Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 1, 2013

Zapatistas Marcos 'Votan II The Guardians'

VOTÁN II. The Guardians.

The Guardians.
July of 2013.
Now we want to explain to you how the little school will work (the list of school items you’ll need, the methodology, the teachers, the course subjects, the schedules, etc.), so the first thing is…
What you will need.
The only thing that you need, objectively, to attend the Zapatistas’ little school (in addition to being invited, of course, and your one hundred pesos for the book-DVD packet), is the willingness to listen.
So there’s no reason to heed the advice or recommendations of those people, however well-intentioned, who say that you need to bring this or that equipment, based on the fact that “they have been in community.”
Those who really have been in community don’t go around bragging about it, and they also know well that what one truly needs is to know how to look and listen. Those who have come to community to talk (and to try to tell us what to do, or to offer us charity in the form of money or “wisdom”) have been and will be many, too many. And those who have come to listen are very few. But I’ll tell you about that on another occasion.
So you don’t need to buy anything special (I read that someone only had some old tennis shoes to bring, that’s cool). Bring a notebook and a pen or pencil. It is not obligatory that you bring your computer, smartphone, tablet, or whatever you use now, but you can if you like. There won’t, however, be a cellular signal where you will be. There is internet in some caracoles but its speed is, how shall I put it, a little like “pegaso,” Durito’s mount [a turtle]. Yes, you can bring your whatever-you-call-it that you use to listen to music. Yes, you can bring a camera and a recorder. Yes, you can record audio and take photos and video, but only according to the rules, which Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés will tell you about. Yes, you can bring your teddy bear or equivalent.
Other things that might be useful: a flashlight; your toothbrush and a towel (if you want to bathe and it is possible to do so); at least one change of clothes, in case you get covered in mud; your medicines, if they are necessary and a trained capable person has prescribed them; a plastic bag for your identification and money (always keep these things with you—we will only ask you for your identification at registration, to see if you are really you); another plastic bag for the study materials you will receive here; you should also put your (under—if you use it—and outer) wear in plastic bags.
Remember: you can bring as much stuff as you want, but everything you bring you will have to carry yourself. So none of this “I’m going to take the piano just in case I have time to practice my do-re-mi-fa-so-la.” And no, you can’t bring your Xbox, ps3 wii, or that old Atari console.
What is in fact essential to have, you cannot buy. It is what you bring already incorporated within your person and can be found, if you start at your neck, below and to the left.
Okay, having clarified that, I will here list what you do need to attend the little school in community. Without the following requirements, YOU WILL NOT BE ADMITTED:
-Disinclination to talk or to judge.
-Willingness to listen and watch.
-A well-disposed heart.
Your race, age, gender, sexual preference, place of origin, religion, scholarliness, stature, weight, physical appearance, equipment, “long experience” following Zapatismo, or what you wear or don’t wear on your feet, none of that matters.
The Scholarly Space and Schedule.
According to the Zapatistas, the place of teaching and learning—school—is the collective. That is, the community. And the teachers and students are those who make up the collective. All of them. So there is no teacher, but rather a collective that teaches, that demonstrates, that trains, and in it and with it—a person who learns and, at the same time, teaches.
So when you attend your first day of class in community (this will be different if one is taking the course another way), do not expect to find yourself in a traditional school. The classroom that we have prepared for you is not a closed space with a blackboard and a professor at the front of the room imparting knowledge to the students who he or she will then evaluate and sanction (that is, classify into good and bad students), but rather, the open space of the community. And this community is not a “sect” (here Zapatistas, non-Zapatistas, and, in some cases, anti-Zapatistas live together), nor is it hegemonic, homogeneous, closed (here people from different calendars and geographies visit all year around), or dogmatic (here we also learn from Others).
So you are not coming to a school that operates on the traditional schedule. You will be in school every hour of every day during your stay here. The most important part of your time in the little Zapatista school is your living experience with the family with whom you will stay. You will go with them to get firewood, to the cornfield, to the river/stream/spring, you will cook and eat with them (of course, you will only eat what doesn’t harm you or go against your convictions—for example, if you are vegetarian or vegan, they won’t give you meat, but please let us know beforehand because thecompas, when they are happy with a visit, often cook chicken or pork, or the community or autonomous municipality or Good Government Council might take one of its collective cows and make a stew for everybody), you will rest with them, and, above all, you will get tired with them.
All in all, during these days you will be part of an indigenous Zapatista family.
And that is the reason why we can’t accept people coming with their camping tent or RV. That is why there is a limit on the number of people who can come. Because many people do indeed fit on these lands, but under the little Zapatista roofs only a few fit. If you want to camp, to live close to nature or its bucolic equivalents, fine, but not here on these dates.
So you won’t be living with your gang, group, or collective. Nor with other “citizens” [like city-dwellers]. If you come with your family, partner, or your not-so-much-a-partner, you can be together if you like, but no one else. None of this “all of us who came from such-and-such place are going to get together to hang out or talk or sing around the campfire or whatever.” This you can do in your geographies and calendars. You (or you and your family, or partner, or not-so-much-a-partner) are coming here to participate in the daily life and knowledge of the indigenous Zapatista people, and, of course, the daily life of non-Zapatista indigenous people.
The Zapatistas are a people that have the particularity of not only having challenged the powerful, nor only of having maintained their rebellion and resistance for 20 years. They also, and above all, have managed to build (in conditions which you will become personally acquainted with) the indigenous Zapatista definition of freedom: to govern and govern ourselves in accord with our ways, in our geography and our calendar. Yes, this part about “our geography and our calendar” defines a considerable distance between ours and other projects. We warn you that this is not only not a model to follow (some things have worked for us and some things haven’t), a new evangelism, or a new fashion for export; it is also not a “construction manual for freedom.” It is not that for the other originary peoples of Mexico, much less for all of the peoples who struggle in all of the corners of the world.
In addition, take careful note, we are defining a time. What you will see here works for us now. New generations will build their own paths, with their own ways and their own times. A concept of freedom does not enslave its future inheritors.
For us, this is freedom: to exercise the right to construct our own destiny, with no one that rules over us and tells us what to do or not do. In other words: it is our right to fall and pick ourselves back up. We know well that this is built with rebellion and dignity, knowing that there are other worlds and other ways, and that, just like we are building ours here, others are going about building their identity, their dignity.
During the week that you live with the Zapatista communities, you will only twice go to a meeting in the Caracol with all of the students of the zone that you are assigned to. In this meeting, where many different colors and ways from many different calendars and geographies will meet, there will be a teacher dedicated to trying to respond to any questions or doubts that have come up during your stay. This is because we think that it will be good for you to hear the doubts that arose for someone from another country or another continent, another city, another reality…
But the most fundamental part of the little school you will learn with your…
Over the course of a few months, tens of thousands of Zapatista families have been preparing to receive those who come to the little school in community. Along with them, thousands of women and men, indigenous Zapatistas, have become a Votán, simultaneously individual and collective.
So you should know what role the Votán will play, because the Votán is, as they say, the backbone of the little school. It is the method, the study plan, the teacher, the school, the classroom, the blackboard, the notebook, the pen, the desk with an apple, the recess, the exam, the graduation, and the cap and gown.
A lot has been written and said about what Votán (or “Uotán”, or “Wotán”, or “Botán”) means. For example, that the word doesn’t exist in the Mayan language and is just a misunderstood or badly translated version of “Ool Tá aan,” which would be something like “The Heart that Speaks.” Or that it refers to an earthquake; or the growl of the jaguar, or the beating of the heart of the earth, or the heart of the sky, or the heart of the water, or the heart of the mountain, or all this and more. But, as in everything that refers to originary peoples, these are versions upon versions from those who have tried to dominate (sometimes with knowledge) these lands and their inhabitants. So, unless you have interest in contemplating interpretations of interpretations (that end up ignoring their creators), here we refer to the meaning that the Zapatistas give to theVotán. And it will be something like “guardian of the heart of the people,” or “guardian and heart of the earth,” or “guardian and heart of the world.”
Each of the little school students, regardless of their age, gender, or race, will have their Votán, a guardian (or guardiana) [feminine].
That is, in addition to the family with whom you will live for those days, you will have a tutor who will help you understand what, according to the Zapatistas, freedom is.
The Guardians [masculine and feminine] are people like all common people. Only these are people that rebelled against the powerful who exploited, dispossessed, disrespected, and repressed them, and they are people who have given their life to that rebellion. Despite this, the Votán that we are does not preach the cult of death, glory, or Power, but rather walks through life in a daily struggle for freedom.
Your personal Votán, your guardian or guardiana, will tell you our history, explain who we are, where we are, why we fight, how we struggle, and alongside who we want to struggle. They will talk to you about our achievements and our errors, study the textbooks with you, resolve any doubts they are able to (and for when they are not able, we have the larger meeting). They are the ones who will speak to you in Spanish (the family with whom you live will always speak to you in their mother tongue), they will translate for you what the family says, and will translate to the family what you want to say or know. They will walk with you, go to the cornfield or to bring firewood or water with you, they will cook and eat with you, sing and dance with you, sleep near you, accompany you when you go to the bathroom, tell you which bugs to avoid, make sure you take your medicine; in sum, they will teach and take care of you.
You can ask your Votán anything: if we are really the offspring of Salinas, if SupMarcos is dead or just tanning himself on a European beach, if SubMoy is going to show up at some point, if the world is round, if he or she believes in elections, if he or she is for the Jaguares [Chiapas’ Mexican professional league soccer team], etc. etc. In contrast to other teachers, if your guardian or guardiana doesn’t know the answer, they’ll say “I don’t know.”
Your Votán will also be your simultaneous translator that doesn’t need batteries. Because here, as far as it is possible, you will be spoken to in our native languages. Only your guardian or guardiana will speak to you in Spanish. This way you will experience what happens when an indigenous person tries to speak in a dominant language. The fundamental difference is that here you will not be treated with disdain or mockery for not understanding what is said to you or for mispronouncing words.
There might be laughter, yes, but out of sympathy for your effort to understand and make yourself understood. And note, your Votán will not only translate words, but also colors, flavors, sounds, entire worlds, that is, a culture.
In the meeting that you will attend with your classmates in the zone, you will not be able to ask questions directly of the teacher; rather, you will ask your guardian orguardiana and they will translate the question for the teacher, who will respond in their mother tongue and your guardian will translate back to you. You will of course be left with the doubt as to whether your question was adequately translated and if the answer you got is the same as that which the teacher gave. But, isn’t that exactly what an indigenous person is subject to with a translator in the government courts of justice? This way you will understand that what they call “juridical equality” is just one more monstrosity of justice in our world. Where is juridical equality if the translation of things like “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice” are made with the same words of those who want to enslave, dispossess, and disappear us? Where is equality if accusation, trial, and sentencing is made by a juridical system that, in addition to corrupt, is imposed in the language of the Ruler? Where is justice in a system whose judgment is based on the premise of cultural dispossession? That is why the school will be like this. That is why the Votán will have this purposeBecause…
They are us.
Your Votán is a great collective concentrated in a person. He or she will not speak as an individual. Each Votán is all of us Zapatistas.
A few weeks ago, Subcomandantes Moisés and Marcos gave the responsibility of spokesperson to thousands of indigenous Zapatista men and women to hold for the days of the little school. During those days in August (and later next December and January), the EZLN will speak through their voice; through their ears the EZLN will listen; and in their heart will beat the great “we” that we are.
So during the days of the Little School, you will have a teacher who is nothing more and nothing less than the maximum Zapatista authority, the supreme head of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation: Votán. And the Votán will also be in charge of…
The Children.
One guardiana for each child/student who is a minor (12 years old or younger) will accompany the mother and/or father all of the time, helping to take care of the child, making sure they don’t get sick, that they take their medicine, that they play, learn, and are happy. If the child knows how to read, the guardiana will study our textbook with the child, and tell stories of how the indigenous children lived before the uprising and how they live now. They will tell terrible and marvelous stories, and jokes, and maybe even sing the children the song about “the moño colorado.” And if the children misbehave, they will tell them not to act like that, because if they do SupMarcos will come with his great big bag of cookies and won’t give them even one, even if they are animal crackers, and that the great Don Durito of the Lacandón will not tell them the story of how he fought, all by himself, against 3.141592 toothless dragons, nor the marvelous story of Lucezita and the Cat-Dog that, they tell me, leaves Ironman,BatmanThe AvengersSpidermanX-ManWolverine, and anything else that comes out, in the dust.
All of the children, with the family members that accompany them, will be assigned to the zones closest to
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, under the best conditions we can offer. They will have specially prepared lodging with their mother or father so that they do not get cold or wet if it rains. There will also be compas present who know about health and first aid. And in the case of an emergency, two ambulances and two other vehicles will be available 24 hours a day to take the child to the city if a doctor is needed, or to get medicine if needed. If it is necessary for a family to return to their own particular geography before the school is over, we have a small economic fund to help them with their tickets or gasoline.
In sum, the children will have very special treatment. But neither they nor the adults will escape the…
The Exam.
It is the most difficult test you can imagine. It does not consist of a written exam, a thesis, or multiple choice questions; and there won’t be a jury or a council of judges with university titles to grade you.
Your reality will be your test, on your calendar, in your geography, and your council of judges will be… the mirror.
There you will see if you can respond to the only question on the final exam: what is freedom according to you and yours?
Vale. Cheers and believe me, I say out of my own experience, what one certainly learns best here is to ask questions. And it’s worth it.
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast.
Mexico, July of 2013.
See and listen to the videos that accompany this text.
Eduardo Galeano narrates an anecdote about a teacher and his students.
Freedom is, for example, the demand for the freeing of all of the Mapuche political prisoners. The track is called “Cosas Simples” (Simple Things), by the Chilean group Weichafe (Warrior).
Luna Zapatista” (Zapatista Moon), by Orlando Rodríguez and Miguel Ogando, with “El Problema del Barrio” (The Problem of the Barrio), drawings by Juan Kalvellido. Video production: Orlando Fonseca.

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