by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
The taxi rolled to a sudden and unexpected stop. The driver turned around. “Estamos aqui. Oventic.” For the last hour the car had driven the winding roads from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas to our destination – a small village under revolutionary Zapatista control in the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
“Aqui? Oventic?” I was not sure if this was actually it. Had I arrived? I had learned about the Zapatista rebellion while I was a high school student and had followed the new developments in Chiapas as indigenous Mayans created a new society rooted in mutual aid, cooperation, dignity and direct democracy. It was the Zapatista rebellion and ensuing movement that reached not only 1,000 Mayan communities in Chiapas, but countless people across Mexico and around the world, that shaped my political world view. In a political sense, this was a homecoming for me.
“Si, aqui,” the taxi driver nodded. An older Mayan woman who was sitting in the back of the taxi next to my partner Michelle opened the car door and walked away. Michelle and I stepped out, grabbed our backpacks, paid and thanked the driver and stood in the middle of the road as the taxi sped off. In front of us was a gate with a small shack on either side of it. An older Mayan woman was standing guard. She wore a black ski mask on her face, like so many other Zapatistas do. Michelle and I looked at each other, not sure what was in store for us in the village of Oventic. We slowly approached the gate.
The Zapatista guard walked up to us and patiently listened as we tried to explain in our broken Spanish that we wanted to see the Zapatista school. The very first line she spoke was, “What do you hope to change?” At first I did not understand what she said.
We were slow in our response. All I could utter out was, “No se.” – “I don’t know.”
She looked us up and down and said, “I hope they let you in.” She walked away and Michelle and I looked at each other. Would they let us in? It was only then that we realized the depth of what the Zapatista had asked us: “What do you hope to change?” The Zapatistas asked the world that question when they rose up in rebellion in 1994 and have been asking that very same question ever since. It is that very question that I have asked myself over and over again, followed by: “What do we hope to change?” and “How do we make change?” And most importantly, “What does that change look like?”
We waited. And waited. Suddenly, the Zapatista woman approached the gate again with another Zapatista who was dressed in all black and covered his face with a red bandana, his eyes under the shadow of a black cap. The story, as they say, will continue. Little by little.
This June I traveled to Mexico and Cuba with my partner Michelle. I had never traveled like this before although I had attempted to on several occasions. But it finally happened, thanks in no small part to my twin sister. Michelle and I traveled through Mexico for twenty days where we met Zapatistas, workers, parents whose children were disappeared by the government, teachers who had launched a rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006, and so many others.
We were there during the state elections and while corrupt politicians battled it out in the ballot boxes to take hold of the reigns of power from above, countless others in Mexico’s vibrant social movements continued the work of building power from below. The whole country was on the move – not through the dead end of electoralism but through strikes and protests, barricades in the streets, riots, marches, rallies and occupations in the zocalos of cities. I could feel the energy in the defiant voices of the parents of disappeared students from Ayotzinapa as they spoke to a crowd of thousands in Oaxaca City. I saw the determination for building a new world in the eyes of the Zapatistas who greeted us in Oventic.
Something quite different was on the move in Cuba while we were there for ten days. An uneasy excitement permeated the island at what the future might bring as the U.S. and Cuba develop warmer relations, even while the blockade against Cuba still runs its course. Like Mexico, I had longed to visit Cuba for years.
Over the next few months I will write a series of articles that chronicles my travels through Mexico and Cuba under the theme of the question that the Zapatista posed: “What do you hope to change?” These articles will look at the forces of social and political change in Mexico and Cuba and will, perhaps, encourage people to ask that very same question and, like many are actively doing in Mexico, Cuba, here in the U.S. and around the world, help, as the Zapatistas say, “Create a world in which many worlds fit.”