Introduction: The “Right Not To”: Performing Alternatives to Neoliberal Globalization

In the very first lines of the essay that opens this digital book, “Mobility and the Politics of Belonging,” Mary Louise Pratt tells of how the Mixtecos—one of the largest and most influential indigenous groups in the Mexican state of Oaxaca—claimed a new human right, the “right not to migrate.” This initial scene sets the tone for the epistemological inversions that Resistant Strategies seeks to set in motion. As the combination of social conservatism and free market policies began to be more aggressively pushed throughout the world with the election of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Thatcher famously and proudly declared: “There Is No Alternative.” This idea became known by its acronym, TINA, and throughout Latin America, even politicians who had been previously identified with the Left repeated the motto as they opened the way for an unprecedented wave of deregulation and crushing of trade unions, massive tax cuts for the rich, the privatization of state companies, and outsourcing of jobs in what came to be known as the neoliberal era. The Zapatista insurgency—arguably the best-known indigenous response to the epistemological bulldozer of neoliberalism—erupted in 1994, the year NAFTA came into effect in Mexico.

Neoliberalism obviously did not inaugurate the elimination of indigenous epistemologies in Mesoamerica, a process that has been central to the colonial project since its inception. Yet, as Latin America began to fall increasingly under the sphere of influence of the United States, in a process Greg Grandin (2007) refers to as “New Imperialism,” the “need for development” became the crucial conceptual tool through which much of this elimination was practiced, always coupled with the threat of communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union produced the conditions to discoursevely align development with neoliberal globalization, a global univocality that echoed consistently throughout the world, and a discursive exclusion of any other way of existing. There was no alternative. Thus, within the long history of the elimination of epistemological diversity in Latin America, it is useful to think through the specificity of the violence the Zapatistas were responding to in their insurgency and the violence the Mixtecos were responding to in their “right not to”—the violence of neoliberal globalization.

In Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism, Patricia Ybarra argues that the neoliberal regime necessarily operates “at the level of ideology, policy, and subjectification, meaning that we are evinced to act as neoliberal subjects not only in our actions in response to employment conditions and shifts in social welfare policy, but in all aspects of our lives, including through our quotidian utterances and practices” (5). Thus the forced implementation of neoliberalism throughout the Americas must be read not only in the widespread closure of economic possibilities for countries and for individuals who have been forced to get behind the IMF and the Washington Consensus, but also in the ways in which it has globally intensified a closure of epistemological possibilities, of ways of being, in favor of the so called “diversity” of neoliberal globalization.

One of the particularities of the epistemicide under the neoliberal era is the way in which critiques of colonialism as a political structure and the praise of cultural diversity can still coexist with—and in some ways intensify—the elimination of epistemological diversity.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2007) has called for distinguishing between cultural diversity, which in fact has increased under neoliberal globalization, and epistemological diversity, the recognition of the “diversity of knowledge systems underlying the practices of different social groups across the globe” (xix). The repression of such diversity has always been central to the colonial project, and in the case of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, this process has resulted in what Santos refers to as an “epistemicide” (xix). The epistemicide of indigenous peoples has been practiced over centuries under various guises, and the subordination of certain countries and peoples according to a spectrum of development is yet one more iteration. One of the particularities of the epistemicide under the neoliberal era is the way in which critiques of colonialism as a political structure and the praise of cultural diversity can still coexist with—and in some ways intensify—the elimination of epistemological diversity. “While the political dimension of colonial intervention has been widely criticized,” writes Santos, “the burden of colonial epistemic monoculture is still accepted nowadays as a symbol of development and modernity” (xxxiii).

In this context, the Mixtecos’s claim to a right not to migrate resounds loud and clear, not only as yet another right within the global geopolitics of our times, but also as a challenge to the dominant epistemology within which one can even make such claims—that there would be, indeed, an alternative. Like Melville’s Bartleby, whose assertion that he “preferred not to” set the whole system into a state of disarray, the Mixtecos’s “right not to” disrupts the TINA consensus, according to which, regardless of where individuals, groups, or countries stand on the economic-social spectrum, their only alternative is moving (in this case quite literally) towards the common goal of “becoming developed” in a neoliberal globalized world. Long before TINA, development has always worked as an impossible goal for those whom the reigning systems have always defined as the antithesis or drag on development itself—indigenous populations. Yet, the increased pervasiveness of neoliberal globalization, particularly in its reliance on extractivist capital for its unfaltering expansion, coupled with the discursive closure of alternatives in is implementation, proves particularly violent for indigenous people. It excludes them by definition while it includes them by force.

The collective nature of the Mixtecos’s claim, that they have the right not to migrate “as a people and an aggregate of communities, not as a set of individuals,” as Pratt argues, also disrupts the narrative of migration as an individual choice, so common in U.S. political discourse and in the media: “the collective demand calls on the state to recognize migration as a mass imposition, not an individual choice.” At the same time, the framing of the right not to migrate as a human right exposes the ways in which the stripping of rights operates as a political tool at the service of neoliberal globalization. “If you are a migrant,” writes Pratt, “the state does not want you back, but does want you to support the national economy from abroad, to exercise your citizenship and belonging cost effectively from elsewhere.” While U.S. politicians and media present borders as solid barriers that individual migrants or criminals manage to break through, borders, in effect, operate as active sieves. They let in needed labor—in the form of undocumented workers who operate under subhuman conditions and support the economies of their countries of origin through remittances—while blocking the passage of rights, reserved only for citizens and “legal” immigrants.

Pratt thus proposes that indigeneity operates not as “a quality that inheres in a group of people,” but as a “planetary discourse affirming and demanding the freedom to stay.” “Becoming indigenous,” she argues, reflects the relational and retrospective identities constituted by “unsolicited encounters between placed and displaced subjects” who previously identified themselves not as “indigenous,” but instead with the specific local groups to which they belonged. “The indigenous woman is not fixed in place by ancestral belonging, which is the official source of indigeneity,” writes Pratt, “but by the colonial script: unsolicited encounter, violence, dispossession, moral debt.”

Each practice [presented in this book] embeds a specific “right not to” that challenges not only the neoliberal mandate to “develop,” but also the epistemological framework that underwrites the command.

The Mixtecos’s claim to the “right not to” is iconic of the resistant strategies that link the diversity of performance practices presented in this book. Each practice embeds a specific “right not to” that challenges not only the neoliberal mandate to “develop,” but also the epistemological framework that underwrites the command. By claiming that the right not to migrate is a human right, the Mixtecos establish much broader alliances with other groups of people, indigenous or not, who are also being forced into accepting migration as their only option. Resistant Strategies thus positions Pratt’s essay in active dialogue with Chiapas photographer Moysés Zúñiga’s photo-essay “Lost and Found.” Zúñiga’s photographs of those who are forced to migrate North renders visible what the unidirectionality of the neoliberal mandate actually looks like. It is not that all migration is involuntary or inherently bad, as Pratt points out in her essay. What this book challenges is the narrative according to which development is the only alternative for people who are united by forced encounters with the “colonial script,” including its newest iteration: the individual who must move North in search of neoliberal development.

It is within this framework of the longue durée of the colonial encounter that Jesusa Rodríguez positions the current struggles of indigenous populations in her talk “500 Years of Resistance.” “What could we possibly tell Mexico’s indigenous people about resistance?” she asks, “Nothing.” Rodríguez focuses on the small strategies that indigenous people have used for centuries in order to preserve their “clothing, textiles, bags, and sandals,” invisible acts of cultural preservation of indigenous epistemologies that often go unnoticed. The four multimedia essays that follow Rodríguez’s talk present examples of these practices by Maya peoples of the Yucatán, each of them covering a specific right not to fall in line with the unidirectionality of neoliberal globalization. In “Much’tal Jedz: Between Performance and Knowledge,” Byrt Wammack Weber analyzes an intertextual multimedia installation that interweaves contemporary Yucatec Maya historical memory with archival epistolary communication in order to argue that, for centuries, Mayans have challenged the colonial script by rewriting their past in performance. In “‘Let me tell you what happened…’: Oral Storytelling as a Yucatec Maya Strategy of Resistance,” Paul Worley argues for the persistence of oral storytelling as a way of knowing that challenges past and current colonial conditions. In “Grains of Resistance: Celebrating Rituals, Bodies and Food in the Yucatán and Belize,” Genner Llanes-Ortiz discloses the ways in which Mayan fiestas and festivals “reinforce and renovate despised and displaced indigenous epistemologies” through games, competitions, and performance, structured around the centrality of corn within Maya epistemology. In “Emancipation Through Language: X-ja’il T’aan (House of the Word),” Miguel Rojas Sotelo tells the story of how a network of radio stations originally created in order to support Spanish language acquisition by indigenous Mexicans was converted into a structure of 25 indigenous stations across the country, broadcasting in native Mayan languages as a way to resist assimilation, marginalization, and exclusion.

The next two digital essays explore the ways in which indigenous strategies of resistance continue to circulate in the diaspora, from the radio waves of Contacto Ancestral in Alicia Ivonne Estrada’s “The Maya Diaspora in Los Angeles: Memory, Resistance, and the Voices of Contacto Ancestral, to the concrete murals in Joan Saab’s analysis of San Diego’s “Chicano Park Samba.” The bilingual radio stories in Estrada’s essay and the multifaceted murals in Saab’s reveal themselves to be more than simply media through which knowledge is transmitted. These expressive forms actualize the capacity for indigenous epistemologies to travel beyond the geographical limits of their communities of origin, as they challenge the neoliberal reduction of the immigrant to pure labor. The shapes, sounds, and colors create an audiovisual space that unites indigenous people in Mesoamerica with those in the diaspora through iconography and spoken language.

The possibility to move between languages is just one of the many ways in which the digital nature of this book proves to be vital, not only as a way to illustrate certain arguments about the resistant quality of the performance practices it presents, but also as a device that expands the ways of knowing about them. Resistant Strategies is a fully bilingual book; contributions were submitted in either English or Spanish and have been translated into the other language. More importantly, though, the multimedia format also allows us to listen to some of the indigenous languages that are central to the strategies of resistance that this book foregrounds. As a multilingual tool specifically designed for scholars of performance, the Tome platform on which this book is built allows for an active employment of resources that goes far beyond the simple illustration of an argument laid out in written form. The multilingual and multimedia architecture of the Tome platform allows us to read, hear, and see the ways in which these strategies work.

The six multimedia essays included in this book not only build upon a variety of audiovisual documentation of gestures of indigenous resistance to the logic of neoliberal globalization; they also perform their own strategies to subvert the epistemological framework of this logic. Thus, Wammack Weber’s “Much’tal Jedz” intersperses his historical analysis of the stylistic and rhetorical continuity between the Spanish Requerimiento and Maya epistolary exchanges with scenes from a multimedia installation, Much’tal Jedz, which was first presented in 2009 at the 7th Hemi Encuentro. In these video clips, Mayan commanders draw from the richness of their experiences to improvise a performance, “a reconstruction of a 1930s incident and, at the same time, a ‘correction’ of a previous event in 1847 that has been enduringly inscribed in the collective memory of the peninsular Maya until today.” To watch clips from this multimedia piece alongside Wammack Weber’s text allows us to witness a specific instance of what he argues is “an ancestral strategy of resistance that the Maya people have deployed for almost 500 years, in order to ‘rewrite’ their past with a vision towards the future.”

Similarly, the video documentation of Don Rómulo singing and telling us about “what happens in the world,” or Mariano Bonilla Caamal’s tsikbal, “The Story of Juan Rabbit” in “Let me tell you what happened…” stand side by side with Worley’s argument that “orality and literacy are complementary aspects of a unified system of performance” for the Maya people of the Yucatán. As we listen to Don Rómulo’s rustic guitar-playing or Caamal’s story being told in Yucatec Mayan, the English and Spanish subtitles function less as a transparent translation and more as a marker of difference between their performances and our ability to fully understand them. When asked to tell the more contemporary story of “The Waiter and the Gringo,” Caamal asks if Worley wants him to do so in Mayan or in Spanish, underlining Caamal’s fluency in both. At the same time, it marks a potential limitation among readers to navigate these different linguistic and cognitive spaces, a limitation that the technology of subtitling both underlines and mitigates. By analyzing the structural devices of Caamal’s storytelling, even in the colonial language of Spanish, Worley draws our attention to the ways in which this performance practice conveys a drive to sustain Maya ways of knowing within colonial languages and conditions.

These ways of knowing find a multiplicity of actualizations in “Grains of Resistance.” The breadth of embodied practices, from everyday activities to highly formalized performance, that Llanes-Ortiz covers in his essay is astonishing. As he documents the struggle of Maya activists to “reinforce and renovate despised and displaced indigenous epistemologies,” Llanes-Ortiz includes video evidence of performances in everyday life, such as the exchange of maize and other seeds, as well as ritual practices such as the blessing of the seed and the invocation with fire. He covers a variety of games and competitions that take place within the context of these fiestas, including palm leaf knitting, greasy pole climbing, corn grinding, firewood splitting, and caldo (broth) eating. He also covers more structured performance practices, including storytelling, community theatre (a play about the dangers of transgenic corn, and another about the power of the seeds), dancing, poetry recitation, collective singing, and public speeches. This diverse archive demonstrates the multiplicity of ways in which Maya people have been articulating new resistant strategies to fight oppression and marginalization. As Llanes-Ortiz argues, these events celebrate an epistemology that is “ingrained in the body,” in which the performers and competitors are praised for what they know—not by what they can elaborate in discourse, but by “how well they can perform everyday tasks which are generally an undervalued form of knowledge.”

The following essay, “Emancipation Through Language: X-ja’il T’aan (House of the Word)” opens with a video of three people reading the Mérida Declaration. Below the video, the reader can switch between the original in Yucatec Mayan, or its translation into Spanish or English. Language and translation play an important role in Miguel Rojas Sotelo’s analysis of this declaration, as well as its broadcast through a network of indigenous radio stations. The Mérida Declaration is a direct reference to the 1994 declaration of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). The Zapatistas understood the importance of not only resisting the local massacres of global neoliberalism, but also of disseminating this resistance to the world. As Sotelo argues, much has been written about the Zapatista’s strategic use of the Internet (then, a very new technology) to disseminate their ideals; however, radio also played a crucial role in this process. “There is no doubt,” writes Sotelo, “that the Zapatista movement, the emergence of the EZLN, and the six Zapatista declarations have been impacted by the dissemination of indigenous radio broadcasting.” Sotelo historicizes the development of this network of radio stations throughout Southern Mexico as he explains the shift in programming from Spanish to Maya languages.

Radio thus becomes more than a medium through which indigenous knowledge gets transmitted; it actualizes the capacity for indigenous epistemologies to cross borders and travel beyond the geographical limits of their communities. In “The Maya Diaspora in Los Angeles: Memory, Resistance, and the Voices of Contacto Ancestral,” Alicia Ivonne Estrada asks what listening to these testimonies can do that reading transcripts alone cannot. As we hear these broadcasts alongside the text of Estrada’s essay, the affective potentialities of the voices are amplified. What knowledge lies in the back and forth between Spanish and Mayan languages, as in the moment in which María Avillés switches to Ixil in the middle of her testimony on the Ríos Montt genocide? Can we hear the cracks in her voice as she continues to describe her traumatic experience in a language that the vast majority of readers of this book will not grasp? The cracks and pauses speak to us, they move us, even if we do not understand the words. As Estrada argues, Contacto Ancestral provides a space where Mayas can express their historical memory in their own language: “As they share and make public these personal histories of genocide, they construct an audible record of that traumatic memory,” creating a familial and communal space. Listening to these audio clips better conveys the aural traditions that are such a significant part of their lives. “The aural aspects of radio allow for the participants on the show to maintain the oral forms of cultural and historical transmissions employed in various indigenous communities,” writes Estrada. It is only fair that so many of us cannot navigate between these languages with the same ease of the listeners of Contacto Ancestral. Diasporic indigenous people have been so frequently excluded from taking part in so many spaces because of their language, their appearance, or their migratory status. Perhaps this aural experience provides a potential for alternative epistemologies to be, quite literally, better heard, even by those who may not understand the words.

The contributions to this edited volume build upon a variety of resistant acts that have deep historical and artistic roots in Mesoamerica. As they do so, they trace how these acts expand outwards in the larger transnational indigenous diaspora.

Beyond the community that Contacto Ancestral helps foster among the Mayas living in the United States, it also works to create an audible space that unites Mayas in Mesoamerica with those in the diaspora. These alliances are further expanded and become even more visible in Joan Saab’s analysis of “Chicano Park Samba” in San Diego. The murals in this piece tell a story that connects Chicano Park to Aztlán, the legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples. “By equating Chicano Park with Aztlán,” Saab writes, “park organizers forge a direct link between pre-conquest Mexican civilizations and the present day.” At the same time, the park’s “kiosko” was conceived to resemble a Maya pyramid. Here, it is the visual that aids Saab in arguing for transnational networks of support between the Chicano community and a broader Mexican indigenous identity, establishing what she refers to as “a visual canon of Chicano art.” The dynamic galleries of photographs of murals allow the reader to visually navigate the eclectic mixture of references, a mixture that speaks to a deeply political and aesthetic engagement on the part of the artists with a broader history of colonization and coercion. The murals draw connections between a multiplicity of sources, setting Maya and Aztec iconography alongside portraits of Mexican artists; historical vignettes of Cortez’s conquest of Tenochtitlan side-by-side with Cesar Chávez and the United Farm workers; and scenes of resistance from the Navajo to the Incas and from Che Guevara to Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino. Alongside the visual complexity that this multiplicity of sources produces, Saab also examines the ways in which Chicano Park lives on beyond its physical location in San Diego through the series of short videos which continue to circulate in the digital space of YouTube and Vimeo, many of them set to the sound of the song “Chicano Park Samba.”

These six multimedia essays are followed by a section focusing on the work of Maya scholar Juan López Intzín. In “Juan López Intzín: Epistemologies of the Heart,” Diana Taylor contextualizes López Intzín’s work within his broader effort to draw from his ancestral language, philosophy, and communal practices as an invitation to un-learn and un-think colonial epistemic systems. In “Rediscovering the Sacred and the End of Hydra Capitalism,” López Intzín presents three moments in his trajectory in which he was confronted with the need for a personal process of decolonization: when he left his community and began to lose his Tseltal language; when a friend called him a “fucking Indian;” and finally, when, inspired by the 1994 Zapatista uprising, he began to examine fundamental concepts of Tseltal and Tsotsil Maya thought, concepts which he expands upon in the four essays included in this book and translated into English for the first time: “The Ch’ulel-Multiverse and Intersubjectivity in the Maya Tseltal Stalel,” Ich’el ta muk’: Insights from the Construction of Lekil kuxlejal. Towards a Visibilization of “Other” Knowledges from the Matrix of the Tseltal Feel-Thinking and Feel-Knowing,” Sp’ijilal O’tan: Knowledges or Epistemologies of the Heart,” and “Zapatismo and Tseltal Philosophy: Ch’ulel and the Dream of Another Becoming.” Working on the Tseltal concept of ch’ulel (which can be translated to spirit, consciousness, energy, potentiality, or soul), López Intzín proposes a re-ch’ulelización, a re-ch’ulelization that connects us with our collective ch’ulel, “which has been taken from us by the capitalist system that turned everything into a commodity.” López Intzín argues that the Zapatista principles of “leading by obeying,” “representing without supplanting,” and “descending and not rising,” are all manifestations of Maya epistemologies of the heart. He calls for “building a world in which many worlds fit” as a way to confront the capitalist hydra.

Thus, López Intzín’s work takes us back full circle to the beginning of this book by insisting on the validity and urgency of a multiplicity of ways of knowing and being that are needed to confront the closure of possibilities amplified by neoliberal globalization. Presented with the neoliberal mandate to develop “or else,” the small gestures highlighted in this book demonstrate the power of insisting on the “right not to.” Some of the resistant strategies covered here go back at least five hundred years, yet they continue to retain their power to contest, persuade, and energize. The contributions to this edited volume build upon a variety of resistant acts that have deep historical and artistic roots in Mesoamerica. As they do so, they trace how these acts expand outwards in the larger transnational indigenous diaspora. The digital nature of this book allows for these resistant strategies to live on in both English and Spanish, but also as image and sound, establishing affective alliances that go beyond the written word. The digital, as opposed to print, better conveys the central role that oral and visual knowledge play in these cultures, providing a platform to address the ways in which they have been systematically massacred through the colonial project which lives on in the false universalization of neoliberal globalization. As Rodríguez argues in her talk, “we have to solve this terrible problem of a denied cosmovision, a denied civilization, which isn’t allowed to express itself on the international stage alongside other nations.” Perhaps following López Intzín’s call to re-ch’ulelizing ourselves, opening up space for an epistemology of the heart is a good way to start building a world in which many worlds fit.

Works Cited

Grandin, Greg. 2007. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Owl Records.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2007. Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso.

Ybarra, Patricia A. 2017. Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.