The story ends with an ancient tree in the rain forest, a tree the people understood a god to live in its upper branches among the clouds. The people visited the tree often, made pilgrimages to the tree, left offerings and prayers and scattered the ashes of their dead at the base of the trunk, understanding that the spirits of their ancestors nourished the tree as the tree nourished them. Shamans knew its medicines, its power, administered slivers of bark for fever and pain, and on occasion, made tea from the leaves to loosen the poison that grips the bones of those possessed by greed, sorrow, and longing. For centuries the people made ceremony about the tree, and when necessity lured some to distant places they kept the tree’s image in their minds as a way to know the world and keep the world intact.
The building of the road into the forest caught the people unaware. They did all they could to stop the construction, and when that failed, they fought to keep the tree from being harvested. In the end, as we’ve come to expect, the people could not save the tree. And with the loss of the tree the people dispersed in ten thousand directions and disappeared. We call this assimilation. And while a few of the “assimilated” were able to keep the tree’s image engrained in their psyches, most were not, and having lost the tree they lost the land and the ways of land and the medicines and the magic that the land holds.
I tell this story as I heard it. Admittedly, the killing of a tree, a few thousand indigena, the loss of language and species, is an abstract concept for most of us. Keeping a distance is to be expected; it isn’t easy for the human heart to carry such burdens. Besides, how much responsibility can we take for the actions of culture, of civilization itself? I’m not responsible for you and you’re not responsible for me. That’s the way it is. Still, on the other side of things, in a world where all living systems are understood to be connected, there are those among us who feel the wounds so deeply that they cannot help but to stand fast for the earth and the people of the earth, this house of flowers and blood, and because of it face their own inevitable crucifixions.
The stories of assassination, execution, and massacre are numerous and equally terrifying. Emiliano Zapata’s is one such story to carry close to the heart. Zapata was Indian, a man who fought for indigena, for the rights of the poorest among us to subsist off the land as they had for centuries, as they had before the Conquest, before their land was appropriated under the violent hand of Manifest Destiny. Zapata was killed in the small town of Chinameca, betrayed by those he smoked cigars with the previous night. Zapata fought for nine long years against a regime supported by land barons, as most regimes happen to be, including our own. Today, the saying Vivé Zapata is painted on walls from one end of Mexico to the other, and I happen to share the hope, thin as it might be.
It is midnight for those who fashion themselves poets, teachers, artists, publishers, photographers, journalists, lawyers, freedom fighters, activists of all blends and colors, all together and all very much alone. Let us not mince words: power structures are built to value economic production over the process of living and life itself, and it is nothing new for the powerful to exterminate those who threaten profits. Personally, I don’t want to be executed. I don’t want to be killed for speaking for the indigenous self. I’d rather drown in the river than be killed by nameless thugs. The river makes sense to me. Death by a coward’s bullet does not.
Still, for my own good, it’s important that I assert myself. I’ve come to believe that one thing I can do is walk. I’m speaking of pilgrimage, of course, of walking out of and away from the mechanized world. Walking is a means of travel, for sure. It’s also a gesture.. From Whitman and Thoreau to Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams, there is a long tradition of those who understand that to walk is to connect to our primitive selves, that the part of us that walks is indigenous. If this is true, as I believe it is, it’s also true that in the rhythm of our heartbeats and between our steps exists the part of us that can’t help but love and respect the earth enough to fight for it, no matter what the cost. In this sense we are all potential revolutionaries. It only makes sense that the business elite go to great trouble to keep us hogtied to a car.
In Mexico there are trails everywhere. And there is the endless story of revolution. Bound to these stories, I head to Chiapas, to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a comfortable town, find a hotel for eight dollars, begin writing a novella about gringos who disappear in the Mexican desert. Three weeks later I finish the story, celebrate in a bar, drinks ushered to my table by youngsters with eyes the color of midnight, braids to the middle of their backs. They’re like brothers, they’re very kind to me, watch over me as I drink. In daylight I see them in the plaza with their guitars. Their women friends play guitars also, beat the drums, dance.
Three days later I’m walking out of town, moving against a flow of people heading toward the cathedral where, on Sunday, Father Samuel Ruiz will return to offer mass in this town he helped make famous, after which will follow a demonstration in the plaza that will be closely monitored by the military. I walk through Chamala where an old woman prays before a statue of St. John the Baptist and breaks a chicken’s neck and squeezes the head until blood drips from its beak into a cup from which she drinks. I turn right up a canyon just before San Andrés, where the accord by the same name was debated in the mid-nineties, where Commandante Marcos and his Zapatista brothers and sisters, with the support of Ruiz and his liberation theology, put up a good fight, making it clear that they are a self-determining people, and have the right to choose their own economy, practice their own spirituality, live within their own culture and system of belief. Land tenure was chief among their concerns, as was liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. It still is.
The road into the Tzotzil country is narrow, winds through villages and fields, up one mountainside and down another to a valley, by a stream, into Chenalhó, a government stronghold controlled by a few local landowners. From there it’s all up hill to Pol Hó, the Zapatista settlement, then to Acteál, where in l997 forty-five people, mostly women and children, and all Zapatista supporters, were massacred by a death squad funded by said landowners, such a crazy thing .
The people were gunned down running out of the church, and that’s where I want to go, that’s where I want to be, to feel the mother screaming as she hits the earth carrying her baby who is to die in her arms, to feel their dying, the mother and the child, the father and the grandfather, to feel their terror so I might know my own, yes, and so I might be able to speak, to tell the story, to keep it alive, to pass it on. I head for the church, past an open shed along the road where a boy, without looking up, rips a plank with a handsaw. Chickens scatter on the road, and in an opening in the trees below is a school and a gathering of women. An old man steps through the bushes onto the road, carrying sticks on his shoulders. He’s dressed in traditional white and has a machete as long as his leg tied to his waist. His face is deeply wrinkled and his eyes clouded by cataracts. He lifts his chin and whistles, starts up a path on the other side of the road toward the ridge. They are everywhere, these trails, climbed for a thousand years by men and women hauling wood and water and grain.
I’ve been walking since midnight, I am thirsty and burned by loneliness. I see the church on the hill above me. My heart beats with anticipation. As I start up the trail to the church I’m intercepted by a soldier, he shakes his head no. I’m not surprised, only disappointed. He leads me to a small hut on the side of the road where the Major wants to speak with me. The interrogation lasts an hour. The major has questions, lots of questions. Why I am here? Why am I walking this road? What interest do I have in the church? Am I a Zapatista supporter? Where am I staying? Where am I from? What do I do? Am I married? Do I have children? Am I a Zapatista supporter? Do I understand the problems of the country side? Do I understand that the government is doing everything it can to help the indigenous. “We are for the Indians,” the Major says. “I’m Indian. We’re all Indians.” And I think, yes, he’s right, we are.
It is the most beautiful landscape, these Chiapas mountains, rolling hills and long sharp ridges, wide swaths of a hundred shades of green against the old turquoise sky. Logging has been extensive, for sure. Corn and coffee are grown on every slope where trees once stood, dogs sleep in the road and burros are tied to fences, pigs to trees. I stand on the road across from the church and try to sense my way into the heads of those who murder. I don’t do a very good job. In Chinameca, in the small plaza where Zapata was killed, I stood against a wall, closed my eyes and ran my fingers over bullet holes made that day, April 10th, l919. What’s amazing about Zapata is that for a brief moment in history he brought the ruling elite to their knees. He didn’t do it on his own, but without him there was no revolution at all. The deep sorrow here is that the Zapatistas in Chiapas today are fighting the very same creed of destruction Zapata fought eighty-five years ago. And it is not out of the question that our grand children will be fighting the same system eighty-five years from today. If only we could walk away from the shallow and the dull and the already dead, if only we could avoid them and the part of ourselves that is the same, if only. It doesn’t seem possible, not in this life. And so it is, if it is true that I am responsible for my own actions, it’s also true that I must act.
The fact is, that no one, not even Zapata, can go it alone.
On my way down the mountain from Acteál I sit in the middle of a small field of corn. Exhausted, I lie on the earth and face the sky. The sun goes down and the sky darkens. Creatures of earth leave their holes and gather at my feet and head. Some bite and poison me, others sing in my ear. It occurs to me that the Major could’ve had me shot and nobody would’ve known what had come of me. I’m amused at the thought of stories being told of my disappearance, satisfied one would come close to the truth, that one of my friends would intuit an execution and be motivated to query more deeply. With the threat Zapata posed, he knew he had it coming. And so must we all. And what better place than a cornfield in Chiapas to practice. And that’s what I do, close my eyes and imagine that I have just been shot through the heart, that I am dying, the terror has passed and I am dead.
Strange thing is, it is in the practice of dying that I realize I’m not. At least not for the moment. I stand and knock the dirt from my pants. I swat mosquitoes from my face. From here it’s a long night’s walk to San Cristóbal. If I walk steady and hard I can make it to the plaza by dawn where people are gathered to hear Father Ruiz inspire with his prayer. I’d like to think I can make the plaza, and if I do, that my friends with the long braids and clear black eyes will be happy to see me, and greet me with guitar.