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Of typewriters and masking tape: A media history of the Zapatistas

Author looks into a previously unwritten chapter in the history of the Zaptistas.

Last Modified: 19 Apr 2013 09:49
Deborah Esch

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online.
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"The leader of the Mexican Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), Subcomandante Marcos, need not - at this late date - apologise for any limitations imposed by his punctuation practices," says author [AFP]

I happened to be in Mexico City in January 1994, during the early days of the Zapatista uprising in the southeastern state of Chiapas. Spurred by a fragment of conversation overheard on the sidewalk, I headed to a nearby plaza in the Coyoacan district, listened to speeches and music blaring from large speakers installed for the occasion in the square's ornate gazebo, and read black and white flyers with blurry photos but clear language taped or pasted or stapled to nearly every receptive surface. Later in the day I would read newspapers whose headlines were tall, and whose small print alternated between the alarmist and the dismissive. 

In the intervening years, I tried to keep track of Subcomandante Marcos, of the EZLN and affiliated indigenous organisations - not, of course, through mainstream media, but through periodic trips to Mexico and more frequent visits to certain websites and blogs, and to the work of authors whom the Zapatista cause continued to compel. On occasion, I posted about Marcos' intermittent communiques and netizen responses to them. 

Nineteen years and a couple of months after my sojourn in Coyoacan, my eye fell on a brief missive on the verge of disappearing into the hectic reverse chronology of my morning news feed. Sometimes despite myself, I try to stay alert to tweets about Twitter, as this (that is, Twitter: theory and practice) was one point of departure for a blog I have been keeping on and off for several years, on which I also took note, now and then, of the EZLN. 

This particular tweet, from @SexenioPUE, dated February 12, provided a belated update ("El Subcomandante Marcos dice que, debido a las limitaciones del medio, es improbable difundir communicados por Twitter") ["Subcomandante Marcos says that, due to the limitations of the medium, it is improbable that communiques will be spread via Twitter"], plus the requisite link to an article by Gerardo Soriano: "Improbable escribir en Twitter: Marcos" ["Unlikely to write on Twitter: Marcos"]. 

History of the EZLN

It was via this highly contingent glance at my feed - not a search, just a groggy scroll-through over reheated coffee - that I became aware of the publication on the EZLN site of a new series of essays by the Subcomandante: to date, seven lengthy interventions, each in several parts, some accompanied by video clips (ranging from repurposed footage of Canada's Tommy Douglas, author of universal health care and founder of the New Democratic Party, to a video by MIA and Romain Gavras that was censored by YouTube for its graphic violence). 

The first essay was published in January 2013, on the 19th anniversary of the initial mass action. The title of the series is "Ellos y nosotros", "Them and us", and the red threads running through the texts are the relations between (what Lewis Lapham memorably termed) the "permanent" and the "provisional" governments, and between these and the marginalised, the dispossessed, the latter given voice in the Subcomandante's first-person plural. 

Much of the content in the essays is staged as drama, according to a script with designated personae("the salesman", "the overseers", "the Others"); at times it takes the form of a monologue, summoning the Subcomandante's ventriloquising power in a forceful appeal to the reader, which is leavened here and there by his trademark black humour. 

Faced with the 140 character limit, not only am I useless, so dependent am I on commas, (parentheses), ellipses… but time after time, by the end, I've run out of characters. I think it improbable that I will ever be able to do it…

Subcomandante Marcos, EZLN

Thematically, the writings have (with reason) remained consistent over time, and the substance of the most recent communiques could be summarised in several sentences drawn from a letter Marcos addressed to author and fellow-traveller John Berger in December, 1994. 

"Neoliberalism disguises itself as the defence of a sovereignty which has been sold in dollars on the international market…. These indigenous people irritate the modernising logic of neomercantilism. Their rebellion, their defiance, their resistance, irritates them. The anachronism of their existence within a project of globalisation, an economic and political project that, soon, will decide that poor people, all the people in opposition, which is to say, the majority of the population, are obstacles." (Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, 225) 

But in the sixth essay, and specifically in its fourth part, "To look and communicate", Marcos stakes out new terrain with a heretofore unwritten chapter in the historiography of the EZLN (though he gestured toward this missing link in an interview he gave to CBS' Sixty Minutes, broadcast in December 2012). 

For its account of lessons learned and unlearned, for its exemplarity as a material history, it warrants not just sharing, but citation at some length - more, say, than would fit on a flyer taped to a telephone pole. It is addressed by Marcos to his "compas", his companeros and companeras, virtual and otherwise, and translated into English by Kilombo Intergalactico. 

I'm going to tell you something very secret, but don't go spreading it around…or, go ahead, spread it around, it's up to you.  In the early days of our uprising, after the ceasefire, there was a lot of talk about the eezeelen… back then, they began to say that the EZLN was the first guerilla group of the 21st century (yes, we who still used a digging stick to sow the land…); that Supermarcos was a cyber-guerilla who, from the Lacondon Jungle, would send into cyberspace the Zapatista communiques… and who could count on satellite communications to coordinate the subversive actions that were taking place all over the world.

Having rehearsed the clichéd narrative distilled from mainstream media accounts, Marcos attempts to set one part of the record a little straighter, in terms that could hardly be more specific. 

Yes, that's what they said, but… compas, even on the eve of the uprising our "Zapatista cyber power" was one of those computers that used big floppy disks and had a DOS operating system version -1.1.... Besides using it to play Pacman, we used it to write the "First Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle", which we reproduced on one of those old dot matrix printers that makes more noise than a machine gun. The paper was from a roll that jammed every time we printed, but we had carbon paper and managed to print as many as two every few hours… In San Cristobal de las Casas… they surrendered the plaza to our forces and we used masquinteip [aka masking tape] (as they say) to put up our 15 copies of the Declaration. 

'Cyber guerillas'

His recollection of the Zaptista forces' quiet triumph in the San Cristobal zocolo has a poignant postscript: by the time they left the plaza in the early hours of January 2, 1994, most of the taped proclamations had already been dislodged by the damp morning fog and lay strewn in the streets of the colonial city. 

As the uprising unfolded and the need to spread the word became more urgent, their technology had to adapt. "At that time," Marcos recalls, "I had one of those light, portable computers (it weighed six kilos without the battery), made by HandMeDown , Inc…. a hard disk with ten megabites, so as you can imagine it could hold everything." He stresses the speed of the new tech on which he relied to write and to publish:  "… a processor that was so fast that you could turn it on, go make coffee, come back, and you could still reheat the coffee, 7x7 times, before you could start to write…. In the mountains, to get it to work, we used a converter attached to a car battery." In the event, by February 1995 they were writing their communiques on a mechanical typewriter given to them by "the ejidal commissioner of one of the communities" that took them in. 

This, then, was the advanced technology behind the "cyber guerillas of the 21st century". The next defining moment in their own techno-history was one that the EZLN came to understand as such only after the fact: A young student in Texas created a web page, called it ezln, and began posting all the communiques and letters made public in the press. "And so," as Marcos writes, "the world kept turning. Compas arrived who knew something about computers, and soon they started other webpages, and we got things to the way that they are now, that is, with this damned server that doesn't work like it should…." 

As ever, work remains to be done on all fronts, by and for example.

We learned. And I don't mean that we learned the importance of communication, or the knowledge of the various sciences and techniques of information. For example… none of us has been able to figure out how to successfully tweet. Faced with the 140 character limit, not only am I useless, so dependent am I on commas, (parentheses), ellipses… but time after time, by the end, I've run out of characters. I think it improbable that I will ever be able to do it….

Of course, Marcos need not, at this late date, apologise for any limitations imposed by his punctuation practices. Nor, in fact, need he keep to the character limit to become an adept at Twitter. He has his reheated coffee, his latest keyboard, the EZLN website, a cohort of translators and a great army of compas tweeting links to his latest communiques - links that turn up when you least expect them. 

Deborah Esch is a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Her books include The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible; and In the Event: Reading Journalism, Reading Theory. She currently serves on the steering committee of Advox and is an author with Global Voices Online. 

Follow her on Twitter: @bsovereign

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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