their movement looked like, felt like on the ground. So the encuentro has been very important.
The third notion that you picked out is this idea of always “looking below and to the left,” which is simply I think a profoundly democratic principle of left-wing organizing. To the left in Zapatista terms means anti-capitalist. So they're not interested in listening to just everybody: they take their impetus, their inspiration, and their revolutionary imagination from those below. So those are some of the central ideas but we can unfold some of the others as well.
Anita Fuentes: Going back to the book, I’d like to know more about the role that storytelling has played in the development and growth of the Zapatista movement. How did storytelling become such a crucial tool to the Zapatistas, and in which ways has it served the movement?
Margaret Cerullo: Well, that's a wonderful question. Going back to this idea of the encounter, the very first encounter that was absolutely crucial to the formation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the EZLN, was the one that took place in Chiapas in the 1980s when a group of revolutionaries, guerrilleros, came from the North, Subcomandante Marcos among them, and they were part of their times... They were a guerrillero formed in that image or with the inspiration of Ché Guevara. These guerrilla movements existed all over Latin America at that point. They were fighting civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and of course Nicaragua... And these urban radicalized young people came to organize the indigenous, to raise their consciousness about the necessity for armed struggle if they were ever going to exit their condition of poverty and dispossession. When they arrived and began teaching Mexican history, and Marxist-Leninist theory, and Marxist analysis, the indigenous responded by saying: “Well, thanks, but we don't understand the thing you're saying. Your word is too harsh. Tu palabra es muy dura.” The thing that distinguished the FLN, the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, this particular guerrilla group, is that they stopped dead in their tracks and started to listen. And what they discovered was that the indigenous had incredible traditions of organizing and also a profound and deep revolutionary imaginary, but they spoke a very different language, and in effect they inhabited very different worlds. And so they realized that stories, and storytelling, because largely the indigenous population in Chiapas was illiterate... That storytelling was a crucial way in which people communicated, not only their political ideas and experiences of organizing, but their entire history as a people in resistance to 500 years of colonial domination. In fact, in the communities there were people who were designated as “libros parlantes,” walking books, and the elders were charged with telling the history of their communities.
Our collection of stories, which, we insist, is not a canon of Zapatismo but more of an invitation to discover Zapatismo – an “accidental archive of Zapatista stories” – contains two distinct stories with two distinct personas narrating them. One is Old Antonio, who is both a real person and a mythical person, as we say, just like the Zapatistas; they're both real and they're also icons of revolutionary struggle and imagination. Old Antonio was the bridge between Marcos and the other guerrilleros, and the indigenous communities. He was one of those libros parlantes for his own community, and he was the one who became very close to Marcos and really, as I said, was a bridge into the indigenous cosmovision. So some of the stories are narrated by Old Antonio, and I think they manifest indigenous cosmovision. The other set of stories in this collection are by Don Durito de la Lacandona. Don Durito is a kind of reincarnation of Don Quixote, who wants to have Marcos be his squire. Durito, the little hard one – remember the indigenous describe the word of the guerrilleros as “too hard” – I think is Marcos' alter ego: his Marxist alter ego. Durito is always studying the conditions of neoliberalism, the balance of forces, the rightness of the conditions... He speaks that kind of urban-left, sometimes tinged with popular culture language the guerrilleros brought from the North. So the encounter of the Don Durito’s and the Old Antonio’s was the first encounter that constituted the EZLN.
Anita Fuentes: As you know, our work at Security in Context is aimed at challenging and redefining commonly held conceptions of security. I’d like to shift our conversation towards the issue of security, given that this is a topic that has concerned the Zapatista movement since its inception. Would you agree that an important part of the Zapatista uprising had to do with the policing and securitization of the Mexican people by the Mexican state?
Margaret Cerullo: I think this is an extremely interesting question. I wouldn't have cast it in those terms, that the uprising had to do with the policing and securitization of the country, but let me explain what it absolutely did have to do with. The indigenous, and particularly, the organized indigenous, those who'd been forming all kinds of campesino organizations in Chiapas since the 70s, were the constant targets of violence. What kind of violence? It tended to be the violence carried out by the “white guards,” as they were called, who were the hired assassins by each one of the big fincas, the great Chiapan plantations. The fincas had to make sure that the Indians stayed in line so, whenever they began to revolt, the white guards would commit exemplary acts of violence to paralyze the rebellion. So it was a very, very violent place, particularly the more organized it became. This inability to organize in any kind of nonviolent way and accomplish anything fueled the rebellion.
The white guards metamorphosed, if you will, into paramilitaries. Chiapas has, since the uprising, been the target of low intensity warfare, which as we know is a misnomer if you're its target. There's nothing low intensity about it. The project of low intensity warfare is vicious; it’s meant to disrupt the fabric of the community and to turn brothers against brothers. family members against family members. And that has haunted the rebellion since 1994.
The Zapatistas have extended their experience to analyze the role of repression in the current phase of capitalism and neoliberal capitalism, and their argument is that the army and the National Guard, which is a particularly Mexican phenomenon which we could talk about, very, very important for what's happening in Mexico today, they're the advance guard of the government's capital's megaprojects. The current government, supposedly a leftist government, wants to inaugurate something they've called the Mayan train. What is the Mayan train? The idea is to turn all the Mayan territories of the Yucatán and Chiapas into a great... I don't know... You could say a New Cancún or Acapulco, that is to say a giant tourist venture that will bring half a million tourists every year on this train. Well, in order to be able to accomplish that project, I mean, it involves complete dispossession of the indigenous peoples who happen to be in their way. As far as the Zapatistas are concerned that means constant militarism, securitization, and violence. They also have denounced the use of the National Guard, which is a military force, in Mexico's cooperation with the United States and extending the U.S. border all the way down to Guatemala, now policed by the Mexicans, by the Mexican military National Guard. Their job, as the Zapatistas have called it, is hunting, hunting people, hunting migrants. So they're very... I would say they might be among the loudest voices that are opposing what is the increasing militarization of public security in Mexico under the leftist president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). So yes.
Anita Fuentes: I know, because I've had the chance to read the book, that there are some stories in the book that have to do with issues surrounding securitization. So I wanted to ask you if you could share one with us that further illustrates this issue although in a different language, in the language of Old Antonio...
Margaret Cerullo: Exactly! I would love to. There are several that I debated, but I think you and I agreed this is one of our favorites, and so I'm going to read The Story of the Little Mouse and the Little Cat.
August 7, 1995
Once upon a time, there was a little mouse who was very hungry and wanted to eat a little bit of cheese that was in the little kitchen of the little house. And so the little mouse marched right up to the little kitchen to grab the little bit of cheese, but, as it happened, a little cat appeared in front of him, and the little mouse got very frightened and ran away and couldn’t get to the little bit of cheese in the little kitchen.
So, the little mouse thought for some time about how to get the little bit of cheese in the little kitchen, and he came up with this:
“I know–I’ll put out a little saucer of milk and the little cat will drink it right up because little cats really like milk. And then when the little cat is drinking his little saucer of milk and isn’t paying attention, I’ll go to the little kitchen and grab the little bit of cheese and gobble it down. What a greeeat idea!” gloated the little mouse.
And so the little mouse left to go look for a little bit of milk, but, as it happened, the milk was in the little kitchen, and when the little mouse tried to go to the little kitchen, the little cat appeared in front of him, and the little mouse got very frightened and ran away and couldn’t get to the milk.
The little mouse thought for some time about how he could get the milk in the little kitchen, and he came up with this:
“I know – I’ll throw a little bit of fish really far away and the little cat will run to eat the little fish because little cats really like eating little fish. And then, when the little cat is eating his little fish and isn’t paying attention, I’ll go to the little kitchen and get the milk and put it in the little saucer, and when the little cat is drinking the milk and isn’t paying attention, I’ll go to the little kitchen and grab the little bit of cheese and gobble it down. What a greeeat idea!” gloated the little mouse.
And so the little mouse went to look for a little fish, but, as it happened, the fish was in the little kitchen, and when the little mouse tried to go to the little kitchen, the little cat appeared in front of him and the little mouse got very frightened and ran away and couldn’t get to the little fish. And so the little mouse saw that the little cheese he wanted, the milk, and the little fish were all in the little kitchen and he couldn’t get there because the little cat wouldn’t let him.
And so the little mouse said, “¡Ya basta! Enough!” and grabbed a machine gun and riddled the little cat with bullets and hurried to the little kitchen and found that the fish, the milk, and the cheese had all gone bad and could no longer be eaten. The little mouse then went back to where the little cat was lying and chopped up his body and made a huge barbecue and then invited over all of his little friends, and they had a party and ate barbecued cat and sang and danced and lived very happily. That is when history began.
This is the end of our fable and the end of this missive. I remind you that divisions between countries serve only to define the crime of contraband and to justify wars.
Indeed, there exist at least two things that transcend borders: one is the crime, disguised as modernity, that distributes misery on a global scale; the other is the hope that shame will only exist when someone misses a dance step and not every time we look at ourselves in the mirror. To bring an end to the crime, and make hope bloom, we need only to struggle and to become better. The rest falls into place on its own, and is what fills libraries and museums.
Conquering the whole world isn’t necessary; it is enough to make it anew... Cheers, and know that for love, a bed is only a pretext; for dancing, a tune is only embellishment; and for struggle, nationality is merely an accident of circumstance.
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast,
Don Durito de la Lacandona
So that's quite a story. I imagine that readers, as we were, were very surprised by the ending. So how did we interpret that story? As I mentioned, it was published in August of 1995, and 1995 was a horrible year for the Zapatistas. They were dealing with the government of Ernesto Zedillo, who kept a public posture of negotiations on the one hand, while he pursued a scorched-earth policy in Chiapas, and sent the army to hunt down the Zapatista comandancia and kill them all. So it was a really vicious time, and clearly what Subcomandante Marcos is doing here is dramatizing this ridiculous game of cat and mouse that the Zapatistas were playing with the government.
And the surprise ending... How do we interpret that? Well, I thought, being the sort of literalist, social scientist in our group, I said: “Well, it's obvious! It's a renewed justification for armed struggle. Negotiations are failing, and they're preparing their solidarity and friends for the fact that they may take up arms again, and they have no choice.” But there's something else about the story. I mean, it's not a kind of... “For these reasons, and because we've tried this, and because we’ve tried that, and the government responded this way... Therefore we have decided again...” No. It's obviously... It's cartoonish, and then there's that surprise ending. So what we came to conclude was that, yes, maybe it's a renewed justification for armed struggle, but it's also the Zapatista’s kind of self-deprecating self-representation. “Are we,” they seem to be asking themselves and us, “heroes of an epic struggle against neoliberalism? Or are we cartoon characters?” It’s that kind of self-reflective, self-deprecating, anti-heroic character that completely distinguishes the Zapatistas from certainly any other guerrilla movement. I would argue that that's deeply... Well, I don't know, it's both, I suppose, the indigenous contribution and also the Sub’s own.
The other thing, of course, is the last line. And, you know, after there they're roasting the cat, and they... the story concludes: “that's when history began.” That is also, I think, a staging or a representation of the Zapatista uprising, right? That it was completely surprising, and in their view, history begins again when predictable plots are interrupted. So that's one other layer in the story that we came to.
I was just teaching in my class the first collection of writings of the Zapatistas that came out in English called Shadows of tender fury. It's still great. It has all the early communiques of the first two years of the rebellion. There's this amazing preface that people don't comment on very much, but it was written by Subcomandante Marcos for that edition, and I had always read it as a kind of sendup, and it is that of magical realism. Like what do you expect from something that's coming from Latin America? Well, there are all of these weird species that are the result of, you know, of fusion between a parrot and a macaw. Things like that. And they pop out of radios... So, yes, there's that, but it's also a sendup of the guerrilla memoir. Instead of all their heroic feats, the Sub describes things like: “We didn't know which was worse, the nostalgia or the diarrhea.” They talk about sitting around the campfire, talking about tamales and food that they have no chance of getting. Things like that. So there's always that, interestingly enough, I would even say anti-macho mock-heroic.
Certainly, by the time the Zapatistas rise up, feminism has had an impact, and I would say maybe that's another distinguishing feature. It's the first guerrilla, I would say, that completely integrated women and a feminist perspective.
Anita Fuentes: That ties into another question that I wanted to ask you, which is about the current status of the Zapatista movement, where women seem to have a lot of power, right? How has the movement evolved over the course of its lifetime up until today?
Margaret Cerullo: Well, I think the key turning point in the history post-uprising is 2003. When the Zapatistas had definitively given up on the possibility of negotiating with what they call “the bad government,” which as we said continued to speak with forked tongues. They declared… autonomous communities all over Chiapas on the land that they had occupied since 1994. Their framework for that was “sin pedir permiso,” without asking for permission, “we don't need to ask permission to be free.” It was a way of saying: “Yes. We're not going to get anything from the state, so we have to enact our own visions of freedom.” That's what they've been doing since 2003. So how many years is that? Almost twenty years of autonomy.
Autonomy and the declaration of the autonomous communities had two really major impulses. One was to withdraw the authority of the comandancia from the day-to-day running of the communities. Because as is true in all revolutionary struggles, that first generation of comandantes have enormous moral authority. I mean, if you think of the longevity of Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba... They recognized that the comandancia was an anti-democratic force, and they had to be completely removed from the civil governance of the community. So that was crucial to the autonomy project.
Over the years... I mean, I've been going to Chiapas for, I don't know... twenty years, or twenty five years... always meeting with the juntas, the good governing council with whom you always meet when you enter a Zapatista community, or if you're bringing students and paying their tuition. What's been true over those years is that the juntas have become younger, and they're almost all women, and they're all completely literate, which wasn't true in the old days, right? Because schooling in Chiapas was so appalling. And so among the really dramatic achievements of autonomy has been an autonomous system of healthcare and of education through to secondary school, and they're talking about an autonomous university; that's their latest project.
So autonomy is underlain by the idea that you can't fundamentally transform social relations of domination by decree, but only in practice. I would argue that the autonomy project is a grand cultural revolution to throw off what revolutionary theorists have called “the pyramids of petty tyrants” (from Albert Memmi’s 1957 book, The Colonizer and the Colonized) including in the case of women members of their own families and communities. And, you know, the women say things like: “How can we be free if the compañeros don't know how to make tortillas?” And, of course, they do now. And they participate in childcare. That is extraordinary, not just among the indigenous communities, but among any campesino communities in Mexico. I've seen men starve because their wives haven't gotten home in time to make their tortillas.
Anita Fuentes: All men should make tortillas.
Margaret Cerullo: [Laughs]. All men should make tortillas!
So that's it. I mean, the autonomy project is an ongoing cultural revolution that is also central to the ability of the Zapatistas to continue to resist. And that's the miracle: that they have continued to live in resistance for almost thirty years now. And resistance means that they have... I mean, not completely, because, let's face it... But they have been able to maintain cohesion in the face of low intensity warfare counterinsurgency, which attempts precisely to disrupt that cohesion.
So, yeah, that's where they are now. This is what I was thinking about before this interview. They've been silent for a year, and the year before that was the voyage to Europe. So I just have to think they're preparing another initiative. I've no idea... Nobody knows what it is and that is their way. They withdraw from the public spotlight for a year or two, they hold consultations in all the Zapatista communities, which number up to a thousand communities, and then they announce something else. So all I can say is, I imagine it will coincide with the 30th anniversary of the rebellion, which will be next January.
Anita Fuentes: This way of doing things feels very refreshing in a world where everybody is expected to have an opinion about everything, and there's no break, and we have to react quickly rather than analytically... So in this context it's really refreshing to see a movement where that's not the way of acting and which doesn’t let this new frenetic way of doing politics affect their strategy.
Margaret Cerullo: Absolutely. I think you've really landed... And there's a wonderful story that addresses that in the collection which I'll just flag: The Story of Noise and Silence, about how there's so much noise. The noise is the planes flying overhead, but it's also the pronouncements of the government and the incessant news cycle that is now bombarding them, because they have more access to news, and they can't think. So exactly that. How are they going to look into their hearts, withdraw from that spectacle, and figure out what their next steps are going to be?
Anita Fuentes: Has there been interplay between the Pink Tide and the Zapatista movement?
Margaret Cerullo: Just about not. I mean, they have really not been interested in the Pink Tide. I found a recent communique in which they talk about... “What is this thing they're calling left extractivism?”, they ask. “Is that like left capitalism?” They mock it. Their view of the state is not just that power corrupts, though they believe that, but that taking state power demobilizes social movements, which certainly has been one part of the story of the Pink Tide, but that the state no longer has the power. You know, it's the foreman for capital. And so, “why rise up and take state power when power doesn't exist there?” is kind of their view. I think that in Mexico in particular they have no track with AMLO, the current, if you will, Pink Tide president of Mexico. Absolutely not.
Anita Fuentes: I was going to ask you precisely that.
Margaret Cerullo: Well, for two reasons. Because the entire political apparatus and the entire party system voted against the Zapatistas in 2001 when Vicente Fox submitted a watered down version of the Acuerdos de San Andrés that they had negotiated. All three political parties turned their back on the Zapatistas, and that includes the party of AMLO. So they feel... They don't trust what was the PRD, now it's Morena. They don't trust the so-called left party. And the project of AMLO is classic development, and it promises more dispossession, the so-called “left extractivism,” and they see themselves as direct targets. Paramilitarization has increased, and the overall militarization, securitization of Mexican Society has increased under AMLO. So, I think, yeah... They're very suspicious. Very suspicious.
Anita Fuentes: Well, I think this is a good time to end our conversation, but I did want to ask you if there's anything you would like to add before we wrap up.
Margaret Cerullo: I guess the only thing is, you know, shameless self-promotion. I mean, just to ask people to order the book from PM Press, and tell you that all proceeds will go to the Zapatista communities, and they're very welcome. And, yeah, thank you guys for the questions. They really made me have to think. It was a very provocative interview. So thanks for inviting me.
Anita Fuentes: Thank you! I'm looking forward to re-reading the book, and I think everybody should read this book, which is not self-promotion. It’s just promotion!