Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

juan villoro


artwork by ELIZA DOUGLAS
all artwork courtesy of the artist and overduin & co

the grammar of hope, from the maya past to the zapatista future

Epidemics produce prophecies. When people are facing the possible end of all things, to assume that what’s to come will be worse offers some relief. It’s no coincidence that speculative literature rarely promises paradise. From Ray Bradbury to William Gibson, science fiction has spawned more fears than joys. In his essay on Charles Fourier, Italo Calvino asserts that the intangible “New Amorous World,” where the sea will taste of lemonade, is implausible because it lacks the human imprint — it has not been used. To be convincing, imagination must exhibit the wear and tear that only experience confers. That is why most successful futuristic narratives tend to have a melancholic tone; they feed off the past.

The invention of disasters that reckon with the present has a long tradition. In the 16th century, Nostradamus survived the plague and announced ominous predictions. Before the epidemic, he devoted himself to hedonism, preparing cosmetic recipes and delectable marmalades. When the malady swept across Europe, he concocted a mixture of aloe, bamboo shoots, and roses gathered before dewfall. As legend has it, those who consumed this mixture survived. Having survived the plague, Nostradamus came to know the most paralyzing of threats: happiness, embodied in a woman who answered his dreams of cosmetology.

What is a person to do who has it all but can’t stop thinking? The diurnal side of Nostradamus gave way to the nocturnal. His workshop of preserves was transformed into the sanctuary of a soothsayer. His prophesies sprang as a projection into the future of a present threat overcome through enormous effort.

Disaster narratives are the luxury of survivors who are allowed to return to their habitual environment. What happens to those who lose everything, who cannot go back to a familiar world?

In January 1519, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas reported a smallpox outbreak in Santo Domingo. The conquest was an epidemiological war that, according to las Casas’s own calculations, wiped out 40 million indigenous people.

The original peoples of America were subdued by colonialism and disease; those who survived did not recover a previous life but were inserted into a new one that was wholly foreign. For them, the past became a space as uncertain as the future. Regaining their own time was a labor of resistance, a grammar that had to be conjugated against the syntax of the official discourse.

The current pandemic offers an unexpected opportunity to approach this exercise. The civilization of speed and vertigo has come to a halt; isolated, we’re better able to consider those who, since the fall of Tenochtitlán in 1521, have been engaged in an extraordinary political practice: waiting. That practice has endured long enough so that we might now speak of an “ancestral future,” a time laden with other times.

a book in stone

At the archaeological site of Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, stands a striking seventh-century building, the Temple of the Inscriptions, where King Pakal II inscribed his vision of the world in stone. That book in stone was decoded in the first decade of the 21st century by the epigraphist Guillermo Bernal Romero. Pakal records the history of his dynasty, narrates battles, and projects future events in a tone of conjecture or divination. In one revealing passage, he exercises self-critique, conceding a devastating defeat. Bernal describes it: “The historical narration of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal magnified equally the failures and achievements of his dynasty… The Maya rulers of the classical period generally proclaimed their victories but rarely admitted their defeats. K’inich Janaab’ Pakal had the genius to acknowledge the debacles of his dynasty, demonstrating that with the favor of the gods, the support of the collective, and the heroism of the rulers, adversities can be overcome. In my opinion, this powerful propagandistic argument functioned as an ideological force that hardened the character, unity, and will of his subjects.” A community that finds value in its failures confronts the future with greater resolve. The dimwitted public actors of our time could learn something from this legacy written in stone.

For 71 years (1929-2000), the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) [Institutional Revolutionary Party] governed Mexico. In that period, it forged an ideology that celebrated the indigenous world as a glorious relic of the past. The passages of anticipation from the Temple of the Inscriptions reveal a culture laden with future, and yet, the official discourse insisted on seeing that culture as something of a bygone age, museumified.

Only three codices survive from that civilization. In 1562, Friar Diego de Landa issued a religious edict to have the majority of the Maya cultural heritage burned, an edict he would end up regretting (he spent the rest of his days trying to recover the culture that he helped destroy, which lends credence to Lévi-Strauss’s idea that anthropology is an expression of “Western guilt”). With access to their past destroyed, the Maya people were the object of numerous misrepresentations. The ideological purpose of these distortions was clear: to disconnect them from the indigenous peoples who today live in poverty and who could not be allowed to reclaim their former grandeur. In the 19th century, people claimed that the ancient Maya people had belonged to a lost tribe of Israel or that they had come from Carthage. The New Age culture added another fantasy: the Maya as extraterrestrials. The “proof” was the tombstone guarding the remains of Pakal II. The king appeared suspended between stages of existence (earthly life, the heavens, and the underworld), and yet, what enthusiasts of esotericism saw was an astronaut in zero gravity using a corncob as a joystick.

The hegemonic narrative rarely spoke of the Maya people in the present tense. On January 1, 1994, the uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] demonstrated that the descendants of Pakal are indeed our contemporaries. Their demands belong to the agenda of modernity. Shortly thereafter, the tomb of the Red Queen, possibly the wife of Pakal II, was discovered in Palenque. This finding merited attention; looking back at the newspapers from that time, you might think that the fate of the nation hinged on that discovery. The excessive media coverage of the Red Queen sought to divert attention from the Maya people of the present by focusing on the Maya of the classical period, attempting to remind everyone that the splendor of that culture was a thing of the past.

In Los Grandes Hallazgos de la Arqueología. De la Muerte a la Inmortalidad [The Great Discoveries of Archaeology: From Death to Immortality], Eduardo Matos Moctezuma describes the ancient rulers’ vain ambitions to find eternity by constructing ostentatious tombs. None of them endured because of those constructions. It was archaeologists who made public their extravagant existence. Posterity doesn’t depend on the protagonists, but on the witnesses.

Scientific inquiry led to the Red Queen’s exhumation, but her appropriation by the media sent a different message: the ancestral legacy was more important than the demands of the living Maya.

the playground of the world: actuality of the myth

In 1995, the symbolic battle between the government and the Zapatistas reached a critical point when it came to choosing a location for negotiations. The government rejected proposals to meet at emblematic sites like the Universidad Nacional (National University) or the Catedral (Cathedral) and accepted another site that at first appeared innocuous: the basketball court in San Andrés Larráinzar, Chiapas. For the PRI, that space was just a cement slab with net-less hoops and tin backboards, a failed exhibition of “progress” in a remote community. And yet, beneath that court lay another: the “playground of the world,” the sacred court of the Maya ballgame, where the battle of duality is waged, where day competes with night and life with death. That confrontation, heralded in the Popol Vuh [the sacred book of K’iche’ Maya culture], could only be won by those who conjugate the thousand-year-old traditions in the present and find in them seeds of the future.

The manifold discourse of the Temple of the Inscriptions has a contemporary correlative in Zapatista texts, which accommodate an equally versatile record and haven’t been conceived by an enlightened monarch, but rather by a community. It is not the vertical imposition of Pakal II on a people, the majority of whom couldn’t read, but a collective tapestry created from below, at the base of the pyramid.

In Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra 1, which compiles reflections written in 2015, Comandante Moisés of the EZLN looks back on events and offers an incisive assessment of the truth: “We realized then that we had failed once again.” Self-critique — nonexistent among Mexican political parties — echoes in the Zapatista consciousness with the force that etched the glyphs in the Temple of the Inscriptions.

In Mexico, more than 60 native languages are still spoken. None of them has an official rank, and many are in danger of becoming extinct. According to official statistics, 80% of the indigenous population lives in poverty. Although precarity is their common denominator, their nation-building projects are diverse. The EZLN has proposed the creation of autonomous indigenous regions within the framework of the constitution (“a world wherein many worlds fit”); on the other hand, municipalities in Oaxaca that already have autonomy propose cutting ties with the nation-state (the Mixe intellectual Yasnaya Aguilar Gil refers to an “us without Mexico”). It’s impossible to address the full range of proposals of the indigenous communities here. It’s enough to know that it’s not a monolithic front. What is important, as it pertains to this text, is to highlight certain commonalities in the construction of hope.

According to [the historian] Tzvetan Todorov, the conquest of Mexico was a clash between two radically opposed conceptions of time. Immersed in a sacred time (the circular discourse of myth), the Aztecs understood history as a reflection of humanity’s adaptation to the world. “The individual’s future is ruled by the collective past,” Todorov writes in The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, adding: “The interpretation of the event occurs less in terms of its concrete, individual, and unique content than of the pre-established order of universal harmony.” Conversely, the conquistadors understood history as “an open and indeterminate field, to be shaped by an individual free will.” For them, it was not about an intersection of man with the world, but of man with man.

Moctezuma had as much or more information as did Cortés, but he sought to interpret it as the fulfillment of a prophecy foretold by the mythical order.

After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the cultural vernacular of the Maya was abolished. Little by little, the myths were covertly recovered through oral histories and testimonies collected by enlightened friars. The historian Alfredo López Austin points out that myth is the “property of its builder-users.” It is updated in accordance with the needs of the community: “The effect of actions no longer belongs to the space-time of the gods; it becomes grounded in everyday reality,” he writes in Los Personajes del Mito [The Characters of Myth]. In Los Mitos y sus Tiempos [The Myths and Their Times], he adds: “History transformed the meaning of ancient myths and of imposed myths, creating knowledge that — under the harsh colonial conditions which attempted to break the will of the conquered — was a motivating and defensive resource.” A dynamic category, myth adapts and ramifies; it is “a weapon built by tradition to confront the mutable present, the imperceptible future.”

This exercise retrospectively explains the past and prefigures the future. The conquest was understood by way of a posterior mythical interpretation in the same way that today poverty is explained in mythical code. The anthropologist Miguel A. Bartolomé has studied the symbolic systems with which the 14 ethno-linguistic communities in the state of Oaxaca confront their condition of poverty. This has led him to elaborate the category of the “mythology of privation,” which explains, and in a way justifies, the social inequality endured by indigenous peoples, who “take responsibility for their present situation”, “El Mensaje Político de los Mitos” [“The Political Message of Myths”].

It would seem, in the first place, that the “mythology of privation” is a conformist adaptation to an unequal world. But myths don’t comprise a closed discourse: looking back and looking forward, they modify the ages; they are transfigured time. As a critical approach, the “mythology of privation” proves an injustice. If the communities themselves are partially responsible for that injustice, they can also be responsible for changing it: “To recognize relative privation is not, as it may seem, merely a tragic historical lament; it is also fundamentally a political message, a means to an end, to understanding the past and the present; a way to position yourself in space and time in order to gain access to a future of your own,” Bartolomé says.

For five centuries, myths have been modernized to explain both the original fall and the precarities of the present. This practice laid the groundwork for the message of the new Zapatistas, inspired by the peasant slogans of Emiliano Zapata during the revolution of 1910 and also by the vast arsenal of indigenous traditions. Although it is not the only future-oriented project that arose from the complex multicultural indigenous mosaic, it condenses a good part of their hopes and foretells a future that diverges from the integrationist discourse of “progress.”

According to Subcomandante Galeano (and Subcomandante Marcos before him), the task of conceiving futures is the same as that of Noah, who built the ark in anticipation of the flood. In this sense, the imagination is not an attribute of fantasy, but of reason: it allows you to think from the past toward the future. Anticipating the goal helps to achieve it. Elisa Contreras of the EZLN uses an eloquent verb to describe this activity: “tracking.” The trail an animal leaves behind makes more sense if you assume it has a den.

the principle of hope, or memory that lives

Ernst Bloch was interested in the “the affects of expectation,” emotions that are not immediately satisfied and whose fulfillment is postponed. Sometimes these are negative affectations (fear or anxiety) or positive ones (longing or hope). Just as Bloch overcame the fog and the night of postwar Europe with his disconcerting intellectual gamble, The Principle of Hope, the new Zapatistas seek to understand, retrospectively, how to make their way into the future.

A line from Old Antonio, a character from the writings of Subcomandante Marcos, supports this idea: “It costs a great deal to arrive to the beginning.” There is a causal chain that connects the past to the future that can be traveled backward. In their atypical bazaar of references, Marcos/Galeano recurs to Sherlock Holmes: the detective solves the crime by returning to the causes.

The cognitive strategy of “thinking backward” offers an instrumental value to utopia but also warns of its excesses. Expecting something that never comes can lead to the “torture of hope.” The goal is not the only objective.

The EZLN assumed the monumental task of taking on the capitalist system. The transition from one mode of production to another is almost as prolonged as the transition from one geological age to another. If that were their sole aim, the Zapatistas could only make an inventory of their failures. But their purpose goes beyond a dialectic of “all or nothing.” By describing themselves as “professionals of hope,” they signal that longing is a technique. Whenever the dominant order collapses, they initiate extensive changes in their regions. Facing the wall of the real, they open “cracks,” fissures through which to arrive to different forms of coexistence. In her book Justicia Autónoma Zapatista [Zapatista Autonomous Justice], Paulina Fernández Christlieb studies the ways in which that project plays out in everyday existence, transforming the conditions of women’s lives, the way justice is administered, and access to healthcare and education.

“Dignity is nothing more than memory that lives,” Marcos observed. The Mexican government tends to put its money on the idea that forgetting “resolves” problems. For that reason, memory itself can have a rebellious nature. In the Temple of the Inscriptions, in reference to a tragedy, Pakal II spoke of the “fire that time carried on its back.” That drama might have been lost to the flames of oblivion, but it was preserved in stone.

Traveling toward the beginning recalls the voyage of Ulysses. Throughout his journey, the king of Ithaca faces various temptations: hallucinogenic plants, the seductive song of the sirens, the offer of immortality. He rejects them all because he knows that if he alters his destination, he won’t be able to complete his story, to tell his tale. Calvino observes that the Greek hero is afraid to “forget his future.” He travels in the wake of future memories. Such is the fertile inactuality of Zapatista thought.   

With the world in a perpetual state of emergency, where the pandemic and technological expansion reinforce biopolitical control, the indigenous project does not propose a return to an Arcadia destroyed by the conquest, but a future that would give new congruence to that past.

The coronavirus put life between parentheses. For a moment, we are akin to those people who have been in this state for centuries. “We go slow because the road is long,” the Zapatistas say. This epic of waiting has won a battle in the social use of time: the indigenous peoples have ceased to belong to the realm of what was; they occupy the present with rebellious inconvenience.

Paul B. Preciado reminds us that “immunity” and “community” share the etymological root munus, meaning “tribute.” The immune do not pay it; the community pays it all together. The planet is interconnected enough to be contagious, but it lacks the communal responses necessary to survive. Survival calls for a different community. In the Zapatista ideology, the transformative force rises from below, as a sum of weaknesses. It’s not an abstract thing; it’s a logical construction: a grammar.

The glyphs in the Temple of the Inscriptions describe a famine in these terms: “On the moon, the fruit trees wither.” That old metaphorical discourse pins political value on hope. We have nothing, but there are trees on the moon. “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” in the words of Antonio Gramsci.



[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

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