On January 2, 2024, members of the Weelaunee Solidarity Collective—an ad hoc group of US-based forest defenders and revolutionaries—presented a play about the history of the movement to Stop Cop City at the encuentro celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. The play recounts the recent history of Weelaunee Forest and the struggle to defend the vision of life it embodies against the militarized world of police and prisons represented by Cop City. The play was creative, playful, and amateur: all endearing qualities that characterize the cultural productions that Zapatistas presented throughout the gathering, at which collective participation in narrating history was valued as an end in itself.
In the following account, participants in the Weelaunee Solidarity Collective describe their experiences at the gathering and their reflections about what the ongoing Zapatista project can teach aspiring revolutionaries elsewhere around the world. We also share footage of the play they performed at the encuentro in memory of Tortuguita, who was murdered one year ago today.
In 1994, the Zapatistas refuted the claim that humanity had reached “the end of history” by carrying out an uprising in response to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The proponents of neoliberal market economies had prematurely declared victory over the last remnants of the worker’s movement, hoping to consign the dream of a dignified life in common (which Zapatistas refer to as Lekil Kuxlejal) to the dustbin of history. The Zapatista uprising and the decades of autonomy it secured are living proof that history itself is not over—that the present, like the past and the future, remains a site of contestation and struggle.
In 2023, in defiance of a society bent on destroying life itself—a society that is responding to the crises produced by capitalism by redoubling investment in police, borders, plantations, prisons, extraction, and militarized control—a group of militants traveled to Chiapas from the so-called United States of America to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1994 uprising.
Nearly a year after Georgia State Patrol murdered our friend and comrade Tortuguita, we arrived in the Lancandon jungle with Tort in our thoughts. While Tort was murdered far from the cloud forests of southern Mexico, they inhabited a landscape of revolutionary possibility that the Zapatistas had helped to create. Tort often spoke of the Zapatistas. We placed a portrait of Tort on the memorial altar lining the front of the stage at the encuentro, alongside photographs of murdered Zapatistas and other freedom fighters.
While not all of us knew Tort, we have all been involved in the struggle to defend the forest over the past several years. We did not travel to Chiapas as passive observers, but as active revolutionaries who find ourselves on the same side of the global civil war as the Zapatistas, striving to defend a dignified collective life. We know that for a revolution to be possible, we will have to weave together our struggles across the Americas, recognizing each other as combatting different heads of the same capitalist hydra.
In the movement to stop Cop City, we have come to a point at which we are facing serious repression: the murder of Tortuguita, comrades facing charges that could mean decades in prison, the loss of the forest as a space of life, assembly, and experimentation. All of these have contributed to a state of stagnation and disorientation, posing challenges to those who aspire to see the movement develop a mass character. In attending the encuentro, our intention was to share the stories of our struggle and to learn whatever lessons the Zapatistas could share with us on the basis of decades and centuries of resistance. We arrived curious about recent Zapatista communiqués describing the difficulties caused by narcoviolence and announcing a new reformulation of their structure of autonomous government. In the face of total devastation—”the great storm,” as they call it—we must not succumb to resignation.
Over the past few years, Zapatista communities have begun to contend with narcotrafficking, a new regime of violence in Chiapas’s already contested terrain. This has led to necessary reconsiderations regarding how the Zapatistas can maintain their way of life against the incursions of the state and wealthy landowners, which are now deeply entangled with the area’s competing cartels.
Many of us living in the United States have been impacted by crises caused by some of the same forces. There is a crisis along the US border, justified by a police state that has no intention of doing anything to diminish the violence resulting from a criminalized drug trade that it has contributed to creating. At the same time, a crisis has emerged out of the criminalization of drug use in the United States, involving a wave of overdoses intensified by unsafe supply, alongside cyclical and racialized incarceration. Some reduce this to an oversimplified formula: narco violence in the Global South is fueled by the consumption habits of the Global North.
Speaking to those facing the threat of narcoviolence in their territory, we found it important to present an alternative framework emphasizing the interconnected nature of these crises and the repressive forces that purport to engage in “crisis management.” If we are to forge paths toward an internationalism that is capable of connecting struggles across ever more militarized border regimes, it is especially important to unearth the links between our unique contexts.
After a long, crowded ride from San Cristobal in a combi, during which we passed military bases and the silent streets of towns struggling with the incursions of the cartels, we were greeted by banners welcoming us to the Caracol of Dolores Hidalgo. An autonomous enclave in the heart of Zapatista territories, Dolores Hidalgo is in a large valley surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful mountains and cloud forests. This valley had been a hacienda until the Zapatisatas redistributed it after the 1994 uprising. Dotted throughout the valley are many Zapatista communities, each with parcels of land being worked communally.
The Zapatistas built an entire village to host the encuentro, welcoming thousands of strangers and neighbors. In the center was a massive field where plays and performances took place daily. As we arrived and looked for a spot to rig up our massive tarp, we passed Zapatistas from the caracol of Oventik who were reenacting the centuries of servitude on the hacienda, the indignities of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Such plays function as a form of storytelling and political participation for the Zapatistas, enabling their communities to engage in historiography and to pass on shared memory. Coming from a land where the memories of struggles barely last a single generation, we bore witness to these acts of collective retelling, inspired by the struggle to wrestle the memory of the past and the rebellious lessons it contains from those who would prefer to consign them to oblivion.
Performances of many kinds filled the days, both on the field and elsewhere around the site. Music rang out continuously throughout the encuentro, with brief silences between 4 and 6 am. Even in that silence, one could still hear the low hum of daily life: conversation, the cries of a baby, laughter, animals stirring.
Surrounding the central field were thousands of bicycles carefully maintained, covered, and guarded by EZLN militants. One could not get within a few feet of the bikes without being asked to back up. Why there were so many bikes and what they are going to do with them remains a mystery to us. Even the EZLN guards seemed at a loss regarding the purpose of the bicycles. Were they a demonstration of their increasing focus on hyper-localism? A feminist praxis? An environmentalist gesture? There is an entire communiqué dedicated to a video of their new bicycle fleet so you can wonder for yourself.
Beyond the bikes, on the edges of the site, were spaces to eat, receive medical treatment, sleep, wash your clothes, shower, and more.
There were many little worlds within the world of the encuentro. The world of the Zapatista-run restaurant for visitors, where people from all over stood in line for over an hour to order from a large menu that was almost always limited to a single item; the world of the cocina para visitantes, a free kitchen, if you could find it, where there were no lines; the world we created under our large tarp, where twenty of us slept on the hard and slanted earth, sliding into each other, staying up late into the night talking about revolution and discussing our situation in the United States while EZLN militants silently marched past us in lines, carrying bowls of beans and cups of coffee up to their camps on the hill above; the world of play, involving us and children and even the dogs; the world of the encounter we shared with a group of Germans who asked us to be in a photo with a banner reading “Freedom to those underground and on the run,” in solidarity with a group of anti-fascists who have recently gone underground to evade the charges brought against them after a fascist gathering in Budapest. Our discussions with them illuminated parallels between the RICO charges in Atlanta and paragraph 129, a similar law increasingly used in Germany to prosecute political organizing as criminal conspiracy.
All of these worlds were worlding together in a robust ecosystem, on the basis of shared life and land in common—a defining element of Zapatismo. Indeed, if there was one word that was repeated over and over again, it was commons. The Zapatistas understand the commons as sites of insurgency. The foundation of revolution must be the commons—to share life in common is to revolt together, and to share work in common is to refuse alienation and the isolating effect empire has on life. The commons are an interruption of capitalism. As sites of insurgency, they are antagonistic to capital’s rapid flows. Insofar as time itself has become a function of capital flow today, the commons slow down time. Where time is slower, one can attend to intention—in laughter and joy, discovery and death, play and performance.
To us visitors, this intentional, communal action was apparent everywhere: the infrastructure and arrangement of the site, the way ordinary tasks were carried out, the breaking of a piñata. A swarm of children formed a large circle around the piñata, which was decorated as a Yankee monster with an American flag hat, terrifying eyes, and a monopoly spirit. The master of ceremonies let the children take turns swinging as the piñata bounced up and down. Eventually, it cracked open—but to our surprise, no candy fell out. We Americans were accustomed to a downpour of treats and the ravenous race to get what you can—”you better be quick, or it will all run out.” What we saw, instead, was the opposite of competition rooted in a false sense of scarcity and an accelerated temporality. After the piñata broke, the kids were all handed candy in an egalitarian manner; there was enough for everyone, and the kids understood this.
This moment illustrated how every ritual conceals the possibility of changing worlds. At the encuentro, it felt as if every action was directed at the development of a historical consciousness as the resilient unfolding of life. This awareness and intentionality is necessitated by the commons and the commons necessitate it. The people and the earth have become reified as opponents alien to each other. The commons represents the reunion of the two in reciprocal liberation.
In the worlds sustained by the bad government, children are relegated to school, away from the serious adults who are focused on the details of their own exploitation. The elderly are imprisoned in senior centers or else often left homeless, deteriorating in the abyss of isolation, taking with them memory and potential wisdom. This makes it difficult to intentionally shape a collective consciousness according to aspirations that are informed by a time frame that extends deep into the past and future. Likewise, when children are not able to participate in memory-making, it is easy to forget about fantasy and possibility. The processes of making history and making memory are intertwined.
In Zapatista territory, the youthful and the old are not excluded from social life. A healthy forest includes both old growth trees and saplings, which often grow out of decaying logs alongside their mycelial relations. In this regard, Dolores Hidalgo felt like a healthy forest, creative and alive.
As visitors, we borrowed some of the imaginative practices that the Zapatista children shared with us and put on a play of our own. The Zapatistas have always incorporated an internationalist framework. They performed the stories of their struggle for us because they want us to know them, but they also invited all visitors to share in our own ways so that we could learn from each other. We decided to share our struggle via the same mode of communication they were using to share their struggles with us. This meant stepping outside our comfort zones. It challenged us to construct a performance involving a large group of people.
In writing the play, we rediscovered how easy and spontaneous collaboration and art making can be. One does not need to be a professional playwright, director, or actor to put on a play. Anyone can do it by maintaining a childlike playfulness and focusing on the most crucial elements of the story. At first, when we were brainstorming, we wanted to include every detail of the struggle: the spiraling of offensive time with weeks of action, the strategy of targeting contractors, and all the different ways people exerted pressure, including home demos, office demos, call-in campaigns, and sabotage.
We eventually simplified our narrative to a few key points: we fought the police and protested for Black lives, then we lived communally in the forest to protect it from destruction, then the police raided, ripping a forest defender from their tree house and murdering Tortuguita. At this point in our performance, we lifted up Tortuguita’s body, representing the carrying on of their spirit, and then they walked with us on the path forward. Our bodies, cloaked in black t-shirt balaclavas and carrying branches, became the trees, the animals, the forest defenders, our fallen comrade, and eventually, the fire that burned down the beginnings of Cop City on March 5, 2023. We became the living memory of history, oral history against specialization. Our play ended with everyone, arms linked, in a tight circle facing outward to represent our solidarity in the face of repression. As we slowly moved outward and apart, we beckoned the audience to join us, as our narrator concluded, “This is not an end to our story. The movement continues.”
Two nights before we performed our play, we celebrated New Year’s and the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising with the thousands of Zapatistas and others who had gathered in Dolores Hidalgo. Shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, over a thousand EZLN fighters in full army fatigues marched in formation, tapping along to the beat of Como Te Voy a Olvidar by Los Ángeles Azules. This time, they were marching with sticks, not guns. Thousands of spectators watched. Most had traveled many hours to be there; many of them were recording on their smartphones.
The demonstration was serious yet playful, something the Zapatistas have become known for over the years. The women of the EZLN marched in first, and the men followed, facing towards them. Then the women militants broke out of formation into a skipping dance, waving their arms in invitation, spiraling all around the open field. The performance ended with the men moving simultaneously outward, linking arms to create a perimeter surrounding the entire crowd.
The procession did not display military power, per se. Rather, it attested to the Zapatistas’ continuing ability to organize.
As the Zapatistas advanced in their not-so-military formation, we reflected on their saying: lento pero avanzo. Paso a paso, step by step, slowly but advancing, so we can continue our struggle for another ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years.
Some of us left the Lancandon jungle with more questions than answers. However, we left with the faith that we had helped to foster deeper connections with the Zapatistas and others around the world. For the friends who had the time to stay, more intimate conversations will be possible in the days following the encuentro.
The Zapatistas are able to offer access to land, food, healthcare, education, and a justice system as immediate existential benefits for participating in life in common. This is the recruitment pitch. Sustenance, education, continuity in collective memory, a dignified and communal life.
This challenged us to reflect: What are we able to offer? Friendship, cultural events, adventure, collective purpose? If the most that a struggle can do is to temporarily counter our loneliness and alienation, this may not be sufficient to sustain it. If that is all we have to offer, we are only competing with other subcultures to play the same role. On the other hand, we are living in a time when obtaining housing, food, and health care is once again becoming a real struggle for many of those who live in America. Perhaps making some of these necessities available was an important element of what the Weelaunee forest occupation offered. While there are strategic disadvantages to holding space that is vulnerable to attack from all sides, and at worst, occupations may hinder the broadening of a movement beyond a specific location, the loss of the forest as a commons leaves us with the task of creating a commons elsewhere. The question is how.
The “how” will necessarily be messy, complicated, and contradictory. That’s the nature of struggle, of operating within a field of forces pushing and pulling in different directions. Zapatista territories are territories in struggle; they are not free of market influence. Zapatistas drive cars, drink Coca Cola, operate roadside stores, use smartphones and social media; we suspect that there is a corner of Facebook where one can find long threads of comments in Tsetal beneath videos of young EZLN men dancing with internationalists. Autonomy is not a question of purity; it is an ongoing practice. It means making breaks from capital and becoming the collective authors of our shared destiny, starting now.
The Zapatistas began this process forty years ago in clandestinity, drawing on decades of consciousness raising and cultural practices that predate capitalist systems altogether. Sometimes these breaks may not look clean. The Zapatista network is not entirely severed from capitalist networks and supply chains; it is a constellation of liberated territories, collective projects, support bases, and flows of information, people, and materials. All the elements of the constellation have varying degrees of relation to capitalism, yet they nevertheless form part of the constellation of struggle. The liberated communal lands, the health clinics, the Zapatista stores in San Cris selling Zapatista-made goods, the pizza restaurants, cinemas, and bars operated by support bases, all of these form part of the constellation that is a community in struggle. This is the reality of the struggle today, in a world in which capitalist relations have colonized every part of the planet.
Because struggle is dynamic, and the terrain on which we struggle shifts according to the strategies of our enemies and our own accomplishments and failures, any enduring struggle must be capable of transforming itself. It must be fluid, mutable, flexible, modular, and non-dogmatic. This has been one of the most inspiring elements of the Zapatista fight for life: their continuous ability to reinvent their struggle. This does not mean refusing to set attainable concrete goals, nor does it mean declaring an effort a success when it fails to achieve its goals. Strategies should be falsifiable. It does, however, mean being flexible, always thinking about how to turn each situation to the advantage of the movement, even when it may represent a failure by the original metrics.
During the encuentro, we struck up a conversation with an older Zapatista man, likely in his seventies. He told us he had been involved with the organization since the days of clandestine activity. We asked him how he got involved. “At that time, they were just going door to door, one by one,” he said. Someone came to his door asking if he wanted to join the organization and he agreed. He shared that he has a wife and six children, none of whom wanted to become Zapatistas. The rest of his family are partidistas—they vote for and support the political parties in Mexico’s electoral system. His decision to join the struggle remains a point of contention in his family. He told us that this kind of division is common in Zapatista families. We asked him if, after everything he has been through, he is happy with the state of things for the Zapatistas today. “I’m very sad,” he answered. He explained that for him, the days of being clandestine never ended—that he still cannot go into the city because he is a known Zapatista organizer, that he still sees himself as clandestine.
This was just one conversation, but it illustrates something that many internationals don’t realize: for many, the aspirations of the 1994 uprising were much greater than what Zapatismo has become today. Subcomandante Moises echoed this in his speech on New Year’s: “We are as alone now as we were thirty years ago.” When the Zapatistas rose up in 1994, they asked others to get organized and rise up with them, but no one did. While they received a great deal of support and solidarity in the following years, both nationally and internationally, no one took up arms alongside them to overthrow capitalism. Consequently, they did the best they could with the situation they found themselves in.
In many ways, this very situation led to the new and creative forms of autonomous organizing that continue to inspire many internationals today. It provides us with an example of what it means to think strategically and dynamically, adapting to changing conditions without losing sight of our goals or setting aside our convictions. It also makes us wonder how things might have turned out if other people had risen up with them, and what hopes and aspirations were never realized by those who fought and died for their revolution. (For further reading on Zapatista organizing and aspirations before the uprising, we recommend John Womack’s Rebellion in Chiapas.)
Through the trials and tribulations, across the shifting terrain of struggle, the Zapatistas continue to attract new participants by relatively simple means. They offer a real alternative to the existing capitalist and state systems. They offer people land and health, the fundamentals for a dignified life. Questions of land have always been at the heart of the Zapatista struggle. They recovered large amounts of land after the 1994 uprising, which provided fertile soil for growing crops.
In addition, the Zapatistas offer a communal form of organization to manage the land and formal processes for dealing with land disputes. They also operate autonomous health clinics in each of their caracoles. These clinics are often the closest place to get healthcare in rural areas, for Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas alike. This care is free, apart from the cost of any medication prescribed, which is sold at cost. This means that, especially for rural people, Zapatista autonomous health clinics are often the most affordable option accessible.
The way they attract new people to their ranks, then, is by offering alternatives to the life that capitalism can provide. This challenges us to ask ourselves: what do we have to offer people? How can we provide viable alternatives to the ways of living offered by the capitalist system?