A history about herons and eagles in the Lacandon jungle

Letter from Subcomandante Marcos to John Berger


Heriberto, Eva and the image of an English Countryside

Mexico, May 12, 1995

To: John Berger
High Savoy, France

From: Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
CCRI-CG of the EZLN
Chiapas, Mexico

I.

"A reader could ask himself: What is the relationship between the writer and the place and peoples about whom he writes"?

(Berger, John, BOAR LAND. Gushing Stream Literatures, Publisher. Translation Pilar Vazquez, p. 18)

Agreed, but he could also ask himself: What is the relationship between a letter written in the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico and the response that it receives from the French countryside? Or, even better, what is the relationship between the slow beating of the wings of the heron with the hovering of the eagle over a serpent?

For example, in Guadalupe Tepeyac (now an village empty of civilians and filled with soldiers), the herons took over the sky night of December. There were hundreds. "Thousands", says Lieutenant Ricardo, a Tzeltal insurgent who sometimes has a propensity to exaggerate. "Millions", said Gladys who, despite being 12 years old (or precisely because of it), does not want to be left out. "They come every year", says the grandfather while the small flashes of white hover above the village, and maybe disappear towards? The East?

Are they coming or going? Are they your herons, Mr. Berger? A winged reminder? Or a greeting filled with premonition? A fluttering of wings of something which resists death?

Because as a result, months later, I read in your letter (in a dog-eared clipping from a newspaper, with the date hidden under a mud stain), and in it (your letter) the wings of dawn are hovering once again in the sky and the people of Guadalupe Tepeyac now live in the mountain and not in the little valley whose lights, I imagine, are of some significance on the navigation maps of the herons.

Yes, I know now that the herons about which you wrote me fly during the winter from North Africa, and that it is improbable that they have anything to do with those that arrived in December 1994 in the Lacandon jungle. In addition the grandfather says that every year the disconcerting tour above Guadalupe Tepeyac is repeated. Perhaps southeastern Mexico is an obligatory lay-over, a necessity, a commitment. Perhaps they were not herons, but fragments of an exploded moon, pulverized in the December of the jungle.

December. 1994.

Months later, the indigenous of southeastern Mexico again reiterated their rebellion, their resistance to genocide, to death... The reason? The supreme government decided to carry out organized crime, essence of neoliberalism, that money, the god of modernity, had planned. Dozens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tons of war materials, millions of lies. The objective? The destruction of libraries and hospitals, of homes and seeded fields of corn and beans, the annihilation of every sign of rebellion. The indigenous Zapatistas resisted, they retreated to the mountains and they began an exodus that today, even as I write these lines, has not ended. Neoliberalism disguises itself as the defense of a sovereignty which has been sold in dollars on the international market.

Neoliberalism, this doctrine that makes it possible for stupidity and cynicism to govern in diverse parts of the earth, does not allow for inclusion other than that of subjection to genocide. "Die as a social group, as a culture, and above all as a resistance. Then you can be part of modernity", say the great capitalists, from the seats of government, to the indigenous campesinos. These indigenous people irritate the modernizing logic of neo-mercantilism. Their rebellion, their defiance, their resistance, irritates them. The anachronism of their existence within a project of globalization, an economic and political project that, soon, will decide that poor people, all the people in opposition, which is to say, the majority of the population, are obstacles. The armed character of "We are here!" of the Zapatista indigenous people does not matter much to them nor does it keep them awake (a little fire and lead will be enough to end such "imprudent" defiance). What matters to them, and bothers them, is that their very existence, in the moment that they [the indigenous Zapatistas] speak out and are heard, is converted into a reminder of an embarrassing omission of "neoliberal modernity": "These Indians should not exist today, we should have put an end to them BEFORE. Now annihilating them will be more difficult, which is to say, more expensive." This is the burden which weighs upon neoliberalism made government in Mexico.

"Let's resolve the causes of the uprising", say the negotiators of the government (leftists of yesterday, the shamed of today) as if they were saying: "All of you should not exist, all of this is an unfortunate error of modern history". "Let's resolve the causes" is the elegant synonym of "we will eliminate them". For this system which concentrates wealth and power and distributes death and poverty, the campesinos, the indigenous, do not fit in the plans and projects. They have to be gotten rid of, just like the herons...and the eagles... have to be gotten rid of.

II.

"Mystery is not what can be hidden deliberately, but rather, as I have already shown, the fact that the gamut of the possible can always surprise us. And this, is hardly ever represented. The campesinos do not present papers as do urban personalities. This is not because they are "simple" or more sincere or less astute; simply the space between that which is unknown of a person and what all the world knows of him--and this is the space of all representation--it is extremely small.
(Berger John Ibid).

December. 1994.

A cold dawn that drags itself between the fog and the thatched roofs of the village. It is morning. The dawn goes away, the cold remains. The little paths of mud begin to fill with people and animals. The cold and a little footpath accompany me in the reading of Boar Land. Heriberto and Eva (5 and 6 years old respectively) come and grab ("they snatched" I should say, but I don't know if the distinction is understood in English) the book. They look at the drawing on the front cover (it is a Madrid edition from 1989). It is a copy of a painting by John Constable, an image of an English (?) countryside. The cover of your book, Mr. Berger, summons a rapid connection between image and reality. For Heriberto, for example, there is no doubt that the horse in the painting is La Mu$eca [The Doll] ( a mare that accompanied us in the long year during which the indigenous rebellion governed southeastern Mexico), whom no one could mount except Manuel, a playmate who was twice the age, size and weight of Heriberto, who was Chelita's brother, and consequently, also his future brother-in-law. And what Constable called "a river" was really a river bed, a river bed that crossed through "La Realidad" ("La Realidad" is the name of a village, a reality of which is the limit of Heriberto's horizons. The farthest place that his trips and running around has taken him is "La Realidad".

Constable's painting did not remind Heriberto and Eva of the English countryside. It did not take them outside of the Lacandon jungle. It left them here, or it brought them back. It brought them back to their land, their place, to their being children, to their being campesinos, to their being indigenous, to their being Mexicans and rebels. For Heriberto and Eva Constable's painting is a colored drawing of "La Muneca" and the title, "Scene on a Navigable River" is not a valid argument: the river is the river bed of "La Realidad", the horse is the mare La Muneca, Manuel is riding, and his sombrero fell off, and that's it, on to another book. And we do that, this time it is about Van Gogh and for Eva and Heriberto, the paintings of Holland are scenes from their land, of their being indigenous and campesinos. After this Heriberto tells his mother that he spent the morning with the Sup. "Reading big books", says Heriberto, and I believed that this earned him a free hand with a box of chocolate cookies. Eva was more far sighted, and asked me if I didn't have a book about her doll with the little red bandanna.

III.

"The act of writing is nothing more than the act of approximating the experience of what is being written about; in the same manner, it is hoped that the act of reading the written text is another act of similar approximation".
(Berger, John, Ibid.)

Or of distancing, Mr. Berger. The writing, and above all, the reading of the written text could be an act of distancing. "The written word and the image", says my other, which to add problems paints himself, alone. I think that yes, that the "reading" of the written word and the image could approximate the experience or distant it. And so, the photographic image of Alvaro, one of the dead combatants in Ocosingo in January 1994, returns. Alvaro returns in the photo, Alvaro with his death speaks in the photo. He says, he writes, he shows: "I am Alvaro, I am an indigenous, I am a soldier, I took up arms against being forgotten. Look. Listen. Something is happening in the closing of the 20th century that is forcing us to die in order to have a voice, to be seen, to live". And from the photo of Alvaro dead, a far-off reader from the distance could approximate the indigenous situation in modern Mexico, NAFTA, the international forums, the economic bonanza, the first world.

"Pay attention! Something is evil in the macroeconomic plans, something is not functioning in the complicated mathematical calculations that sings the successes of neoliberalism", says Alvaro with his death. His photo says more, his death speaks, his body on the soil of Chiapas takes voice, his head resting in a pool of blood: "Look! This is what the numbers and the speeches hide. Blood, cadavers, bones, lives and hopes, crushed, squeezed dry, eliminated in order to be incorporated into the 'indices of profit and economic growth'".

"Come!" says Alvaro, "Come close! Listen!"

But Alvaro's photo also can "be read" from a distance, as a vehicle which serves to create distance in order to stay on the other side of the photo, like "reading" it in a newspaper in another part of the world. "This did not happen here", says the reader of the photo, "this is Chiapas, Mexico, a historical accident, remedial, forgettable, and... far away". There are, in addition, other readers who confirm it: public announcements, economic figures, stability, peace. This is the use of the indigenous war at the end of the century, to revalue "peace". Like a stain stands out on the object that is stained. "I am here and this photo happened over there, far away, small", says the "reader" who distances himself.

And I imagine, Mr. Berger, that the final result of the relationship between the writer and the reader, through the text ("or from the image", insists my other self again), escapes both. Something is imposed on them, gives significance to the text, provokes one to come closer or go farther away. And this "something" is related to the new division of the world, with the democratization of death and misery, with the dictatorship of power and money, with the regionalization of pain and despair, with the internationalization of arrogance and the market. But it also has to do with the decision of Alvaro (and of thousands of indigenous along with him) to take up arms, to fight, to resist, to seize a voice that they were denied before, to not devalue the cost of the blood that this implies. And it also has to do with the ear and eye that are opened by Alvaro's message, whether they see and hear it, whether they understand it, whether they draw near to him, his death, his blood that flooded the streets of a city that has always ignored him, always...until this past January first. It also has to do with the eagle and heron, the European campesino who is resisting being absorbed and the Latin American indigena who is rebelling against genocide. It has to do with the panic of the powerful, as the trembling, that is growing in its guts, no matter how strong and powerful it appears, when, without knowing, it prepares to fall...

And it has to do with, I reiterate and salute it in this way, the letters that come from you to us, and those that, with these lines, bring you these words: the eagle received the message, he understood the approach of the hesitant flight of the heron. And there below, the serpent trembles and fears the morning...

Vale, Mr. Berger.
Health and follow closely the heron up above until it appears as a small and passing flash of light, a flower that lifts itself up...

>From the mountains of Southeastern Mexico
Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Mexico, May 1995


TRANSLATED BY: Cindy Arnold and Cecilia Rodriguez. National Center of the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, USA.


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