Janet Smith and Don Kirby / Claire O’Brien 2013
The last Americans who were caught where the Great Depression met the Dust Bowl will be gone in another decade or so, taking their singular and historic childhoods with them. The memories of children always have a distinctive and revealing slant, and draw me like a magnet. So I felt lucky when two old friends invited a stranger to pull up a chair as they settled in to compare Depression experiences at the plucky Sierra County Senior Center in southern New Mexico.
Tuning out the instructive voice of a Tai Chi teacher and the routine clack of a swift game of 9-Ball, Don Kirby and Janet Smith quickly zeroed in on the kinds of shared memories that take root in human bone, such as prolonged periods of hunger over several years, and the shock of discovering adult powerlessness. But they eventually agreed that the Depression had done no real damage to Kirby, while impacting Smith’s life in long-term, often profound ways. What made all the difference, the two told me, was the small Kirby family’s ability to squeak by and remain together – an impossibility for the very large extended Smith family, crowded together on the same land. Here are both the story, and the stories: at least the way I heard them.
Don Kirby was born into a world of blowing dust. His father grew dryland wheat in the Texas panhandle, near the little town of Vega, where Kirby and the Depression arrived together in 1930.
He remembers dreaming of fields of wheat when he was four years old. Kirby had never seen a field of wheat – or of anything else - but he knew what everything in the world revolved around. Like the other young children of the Dust Bowl, Kirby understood the life-and-death stakes for those who had gambled everything to remain behind on farms half buried in dust.
Either they would outlast the dust and bring the land to life again – or the dust would outlast them.
So the region held its breath while dust piled into drifts three and four feet high, surrounding the Kirby farm and waiting for the next high wind to send it on its way.
“I remember one of the worst dust storms we ever had, just as easy as I remember yesterday,” said Kirby,” I mean it’s that clear in my mind. I was nine years old and I was outside playing. I heard my mother shouting and shrieking,”Get in the house! Get in the house!”
Kirby looked at the horizon once, and ran.
“It was the the most gigantic dust cloud you can imagine, too huge to describe – like it couldn’t even be from earth”, he said. “It looked like the whole universe was attacking us. And it was headed straight for us. My mother yelled for us kids to get into her bed, then she covered us from head to toe with a pile of blankets, taking particular care to block our eyes, noses, and ears.”
Kirby added that during the storm, the entire house was so packed with dust that it was impossible to see his hand in front of his face.
‘You were blind. You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “After the storm had passed, my parents spent hours and hours taking buckets of dirt out of the house.”
ΔΔΘ _______________________________________ ΘΔΔ
With no way to raise a crop, Kirby’s father took every kind of job he could get, hiring himself out to anyone who would pay a dollar or two. His focus was solely on feeding his family, but in spite of his efforts, his children were often hungry.
“Of course I remember. You don’t ever forget hunger, not ever,” said Kirby. “When I was about six, my mother asked me what I planned on doing when I grew up. ‘I’m going to eat,’ I told her, ‘When I grow up, I’m just going to sit and eat.’
However, Kirby was always aware that his parents did the very best they could to provide food.
“No matter how young I was, I knew how hard my father was trying – of course I did,” he said. “So I understood that I was going to be hungry, and there was nothing more to be done. Mama would put a tablespoon of sugar in tall glasses of water, as cold as she could get it, and tell us to drink up fast to fool our stomachs. It worked, too - for a bit of a while anyway. So the trick was to hop into bed and get to sleep before it wore off.”
Kirby paused briefly.
“I hated seeing Mama and Daddy feeling so bad about it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d tell them a story, maybe how my teacher had given the class a government sandwich, or one of the Amirillo churches had sent up cold boiled potatoes to the school. I’m not sure if they believed me, but they always made out like they did – you see, they didn’t want me feeling bad neither.”
But Kirby also recalled his father’s triumphant returns, carrying as much as a bushels of potatos, or food he’d exchanged for long days of labor: beans, eggs, biscuits, flour, dried fruit and coffee.
While still a small boy, Kirby learned that when everyone is in need, everyone shares. In fact, watching his hungry parents share their food with strangers is one of his strongest memories.
“There’s one time I can still see so clear,” he said softly. “A man came to the door and said to my mother, ‘M’am, I’m very hungry.’ You could tell that just by looking at him. Mama told him to wait.”
The family had just slaughtered a hog – a very rare event – and Kirby’s mother prepared a large plate of food for the traveller.
“Mama cooked him up some eggs, meat, and biscuits, and he ate real fast, but then he took a deep breath and stopped when he was halfway through. He packed the rest of the food carefully away in a pouch he wore around his neck,” Kirby remembered,”He said to Mama ‘I don’t have any money – but God will pay you for this.”
Kirby’s mother remembered what the hungry man had told her for the rest of her life.
“It made her happy to think of it,” he said. “And now, it makes me happy.”
These days, Kirby is still sharing food. It makes him happy. He’s 84 years old, and he works two acres now – but he really works those acres. He cuts, chops, splits,
and stacks wood. He has a small orchard of apple, quince, and plum trees, and a big garden. Every year, Kirby gives away bushels and bushels of vegetables and fruit..
He thinks of his parents with every delivery.
“Mama worked until she was 95, and she lived to be 101″ he said. “On her 100th birthday, I bent over her and said “Mama! You’re 100!” She thought for a minute, and then she kind of cocked her head and looked up at me, wondering, like a little old child,’
‘Am I really 100?’ Mama asked. “Am I really?”
Kirby looked into the distance, smiling to himself, and then he chuckled loudly.
Janet Smith grew up in a poor Nebraska farm family, among people who took pride in their ability to make it through hard times. But the Depression wasn’t just hard times. The Depression killed people.
Janet leaned forward in her chair to emphasize her point.
“Today, there’s really no way of understanding what is was like,” she said.
” I mean people lost absolutely everything but the clothes on their backs,” Smith continued. “ My grandparents had spent their entire lives in endless labor, building up their farm, and raising ten children. My father was the oldest, and was set to inherit it. And then it was gone – all of it, everything. There was nothing left”.
Smith believes that the loss broke her family, because the farm was the center of their lives. Her grandfather soon died, and her grandmother took a small house in the nearby town of Elmo, while her father searched desperately for work - any work. His siblings held out as long as they could, trying to make one last go of the farm.
“They just couldn’t. They had nothing,” said Smith. “They couldn’t feed the stock. When the horses starved to death, I think that was what finally did it. They were in agony, watching the horses suffer, but they kept holding off just one more day, thinking they’d surely find something the horses could eat by then.”
Smith was six years old in 1941. The Depression was officially over, or at least departing well ahead of schedule, propelled by the momentum of the war industries as the U.S. entered World War II. But the recovery didn’t reach places like rural Nebraska in time to make a difference for children like Smith. For them, the Great Depression was far from over - and in fact, for many Americans it has never ended.
Still unemployed, Smith’s father was drafted and deployed overseas, leaving their severely depressed mother overwhelmed and withdrawn. Local authorities declared her incompetent and gave custody of the children to the state, citing reports that the young Smiths were roaming the streets at any hour of the night or day that struck their fancy.
“Sometimes we looked for food and a lot of the time we just roamed about and explored,” Smith said.”We felt free at night, like we had the world to ourselves. Although I admit we didn’t turn down many opportunities to make little pests of ourselves.”
Without the family’s knowledge, arrangements were being made to order the siblings placed in an orphanage, many miles away in the Nebraska town of York.
Mother Jewel’s Orphanage
Seventy years after authorities banged on the door one Nebraska morning in 1941, Janet Smith hasn’t forgiven them for yanking a little girl from her mother, and forcing her into a car with strangers. She remembers screaming for an hour straight.
“Throughout the long drive, they kept telling us we’d be eating nothing but bread and water until we were eighteen. I’ve never been that terrified. I knew grown-ups aren’t supposed to treat a first grader like that,” Smith said.
The bread and water part turned out to be a cruel joke, but the indifferent coldness of the orphanage staff stunned Kirby. She remembers
thinking,” I’m too little for this!”
“Well, they fed and clothed us, and taught us the basics in school,” Kirby said. “We got a bed to sleep in. But they never showed us a slight kindness, or even smiled at us. No sign of feeling. They were distant and cold, and every orphanage child knew they didn’t care about us”
For the next three years, Smith and her brothers prayed every day that they wouldn’t share the fate of those kids whose parents had never returned for them. They knew she had problems, but they loved their mother, and were certain she wanted them back.
The sandbox in Mother Jewel’s playground
They were right. Smith’s mother had never given up her efforts to get her children back.
Several months after the little girl’s ninth birthday, she and her brothers moved with their mother into a small house in the town of Huntley, NB. It had no running water, but the children didn’t care. They could take hot baths at their nearby grandmother’s house, and return with water for their mother.
“All that mattered to us was being a normal family, living with our own mother in a normal house,” said Smith.
But it soon became clear to the children that their mother remained too depressed to care for them properly, nor to manage the small house. They staggered under the blow – but the Smith children did not fall. They had learned some hard lessons about the world during those three years in the orphanage, and were determined to remain free of official clutches. Older, tougher, bigger, and extremely watchful, the siblings had become experienced housekeepers, janitors, and yard workers who could cook well enough to get by.
“We were angry, I guess we felt sad and sort of cheated -but we also knew it wasn’t our mother’s fault,” said Smith. “She’d done the best thing she could manage for all for us – she’d gotten us out of there. And by then, we had this attitude that told people to stay away from us. They learned not to talk about our mother and pretty much let us alone, especially seeing as Grandma lived a few blocks away.”
Their hopes rose when their father was discharged from the army, but he returned only long enough to get a railroad job that kept him away from home most of the time. The children rarely saw him, and when they did he remained a remote figure. They knew he had a drinking problem. All their aunts and uncles, the nine brothers and sisters who had grown up together on that lost farm, drifted apart and away, taking the children’s cousins with them.
“Our mother never recovered and we took care of everything from then on, but still we knew she loved us,” said Smith. “Our father was never the same again. None of my uncles and aunts were either. They were from generations of farmers, you see. They were never meant to be town people, or soldiers or railroad men. And what can children do about something like that?”
Their father’s return brought one crucial change, however: his job with the railroad was steady and he sent most of his pay to his family. It was enough to keep them afloat, and although they had to watch every penny, they didn’t go hungry again.
“Knowing our father was feeding us told us a lot,” said Smith. “Eventually, that was enough. It had to be.”
OO ________________________________________ OO
The Smith children resolved the issue of the adult world by turning their backs on it and immersing themselves in play. They constructed and navigated various kinds of rafts, and spent weeks at a time building things. Their father had left them his tools, and her oldest brother knew how to use them. He taught his siblings, who had to prove their competence tool by tool before getting the green light to use each one independently.
“For a long time, I was stuck with sandpaper, a small hammer, and nails that someone else had nailed halfway in, so I wouldn’t bend them,” said Smith, who was the baby of the family. ”I rebelled, though, so finally they let me saw. To this day, I refuse to use sandpaper. My very favorite thing was how we’d frame a small pane of glass, you know the kind that are about six by eight inches, and make one tiny window.”
The builders installed the little windows in treehouses complete with roofs and railed porches, while the woods below were spotted with Smith clubhouses, each with a signature chimney made of a small piece of pipe, leading to a tiny working stove. The children also built cars from wooden crates equipped with an odd assortment of wheels, and raced recklesly down steep inclines without benefit of brakes. They played a lot of baseball, and raced the river as soon as it froze, like a flock of birds on their homemade ice-skates
”We loved fishing too; we’d clean and fry those fish right where we caught ’em. If it was a nice night, we’d sleep out - and we swam at all hours,” Janet remembered.
She thought for a moment.
“Overall, it wasn’t the best childhood, but I think we did a good job with what we had,” she said. ”We missed out on a lot, but we also created our own freedom, because we knew how to play. The secret to being a kid on your own is to take that time and PLAY. Just play your heart out, because you’ll never get another chance to do it again.”
Smith married at 16. She knew she was too young, but felt she couldn’t wait for a normal family of her own. Later that year, her first child was born.
That was the beginning of another story about another family.
Today, Smith is a fixture at the Senior Center, where she’s volunteered for 20 years. Everyone knows her. She’s spunky and smart, and knows how to get things done.
“I understand the past, but I don’t live there,” she said.”I’m too busy living in the present. I’m very active in the Senior Olympics and in the First Christian Church. I stay busy, basically – I help out wherever I’m needed”
She was too modest to reveal the number of gold medals she’s collected over the years – but we do know this much: Janet Smith won the Sierra County Senior Olympics Spirit Award three times.
That strikes me as the sort of medal a community of people might give to someone they value and love – not so much because she’s helpful, but because she is home.
Re-blogged this on Electrica in the Desert
Originally posted on dorset chiapas solidarity:
“Today we start our activities in Atenco again, we need the hands of everyone” – Trinidad Ramirez.
“The message is simple. It is to say to our people, our people of Atenco, our people of Mexico who are in struggle, our brothers and sisters who defend a right with a reason, that we are here. That we have not gone away. That our struggle continues. That today we re-start our activities in Atenco and that to do so, as always, we need the hands of everyone. Today those people are here strengthening our struggle, those who have always given us their hand, those who have believed in us, those who do not see us as someone who preaches without basis, who asks for rights without foundation.”
This is a story about three of the best friends I ever had. We met long ago in a job training program run by the Salvation Army in San Francisco. Wei Phanh was a Vietnamese immigrant, Jesse was a middle-aged Chicano man who’d fallen off the wagon after 15 years of sobriety, and Judith L. was recently sober, a Jewish artist from Brooklyn, New York. My own qualifications were simply Low Income Uneducated Youth. I don’t know if those are still qualifications, but they were enough to get me in the door - long ago.
Long ago, San Francisco was far away. It was not always a white, gentrified, compound with the highest real estate prices in the nation.
It was first a city of conquest and thus had a huge Latino neighborhood, the Mission District, which was filled with large exterior murals, flowers, baskets of fruit for sale, salsa and mariachi bands, parades, Caporera masters and their students, drumming groups, churches, and restaurants with Christmas lights twinkling all year round.
The Virgin Mary was everywhere in the Mission District. So were poor people.
The Fillmore was a historically African-American neighborhood, beautifully described by Maya Angelou throughout her autobiographical series. Chinatown was exactly that, and as old as the city itself. Fishermen and bakers lived and worked in Little Italy, and the descendents of hippies had expanded the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic to a major municipal health service.
The Tenderloin was a genuine slum, with people laying on the sidewalk, either napping or passed out, open drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. Many Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants also lived there, working 18-hour-days to keep small businesses open.
Gay men had flocked to the city’s Castro District by the thousands, refugees from the towns and cities that despised them, and lesbians had established a very viable but smaller and far less dominant presence in the Mission. They had elected a gay mayor, seen him murdered in cold blood and had rioted in the streets, setting San Francisco on fire and putting the nation on notice.
Working-class white people lived in the Avenues on the city’s western edge. Rich people, mostly white, lived in places like Pacific Heights and Nob Hill, and seemed to understand that although they owned mansions in these exquisite places, they didn’t own San Francisco itself - which, being a peninsula, has a very finite amount of land.
Long ago, San Francisco was packed with exiles. You could say freely that you didn’t suit the people and circumstances of your origins and just receive a smile and a nod of recognition. My friend, Akamu, had been kicked out of his family home at gunpoint at the age of 14 for being gay. My friend Johann had been locked up at 16 for being sad, and my friend Lisa had been officially and legally un-adopted by her family when she was 17.
New people were in a daze for at least a month, as they slowly figured out that defective kids were evidently some kind of national plague. Most arrived convinced that they were one of a handful of shameful freaks – but clearly, countless other families had also been forced to eject a bad apple from their midst. It was common to meet people who had been abused, marginalized, kicked out, objected to and silenced - people who just didn’t fit in and didn’t have the sense to hide it. They had failed to please, they had missed the boat, troublemakers who had seen too much and could not pretend they hadn’t. They were resisters, yet were easilly tricked by every cheap offer posing as hope. They had been on the wrong side, they had lost the war, then found their way again - and quickly lost it.
The most important things they learned long ago in San Francisco were that they knew the truth – and would be believed.
But the most important thing they did was to have fun.
Φ ~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~_~ Φ
About 25 of them, including me, gathered daily in the San Francisco Salvation Army training center ( South of Market) under the tutelage of an old man named Cecil and learned how to be printers on an old AB Dick press. We did everything from layout to processing film to inking up the press and collating our final efforts: Salvation Army flyers and newsletters. Actually, only a few people got to really learn. And for some inexplicable reason, I was one of them.
That’s because from the moment I first walked in the door, the program’s real leaders, Wei Phan, Jesse G. and Judith L. embraced me. Don’t ask me why. Jesse and Judith had been through very hard times, and Wei had survived the trauma of an obscenely destructive war. Yet, the three of them took me in and, well … indulged me.
Maybe it was my extreme youth: Jesse and Judith were in their early forties, old enough to be my parents, and Wei was in his mid-thirties. Maybe it was my crew cut (I was in love with Sinead O’Connor), my skateboard, my loud expressions of political passion, my ungrateful attitude towards the Salvation Army or my suggestions that we unionize, which were met with huge amusement. Maybe it was because I had arrived in San Francisco alone with $100 in my pocket.
Maybe it was because I was an exile.
Whatever the reason, for the first time in my life, I was part of the in-crowd.
Φ ————— Δ ————— Φ
Jesse was the most maternal person I’ve ever met. Before falling off the wagon, he had worked for the city health department, driving around the city in a van picking up drunks and bringing them to detox. He missed his job passionately – and San Francisco’s street alcoholics missed him. The police deferred to Jesse’s judgement before hauling drunks off to detox on their own: if he said a guy wasn’t ready because he had to have some alcohol in his system ASAP, they’d leave the guy alone and Jesse would buy him a pint. Then he’d pick the guy up in a few hours or maybe the next morning and take him in.
Jesse took care of his guys with great tenderness. He loved them. And he treated me with the same tenderness. He should have been somebody’s mother.
Judith brought me healthy snacks and made me earrings and listened to stories about my obscure band and its tiny gigs as if we were the Rolling Stones. We’d sit on high stools, peacefully taping film on layout sheets and discuss Brooklyn, art, the High Holidays, and communism.
Wei was incredibly, incredibly gracious. Every morning, I entered the shop, yelled “Chou anh, Mr. Phanh!” and skated over to him while Cecil yelled at me to get the hell off that damn skateboard and Wei turned his head to muffle his laughter. For some reason, he found me to be hilarious and it went right to my head: there was nothing I loved more than making Wei Phanh laugh. As soon as I saw him, I practically went on stage and he encouraged me by chortling at every stunt I pulled. Irreverence struck Wei’s funny bone with particular force: he was basically responsible for my imitations of the Salvation Army captain ringing a Christmas bell in July for Jesus, the private sector, the conversion of Asia and democracy
Wei was by far the most advanced student, and the only person Cecil allowed to run the press alone. He took great pains to teach me, and was infinitely patient and skillful. We never discussed the Vietnam War, as Wei made it clear that he did not want to. Sometimes he cooked delicious little dumplings for us. I gave him a t-shirt with a logo of a band called the Lemonheads; Wei thought it was hysterical and wore it all the time.
____ o ____ o ____ o ____ o____
I think of those days as a glorious kind of blessing. As the old press rumbled along, my friends and I made sure the rollers were evenly inked, and then inspected our work with pride. We ate dumplings and oranges, played spades, sat so close together our shoulders and knees touched, and told one another stories.
Outside was our city - blooming, feisty, nervy, outrageous and welcoming.
___ 0 ___ 0___ 0 ___ 0 __ 0 ___
)O( )O( )O( )O( )O(
Understanding these issues should make every American feel a new responsibility for what it means to be an heir to conquest.
Anywhere near El Paso? Please come by!
If not, Harvest of Empire is widely available, and has also been made into a documentary that will knock your socks off.
Añade tus pensamientos aquí… (opcional)
El 15.01.2014 el Secretario de Estado John Kerry, se entrevistó con su homologo del Vaticano Monseñor Pietro Parolin, a quien expuso entre otras cuestiones la situación del norteamericano Alan Gross, condenado a 15 años de cárcel en Cuba en 2011, por actividades subversivas contra la estabilidad del Estado, algo que niega su Gobierno a toda costa.
Reblogged on Electrica in The Desert
Originally posted on dorset chiapas solidarity:
Thousands of people flocked to Oventic, one of the Zapatistas’ five political centers, to celebrate the new year and the 20-year anniversary of the armed uprising. (WNV/Moysés Zúñiga Santiago)We were in the Los Altos mountains in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. It was cold, foggy, and there was a light drizzle, making it nearly impossible to discern what was just a few meters away. Long lines of people appeared with backpacks and camping gear, waiting to enter Oventic, the headquarters of one of the Zapatistas’ five main communities, known as caracoles, or “snails” in Spanish. This caracol is titled “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity.”
On December 31, 2013, the Good Government Council of Oventic received people from the surrounding indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal communities, as well as those who came from other corners of Mexico and the world, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Zapatistas’ armed uprising on January 1, 1994.
Out of the five Zapatista caracoles, Oventic is the closest to the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the cultural center of Chiapas. It serves as the meetings place for many international visitors and for those who come to celebrate the new year in solidarity with the Zapatista movement. Yet, unlike most years, Oventic was overflowing with visitors. Not only was it the 20th anniversary of the armed uprising, but thousands of students attending the second and third rounds of the escuelita, the little school of liberty, had recently arrived in Zapatista territory.
It was a joyful celebration, full of rebellion and color, in spite of the fog’s attempt to hide the lively murals on the walls of Zapatista offices or the rainbow of colors on the traditional Tzeltal hats. The musical group Los Originales de San Andrés began to play on stage as night fell, their revolutionary ballads tracing the past and present of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, known as the EZLN.
This narrative ballad style, called corridos, has a long history in Mexico. It is perhaps the best format for telling the story of the Zapatista struggle: from the organization’s inception on November 17, 1983, to the 1994 uprising and occupation of five Chiapas municipal government offices, all the way through the bloodiest battles, such as battle of Ocosingo, and the sad, widely-mourned death of Subcomandante Pedro, one of the movement’s leaders. The lyrics to their songs also explain how the Good Government Councils began 10 years ago and how they are organized today.
Zapatista bands performed at the 20-year anniversary of the armed uprising. (WNV/Marta Molina)
The last two songs performed by Los Originales were dedicated to the 20 years of devastation and displacement caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by Mexico, the United States and Canada on January 1, 1994, at the behest of transnational corporations.
“They should go, once and for all!” Los Originales cried. “And those who are here,” they said, referring to the Zapatistas, “They should stay.”
The celebration continued joyfully with dancing and music. As the Zapatista leadership expressed in a recent communique, “Resistance, friends and enemies, is not only the legacy of the neozapatistas. It is the legacy of humanity. And that is something that must be celebrated, everywhere, every day, and at all hours. Because resistance is also a celebration.”
A little before 9 p.m., those on stage announced the entrance of the Mexican and Zapatista flags so that those present could pay homage. An equal number of Zapatista men and women participated in the ceremony, singing first the Mexican national anthem and then the Zapatista anthem. Next came the highlight of the evening: Comandanta Hortensia, a woman of small stature but with a potent, confident and energetic voice, read a communique on behalf of the Zapatista leadership. It explained, in Spanish, that although indigenous peoples were “forgotten, suppressed into ignorance and misery … 20 years ago, we made it known, before the nation and the world, that we exist, that we are here.”
On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in arms against the Mexican government, at the time headed by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and against an unjust, neoliberal social system.
In the EZLN’s first First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in 1993, the army’s general command wrote, ”In accordance with this declaration of war, we ask the other powers of the nation to come together to restore legitimacy and stability to the nation by deposing the dictator.”
While those in power toasted to the promises of modernity and the enactment of the North America Free Trade Agreement, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas launched a 12-day armed insurrection against the Mexican army. The demands of these indigenous Mayan communities were no less than a new world with work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice and peace. Their objective was to to attain these basic demands with a free and democratic government.
Working towards autonomy
Although the EZLN issued a communique saying that mass media journalists would not be welcome at the festivities, they arrived anyway, ready to evaluate the Zapatistas’ advances and shortcomings and to photograph the faces covered by ski masks or bandanas.
The organization has been judged and analyzed by myriad commercial media sources in Mexico. Despite never having spent a significant amount of time with them and not having followed their trajectory over the decades, the media has published long specials and supplements about their achievements and their errors, pulling out archived photos and old interviews with the so-called spokesperson of the organization, Subcomandante Marcos. Some outlets even featured interviews with his supposed girlfriends.
However, it isn’t easy to capture the essence of this movement, which is one of the reasons that they began inviting thousands of outsiders to the escuelita so the world could witness the movement’s progress unmediated by mainstream media. At the new year’s celebration, the Zapatistas continued to tell their own vision of this nuanced history — their story, their errors and their lives and deaths — through the voice of Comandante Hortensia.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t have anything, no health or education services for our communities,” she began. “No community could elect its own authorities without these officials being recognized or controlled by political parties. No community could impeach their authorities when they did not meet their obligations, or when they became corrupt and manipulative, because they were backed by the state and federal governments. There was not a single level of authority that was truly there to serve the people.”
Today, 20 years later, Zapatista communities have their own autonomous governments at the local, municipal and regional levels, and the community has no interaction with the official Mexican government. “Whether it’s done well or badly, the government represents the decision and the will of the people to choose their own authorities and to take away their authority when necessary,” she added.
During her speech on behalf of the Zapatista leadership, Hortensia highlighted the organization’s achievements. One of the most important: The community has begun to live its own version of autonomy and liberty. “This is the building of our own autonomy, this is democracy, liberty, equality, and justice in action, and it continues on its path and nothing can stop it,” she said.
The elders have been sharing their knowledge and experiences with the younger generations in order to prepare them to both resist and govern. Much remains to be done, said Hortensia, “but we are sure that [our struggle] will advance, because it is based upon true democracy, liberty and justice.”
The war continues
One January 12, 1994, the Mexican government declared a unilateral ceasefire in Chiapas as a first step towards peace negotiations. The EZLN agreed to participate in the negotiations, but its conditions and demands were never met by the Mexican government. Instead, the organization set out to meet its needs on its own, and began building autonomous programs to fulfill their demands.
Meanwhile, the army and the paramilitaries never left the state of Chiapas. Even today, these forces continue a fierce secret war of counterinsurgency. In spite of the ceasefire declared in 1994, which the EZLN has honored, the Mexican government has instead sought to eliminate and intimidate the communities that act as the base of support for the EZLN. As Hortensia recounted on new year’s, the government’s paramilitaries and politicians have harassed, provoked, displaced, threatened, and robbed the EZLN’s bases of support. Today, the government is trying to force the Zapatistas off the lands they recuperated from plantation owner and cattle ranchers during the uprising in 1994, and those who resist displacement are sometimes jailed and even murdered for defending themselves.
The Zapatistas have resisted these attacks without using their weapons. As Comandante Hortensia explained, “We have the best weapons to fight against that which is bad, to fight death and build a new life for all: Our weapons are resistance, rebellion, truth, justice, and reason, all of which are on our side.”
To enrich and strengthen their resistance and autonomy, the Zapatistas have invited three rounds of students for the first level of the escuelita. In total, approximately 6,700 people from all over the world have come and spent five days living with Zapatista families, sharing their homes, listening to their stories and experiencing their autonomy.
What is to come
The Zapatistas know that the government will continue to attack their movement.
“We are clear that these bad governments will continue spending millions of dollars to finance war, to continue their counterinsurgency programs with the objective of destroying the resistance of the Zapatista communities,” Hortensia said. “That’s why every presidential administration our state and country are falling further into debt — because they are financing a war against indigenous peoples and against all of the social sectors that fight to defend their rights and improve the conditions of their lives.”
But, the movement is also confident that it is supported by people across the world who agree with, and want to further, this vision of autonomy. The Zapatistas are convinced that there are thousands of men and women, children and adults, representing all races, languages, levels of society and cultures throughout the world who are ready and willing to fight for a better world wherein many worlds are possible, where liberty reigns, and justice is a right for all.
And now, more than 20 years after first launching onto the global stage, the Zapatistas are continuing to work towards this goal, autonomously, without depending on the government.