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One Sees a Tree, the Other, a Canoe: The Humor and Struggle of International Solidarity

Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project & the Lessons of International Solidarity Ramor Ryan
AK Press
Oakland, 2011

The Zapatistas have lingered in the imaginations of progressives and radicals around the world since the coming out of their rebellion in 1994. People from nearly all leftist persuasions have taken the struggle of the impoverished indigenous communities at the end of Mexico to be one of their own. This, to a degree, has been welcomed by Subcomandante Marcos’ prosaic communiqués and has been a key component of building significant international solidarity. Yet, perhaps to an even larger degree, much of what is understood of the Zapatista struggle is largely a product of these same outsiders’ imaginations.

Irish writer and activist Ramor Ryan, author of “Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile,” uses a seemingly benign and common water project to delve into the complexities of Zapatismo and of its associated solidarity activism in his book, “Zapatista Spring” published a year ago this month by AK Press. Over the past 15 years, dozens of water systems have been constructed in Zapatista communities with technical help from solidarity activists. The projects have not only had the pragmatic goal of bringing potable tap water to villages which before lacked that basic convenience, but also the heady goal of building solidarity between the Zapatista base and foreigners.

The cast of characters Ryan presents fit the archetypal activist spectrum, from a socially inept yet passionate anarcho-dogmatist and a less ideologically driven, type-A career organizer, to a radical punk sex worker and an academic Chicana in search of her roots in the Lacandon Jungle, among others. The group is far from harmonious and the internal problems of the outsider activists themselves drive the narrative for a good portion of the short work. For an anarchist and self-proclaimed revolutionary, Ryan’s humor, empathy and nondogmatic take on politics and personal folly is refreshing. Throughout his narrative, he invites the reader to laugh at him, laugh with him and, most importantly, encourages fellow activists to laugh at themselves.

The story is set in the remote Zapatista community of Roberto Arenas. Ryan and his colleagues are the first outsiders to visit the land recuperated in the 1994 uprising. Ryan highlights the stark realities common in many of the Zapatista base communities: the extreme impoverishment, social conservatism and fervent religiosity combined with a bent toward liberation theology and patriarchal power structure. This is in contrast to the outsiders’ imaginations, in contrast to the romanticized image of impoverished yet politically enlightened Mayans with worldly political critiques on autonomy, nonhierarchical decisionmaking and the intricacies of neoliberal oppression.

Ryan’s point is not a condemnation of either the Zapatista communities or of the romanticizations of some of those around the world who stand in solidarity with the Zapatista struggle; rather, it is a criticism to massage out the knots to create greater understanding. In the prelude, Ryan describes how, walking through the jungle highlands with a Zapatista compañero, they stumble across an ancient ceiba tree, one of a few remaining after heavy logging and deforestation. He sees a magnificent sight that should be preserved. Upon remarking at the beauty of the tree, his compañero, agrees and says, “It would make a fine canoe.” While aware of the constant need for decolonizing one’s self and respect for usos y costumbres, Ryan asks the question, can solidarity in shared struggle truly bridge the divide between the perspective of a peasant who lives on less than a dollar a day to that of someone from a overdeveloped cosmopolitan background?

Through the planning and the construction of the gravity-fed water system, whose source lies two kilometers into the hills above the community, the activists attempted to make the process as participatory as possible, engaging the men and women of the community at every step of the way, not only for ideological reasons but also so the community members would know how to maintain the system themselves. To the dismay of the activists, it was nearly always the men of Roberto Arenas who engaged in the process. When activists invited the women, the answer was almost always that they were busy in the kitchen. While the organization of the Zapatistas is ideally bottom-up, the communities are being nudged, from the top down, away from traditional patriarchal structures and ingrained social conservatism.

The reality is, after nearly 18 years of open rebellion, the material condition of many of the Zapatistas’ base communities hasn’t changed all that much. The Mexican government has also pumped money into neighboring, non-Zapatista communities, providing running water, electricity, bridges and construction materials.

Zapatista communities are not allowed to accept money or aid from government agencies. At the same time, the upper echelons of the Zapatistas require food and material assistance for the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and demand that community members cover their travel expenses on top of necessary time commitments associated with autonomous self-government. After years of rebellion, the revolutionary sacrifice has become overly burdensome for many communities at the base of the movement. A few have looked outside, toward the Mexican government, which is more than willing to provide incentives to lure communities away from the Zapatistas. While Ryan never says it directly, it seems a war of attrition is at hand.

The water project at Roberto Arenas, through blisters, bruises and a few hurt egos, was an initial success. Plus, no story of revolutionary solidarity is complete without references to some sexy times had between the activists.

A few years after Ryan and two enamored fellow activists returned to Roberto Arenas – spoiler alert – they were confronted with unwelcoming carbines at the doorstep of the community. Ryan would learn that the community he worked so hard in betrayed the Zapatistas and took government incentives the Zapatistas could not compete with.

Hurt and dismayed, Ryan wonders if other work building bridges of solidarity was all for naught. He thinks of the people he bonded with, proud Zapatistas, who then ruptured their ties. Throughout the narrative, Ryan references Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” For Camus, Sisyphus is a hero of the absurd who delights in his task of pushing a boulder up a hill with full knowledge that it will never be completed. Ryan uses Sisyphus as an apt metaphor for the work of rebels – both Zapatistas and their solidarity activists. At times, Ryan’s realism borders on cynicism when he discusses the Zapatistas and the illusions of many activists. Yet, he ends with a rallying call, to change history and do what Sisyphus never could and finally push the boulder over the hill.

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