Zapata and the Wretched of the Earth

“Think occasionally of the suffering,” writes Albert Schweitzer, “of which you spare yourself the sight.” Which suffering, the good missionary doctor might have added, is easy to ignore for you of the borderless city, whose centre is everywhere, whose periphery is nowhere. Because in the mind of the city nowhere is the place of the wretched of the earth, they the ones who live on, by, and for the land, little peripheries of land no longer theirs but now completely the city’s – and that simply by naked right of money – as if we were not, every mother’s son (or daughter) of us, a child of Eve.   

“And it is clear,” writes Franz Fanon in the book of that title – The Wretched of the Earth –, first published in 1961, “that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization is simply a question of relative strength.”  

Or, as Emiliano Zapata, whose anniversary of death is today, defiantly declared , “I would rather die standing than live on my knees”. Whether it is a matter of colonization in the Mexico of 1910 and or a matter of colonization in the world of our day, it is still a matter of faceless banks and corporations and their lawyers, with whatever bombs dropped and boots put on the ground in the name of freedom and democracy are deemed necessary by the governments they control. Zapata, born on August 8, 1879, in Anenecuilco, Mexico, was killed on April 10, 1919, in the state of Morelos, Mexico. As a revolutionary he was a champion of agrarianism, fighting in guerrilla actions during and after the Mexican Revolution, this revolution lasting from 1911 to 1917. Frank McLynn, author of Villa and Zapata: a Biography of the Mexican Revolution (Jonathan Cape, 2000, p. 35f.) tells us:

                                                                                      . . . It was no accident that the great slogan of the Mexican Revolution (equivalent to “liberty, equality and fraternity” in the French Revolution) was Tierra y Libertad – land and liberty. The core problem of the Diaz years was the way the hacienda had encroached on village lands. Most villages had enjoyed their communal lands for centuries through customary right and had not filed documentary title to the territories in Mexico City. The hacendados and their lawyers took advantage of this to assert ownership in the village lands and water. By 1910 half of the rural population of Mexico had been reduced to dependency on the hacienda and many villages were hacienda pueblos. Even where the villages were not in hacienda territory, their inhabitants were often landless and had to work in the haciendas. The free non-hacienda villages were largely Indian and these were squeezed mercilessly until only a few retained their own ancient lands. Peaceful resistance was all but impossible, since the hacendados controlled the state courts and dominated local politics, making local democracy or free elections impossible.

                                                     The villagers could in a sense count themselves lucky,  for there was an even more exploited group of people: the peons who lived and worked permanently on the hacienda grounds, as opposed to the villagers who worked as day laborers. These peons were ground into the dirt by the nefarious system of debt peonage, common in the south, which made the states of Veracruz, Campeche, Chiapas and Yucatán the closest thing to the notorious serfdom of Russia and eastern Europe. The peon, indentured to the hacienda and unable to leave, toiling all day under the sun, at the mercy of brutal overseers and harsh discipline enforced by whips and riding crops, and perforce to buy all his needs at the company store, where debts were run up either honestly or dishonestly. When these debts were made heritable, so that the children inherited their parents’ debt, peonage became slavery in all but name. Echoing the cynical transactions in Gogol’s Dead Souls, owners bought and sold each other’s peons and used bounty hunters to track down fugitives, who would then be beaten to death as a bloody warning to the others.

    It is difficult to overstate the cynical savagery of debt peonage. Many peons owed up to three years’ wages in debt which could never be repaid, especially as their employers cynically fiddled the figures. One company storekeeper was reputed to add the date at the top of the page to each peon’s debt. The hacendados liked to keep their charges in ignorance, and on many haciendas schoolteachers were expressly forbidden to teach arithmetic to the permanent workers. Since Spaniards often held positions on the hacienda as keepers of the company store, clerks, foremen or managers, the gachupines were particularly hated, and Spain was always the main target for xenophobia in Mexico. The threat to all villagers was clear: if they lost their lands to the haciendas or became economically unviable, they would face starvation unless they became permanent employees on the haciendas and thus got sucked into the maw of debt peonage.

Although the state of Morelos did not suffer from the worst excesses of the hacienda system farther south, the mind of Emilano Zapata cannot be understood without appreciating the role of land in his mentality: both this mystical feeling for the soil of his ancestors, and his negative appreciation of what lay in store for the villagers of his state if they did not resist the big hacendados.

In the course of his campaigns, Zapata took lands from the haciendas, which he frequently burned without compensation, and distributed those lands to the landless. Often ordering executions and expropriations, he and his followers did not always abide by the laws of “civilized” war. Yet his picturesque appearance – drooping moustache, penetrating eyes, big sombrero – belied him, for he was a passionate man with simple ideals that he was determined to realize. Avoiding battle by adopting guerrilla tactics, farming their land otherwise with rifles on their shoulders, the Zapatistas went when called to fight and returned to their plows at the end of the battle. At times assembling thousands of men, Zapata paid these fighting farmers – their arms were captured from federal troops – by imposing taxes on the provincial cities, as well as by extorting from the rich. As for the nature of the Zapatistas as victors, we get a good glimpse of this in McLynn’s account of the entry of their vanguard into Mexico City on November 24, 1914:

Zapata’s men came not as conquerors or marauders but as awe-struck sightseers, gaping at the unusual features of the city. They were peaceful, deferential, simple folk, the classic country cousins up for the day in the big city, naively carrying banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe and displaying their rustic origins by their coarse white cotton clothes, Franciscan sandals and big straw hats. They wandered the streets like lost children, begging and panhandling for coins from passers-by, knocking on doors and politely asking if they could have some food. A terrified flaneur was approached by a group of Zapatistas wielding machetes who, he was convinced, wanted to kill him. However, they took off their huge sombreros, threaded them circularly through their fingers, and said in humble voices: ‘Young master, could you let us have a little money?’ The most famous story is that the Zapatistas opened fire on a clanging fire-engine speeding to an emergency, thinking it a kind of primitive tank, and killed twelve firemen.

    To the amazement of Mexico City’s bourgeoisie, there were no expropriations, except of houses belonging to Morelos planters. It was not long before the middle classes were pointing to the absence of speeches, proscriptions and confiscations, praising Zapata to the skies and contrasting him with the predatory and aggressive Carranza and Obregón. Where [Pancho] Villa and his chiefs always made straight for the most luxurious houses once they occupied a city, Zapata displayed a Cato-like asceticism by staying in a dingy third-class hotel a block away from the railway depot. He left city administration to his underlings and delegated to his brother Eufemio the task of showing provisional president Eulalio Gutiérrez around the presidential palace.

The man who four years earlier was an obscure village leader in Morelos was now master of Mexico City. To the oft-whispered question by an anxious urban bourgeouisie – ‘what does he want?’ – there was only one answer: nothing. Zapata always hated the national capital and could hardly wait to return to Morelos, but there was more than caprice or personal predilection involved here. A dislike of cities was imbricated in the entire Zapatista ideology, for cities represented the power of the state and its full-time officials, the ultimate anathema for all attracted by aspirations, but it was never so in the Leninist sense of aiming to capture the apparatus of the state and imposing a national ideology.

                                                          Few political movements have been more misunderstood than the one headed by Emiliano Zapata. Anarchism is a useful tag, as long as one appreciates that Zapata merely wanted euthanasia of all bosses, owners and overseers. In no sense was he actuated by full-blooded anarchistic theory like that of Bakunin, which was anyway an urban theory reflecting the concerns of city dwellers. The peasants of Morelos, with their white pajamas and banners of the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, were light-years away from the atheistic Russian anarchists. (Ibid. 264-5)

The peasants of Morelos, with their banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe . . .

     The core of Zapata’s own beliefs was his mystical feeling for the land, “the mother who nourishes us and cares for us”, in the words of the St. Francis of Assisi in the Canticle of Beings. The ideology of Zapata, then, envisaging a free association of landowning villages, was fundamentally nostalgic, backward-looking and defensive. This does not mean it was non-revolutionary; as more than one commentator has pointed out, the Golden Age of the revolutionary can be located in the past as well as the future. (Ibid. 266)

   The Mother – a golden age far, far in the past, yet the Zapatistas would resurrect its memory in a twentieth century revolution under banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  “Whether we and our politicians know it or not,” says Wendell Berry as part of an endorsement statement for The Dying of the Trees (1997) by Charles E. Little, “Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”  And so who is to say that Zapata did not know far more than any politician of his time about what human beings truly needed, about what truly needed to be done?  “If you don’t know where you’re from,” Berry reminds us, “you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” Even though revolution never has been and never will be the answer, just as suppression, imprisonment, and execution never have been and never will be the answer,  Zapata and the Zapatistas, far more clearly than your typical city-dweller, knew nonetheless where we are from,  just as they had a clearer vision, under the banner of the Virgin, as to where we ought to be going.

“Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us,” writes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose anniversary of death is also this day, April 10) in the Hymn of the Universe, “we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.” Matter, the Mother: forget where we are from, and how can we not help but forget where we ought to be going?  “The time has come to realize,” writes Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “that an interpretation of the universe – even a positivist one – remains unsatisfying unless it covers the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter. The true physics is that which will, one day, achieve the inclusion of man in his wholeness in a coherent picture of the world.” And this Zapata and the Zapatistas also knew very well, their picture of the world as coherent as that of any contemporary physicist and far more inclusive.  For did not the Holy Virgin in her seven sorrows give her Divine Son over to men to be mocked and scourged and nailed to the Cross? Did she not in her last sorrow stand at the foot of the Cross? And did not the Crucified One, dead and buried, rise from the Earth on the third day as the First Born of the Dead? And did He not say He would return again one day in the clouds in great glory, bringing with Him a new Heaven and a new Earth?

“In the final analysis,” Teilhard de Chardin reflects, “the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened?” Whether or not the wretched of the earth are “good” people, who will dare claim that, as a whole, that they are somehow worse than those who take their land away or than those who directly or indirectly sponsor the theft? Who will claim that they are somehow worse than politicians and somehow worse than the bankers and investors that control politicians? Of course over and over again what the wretched of the earth intend to do when their land has been stolen is somehow to take it back, which effort, in the case of the dark-skinned Zapatistas, was undertaken in the Mexican Revolution under the banner of the appropriately dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe.

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Magdalene of Canossa. Born in Verona March 1, 1774, Magdalene of Conossa belonged to an aristocratic family. It was after a serious illness when she was fifteen that she declared, to the horror of her relatives, that she intended to become a nun. An attempt, however, to try her vocation with the Carmelites failed, since as a member of an enclosed order she could not do what she wanted to do, which was, as she put it, to serve “Jesus Christ in his poor.”  

After leaving the order, Magdalene worked in hospitals, gave alms, visited the sick and destitute, eventually founding a religious order known as the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity.  According to Paul Burns (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Concise Edition, Liturgical Press, 2003) “Her practical work was sustained by an intense personal spirituality, with mystical experiences, which she tried to describe with their joyous rewards and their periods of dryness, in her Memoirs. She had a special devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, seeing Mary as becoming ‘mother of charity’ as she stood at the foot of the cross, an example of strength she constantly put before her Sisters. Her inspiration was the gospel, especially life as ‘only the gospel translated into practice’. In accordance with the vision of the kingdom of God set out in Matthew 25, she always saw the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering.”

She died April 10, 1835, and she was canonized in 1988.

Seeing the crucified Christ in the poor, the sick and the suffering: “All the world is full of suffering,” writes Helen Keller. “It is also full of overcoming.” And surely the overcoming we accomplish is not only for ourselves, it is not only for humankind, but it is also for the Earth, who is our Mother, “the mother who nourishes us and cares for us”, the Mother of everything living.  “We are one, after all, you and I,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us. “Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.” Accordingly, in that sense, are we not all of us, rich and poor, are we not all of us, every mother’s son (and daughter) of us — sinners that we are — the wretched of the earth, of Mother Earth, of Her who waits with eager longing for the revealing of the Sons and Daughters of Light?

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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One Response to Zapata and the Wretched of the Earth

  1. Kara Echavez says:

    Thanks for this post, many thanks.

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