Staging Revolution: Ritual, Myth and Memory in MexicoSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber suspect, was driven by the loneliness of his Montana cabin to seek friendship from a Mexican pen pal. In his letters, Kaczynski asked Chihuahua day laborer Juan Sánchez Arreola for his memories of Pancho Villa.
Villa's leadership during the Mexican revolution may not seem to fit with the Unabomber's hatred of industrialism and its fruits, at least if you are familiar with Villa's reliance on the machinery of modern warfare. Villa was a great lover of film and publicity, the great art forms of the industrial age. Photographs of the rebel general on horseback, leading his troops on massed cavalry attacks carefully staged after the actual battles, turned him into an icon of revolutionary romance and an appealing figure for an isolated would-be revolutionary.
Villa died four years before I was born, Sánchez Arreola remembers answering Kaczynski, come here and I will give you a history lesson. Kaczynski never took up the offer, but perhaps we should.
The first lesson is that, for Juan Sánchez Arreola and for millions of others who have sweated and worked in the fields of Mexico and of Texas, the Mexican Revolution is history. It is not the stuff of romanticized dreams, hopeful images of the people in arms, breaking their shackles. It is real places, things you can see: battlefields where people died and street corners where people, real people, someone's grandfather, somebody's uncle, were cut down by a bullet or a machete; perhaps over land or politics, perhaps over a bottle or a "question of skirts." The Mexican Revolution is a generation of young people destroyed, and a generation of survivors, young men whose children are now grown old, given a chance for a minimal education and perhaps a life in politics. It is haciendas ransacked, churches burnt, the opulent monuments of a departed regime put to the torch; and it is land ceded, with strings attached, to Sánchez Arreola's neighbors by a new regime with Revolutionary in its title. It is memories of demands made and hopes raised, and it is promises fulfilled, promises broken, promises twisted with the passing of time.
It is history. It is the past. It is real, and it is over.
Yet the Mexican Revolution lives on, in often misguided images, for many who never participated in it and whose lives were never touched by its aftermath.
The neo-Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has brought a mini-resurgence of "the enormous vogue of things Mexican" — that swept U.S. intellectual and artistic circles in the 1920s and 1930s — and it has brought a resurgent vogue of the glamour of revolution.
Today as in the 1920s, revolution in Mexico is greeted in the U.S. as theater and as spectacle, as a real fulfillment in an unreal country of dreams that recede when we wake, as an epic battle against economic forces and world orders which, here, only someone as mad and misguided as a Unabomber would take up arms to fight. Readers in the U.S. can ignore the part of revolution that is all too real for those who have gone through it: not only the solidarity and the euphoria of the revolutionaries, but the loss, the hurt, the death and destruction experienced by those around them.
This lesson was brought home to me in the summer of 1994 when, primed perhaps by too optimistic a reading of too many articles in The Nation and too many reports from graduate students returning from treks to the Lacandón jungle, I asked people in the small town of Mexquitic, San Luís Potosí, north of Mexico City, what they thought of the modern-day Zapatistas. People who otherwise had little good to say about the official party — and these days, who does? — supported President Salinas and denounced the rebels.
Revolution? We've been through that.
Why, then, is there a rebellion in Chiapas? One reason, underlying all others, is that the image of revolution has been kept alive as a legitimating device by the Mexican government itself.
The last twenty years of historical scholarship have firmly established that there was never a single Mexican Revolution, but a series of revolts, armed conflicts, and uprisings for different ends, by different means, in different regions of the country, during a period which for the sake of convenience we label "the Mexican Revolution."
We would be closer to the historical reality if we talked instead of at least two revolutions, aware that even this is a tremendous oversimplification.
The first of these was a revolution of what Guillermo Bonfil Batalla called el México imaginario, the imagined Mexico that denies its connection to the pre- Hispanic world and that segregates itself from the Indian world: the urban, urbane world of William Taylor's "self- consciously Europeanizing elite." This Mexican Revolution was a political revolt by "middle class" groups who felt shut out by the increasingly corrupt and closed circles of the ruling elite under Porfirio Díaz, President and dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1910. For them, the root problem was not so much the corruption as the closed nature of Porfirian politics, at a time when being in on the political game was the only sure way to social and economic advancement.
The second Mexican Revolution was that fought by Bonfil Batalla's México profundo, the largely rural "deep Mexico" still in touch with its roots in Mesoamerican civilization.
The incredible violence of the 1910s and 1920s, with hundreds of thousands left dead out of a population of just 15 million, came out of this second, agrarian revolution that was sparked by the more limited political revolt in 1910. The intensely local and intensely bitter struggles for control over resources, over security, or over autonomy made the Mexican countryside the site of the revolutionary era's worst destruction. Urban Mexico, apart from such incidents as the Decena Trágica (ten days of indiscriminate shelling of Mexico City in February 1913), came through relatively unscathed.
Both the political and the agrarian revolutions were to some extent successful. The revolutionary era put new circles of urban elites in control of the country—perhaps not the same ones who began the struggle, many of whom died in the fighting, but new circles nonetheless. More importantly, it ended with the creation of a new political system which, while hardly open, allowed for a constant cycling of elites into and out of power. In terms of agrarian reform, the power of the old landholding elite was shattered forever, and replaced by ties of patronage to the new "revolutionary" political elite. Haciendas were broken up and doled out, in the name of the revolutionary state, to peasants who had fought on the winning side. Many rural towns achieved a level of control over resources, and even autonomy, that they had only dreamed of before.
For the agrarian fighters, the catch was that they had neither fought nor won the political revolution. Though they felt they had won land and autonomy through their own struggles and blood, after the fighting ended the revolutionary state grudgingly legitimized those gains, meting them out as political patronage. In the broader picture, the agrarian revolutionaries exchanged one set of masters for another.
That is the Mexican Revolution as historians analyze it. In Mexican history as ritual, enacted in textbook learning and political ceremony, there are not many revolutions or two revolutions but a single, nation-building event. The Revolution of official myth is a symbol which stands for all of Mexico's search for justice. As rhetoric and ritual, the Mexican Revolution smoothes over the underlying contradiction—that rural Mexico fought, at terrible cost, in a search for justice, but all the fighting and destruction merely left another branch of el México imaginario in control of the country.
It has only been in the last decade that the Mexican government, playing both to foreign investors and to a view of Mexico as now more urban than rural, has departed radically from its constant ritual invocation of the Revolution. Since the 1980s, reform, not revolution, has again become the watchword of the political elite. Not long ago there was even an abortive attempt to rehabilitate Porfirio Díaz, the foreign-investment-loving dictator toppled in 1910.
But in the end the government and its party, the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional], come back to certain fundamental facts. As the de facto party of the imaginary Mexico, it is the PRI's own project to turn the many, interlinked peoples and cultures of Mesoamerica into a single nation. The Revolution is the only event to date that can be passed off as a concrete representation of this project.
There are more immediate reasons why the 1994 rebellion occurred in the economically deprived southern state of Chiapas.
First, unlike rural San Luis Potosí or rural Chihuahua, the state of Chiapas has not "been through that." In the 1910s, Chiapas saw only a civil war between armed factions of the elite—the federal army on one side, reactionary local landowners on the other. The Indian communities that make up most of the state stayed out of this "revolution."There may have been "Zapatistas" in Chiapas in 1994, even in 1974, but there were none in 1914. Basic questions of autonomy and control have not yet been settled there by agrarian revolt, and revolutionary violence is not a living memory for many Chiapanecos.
Second, not entirely unlike Theodore Kaczynski in his unwired Montana cabin, many of the Zapatista rebels live apart from the media-created realities of modern urban life, free to dream that their actions will make a difference. (The crucial difference is that Kaczynski's antisocial isolation was self-imposed and solitary, while that of the Maya hamlets is structural and communal, the result of a long history of being shunted aside by colonial and "national" governments.)
Last summer, writer Andrés Oppenheimer interviewed a Major Rolando, rebel commander of a small town on the edge of Zapatista territory. Oppenheimer was skeptical of Rolando's optimistic view that, "Mexico and much of the world had woken up to the plight of the Mexican Indians" as a result of his group's armed actions. "I told Rolando I had just spent three weeks in Mexico City," Oppenheimer writes, "and there was only one thing people were talking about. It wasn't the plight of Mexican Indians, but the World Cup soccer tournament that had just finished in the United States."
Rolando, in turn, was surprised. "'Well, we don't know much about that here because we live pretty isolated from the rest of the world... We don't have electricity in our villages, so we don't get to watch television... My world ends in San Miguel. I can't see much farther than that.'"
The world of the top rebel commanders, however, does not end in San Miguel, and this is the third and in some ways decisive reason for the rebellion, or more precisely, for the way it was carried out and the fact that the international press reported it. Contrary to some reports, this was hardly the first major guerrilla uprising in Mexico since the 1920s. But in the forests and mountains of Chiapas and Guerrero where little news gets in, little news gets out either, especially when the government has both an interest in keeping things quiet and a near monopoly on the journalistic media, as Mexico's government did in the 1970s. The rebellions of that decade were well-known in Mexico, especially in student and leftist circles where, for some, it was almost a coming-of-age ritual to foray into the jungle and join the rebels. Oppenheimer notes that in the early 1970s ex-president Carlos Salinas' brother Raúl, then a leftist university student and today under indictment for "illegal enrichment" on the order of several hundred million dollars, unsuccessfully tried with his college friends to spark a rebellion in Chiapas. But the rebellions were little noted in the international press, and for the rest of the world, Guerrero, Chiapas, and the rebels have never existed, until now.
The uprising on January 1, 1994, was real. Issues of land reform, political corruption, ecological depredation, and respect for Indian society were at stake; some 150 or more people died in the first days of fighting. But the rebellion was also myth, rhetoric, and theater. It was in the staging of the rebellion that the non-indigenous, urban, intellectual rebel leadership made their greatest contributions. Unlike Major Rolando, these leaders had to be well aware that a few hundred lightly armed rebels in a far corner of Mexico could never be taken seriously as an actual threat to the army or the state. But they knew that a carefully staged rebellion, coming on the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, would be noticed around the world, seen on CNN, and read by nervous investors as a commentary on the stability of Mexican society.
Like Pancho Villa, the leadership knew about the media and how to handle them, and with the technology of the 1990s they did not even have to restage their battles for the cameras in order for them to appear on the news. All they had to do was to launch the rebellion at a time and place—such as the tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas, on New Year's night—when they knew the cameras would be there. And they would portray their rebels in a way calculated to win sympathy: not as Marxists or oppressed proletarians, the defeated causes of yesterday, but as indigenous people forced in the search for justice to resort to arms. The only glitch came when a few nervous U.S. tourists began putting anguished questions in English to the would-be rebel spokesperson, for whom Spanish was already a second language, in front of the news cameras. The unexpected need for a translator pulled the non-Indian "subcommander" Marcos out of his planned anonymity and undid the facade of a purely Indian leadership.
The choice of Zapata, rather than any local Chiapaneco hero, as the revolutionary forebear of the movement also served the cause of revolution as theater. Emiliano Zapata is, together with Pancho Villa, one of the most widely recognized icons of the Mexican Revolution, and it would be fair to say that he beats out Villa by a long shot as the most sympathetic of its leaders. As an indigenous leader who, at least in legend, addressed his troops in Nahuatl, and as an uncompromising advocate of indigenous political rights and a champion of land reform who was gunned down by the "revolutionary" government which could not suborn or co-opt him, he was a ready-made symbol for the stated goals of the neo-Zapatistas.
Best of all, Zapata's image had been raised to iconic status and made recognizable all over the country by the government itself, in its own decades-long ritual invocation of the Revolution, its own use of revolution as theater and as ritual. The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 was staged not only for CNN and Citibank, but also in dialogue with the Mexican government which calls itself revolutionary and has made Zapata a national hero, putting his face in every child's textbook. The government has been running away from revolution and towards "reform"—the International Monetary Foundation and NAFTA—since the mid-1980s. The 1994 rebellion was a point in an argument and a theatrical statement: you still call yourselves Revolutionary; this is Zapata, your revolutionary hero; do you accept him, or deny him?
The government has entered into a kind of dialogue with the Zapatistas. Historian Gilbert Joseph wrote shortly before the uprising, "It is the state's partial incorporation of popular demands since 1920 that helps to distinguish Mexico from countries like Peru and El Salvador today... For Mexico's latter-day Cardenistas—(the social democratic opposition)—the struggle is clearly circumscribed within the framework of the revolution, the nation, and the state; for the Senderistas of Peru, it is about the total bankruptcy of the Peruvian state and the absence of a nation. The Zapatistas' use of revolution as theater is far from a flat rejection of the legitimacy of the Mexican state; rather, it is entirely in keeping with what by now are almost traditional ways of conducting a dialogue with the state.
For anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, Mexican social movements which have all the overt appearances of rebellious acts actually serve, when the media are involved, "as pointed appeals to public opinion and are thus gestures of revolt." The Zapatistas have raised this theater of rebellion to another level. Their protest is aimed at a mass audience far beyond the local participants in the struggle, and their demands aim beyond local grievances. This is why the rebellion has caused such alarm in official circles, despite the all but non-existent chance of its sparking a nationwide revolt.
For Mexicans, the Zapatista rebellion has brought into public discussion the radical possibility of using revolution to construe a new model of Mexico itself—not the monolithic nation promoted by the "imaginary Mexico," but a pluricultural country in which the many peoples of rural and urban mestizo and Indian Mexico will be able to live in mutual respect, and in which local autonomy will be more than a plum of a patronizing government.
For people in Mexico and abroad, the Zapatistas have challenged the seemingly unstoppable move toward a world without barriers to trade and competition, in which an Alan Greenspan can describe years of falling wages as "favorable" without fear of contradiction. That is the vision of the competitive future which Mexico's governing elite have wholeheartedly embraced for the past decade. If the rebellion is theater, its theme is the regime's betrayal of its revolutionary roots.
David Frye is a visiting assistant professor of History and Anthropology, and author of Indians Into Mexicans: History and Identity in a Mexican Town(University of Texas Press, 1996).
Jan Rus, "The 'Communidad Revolucionaria Institucional': The subversion of Native Government in Highland Chiapas, 1936-1968," in Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico,Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, p.265.
Andres Oppenheimer, Bordering on Chaors: Guerrillas, Stockbrockers, Politicians, and Mexico's Road to Prosperity, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996, p.81. Oppenheimer's conclusion: "I couldn't help thinking that if the government really wanted the Zapatistas to lay down their weapons, it should bombard them with television sets and radios."