The Zapatistas, the Mexican rebels who emerged from the jungles of the impoverished state of Chiapas, Mexico, on New Year’s Day in 1994, have been on the mind of — and in the writings of — Rebecca Solnit since almost the moment she arrived at Tomdispatch. In 2004, she spoke of their uprising as “a revolt against the official version of history”; in 2006, she suggested that they had “staged a revolution, not only in what the status of Indians would be in that country but in the nature of revolution too”; and, at the end of 2007, she called them collectively “the most powerful voice coming from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas.” Now, 14 years after they burst dramatically into world consciousness, she’s traveled to Chiapas to visit Zapatista-held territory and spend a New Year’s Day with them. The author of the inspired Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities returns with this report. Tom
Revolution of the Snails
By Rebecca Solnit
I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of information that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The original use of the word revolution was in this sense — of something coming round or turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, for example. It’s interesting to think that just as the word radical comes from the Latin word for “roots” and meant going to the root of a problem, so revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to cycle, something those who live according to the agricultural cycles of the year know well.
Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it come to mean “an instance of a great change in affairs or in some particular thing.” 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less cyclical and more linear — as in the second definition of this new sense of revolution in my dictionary, “a complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it.”
We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our society revolving — or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be as patient as a snail.
The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come, but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson’s attack on the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962; certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere with a radical rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern Mexico called Zapatismo.
Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its principal symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution spirals outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes of capitalism’s savage alienation, industrialism’s regimentation, and toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one Zapatista woman — and prophetic of the half-born other world in which, as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on their spiral.