“On Specialists and Specialties”: an excerpt from The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage
If you’re someone who hasn’t yet picked up a copy of our recent title The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Final Public Speeches of Subcommander Marcos, then here’s a glimpse of some of the poetic and political wonders that await. We’re proud to have helped editor Nicolas Henck and translator Henry Gales get this one out into the world and, hopefully, refocus attention during these dark days on the struggles and social experiments in Chiapas.
On Specialists and Specialties
[excerpted from the speech “Seven Winds in the Calendars and Geographies of Below“]
A serious historian could certainly pinpoint the moment in human society when specialists and specialties appeared. And maybe that historian could explain to us what came first: the specialty or the specialist.
Because, in our looking out at and being astonished by the world, we Zapatistas have seen that oftentimes people define their ignorance or shortsightedness as a specialty and call themselves specialists. And they are praised and respected and paid well and ceremonies are held in their honor.
We do not understand. For us, someone with limited knowledge is someone who should push themself to learn more. But it turns out that in academia, the less you know, the more research funding you receive.
Old Antonio, on one of those mornings that surprised us walking downhill, laughed about this when I told him and said that back then the first gods, those who birthed the world, were specialists in specialties.
Anyway, it is well-known that our limits with intellectual production are encyclopedic, so now we would like to briefly talk about a special species of specialists: professional politicians.
Later on in this festival, tomorrow I believe, we will have the opportunity to listen to—in the voice of Insurgent Lieutenant Colonel Moisés—some portrayals of internal political tasks in Zapatista communities.
One of these political tasks, not the only one, is governmental work. There is also, for example, political work of the Zapatista women—which Commander Hortensia will tell us about—and much more.
And it turns out that this work not only is unpaid, it is also not considered a specialty. In other words, someone who is autonomous municipal president one day was in the fields the day before, or on the coffee plantation, planting or harvesting. Many of our Zapatista leaders did not even go to school or do not even know how to speak Spanish; in other words, they are not specialists in anything, much less in politics.
And, nonetheless, our autonomous municipalities have more advances in health, education, housing, and nutrition than the official municipalities that are governed by professional politicians, by political specialists.
Anyway, we’ll wait for those talks by my compañeros to try to understand us. Right now, I only want to point out some of our inabilities to understand the political tasks of above, at least in Mexico.
For example, we do not understand how it gets decided, accepted, and made law for congresspeople to make more than construction workers. Because construction workers do something: they work, they build houses, walls, buildings. And they know how to make the mixture, how to place bricks or blocks.
Here, for example, you have this auditorium that we are in. More people can fit right here than in the City Theater here in San Cristóbal de las Casas, and they tell me it was built—from its design to its completion— by indigenous hands. The floor, the levels, the walls, doors and windows, roof, metalwork, and electrical installation were done by nonspecialists, indigenous people, who are compañeros of the Other Campaign.
Well, going back to construction workers, they work. But congresspeople . . . congresspeople . . . well, could someone maybe tell us what congresspeople do? Or senators? Or secretaries of state?
Not long ago we heard a secretary of state say that the economic crisis, which had been dragging on for several years, was nothing more than a common cold.
Oh, we thought. A secretary of state is like a doctor who diagnoses a disease. But, we were left thinking, why would someone with the least bit of sense pay a doctor who says that someone has a cold and it turns out that they have pneumonia and the doctor gives them hot tea with lemon leaves to feel good as new. But it looks like the secretary of state in question gets paid well, and there is a law that says that he has to make a lot of money.
Someone will tell us that congresspeople and senators make laws and that secretaries of state make plans for those laws to be implemented. OK. How much did it cost the nation to do, for example, the indigenous counterreform that violated the San Andrés Accords?
And several months ago, a PRD lawmaker, questioned about why he voted in favor of an absurd and unjust law (like the majority of laws in Mexico), said in his defense . . . that he had not read it!
And when there was a debate about oil in the country’s nerve center (that is, in the media), did the Calderón administration not say that people should not be consulted because it was something that only specialists understood? And did the so-called oil-sector defense movement not act the same way when it entrusted a group of specialists with crafting its proposal?
Specialization is, according to us, a form of private property for knowledge.
Those who know something treasure it and—complicating it to the point of making it look like something extraordinary and impossible, something that only a few can access—refuse to share it. And their pretext is specialization.
They are like sorcerers of knowledge, like the old priests who specialized in talking with the gods. And people believe everything they say.
And this happens in modern society, which tells us indigenous people that we are the backward, the uneducated, the uncivilized.
In our lengthy tour through the Mexico of below, we had the opportunity to directly meet other native peoples on this continent. From the Mayas on the Yucatán Peninsula to the Kumiai in Baja California, from the Purépechas, Nahuas, and Wixaritari on the Pacific coast to the Kikapus in Coahuila.
Part of what we see will be better explained by our compañeros from the Indigenous National Congress, Carlos González and Juan Chávez, when they accompany us at this table. I only want to note a few reflections on this issue of knowledge and Indian peoples.
− In the meetings prior to the Indian Peoples of the Americas Continental Gathering, the different cultures of Indian leaders did not vie for supremacy or hierarchy. With no apparent difficulty, they recognized difference and established a type of deal or agreement within which they respect one another.
On the other hand, when two different conceptions of reality—two cultures, that is—confront each other in modern society, the issue of one’s supremacy over the other is usually brought up, a question that is not infrequently resolved with violence.
But they say that we Indian peoples are the savages.
− When the ladino or mestizo world encounters the indigenous world within the latter’s territory, the former develops what we Zapatistas call “evangelizer syndrome.” I do not know if it was inherited from the first Spanish conquerors and missionaries, but the ladino or mestizo naturally tends to take the position of teacher and helper. Due to some strange logic that we do not understand, it is held as self-evident that ladino or mestizo culture is superior to indigenous culture in breadth and depth of wisdom and knowledge. In contrast, if this contact between cultures takes place in urban territory, the ladino or mestizo assumes a defensive and distrustful position or a position of contempt and disgust when around indigenous people. The indigenous are backward or peculiar.
On the contrary, when the indigenous come across or encounter a different culture outside of their territory, they naturally try to understand it and do not attempt to establish a dominant/dominated relationship. And when it is within their territory, the indigenous assume a position of curious distrust and a zealous defense of their independence.
“I’ve come to see what I can help with,” mestizos tend to say when they get to an indigenous community. And it may come as a surprise for them when, instead of having them teach or lead or command, they are sent to go get wood, or carry water, or clean the pasture. Or wouldn’t it be very strange for the indigenous to respond, “And who told you that we need you to help us?”
There may be cases, but as of now we do not know if anyone has gone to an indigenous community and has said, “I’ve come so you can help me.”
1 This event was held in Vícam, Sonora, from October 11 to 14, 2007, and brought together more than 570 indigenous delegates representing sixty-six indigenous peoples from twelve countries.