The EZLN – A Look at its History (Part 2): The Millenarian Resistance

The first part of this work, “The Guerrilla Nucleus”, was published yesterday and covered the political military predecessor which led to the EZLN, that is to say the National Liberation Forces (FLN). In this second installment we give a synthesis of the long tradition of resistance of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

“In the committee we debated all afternoon.

We searched for the word in the tongue to say SURRENDER, and we did not find it.

It has no translation in Tzotzil and Tzeltal.

Nobody remembers that the word exists in Tojolabal or Chol.”

–Surrender does not exist in true language, Subcomandante Marcos [1]

Photo by Andalusia KnollNovember 17, 2013, marked the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and on January 1, 2014 they will celebrate 20 years since their first public appearance. As a form of tribute to the men and women who made that cry of ENOUGH (YA BASTA) echo worldwide, we started a series of instalments which try to look at the history of the actors who linked together to give rise to the EZLN. The first part of this work, the “The Guerrilla Nucleus” was published [in English yesterday] and covered the political military predecessor which led to the EZLN, that is to say the National Liberation Forces (FLN). In this second installment we give a synthesis of the long tradition of resistance of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

It is necessary to repeat the clarification already made in the previous installment: it has not been our intention to speak for the Zapatistas, they have told their story and still do so (See Rewind 3.) Our only goal here is to contribute to the dissemination of their experience, which undoubtedly represents the most advanced alternative in the world.

II. The Millenarian Resistance

Source: SubVersiones

“Mexico is many Mexicos,” the saying goes, and most of the time conventional wisdom summarizes in short phrases what scholars and researchers express in hundreds of pages. “Mexico is many Mexicos,” not only because of the heterogeneity of the country, but also, and primarily, due to the variety of peoples who have inhabited and still inhabit their territory.

The state of Chiapas is an example of this geographical and cultural diversity which characterizes the entire country. Its story encapsulates the history of many peoples of Mexico and Latin America: the story of people who were violently conquered and the history of peoples who resisted and who today, more than five hundred years later, still resist, retaining many of their traditions.

Generally, resistance as collective social action is given by indigenous groups in response to invasions (or attempts to invade) the territory they inhabit. In this sense, resistance is more a reaction than an action, an act of territorial and cultural self-defense by indigenous groups against an offensive by foreign forces. The acts of resistance can be active or passive, violent or non-violent, armed or unarmed, and almost always the group or groups who exercise it are at a disadvantage, that is to say the correlation of forces – numerical or operative – is unfavorable to them.

In an attempt to categorize the various forms of resistance he has studied, James Scott [2] notes that there are forms of publicly declared resistance and forms of resistance which are disguised, low-profile, undeclared: the former seek attention (strikes, boycotts, rebellions, petitions,) while the latter remain in the field of infra-politics (not visible, intimate, symbolic.) While the hidden form of resistance escapes the eye at first glance, it is worth noting that this form “provides much of the cultural and structural underpinning of the more visible political action” [3], that is, of the public form of resistance.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the territory we now know as Chiapas, they found civilizations highly advanced in the political, economic, architectural and military spheres, to name a few aspects. The area was inhabited by a group of nations who were in solidarity, participatory and complementary, but also in conflict.

At that time, Antonio García de León recounts [4], it was the “Chiapa” or “Chiapas” culture which maintained control of the territory, largely thanks to the military power that it had developed. As in other parts of the Americas, some native peoples viewed the conquerors as allies with whom to confront the dominant culture. So it was with Zinacantecos, who decided to support the conquerors in the battle against the Chiapa. The war to conquer the region began in 1524 and the resistance of the natives delayed the taking of the city for four years; not until 1528 could troops led by Diego de Mazariegos be established in the region.

Gradually, the conquerors started defeating different native peoples by military force. Others were compelled to take refuge in the mountains. In fact, they continued to resist in the disguised, low-profiles, undeclared ways mentioned by Scott, as they kept reproducing their history, memory and language, and even adopted some forms of Catholicism, which were reinterpreted and appropriated by the cosmovision of the original peoples.

The war continued in part because of the division among the Spaniards and at the insistence of the indigenous peoples, but above all because of the cruel treatment, the smothering tax system – which was incorporated into the laws of New Spain – and the warrior tradition of the Maya peoples. The resistance on several occasions took on its publicly declared form, and the first rebellions arose.

Photo by Andalusia KnollRebellion is, as described above, the publicly declared form of resistance. Rebellions often arise when the subjected classes are exposed to excessive treatment by the dominant class(es) or group(s) and involves disobedience, opposition and/or rejection of authority. It is also an open questioning of the legitimacy of those in power for their excessive forms of control or oppression, and although it can be peaceful or armed, violent or non-violent, rebellion is always an act of confrontation. Rebellions are characterized by being processes confined to a limited geographic area and are more or less spontaneous. While, in their origin, rebellions have historically lacked an alternative project, it is also true that many- in their phase of greatest maturity – have spawned revolutionary processes.

Of the various rebellions that took place during the colony in Chiapas, different historians emphasize the Tzeltal Rebellion of 1712, even to the extent of calling it the “Republic of Cancuc” or the “Tzeltal Republic.” Let’s look a little at these events.

The prickly relationship between indigenous and colonizers entered into a new crisis in 1711, due – fundamentally – to the persecution by the Catholic church of natives who claimed to have witnessed divine manifestations. The first event occurred in the Tzotzil community of Santa María, where a “virgin with indigenous features” was revealed in a piece of carved wood to the Tzotziles Dominica López and Juan Gómez. The apparition generated a commotion among neighboring communities, which is why the Inquisition confiscated the image.

Months later, while the communities were still speaking of the “apparition of the virgin”, the Catholic saints San Sebastián and San Pedro made their apparition in the village of San Pedro Chenalhó. This led to the idea that “the end of the world was approaching,” which touched the collective conscience of the people of the region.

Moreover, the smothering tax system of the captaincy, and the huge commissions charged by Bishop Juan Bautista Álvarez de Toledo, fuelled social discontent, leading to thousands of Indians starting a rebellion against the authorities of New Spain. At this time, the figure of the virgin was seen again, on this occasion by María de la Candelaria, an indigenous Tzeltal from the community of Cancuc; this was interpreted by the rebels as a new message. The rebels found in María Candelaria “a medium to communicate with the virgin,” and to protect her formed the army “soldiers of the virgin,” which brought together 32 Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Chol communities, and reached a total of three thousand militiamen in its ranks.

The “soldiers of the virgin” were recruiting supporters through the practice of semi-clandestine cults, thus showing that the native peoples had maintained their organizational structures and had retained a certain independence from the Crown.

The rebellion of the original peoples was strengthened again when Sebastián Gómez de la Gloria, a Tzotzil Indian who claimed to have traveled to heaven and talked to “God the father,” began to invest Indian priests, distribute powers and bless the rebel army. Nearby communities began to ignore all power not emanating from Cancuc, and Spanish priests and religious figures began to be persecuted and executed. The insurgents named their own authorities and several villages were renamed.

Inter-ethnic conflicts, fueled by the Spaniards, the co-optation of some of the leaders and the brutal onslaught of the army of New Spain ended the “Republic of Cancuc,” but it was not until 1727 that they arrested the perpetrators of the rebellion and their children, so as “not to leave the seeds of rebellion at liberty.” The colonizers took it upon themselves to keep the defeat alive in the memory of the insurgents. One example is Pedro de Zavaleta, who in revenge for the murder of Ladinos and Spaniards undertook to cut an ear from all those whom he considered members or accomplices of the rebellion.

The indigenous peoples returned again – consciously or unconsciously – to the hidden resistance. But although there were public demonstrations on more than one occasion, none were of the magnitude of the Tzeltal Republic.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the resistance continued, sometimes in its public form, at others in its hidden form, but the opposition to domination was always there. It is true that the Indians of the region, like those throughout the continent of America, experienced an extermination that wiped out most of the population, leading to Tzvetan Todorov calling the conquest “the greatest genocide in human history.”[5] But still, either by joining the ranks of the independence army or by strengthening the Liberation Army of the South under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata during the revolution, the Indian peoples of Chiapas actively participated in the construction of the Mexican nation. Mythical figures like Juan López or rebellions such as that in Yucatan in 1847 fed both the memory and rebel practice.

Some resistances involve building new forms of social and political organization, as in the case of the Maya peoples: taking some expressions from Catholicism and colonial political organization; but also creating new forms of self-subsistence, the Chiapas ethnicities survived the conquest and settlement. In the independent Mexico they faced exploitation and marginalization from new figures in power, for example, from those of “enlightened Caciquism” or the “Chiapan Family,” clear evidence of internal colonialism.

The long war of colonization faced by the indigenous peoples of Latin America, particularly those of Chiapas, has failed to strip them of their identity. The policies of extermination, social cleansing and ethnocide resulted, as “an undesired effect of war”, in the strengthening of the social cohesion and the collective consciousness of the Indian people. In this regard, it is worth saying that the war of conquest, colonialism and neo-colonialism failed at the cultural and ideological level. It failed to impose Western rationality as the only way of thinking, and Catholic religion as the only form of spiritual expression.

This millenarian resistance makes itself present again in the EZLN. As González Casanova describes it:

The Maya stand out among the peoples who have most resisted the conquest. In Yucatan and Guatemala, they were not subjugated until 1703, and soon rebelled again. In Chiapas they staged a major revolt in 1712. The Chilam Balam says, ‘then came the secret pleading, the pleading with rage, the pleading with violence, the pleading without mercy.’ And those same people returned to rebellion again on the first of January, 1994.[6]

The long tradition of resistance and rebellion of the indigenous peoples intertwined with the thought and practice of the Marxist National Liberation Forces to give rise to the EZLN. However, it is also worth highlighting the work previously performed in the region by a current in of Catholic Church under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruiz García. Our next installment will focus on this current.

Translation edited by Nancy Piñeiro.


[1] SCI Marcos (2002) “Rendirse no existe en lengua verdadera”. En Relatos del Viejo Antonio. México: Centro de Información y Análisis de Chiapas, pp. 25-26 (“Giving up does not exist in the true language.” In Tales of Old Antonio.)

[2] Scott, J. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press, 1990.

[3] Ibid, p. 184.

[4] García de León, A. (2002) Resistencia y utopía. Memorial de agravios y crónica de revueltas y profecías acaecidas en la provincia de Chiapas durante los últimos quinientos años de su historia. (Resistance and Utopia. Memorial of grievances and chronicle of revolts and prophecies occurring in the province of Chiapas during the last five hundred years of its history.) Mexico, Ediciones Era.

[5] Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard, London: Harper Perennial, 1992, p. 5.

[6] Gonzalez Casanova, P. (2009) “Causas de la rebelión en Chiapas”. En De la sociología del poder a la sociología de la explotación: Pensar América Latina en el siglo XXI (Causes of the rebellion in Chiapas.” In: From the Sociology of power to the sociology of exploitation: Thinking Latin American in the XXI century. Anthology.) Colombia: CLACSO/Siglo del Hombre Editores, p. 266.