Our word is a weapon

On New Year’s Day 1994, a small group of revolutionaries rose up and took the entire Chiapas region from the Mexican government. The action was in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was signed the day before.

On New Year’s Day 1994, a small group of revolutionaries rose up and took the entire Chiapas region from the Mexican government. The action was in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was signed the day before.

They were known as the EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation. A little over a year later, the Mexican army overran much of the territory, causing the group of socialists and indigenous peoples to turn to outside help and a new strategy–one that focused on words rather than guns.

The primary figure in this battle of words is known as Subcomandante Marcos. Always appearing in the typical black mask of the Zapatistas, Marcos became the public face of the uprising. Thought by many to be a former philosophy teacher, he is the author (or at least editor) of numerous Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle and the leader of their more publicly recent campaign across Mexico.

The latest bi-lingual production at Miracle Theater (Teatro Milagro) focuses on the life of this very public, yet secretive individual. Zapatista was written by Mircale Theater co-founder Dañel Malan, who also plays the only female character, Ana Maria. She spent over a decade researching the Zapatistas, including multiple interviews with social activists in the Chiapas. Zapatista follows the development of Marcos and the EZLN from the original uprising, through the 1997 Acteal Massacre, to the creation of the Declarations and the campaign in the rest of Mexico.

We first see Marcos as a disheartened new member of the Zapatistas who is uncomfortable using a gun and even less comfortable with life in a jungle inhabited by people who speak a strange language. His way with words earns him the right to not carry a gun, improving communication between the revolutionaries and the indigenous people instead, and waging a propaganda war. He begins to teach the native peoples of the Chiapas to read and write, and learns their language and culture.

After several massacres and broken accords with the Mexican government, the residents of Chiapas tire of the fight. Marcos now becomes even more important as he leads a campaign to bring in foreign support for building schools and health clinics, and helps create the autonomous local councils that govern the region. Eventually, he leads a completely unarmed campaign across Mexico to advocate for the indigenous, democracy and human rights. He also becomes the first revolutionary to tap the power of the Internet.

Gilberto Martin Del Campo does a good job of bringing a real humanity and vulnerability to the character of Marcos. Malan’s character, Ana Maria, shows a soft heart under a hardened exterior as a female indigenous commander in the EZLN. Jorge Madrid-Enamorado is suitably tough, yet open as Zapatista Comandante Tacho, and also takes a great comic turn as a young local. Omar Vargas imbues his native Chiapan character Don Antonio with the kind of wisdom often characteristic of indigenous peoples.

These performances are all the more remarkable because most of the characters are wearing black masks nearly all the time and switching back and forth between English and Spanish. Those who don’t speak Spanish will need to pay close attention to catch everything, but even just a little Spanish knowledge will make it much easier. While you may miss a joke here or a small bit of information there, the themes and characters of the play still come across well.

Together with the directing work of Laurel Pilar Garcia, the writing and performances help to focus us on the real human story and characters of the Zapatista uprising. This is fitting, since the revolution itself grew out of a connection between socialist intellectuals and the indigenous farmers of Chiapas, two very different groups. And it has grown beyond a local revolution, now encompassing the globe through electronic and other media.

The desire to be free to pursue our own lives without government control or marginalization, the power of words written and spoken, and the difficulty in communicating across cultures are themes we can all relate to. The benefit that can be gained from the culture and practices of indigenous peoples is something we could all use as well. The ease with which we relate to these characters and themes in this play remind us, as they say that, “We are all Zapatistas.”

Zapatista’s run at Miracle Theater is over and now it’s going on tour of the West Coast. They will be at Tualatin High School at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 31 and Hillsboro High School at 7 p.m. on Feb. 20. They will be at the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College at 6:30 p.m. on Mar. 10. For more information and tour dates, visit www.milagro.org