The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement

Gloria Muñoz Ramírez’
City Lights Books (2008)
Reviewed by Sarat Colling 




This richly illustrated and designed volume, featuring indigenous art and photographs on nearly every page and unprecedented interviews with members of the early villages, is a result of the seven years Mexican journalist Gloria Muñoz Ramírez’ spent with the Zapatistas in Southern Chiapas. Responding to military and corporate encroachment upon their territory, the Zapatistas demanded justice and democracy for indigenous people and all Mexicans. In more than 300 pages, Muñoz translates her research, observation and participation with the communities into what spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos calls “the most complete version of the public history of the Zapatistas.”  

Covering the movement from its conception, when a few urban guerrillas joined with indigenous leaders to plant the seeds of revolution, Muñoz provides an intimate and well detailed text. The Fire and the Word chronicles Zapatista history through the first 10 years of mobilizing a resistance in the mountainous and remote rainforest of the Lacandon Jungle; to the armed uprising against the Mexican government in 1994; and the negotiations, international relations and self-governing process that followed.

Insurgent Lieutenant of Public Health Gabriela says, “I’m proud of our struggle because you can really see the improvements in our villages” (91). In 2006, the Zapatistas created a self governing system in which several thousand villages are connected to larger hub villages known as caracoles, each having the principle of “governing by obeying” the people. The Zapatistas summarize their autonomous organization method as

a very concrete praxis that… follows no manual or theory, but is built with the everyday experience of resistance of tens of thousands of Tzotzil, Tzetzal, Tojolabal, Chol, Zoque and Mam men and women. (327)

As the title suggests, the praxis utilizes both the fire and the word. The book distinguishes between three main strategies that developed in the movement: the militaristic and rebellious actions of “fire,” the negotiations and global communication strategy of the “word,” and the organizational process that is the backbone to it all (283).

The fire was prominent on January 1st, 1994 when the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican Government. Coinciding with NAFTA’s first day of operation, the uprising captured headlines throughout the world and brought masses of people to the streets in Mexico City, showing their support and calling for peace. This led one Companero to question

how it was possible that thousands and thousands of people, without yet knowing who we were, came out to the streets to support us. I think that they saw that we were willing to die for what we seek, and that there was no other option. (77)

After 1994, the focus turned to the power of the word. The book lists numerous negotiations and meetings the Zapatistas held with the national and international community throughout the decade; all part of a developing strategy they call “walking and asking.” 

The Zapatistas rhizomatic structure and global communication methods provide an example for anarchism in the 21st century. In the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle the movement is declared as anti-capitalist and shows solidarity with all fighting neoliberal globalization. The book is described by Marcos as a giant tapestry filled with “those little pieces of mirrors and crystals that make up the history of the EZLN.” In these mirrors, the reader may see parts of themselves reflected. But the Zapatistas believe every person, and every movement, must grow through their own experience. Therefore, they offer “a mirror that isn’t you, it just helps you see how you are” (307).

From her participatory perspective, Muñoz has provided a comprehensive understanding of the movement that will keep the knowledge alive for generations to come. The Fire and the Word is a must have for those researching Zapatismo and a nonauthoritarian world.

The Fire and the Word is Distributed by City Lights Books:

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Julie Mazzei
University of North Carolina Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




The Georgia-based School of the Americas has been the convergence point for many years for activists concerned about the United States’ impact on Latin American policy. The SOA, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has reportedly trained hundreds of military officers and has been blasted for years for allegedly aligning itself with death squads. A new book on Latin American paramilitary groups provides a good reference point to understand the complex relationships between the state, arms and privilege, and potentially to understand the current rise of North America’s own resurgent militia movement.

In Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America, author Julie Mazzei presents a thorough examination of paramilitary groups, their use and how official power tolerates their existence amid diverse domestic insurgencies. Looking at Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador, Mazzei says the prominence of armed non-state factions — in Mexico, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional; in Colombia, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; and in El Salvador, the Frente Farabundo Martí Para la Liberación Nacional — prompted, in almost all instances a backlash among conservative political elites in each country. With money, loyalists and a cause (be it opposition to reform, anti-Communism or fears of socialist takeover, land seizure, etc.), paramilitaries came to pass as the state apparatus found itself, due to varying circumstances, unable to respond, suppress or extralegally liquidate such rivals to its hegemony. In cases such as Mexico, where leading officials were unable to simply execute activist clergy, paramilitary groups handled the job, as they did in Acteal in 1997.

Paramilitaries gained notoriety as well with needs among the powerful, from drug lords to old moneyed classes in Latin America, to defend land from guerrillas. With that, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? is a fearless examination of centuries-old class fights in Latin America, though the traditional haves/have-nots liberal/conservative dichotomy is hardly as simple as it seems. In Colombia, paramilitaries declared an array of individuals to be collaborators with subversives, and thus legitimate military targets. Moderates and hardliners in 1970s’ El Salvador offered contradictory paramilitary solutions to fight the guerrillas. In Mexico, paramilitaries were just as easily populated by the poor who either sought a paycheck from the wealthy or opposed the leftists on ideological grounds. Social justice activism today would do well to understand the interrelations in Latin America that developed in response to progressive forces. It is not unreasonable to believe some of Mazzei’s studies could not be applied more broadly.

Given the simmering cauldron that is white rage in the United States, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? may also offer a glimpse at our own future. Mazzei’s work is particularly poignant given recent reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others attesting to the reestablishment of the dormant North American paramilitary movement. So-called citizen militias gained national headlines in the 1990s, during the term of Democrat Bill Clinton as U.S. President, and now during the reign of another Democrat, Barack Obama. In her study, Mazzei demonstrates the appeal of paramilitary groups the worries they exploit, and just how terrifying their power can be.

Mazzei’s scholarship, from the studies of three countries that have wrangled with the strength of paramilitary groups to what their presence says of relations in those countries, is necessary not only for understanding Latin America, but also how power shapes nations’ present in times of conflict.

Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools

By Luis Urrieta
(University of Arizona Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




A peculiar tension has always existed between activist educators working in public and higher education. Maybe it is the contradiction of cultivating consciousness of youth while being on the payroll of institutions (and certainly the state) that seldom believe in such politically minded pursuits. Or perhaps, as Luis Urrieta asserts in Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools, it is the self-awareness of being essentially a tool for a system that wants to (and, in many cases, will) assimilate students into white-dominant mainstream America. What this means for Chicana/o teachers in the Southwestern United States, and the movements from which those teachers hail, is at issue for a subculture of educators.

The tantalizing philosophical quandary Urrieta presents indirectly then is this: how much will students’ fates actually change through progressive educators on the tab of a system that, at best, wants to generally educate youth of color for ‘the future’ and, at worst, actively and systematically teaches versions of history that may swim against community self-interest?

The challenges of navigating identity, alienation, politics and agency are tackled head on by Working From Within, a book that asserts a positive history to progressive Chicana and Chicano educators seeking to impart to young people a clear understanding of their roles in society as well as their history. Such relationships, particularly in academia, are fraught with compromises and negotiation. The book shares efforts to organize Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapters, youth leadership development, cultural studies and other tactics. Just as vigorous to the storytelling is a backdrop of educators conflicted about the positions they occupy and their efforts to maintain their idealism in a system that generally does not see the world as they do.

Most telling about the involvement of progressive educators in academia is the ways definitions changed. Activism, in their lens, took on a postmodern feel, from community organizing and street actions to one in which they saw their employment as activism with a different scope, but lending to a social change few believed they would see in their lifetimes. Although one might say such a view could be a byproduct of Chicanisma/o and the complicated relationships it has had with white society for generations, it is doubtful such pretensions are isolated to Chicana/o instructors.

Other writings have criticized the tendency of those working in the academic and not-for-profit world to perpetuate themselves and their careers at the cost of serving the community, most visibly The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. Implicit to the critique is that, by buying off good organizers with jobs and lifestyles oriented in some way around their views, the struggle becomes not one of community building but ensuring those views have a home (and thus acculturated by some part) in the institution itself. By creating that space, one may win a victory in putting views forward, but ultimately it is argued that mainstream education wins because its own notions of academic freedom and discussion are reinforced.

In Urrieta’s view, such changes are emblematic of how movements grow and change over time. Unexplored is how militant Chicana/o activism has mostly vanished amid the rise of mainstream social action and nonprofits. It is debatable how good or bad the developments such movements have seen ultimately will be, but Urrieta’s research certainly ads more to an ongoing conversation.