Rediscovering the Sacred and the End of Hydra Capitalism

Chicano Park Murals. Photo: A. Joan Saab, 2011.
Chicano Park Murals. Photo: A. Joan Saab, 2011.
Lecture given at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics on April 14, 2016.

I would like to point to three moments in my process of reflection about decolonization.

The first is when I left my community, began to lose my [Tseltal] language, and started to deny my Maya Tseltal identity. During this time, I often felt ashamed, as I was discriminated against amongst my own people because I didn’t speak Spanish very well.

The second was when I was in high school in Jalisco, and a friend called me a “fucking Indian.”

The third significant moment relates to the 1994 Zapatista uprising. It was in this context that I began to leave behind many of these prior experiences that were weighing on my heart and I began to examine the spirituality of indigenous peoples. It was through this process that I realized that my thought, my spirituality, my being, were all being engulfed by hegemonic thought and identity. So, I started decolonizing—or rather, de-domesticating—myself, and I began to examine the fundamental concepts of Maya Tseltal and Tsotsil thought.

Here, I want to share with you some of the outcomes and concepts that I encountered and developed through that reflection process.

Firstly, the basis of our analysis has to do with the territory, with the earth itself, and it is framed by what Donna Haraway refers to as “situated knowledge.” And one of the central concepts in our Maya territories and communities is the presence of the heart across all domains. So I began to think about the interactions between all of the different hearts in the community.

Taking into consideration how a territory is distributed amongst indigenous communities, I began to look at the ways in which people living in a territory can share a set of beliefs that go beyond their political positions or religious affiliations. So, I began to look at these different actors, which I term constellations, and the ways in which they interact. And, again, these might be people that support particular political parties, they might be Evangelical, they might be Catholic, or they might belong to other small groups formed around different projects. But these constellations—independent as they may be—interact with one another because they share a particular territory, which for us would be Lum-K’inal.

In the process of getting to know our own history and looking at how our indigenous identity has been constructed, I began looking at traditional ideas about indigenous communities developed within Anthropology. These tell us that traditional indigenous communities exhibit degrees of socio-communitarian cohesion, that they have traditions in common, that they have customs and other shared practices, and that these communities live in a certain harmony. This was conceived early on by anthropologists in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Another important aspect is that our communities and peoples have long been associated with various “problems.” We are seen as a problem for the country, for the State, an obstacle for development, and for other cultures. Both in the past and today, we are associated with poverty, backwardness, alcoholism, violence. It is said that the people in the pueblos are people without reason, that they are violent. Thus, there is a negative image of our communities.

In spite of these negative images, there’s a lot of interaction and negotiation that happens within these communities between old and new customs, as well as between what is said about us––those images and associations that the larger society has about us––and the ways we position ourselves. For we are not what they say we are. We question their claims. And in this way, our community becomes a space for discussion and negotiation that allows us to keep going.

Also, when one looks at these communities and their traditions, one finds a relationship with nature that’s alive. This relationship is visible in rituals, in which there’s an acknowledgement of and a respect for nature. For example, if you look at this photograph, what you see in the center––in the heart––is a traditional female dress in the middle, between the two layers of candles. And in this next image, what you see in the center of this picture, in the lake, is that same traditional outfit. It is placed in the lake because it is believed that within it lives an ancestral deity. This is a concrete example of how indigenous thought relates to nature.

In relation to the negative images that have been constructed of our peoples and communities, one can also see an opening for a multiplicity of desires and dreams that are built collectively. We see that conflicts are resolved within the communities––generally communally through assemblies. But, for the most part, only men participate in this process. This has been a key element of our reflection as we ask: Where are the women? Where is the other half of the community in these assemblies?

Another thing that becomes clear when you look at communities is our focus on memory and ritual. When we celebrate the Day of the Dead, for example, we are seeking to render present the collective memory of the past and the memory of those who have come before us.

An important Tseltal concept that encompasses the various things that I’ve been talking about is sna’el k’inal. It refers to ways of knowing, acknowledging, and thinking about the world, the universe, social relations, and the ecosystem. This way in which we understand and apprehend life and the world––this way of knowing––is a concept that we call ch’ulel. Ch’ulel can be translated or related to the following words: spirit, consciousness, energy, potentiality, or soul. The root of the word ch’ulel comes from the word ch’ul, which means sacred. It can be used as prefix to say ch’ultat (sacred father) or ch’ulmec (sacred mother). This is all part of our thinking, but we are also aware that we have lived through a process of conquest, colonization, and the domestication of our hearts and minds. We call this des-ch’ulelización; we have had particular ways of seeing the world taken away from us and other ones imposed. And we have [mistakenly] come to to think of these impositions as our own.

The negative images and perceptions that exist about us, as well as this process of des-ch’ulelización, began at the moment of the conquest and were established through educational, juridical, political, religious, and economic mechanisms put in place from that time onwards. Today as a result, we have new mentalities and new subjectivities. To use the Tseltal expression, we see new forms of “enhearting” among our people––a different heart.

So, what to do about these circumstances? I mentioned earlier that the heart was central to our ways of thinking. We say that when the heart is out of place, it no longer has ch’ulel. The result of lacking ch’ulel is that it becomes difficult to see oppression or injustice––to be aware of the circumstances that define the present reality.

In the face of this, we need to “re-ch’ulelize” ourselves. We need to reconnect with our collective ch’ulel, which has been taken from us by the capitalist system that turned everything into a commodity. It is through a process of re-chulelization that we will be able to change those relationships.

Another concept here that’s important is the Tseltal notion of ich’el ta muk’, which is a recognition of the value, grandeur, and dignity of human beings, but also of all that exists, including the ecosystem. Thus, ich’el ta muk’ is an interpellation of subjects. So, it is necessary for us to deconstruct the vision of the world, the mentality, and the subjectivity that have been imposed upon us since the conquest, and instead look at the world from that situated heart that is at the center of our communities and collective processes. This is what we call epistemologies of the heart. The heart is a key element in our indigenous thought, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t value the brain. In both Maya Tseltal and Tsotsil ways of thinking, the heart is at the center but always operates in combination with the brain, the mind.

Among various epistemologies of the heart, we find the indigenous movement in Chiapas––the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)––and their various concepts and practices, including lead by obeying and represent without supplanting. These are concepts that stem from indigenous philosophy and epistemologies of the heart. Another such notion is that of descending and not rising, which is something that comes from indigenous communities and has been adopted as a political strategy and epistemology by the Zapatista movement. The Zapatistas have also addressed the need to deconstruct the relationships between men and women, both within and outside of their communities.

Another idea is building a world in which many worlds fit. What does this mean in terms of epistemologies of the heart? It obviously has a political meaning, and also educational and pedagogical meanings because it is about being able to see multiple ways of knowing, the multiple epistemologies that have been buried by colonialism. In the process of uncovering these other ways of knowing, we can start to look at the different worlds being built from those other epistemologies. And here it is important to look at the different resistance practices and political struggles in different places throughout the world. What are the practices that we see here in New York or in the U.S? What small or large steps are you or other people taking to fulfill that desire of building other worlds?

We have seen already the ways in which we have been spiritually, epistemologically, culturally, and politically colonized––as well as the negative associations about our communities and peoples. We’ve also seen some of the richness and potentialities of our people and delved into some of our key concepts and epistemologies, all of which can be used to re-examine our relationships and foster change. But all of these lead us to the importance and presence of the heart as both spirit and metaphor in indigenous ways of thinking and knowing. In terms of language, we say, “What does your heart say? What does your heart think? My heart is sad, my heart is blooming, it’s raining in my heart, my heart is cloudy.” Thus, a lot of experiences are expressed through metaphors of the heart.

Because of this importance of the heart in indigenous thought, what we need is an insurgent ch’ulel and an insurgent heart. The insurgent ch’ulel is one that was crouched but is now rising. It wants to make changes—within but also outside. According to this way of thinking, everything is sacred, everything has ch’ulel, heart, and a common source. It is from this standpoint that we can imagine confronting the capitalist hydra.

In conclusion, we have been thinking about the epistemologies of the heart, the need to reconnect with the sacredness of everything, to regain our ch’ulel, our consciousness, our ich’el ta muk’, in order to resist the capitalist hydra that dominates most of humanity. I end with an image of these Zapatista women because they have an insurgent ch’ulel, an insurgent heart; they are fighting for change both within their community, but also outside of it, by defying the Mexican state, the capitalist system, and by putting forth a challenge to all of humanity.