Daniel's Reviews > The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement

The Fire and the Word by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez
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's review
Jan 13, 09

bookshelves: xicano-mexico, non-fiction, latin-america-latino, required_reading
Recommended for: whoever wants to know the history of the Zapatista movement in depth.
Read in January, 2009

I read this book while attending the First World Festival of La Digna Rabia, the Zapatista Festival commemorating 25 years of the EZLN, and the 15th anniversary of their war against the Mexican Army. In fact, I devoured the book on the two 13 hour bus rides from Mexico DF (site of the first stage of the Festival) to San Cristobal de las Casas (largest city taken by the EZLN in 1994, and close enough to Oventik that we could stand in the bed of a pickup truck that ferried people to and from the Zapatista rebel territory).

Because of when and where I read the book, I have a hard time remembering where the pages of the book ended and seeing the direct results of the Zapatista struggle for liberation began. I saw both an invigorated New Left movement for democracy, freedom, and justice in Mexico and an organized movement of indigenous peasants who are at the same time both filled with truly awesome and deserved pride and humble beyond any I've ever met. Here in Zapatistaland, transgendered sex workers and share-croppers share their struggle with day laborers, university students, urban squatter punks and elderly indigenous women. The Zapatistas have brought together an impossibly diverse movement under two concise slogans, one that comes from the mouth of Subcomandante Marcos, "Everything for everyone and nothing for ourselves," and the other from the mouth of the fierce indigenous Comandante Ramona, "Never again a Mexico without us."

I'm amazed by the organizational evolution of the Zapatistas. New Left movements in the 1960s and 1970s often started out with motives for mass-based democratic social movement, and then through cult-of-personality political perversion and exoticizing violence moved towards less and less democratic forms until they became a tiny clandestine "military" organization (see the RAF, Weathermen, other Guevarist organizations). The Zapatistas started off as a strict Marxist-Leninist military organization (literally an army), and have evolved into a mass-based social movement, with support from all of Mexico.

Too often people only know the Zapatistas through their brilliant spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos. This book gives voice to the many others, including other EZLN officers, but also participants in their Good Government Boards, and members of their base communities. The book has three parts: first, the author interviews the aforementioned parties with regard to the Zapatistas' organizing in the ten years leading up to the 1994 declaration of war on the Mexican government, a fascinating window into a guerilla movement. Second, the author gives a thorough blow-by-blow account of the public history of the EZLN. This part is thorough to the point of occaisionally paragraph-long lists, but it never felt like a "this happened, then this happened" poorly executed historical summary. And then in a third section, Subcomandante Marcos reflects on the struggle at 20 years, and answers questions collected from readers of the leftist daily newspaper La Jornada and the Zapatista-supporting magazine Rebeldí­a. Newer versions will have a 20 page introduction and looking forward epilogue about the Sixth Declaration and the Other Campaign (where the Zapatistas encourage the formation of a new politics for all of Mexico below and to the Left).

The book design is gorgeous. The most iconic photographs of the Zapatista movement are scattered throughout the book, and drawings, paintings and watercolor both fade behind the text (though always maintaining legibility) and pepper the margins. The book has easy, thumb-wide margins, and a very readable font with relaxed leading. I am going to keep this book on my desk while I design my current project for inspiration.

If I had to give someone one book to read about the Zapatistas, it would be this one, without question. If someone was already interested in the Zapatistas and had already read several other books about them, I would still reccommend it, wholeheartedly.
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