The Fire and the Word: The Most Complete History of the Zapatista Movement

Mexican journalist Gloria Muñoz Ramírez says that in 1997 she left her work, her family, and her friends to live in Zapatista communities. Her book The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement is the result of seven years of research, interviews, and — most importantly — listening in Zapatista territory.

Originally published in Spanish as 20 y 10: El Fuego y la Palabra in 2003 for the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and the twentieth anniversary of the EZLN, the book has since been translated into French, Italian, German, Turkish, Persian, and Greek. While English-speakers had to wait five long years to read it, Muñoz made The Fire and the Word worth the wait. The English translation updates the Spanish version, including new chapters and pictures of Zapatista history up through the Other Campaign in 2006.

The book itself is an artistic masterpiece. Domi, a Mazateca indigenous illustrator who helped Marcos tell The Story of Colors, and Antonio Ramírez, a Mexican artist and author of the Spanish-language children’s book Napí, illustrated the book. Graphic designer Efrain Herrera laid out the text to flow around, through, and between Domi and Ramírez’s illustrations.

The Clandestine Years

While Subcomandante Marcos calls The Fire and the Word “the most complete version of the public history of the Zapatistas,” the real gems in Muñoz’s book are the unprecedented interviews with insurgents who participated in the clandestine organizing and the 1994 uprising. No other book published in any language contains these intimate details about the EZLN’s initial organizing process, its decision to go to war, and insurgents’ training and battle experiences—all straight from the mouths of the insurgents themselves.

The Zapatistas have always maintained that National Liberation Forces (FLN in its Spanish initials) members came to the Lacandon Jungle to teach the indigenous people to organize themselves, but that the indigenous people taught the FLN how to organize. In The Fire and the Word, Marcos and lesser-known insurgents who participated in the initial organizing and the 1994 uprising elaborate on this story, discussing their first camps in the jungle, their beloved Subcomandante Pedro who died in combat, and how the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN in its Spanish initials) transformed itself from a small guerrilla army that only accepted “qualified” insurgents into a broad-based grassroots indigenous movement that could no longer organize clandestinely due to its immense size.

The insurgents also discuss their seemingly suicidal decision to declare war on the Mexican government on January 1, 1994. Comandante Abraham says, “We didn’t think that we were going to live; we thought that most likely we would fall and that others would continue the struggle. We didn’t think there would be people to help us.”

But there were people to help the EZLN, and they mobilized to demand a ceasefire, forcing the Zapatistas to forge a new path of resistance, one that doesn’t rely solely on weapons. The insurgents interviewed in The Fire and the Word express their surprise, but not dismay, at this sudden change in strategy. Their subsequent refusal to do what is normally expected of guerrilla armies has protected them in the years since the uprising because tried-and-true counterinsurgency strategies simply don’t work against them. Unlike the Sandinistas of the 1980s, for example, they refuse to allow paramilitary forces to draw them into armed combat that would justify heavy-handed direct government intervention.

The Public Years

The Fire and the Word also chronicles the Zapatistas’ public years, which has been done before. The Fire and the Word is, however, a more recent attempt, and therefore contains more up-to-date information. Nonetheless, it is worth comparing to other writers’ recounting of Zapatista history, particularly one of the most popular: John Ross’ War Against Oblivion.

Published in 2000, War Against Oblivion begins on January 1, 1994, and ends on July 2, 2000, the day the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI in its Spanish initials) lost its strangle-hold grip on Mexican politics in the presidential election. It is a more detailed account of these years than The Fire and the Word, but Ross was able to do this because he only chronicles 6 ½ years, whereas Muñoz covers a little over 22.

The Fire and the Word is a project that was accountable to the Zapatistas. Before sending it to press, Muñoz delivered the manuscript to the EZLN for its approval. She therefore omits some history that the Zapatistas would rather not discuss. A notable example is the arrest of the mestizo Comandante Daniel (Salvador Morales Garibay) whose tell-all thirteen-page confession revealed the identities of Subcomandante Marcos, the Comandancia, and the FLN members who helped found the EZLN. As a result of Morales’ treachery, various Zapatista supporters were imprisoned and tortured, and Mexican military intelligence made Morales a second captain. The EZLN hasn’t uttered Daniel’s name since, and neither does Muñoz in The Fire and the Word. Ross’ work, however, was not accountable to the EZLN, so he isn’t afraid to broach subjects that are uncomfortable for the Zapatistas, like ex-Comandante Daniel.

The Fire and the Word focuses almost exclusively on the Zapatistas, leaving the reader desiring more context and concrete facts, such as those provided by Ross. Ross is much more likely to provide context and specifics: exact dates; proper names and histories of Mexican people, paramilitary organizations, and treaties; and the context within which the Zapatistas were operating. Ross also provides an index, something that The Fire and the Word is sorely lacking.

Both books also fail to describe in detail the content of the infamous San Andres Accords the Zapatistas signed with the Mexican government. Muñoz may have omitted this information due to space constraints. Ross, however, is very clear as to why he didn’t list out the contents of the Accords: “Despite their sacred screed status, the four documents are hardly a blueprint for revolution.” Muñoz, however, does describe in detail why the Accords were and remain a central component of the Zapatista struggle: they were the result of consultations with indigenous organizations all over Mexico, not just Zapatistas. The San Andres Accords became a unified demand for Mexican indigenous people everywhere. Then, in 2003, the Zapatistas chose to unilaterally implement the San Andres Accords by creating the caracoles, or centers of autonomous government. While the San Andres Accords were indeed at the very least blueprints for the bare minimum requirements for a Zapatista revolution, Ross wrote his book before the creation of the caracoles and didn’t anticipate them. Muñoz, on the other hand, has the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, making The Fire and the Word a more updated retrospective.

For those activists who find themselves inspired by the Zapatista struggle, the most important component of The Fire and the Word is Muñoz’s truly Zapatista perspective. Thanks to Muñoz’s intimate understanding of zapatismo and the EZLN’s input in the book’s editing stage, readers understand the most important lesson the Zapatistas have to offer activists struggling against neoliberalism: how to build a movement against the government that makes demands of the government without being co-opted by the government. In a communiqué dated March 13, 2001, the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee writes, “We do not accept a shameful dialogue with the legislature, off in a corner with a small group of legislators….” The Zapatistas have achieved so much in fourteen years because they refuse to allow the NGOification of their movement, something that plagues the US left. The Zapatistas will never play the government’s games designed to trick them into thinking that they’re gaining ground when really they’re just treading water while their demands barely (or rarely) stay afloat.

Inspiration, Hope, and Zapatismo

Rather than simply regurgitating tired stories about Zapatismo, Muñoz uses her book as a tool. She recently completed a book tour in the United States. She traveled from California to New York, meeting with grass roots organizations, adherents to the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration, and Zapatista sympathizers.

Muñoz’s tour coincided with two other Zapatista-related tours in the US: El Kilombo’s tour for their book Beyond Resistance: Everything! and the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations’ Ernesto Ledesma’s tour to update activists on the military occupation in Chiapas and current threats confronting the Zapatistas. These tours criss-crossed the country at a time when there was very little information coming out of Mexico in English about the state of social movements there. They put the Zapatistas back on the US political map and back into US activists’ consciousnesses.

These three tours did not patronize the Zapatistas by trying to convince US activists to dedicate all of their time to Zapatista solidarity. “The tours gave people inspiration and energy to keep doing their work here in the United States,” says RJ Maccani, who attended and helped organize several stops in New York City.

Therein lies the strength of transnational solidarity—it’s not “first world” activists defending helpless indigenous people, it’s the strength and inspiration we give each other when we defend ourselves. Many activists in the US point to the 1994 Zapatista uprising as the seed of inspiration for the protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999 in Seattle. Throughout The Fire and the Word, Zapatistas never cease to express the amazement and inspiration they feel when activists all over Mexico mobilize to stop the war on indigenous people in Mexico. But more than that, the Zapatista’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle expresses the inspiration, hope, and solidarity Zapatistas feel when activists defend themselves where they live and work. In the Sixth Declaration, Zapatistas give shout outs to activists all over the world, from piqueteros in Argentina to the Cuban people struggling against the US blockade. They also salute European activists, to whom they write, “You are not alone. Your great movements against the neoliberal wars bring us joy. We are attentively watching your forms of organization and your methods of struggle so that we can perhaps learn something.”

For that reason, when Gloria Muñoz toured the US with The Fire and the Word, she didn’t even bring a copy of the book with her to the podium. The Fire and the Word was her reason for touring, but the tour was much bigger than the Zapatistas. It served to make new connections and strengthen existing ones amongst organizations and individuals who are inspired by Zapatismo.

In New York City, the last place in the world anyone would think would draw inspiration and ideas from a rural indigenous peasant movement, activists from Movement for Justice in El Barrio and the Center for Immigrant Families talked with Muñoz about their struggles for land, autonomy, and education. While it’s difficult to find a patch of grass in New York, land may be the single most pressing issue facing activists there. In New York, much like pre-1994 Chiapas, a select few own the land and everyone else is at their mercy. Without land to call their own, New York activists find it difficult to meet, organize, build projects (what can you build without land to put it on?), and sustain themselves and their organizations.

The Fire and the Word is an important resource and tool. Long-time Zapatista activists will appreciate the new interviews with the founding insurgents of the EZLN, and activists who want to learn more about the Zapatista struggle will benefit from the crash-course in Zapatista history. Everyone can use the book as Muñoz does, as a starting point for discussions about autonomy wherever we’re fighting for justice and equality.

Many thanks to RJ Maccani for his reporting from NYC.

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