¿Sentimos? (Did we feel it?)
from Kanya D’Almeida
Did we feel it? The earth trembled.
In the places where no one is looking or listening, something is moving. It moves quietly and without fuss. Lento Pero Avanzo — slowly it advances. Did we feel it? In those hidden places of the world a hundred thousand footsteps shook the earth and it trembled at its core.
Did it go undetected? Did the rot of the West stifle the tremors? Did the cancerous music and the tumorous highways and the shrillness of screens muffle that roar from the core? Perhaps you didn’t hear it. Let me offer you a glimpse from the epicenter, from the site of the trembling.
To understand you must picture the mountains of Chiapas, green beyond imaging. This is the heart of Mexico — the highways leading in and out of it are the veins through which this country bleeds, the tubes that feed a gigantic mouth to the north: USA. Coffee and corn and cows pass through these arteries, the caffeine and sugar and meat that excite and intoxicate and sicken Gringolandia. Imagine a place of softness and succulents, bursting with bougainvillea and teeming with humming birds. Picture the cobbled streets of an old Spanish town, its sloping roofs and pillared balconies beckoning with gentle hints of local luxury. Can you see it, this pretty little town called San Cristobal De Las Casas? Can you feel the words rolling off your tongue, forming a melody of a long-forgotten history? Hear the guitarist in the street, plucking out a harmless tune that reminds you of home and invites you to walk dreamily past storefronts offering souvenirs; their wild, bold colors represent the multicolored MEXICO of your imaginings, “Mexico” the destination, “Mexico” the dream. Hand-painted ceramics and woven baskets and clothing for the ladies, broad blouses embroidered with flowers, Frida-style, marigold and rose and peacock.
Now, pause. Linger a moment and turn your gaze away from the trinkets towards the street. There — just there. Do you see her? The woman? No? Let me describe her to you. She is small, diminutive, no more than four feet eleven inches tall. She is dressed in a long black skirt and a white blouse cinched at the waist with a red belt. Painstaking embroidery hugs the blouse’s collar. Her face is ancient. She knows. She has done. She has seen. She has been. The corn remembers and recognizes her. Her hair is thin and she wears slippers on her feet, a woven hat on her head. Now let me tell you what she is doing: she is sitting on a square of plastic sheeting. Spread out in front of her are toys and clothing and assorted wares for your viewing pleasure: baubles and keychains. These items mean nothing to her; she has no need for keys and accessories. She works for money so that she may live. There is little else beyond mere existence here. The production of each blouse demands a whole day’s labor, demands a bent back and stiff fingers and fading eyesight. For these efforts, you will offer payment of a few hundred pesos. Even though she quotes you a price well below what her labor is worth, you will haggle. But no matter: she is packing up for the day and heading homeward. As you pass, you offer her an innocent smile, the smile of a traveler accustomed to receiving welcome, of one who associates these distant destinations with the restrained benevolence of “the locals”. You mean no harm, you are simply doing what you do best — holding out your hand to the wretched of the earth with pity and sorrow but without knowledge that your holiday is constructed upon her misery. All you expect in return is the bright, forgiving smile of poverty. How you love that smile, balm to your anxieties of having so much at a time when most have next to nothing. In your travels you have given and received countless of these smiles. But you won’t get one from her. At first you think her expression is blank but no — that’s still your naiveté. What’s on her face is a hardness and an unfinished war. Her eyes sink far back into that long-forgotten history of this quaint colonial town that was built by Black and indigenous slaves. Her lips seal themselves up so as not to offer you the sound of the language that lives in her chest, the tongue that remembers the conquistadors. Now, follow her out of the town to its dense, dark outskirts. Leave behind light and plumbing and paved roads. Find yourself treading gravel and hear the scratching of farm animals. Can you hear them? Yes? That means you’ve left the colonial center and entered the indigenous periphery and that is where the earth is trembling.
The periphery is the place. Five-hundred years of colonial rule have pressed it into an ever-shrinking space, forcing its occupants deeper into forests and jungles and deeper into poverty. These are the “disposable” peoples, the ancient ones. These are the originary peoples, the first victims of lynchings and the first to build cities and massive systems of irrigation and agriculture, the ones who gave us corn and pyramids long before the ships came with their white sails and white skins to proselytize and plunder, long before the Spanish built their fortress cities, which they dragged with them through the middle ages and across the seas to the Americas.
The periphery is the place where the “disposable” ones dwell, the ones who were considered unfit even for slavery, deserving only of death in enormous numbers. The periphery is the place where an outstretched hand of welcome to seasick sailors with white skin dissolved into a massacre — where the smile that you seek, the smile that tolerated barbarians from the north, ended in genocide. So, do not expect smiles from the people of the periphery. 500 years of colonial history have sharped indigenous eyes into arrows that will find and strike the ones who came with canons and horses, and who come now with dollars and cameras.
Did we feel it? The earth trembled. In the mountains of Chiapas, the ancient ones marshalled their forces and called up their reserves. Many answered the call — thousands came. Speakers of 58 different languages from every single state. If you ask them where they are from, almost all will answer: we are from Below, and to the Left.
To have felt it, you would have had to be standing on the earth. Tremors come up through the ground. They touch your feet before they touch your heart. If you walk barefoot or in simple shoes, you would have felt it. What follows here is for those who, like me, do not walk in simple shoes, and perhaps need to see before they can feel.
So, look: you are standing outside the gate of an autonomous university where indigenous communities come to learn skills and pass on artisanal and local knowledge, a place to whisper secrets to one another. Can you see the murals on the walls and the brightly painted classrooms? Can you see that the workers are also students are also teachers are also artists? Yes? Good. Then you have arrived at the CIDECI, the true School of the Americas! It’s late, getting dark, and it’s not a regular school day. It’s the eve of war, and soldiers are presenting themselves for the count, making camp in preparation for a last night before battle. I don’t think you’ve ever seen soldiers like these before, so allow me to describe them for us (for you and I who do not feel because we do not walk in simple shoes):
There are women, far more than you might see in any other army (but you can’t speak to them because the corn doesn’t recognize you). What have you learned from watching and listening to them? First, you see no guns. Only skirts and bags of clothes, and packets of food and blankets, so right away you can see that this is not a war for death but for life. ¿Que mas, que mas? You hear quietness, am I right? No, not silence. There is no such thing as silence, there is always sound, and this is the sound of patient power. This is the sound of battalions who have been biding their time and have arrived to fight the last battle of their — and our — lives. So, no jostling. No whimpering or agitation. Only a rustling certainness of what the morning will bring. The participants of the 6th National Indigenous Congress (CNI) make themselves known to one another: Cucapá, AfroMexicano, Náyeri, Chol, Maya, Tzotzil, Nahua, Tojolabal, Zoque, Raramuri, Amuzgo, Wixárica, Otomi, Mazahua, Coca, Ikoots, Binizzá, Mestizo, Seri, Yaqui. A respectful nod. A grasping of hands in the gathering darkness. You see all this but it does not quite sink in. You’ll be back tomorrow for you still cannot fathom what is before you. Because we who need to see because we cannot feel, we have another shortcoming: we also do not believe. Even when we see we cannot believe. We have drunk from a cup called Western Thought, we have ingested a poison known as “knowledge”. It is a venom that prevents being. So tonight, between seeing and thinking, between thinking and knowing, tonight you will have a dream, and in that dream — while you and the poison called Ego are asleep — perhaps you will experience something greater than seeing and knowing…
… You dream of a snail. The caracol. You flow as water through its spirals. You are reconstituted at its center: at a tiny barrier at the top of a steep road. Half-hidden in the shrubbery is a simple guard’s hut and the woman inside it is masked. Even though you’re dreaming, you cannot simply enter. First she must read your heart and decide whether she will grant you passage. Okay, fine — she’s deemed you worthy (it is the quickest customs and border patrol you will ever experience). You’re in! Walk slowly down the road, not for fear of falling but so that your every step will pay homage to the men and women who built it. Oh yes, they used their hands. They carried these rocks down off the mountainsides and in so-doing they constructed a corridor to dignity. So as you walk know that you are entering a place where women are made of corn and roads are made by bare hands. See the walls of the shops and homes around you, thick with flowering creepers and paintings. Come upon a grassy hillside; to your right is a forest garden, a compost pile, a clutch of free-range chickens. To your left, a smattering of dormitories and classrooms. A strange place for a dream, you think, tucked away inside a secondary school. Immediately your mind think of bells and rules and nasty meals. But look: you see a long table laid with fresh avocado and aromatic carrot stew and warm corn tortillas. Soon, however, food will be the last thing on your mind. Already something else is filling you up. A history. A journey. You are in Oventic and the time is exactly one hour behind the rest of Mexico! You are inside a caracol and what happens inside a caracole is never according to bells and rules but according to what needs to happen at that precise moment in time.
Confused? Let’s begin at the beginning: at the time of the Mayans, the great ones, the first astrologers and urban planners. But they disappeared, they abandoned their pyramids, they’re going, going, gone and now Tenochtitlan stands in their stead. Oh no, wait, Tenochtitlan is a nightmare, not a dream! Come back, the Aztecs made human sacrifices, they dominated over all indigenous peoples, run, get out of there. Oh dear, now we’re in 1519, Cortez has just landed at Veracruz to free the native peoples from the cruel hand of the Aztecs, and I don’t need to tell you what happens next, we’re in the apex of the nightmare now and there’s no escaping it, if we want to return to our dream we’ll have to race through centuries of colonial rule that disemboweled, decapitated, dispossessed and decimated an entire people, entire peoples, eating land and languages, burying sacred sites under stone churches, crushing rebellions with swords and bibles. Let’s move towards independence then, 1810, a huge uprising, a glorious moment? But so brutal, so bloody; onward, then, to the Mexican-American war of 1848, where Mexico lost half its territory to the Fucked States of America, no point lingering on that, come, I think I see something on the horizon, it’s the Mexican revolution, Pancho Villa in the North and Emiliano Zapata in the South, yes, we must stop here and pay our respects to these peasant leaders whose words and visions thrummed in the hearts of tens upon thousands upon millions of people here who knew, as the colonizers did, that land is life is liberation. But the land didn’t come, did it, the war wasn’t won — a million bodies gave up their souls for the struggle but the feudal class morphed into the merchant class and the indigenous periphery remained just that — peripheral, a mere margin to the Mexican state’s backward March of Progress into the abyss, all the way to the 1968, to that dreadful year of the Olympics and the Tlatelolco massacre of students and teachers, a new and terrible wave of state violence, not a sudden rearing of the head but the continuation of a feast, capitalism’s endless feast for which the table is laid with exploitation and violence. But what’s this? A band of guerillas taking to the mountains, not one but many, turning their backs on the government, on polite protest, taking cover in thick jungles, that’s it, they’re gone, you can’t see them anymore, like the Mayans they’ve vanished without a trace, leave them be for a moment, turn your eyes instead to the formation of the Narco-state, peasants and children put to work in vast fields of poppy and marijuana, watch president after president shake hands with the devil, with drug traffickers and the U.S. government, watch Mexico send money and arms to the cursed contras, paramilitaries sabotaging the beautiful and democratically elected government of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, yes, watch Mexico disrobe, revealing a hideous body as it climbs into bed with the Fucked USA, watch the savagery that America calls love-making whose awful climax is an orgasm known as NAFTA — the child of a rape and broken treaties. Wait so we’re in 1994 already? We missed something. In the throes of nightmaring we forgot about dreaming and we missed…
…A birth. A jungle birth, on a pile of damp leaves. A birth that was also a joining, Marxist Mestizo urbanites entering the indigenous periphery and grasping hands with the ancient ones, the mountain people, the warriors, forever blurring the lines between margin and center. We missed it, we didn’t see the seed, the nest, the process, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, we missed the beginning of our own dream but that doesn’t mean we can’t awake, slumbering, inside of it…
Because, you see, the earth has trembled before. It trembled with the birth of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. We didn’t feel it then either, because the sound of indigenous men and women arming themselves is more of a whisper than a scream, this is the sound of dignified rage, it does not mimic the state, it doesn’t meet a battle-cry with shrillness but with a long, deep breath that becomes wind becomes movement becomes a storm. This storm took San Cristobal De Las Casas in 1994, fulfilling a centuries-old pledge, a promise made by indigenous warriors under Spanish rule to one day bring the periphery into the terrible colonial center, to take the city that is built between two rivers and is fertile, the city where indigenous people were banned from worshipping their mountains, and so they erected a cross on it and said to the conquistadors: Look, see? We’re kneeling to your God. And the colonizer, being smug and arrogant, was satisfied, never knowing that under the cross the mountain was awakening to the prayers of her people, summoning up great strength from the tunnels and burrows where no one is looking, and preparing an army such as has never been seen in the world before and that is how San Cristobal was taken.
You wonder why I’m sharing these stories with you. You came for a dream and I have forced you to walk through millennia of fighting. But don’t you see? The caracol is the dream and it lives inside the nightmare that is the state, that is Mexico’s unfinished history, that is Mexico’s bloody present. Like a glorious pink lotus that blooms in mud, this dream that we call Oventic, that we call autonomy, that we call The Other Place, had to fight its way through muck at the bottom of a stagnant pond. I brought you through a nightmare to remind you that the dream had to weave itself from spider webs, the subtlest and strongest substance on earth. The Zapatistas are lotuses. They bloom in places where crocodiles lurk below the surface. We are afraid to venture into their midst because crocodiles have developed a taste for human flesh, and because we have grown accustomed to being caught by them and dragged down to the depths of some godawful lake, and eaten. We have come to love the process of being eaten — in capitalist society the lake-bed where we’re eaten is the supermarket, is the factory, is the mall. We are the Eaten Ones. But lotuses don’t like being dragged down; they bob on the water’s surface and the crocodile circles them, contemplating how to devour them and failing because in the face of such brightness and beauty born in mud the crocodile is confounded. If we want to be among the Zapatistas, we too must become flowers. The dream is inside the nightmare, and once you have experienced that dream that is the caracol, your task becomes clear: you have to dream inside and around that dream. You must be a dream multiplier. That’s how you wake from a nightmare: you must dream so big and so hard that the crocodile tires of being among so many flowers, and in trying to slink away is caught in our roots and throttled.
You ask if it is “safe” here, in the caracol? Whether lodging is “comfortable”, or the highways through Chiapas are “secure”? Imagine these words lying upon a mirror. Their inversion is their truth. What we call safety, comfort and security are really slavery, misery and incarceration for the majority of the world. You have to ask a different question: can we really make a world in which many worlds fit?
What happens inside the snail? To know, you must go below, to the place where the world trembles. Bajar y no subir. What happens in the Below Place? This is where people propose without imposing; represent without supplanting; obey without mandating; serve others rather than themselves. This is where people convince without conquering. This is where people are creating without destroying. And what does that look like? It looks like shared labor. Like more women in government than men. It means a place where power is a duty and not a privilege, where leadership rotates like a carousel. A Caracol Carousel! Rotating in spirals towards the center that is below and to the left. It means the opposite of majority rule, which is universal consensus. It means the opposite of bullshit democracy, which is true autonomy. It means a government office building that is little more than a darkened room where two women and a man sit quietly at an old desk, and on the desk is a half-torn sticker that reads: Morir Decentemente Es Morir Insurgente (to die decently is to die as an insurgent).
I think I am losing you, losing your interest. The journalist in you wants something more “concrete” because you were born and raised in concrete and you have forgotten the trees and they will soon forget you. So what can I offer you, beyond a glimpse into a city of murals and children? I could tell you that the EZLN and its civilian government administer municipalities across the state of Chiapas. I could start by telling you that the Zapatistas provide free healthcare and schooling to thousands of people. I could tell you that even Partidistas come to Zapatista courts because the Mal Gobierno, the Bad Government, is incapable of administering justice — it’s too busy breastfeeding drug traffickers and selling off the country piece by piece, one trade agreement at a time. I could start with the fact that the Zapatista women drafted their own revolutionary women’s law, and outlawed alcohol in their communities and took back the right to be free from abuse in their own homes. I could start by telling you how people greet one another in Tzotzil: if you’re well you’d say, “One heart.” If not: “I’m counting my heart.” I could tell you that from a language free of the subject-object dichotomy, the Zapatistas are dismantling an ancient system of slavery. I could start and end by telling you that in on December 22, 2012, 20,000 women and men and children came down from the mountains into San Cristobal to affirm that they were still there. They stood in silence in the city center — 20,000 people that the media ignored! — to listen together to the sound of the old world ending and the new one beginning. When the protest was over they asked the Mal Gobierno: “¿Escucharon?” (Did you hear?). I could start at the end which is also the beginning, which is to say that today, the Zapatistas are done asking things of the government and so we must ask ourselves: “¿Lo Sentimos?” (Did we feel it?)
Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it yet, the trembling. My hands tremble even as I write this. Because I want so desperately for us all to feel it together, I’ll tell you one last thing before I give myself up to the trembling.
I want to tell you about a gathering of nearly 1,000 people. Between them they spoke 58 languages. Between their faces and feet you could trace all of Mexico’s geographies, all of its femicides and ecocides. Between these nearly-1,000 people you can see a map of the world and its two possible destinies. First, from the front lines of a war: mothers of missing and murdered daughters, children of scorched earth and men of thirsty rivers. Second, the other future, from The Other Place, the future of slow advancing. In this second scenario (which was also the 6th and is always the 7, and which will never forget the 43), the people who were nearly-1,000 sat and talked and decided they’d had enough broken promises and in return they vowed to break all the ballot boxes by putting on them the face of an indigenous woman candidate, elected by universal consensus to represent them. They agreed to give the ancient and angered ones a place to cast their rage and their hope. I want to tell you about a gathering of people who swore an oath together: to protect their own lives, languages and cultures; to carry to their council the words of their people without deceit or treachery; to stand as rocks against the battering temptation of votes; to put their lives and their bodies on the line for justice, autonomy and dignity. In the middle of a cruel war, they pledged to adhere to the seven principles of the EZLN, to go always below and to the left, to the heart, to the core, to the trembling.
When you’re prepared to risk your life, you can demand everything. Nothing is too much or impossible. When you come as the mother of a slain girl, as the father of disappeared boys, when you come as a poet who has witnessed the assassination of trees, or a teacher who has seen the theft of language, or a seamstress who has watched the poisoning of the land and promised her ancestors and unborn granddaughter that she will stitch up the wounds of the world, then you may require everything of everyone, because nothing less will do.
That is where I leave you now, in the applause, in the moment where the indigenous people of Mexico declared a perpendicular and anti-capitalist government. Perpendicular because it is not parallel! Parallel recognizes and respects another line. Perpendicular crashes into and obstructs that line! In this Below Other Ancient Perpendicular Place, there is no pageantry, only humble and sacred ceremony, there is no fanfare, just steady applause and a harkening back to battles unwon — ¡Tierra y Libertad! — and battles waiting-to-be-won. There are no dignitaries or red carpets, there are only compañeros y compañeras, their masks hiding everything but their smiling eyes, raising their lined hands in respectful greeting as they pass us, in clothes marked with earth and careful stitches, in simple shoes so they can make the earth tremble just by walking.