Zapatismo and Tseltal Philosophy: Ch’ulel and the dream of another becoming

Murals at Oventik Photo: Lorie Novak
Murals at Oventik Photo: Lorie Novak

By way of introduction, let me briefly state that this reflection is the result of what, in my native Tseltal Mayan language, we call xcha’ sujtesel o’tan, which roughly translates to “making our heart return again.” Return where? This would be the immediate question. It is not merely a turn of phrase that captures some meaning in our language and culture. It refers to actions in a historical process related to deep contemplation, to reassessing political projects and decisions that are both personal and collective. In another sense, it may denote the return to our ancestrality. Said in other words, it refers to making our heart return to a place or a location—characterized by certain habits or lifestyles—where our heart has already been at some point in time.

In my case, this reflection stems from my own language, but—being a subject turned subaltern by a hegemonic system of knowledge—I had to shed some of the habits I learned from this system. Only then was I able to rediscover constellations of ancestral Tseltal Maya thought that have always been there, in everyday communal life, in our own language, in our ceremonial moments, and in the legends, myths, and rituals we practice. Making my heart return to my own ancestrality has consisted of a number of actions that have enabled me to put an intercultural hermeneutics into practice, making visible other ways of cohabiting the world, of naming life, of being, feeling, and thinking in-and-with the Lum-K’inal (Cosmos).

Zapatismo and xWaychinel Lum-K’inal

Another term I have reflected on is xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, which refers to the acts of dreaming life in a conscious state, dreaming the world, and imagining becoming. It is a question of prefiguring, personally and collectively, certain desires and ideals that come to fruition step by step. A concrete manifestation of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal in Chiapas, Mexico, is Zapatismo—a systemic movement linked to other local and planetary proposals—as the historical result of a deconstructed and reconfigured ch’ulel-spirit-consciousness.

The political construction and the reconfiguration of mentalities in our communities to fight for a “world that can hold many worlds” required—in addition to our first-hand experience of dispossession and contempt—our ability to dream the world, to imagine another possible and dignified life that would then materialize into concrete actions. This is how we built, and continue to build, that other possible dignified life-world. Only by imagining it, dreaming it, can we prefigure it in our heart, and by collectivizing the xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, the collective and historical ch’ulel may be enhearted and brought forth.

xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, or prefiguring possible dignified life-worlds, are not only individual acts devoid of collectivity, but rather a collective wherein the family, the community, and the people may be imagined and incorporated.

Thus the arrival of collective ch’ulel allows us, as communities, to prefigure possible dignified life-worlds as a result of a common collective experience that we have historically lived. xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, then, has to do with our own history, which we have woven across time. In this way, historical acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal and the awakening of ch’ulel are collective and individual acts, in which people’s hearts and minds are the first space-territory where the seeds of struggle and liberation emerge or “in-surge.”

Given that the in-surgence of ch’ulel and the seeds of liberation are not just personal acts decontextualized and disassociated from other ch’ulel spaces-territories, it is fundamental to enhearten and re-ch’ulel-ize ourselves collectively, as our peoples’ recent history has shown. Such is the case of families, communities, regions, areas, autonomous municipalities, and Zapatista Caracoles.

Spirals of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal in the Zapatista Experience and Struggle 

The first space-territory that is fundamental to the very nucleus of Zapatista struggle and resistance—in direct opposition to the hyper-individualization of capitalist modernity—stems from the individual in relationship to the community. The Zapatistas themselves addressed this point of departure during the second level of the “Escuelita Zapatista,” when they shared words about how they were recruited, be it at a party, or walking to school, home, or the milpa (plot of land cultivated with corn, beans, squash, vegetables, etc.). This process emerged from a personal conviction that slowly pollinated the idea and the need for collective struggle to uplift our peoples’ dignity, which had been historically trampled. This would be a first liberated micro-space-territory where ch’ulel constitutes itself as a historical subject and generates from itself acts of imagination and the prefiguring possible dignified life-worlds in a felt-thought way.

The xWaychinel Lum-K’inal, or the act of prefiguring possible dignified life-worlds, are not only individual acts devoid of collectivity, but rather a collective wherein the family, the community, and the people may be imagined and incorporated—a felt-thought “communality” that always existed in the collectivity of the present, future, and past. It began from what was being lived at that moment as a collectivity, while at the same time prefiguring a more dignified future for all daughters and sons. On the other hand, the history of injustice, dispossession, and contempt experienced by those grandmothers and grandfathers revitalized their desire to be free and to reclaim their territories. In this way, the ancestral past was and continues to be a kind of energy that propels us to go forth with acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal.

The strength and power of the word and the voice have only been possible through collective and communal ch’ulel, in which the only voice and word that is heard is everyone’s voice. It is the “communalized” voice and word.

The second spiral of this nucleus consists of family and community. Acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal are no longer just personal; rather, stories of common suffering now undergo a process of collectivization that motivate people to exercise their power to imagine or prefigure. When we begin to share our words collectively, we are driven by the need to speak and share the gift we possess. Therefore, whoever already has ch’ulel and is exercising the power of prefiguration or imagination feels obligated and has the duty to share that word. Thus, those who received their ch’ulel in its collective and historical dimension, know that words and voices are no longer the property of the boss or the owner of the farm or hacienda, or even of the poor ladino or the indigenous cacique. They now view the “uses and customs” imposed by the boss differently. Previously, they had to keep silent, show respect and obedience, and even respond by saying “whatever my boss orders” or “yes, my master.” Now they felt their duty was to raise their voice and their historically silenced word.

Collective Ch’ulel, the Assembly, and the Power of the Word 

The voice and the word were not created alone. It was necessary to share collectively in order to de-think oneself, deconstruct oneself, and imagine collectively. This is one of the great virtues of Mayan Zapatismo: collectivity from below, because the subject that in-surged rose up from the land and started to prefigure very different, autonomous, and thus liberated space-territories. What were once silences and whispers are now storms of multicolored voices. Eyes are no longer directed at the ground; now they look straight ahead, up, to the side, and everywhere. The strength and power of the word and voice have only been possible through collective and communal ch’ulel, in which the only voice and word that is heard is everyone’s voice. It is the communalized voice and word.

The word was taken up collectively bit by bit, which allowed them to recreate or reconstruct communal power. The indissoluble spirit of Zapatista words and voices is communality and collectivity. This is the space belonging to the power of the word and the word of power—of shared, communal power, in-surging within the space of an assembly that, unlike those of other indigenous peoples in Chiapas, is composed of women, girls, boys, men, and the elderly.

The current spaces-territories, as well as the collective ch’ulel of the Zapatista peoples, configure what has been the ancestral desire to liberate themselves and build a world where many and other worlds characterized by respect, justice, and dignity can be found.

After consulting their bases to start a war against forgetting, the Zapatistas let themselves be seen on January 1, 1994. The EZLN’s strength and collective ch’ulel not only emerged from those people who arrived in the Lacandon Jungle in 1983, but also from men and women who were gathering in the fire of the word, fueled by the same history of rebellions and long-term struggles. The Zapatista leadership recognized that the communities already had a collective work of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal and that the group of people who arrived from outside began to weave their word with the people in “common-unity,” further strengthening the collective ch ‘ulel.

One of the outcomes of this sharing and collective enhearting is noted by the “Revolutionary Law of Women” as a sign of a sociohistorical and cultural break and bifurcation, but above all, as a sign of an in-surgent collective ch’ulel ready to transform the historical relations of power and the subjugation of indigenous women. It was an example of the kind of work the Zapatistas were doing from a two-way perspective, one that looks at the State and its unjust functionaries, and the other that understands that only by transforming relationships from within can one move toward those possible dignified life-worlds. The task is not easy, but it is not impossible.

The Third Spiral of the xWaychinel Lum-K’inal: Territory

A possible third spiral of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal may be the physical or geographic space, our peoples’ own territories, which were reconfigured with the consolidation of the Zapatistas’ collective spirit and body. The network of Zapatista collectives and communities came to public attention in December 1994 as Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities, politically and administratively coordinated under the figure of Autonomous Councils. That same year, due to the growing need for civil society to meet with the Zapatistas, the Councils created a great vessel in the middle of the Lacandon Jungle, which became known as Aguascalientes. This space for meeting and dialogue was destroyed in the February 1995 military attack on Guadalupe Tepeyac, Aguascalientes’ headquarters, and a military barracks for federal forces was erected in its place. The Zapatistas named this event “Zedillo’s treason” after the president of Mexico at the time. After Zedillo’s betrayal, more Zapatista Aguascalientes in-surged as examples of Zapatista tenacity and imagination. These spaces-territories were transformed into sites of different encounters to bring together people and struggles from different latitudes of the world.

Metaphorically, what began as a single corn seed planted in a tiny space-territory turned into corncobs and, at the same time, mother seeds that gave continuity to the construction of peoples’ autonomy as a concrete manifestation of the world dreamed by our ancestors.

These days, with enormous yet not insurmountable difficulties, dignity blossoms with the Zapatista imagination. The acts of xWaychinel Lum-K’inal are now embodied in the Caracoles that in-surged from the Zapatistas’ time and ways of life in August 2003. We consider these spaces-territories to be a sign of the dignity and respect that Zapatista peoples have achieved as a result of their ability to resist and re-exist, to create and re-create spaces-territories, to listen and, above all, to “rule by obeying” as a way of self-governance.

Despite what may be lacking, the concrete manifestation of Zapatista spaces-territories as a result of the xWaychinel Lum-K’inal nurtured by collective ch’ulel does not refer only to the externalization of desires for liberation prefigured by the ladino world at the end of the 1960s in Mexico. It is also the result of the objectivation of our peoples’ historical and ancestral memory. Today’s spaces-territories, as well as the collective ch’ulel of the Zapatista peoples, configure what has been the ancestral desire to liberate themselves and build a world that can hold many and other worlds characterized by respect, justice, and dignity. Each Zapatista takes care of this space-territory as if it were their own milpa, since this milpa is strategic for the survival of autonomy.

This essay was originally published in El Salto Diario on June 28, 2019.