“Dime con quien andas u te diré quien eres.”
On August 7 we went to visit Oventic, one of the five and largest Zapatista caracols (autonomous zones). We were about to enter another zone physically and emotionally. This trip was planned months in advance by our professor Diana Taylor and copies of our passports were given to authorities. Just like any other nation state, we had to show our passports to enter and even then we could be denied for a plethora of reasons. If any one of us was denied none of us would enter. We also had a long discussion about quietude and the reverence for silence is Zapatismo philosophy. We are about to be faced with a radical humility —no one speaks on their own, it’s all a collective voice. If you think about it, none of us ever speak on our own, we just think we do. We are trained to be individuals, but only to mask the insidious institutional parasitic practice that makes us all spokespeople for the discursive practice of oppression. It is in recognizing our collective voice we build community and recognize that we can strive towards autonomy and let loose from, at least, some of the capitalist shackles. As Zizek says, “We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom“.
Oventic is situated about 1 hour from San Cristobal in the Chiapas highlands. I could not tell you in which direction because you can’t (thankfully) G-Map it. On the bus ride we were asked to write down questions to ask during our visit. I didn’t want to ask any questions because questions pre-suppose a desire to capture with knowledge. Preconceived questions orient you in a specific way of thinking about a situation rather than attempting a tabula rasa. I recognize the impossibility of a clean slate but I wanted to remain as open to the vast potential as I have been so far on the trip. (To the surprise of my colleagues, I did not even google Chiapas or San Cristobal before my arrival in order to be taken by the experiential knowledge of my body in that space rather than an internet-made aesthetic). In the end, I wrote down something about creating safe space(s) online and how that is achievable and how the Zapatista’s went about doing that for their movement & for their community.
On the way there, I sat up at the front because I get car sick and all I heard from the back was constant chatter. I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying unless I was adressed but even if it wasn’t about the Zapatistas, the excitement penetrated the conversations. I assumed a position of quietude, something I often do in those situations (because everyone knows I can talk a lot). When we arrived everyone went in for the frozen fruit popsicles and cheap fruit. I bought several bananas and a mango popsicle. My body was relaxed but I didn’t want to talk to anyone which made it difficult because when you want to be quiet and not talk people assume they are being snubbed, you are assuming a hierarchical position or something is wrong. Sometimes I need moments to be in a space without opening my mouth, and that can be alone or among many people. I need to feel the words bouncing off the inside of my mouth back inside me again without opening my lips.
After about two hours we were let inside. None of us realized it had been two hours at the gate until Prof. Diana Taylor remarked on it in our debrief later that evening. It felt like maybe 20 to 30 minutes. The iPhone is a constant reminder of time and since we weren’t able to take photos I didn’t have a reason to use it and take note. Time in Mexico operates in a different way anyway and is an exemplar of the Bergsonian duration I can write about theoretically and catch glimpses of forcefully, but have never take part in so acutely. We were scheduled, in two groups, to visit the main hallway and to hear a speech and have time to ask those questions we wrote down on the bus, but since the Zapatista’s were throwing the first ever open-to-the-public party to celebrate their caracole 10 year anniversary, they were all too busy to do that. A fortuitous turn of events because instead we were able to walk around the main area of the caracol and explore instructed to only take photos of the murals—no people, no dogs and no cars. We did not have to ask questions, questions I did not have.
Everyone’s stentorian voices were too much for me so I trailed behind and moved between the small buildings to find another plot of open land. A veritable calm filled every part of my being and I had to stop moving for a moment. I sat down underneath a tree and all of a sudden all these thoughts about belonging, identity and care rushed between the layers of my skin. I felt the ground move through me and without a conscious effort what became clear to me was that we are all looking to belong, to fit in, to build and maintain community in safety. That is what the Zapatista’s are doing through these autonomous nation caracols. It isn’t about seclusion or separation but about autonomy and care. The Mexican government does not protect its people , and does not provide them with any care or community or autonomy. There is so much at stake for the Zapatistas—their humble life that constitutes non-violent resistance is to be respected. I use the word humble with purpose, because what I felt and witnesses was humility. I’m not revering it as some standard to uphold, or trying to revere the Zapatismo ways to further exoticize and in turn Otherize them, but fuck, I was affected and that was the point. They let us in to affect us, to show us a small part of their life and feel the energy at Oventic. Especially since they have stopped their military ways. That is all planned. It’s not by some random chance that I, a Polish Jewish girl from Montreal stumbled upon the Zapatista’s and took some snapshots against the murals to show my family back home. For the record, and this isn’t to deride the others, I was not compelled to take photos of myself against the murals, but that’s also part of my travel ethics. I have an on-going series that deals with that, Standing with Art Giants. Niko, one of the other photographers in the course who took photos of everything, later told me that he didn’t take any photos at all (possibly didn’t even bring his camera?). I wonder what he saw without a lens between him and Oventic like the rest of us. He said he did notice me against that tree.
The tree’s roots digging into my back and legs as I pushed against it to sit still and fumble to put my camera away. I was overwhelmed with the recognition that I, too, want to belong. Want to belong so much. You go through life indoctrinated into the “Fuck the world, I don’t care what people think.” attitude even though, of course you care, of course everyone cares, it just gets manifested in different ways with different people in different times in your life. This appetence grew and I started to cry and cry and cry. Then I took out my phone and made a Vine of the area and my tears. Yes, in that moment I was compelled to capture the feelings so pellucid. Oventic captures a patient, thoughtful and slow energy, an energy that I seem to never have but always want. The energy of a caracol, translated from Spanish to snail. I could have fallen asleep there if I was allowed. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling and how I was feeling it. It reminded me of how shy I got upon seeing the hills in Belle Ile in 2009 when I actually turned away because I couldn’t believe I had the privilege of looking at something so magical. It seems so banal—community, belonging—but these ideas are fraught with so much struggle, violence and even death. Perhaps they are the most quotidian of ideas and that makes them paramount.
I continued to sit between gables and Gabo managed to take a photo of me. Is there any escape from the gaze of the Other?
How is strength measured? What becomes of our difference?
The Zapatistas held a 10 year anniversary party a few days later with music, food and love. Many of us went. This will be continued…