Reflecting as I walk, part 2 – What I Learned at Z Little School

What I Learned at Z Little School

Fast forward 20 years from the armed uprising of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) on January 1st, 1994 to December 23rd, 2013 and we arrive to the second round of the 1st grade of the Escuelita Zapatista (Zapatista Little School). The Zapatistas have invited people from all over the world to come and visit their autonomous communities to learn “Freedom according to the Zapatistas” and attendees have the responsibility to share what they have learned with their own communities; an extension of the opportunity to see that which they have been creating without the “help” of the government, major transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund and/or World Bank. In preparation for the Escuelita, reading the communiques, I am informed that I will be taught that “we are not alone.” I am also introduced to the idea that various peoples live by various calendars and geographies.

Yet while I can understand these easily enough as abstract concepts from what I read, would not be until arriving to the Escuelita in Chiapas that I would learn much of what it really looked like. Arriving to CIDECI in San Cristóbal de las Casas—home of Universidad de la Tierra or University of the Earth, Chiapas—for registration there are lines full of people from various regions of the what some refer to as the national territory of Mexico as well as people from several other parts of the world.
(photo snagged from Narco News, where it reads “Students line up to register to the first “Escuelita Zapatista” at CIDECI. PHOTO DR 2013 Alex Mensing” This was from the previous, first, round of the escuelita in August, when they had the National Indigenous Congress / “Cátedra Caminante Tata Juan Chávez Alonso”,  for which I was also present in CIDECI but not as a participant in the Escuelita. In any case, it is a similar sight to this round in which I participated as a student.)

Two-thousand five-hundred attendees this round, divided between the five caracoles (i.e. the five hubs of the Zapatista autonomous territories, where the Good Government Councils are seated). I stand in line and when I am called in, show my letter of invitation, my registration code, and my identification. I then receive my name tag which assigns me to Caracol I – La Realidad (The Reality)—“Mother of the Caracoles, Sea of Dreams”—and also the four textbooks and two DVD’s designed for the Escuelita and then pay the 380 pesos (about $29 US) requested by the Z’s to cover the cost of creating the materials. I then go to wait for the caravan to leave and am soon on my way to La Realidad.

(photo taken without permission from where it is credited “Camino al Caracol la Realidad en caravana desde San Cristobal Foto: Nicolás Tapia. Cortesía de Agencia Subversiones.” These are the transports that carried us to
La Realidad

The ride takes us about ten hours and is filled with stops. I am rather interested in the dynamic at stops when dozens of people composing a global mixture pile out of vans wearing EZLN badges and pass by trucks full of armed police on our way to buy snacks at the stops. Amongst this mixture I meet folks from at least Palestine, Germany, Italy, and Spain, Argentina, Chile and more.

Upon arriving to La Realidad, we are greeted by chants of “Viva Zapata!” (Long live Zapata!) “Viva los y las Zapatistas!” (long live the Zapatistas!) “Viva los alumnos y las alumnas de la Escuelita Zapatista!” (Long live the students of the Zapatista little school!), and “Viva los colectivos del transporte” (long live the transportation collectives!) responding with a spirited “VIVA!” to each one. We are also greeted by very inspiring jingles produced by a set of marimbas and their skilled players. We then spend the next however long it takes waiting through the roll call and guardian-student matching process.

(photo snagged from

(photo snagged from where it reads “Sesiones plenarias en Caracol La Realidad. Escuelita Zapatista, diciembre 2013. Foto: Nicolás Tapia. Cortesía de Agencia Subversiones”)

Each attendee present is called out by name and place of origin and then the name of their guardian is read, each pair meeting up and going off together to get the student’s luggage and to get settled in. I am nearly the last of a very large group of people to receive my guardian.

The next day we all participate in a history of the Zapatista struggle and progress report given by a large panel of teachers from the zone, all wearing a well-known symbol of the Zapatistas, the pasamontañas (ski-mask). Sometime after eating pozol for lunch, my guardian tells me to pack my stuff and we go to wait for our names to be called and to be told which community we are going to. Yet before leaving, I get the chance to see some of the Zapatista murals in the light of day:

(photo snagged from Dorset Chiapas Solidarity, where it reads “Banner in La Realidad Commemorating Sup Pedro, Who Died in the Insurrection on 1 January 1994.”)

(photo snagged from where it reads “A mural near La Realidad recreates the Zapatista uprising on Jan. 1, 1994.”)

The ride to the community involves going up and down several switchbacks in the mountainous jungle territory of the Selva Lacondona crammed in the back of a dump truck with over a dozen other students and all of our guardians, quite a bumpy ride. Hours later, a few of us get dropped off and take a long walk through a starlit marsh with a horse baring the burden of our packs on the way to our assigned community. Upon our arrival, we are greeted by the community assembled and a song of greeting led by the youth of the community. These youth all grew up in liberated territory, free from the influence of transgenic foods now ubiquitous in the USA and many “developed” areas of the world, including much of México. Each and every person shakes our hands and tells us “bienvenidos” and “buenas noches compa.”

Soon I am introduced to the milpas (cornfields) of the community, which I am informed are called ala in Tojolabol, the primary language of this particular community. When I inform the compañero that Allah means “God” in Arabic, he says that makes sense because life comes from and relies on maíz (corn), which grows in the ala.

The majority of my time in the community is spent reading the textbooks, eating, sleeping, and bathing. My entire time in the community they never send me to work. I do get the chance to visit a class session of the local autonomous primary school, where the young Z’s are given a history lesson of the 1994 uprising. I wonder if this theme was chosen because of my presence that day or not, as I imagine that they had already covered this at some point. The day we go to the milpa I am given the impression that we are going to work, but they only show me the fields. I have yet to speak to another student who was not put to work and I still don’t know why I was not. Perhaps it has to do with my health coming in, or perhaps the family I staid with did not have any work required of them during the days I was there. In any case, it is nonetheless full of valuable learning experiences. I most fondly remember listening to the local Zapatista community radio around a candlelit dinner table with the family after finishing our tortillas and frijoles for the night.

After returning to San Cristóbal de las Casas, I make the trip to Oventic (Caracol II) to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of the armed uprising on December 31st, 2013. Entering the Caracol is a somewhat mystical experience, literally. Upon entrance, after checking in with the Z’s at the gate, we are greeted with a thick fog composed of smoke and moutain myst, smelling deliciously of a plethora of Zapatista hearths. The night is filled with singing, dancing, hip hop from the 206 to Chiapas, and an explosion of grassroots economic activity. Artisan collectives selling their own goods directly to those in attendance.

After the initial round of performances finish, there is a flag ceremony where all in attendance salute the Mexican flag as well as the EZLN flag of resistance.

(photo snagged from Dorset Chiapas Solidarity where it reads “Presentation of Zapatista flag, 31 December 2013”)

Comandanta Hortensia gives a speech in Spanish that is then also read in Tzotzil and Tzeltal by two other compañeros.
(photo snagged from Doset Chiapas Solidarity)

I write this reflection from Oaxaca and will not be returning to Seattle for another couple of months.. A mixed space of hope and dread for me is the Zapatistas strategic positioning along the Mexico-Guatemala border and what this means for conflict between their own strong anti-drug stance and the pathways of the CIA and DEA sponsored drug cartels. Then there are the selfdefense groups in Michoacan who are trying to take on the cartels but are being attacked by the Mexican army using arms from the USA and compas from the SF Bay Area doinggrassroots journalism over there. Also on my mind is on the relationships of major Seattle-based corporations to various global struggles. Microsoft, for its computer, drone and video game products, requires the very minerals and metals in Chiapan mountains over which, on behalf of the investment community, CHASE-Manhattin Bank at least once demanded the exermination of the Zapatistas by the hands of the Mexican Government. Boeing collaborates with the Israel-based company Elbit Systems (ESLT) in the militarization of the US-Mexico border. Starbucks has sold coffee robbed from the Zapatistas by paramilitary groups. destroys the amazon rain forest as it grows its virtual/Modern world marketplace by the same name. Yet amidst all of this heaviness, lightening and lending force to my mind and heart, are the hundreds of people committed to struggling for a world in which many worlds fit whom I have met thusfar, and the thousands more whom I have merely seen and countless others I know exist but haven’t been lucky enough to meet yet. I leave you with the following videos.

PS- I started working on a section of this website to host the series of EZLN communiques leading up to the Escuelita and other materials related to the Escuelita here. Please use comment/reply function in the pages there if you have any input.

PPS- If you are in a position to be able to do so, please donate to help get me through this journey and back to Seattle!

Still to come in this series:

  • Meeting Universidad de la Tierra, Oaxaca
  • Kickin it on the beach!
  • A Week in a Liberated Plantation
  • Kickin it with the Brujxs
  • Food, Drugs, Addiction, Counterinsurgency, Plants and Revolution

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