Uprising of Hope: An Ethnography of Zapatismo

Published online 6 February 2008.


This is my take on Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli’s (2005) book Uprising of Hope, an ethnography of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico.  I conclude by suggesting that there are political lessons to be learned from Zapatistas, especially insofar as they go about their everyday lives.

(original photo taken by “Alma_Roma”, San Cristobal de las Casas, August 12, 2006.)

Zapatistas — Wikimedia public domain

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Book Review: Earle, Duncan, and Jeanne Simonelli.  Uprising of Hope.  Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.


This book is an ethnography of Zapatismo, the movement for social change originating in the hinterlands of the state of Chiapas, in Mexico.  It was constructed from various write-ups of an ethnographic project that started out as a chronicle of an “apolitical” charity effort in southern Mexico, and from there the authors’ project slowly changed into an involvement with Zapatista democracy and Zapatista political economy.

Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli’s UPRISING OF HOPE is a joint ethnography of the Zapatistas in Chiapas from two social workers who started off writing about charitable programs and ended up being part of the Zapatistas’ own democratic process.  The writing of the ethnography itself becomes part of this process:

The communities we work with are no longer the benign recipients of anthropological scrutiny. We have been asked to give up part of the control of the research endeavor, to learn and document together, to return with what we write.  For some anthropologists, this loss of power has not been accepted easily.  Do we study others, or do we learn from them?  Do they consent to be part of our researches, or are we given permission to remain in their villages?  (10)

Other books detail Zapatismo from the perspectives of observers of a political conflict within Mexican politics; UPRISING OF HOPE offers an ethnography which weaves the details of everyday life into the political analysis, and in the process we get to see Zapatista democracy in practice.  About four weeks ago, on the last day of 2007, I published a review of Nick Henck’s Subcommander Marcos, the most recent, and most complete, biography of the Zapatista leader (and public voice) to have appeared on the market so far.  However, and as I suggested in the review, politics really isn’t about leaders, though they’re the most visible aspects of it; politics is about “making a living,” the principles that come out of “making a living” in a particular way, and the political choices one needs to make in order to “make a living.”

Let me suggest that the “theory” typically used by folks here concedes the ground that could be occupied, in revolutionary fashion, like the Zapatistas do.  This is the ground of the politics of everyday life, and we too often concede this ground for the sake of “getting it on” in the world of electoral politics.  A theory that refuses to concede such ground would be, for instance, that of Nancy Fraser.  Fraser’s essay, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” offers a distinction that will help us understand how the Zapatistas have something to offer us politically.  In this essay (pp. 109-142 of Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun), Fraser makes an important distinction between “strong publics,” which are “publics whose discourse encompasses both opinion formation and decision making,” and “weak publics,” “publics whose deliberative practice consists exclusively in opinion formation and does not also encompass decision making.” (134)  We need to be “strong publics” — the politicians are already a “strong public,” but not for us.  Rather, capitalist politicians serve money, and are served by it.

Zapatismo can be seen as an effort to create “strong publics” amidst the dangerous sense of disempowerment created in Chiapas by Mexican neoliberalism.  Part of the success of Zapatismo in this regard has to be credited to the Maya people themselves – the reader can see hints of this in the early narrative, in which Duncan Earle observes a meeting of Maya locals which uses consensus process.  In the main bulk of this book, the process of empowerment is shown in the internal conflict within an ejido (commune) called “Cerro Verde,” and observations in two other communities, “Ojo de Agua,” and “Tulan”.

Indeed it is true that, as the Mexican government has cut off funding to Zapatista communities in Chiapas, the Zapatistas have come to depend upon various NGOs for support.  As Clifford Bob points out in The Marketing of Rebellion, one reason for Zapatista success is the success the Zapatistas have had in getting support from NGOs.  And so, also, we must indeed consider Zapatismo as a form of a rebellion carefully crafted to elicit such aid.  Nevertheless, Zapatismo offers what Joel Kovel calls “the most prefiguratively successful example of a reclaimed commons in the image of the Paris Commune” (252), in the new edition of THE ENEMY OF NATURE.  Thus Zapatismo is a prefiguration, and a damn good one, by the standard set in my essay on the Pomona College Natural Farm.  Kovel means to praise the Zapatistas as an example of socialism as Marx intended it; democratic both in terms of what we call “politics” but also in terms of control over the means of production.  Kovel also praises the “ecosystemic integrity” of the Zapatistas, in line with his project of “ecosocialism.” (253)  All of these comments on the Zapatistas are largely true; Earle and Simonelli try to specify the larger picture in terms meaningful for everyday life.


Part 1 of this book is about “arrivals,” setting the stage for the ethnographic venture.  That part covers the first four chapters.  Chapters 5 and 6 are about the history of Chiapas, starting with early meetings organized by the Marists in the 1970s (which assembled a general Maya complaint about government/ corporate oppression), and culminating in the events of the 1990s, specifically about 1998, in which the regime of Ernesto Zedillo tried to label the Zapatistas as a criminal conspiracy (and prosecute it) in response to the corporate withdrawal of support for the Mexican economy.  The story shifts promptly (p. 96) to the authors’ entry into Zapatista turf, both of them fairly naïve at that time about the politics of the occasion.  They are questioned about “who do you represent?” at a time when they imagine themselves to be mere students of rural Chiapas life, naïve gringos.  The narrative then brings in late ‘90s Chiapas politics as a contextual backdrop, with a focus on Simonelli’s organization, DESMU (which stands for “desarrollo mujeres”), and its role in aiding the rebellion in Chiapas.  This, we are told, was the time in which the resistance community of “Tulan” was formed; “Tulan” was a community in resistance which split off from a larger community (“Miguel Hidalgo”) to build a site for itself away from the original site.

The Mexicans the authors meet in this initial inquiry seem to be really savvy about organizational politics.  When DESMU plans a clinic for Guatemalan refugees, the “head of the committee for health” wants to know how the clinic will be organized, and about whom it will be for.  Will the clinic operators be allowed to charge those who didn’t build the clinic for services and medicines? (110)

Chapter 7 is about Cerro Verde, a community in resistance which also participates in the coffee trade.  The narrative in this part is about picking coffee beans, washing dishes, and the school, culminating in a discussion of the coffee economy and the collapse of coffee prices in the late ‘90s.  Chapter 8 is about DESMU and its mission as an NGO, a “non-government organization.”

Chapters 9 and 10 are about the autonomous community of Cerro Verde, starting with the community-in-rebellion’s split away from the community-not-in-rebellion.  The “Consejo,” the council of Cerro Verde, behaves somewhat like a government in its own right; it wants to see Earle and Simonelli’s “credentials,” and hear their explanation for what they are doing in Zapatista territory, so that they can have a relationship with the “hermanamiento,” the group in solidarity.

The rest of Uprising of Hope, parts 3 and 4, bring us into the everyday life of the Zapatista regime.  Much is revealed: how the Zapatistas get their electricity, how they did the chores on their farms, how development projects are undertaken, and so on.

For the Zapatistas, the main point of entertaining foreigners such as Earle and Simonelli was, and is, to further mutual understanding; the authors, and others, may have something to donate to the Zapatista community, but of primary worth is the experience of mutual understanding:

In Cerro Verde, they planned an excursion to the milpa (the cornfield) so that we could have some sense of accomplishment while they taught us about their lives.  After the (non-Mexican) students had thrown their backs into the exercise for about an hour, a twelve-year-old approached us to ask if they understood yet what planting was like.  We said we thought they did; he immediately called to the others, and we packed our machetes and returned to the enclave.  The time it took for them to “handle” us exceeded the value of any tangible service we could provide for them.  (232)

To a certain extent, this ethnography also describes the practice of “mandar obedeciendo,” to lead by obeying, that characterizes Zapatista “leadership,” and the “caracoles,” the regional centers through which the “juntas de bien gobierno” (councils of good government) exercise their authority.  Abstract tensions characterize Chiapas life: “We sought to document the process of Zapatistas engaging with the market as they tried to do capitalism with socialist goals,” (235) the authors say in describing a Zapatista honey business.  The Zapatistas want “development,” but not “dependence,” and not the ecological conquest that constitutes the capitalist development model.  The authors discuss Zapatista support for the milpa model of subsistence farming in great detail while at the same time recognizing that many Chiapas farmers wish to earn money farming export crops.

In 2003, the Zapatista community submitted to the NGOs a list of rules about what sort of aid it will and won’t accept:

…what was certain was that if we wanted to keep working in Chiapas, we too would have to follow the new rules.  Now donors would no longer select the community they wished to support.  One could select an area of interest, such as education, but the Zapatista Juntas would determine which educational program would get the money.  Not only this.  No longer could we select a site for our service-learning projects.  With the aid of Cerro Verde’s women, who developed workshops for other Zapatista communities on how to host gringo students, other more neglected sites would be developed to receive future programs.  And because the Zapatista motto is “for each of us nothing, for all of us, everything,” even the surplus earned form the sale of the Tulan honey would technically have to flow into the Junta office for redistribution.  (253)

Thus relations with the NGOs themselves are made subject to economic democracy.  What we read in Uprising of Hope is that Earle and Simonelli must comply with these rules like everyone else.

Even the ethnography itself has been democratized, as the ethnographic subjects were allowed to read, and approve of, the text.  At the end of the book, the authors summarize their encounter: “We can say that Zapatismo is a social experiment to discover alternative ways to arrange people in space so that no one is left behind.” (292)


What can we see in Earle and Simonelli’s illustration of Zapatismo?  First off, the Zapatistas perform their democracy, economic, political, or everyday, through careful attention to the quality of relationships.  When the white ethnographers arrive on the scene, the questions they are asked are all about “what kind of relationship will we have?”  Secondly, the Zapatistas are distinctive as a social movement because they refuse government aid, and they do so because they are unwilling to give up the social order they themselves have constructed.  At one point Jeanne Simonelli asks about the ejido (the commune) in Cerro Verde: “Was there no way for this group to work together for mutual benefit before they all sold out to the latest additions to the government plans to bribe ejido farmers into individualizing their land?” (216)  Lastly, the ritual performances of everyday life are the cement holding Zapatismo together: as the authors say, “without the overlay of the world of everyday life, the autonomous movement might seem to be no more than impractical rhetoric, a utopian dream.” (292)


  1. Autonomy is important.  As I pointed out in my diary on Nick Henck’s book, the Zapatistas are hemmed in by circumstances.  Their movement is unable to spread significantly outside of Chiapas, or even to the whole of Chiapas; perhaps the rest of Mexico is not sufficiently organized to refuse government aid, and thus to resist the government’s efforts to impose a neoliberal social order upon Mexico.  This explains why “autonomy” (and not merely economic democracy, by itself) is so essential to Zapatismo.  Autonomy allows the Zapatistas to resist the invasion of Chiapas by moneyed power; it is, therefore, the first thing we will have to emphasize if we wish to create a movement to resist the destructive invasion of the world (and, indeed, the destruction of the world) by moneyed power.
  1. Having community is important.  In our rush to achieve “politics,” to vote for Obama or Clinton, we have neglected the matter of our relationship to the political structure.  Legislation is in fact a commodity for us; vested interests pay politicians to craft it the way it has been crafted (and they don’t pay politicians who do otherwise), so we let money dominate our relationships.  In fact, a case can be made that relationships outside of the family are often given insufficient attention in American life.  (In fact, there is a broad social-scientific literature documenting the social atomization of American life, of which Robert D. Putnam’s statistical compilations in Bowling Alone and Rebekah Nathan’s ethnography My Freshman Year are prominent examples.)  Does any community in America have the wherewithal, the will, to resist capitalism?  Indeed, here, I want to contrast Zapatistas who tell the authors of this book, “We have to talk,” with Americans who go about their daily lives saying nothing of importance, or just wearing headphones and listening to music.  Creating community, then, needs to be our first priority, and in this community we need to get beyond the social structure in which we are mere “weak publics.”  (This truth rings loud and clear in writings about Zapatista women; so far, I can recommend Teresa Cruz’s Never Again A World Without Us and Guiomar Rovira’s Women of Maize: Zapatista women have often had to face a sort of triple discrimination, in which they are excluded from power as women, as non-Spanish speaking natives, and as Zapatistas; in Zapatismo many of them find the strength of self-assertion.)
  1. Political spectacle is a mere show.  What this means for our political life is that it tends to rely upon what Murray Edelman calls “political spectacle.”  Politics becomes a show.  The politicians make promises, we clap, and then everyone goes back to work for the system.  The promises, then, don’t have to have a meaningful connection to reality, as the real deals are made when the political show is over and its audience has been dismissed from its participation in the rituals of political empowerment, going back to being a “weak public” in Fraser’s terms.  (Our technological development has supported political spectacle, both in weapons and communication technologies.  We go from the slingshot to the atomic bomb and from basic language uses to the Internet.)  Zapatismo doesn’t work like this.  Under Zapatismo, everything depends upon community support.
  1. Be in touch with the land.  Zapatismo is tied to indigenous traditions of respect for the land common to that region of the world.  For a “Zapatismo” that would be good for, for instance, my own neighborhood, such a thing would have to be brought in.  California is a commercial center, and its greatest product, so far, has been real estate.  This is likely to change with the collapse of the housing bubble. It needs to be returned to the sustainable traditions so evident in southern Mexico: corn, beans, squash.

That is all, for now.


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