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July 1, 2015

Poetics and Aesthetics in Zapatismo. The Farewell of Subcomandante Marcos

Written by Alessandro Zagato

Amador Fernandez Savater (2015) has observed that it would be hard to think of an experience with a better capacity of engaging, and that is yet so deeply rooted in a specific territory, than Zapatismo. Indeed it seems that in the experience of this movement, the particular and the universal tend to merge and to intensify each other, producing unprecedented local processes which resonate at international level, where the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberaciòn Nacional (EZLN) inspires people and movements.

This is due to the fact that Zapatismo breaks in many respects with traditional forms of politics. It does so by opening spaces at a creative distance from the state, and by constantly experimenting with innovative ideas and strategic perspectives. In this short article I will give an insight on the organic role that aesthetics and poetics have played in the politics of this revolutionary movement. In the first part I will provide a general overview on this theme. Some of my views are informed by the fieldwork that I conducted in Chiapas between 2013 and 2014, and by my recent experience of curating, together with Chilean art historian Natalia Arcos, an exhibition on Zapatista art within the event “Rights of nature: art and ecology in the Americas” organised by Nottingham Contemporary. In the second part I will analyse as a sort of case study the surprising and spectacular farewell of Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s leading and iconic figure appealing to the mass media and the educated middle classes, a prominent personality capable to dialogue with intellectuals from around the world. In May 2014 the EZLN revealed that this figure was just a “hologram”, a “complex manoeuvre of distraction, a malicious move from the indigenous heart that we are, (…) challenging one of the bastions of modernity: the media” (EZLN 2014). The “farewell” or “death” of Subcomandante Marcos took place in a highly performative event organised by the Zapatistas in La Realidad (24/05/2014), one of the five political hubs of the movement, in the hearth of the Lacandon Jungle - and in which I personally participated.


The EZLN was born clandestinely in 1983. It was founded by a group of just 6 people: five men and a woman, three mestizos and three natives who had moved to the Lacandon Jungle from various parts of Mexico. There they built a first military camp with the ambition of organising the indigenous population of the area in a guerrilla army, which in some years could eventually defeat the regular army and bring about revolution in Mexico. Initially the group was influenced by an ideology typical of the Latin American revolutionary movements of the Sixties and Seventies, faithful to a Marxist-Leninist style of construction of Socialism.

According to first hand reports (Marcos 2014) already in these initial stages, and despite the harsh conditions of living in clandestinity, the EZLN showed a peculiar penchant towards artistic expression. “Each Monday we used to organise cultural events: the group was convening in what we called the cultural unit and we were reading poems, singing, and representing theatre plays”. The strict military routine involved physical training, the reading and discussion of strategy books of the Northern American and Mexican armies, but also a collective engagement with authors such as Cervantes, Juan Gelman, Shakespeare, Miguel Hernandez, Brecht, among others, who would strongly influence the unique style shaping the official communiques of the EZLN.

However, it was not just a tendency within a tiny group of revolutionaries that determined the political/ aesthetic singularity of Zapatismo, but rather their encounter with the cosmology and the ancestral forms of resistance of the Mayan people living in that region of Chiapas. This encounter constituted literarily an event, a “sublime occasion” (Deleuze 1994:190), a powerful disruption on the original plan, and the opening of unprecedented possibilities around which a new subjectivity started taking shape. “At this stage” - recalls Marcos – “the EZLN was no longer what we had conceived when we arrived. By then we had been defeated by the indigenous communities, and as a product of that defeat, the EZLN started to grow exponentially and to become very other". In another text Marcos (Le Bot 1997, 123) sounds even more drastic: “We really suffered a process of re-education, of restyling. As if they [the indigenous people] had disarmed us. As if they had dismantled all we were made up of – Marxism, Leninism, socialism, urban culture, poetry, literature – all that formed part of us, and things we did not even know we had. They disarmed us and then armed us again, but in a different way”.

In the effort of starting a political dialogue with the local populations, the subjective disposition of the Guerrilleros had to get through a major reconfiguration. They had to give up conventional strategies of indoctrination and recruiting, where campaigners approach a specific population (which they identify as the actor of change) to generate “awareness”, and indicate the road towards political change – and where propaganda serves as a means of “splitting” and “colonising” subjects by exposing them to ideological content. Contrary to that, the encounter of the EZLN with the indigenous communities is immediately shaped by frictions, which force the two parts into exploring paths of reciprocity and exchange. “We sensed” says Marcos “that our political conception clashed with the political conception of the communities and was changing accordingly. This had also an impact on the cultural life of the EZLN, which was quite intense for a guerrilla unit. (…) Therefore we liked to joke about the fact that for being revolutionary cadres we were also quite round” (Marcos 2014).

This encounter produced a split internal to both the visited and the visiting subject, anticipating the autonomous and horizontal forms of organisation of the Zapatista societies. But it also defined the movement’s non-dogmatic ideological attitude, where researching and questioning are always privileged tools, as the slogan caminamos preguntando (asking we walk) illustrates.

One should notice that this mutual process of transformation has implications both for the use of language and for the act of translation. Indeed the indigenous languages describe reality with poetic elements that derive from a vivid oral tradition. This is also reflected in their way of appropriating Spanish, which is rich in allusive images and metaphors. Indeed simple words are insufficient when it comes to translating cosmologies. For instance the cry “Land and Freedom” which fired up the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and which was recuperated by the EZLN, has a broader implication in Nahuatl language, where the notion of “land” (tlali) also includes ideas of nature, the earth, and communal living. This is why ¡Tierra y Libertad! had such a great resonance amongst the indigenous people of Mexico, who see land as something more than just a means of production.

We found that the indigenous people handled the Spanish language with adherence to the meaning of things and with the use of images. We had to learn that different use of language in order to communicate with them, and they with us, and it also started having effects on the way we were speaking and writing. There came a time when we were talking ‘crooked’ as we used to say: sometimes starting the phrase with an adjective, sometimes not naming a thing but alluding to it through an image. So it happened that a new way of speaking took shape, which made the Zapatistas immediately identifiable. Of course, nobody was looking for us, but in the communities they could recognize who was a Zapatista by the way of speaking. [The way of speaking could even be used]to explain politics and war, which back then was just an uncertain future. (Marcos 2014)

This also includes the very rich visual language which integrated the resistance to the Spanish colonisation. For example, “when the Spanish conquistadors forced the people of highland Chiapas and Guatemala to wear distinct patterns to mark their home villages, allowing insurrectionaries to be quickly recognized and reckoned with, the native women fought back, everywhere, by weaving stunningly beautiful huipiles (Conant 2010,37). A good example of artistic response to oppression.

The Zapatista visual language is permeated with elements of the Mayan tradition and symbols born out of its encounter with the revolutionary project. For example the ski mask quickly became a symbol of identity and togetherness. It evokes ancestral resistance and the presence of death: the fact that “we need to die in order to live” as the Zapatistas always repeat. At the same time it constitutes a subversion of what Jacques Rancière (2004) has described as “distribution of the sensible”, that is the regime of conditions of possibility to perceive, think and act in a given social-historical situation. The Zapatistas are compelled to hide their faces to be named and recognised, and to drop the mask in order to hide.

The encounter with the Mayan cosmology is also present in more conventional artistic manifestations like muralism, the paintings of almost anonymous Zapatista peasant artists, and the works of Beatriz Aurora, which we exposed in Nottingham. Beatriz is an artist who since the mid-nineties has been very close to the EZLN. Her paintings can be seen as a sort of research into the visual aesthetics of Zapatismo. They also serve as a gateway for outsiders into their politics, their demands, and their history.

Last year, as I asked her which elements of her work are related to the “other world” envisioned by the Zapatistas, she argued: “each motif. For example, the colours that I use are omnipresent, starting from the clothes that they wear, which they themselves produce with ancestral designs. Their communities are small spaces where an enormous variety of living elements coexist: Zapatistas of all ages, recently harvested corn, young people playing guitar, cocoa and coffee drying in the sun. Everything is immersed in exuberant vegetation. All types of domestic animals are hanging around, moving in all directions. Each of these elements contributes to the production of a harmonic movement and sound, like a life-orchestra” (GIAP 2014, 67)

Granjas integrals zapatistas, Beatriz Aurora, 1997.

As I highlighted elsewhere (Arcos & Zagato 2014, 21) many of Beatriz Aurora’s paintings are characterised by the absence of perspective (or by a rudimental form of it), which reflects the author’s preoccupation with giving an equal status to each element of the composition. Her peculiar use of colours and elementary shapes gives a naïve undertone to her work, calling for a return to childhood, and fascination with the world and its possibilities.

“Life orchestra” is a good way of portraying the Zapatista political process, because it opposes life to the death brought about by corporate exploitation and destruction, and because it is organic to the day to day life of ordinary people. In the words of a South African shack dweller activist, this is a “politics of what is close and real to the people” (Zikode 2009), which does not start from a pre-existing theory (although it is not adverse to ideology as a referent), or a separated space, but from what people say, think and do from a point of view which is internal to a concrete situation.

From this approach, a unique type of politics has evolved experimenting with innovative notions of equality and social justice, which, although on a highly localized scale, go beyond the failure of earlier 20th century’s attempts. Since the mid-1990s, these experiments have replaced the movement’s initial ambitions of insurrectional victory and seizure of state power, crystallising in the egalitarian forms of organisation shaping the Zapatista society, which today counts with independent Juntas de Buen Gobierno (good government boards), healthcare system (including autonomously managed clinics and hospitals), education system and a collectively organised system of production. These social/political spaces are developing alongside the Mexican State but they are “asymmetrical” (John Holloway 2014:32) to its forms.


From the 22 to the 25 of May 2014 I went to La Realidad, one of the movement’s five political hubs, to participate in the tribute to José Luis Solís López, a Zapatista activist also known as Galeano, who had been murdered some weeks before by gunmen of the CIOAC-H, a paramilitary organisation controlled and financed by members of the federal government, as part of a broad counterinsurgent strategy. Here I will not get into the details of this story. I will exclusively focus on the last public appearance of Subcomandante Marcos, which took place alongside this event, and the communique that goes with it, as always very profound, poetic, and therefore open to multiple readings, in which this important figure announces his farewell.

As many already know Marcos has been the most visible exponent of the EZLN for the last 20 years, becoming an icon at international level. We know about him that since the day of the uprising he became the spokesperson of the EZLN, and that his interpretation of this role has dramatically evolved over the years. We also know that since the early stages he was a military leader of the EZLN.

IMAGE: Subcomandante Marcos in La Realidad, Zagato, 2014

The fact that his character was somehow exaggerated, theatrical, and that his public appearances were rather performative was clear to anybody. Zizek (2007, 7) himself mocked Marcos calling him a “Subcomediante” a Sub-comedian, criticising what he perceives as an inadequate revolutionary approach. But that the EZLN suddenly, in the context of a funeral, would decide to get rid of this figure was definitely a surprise. For one thing, this is something that goes against any “conventional” political logic of power and revolution. When a state wants to dismantle a subversive organization, don’t they try and get read of its leader? Why would the Zapatistas feel the necessity to renounce to one of the symbols that made them famous internationally, one with such a great appeal?

Since months the EZLN had blurted out that Marcos was severely ill. The mainstream media were gossiping on the nature of the illness. Some even insinuated that, in reality, the leadership of the EZLN was affected by internal conflict. In the afternoon of the 24th, in La Realidad, Marcos lead a military horse parade in honour of Galeano where all the participants were wearing a pirate bandage, and his was decorated with the image of a skull. For all these reasons when the 24th of May, at midnight, he starts reading his communique announcing that “these will be the final words that I speak in public before I cease to exist” (EZLN 2014) a concerned silence spreads throughout the audience.

Marcos continues his speech by addressing a multidimensional process of change that the EZLN has experienced over the last two decades, and which, according to him, few observers have realized. This change involves categories like class: “from the enlightened middle class to the indigenous peasant”; race: “from mestizo leadership to a purely indigenous leadership”; but also a change in thinking: “from revolutionary vanguardism to ruling by obeying; from taking power above to the creation of power from below; from professional politics to everyday politics; from the leaders to the people; from gender marginalization to direct participation of women; from mocking the other to celebration of difference” (EZLN 2014).

This analysis leads him to asking why there are still so many people in Mexico, including intellectuals, politicians, and activists, who despite affirming that history is made by the people get so frightened in the face of an existing popular government where “specialists” are nowhere to be seen. Why, asks Marcos, “are they so terrified when the people rule, when they are the ones to determine their own steps?” (EZLN 2014).

To provide an answer to these questions, Marcos refers back to the uprising of January 1st 1994, when the troops of the EZLN descended on the cities of Chiapas and shook the world with their steps. During the following days the rebels started realising that something weird, probably unexpected, was going on: “those from outside did not see us” (EZLN 2014). The Zapatistas felt that civil society was unable to understand the real nature of their uprising. “Used to being looked down on from above, the indigenous didn’t lift their gaze to look at us. Being used to looking at the other in humiliation, their heart did not understand our dignified rebellion. Their gaze had stopped on the only mestizo wearing a ski mask [i.e. Marcos], that is, they didn’t see” (ibid.).

This, he reveals, is the moment in the history of the movement when the “construction of the figure of Marcos” started. The reasons to do so are clear: racism, 500 years of exploitation and humiliation, but also political vanguardism prevent people from really recognising what a few thousand indigenous peasants have been capable of. This includes parts of the left, “because there is also racism on the left, above all among that left which claims to be revolutionary” (ibid.).

As a solution to this problem of visibility, the movement resorted to an aesthetic creation which would operate as a tool of symbolic mediation between the indigenous uprising and society, i.e. between two incompatible cosmologies. “If I had to define Marcos the character”, he claims, “I would say without a doubt that he was a colourful ruse. We could say, so that you understand me, that Marcos was Non-Free Media” (ibid.). This is a crucial statement because it articulates a (self-)critique of the aesthetic-political meaning of the “construction of Marcos”. By saying that his image, as a medium, is not free, Marcos alludes to the fact that it belongs in part to the domain of power - that it was assembled in order to infiltrate it.

With Guy Debord (1994) one may argue that the image of Marcos is “spectacular”, as it belongs to an abstract regime of production and social relations in which images play a structural role of separation, mediation and neutralisation. In Society of Spectacle (Debord 1994) images organize social relations so as to reinforce the separation of the individuals from the reality of their conditions of existence, in spheres such as production, necessities, affections, desire, and so on. They push individuals into a process of becoming abstract, within an impersonal common sense domain that Tiqqun has defined as “publicity”. Through publicity “the liberal State gives transparency to the fundamental opacity of the population” (Tiqqun 2010) and can manage it more effectively.

As I said, the figure of Marcos was projected into the space of publicity to build a bridge between the Zapatista uprising and society. It responded to the need to aesthetically reframe the Zapatista political process according to a more familiar and comfortable revolutionary imaginary, one that could be appealing, since it reproduced racial and class hierarchies (including a white, male, educated leadership). Nevertheless, this image was the product of an abstraction – i.e. a separation - from the real of the movement. To some extent, the construction of Marcos betrayed the uprising because it lied about its nature and composition. Over the years the figure of Marcos ended up assuming an almost detached existence in the domain of publicity, and it was in part appropriated and spectacularised by the media, with depoliticizing effects on it.

In a text of 1851 a French worker criticised the stereotyped way in which the big artists (and socialist propaganda) were representing the figure of the worker: “The severe pose of the metal worker provides for some admirable studies. The Flemish and Dutch schools have shown us how it might be used to good advantage by a Rembrandt or a Van Ostade. But we cannot forget that the workers who served as models for those admirable paintings lost the use of their eyes at a fairly early age, and that fact ruins some of the pleasure we experience when we contemplate the works of those great masters” (Ranciere 1989,5) . This is to say that the aesthetic abstraction of the metal worker tends to omit the misery of factory work. On the other hand, argues Rancière, “The ample, manly poetry depicted on workers' faces by the painters of tempered steel is not simply the mask of worker misery. It is the price paid for the abandonment of a dream: that is, another place in the world of images” (ibid. 5). The image produced as propaganda or “publicity”, operates a mystifying and repressive effect on the represented subject (the worker, or the revolutionary indigenous peasant) because it prevents her liberation by assigning her to a specific condition, a specific place in the world of images. “To keep the worker in his place”, says Rancière, “the real-life hierarchy must have its double in an imaginary hierarchy, the latter undermining the former not so much by offering emblems of popular power as by introducing duplicity into the very core of the worker's activity in his place” (ibid. 9).

Similar to this stereotypical worker’s representation, the figure of Marcos the Revolutionary leader” mystifies the reality of the Zapatista movement (in terms of race, class, and structure), but it also tends to assign the Zapatista rebel to a specific place in the world of images. The farewell of Marcos can be seen as a subversion of this dynamics. It constitutes a sort of aesthetic depuration, which moves the attention to the bases and the process of construction of a real egalitarian power from below. With this impressive step, Uruguayan sociologist Raul Zibechi (2014) has argued that “the Zapatistas set the bar very high, higher than it has ever been set by any political force”. Indeed it is not at the level of the military leadership (which Marcos aesthetically represented) that the political challenge of Zapatismo is being played, but in the process of construction of autonomy, i.e. in the creation of a power from below, of a day-to-day politics, organic, and for all.

Alessandro Zagato is a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC-project “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons” at the University of Bergen, Department of Social Anthropology. Information on his publications and research activity can be found on his Blog

[1] For more information please visit

[2] Typical female dress.

[3] The paintings of Beatriz are usually reproduced as posters and sold to the tourists visiting San Cristobal de las Casas and the proceeds are donated to the EZLN.

[4] The state of Chiapas owns almost one third of the republic’s surface waters, and its dams supply between one-third and one-half of the country’s hydroelectric power. Chiapas also owns still unexploited petroleum reserves, one of the highest percentages of forest, and it has the highest rate of deforestation in Mexico.

[5] In my blog I have written a report on my trip to La Realidad and an article on the political context of the murder of Galeano, both of them in Spanish. Please visit


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