Chicano Artists and Zapatistas Walk Together
Asking, Listening, Learning:
The Role of Transnational Informal Learning Networks
In the Creation of A Better World
Part 2: Findings -- Centrifugal Motivation
by Roberto Gonzaléz Flores, PhD
Los Angeles, California
|The following is part two of a dissertation presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Southern California in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Education), August 2008. Footnotes and references will open in a new browser window for easy reference. Go here for Part 1: Network Learning.|
This dissertation is a case study of informal transnational network learning experience, specifically the learning that occurred and is still occurring between Chican@ artists from Los Angeles and Indigenous Zapatistas, from Chiapas, México, as they both struggle to live in dignity. According to Foley (2004), (1) “[t]his sort of learning occurs when people consciously try to learn from their experience. It involves individual or group reflection and discussion, but does not involve formal instruction (p. 1).” While the learning between Chican@ artists and Zapatistas seems to be of this sort, this particular learning occurs in a transnational setting. The purpose of this research is to examine this particular transnational learning situation. The intention is to expand our understanding of the role of non-formal adult learning in a global era.
Before I present the findings of this dissertation, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves of the three major questions this dissertation addresses, briefly describe a major transnational event in and around which the learning occurs and lastly introduce the framework utilized to present the data.
The three major questions addressed in this study are:
Although the learning or relationship between the Chican@ artists and the Zapatistas starts on January 1st, 1994, the first day of the Zapatista uprising, it reaches a crescendo during the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista: En Contra El Neoliberalismo y Por La Humanidad (Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista) in August 1997. Many of the responses of the Chican@ artists reference this defining moment. Accordingly, this study also stresses this event to better understand the informal learning process that occurs during, before, and after the encuentro, as well as to highlight the transnational aspect of this learning process.
The encuentro was organized through meetings, electronic correspondence and through the participation of advance teams that situated themselves in Chiapas and acted as a communication liaison between the Chican@s in Los Angeles and the Zapatistas. The encuentro focused its attention on the intersection of culture and autonomy. The main questions at the encuentro were: how do Chican@s carry out their role in the struggle against neoliberalism and for humanity? how can Chican@s utilize art and culture to develop autonomy? how can Chican@s learn more about their own history and how can we develop stronger alliances with the Zapatistas?
According to Quetzal Flores, one of the participants, preparation for this encuentro took approximately one year. The encuentro initiators, which included Quetzal, Marta, and Marisol, made an expansive call to all Chican@ artists who would be interested in participating in such a process. In all, more than 120 Chican@ youth, predominantly from the greater Los Angeles area, attended and were to some extent part of the preparation process. Marisol relates that “at any one moment, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 thousand Zapatistas men, women and children participating.” The encuentro was held in five languages; Spanish, English, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tojolabal. In addition to logistical matters, the preparation in Los Angeles chiefly consisted of reflecting on the Zapatista dichos or slogans; “ya basta” (enough), “nunca mas un México sin nosotros” (never again a Mexico without us), “todo para tod@s, nada para nosotros” (everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves), “no tenemos que pedir permiso para ser libres” (we don’t have to ask permission to be free), “mandar obedeciendo” (lead by obeying), “queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos” (we want a world where many worlds fit), “ tod@s somos Marcos” (we are all Marcos), “caminar preguntando” (we walk asking), “somos iguales porque somos diferentes” (we are equal because we are different) “somos un poder político que no busca el poder” (we are a political power that is looking for power) and “callar las armas para escuchar las palabras” (silence the weapons so that we can hear the words).
The collective that developed out of the encuentro learning process was named “Big Frente Zapatista” According to an official Big Frente Zapatista document, (2) the stated goals for the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista process were the following:
Goal 1: [Through the preparation process] [d]evelop spaces of reflection in order to obtain a historical self-analysis of key moments of the Chican@ Mexican@ movement from a local, state, national as well as intercontinental context.
Goal 2: [At the event] share stories and experiences with each other to know each other and to initiate a process towards a strategic transnational relationship [with the Zapatistas].
Goal 3: Enable the participation of 100 facilitators of Chican@ Art and Culture as facilitators of urban autonomy within Chican@-Mexican@ barrios and colonias throughout Los Angeles and beyond.
Goal 4: Support and strengthen the work of the facilitators of Art/Culture for Autonomy and other tendencies towards autonomy that already exist in our communities.
The Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista consisted of four days (August 13 through August 16) of intense dialogue and art work on four major themes. Christi, an encuentro participant, relates that the four themes were: Nos Encontramos (relating each others histories), La Mujer, Art as an Educational and Political Tool, and Autonomy. These themes were marked by sub-themes of Educación, Salud (Health), Economía, and Struggle for Autonomy. Martha, one of the coordinators, recalls that the resolutions coming out of the workshops were presented to the general assemblies in one or several art forms that included performance art, dance, murals, music, poetry, spoken word, and teatro.
Although there is sufficient data to show that Chican@ artists as well as the Zapatistas learned from each other or that learning was inter-subjective, the focus of this study is on what and how did and do nine Chican@ artists learn from the Zapatistas and on how the learning has impacted them.
In the next section, I will address the question of what and how did the Chican@ artists interviewed learn in two parts, consisting of negative and positive motivational learning factors respectively or the “whys” about the “what” is learned. I refer to these contextualizing dynamics as centrifugal (negative) and centripetal (positive) motivational learning factors.
During the investigation, as I search for “what” the Chican@ artists learned I constantly run into the “why” as well as the “how” the artists learned. As the interviewees relate their stories I was unable to separate out the hows and the whats but have followed the interviewees sense that what they learned (with the exclusion of means which they talk little about). When addressing the “how,” the Chican@ artists address their negative experience and relationships, resonance and affinities to the Zapatistas.
I also found that addressing the “why” about the “what” involves articulating a process charged with both positive and negative motivational valences embedded in experiences that ultimately attract this group of Chican@s to Zapatismo. The “why” process ultimately helps to give context to what and how the Chican@s learned from Zapatismo. For instance, the interviewees exhibit a predisposition to learn something different from what is informed by negative life experiences in Los Angeles, California. The Chican@ artists express strong negative experiences that repel them and that they resist, reject and that motivate them to search for alternatives. These negative experiences include social and political as well as personal situations that they experience, dislike, and want to change, which I refer to as centrifugal learning dimensions or factors.
On the other hand, as the Chican@ artists interviewees search their life’s horizon for positive alternatives to the inhospitable surroundings and negativities in their lives, they find, are attracted to, and fix their attention on the Zapatista example and perspective. These positive points of attraction and identification seem to provide strong emotive relevance and resonance that motivate the Chican@ artists to pay attention to and learn from and with the Zapatista experience. These positive affiliations felt transcend borders and time and seem to create a transnational trust tunnel that allows for communication and coordination at the speed of the internet. I refer to these positive factors as centripetal factors.
I will first relate the centrifugal motivational forces which this group of Chican@ artists encountered and expressed as they address the question: What was learned by Chican@s concerning the nature and meaning of Zapatista practice, written text, and interaction?
As stated above, I define the centripetal factors as moving towards a positive experience and centrifugal as moving away from negative experiences towards a positive resolution. The centripetal are the “yeses” to Zapatismo and to the fresh perspective it offered. The centrifugal, on the other hand, are the “nos” to the negativities experienced by this group of Chican@ artists in the U.S. that then asks to learn viable alternatives.
Through an examination of the interviews, I identified four major centrifugal zones or areas of negative experience that are juxtaposed to positive Zapatista alternatives. One of these centrifugal areas or negativities that the Chican@s were critical and rejected is reformism, its goals, methodology, and institutions. By reform efforts they refer to statist-based channels towards resolution of grievances. Reformism refers to methods of struggle and resolution that are traditionally accepted within the state-based framework. Reform efforts are parliamentary, traditional efforts to improve the capitalist system and include long-established forms and methods of struggle and legal and illegal conventions of resistance to oppression. The Chican@ artists also rejected the ideology that romanticized physical resistance, particularly armed struggle as a top-down ideology that leads to a lack of imagination of creative anti-systemic alternatives.
Secondly, included in the centrifugal factors were the negativities of a capitalist system that is viewed as an economic political system dependent on the legal right and ability to exploit and oppress people of color, and youth, in particular the greater Latino (3) community. The respondents perceive a series of legal and legislative enactments by neo-conservatives as a systemic and systematic attack on the Latino immigrant community and as a sign of the ephemeral, retrogressive, and partial nature of “progressive” reforms.
Respondents talk about coming of age in a situation of growing inequality and roll-backs represented by the passage of state propositions 187, 184, 209, and 227. Proposition 187 (approved in 1994) is regarded by the respondents and large parts of the Latino community as a draconian immigration bill that criminalizes the immigrant population stripping them of their rights including the human right to be educated. Proposition 184 (also approved in 1994) is considered a measure aimed at criminalizing Latino and Black youth in particular to facilitate the denial of civil rights. The passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, which allowed for the eradicating of bilingual education, and Proposition 209 (passed in 1996), which called for the dismantling of affirmative action, is felt as attempts to disenfranchise the poor and people of color. Collectively, the interviewees argue that there was a blitz on civil rights that overturned all the reforms won in the 1960s.
Third, many of the interviewees were critical of what the interviewees considered the top-down practice of the “left” Marxist and narrow nationalist approaches experienced by the interviewees. These so-called progressive forces and their methods of struggle are questioned as to whether they are truly progressive or ultimately replicating the capitalist pyramid. The Marxist aim to obtain state power becomes a crucial point of departure for the Chican@ artists.
Lastly, the centrifugal and oppressive pressures to learn a new way include the personal and practical experience coming from dysfunctional family and barrio life; negativities that are seen as manifestations of the down side of increasing inequalities, poverty, dilapidated communities, drugs, poor education, and gang warfare. The Chican@ artists frequently refer to these negativities as the effects of colonization that result in self-hatred and in general negative consequences and symptoms of a capitalist system.
Starting from their own negative experiences at home, the Chican@ artists describe what they learned and why they were attracted to learn from the Zapatistas.
Although Jose Ramirez did not attend the encuentro, he was an integral part of the preparation and part of the advanced team that went to Chiapas a couple months before the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista. In August of 1996, during the initial phase of the preparation for the encuentro, Jose was an up-and-coming graphic artist who had just graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. Today Jose is considered by other artists as one of the most prolific Chicano artists from East Los Angeles. Jose was born and raised in El Sereno, a mostly Chican@ Mexican@ community in Northeast Los Angeles.
Below, Jose talks about how the pain and suffering that he as a Chican@ experienced in the barrio of El Sereno led him to resonate with the reasons for the Zapatistas uprising and how that pushed him into learning more about the Zapatistas and sharing it with others. Today, Jose continues to expand on the Zapatista themes of building community through building community self-determination or autonomy, the role of indigenous ancestors, and integrating these concepts into local themes of social justice. (4) As the author of several children’s books, Jose is now known internationally. Recently, Jose has illustrated several other books including the Elena Poniatowska’s book Zapata Para Los Niños. In addition to his gallery art work, murals, and illustrations, Jose is an elementary school teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District and has received many acclaims on his successful use of art as pedagogy. One of Jose’s challenges was how to make art that at times can be expensive, accessible to everyone. To resolve this Jose borrowed from los maestros mexicanos (5) and has participated in painting many murals and he also makes affordable magnet replicas of his art.
In agreement with the rest of the respondents, Jose echoes the Zapatista critical perspective of the inefficacy of reform as the main strategy to bring about social justice by pointing out that reforms have failed to create a permanent and profound structural change in the U.S. political economy. Jose brings out the view that it is counter-productive to depend on the current unjust system. He argues that it is futile to place demands on a political economic system that he perceives as unwilling to change and undemocratic, that will therefore not produce real and permanent reform. Here, Jose graphs for us a sharp image of a predatory, unjust, and unequal system of globalized capital whose main targets are poor communities, such as the northeast Los Angeles inner city barrio of El Sereno, where he was born, raised and currently lives. Using broad strokes, Jose paints a picture of the essential role of the common people in creating a viable alternative; one of building independent action that can provide an alternative to an endless cycle of reforms and protests as the main way to struggle for permanent justice. Jose explains:
Included in Jose’s response is the observation and Zapatista inspired belief that the people or civil society can and should change its relationship with those in position of authority from one of dependence to one of independence. Such is suggested in the Zapatista slogan “mandar obedeciendo” or lead by obeying. (6) Invoking a broadly held Zapatista perception, Jose points out that before the Zapatista uprising, civil society’s ability to bring about profound change was trapped in a dichotomous quagmire of choosing between reform and revolution (armed struggle) or as eloquently expressed by Malcolm X “the ballot or the bullet.” (7) In this passage, Jose suggests that in both cases it requires that the people depend on an elite leadership or a vanguard.
Above, Jose is proposing a third alternative, one that not only takes into account the corrupt nature of the system but a different view of “power.” Echoing another radical Zapatista political concept, Jose points out that, contrary to statist assumptions, (8) power is not located at the top with the political class, but instead, power rests within civil society (Esteva, 2003; CCRI-Primera Declaración, 1994; Sexta Declaración, 2005). Jose goes further as he expresses his conviction that common people know how and daily do govern themselves. In agreement with Zapatista analysis, Jose argues that the failure of reformism is not the result of the conservative revolution but the result of neoliberalism, a system of globalized capital focused on the maximization of profit and therefore not willing to sustain social services.
Jose first observes and feels something wrong, some sort of oppressive negation of his and his community’s dignity by government. Additionally, he also experiences oppression from the tyranny of traditional reformist methods that attempt to bring about change that have proven themselves ineffective. It is from this negative situation that Jose looks to the Zapatista uprising for articulation of his own criticism, for inspiration, to learn from their ability to have faith in the ability of the people to solve their problems without top-down leadership.
Neighboring El Sereno is Lincoln Heights, a barrio immediately northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Jose Quetzal Flores is one of several respondents that grew up in the Lincoln Heights and the only one that can be referred to as a true “red-diaper baby” -- both parents were active members of Marxist-Leninists organizations during all of his early childhood. In the mid-1990s, Quetzal formed a band of the same name which today is considered one of the premium bands of the East LA area; according to Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Quetzal is the one “most likely to pick up the torch that Los Lobos have carried for some time” (2003, Worksongs cover).
Quetzal has also produced many musical presentations and is currently producing the next CD for the B-Side Players, a Reggae/Ska group from San Diego. Quetzal has facilitated and corroborated with band members and the eastside musical community to produce four CDs of their own. The first of the CDs, simply called “Quetzal,” (circa 1997) was dedicated to meditating on the Zapatista experience and reflecting on how that experience related to Chican@s in Los Angeles, California. Because of the local, national and growing international notoriety, Quetzal -- both the band and the man -- have for sometime been in a position to contribute to the creation of a new political ethos, one informed by anti-globalization and anti-systemic movements but particularly by Zapatismo as a key referent.
In this excerpt Quetzal expresses liberatory exhilaration and instructional deference to the Zapatista analysis, particularly that of globalized capitalism and of the perils of reformism coupled with their proposal of building something new that helped make sense of negative experiences that he personally was going through while working for a reform-based non-profit. Quetzal tells us what he personally went through with a reform-minded organization that is Alinsky-based. (9) The Alinsky reform method is fairly well known and respected by many liberal and progressive reformers, including the United Farmworkers of America and the United Neighborhood Organization, a Catholic based network in California. Quetzal recalls:
In the context described above, Quetzal felt this tremendous connection and gratitude to Zapatismo that encouraged him to question and rebel against established conventions that made little sense to him, particularly the top-down manner and method that social movements utilized to organize against and in general address the ills of the U.S. capitalist economic system up to that point. To Quetzal and the other artists, these non-profit reform agencies ultimately represented a replication of the top-down pyramid of power, where the main and most important power rested at the top and the people at the bottom had no power. The reformist paradigm which seems to be pervasive among non-profits and in the general social justice movement has many sub-institutions including the quintessential parliamentarian practice of voting, which artists Christi Burgos addresses.
Burgos, a sculptress who works with clay and papier-mâché worked with her partner Alberto Ibarra as a tech in Chusma, a street theatrical group that is now based in El Sereno. Christi, who started off as an actress and playwright, was for some time also in charge of stage making and prop production. Alberto founded Chusma in the tradition of Mexican carpa (tent) grassroots theatre. Chusma has worked with Agosto Boal Technique Theatre of the Oppressed in New York, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, and with Olivia Chumacero who is a veteran of and trained by El Teatro Campesino. Members of Chusma have also worked with Ping Chong in the play Undesirable Elements. (11) Chusma has shared the stage with Culture Clash, Tierra, Ozomatli, Aztlán Underground, El Teatro Campesino, Quetzal, and Maldita Vecindad. (12)
Christi addresses a persistent and complex discourse at the heart of U.S. representative and reform-based democracy: is voting within a parliamentary state system democratic and does it matter -- particularly in an era of globalization. Christi first brings out that in the U.S. there is no significant relationship between organic community leaders and the leaders that actually get elected, so that in any one community there may simultaneously exists two diametrically opposed political cultures and structures; that of the official political system and that of the grassroots people. Christi also informs us that her feeling is that the leaders that do get elected are sooner or later corrupted by a representative democracy that does not listen to the people. Christi’s comments suggest that political elections are an unfortunate farce of representative “democracy” within which so-called leaders pay lip-service to democracy but, in the main, do not listen to the people. Christi contrasts her electoral experiences at home with that of the Zapatista autonomous community.
These young Chican@ artists tend to express a significant amount of mistrust towards reform possibilities that are promoted by a liberal political class that they view as accommodating the neoliberal framework. These doubts particularly hold true of a political class that they feel is increasingly pressured and trained to replicate and cooperate with corporate top-down models of how to relate to people. The artists view electoral politics as a deception and do not believe that elections and voting will solve their problems. It is from this undemocratic and oppressive position that they become receptive to learn from the rebel Zapatistas and rely on them for validation and inspiration.
Fidel Rodriguez, who has been working to re-direct the anger in gang youth for the last 12 to 15 years, contrasts the dialogue approach of the Zapatistas to what Martha Gonzalez and Quetzal Flores call U.S. cowboy diplomacy in their song titled “Die Cowboy Die” in a CD of the same title. While Fidel’s wife, Sol is the owner and manager of the progressive Imix Books in Eagle Rock, Fidel dedicates himself to producing the events that happen there. Imix Books is one of many such independent spaces developed in the greater Los Angeles resisting the encroachment of big corporations. Fidel frequently facilitates discussions with groups of youth throughout the U.S. Fidel, as all the other Chican@ artists interviewed, strongly feels that he has a spiritual connection with the Zapatistas and he wants to know more about how he can apply the spirit of Zapatismo to local Los Angeles conditions.
Just recently, Fidel discovered his own indigenous roots. Fidel’s father who separated from his mother in his early childhood, is from Ibarra, a Purépecha indigenous community in the Mexican state of Michoacán and his mother is Chicana and Chumash Indian from Santa Barbara, California. Today, as an internationally known radio hip-hop host and promoter, Fidel frequently utilizes his influential position to contrast the U.S.’s violent use of police in minority communities and the bellicose foreign policy and frequent use of military practice. He regularly expounds on how the U.S.’s choice of violent policy and approach to conflict resolution, instead of dialogue, does not only not solve anything, but serves as a powerful negative example of conflict resolution which reinforces violence in youth that are already engaged in gang warfare. Fidel explains:
For Fidel, it was the contact with the Zapatista method that made him reflect on the situation here in Los Angeles, where he is trying to convince youth daily not to kill each other as a way to solve differences. It was the horrible experiences of witnessing youth killing youth that attracted him to the Zapatista approach. Fidel also makes a critical reference to narrow nationalist solutions that are very similar in that they are many times promoting violent solutions and that want to revenge against the “white man.”
The violence in Kosovo, the Rodney King Verdict and the passage of Propositions 187, 184, 209, and 227 all contributed to a feeling of being “targeted, oppressed, violated and victimized” expressed by Marisol Torres, who is an actor who also worked with Chusma. Between 2004 and 2006 Marisol was also on the board of directors of Self-Help Graphics, an East Los Angeles artist space that has been facilitating self-help for developing artists for over 35 years. Marisol is an inspirational poet and is part of In Lak Ech, which translates into “you are my other self.” In Lak Ech is a southwest-wide-known spoken-word group, which in the tradition of spoken-word performs poetry, poetic verse, and rap to indigenous drum background. Marisol is also a refined and prolific Chicana graphic artists with art work throughout the U.S.
In the following passage Marisol expresses these overwhelming negative feelings while specifically criticizing education. Marisol, who in 1994 was 17-years-old and had recently graduated from high school, had just been introduced to indigenous studies at Glendale Community College. For Marisol, 1994 was a time of crushing attacks on the Latino community but paradoxically, a defining moment in terms of revealing the downside side of the system that she had not been exposed to in high school. Like the rest of the interviewees, Marisol feels that the secondary educational system did not give her a quality education, that the educational system did not tell her the truth about herself, her history, and that the educational system was mainly about preparing her to go to work and to obey the system.
Marisol relates a frightening and negative political picture of the 1990s. With the help of mentors, supportive parents and the 1994 Zapatista uprising Marisol finds a way to understand the negative experiences and lessons. Ironically, this negativity facilitates the exposure of the nature of the system. During the period from 1992 to 1997, the system reveals itself to Marisol as an uncaring and racist system willing to take away social programs and civil gains made in the 1960s and 1970s, such as affirmative action. Simultaneously, the U.S. was involved in violent conflicts in Iraq and Eastern Europe.
The Chican@ artists interviewed agree that the 1990s represent a time of consolidation for the neo-conservative agenda and a time of roll backs of gains made particularly for communities of color and working class communities.
Although Marisol is, strictly speaking, not a “red-diaper baby” because neither of her parents were or are socialist or communists, several of her mother’s relatives were active in the anti-Somoza forces during the Nicaraguan revolution. Marisol is intimately related to the revolutionary experience and is able to compare and contrast and offers a critical opinion about it. In addition to the criticism of the general U.S. system and the traditional reform movements, Marisol and the other respondents express a critical view of the orthodox Marxist approach to change. Here, Marisol notices the difference between earlier Marxist-led armed struggles and the Zapatista example and analysis. (13) (14) Marisol asserts:
To illustrate the common critique of the classical Marxism, Zack de La Rocha, subtly but unmistakably, rebuffs the Marxist left as he talks about the difference between the Zapatista struggle and previous struggles in Latin America. Zack, like Quetzal, also grew up in Lincoln Heights and also comes from an activist family. Zack’s father Beto contributed as an artist in the early Chicano Movement. Zack’s father happens to be Beto De La Rocha, recognized by the Chican@ movement as well as the progressive artist movement as one of Los Four del Este (in reference to Los Cuatro de México: Siqueiros, Orozco, Rivera, and Tamayo) and in reference to East L.A. Los Four del Este are now internationally-known artists who in addition to Beto de La Rocha include Chicano muralists Gilbert Lujan (Magu), Carlos Almaraz, and Frank Romero. Zack had been well informed and educated by both father and mother on Mexican revolutionary struggles and on the importance of being proud of his ethnic and cultural heritage.
As an adolescent, Zack moved with his mother to conservative Orange County, where he faced sharp racism and discrimination with which he struggled on a daily basis. As a way to address these issues both personally and on a larger scale, in the early 1990s, Zack expressed himself musically, was part of several bands then put together a band called Rage Against the Machine (RAM). By the mid-1990s RAM had become one of the most famous rock bands worldwide. Every single one of Zack’s concerts, whether in the U.S., in México, or Europe, sold out before the event date and drew hundreds of thousands of fans, according to Rage Against the Machine Biography (15) and corroborated by Rosa Romero, now Director of Axis of Justice Foundation, a non-profit set up by Tom Morello, RAM’s lead guitarist. On June 16, 1996 Rage played the Tibetan Freedom Concert, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The two-day event drew a sell-out crowd of over 100,000 “making it the largest US benefit concert since Live Aid in 1985, according to event producer Bill Graham.” (16)
Soon after the Zapatista uprising in 1994, Zack was drawn into visiting and learning about the Zapatistas. Zack was so impacted and impressed by the Zapatista movement that at RAM’s concerts he would pass out information on the Zapatista indigenous movement as his fans walked in. According to Rosa,
RAM also took up the case of Native American Leonard Peltier, who has spent the last 30 years in prison accused of killing a two FBI agents during the 1973 Wounded Knee revolt at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Zack was the main writer and the vocalist for RAM and had and still has tremendous respect and influence in the East Los Angeles area and among Chican@s everywhere.
In 1996, Zack opened up his living-performance art space on Avenue 58 in Highland Park, another northeast section of Los Angeles, to Quetzal and others to use for several community initiatives including as a meeting place to plan and prepare for the August 1997 Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista. Zack’s space was called Regeneración, named in honor of the defunct Newspaper Regeneración (18) founded in 1900 in Los Angeles by the Anarcho-syndicalist Flores-Magon brothers. In the following Zack distinguishes the Marxist guerrilla based movements in Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s from the Zapatistas:
Quetzal, Marisol, Fidel, and Mixpe all talk about how the top-down style used by Marxists includes language that emits rhetorical, top-down, general theoretical premises that many times had little to do with reality. One of the sharpest criticisms of classical Marxist top-down solutions comes from Quetzal who perhaps because he is a “red-diaper baby,” was especially sensitive to the top-down tendency of classical Marxists. Quetzal explains that he could not identify with many of the solutions proposed by classical Marxists and that he experienced as he was growing up. These social justice solutions came in the forms of Marxism, reformism, and assorted extreme nationalisms that ultimately coincided with reformism. In contrast, Zapatismo inspired Quetzal to express his opposition to these alternatives that he felt were being imposed from the top and which he experienced when he worked for a liberal non-profit that focused on social justice. He felt free from these imposing ideologies and wrote in poetry and song about that freedom. Quetzal explains:
Quetzal goes on to explain that this feeling of being lost and wanting validation of his critiques and to find a new way partly comes from his rejection of major vertical aspects of traditional norms of struggle in the form of Marxism and a variety of narrow nationalism. Quetzal’s mother and father were both Marxist and he takes from Marxism the idea and methods of critical thinking. Quetzal, however, rejects all notions and practices of top-down systems, which he feels come from the conception that power is located at the top among those that administer the resources of the people and therefore the goal of Marxism is to situate itself at the top by taking state power. Quetzal’s rejection included the ideological lens through which critical thinking was done. Quetzal questions who he was brought up to be and wants to discover and listen to what his own experience is telling him and to what he calls his natural self is saying.
For Quetzal, finding a new personal way seems to involve seeking some kind of balance between who he was brought up to be, who he is naturally, and what he is experiencing coming from outside of himself. Zapatismo’s implicit and explicit critique of Marxism comes at a time when Quetzal is searching for an articulation of a visceral dislike for top-down and imposed methods and identities and is inspired to express this critique through song. Quetzal explains:
Quetzal’s rejection of established dogmatic canons is done through the personal experience of someone who is critical of absolutes. Simultaneously, he projects much respect for the particular. Quetzal’s proposal that even in a particular setting there may exist several options that are perhaps eliminated by the tyranny of an established model or canon conveys the general frustration of the artist’s creative spirit. Quetzal choice of Pasamontañas as the title of the song seems to salute the Zapatistas for the inspiration to break through what seems to be the prison of canons to Quetzal.
Similarly, Jose unites with the Zapatistas ethos expressing a ya basta (enough!) of his own towards top-down type of leadership that offers predetermined plans that are handed down so that people can discuss how they are going to implement them. Jose’s ya basta includes a rejection to deeply ingrained and widely held standards concerning how to change unjust societies. The antipathy toward these organizing canons began to develop before the Zapatista uprising in 1994. In place of vanguard-pre-prepared plans, theory-driven strategies, and self-appointed leaders, Jose and the rest of the interviewees were asking to be treated as equals, to respect each other’s differences and that dialogue be the means of developing plans, strategies and tactics. Jose explains:
The Chican@ artists not only move away from capitalism as an economic and political system but from traditional reformist methods of struggles that made reform the centerpiece of their strategy. Capitalism is viewed by the Chican@ artists interviewed as an exploitive and corrupt system that was no longer able to sustain democratic and progressive structural changes. Through their experience, reformism is thus seen as a method that spins wheels and that creates a vicious cycle of illusionary and temporary reforms. The artists were cognizant that within a relatively short time of their establishment reforms are either nullified by counter-reforms or gutted of all progressiveness and set up for failure. The Chican@ artist conveyed the notion that through traditional reform or Marxist extra-parliamentary methods the creative potential of the grassroots is restricted. The Chican@ artist’s testimonies suggest that ultimately this domination of traditional top-down canons of libratory practice ironically facilitates the perpetuation of top-down capitalism.
By having contact with Zapatistas and their ideas that are critical of capitalist and socialist vertical structures and that propose horizontal relationships, the interviewees learn to be critical of vertical standards and structures that they themselves experienced. From the Zapatista example they also learn that horizontal relationships, methods, and solutions were possible. The artists learn that horizontality is not only a preferred and effective method but it becomes their goal as they immediately attempt to apply it.
In addition to the direct attacks from capitalism on the Chican@s and other people of color, the reformist top-down tendency within the left and anachronistic methods of struggle of the left, the respondents point out that the negative impact of present day capitalism and the legacy of colonization are definitely major centrifugal reasons for moving towards Zapatismo. Illegal drug sales and substance abuse in minority communities, poverty, self-hatred, low self-esteem, male supremacy, and gang warfare are some of the more extreme negativities affecting Chican@s and other people of color and working class communities. Fidel Rodriguez points out that:
Jo Anna Mixpe Ley, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, is a poet, artist, actress, writer, and university professor and lecturer, was a student at UCLA at the time of the uprising. Mixpe as well as Jose did not go to the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista, but for very different reasons. Although Mixpe’s initial attitude towards Zapatismo was one of full agreement with the Zapatista goals and approach, it differed from the rest in that she didn’t find it necessary to go to Chiapas immediately. Instead, Mixpe busied herself attempting to apply in practice the general ethos of Zapatismo to her work and felt she was not ready to go until nearly 11 years after the uprising.
In May of 2004 to February 2005 Mixpe joined Estación Libre, a non profit organization, situated in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico whose main belief is that people learn by “observation and participation.” Estación Libre’s objective is to make it financially possible for people of color from the U.S. to go to Chiapas and experience first hand what the Zapatista Communities are doing and how they are doing it. Estación Libre, founded in 1997, immediately after the Encuentro Chican@-Zapatista, provides its applicants/participants an orientation, background, and history to the Zapatista uprising and traces the Zapatista evolution up to the present. In addition, Estación Libre provides safe passage to the Zapatista Caracoles, (23) the autonomous governmental centers, making it possible for the visitors to talk with representatives of the Caracol government councils. According to the Estación Libre website: (24)
Mixpe and El Sereno-based rap artist Olmeca were co-coordinators of Estación Libre from May 2004 to March 2005. Below Mixpe expresses her agreement with the Zapatista goal of autonomy and self-determination and felt that in order to achieve it the people had to go through what Gustavo Esteva calls “cleansing our vision of ourselves” (2007). (25) Mixpe discusses the devastating impact of an oppressive system and her natural proclivity towards an alleviating Zapatista perspective.
Mixpe feels that the condition of low self-esteem and self-hatred of a dismembered identity created by a systemic colonization has to be approached on both an overall systemic as well as on an individual level. Mixpe feels that Chicana women, in particular, face oppression, and talks about how Zapatista notions of autonomy help her as well.
Martha Gonzalez agrees with Mixpe that the impact is personal, that the change needed is about changing oneself; that it is about healing oneself from the personal affects of a socio-political economy that tends to destroy the family and inflicts severe harm to the family, particularly people of color families from the working class.
Martha, who comes from an artistic family and who together with two other siblings performed as children professionally, latched on to Zapatismo because it provided her a dignified personal way to do art -- one that, to her, was more meaningful than the commercial artist life she had been living up to that point. Martha compares this type of meaningful art to the often times abusive relationship she had with her father and uncle who managed her and her two other siblings as they performed opening acts for superstars, such as Lucha Villa, Vicente Fernández, and others. Recalling her early beginnings, Martha remembers peering at these divas and virtuosos behind the curtains of rat and cockroach infested theatres at late hours of the night. Up to then, her artistic talents were no more than a commodity, a way of surviving.
Zapatismo and her newly Zapatista-inspired friends offered Martha something she had been looking for; art as respect, art as dignity, and caring love, things that she dearly missed as a child, adolescent, and young adult.
In 1995, Martha was about to embark in a major commercial contract when she met Quetzal and he introduced Martha to the underground and progressive Chican@ artist scene. It was in 1996 that Martha became the main vocalist for Quetzal the band and took the band to another musical level. Today, Martha is a prolific song writer and composer now known throughout the Chican@ music scene and beyond. She is presently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington and has recently received a Fulbright fellowship to do research in Veracruz, Mexico on the comparative differences and similarities between Chican@ and Mexicano syncopations in jarocho dance within the new jaracho movement.
Martha tells a story about a double encounter with an amazing underworld of people that were about emphasizing a collective caring and a consensual way of relating; one influenced by Zapatismo and with Zapatismo itself. Together they filled a void in her life that had been put there by the sterile world of Hollywood-based show business and all its trappings.
Yaotl joins Mixpe and Martha in that he too moved towards Zapatismo because the negativities that he experienced. The artists believe that the social, cultural, economic and political exclusionary nature of the U.S. political-economy too often resulted in low self-esteem, self-hatred, gang warfare, suicide by drugs and alcohol, and criminal activity. Yaotl took these injustices on as a personal challenge and helped form and became the main vocalist of Aztlán Underground, a Chican@ musical group that formed in the early 1990s. Aztlán Underground fuses indigenous beats with punk and hard rock anger and angst, popular among ponkeros, a counter-cultural life style and music particularly popular throughout the Americas.
Yaotl, who is also an elementary school teacher in the San Fernando Valley, talks about a survey done in East Los Angeles and how one of the main issues on the mind of the community was gang warfare. Not only were the gang youth killing themselves but they were also killing innocent people. Agreeing with Mixpe, Yaotl points out that there exists a general collective pain and serious concern about the colonized condition of our youth and that is one of the main reasons why he gravitated towards seeking strength in his indigenous identity, particularly in the Zapatista Indigenous identity.
The pain of marginalization and racism produced deep anger in many of the respondents. Beneath Yaotl’s words was the pain that is produced as Chican@s learn to face the fact that they as Chican@s are undesirables not wanted by mainstream society. The Chican@ artists talk about pain and sadness that turns into anger as they are considered less than everything except what is negative: less normal than, less intelligent than, less cultural than or culturally deprived, a corrupting contaminant, an undesirable.
Fidel and Mixpe talk about how some of the youth react by hating themselves but many youth react to this racism by hating back and still others by competing for power, declaring everyone else as inferior, and wanting “power over,” as Holloway (2002) puts it. Yaotl talks about the reaction of narrow nationalism as one that usually ends up seeking power and viewing white people as the enemy. Yaotl talks about the liberating effect that Zapatismo had in facilitating his dramatic break with narrow nationalism.
Although the specific yearning to unite and identify with the indigenous came from a reaction to racism, the qualitative leap to desire to unite with all at the bottom came about because of Zapatismo’s suggestion to acknowledge the common oppression made popular by the saying: “We want to build a world where many worlds fit.” The pattern here is learning of alternatives to negative experiences, in this case racism. Accepting this view and goal did not mean that Yaotl was negating the existence of racism that affected the Chican@; on the contrary, because of Zapatista influence, Yaotl is moved to integrate the struggle against racism and for the respect of difference into the struggle for global unity and justice.
Fidel states that the Zapatista uprising became a mirror that set him on an identity journey not only to learn about himself, but to shape himself by shedding off the impact and influences of colonization which led to a deeply seated self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. On this journey to find himself, Fidel is drawn to the Zapatista mirror from a glimpse that he detected from far away while reading about Zapatismo and their notion of “dignity” in South Africa.
Fidel’s story begins to describe the general experience of the Chican@ community in the U.S. Most Chican@s in the U.S. come from working class, indigenous and/or peasantry backgrounds that have suffered deeply under the rule the Spanish Crown and the Mexican nation were they were the first to give their blood during the war of independence and the 1910 revolution.
John Holloway (30) refers to Zapatista sense of dignity in the same broad sense that Fidel does. In Dignity’s Revolt (1998) Holloway points out that the Zapatistas prefer the all-encompassing sense of dignity in lieu of the narrow and limiting language of “class struggle.” At a recent reunion in Tijuana, Subcomandante Marcos referred to “dignity” a respect for oneself, respect for others and respect for the environment; a simple but all encompassing notion that echoes Fidel’s and Holloway’s perspective on life and struggle.
In the previous section data is presented that shows what and how Chican@ artists from Los Angeles, California, learn from Zapatistas in Chiapas in the context of negatively driven or centrifugal motivating factors. The coming of age of this particular generation of Chican@s artists occurred in a period of increased social hostility and political repression against the nation’s mushrooming Latino population.
Politically, one of the main manifestations of this social hostility was a series of ballot propositions, which significantly contributed in making the 1990s one of the most intense periods of attacks particularly on the Chicano-Latino community and in general people of color and the working poor.
Furthermore, the artists express a critical assessment of reformist approaches, the nature of the capitalist system, the nature of power, and communicate rejection of top-down authoritarian structures. The Zapatista analysis and example allow the artists to make sense of these negative or oppressive feelings and life experiences.
Some of the centrifugal experiences expressed themselves as frustration because of predefined, top-down imposing leadership that dictated how things were to be done and how causes were to be fought. When these negativities were finally analyzed and critiqued, Chican@s reaffirmed and released pent-up, hard-to-articulate repulsion, and rejection of vertical relationships.
Zapatismo, according to many of those interviewed, helped them gain and regain ability and courage to be critical of established reform-minded traditions that they felt were ultimately replicating the system, especially its top-down aspect. Zapatismo encourages and challenges the interviewees to put their frustrating centrifugal experiences into perspective allowing them to ultimately be hopeful of an alternative or option which the respondents refer to as autonomy. Motivated to address negativities in their own lives, and perceiving the lack of solutions coming from traditional statist (within the framework of the nation-state) based approaches, this group of Chican@ artists seeks to make a difference by helping to build a better life and a better world.
Without exception, the Chican@ artists relate a chilling and negative political picture of the 1990s. During the period from 1992 to 1997, commencing with the Rodney King verdict, the system revealed to the interviewed Chican@ artists a callous and racist system that was rolling back reforms and taking back concessions it had made in the 1960s and 1970s. Simultaneously, the U.S. was involved in violent conflicts in Iraq and Eastern Europe. The Zapatista uprising, its dichos or sayings of “somos una fuerza que no quiere el poder político” and “callar las armas para escuchar las palabras” became tools of critical analysis and proactive construction that helped the respondents understand the system and insight as to how to change it.
When juxtaposed to the Zapatistas responses, these negative experiences provoke hope, interest, inspiration, and curiosity that motivated the interviewee to learn all about Zapatismo.
Propelled with initial pain Chican@ artists are inspired by the Zapatistas to have a more critical view of their own political situation and a more creative disposition when thinking about alternatives.
According to the data, this group of Chican@ artists perceives the Zapatistas as challenging central tenets of modern society through their words, deeds, and thoughts. Chican@s learn how to understand and better address their own life negativities and those of others they relate to. They learn to situate these negativities in a global perspective and are inspired to address the problem on a broader scale. Chican@s learn from the candid and honest way that the Zapatistas address the issues of male supremacy, alcohol, and drug abuse, which are problems that affect the Zapatista communities as well.
The informal learning between Chican@s and Zapatistas occurs as Chican@s try to make sense of their lives, of others around them, and of their environment as they are marginalized and react to marginalization. The Chican@ artists, as Holloway (2002) philosophizes and Mayo (1998), and Foley (1999) observe from other experiences, negate the negation of their dignified existence by using the Zapatista framework to deconstruct and say NO to the system that oppresses them.
(This is a continuing series. Next: Findings -- Centripetal Motivation.)
|Published in In Motion Magazine May 2, 2009.
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