At 2:08am on May 25, 2014, after a day of homage and commemoration to the fallen compañero Galeano of the Zapatista community of La Realidad, the man and voice known as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos declared that the figure of Marcos would thereby cease to exist.
For 20 years, SCI Marcos has served officially as Military Chief and spokesperson for the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, as well as the target of the hopes, dreams, envy, fear and wonder of thousands of people around the world watching the political and social ingenuity of the Zapatista struggle unfold.
In a midnight press conference in the historically and symbolically important community of La Realidad (literally, “reality”), SCI Marcos announced that the figure of Marcos had been a hologram, a “colorful ruse,” created by the EZLN as part of visibility strategy to help the outside world, drenched in a longstanding genocidal racism that impels us to look over and past the small stature and brown skin of the indigenous, to see the EZLN for what it was: an army of giants.
The figure of Marcos would now “die” upon the decision of the same collective body embarking on a new turn, a change of command, and a path forward in the struggle.
Since the moment of the announcement, there have been many questions and speculations as to what the “death” of the figure implies and what the future of the man behind the figure may be. Mass media outlets almost immediately reported the announcement as a retirement or “stepping down” of the military chief, missing or ignoring the assertions that the figure was always a hologram used to reflect or receive the eyes and ears of a public that couldn’t see beyond it. Alternate readings have explained the announcement as principally a name change, the purely symbolic erasure of “Marcos” and the adopting of a new nom de guerre—essentially just a different signature—of Galeano, in the spirit and tradition of taking the name of a fallen comrade. The latter reading has also tended toward an assumption that this shift arose from the moment of the murder of Galeano on May 2, just three weeks before.
Given the great significance of the role of the figure of Marcos over the last 20 years, both as explanation and distraction, or illumination and shadow of the struggle, we want to try to look deeper into what this change means. It is particularly important here to look past the historic weight put on Marcos’ figure and the recent attention to Galeano’s—and the heroic conversion story such a name change could powerfully but erroneously provide—and refocus our analytical lens on the glimpses of the power and perspective of the collective body that the EZLN and SCI Marcos himself have repeatedly and even recently given us: “what makes the ancient wheel of history turn is the collective, not the individuals. Historiography feeds off individuality; history learns from whole peoples” [Rewind 1, November 2013].
The “death” of the figure of Marcos was announced at the end of a day of homage to José Luis Solís López, or compañero Galeano, trusted community figure and former autonomous council member, respected zone-level teacher of the Zapatista Little School, and candidate for the Good Government Council in the Selva Fronteriza zone for the upcoming 2014 change of autonomous government. On May 2, 2014, Solis López was killed in La Realidad by CIOAC-H (Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos-Histórica), paramilitaries from the very same community, but organized and armed—as the EZLN emphasizes—by the “supreme paramilitaries,” state governor Manuel Velasco Coello and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The CIOAC-H first destroyed the Zapatista autonomous school and health clinic, and then ambushed a group of Zapatista bases of support, attacking Galeano with particular brutality. This is not a conflict between the Zapatistas and the CIOAC in La Realidad, Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, now EZLN Military Chief and spokesperson, reminded the crowd of adherents and supporters of the “Sixth” in delivering the EZLN’s homage to Galeano: the CIOAC are tools of the government, pawns of the system; Galeano is “every Zapatista,” and “every Zapatista is the people of Mexico as a whole.”
But the shift in command did not begin on May 2, 2014. Over the course of Zapatista history, the EZLN has launched multiple and diverse initiatives in an effort to open new spaces for political deliberation, generate democratic processes and practices among wide swaths of the Mexican population, reach out to sympathetic and/or marginalized communities nationally and internationally, and finally and perhaps most importantly, find compañeros and compañeras in struggle. Starting with the National Democratic Convention in 1994, the Intercontinental and Intergalactic Encounters in 1996, the National Referendum in 1999, the March of the Color of the Earth in 2001, and then (among many more) to what the EZ calls the “most Zapatista of all our initiatives,” the process now called “the Sixth” which was launched with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, the EZLN has sought not merely solidarity and support but others with whom to struggle—“those not looking to lead us or be led by us.” Through the Sixth, they stated, they finally found compañeros able to see them “face to face” and listen to who they are and want to be.
It is in that role of compañeros of the Sixth that we think that we must understand the change of command and the erasure of the “ruse” of the often simultaneously hero-worshipped and harshly scapegoated, surprising and self-deprecating “now defunct SupMarcos,” as referred to by SCI Moisés.
The insistence or tendency toward belief either that Marcos has “retired,” “stepped down,” or merely changed his name seems to point to a disbelief that the figure of Marcos was actually a hologram, deliberately created by the almost entirely indigenous EZLN, and now strategically erased by the same body. Accepting this reality is a challenge to all—critics and supporters—to believe in that organized collective body. We could read the “death” of SCI Marcos the Zapatistas are offering as a gesture of good faith that there are those who are ready to see that body, in all of its collective wisdom and power.
Here it is important to remember that even after the Zapatistas’ massive 40,000 strong march of on December 21, 2012, the biggest public mobilization of Zapatista bases of support ever and an effective “retaking” of the cities first occupied in the EZLN uprising in 1994, there was a lamentable reaction by some “supporter-cynics” (those who condemn the EZLN but live off its legacy), insisting that such a thing had been “orchestrated”— even purchased, we heard people claim—by the EZLN leadership. This was, even more than an accusation of the EZ’s General Command, a deeply held disbelief that there is actually an indigenous collective at work making decisions—and not just a few individuals, but thousands of capable, committed members of a collective body with a socially and politically sophisticated collective thought and practice far beyond anything anywhere else in recent history.
In this sense, this new moment and the death of “Marcos” might also be seen, in addition to a great middle finger to that cynical political pettiness, as a great challenge, one which has been made most specifically to adherents of the Sixth: now can you see us? Now can you hear us? Now do you see that the various components of the slow, steady steps toward a new world that can only come from an organized collective body? Do you truly believe in our commitment to the capacity of the organized collective to decide its future together? Do you believe in yours?
It is this new reality—the unmediated but highly organized social body taking steps toward its goals of “democracy, justice, and freedom”—that is under attack in La Realidad, in the destruction of the autonomous school and health clinic, and on the body of Galeano. The sooner we can see it without the medium of the hologram, the better we can construct and defend the small new world we have committed ourselves to building with the Zapatistas.
In that sense, we can understand that beyond a change of name or play on words that allowed “Marcos” to cease to exist in order for “Galeano” to be reclaimed, the hologram of the individual hero had to die in order for the collective to live. Thus, after a day of homage to the life of Galeano and the announcement of the “death” of Marcos, and after the figure known as the subcomandante of stainless steel left the stage and disappeared into the darkness, in the small hours between night and day, EZLN spokesperson and military chief SCI Moisés, stood and announced that “another compañero” would say a few words. And the familiar voice of Don Durito, Old Antonio, Sombra el Guerrero, and the EZLN, came through the speakers, “Good early morning compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Anyone else here named Galeano?” When the crowd cried, “We are all Galeano!” the voice replied, “Ah… that’s why they told me that when I was reborn, it would be as a collective.”