Palabras de Rebelión y Resistencia en México
From the Time of Cortez to the Present
by James Denison

“Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.”
Albert Camus

The modern American perspective of Mexico is filled with burritos, sombreros, cervezas, Margaritas and beautiful dark-eyed and brown-skinned, smiling, simple people who are very friendly when we visit their country for a vacation in tourist towns with incredibly lush beaches alongside warm, blue oceans. These towns have exotic sounding names such as: Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cancun. Or, for the slightly more adventurous tourist, we have postcard images of white, stone pyramids and ruins in the jungle silently echoing an ancient civilization’s glorious past. Fairly innocuous commodities such as: Tequila, Corona, oil, coffee and cheap labor are usually considered to be Mexico’s most important exports. But beyond the happy face of tourist towns and the pleasant intoxication of exotic elixirs, there is a much more vital, subversive and perennially explosive reality to Mexico and its exports: its ongoing history of poverty, injustice and rebellion to the inherent evils of insidious governmental corruption and violent oppression. The most substantive and significant export from Mexico may prove to be its spirit of resistance and struggle to defend human dignity. This tenacious spirit of dissent has traditionally, from the time of Cortez to the present, been of a two-fold nature.

The first fold is what can be termed as a ‘literary resistance.’  From the 16th century when Bartolome de la Casas wrote La Leyenda Negra bearing witness to the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the indigenous people of Mexico, to the 19th century when Miguel Hidalgo gave his Grito de Dolores, the cry for Mexican Independence and equality for all people in Mexico, especially the indigenous people who were suffering horribly under a racist class structure, to the late 20th and early 21st century where Subcomandante Marcos continues to write communiqués, poems and essays to  fight for indigenous rights in Mexico, and calls for all people of conscience around the world to throw off oppression wherever they may encounter it.

The second fold of Mexican resistance are the many forms of armed rebellion, civil disobedience and struggles for political reform that have taken place from the first indigenous battles with conquistadors, through the brutally suppressed student protests of the 1960’s, to the recent Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, to the ongoing fight both inside and outside the halls of power in Mexico City in an attempt to bring about a true democracy of and for the Mexican people.

Much of Mexico’s history of resistance has been almost completely domestic in its context and tied very much to the land. Though still tied, in part, very much to the land, the exportation of the spirit of resistance has largely been a 20th and 21st century affair. Many progressive writers and journalists, including Arundhati Roy, have pointed out recently that the globalizaiton of capital has given birth to the globalizaiton of dissent and resistance (or, global conscience) in the late 20th and early 21st century. This usually implies that this is a modern phenomena made possible by the Age of the Internet. However, this is only partially true. For instance, when journalists and people of conscience in the 19th century sent dispatches from India back to England and Europe telling of the atrocities committed by the British against the  people of India, this caused a great deal of dissent and protest in London and other cities. This is just one of many examples that could be given, spanning many centuries. But, what is unique about globalizing dissent (which Mexico can be considered one of the world’s leaders) in the Age of the Internet, is its speed and scope. And one thing is undeniable: the power of words to awaken, inspire and incite into action our most noble human impulses.

 When the Zapatista uprising that took place in armed rebellion on the ground and in words over the internet on January 1, 1994 the impact and show of support from around the world was nearly instant, and the amount of people from numerous countries who joined into the Zapatista chorus was astonishing enough to save the movement from annihilation. In the 21st century, Mexico’s greatest export may very well prove to be a spiritual one; that of resistance and rebellion against those forces that aim to control, exploit and therefore deaden (if not completely discard) the lives of the people who make up the great majority of the world. This export, ironically and logically, coming from a country and a people who have suffered centuries of exploitation and repeated betrayals from their leaders. This spiritual export being manufactured by a population whose large majority is the working poor who, nevertheless, are still fighting and striving for human dignity and giving hope to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population who is exactly like them: indigenous and living in extreme poverty.

The Literary Legacy

Subcomandante Marcos has said that the Zapatistas have put on masks in order to unmask Power. In other words, their intention is to reveal the true exploitative nature of sociopathic leaders who bring great suffering to the people (their constituency) they claim to be helping by governing them. This unmasking process not only is revolutionary in its attempt to liberate suffering masses in the present, it also is an invaluable asset in regards to history. Any oppressive governing entity relies on an unconscionable amount of denial in order to attempt maintain its legitimacy. And, if a brutal governing entity is successful in maintaining power over a long period of time, another tool of power gradually becomes necessary, that of: erasing memory. So literary resistance is at the first a weapon against denial and at the last a weapon against forgetting. As California Senator Tom Hayden recently wrote in The Zapatista Reader:

“Chiapas raised from the hidden depths of our continental history an issue that our society seeks to forget: The Conquest of the Americas that left millions dead is the foundation on which our civilizations are built. To call the bloody events that began 500 years ago a genocide potentially undermines the legitimacy of all that many Americans, Mexicans, and Westerners hold dear. The integrity of our institutions seems to depend more on denying, rather than candidly confronting our original sins. Instead of calling it genocide, it is renamed a “tragic misunderstanding,” a “dark chapter of the past,” something regrettable but finished, not the responsibility of the present generation.

One facet of our schizophrenic American psyche is the capacity to annihilate people who stand in our way and then deny it. Interlaced with this terrifying frontier mentality is an opposite impulse, the democratic spirit of resistance to the oppression of monarchs and tyrants. Unable to reconcile these impulses, we prefer to forget the destruction from which democracy was built.”

We forget, that is, until someone like Howard Zinn writes A People’s History of the United States or someone goes to the library and takes off of the shelf a book containing the writings of a Dominican Bishop who saved for us, in words, the uncivilized birth of Western Civilization in the Americas.

The literary resistance of unmasking the brutal policies of Power began in Mexico almost 500 years ago by a man whom Professor John Womack of Harvard University has stated: “still stands as the greatest moral figure in Spanish history.”  This ‘great moral figure’ is the Dominican Bishop Bartolome de las Casas. After witnessing the brutality forced upon the Indigenous peoples of Cuba, Peru, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala and Southern Mexico by the encomienda system, Casas worked tirelessly until his death, at 92 years of age, for the liberation of the indigenous people of Latin America. To support his effort, he studied civil law, canon law and theology. He traveled back and forth to Spain appealing to the government to end the encomienda system and to abolish the enslavement of Indians. His strongest weapon, along with his unfailing tenacity, was his words that described in horrific detail the so-called Spanish Christian-ization of the Indians. John Womack in his book Rebellion in Chiapas points out that:

“In 1542 Las Casas won a hearing at court, read there his hair-raising A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, advised the emperor to revoke all encomiendas, abolish Indian slavery, dismiss the venal officials (several of whom he named), and so on. After testimony from other moderate souls, the emperor in his wisdom signed the so-called New Laws on November 20, 1542. These forbade future enslavement of Indians, ordered all officials to give up their encomiendas, prohibited the grants to officials or private subjects of any new encomiendas, and barred the transfer of current grants, including by inheritance. The emperor also nominated Las Casas to the bishopric of remote and barely conquered Chiapas. As soon as the New Laws were known in the New World, encomenderos fiercely resisted them, some in outright rebellion; and they all blamed Las Casas for them.”

In his writings, Las Casas made clear that it was no mere Christ-inspired, soul-saving indentured servitude that the Indigenous people of Latin America were suffering under at the hands of the Spaniards. In one passage of his ‘hair-raising’ account he noted that besides beatings, brandings, rape and torture: “Another more terrible weapon against the naked Indians was the ferocious greyhounds which, when released and told “at him!”, in an hour tore over a hundred Indians to pieces…”  In reward for all his work as a true Christian working for the basic human rights for the Indigenous people of Latin America, Las Casas faced scorn, harassment and death threats as the designated “Protector of the Indians” right up to the time of his death in 1566. Many people went so far as to deny that he was in fact the bishop of San Cristobal, but instead referred to him as the anti-Christ.  But his words helped to liberate some of the Indigenous at the time and still live on as a vital force of resistance and against forgetting what we need to know in order to understand the present and , hopefully, finally achieve social justice for the still suffering Indigenous population of the Americas.

One major difference between the North American Revolution and the history of revolutions and rebellions in Mexico, is that the revolutions in Mexico have almost always been, in large part, struggles driven by the need to end the horrific exploitation of the Indigenous population. Perhaps the case for North America would have been different if so many of the Indigenous people of what, for now, is the United States had not been exterminated. But because the Indigenous people of Mexico were taken into society, albeit the basement, there has been a tortuous struggle for equality and recognition that so far has spanned the better part of 500 years. In the history of literary resistance in Mexico, one finds that the plight of the Indigenous is almost always a driving force. This driving force was used once again in what was perhaps the next most significant use of words in Mexican history after Bartolome de las Casas: El Grito de Dolores.

What is now celebrated as Mexican Independence Day (September 16) is because of the bravery of a radical priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, who raised his voice to inspire the Mexican people to finally make their move towards liberation from the Spanish. Hidalgo was an extremely well read product of the Enlightenment (though most of the books he read for his enlightenment were banned by the Church). Because of his radical viewpoints (including casting doubt on the idea that the mother of Jesus was in fact a virgin) Hidalgo was banished by the Church to the small village of Dolores. Along with his belief in the need for Mexican independence, Hidalgo very strongly championed the equality of all people, including Indians, who constituted more than half of the colony’s six million inhabitants. With Spain distracted by an invasion by Napoleon, Hidalgo saw that on September 16, 1810 it was high time for a revolution in Mexico. To a mostly Indigenous crowd outside of his house, Hidalgo gave his historic address:

“My friends and countrymen: neither the king nor tributes exist for us any longer. We have borne this shameful tax, which only suits slaves, for three centuries as a sign of tyranny and servitude; (a) terrible stain which we shall know how to wash away with our efforts. The moment of our freedom has arrived, the hour of our liberty has struck; and if you recognize its great value, you will help me defend it from the ambitious grasp of the tyrants. Only a few hours remain before you will see me at the head of the men who take pride in being free. I invite you to this obligation. And so without freedom or liberty we shall always be a great distance from true happiness. It has  been imperative to take this step as now you know, and to begin this has been necessary. The cause is holy and God will protect it. The arrangements are hastily being made and for that reason I will not have the satisfaction of talking to you any longer. Death to Bad Government! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! Long live America for which we are going to fight!”

Although Father Hidalgo did not live to see the liberation of his country (he was soon executed after leading a  strong but unsuccessful military campaign against the Spanish), his words have yet to stop echoing down the halls of Mexican history. Hidalgo’s words have continued to resonate with Mexican people engaged in throwing off the oppression imposed by authoritative regimes that have ruled Mexico ever since its independence from Spain in 1821. Hidalgo is still considered one of Mexico’s greatest heroes.

Since 1821 Mexico has struggled to develop into a first world nation. Internal strife, bloodshed, civil war and successive nearly dictatorial power-grabs have slowed the country’s progress. In this process the poor mestizos and Indigenous have repeatedly been walked over and marginalized. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an elite few and foreign investment, has meant great hardship for the many. Into the 21st century many progressive organizations and groups within Mexico have sought to change this paradigm in order to alleviate the suffering of the vast lower class and to bring about a more democratic society. These groups and organizations have ranged from liberation theology movements within the Church to radical political movements driven by Communists and Anarchists, to progressive university student activist circles. One thing that all of these movements, groups and circles have in common in Mexico is that they all have faced overt and or covert persecution and or liquidation at the hands of the Mexican government. The face of this oppression was to be revealed to the world in all its naked brutality in a flashpoint moment of terror in 1968.

In 1968, Mexico hosted the summer Olympic games in Mexico City. What occurred that summer outside of the Olympics was to irrevocably change the course of Mexican history. In fact, what occurred that summer is still very seriously influencing Mexican history to this very day. 1968 was a year of international student protest, and Mexico was no exception. Huge demonstrations were staged all across America protesting the Vietnam War, calling for equal rights for African-Americans and other minorities. There were also protests and marches that demanded better pay and working conditions for Mexican migrant workers in California’s Central Valley. There were huge demonstrations and riots in Paris and Prague. In Mexico City thousands of students protested the dictatorial policies of the authoritative regime that was currently in power. On October 2, 1968 thousands of students demonstrated at the Tlateloco in Mexico City. They soon found themselves surrounded by the police and the Mexican military who began open firing into the crowd that had no means of escape. Hundreds, if not, thousands of students were killed in the massacre.

At the time of the massacre, the greatest writer in Mexico’s history, the Nobel Prize winning author, poet, philosopher and social critic Octavio Paz was working as an international diplomat for the Mexican government. He had been working in India, France and Afghanistan among other countries. When Paz received the news about the killing of the students at the hands of the Mexican government, he promptly quit his post in protest and never returned to work for the Mexican government for the remainder of his life. Soon after the massacre, Paz began extending his form of protest into his words. He issued the following poem in honor of the students who died on the Tlateloco:

(Mexico City: The 1968 Olympiad)

             (perhaps it’s worth
writing across the purity
of this page)
                    is not lucid:
it is a fury
                (yellow and black
mass of bile in Spanish)
spreading over the page.
          Guilt is anger
turned against itself:
an entire nation is ashamed
it is a lion poised
to leap.
             (The municipal
employees wash the blood
from the Plaza of the Sacrificed.)
Look now,
before anything worth it
was said:

    Immediately after issuing this solemn and angry poem, Paz began working on a monumental work that would soon be the most influential political, social and psychological critique on the state of Mexico’s national affairs. The lengthy essay titled: The Other Mexico is a scathing response to the Tlateloco massacre, yet unlike many other writings on political affairs (especially in the face of atrocities committed by the state) The Other Mexico is not a visceral wail of protest. It seems Paz took his own advice from his poem and concentrated on giving a lucid voice to the situation at hand. The result was a deep and unflinching current and historical inventory of Mexico’s social, economic, political, spiritual, emotional and psychological make-up.  Parts of the essay are indeed calm and succinct blueprints on how a revolution, if it is to be successful, is to be purposefully executed. Paz grappled with the most fundamental and urgent issues and political decisions the country as a whole faced at this historic and volatile juncture, and Paz as well warned against the pitfalls of any misguided or shortsighted revolution:

“But we can say this much to the future which a few impassioned young men are somewhere building: every revolution that stifles criticism, that denies the right to contradict those in power, that prohibits the peaceful substitution of one’s government for another, is a revolution that defeats itself—is a fraud. My conclusions will irritate many people. No matter: independent thought is almost always unpopular. We must renounce outright the authoritarian tendencies of the revolutionary tradition, especially its Marxist branch. At the same time, we must break up the existing monopolies—whether of the state, of parties or of private capitalism—and discover forms, new and truly effective forms, of democratic and popular control over political and economic power and over the information media and education.”

To the dismay of political activists on all sides of the fence, Paz never was affiliated with any political movement. With his punctilious execution of thought, Paz was indeed radical in the truest sense of the word, for “radical” derives from the Latin word  for “root”. Therefore, “to get to the root of anything you must be radical,” as Gore Vidal once pointed out. Paz painstakingly explored all levels of the Mexican psyche both personally and nationally. He thought that to be a true artist and philosopher one must understand the roots and the whole of reality and not reduce one’s viewpoint to that of any partisan organization. It is perhaps for this reason, among others, that Paz’s writing has superceded any other writer, or groups of writers, for that matter, in Mexican history.

The murderous events of October 2, 1968 forced the radical student and opposition movements to move underground. This did not stop the brutal policies of the state from trying to stamp out any form of organized dissent. What ensued was a twenty year ‘dirty war’ in which the government murdered, tortured, ‘disappeared’, imprisoned and otherwise persecuted thousands of men and women working for social change in Mexico. It has only been recently, under the new government of Vicente Fox, that the massacre at Tlateloco and other crimes of the state during the dirty war have begun to be investigated.

Perhaps the most significant result of the student and radical organizations being forced underground was to take place 26 years after the Tlateloco massacre. Eleven men who were forced underground in the late 1960’s continued to organize clandestinely, and eventually went to the mountains of the Lacandon Jungle in Mexico’s southernmost state: Chiapas. Their goal was to help the indigenous people who were suffering high infant mortality rates, lack of adequate housing, food, healthcare and education. Many of the people there were landless, still waiting for the promises negotiated by Emiliano Zapata some 70 years earlier to be realized. These promises included land grants known as: “ejidos”. But government policy repeatedly neglected these promises and multinational corporate interests in these lands were threatening to eliminate any hope of these promises being fulfilled. These eleven insurgents talked with and listened to the people of Chiapas, and together they formed a revolutionary army known as the EZLN. They created a revolutionary agenda to hold the government to account. They made a list of demands including the recognition of the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of indigenous people, the rights to communal land under the ejido system and a right to a free and democratically elected government worthy of administering legitimate justice in the service of the people. Through the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s the EZLN continued to grow as more and more indigenous communities embraced their agenda for empowerment. In the early 1990’s the Mexican government signed onto a free trade agreement with the US known as NAFTA. Shortly before NAFTA was to be implemented, the Mexican government signed into law an article that effectively eliminated the ejido system and along with it, any hopes of any land or decent living conditions for the indigenous communities of Southern Mexico. The EZLN then decided that on January 1,1994, the day of NAFTA’s implementation, there would be an armed revolt.

Indeed there was a short lived armed revolt that gained the attention of not only the Mexican government but the entire world, as 5 municipalities in Chiapas fell under EZLN or “Zapatista” control. But the uniqueness of this uprising was soon to be realized by the power of words that came from a masked figure and leader of the military wing of the EZLN, a man by the name of: Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Marcos’ words appeared in newspapers and over the internet on the first day of the uprising. He sent out communiqués and poetic declarations that made clear the Zapatistas intentions and demands. They did not want to take power in Mexico. They were  “ a voice that armed itself in order to be heard.” They were a forgotten and faceless people that “wore masks in order to be seen.” In many ways, the fortunate use of words uniquely employed through Marcos’ capable hands can be seen as a culmination of  the work of Bartolome de las Casas, Father Miguel Hidalgo, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara and Octavio Paz. The first words the world heard from Marcos and the Zapatistas on January 1, 1994 came in the form of the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle which started with:

“Mexican brothers and sisters:

We are a product of five hundred years of struggle: first led by the insurgents against slavery during the war against Spain; then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism; then to proclaim our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil; later when the people rebelled against Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship, which denied us the just application of the reform laws, and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us who have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and use the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food or education, not the right to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor independence from foreigners. There is no peace or justice for ourselves and our children.

But today we say: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!”

Since that first declaration, Marcos has continued to work, write and command the respect of millions of people around the world who are working for human rights in the multiple ways that are called for. Though Marcos uses the necessary tool of political rhetoric to further the cause indigenous rights and justice for all people in Mexico and abroad, he is also an irrepressible intellectual and one of the greatest poets of rebellion in Latin American history. As Marcos made reference to in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, Mexico has an extremely rich history of resistance and rebellion. The Mexican people have proven time and again that they are willing to die for justice, in order that their children may live with dignity and hopefully a quality of life that is worthy of the decency owed to all human beings. To achieve this end, Marcos emphasizes that the use of words is often times the most powerful weapon and agent to inspire change. His book of selected writings is entitled: Our Word Is Our Weapon. One of the goals of Marcos and the Zapatistas is to create a culture of resistance by means of civil disobedience, direct action and the use of literary resistance in a global culture that is dominated by corporate and political system that has consequently, time and again, rendered words meaningless. This linguicide, which results in a populace that is prone to resignation and apathy, is an issue Marcos deals with directly. In his Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, Marcos addresses the importance of words to the life of the movement:

“MANY WORDS WALK in the world. Many worlds are made. Many worlds make us. There are words and worlds that are lies and injustices. There are words and worlds that are truths and truthful. We make true words. We have been made from true words.

In the world of the powerful there is no space for anyone but themselves and their servants. In the world we want, everyone fits.
We want a world in which many worlds fit. The nation that we construct is one where all communities and languages fit, where all steps may walk, where all may have laughter, where all may live the dawn.
We speak of unity even when we are silent. Softly and gently we speak the words that find the unity that embraces us in history and which will discard the abandonment that confronts and destroys us.
Our word, our song and our cry, is so that the most dead will no longer die. We fight so that they may live. We sing that they may live.
The word lives.
“Enough is enough!” lives.
Our step with dignity, which walks beside those who weep, lives.
We fight to stop the powerful’s clock of death.
We fight for a time for living.
Word’s flower does not die, even though silence walks our steps. The word is seeded in silence. So that it blooms with a shout, it is silent. The word becomes soldier so as not to die in oblivion. In order to live the word dies, forever seeded in the world’s belly. By being born and living, we die. We will always live. Only those who give up their history will return to oblivion.
We are here. We do not surrender. Zapata is alive, and in spite of everything, the struggle continues.”

Mexican pride comes from the strength of struggle and tenacity for that which has yet to be ultimately achieved: social justice and a concrete recognition of human rights. From the many tribes resisting the tyranny of the Aztecs, to the indigenous and mestizo peoples fighting and finally ridding themselves of brutal and unjust Spanish exploitation, to Zapata and Villa throwing off the yoke of the dictatorship of Diaz, to the ongoing Zapatista movement fighting for indigenous rights and true democracy in Mexico, and the many other rebellions that are not listed in this short essay, Mexican history is a tragic and inspiring story in which millions of people stood up, fought and died for freedom and liberation from tyranny. And the struggle continues, in both word and deed, though faced with new powers of  both domestic and multinational dimensions. The dream is kept alive by those remind us of the urgent nature of the dream. As Marcos wrote on April 6, 1996 in La Realidad, Mexico:

“Crystal and mirror, the dream of a better America makes itself comfortable in the best place to dream, La Realidad. And the intellectual madmen, the authors of this delirium, the madmen who dared to dream our dream before us, are: Manuel Saenz, Simon Bolivar, Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon, Emiliano Zapata, and Ernesto Che Guevara.
One hundred-and eighty years, eighty-five years, eighty years, thirty years later, we are and are not the same.
We are the end, the continuation, and the beginning.
We are the mirror that is a crystal that is a mirror that is a crystal.
We are rebelliousness.
We are the stubborn history that repeats itself in order to no longer repeat itself, the looking back to be able to walk forward.
We are neo-liberalism’s maximum defiance, the most beautiful absurdity, the most irreverent delirium, the most human madness.
We are human beings doing what must be done in La Realidad; we are---dreaming.”

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This page last updated 11/05/2003
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