Revolution of the Snails

Encounters with the Zapatistas
By Rebecca Solnit

I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of information
that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The original use of
the word revolution was in this sense — of something coming round or
turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, for example.
It’s interesting to think that just as the word radical comes from the
Latin word for “roots” and meant going to the root of a problem, so
revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to cycle,
something those who live according to the agricultural cycles of the
year know well.

Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it come
to mean “an instance of a great change in affairs or in some
particular thing.” 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first
voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented
moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less
cyclical and more linear — as in the second definition of this new
sense of revolution in my dictionary, “a complete overthrow of the
established government in any country or state by those who were
previously subject to it.”

We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living
through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices
toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our
society revolving — or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be
as patient as a snail. The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come, but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson’s attack on the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962; certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their
Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined
the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for
Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native
peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere with a radical rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern Mexico called Zapatismo.

Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its principal
symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution spirals
outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes of
capitalism’s savage alienation, industrialism’s regimentation, and
toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words
and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come
from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our
children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one
Zapatista woman — and prophetic of the half-born other world in
which, as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on
their spiral.

Revolutionary Landscapes

At the end of 2007, I arrived on their territory for a remarkable
meeting between the Zapatista women and the world, the third of their
encuentros since the 1994 launch of their revolution. Somehow, among
the miracles of Zapatista words and ideas I read at a distance, I lost
sight of what a revolution might look like, must look like, on the
ground — until late last year when I arrived on that pale, dusty
ground after a long ride in a van on winding, deeply rutted dirt roads
through the forested highlands and agricultural clearings of Chiapas,
Mexico. The five hours of travel from the big town of San Cristobal de
las Casas through that intricate landscape took us past countless
small cornfields on slopes, wooden houses, thatched pigsties and
henhouses, gaunt horses, a town or two, more forest, and then more
forest, even a waterfall.

Everything was green except the dry cornstalks, a lush green in which
December flowers grew. There were tree-sized versions of what looked
like the common, roadside, yellow black-eyed susans of the American
west and a palm-sized, lavender-pink flower on equally tall, airily
branching stalks whose breathtaking beauty seemed to come from equal
parts vitality, vulnerability, and bravura — a little like the women
I listened to for the next few days.

The van stopped at the junction that led to the center of the
community of La Garrucha. There, we checked in with men with bandannas
covering the lower halves of their faces, who sent us on to a field of
tents further uphill. The big sign behind them read, “You are in
Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the
Government Obeys.” Next to it, another sign addressed the political
prisoners from last year’s remarkable uprising in Oaxaca in which, for
four months, the inhabitants held the city and airwaves and kept the
government out. It concluded, “You are not alone. You are with us.

As many of you may know, EZLN stands for Ejército Zapatista de
Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), a name
akin to those from many earlier Latin American uprisings. The
Zapatistas — mostly Mayan indigenous rebels from remote, rural
communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state — had
made careful preparations for a decade before their January 1, 1994

They began like conventional rebels, arming themselves and seizing six
towns. They chose that first day of January because it was the date
that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, which
meant utter devastation for small farmers in Mexico; but they had also
been inspired by the 500th anniversary, 14 months before, of
Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the way native groups had
reframed that half-millenium as one of endurance and injustice for the
indigenous peoples of this hemisphere.

Their rebellion was also meant to take the world at least a step
beyond the false dichotomy between capitalism and the official state
socialism of the Soviet Union which had collapsed in 1991. It was to
be the first realization of what needed to come next: a rebellion,
above all, against capitalism and neoliberalism. Fourteen years later,
it is a qualified success: many landless campesino families in
Zapatista-controlled Chiapas now have land; many who were subjugated
now govern themselves; many who were crushed now have a sense of
agency and power. Five areas in Chiapas have existed outside the reach
of the Mexican government, under their own radically different rules,
since that revolution.

Beyond that, the Zapatistas have given the world a model — and,
perhaps even more important, a language — with which to re-imagine
revolution, community, hope, and possibility. Even if, in the near
future, they were to be definitively defeated on their own territory,
their dreams, powerful as they have been, are not likely to die. And
there are clouds on the horizon: the government of President Felipe
Calderón may turn what has, for the last 14 years, been a
low-intensity conflict in Chiapas into a full-fledged war of
extermination. A war on dreams, on hope, on rights, and on the old
goals of the hero of the Mexican Revolution a century before, Emiliano
Zapata: tierra y libertad, land and liberty.

The Zapatistas emerged from the jungle in 1994, armed with words as
well as guns. Their initial proclamation, the First Declaration of the
Lacandon Jungle, rang with familiar, outmoded-sounding revolutionary
rhetoric, but shortly after the uprising took the world by storm, the
Zapatistas’ tone shifted. They have been largely nonviolent ever
since, except in self-defense, though they are ringed by the Mexican
army and local paramilitaries (and maintain their own disciplined
army, a long line of whose masked troops patrolled La Garrucha at
night, armed with sticks). What shifted most was their language, which
metamorphosed into something unprecedented — a revolutionary poetry
full of brilliant analysis as well as of metaphor, imagery, and humor,
the fruit of extraordinary imaginations.

Some of their current stickers and t-shirts — the Zapatistas generate
more cool paraphernalia than any rock band — speak of “el fuego y la
palabra,” the fire and the word. Many of those words came from the
inspired pen of their military commander, the nonindigenous
Subcomandante Marcos, but that pen reflected the language of a people
whose memory is long and environment is rich — if not in money and
ease, then in animals, images, traditions, and ideas.

Take, for example, the word caracol, which literally means snail or
spiral shell. In August 2003, the Zapatistas renamed their five
autonomous communities caracoles. The snail then became an important
image. I noticed everywhere embroideries, t-shirts, and murals showing
that land snail with the spiraling shell. Often the snail wore a black
ski mask. The term caracol has the vivid vitality, the groundedness,
that often escapes metaphors as they become part of our disembodied

When they reorganized as caracoles, the Zapatistas reached back to
Mayan myth to explain what the symbol meant to them. Or Subcomandante
Marcos did, attributing the story as he does with many stories to “Old
Antonio,” who may be a fiction, a composite, or a real source of the
indigenous lore of the region:

“The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women are
in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their
hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods
and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that
they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the
heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They
say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents
exiting from the heart to walk the world…. The caracoles will be like
doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come
out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside;
like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to
hear the words from the one who is far away.”

The caracoles are clusters of villages, but described as spirals they
reach out to encompass the whole world and begin from within the
heart. And so I arrived in the center of one caracol, a little further
up the road from those defiant signs, in the broad, unpaved plaza
around which the public buildings of the village of La Garrucha are
clustered, including a substantial two-story, half-built clinic.
Walking across that clearing were Zapatista women in embroidered
blouses or broad collars and aprons stitched of rows of ribbon that
looked like inverted rainbows — and those ever-present ski masks in
which all Zapatistas have appeared publicly since their first moment
out of the jungles in 1994. (Or almost all, a few wear bandannas

That first glimpse was breathtaking. Seeing and hearing those women
for the three days that followed, living briefly on rebel territory,
watching people brave enough to defy an army and the world’s reigning
ideology, imaginative enough to invent (or reclaim) a viable
alternative was one of the great passages of my life. The Zapatistas
had been to me a beautiful idea, an inspiration, a new language, a new
kind of revolution. When they spoke at this Third Encounter of the
Zapatista Peoples with the People of the World, they became a specific
group of people grappling with practical problems. I thought of Martin
Luther King Jr. when he said he had been to the mountaintop. I have
been to the forest.

The Words of the Third Encounter

The encuentro was held in a big shed-like auditorium with a corrugated
tin roof and crossbeams so long they could only have been hewn from
local trees — they would never have made it around the bends in the
local roads. The wooden walls were hung with banners and painted with
murals. (One, of an armed Zapatista woman, said, “cellulite sí,
anorexia, no.”) An unfinished mural showed a monumental ear of corn
whose top half merged into the Zapatista ski mask, the eyes peering
out of the corn. Among the embroideries local artisans offered were
depictions of cornstalks with Zapatista faces where the ears would be.
All of this — snails and corn-become-Zapatistas alike — portrayed
the rebels as natural, pervasive, and fruitful.

Three or four times a day, a man on a high, roofed-over stage outside
the hall would play a jaunty snippet of a tune on an organ and perhaps
250 of the colorfully dressed Zapatista women in balaclavas or
bandannas would walk single file into the auditorium and seat
themselves onstage on rows of backless benches. The women who had
come from around the world to listen would gather on the remaining benches, and men would cluster around the back of the hall. Then, one caracol at a time, they would deliver short statements and take written
questions. Over the course of four days, all five caracoles delivered
reflections on practical and ideological aspects of their situation.
Pithy and direct, they dealt with difficult (sometimes obnoxious)
questions with deftness. They spoke of the challenge of living a
revolution that meant autonomy from the Mexican government, but also
of learning how to govern themselves and determine for themselves what
liberty and justice mean.

The Zapatista rebellion has been feminist from its inception: Many of
the comandantes are women — this encuentro was dedicated to the
memory of deceased Comandante Ramona, whose image was everywhere —
and the liberation of the women of the Zapatista regions has been a
core part of the struggle. The testimonies addressed what this meant
— liberation from forced marriages, illiteracy, domestic violence,
and other forms of subjugation. The women read aloud, some of them
nervous, their voices strained — and this reading and writing was
itself testimony to the spread both of literacy and of Spanish as part
of the revolution. The first language of many Zapatistas is an
indigenous one, and so they spoke their Spanish with formal,
declarative clarity. They often began with a formal address to the
audience that spiraled outward: “hermanos y hermanas, compañeras y
compañeros de la selva, pueblos del Mexico, pueblos del mundo,
sociedad civile” — “brothers and sisters, companions of the
rainforest, people of Mexico, people of the world, civil society.” And
then they would speak of what revolution had meant for them.

“We had no rights,” one of them said about the era before the
rebellion. Another added, “The saddest part is that we couldn’t
understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had
told us about our rights.”

“The struggle is not just for ourselves, it’s for everyone,” said a
third. Another spoke to us directly: “We invite you to organize as
women of the world in order to get rid of neoliberalism, which has
hurt all of us.”

They spoke of how their lives had improved since 1994. On New Year’s
Eve, one of the masked women declared:

“Who we think is responsible [for the oppressions] is the capitalist
system, but now we no longer fear. They humiliated us for too long,
but as Zapatistas no one will mistreat us. Even if our husbands still
mistreat us, we know we are human beings. Now, women aren’t as
mistreated by husbands and fathers. Now, some husbands support and
help us and don’t make all the decisions — not in all households, but
poco a poco. We invite all women to defend our rights and combat

They spoke of the practical work of remaking the world and setting the
future free, of implementing new possibilities for education,
healthcare, and community organization, of the everyday workings of a
new society. Some of them carried their babies — and their lives —
onstage and, in one poignant moment, a little girl dashed across that
stage to kiss and hug her masked mother. Sometimes the young daughters
wore masks too.

A Zapatista named Maribel spoke of how the rebellion started, of the
secrecy in which they met and organized before the uprising:
“We learned to advance while still hiding until January 1. This is
when the seed grew, when we brought ourselves into the light. On
January 1, 1994, we brought our dreams and hopes throughout Mexico and
the world — and we will continue to care for this seed. This seed of
ours we are giving for our children. We hope you all will struggle
even though it is in a different form. The struggle [is] for

The Zapatistas have not won an easy or secure future, but what they
have achieved is dignity, a word that cropped up constantly during the
encuentro, as in all their earlier statements. And they have created
hope. Hope (esperanza) was another inescapable word in Zapatista
territory. There was la tienda de esperanza, the unpainted wooden
store of hope, that sold tangerines and avocados. A few mornings, I
had café con leche and sweet rice cooked with milk and cinnamon at a
comedor whose handlettered sign read: “Canteen of autonomous
communities in rebellion…dreams of hope.” The Zapatista minibus was
crowned with the slogan “the collective [which also means bus in
Spanish] makes hope.”

After midnight, at the very dawn of the New Year, when men were
invited to speak again, one mounted the platform from which the New
Year’s dance music was blasting to say that he and the other men had
listened and learned a lot.

This revolution is neither perfect nor complete — mutterings about
its various shortcomings weren’t hard to hear from elsewhere in Mexico
or the internationals at the encuentro (who asked many testing
questions about these campesinas’ positions on, say, transgendered
identity and abortion) — but it is an astonishing and fruitful

The Speed of Snails and Dreams

Many of their hopes have been realized. The testimony of the women
dealt with this in specific terms: gains in land, rights, dignity,
liberty, autonomy, literacy, a good local government that obeys the
people rather than a bad one that tramples them. Under siege, they
have created community with each other and reached out to the world.

Emerging from the jungles and from impoverishment, they were one of
the first clear voices against corporate globalization — the
neoliberal agenda that looked, in the 1990s, as though it might
succeed in taking over the world. That was, of course, before the
surprise shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999
and other innovative, successful global acts of resistance against
that agenda and its impact. The Zapatistas articulated just how
audacious indigenous rebellion against invisibility, powerlessness,
and marginalization could be — and this was before other indigenous
movements from Bolivia to northern Canada took a share of real power
in the Americas. Their image of “a world in which many worlds are
possible” came to describe the emergence of broad coalitions spanning
great differences, of alliances between hunter-gatherers, small-scale
farmers, factory workers, human rights activists, and
environmentalists in France, India, Korea, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, and

Their vision represented the antithesis of the homogenous world
envisioned both by the proponents of “globalism” and by the modernist
revolutions of the twentieth century. They have gone a long way toward
reinventing the language of politics. They have been a beacon for
everyone who wants to make a world that is more inventive, more
democratic, more decentralized, more grassroots, more playful. Now,
they face a threat from the Mexican government that could savage the
caracoles of resistance, crush the rights and dignity that the women
of the encuentro embodied even as they spoke of them — and shed much

During the 1980s, when our government was sponsoring the dirty wars in
Central America, two U.S. groups in particular countered those
politics of repression, torture, and death. One was the Pledge of
Resistance, which gathered the signatures of hundreds of thousands who
promised to respond with civil disobedience if the U.S. invaded
Sandinista-run Nicaragua or otherwise deepened its involvement with
the dictatorships and death squads of Central America. Another was
Witness for Peace, which placed gringos as observers and unarmed
protectors in communities throughout Central America.

While killing or disappearing campesinos could be carried out with
ease in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, doing the same to
U.S. citizens, or in front of them, was a riskier proposition. The
Yankee witnesses used the privilege of their color and citizenship as
a shield for others and then testified to what they saw. We have come
to a moment when we need to strengthen the solidarity so many
activists around the world have felt for the Zapatistas, strengthen it into something that can protect the sources of “the fire and the word”
— the fire that has warmed so many who have a rebel heart, the word
that has taught us to imagine the world anew.

The United States and Mexico both have eagles as their emblems,
predators which attack from above. The Zapatistas have chosen a snail
in a spiral shell, a small creature, easy to overlook. It speaks of
modesty, humility, closeness to the earth, and of the recognition that
a revolution may start like lightning but is realized slowly, patiently, steadily. The old idea of revolution was that we would trade one government for another and somehow this new government would set us free and change everything. More and more of us now understand that change is a discipline lived every day, as those women standing before us testified; that revolution only secures the territory in which life can change. Launching a revolution is not easy, as the decade of planning before the 1994 Zapatista uprising demonstrated, and living one is hard too, a faith and discipline that must not falter until the threats and old habits are gone — if then. True
revolution is slow.

There’s a wonderful passage in Robert Richardson’s biography of
Thoreau in which he speaks of the Europe-wide revolution of 1848 and
says of the New England milieu and its proliferating cooperative
communities at that time, “Most of the founders were more interested
in building models, which would be emulated because they succeeded,
than in the destruction of the existing order. Still American utopian
socialism had much in common with the spirit of 1848.”

This says very directly that you can reach out and change the state
and its institutions, which we recognize as revolution, or you can
make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is
also revolutionary. This creating — rather than simply rebelling —
has been much of the nature of revolution in our time, as people
reinvent family, gender, food systems, work, housing, education,
economics, medicine and doctor-patient relations, the imagination of
the environment, and the language to talk about it, not to speak of
more and more of everyday life. The fantasy of a revolution is that it
will make everything different, and regime revolutions generally make
a difference, sometimes a significantly positive one, but the making
of radical differences in everyday life is a more protracted,
incremental process. It’s where leaders are irrelevant and every life

Give the Zapatistas time — the slow, unfolding time of the spiral and
the journey of the snail — to keep making their world, the one that
illuminates what else our lives and societies could be. Our revolution
must be as different as our temperate-zone, post-industrial society is
to their subtropical agrarianism, but also guided by the slow forces
of dignity, imagination, and hope, as well as the playfulness they
display in their imagery and language. The testimony in the auditorium
ended late on December 31. At midnight, amid dancing, the revolution
turned 14. May it long continue to spiral inward and

1 Comment

    December 20, 2016

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