by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
Mexican Independence Day was celebrated at the Mohawk Valley Freedom School on September 16th by a small but spirited group. Those who attended the gathering came to learn about the Zapatistas, murals, art, and to remember the legacy of a teacher named Galeano who was assassinated in Mexico by paramilitaries just over a year ago. He was part of the indigenous Mayan revolutionary Zapatista movement which rose up in rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994.
The Zapatistas, who have since built up popular power at the grassroots level in 1,000 villages, have carved out a society in Chiapas built on the practice of mutual aid, solidarity, collectivism, autonomy and freedom in its deepest form. A mural was painted by artists from around the world in the town of La Realidad, Chiapas to honor and remember the slain teacher and activist.
The event in Utica took place after Schools for Chiapas, a group that provides support for schools run by the Zapatista movement, put an international call out for those sympathetic to the Zapatistas to screen a short documentary about Galeano and the mural. Members of the Freedom School jumped at the opportunity. Other towns that held screenings of the film nearby included Ithaca, Syracuse and Akwesasne, located in Mohawk Nation. The film was also shown in places as far away as Japan, Turkey, and Trinidad and Tabago.
The classroom at the old stone school building attached to Cornerstone Community Church was decorated with colorful tissue paper banners, known in Mexico as papel picado, hung from the ceiling. Class began with music – the Zapatista anthem known affectionately as Himno Zapatista. After the song was played for the class, the film was screened, which was then followed by a short presentation about the history of the Zapatistas, a recent trip that was taken to the Zapatista village of Oventic, and finally, a discussion about murals and the power of public art.
In addition to the call sent out for supporters around the world to show the film, and keeping true to the Zapatista spirit of organization and action, another call was sent out for people to also take some form of action to honor Galeano. Martyred labor activist, songwriter, and member of the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World Joe Hill put this sentiment best before his execution in Utah over trumped up murder charges when he told fellow activists, workers, and agitators, “Don’t mourn, organize.”
Members of the Freedom School will do their part to honor Galeano by working with the community to paint their very own “People’s History of Utica” mural which is in its initial planning stage. The idea was first suggested by New York City-based mural artist Alicia Martinson who has painted beautifully political murals in communities in Washington State, New York City and Palestine.
A “people’s history” mural would be planned, designed and finally painted by people in the community, with help of course from Alicia and artist Tanya Kinigstein (who is another member of the mural collective). It would capture the largely unacknowledged local history of Iroquois resistance to occupation, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement and the radical movement.
Although Utica was once a central location for both the abolitionist and socialist movements, those historical figures that are celebrated locally by many as heroes include various industrialists who profited off of the labor and poverty of workers, and slave owners such as General Herkimer who fought in the American Revolution. A people’s history of course would elevate and celebrate the histories of those that fought for freedom and dignity, rather than those who fought against these ideals.
At the moment, the mural remains an idea but interest around it has been increasing. Like the Zapatistas and the teacher and activist Galeano, the Freedom School finds that its most meaningful education is discovered through action.
A people’s history mural would do much in educating the community about the Galeanos in our own backyard – those who fought, bled, and in some cases died, so that we could have a better world. It is through this kind of education that people may find some inspiration to take action.
For those interested in getting involved with the People’s History Mural Project, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
The film “Galeano Lives! Painting a Zapatista Teacher” can be viewed in multiple languages here: Galeano Lives! Painting a Zapatista Teacher