xWayichinel-Lum-K’inal: The Liberated Territories of the Zapatista Struggle




The Zapatista fight for political existence in Chiapas is often considered as a model for other Indigenous struggles. In this text, Juan López Intzin does not just describe the spatial dimension of this political fight, he also gives us a Tseltal philosophical lexicon to understand how space is conceptualized within it.

Translated from Spanish by Irmgard Emmelheinz.

My grandparents, uncles and father worked for the coffee plantations at El Soconusco. My father grew up in that area because he was orphaned at a very young age. Geographically speaking, El Soconusco is located in the Southern region of Chiapas, Mexico. The region is characterized by its mild climate and prominent coffee, banana and cacao plantations. Many Mayan peoples speakers of languages like Tseltal and Tsotsil from the Chiapas Heights, worked for decades in this region. An uncle from my father’s side, kept one of the plantations and still lives there. Before the Zapatista irruption, he would sometimes come back to the Heights of Chiapas and, with a fixed gazed on the horizon, he would say: “One day we will be free, one day these lands will be ours”. The idea that we would someday “be free” was not only the wish or dream of that man, but also coincided with a saying by women Tseltal speakers: “Ta jun k’alil ya xlekub jkuxlejaltik, ta jun k’alil ya xkolotik ta uts’inel, xa’wil awil” [One day our life will be more dignified, one day we will be liberated from oppression, you will see]. I wanted to begin this text with this brief introduction because it will give a sense to whomever reads this, about who writes and from where, a speaking site prefigured also in the title of this essay taking up a Tseltal Mayan term — Tseltal being one of the eleven originary languages that are spoken in Chiapas.

First Zapatista ecological reserve “Huitepec.” / Photo by Nacho Fradejas Garcia (July 2007).

As I write, the “open veins” of Chiapas quiver, together with all those in the Mexican territory. Not only because in the most recent elections the majority of local Chiapas politicians together with others from other states throughout Mexico joined president elect Andrés Manuel Lópes Obrador’s boat. Political power has found its place adjusting itself to the measure of the loving republic uttered and presented to our gazes in the horizon.

Chiapas and Mexico are also quivering because they are being choked by the extractive economic policy in which the national commons concentrated within originary peoples’ territories have been auctioned in the international market to the highest bidders. The destiny of the people in our villages who defend our territories is jail in the best case scenario, forced disappearance is the worst, with the purpose of inflicting pain and fear amongst family members and amongst other people in struggle. Mexico, a country rich in biological diversity, as well as culturally speaking, is not only deep into inequality in all realms (political, economic, juridical, epistemic, cultural, in terms of access to justice, full exercise of human rights, etc.) is quivering because of the crisis that has been going on for decades. As it is the backyard or main retaining wall of our northern neighbor, Mexico is globally known as a great graveyard excavated during ex-President Felipe Calderón’s administration, the second to have governed from an oppositional party that has governed Mexico in the first decade of the 21st Century. Calderón declared a war against organized crime and therewith victimizing Mexican society making visible the existing links between organized crime and Mexican politicians. Currently, the various crimes of many politicians remain unpunished.

“You are in territory of Zapatista in rebellion. ‘Here the People Command and the Government Obey’.”Entrance signs in Oventik, a Zapatista community. / Photo by Sebastien Lafont (April 2008).

With the recent elections, a reconfiguration of forces seems possible in two territory-spaces: the Executive and Legislative powers at the State and Federal levels. But in truth, this reconfiguration of forces is a simulacrum, an identical reproduction of the dark and profound alliances between party supporters and the Mexican political elite that have always governed the country. Only in appearance things have changed, and what remains is the same or worse as before. The Zapatistas already said it in one of their communiqués from July 2018: “They may change the foremen and the corporals, but the plantation owner remains the same.” The plantation owner might even change and improve the technical conditions of production, as well as look after the working rights of his workers, making them believe that he is better than the former boss. However, the customs and usages of those from above never change. They remain within the same archetype that in the end, will be embodied by the working minds and then be their nightmare after.

In this historical moment, it is the Zapatistas from Chiapas who are seeing things clearly, along with those people who have fraternalized and woven themselves into the Indigenous National Congress. With this I am not saying that there are other collective actors with their own political bets that could be valid. At the local and national levels there are collective actors who are trying to control space and territory there where they have a presence. Only that Zapatismo is the most articulated system we can find with local as well as planetary proposals as a historical result of a deconstruction and reconfiguration of both Ch’ulel as well as xWaychinel-Lum K’inal.

I decided to take up Tseltal Mayan terms such as Ch’ulel (consciousness) and xWaychinel Lum-K’inal (to dream or foreshadowing of worlds and universes), because with these concepts we can name the analytical and reflexive process of the possibility of building another possible world of dignified life. So first we must dream the world, life and universe that we want and how we want them. We have to imagine them first so that they can become concrete actions. This is how this other life-world of dignified life can be made possible, by imagining it, dreaming it, allowing it to become foreshadowed in our heart and collectively we will begin hearten (corazonar) and to mutually arrive at what we call in Tseltal Ch’ulel. A mode of Ch’ulel would be a type of consciousness but in a collective and historical dimension. This is what this text refers to.

Zapatista Territory
”Land recovered in 1995 by the EZLN and independent peasants. The land belongs to those who work it. Zapatista lives. the struggle continues.” / Photo by Nyall & Maryanne (March 2009).

So the arrival of collective Ch’ulel that can enable us as collectivities to prefigure our possible worlds of dignified life, has come through our historical common and collective experience. Therefore, xWaychinel Lum-K’inal has to do with our own history, a history that we have woven in the length and width of our present time and deeply rooted in the past. In a manner in which historical acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal and the historical arrival of Ch’ulel constitute collective and individual acts in which peoples’ minds and hearts are the first space-territory as sites in which seeds for struggle and liberation emerge.

As recent history of our peoples has shown us, we must consider that the in-surgent aspect of Ch’ulel and the liberation seeds it spreads do not stem from decontextualized individual acts isolated from other space-territories of Ch’ulel; rather, for Ch’ulel to flourish, it is fundamental that we hearten (corazonarnos) and re-Ch’ulelize ourselves collectively. We are concretely referring to the Zapatista villages. The villages that are not in struggle against the state and capital, however, also have Ch’ulel. In their own territories they also struggle for respect although their Ch’ulel can be marginalized or depends on the state. This, in contrast with a collective Zapatista Ch’ulel in which the foregrounding of a possible world of dignified life has materialized in families, communities, regions, zones, autonomous municipalities and Zapatista caracoles.

Experiences and Spirals of Liberated Territories from the Zapatista Struggle ///

The first space-territory that is the fundamental part and core of Zapatista struggle and resistance, is a relationship with the community and in communality toward a political axis that is totally opposed to the hyper-individualization that characterizes capitalist modernity. As collectivity is the point of anchorage and departure, the Zapatistas shared with us their recruitment method in the Second Stage of the Zapatista school. I could understand this watching a testimony in a video that was shared only with those who were enrolled in the Second Stage of the school at the end of July and the beginning of August 2015. Some Zapatista movement members shared their word about how they were recruited either at a festivity or on their way to school, home or at their milpa (a portion of land to grow maize, beans, squash, vegetables, etc.). This process began with personal conviction that little by little pollinated the idea and need for collective struggle to lift up the dignity of our peoples that has been crushed historically. This would be a first liberated micro space-territory where Ch’ulel is constituted as historical subject and effectuates from within itself acts of imagining or prefiguring lifeworlds of possible dignified life from a felt-thought form.

The xWaychinel Lum-K’inal or foreshadowing of possible dignified life is not merely individual acts deprived of collectivity, but a collective dream that imagines or thinks incorporating family, community and the village. So the sense of communality is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the people foreshadowing those possible worlds of dignified life, a collectivity has always been in the present, future and the past. That is to say, the point of departure was, on the one hand, collective life foreshadowing a more dignified future for our children. On the other hand, the history of injustice, dispossession and hatred lived by our grandparents feed our desire to become free and to recuperate our territories. In such a way that, the ancestral past has been a kind of energy that propels us to continue with the acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal as it had been done before by making agreements with previous historical moments.

The second spiral of that kernel would be made up of family and community. The acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal are not only personal, because now they exist in a process of collectivization of the common histories of hardship that will motivate exercising the power of imagination and foreshadowing. This beginning of the collective sharing of the word, is fueled by the need to speak and share this kind of gift that is possessed. Those who have already received Ch’ulel are already exercising their power of imagination and feel obliged and have the duty to share that word. So all of those to whom their Ch’ulel has reached them in both its collective and historical dimension, know that the word and voice are no longer the sole property of the foreman or the plantation or hacienda owner. Even of the poor Ladino or the Indigenous chief. To the customs and usages imposed by the boss such as the obligation to remain silent in his presence, show obedience and respect even saying: “Whatever you order, my boss” or “yes, my owner”; it felt that there was a duty to raise our voice and word historically silenced.

Lopez Intzin Funambulist5
Zapatista gathering in San Cristóbal de las Casas on December 21, 2012. / Photo by Centro de Medios Libres.

Voice and word are not created and neither are they generated in pure solitude; it is necessary for sharing (compartición) in collectivity to un-think, to de-construct and imagine collectively. This is one of the great virtues of Mayan Zapatismo, a configuration of collectivity from below because the subject that in-surged was from the land that also began to foreshadow space-territories that are other, autonomous and therefore, liberated. Silences and whispers are now torments of multicolored voices, gazes no longer only directed toward the ground, now looking up frontally, upward, glancing and turning to look everywhere. Strength and power of speech and of the voice have only been made possible by collective and communal Ch’ulel in which a single person does not give orders, but rather, everyone listens to the voices of everyone. Voice and speech have been communalized and the collective that it gives form to, creates a speech that can be heard in its own voice. Step by step, speech was taken collectively enabling them to recreate or rebuild a communal and non-unipersonal power. The indissoluble spirit of Zapatista speech and voices is communality and collectivity. This is the space of the power of speech and the speech of power in common, in-surging in the space of the Assembly. So the quality and virtue of the Zapatista voice and speech is that which in-surges in the assemblies of small or big collectives building community. It is valid to say that assemblies may be ancestral practices so that they also exist outside of Zapatismo. What characterizes Zapatista speech is that assemblies are attended to by women, boys, girls, men, elderly men and women. This is not common in many assemblies of originary peoples in Chiapas, usually only men assemble to subscribe to accords effectuated amongst them.

After the basis to begin a war against forgetfulness was erected, when in November 17, 1983, a group of members of the National Liberation Forces arrived in the valleys of the vast Lacandona jungle in the Mexican Southeast, the National Zapatista Army of National liberation allowed themselves to be seen on January 1, 1994. The strength and the EZLN’s collective Ch’ulel not only emerged from those people arriving in the Lacandona Jungle, but also came from men and women who gathered before the fire of the word prodded by the same history of long-winded rebellions and struggles. The Zapatista leadership has stated it: communities already had collectively worked on their xWayichinel Lum-K’inal, and the group of people who came from outside, began to weave in their words with the people in com(mon)-unity and the intervention fueled even more the potential of the collective Ch’ulel. One of the results of this sharing and collective heartening (corazonamiento), allows itself to be felt in women’s revolutionary law as an example of a sociohistorical, cultural breakthrough and bifurcation, but above all it shows a collective in-surgent Ch’ulel ready to transform historical power and submission relationships with the women within their communities. It was an example of the kind of work that had been done by the Zapatista peoples with a bidirectional gaze. A gaze toward the state and its unjust agents and the other toward the inside of communities and peoples in an understanding that only transforming relationships from within, would enable them to go toward those world of possible dignified life-forms. A task that is not easy in the very least, but not impossible.

Lopez Intzin Funambulist6
“Our voice is not only the voice of the Indigenous women of Mexico, it is also the voice of women of the world.” At International Summit for Women in the Struggle on March 10, 2018. / Photo by Global Justice Now.

Perhaps a third spiral of the xWayichinel Lum-K’inal could be physical or geographical space. That is to say, our peoples’ territories were reconfigured with the consolidation of the body and spirit of the Zapatista collective body. The network of Zapatista collectives and networks came under public light on December 1994 as Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities politico-administratively coordinated under the figure of Autonomous Councils. That same year, and due to the growing need of the encounter between civil society and the Zapatistas, birth was given to a huge boat in the middle of the Lacandona jungle known as Aguascalientes. With the military invasion in Guadalupe Tepeyac, headquarters of the Aguascalientes in February 1995, this space for dialogue was destroyed and in its place a military base for the federal forces was erected. This is a well-known fact and called by the Zapatistas the “Zedillo’s treason” (after president at the time Ernesto Zedillo). After Zedillo’s treason, more Zapatista Aguascalientes in-surged, as proof of the outreach of the Zapatista tenacity and imagination. These space-territories became the headquarters of various encounters in order to fraternize with people from different parts of the world.

Lopez Intzin Funambulist2
Zapatista autonomous rebel primary school. / Photo by Just Coffee Cooperative (February 2005).

By way of metaphor, what had been a maize seed planted in a small space-territory has now bloomed into fully grown cobs that are at the same time mother seeds to provide continuity for the construction of the autonomy of peoples as a concretion of the world that has been dreamed by our ancestors. Nowadays, although with great difficulties that are nonetheless possible to overcome, dignity blooms with Zapatista imagination. The acts of xWayichinel Lum-K’inal have taken a body in what is now known as Caracoles, that in-surged according to the modes and temporalities of the Zapatista peoples in August 2003.

If we consider these space-territories as evidence of dignity and respect achieved by Zapatista peoples, it is the result of knowing how to resist and of re-existing, creating and recreating spaces-territories, of listening but above all, to leading obeying as a mode of self-government which has enabled them to reach an equilibrium.

Although there is still a long road to go, the concretion of those Zapatista space-territories as a result of xWayichinel Lum-K’inal fed by the collective Ch’ulel, it is not only the exteriorization of the liberation desires prefigured in 1983, but the objectivation of an ancestral and historical memory. The actual space-territories as well as the collective Ch’ulel that inhabits the Zapatista peoples configure the ancestral desire to liberate themselves and build a world where many other worlds can find their place with respect, justice and dignity. Every Zapatista looks after this territory as they look after their milpa  and that this milpa si strategic for the survival of autonomy.