Between Us and Them

Gerardo Montes de Oca Valadez

There is no doubt about the current relevance of Marxist thought – as a form of analysis, interpretation and action – in light of the global processes of expansive commodification of all aspects of life and the environment. Without it, it would be impossible to understand the exploitation, dispossession and extermination that the neoliberal model administrates, and to think of possible routes of transformation. However, Marx’s thought has also been limited by its own historical and epistemic margins demarcated by coloniality, Eurocentrism and modernity. Modern ideals of science, progress, development of the productive forces, industrialism, and truth and happiness through abundance – all shared with the capitalist mode of production and way of life – have been fundamental to Marx’s thought (Lander, 2014, 22).

In general, we can say that such beliefs within Marxist thought have led to the reproduction of undemocratic hierarchical structures on several occasions, which destroy the potential for self-determination, organization, decision-making, and action of individuals and the community from above. Marxist thought has projected a vision of a supposedly unique, true, necessary and desirable direction of historical development and transformation that goes hand in hand with an unsustainable relation to, or domination of, nature. Particularly in Latin America, this position has bypassed multiple racialized and hierarchized subjects and communities that together with their self-determined forms of life do not fit into the revolutionary categories of conventional Marxist thought. These other sectors of society, together with their ways of thinking-feeling, living-relating, organizing and resisting intra-, inter- and transnational colonialism for more than 525 years (Pablo González Casanova 2014), have been discarded, or at least underestimated, as political agents for a long time.

This is why Zapatismo is today very useful for updating the meaning of Marxist thought from the perspective of other geographies. I cannot, and I will not, intend to speak for the Zapatistas, as they speak clearly and powerfully for themselves. As a person born and raised in Mexico – male, middle class, urban and “mestizo”2 – I acknowledge the indigenous and colonial histories that precede me, and the erasures, violences and logics that coloniality has imposed among our communities. From that complex and non-fixed position, I look at and listen to the indigenous communities seeking to find ways to overcome the historical, material, and symbolic partitions imposed upon us.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is one of the anti-capitalist and anti-systemic movements that have contributed the most to building, from below, something materially and politically “different”: “a world where many worlds fit”3. Remarkably, this has been carried out by mostly indigenous people in very adverse situations, including a masked low-intensity warfare, in a country where the capitalist war – in all its colonial, patriarchal, and racist dimensions – unfolds with extreme violence: Mexico4. Through its demands5 and the ways in which they have been proposed, Zapatismo has developed its universal, deep, lasting and anticipatory character, and at the same time, established a valid international agenda of struggle (Carlos Aguirre Rojas, 2015).

Moreover, the Zapatista movement has been building its own forms of political and material autonomy outside the state and the logics of capital (Gilberto López and Rivas 2011: 103-15, Gustavo Esteva 2011: 117-43, Raúl Zibechi 2017; Pablo González Casanova 2015; Jérôme Baschet 2015), creating its own autonomous municipalities and Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Boards of Good Government). This has also allowed the movement to develop alternative systems of education, health, justice, production, information, and communication, and so on. Autonomy, in Zapatista terms, is not a matter restricted to politics, but rather a matter that operates in all areas of social life. This is expressed in the General Women’s Law published by the EZLN in 1993, and more clearly in the active presence of indigenous women in the ranks of the EZLN since its origin, and the fact that their participation in reproductive, logistical and military work has been fundamental to the movement (Guiomar Rovira 2012). The forms of resistance of Zapatista women have directly influenced, according to researcher María Isabel Pérez Enríquez (2008), the forms of resistance exercised by both the indigenous and non-indigenous of the overall civil society. Moreover, EZLN has contributed to both internationally legitimize the political participation of women, and to include the anti-capitalist fight into the feminist agenda (Sylvia Marcos 2017).

Objectively, the strategy of EZLN has focused on the mobilization of civil society. This became evident the moment when the EZLN underwent a transformation from being an army to becoming a social movement. Examples that testify to this transformation are, among others, the Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña), – together with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle – and in particular its recent joint project with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI)6. The Other Campaign consisted of many meetings between EZLN and different resistance groups in Mexico in order to create a national anti-capitalist movement.7

The recent EZLN and CNI joint project sought to participate in the next Mexican presidential elections in 2018 through the creation of the Indigenous Governing Council (CIG), with spokeswoman María de Jesús Patricio Martínez ‘Marichuy’ as candidate. Here the purpose was not to win or seize power, but rather to use the elections, that are seen by the Zapatista movement as a bargaining process between political parties and private interests, as a platform to make visible the effects of the capitalist war on indigenous communities and the entire country. A platform, moreover, to denounce the political class in power as responsible for extreme violence, corruption and its own impunity, and, fundamentally, the creation of a gathering of the national, international indigenous and non-indigenous organizations. For this project, the CIG and ‘Marichuy’ realized a national tour – with minimum resources and no state funding, resembling The Other Campaign – in order to both meet with and listen to the different indigenous and non-indigenous communities and their problems; and to share the CIG collective voice. Their project is based on the Zapatista experience of building autonomy, and the EZLN’s seven principles that go by the name of the “rule by obeying”.8 Most importantly, CNI proposes a government from below, where “the people rule and the government obeys”. CIG defines its proposal in a similar way as an anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-patriarchal call to organize ourselves. By the end of the pre-campaign period, on 19th February 2018, CNI did not achieve to gather the total number of signatures requested by the state as a prerequisite to register a presidential candidate – a process complicated by several institutional, economic and social barriers.9 But the main goals of the project were met: the situation and problems of the indigenous communities, together with a strong critique of the capitalist system, are brought back to national attention; both CNI, as well as the non-indigenous support networks, grew stronger. Today the project continues to consolidate the CIG and a national anti-capitalist movement and its agenda.10

The thought of Marx is still present in the Zapatista movement and the CNI, but in a constant process of appropriation, decolonization and re-elaboration. Marx’s “objective” and impersonal thought, which is embedded in the coloniality of knowledge (Anibal Quijano, 2000: 209-46), has been contextualized and adapted by the Zapatistas to local needs without missing its global perspective. The development of the movement during its clandestine years, and its subsequent evolution into an international public since 1994, shows the way in which the movement was and is forced to overcome the limits of Marxist thought, and categories marked by eurocentrism and colonial modernity. The conditions that made such development possible are not located in European thought or its margins. Rather, they can be found in the multiple communities –– with their embodied experience, knowledge, and forms of organization – that have resisted the colonial, racist and patriarchal capitalist war and its neoliberal, extractivist, necro- and narco-political versions for more than 525 years.

In 1983, the first EZLN camp was officially settled clandestinely. A few years before that, a group of mestizos with Marxist-Leninist ideas had ventured into the jungle of Chiapas with the intention of forming a revolutionary army to fight against the conditions of extreme poverty, injustice, neglect, exclusion, exploitation, violence, and dispossession in indigenous communities. The first years (1983-1994) of clandestine infrapolitical work (James Scott, 2004), in which the EZLN tried to gain the trust of the indigenous people and build a revolutionary army, served to challenge their urban and mestizo beliefs of being a revolutionary vanguard, and allowed the development of new forms of thought and organization, realities and needs. This is how Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos describes what they experienced:

We really suffered a process of reeducation, of remodeling, as if we had been unarmed, as if we had lost all the elements we had –Marxism, Leninism, socialism, urban culture, poetry, literature– everything that was part of us, and also things that we did not know that we had. They disarmed us and put us together again, but in a different way, and that was the only way to survive (Le Bot & Yvone 1997, 151).

Carrying Marxist thought with it, EZLN is therefore part of a long tradition of indigenous struggles and organizing processes in continuous movement: from the Spanish invasion and colonization, through the struggle for Mexican independence and revolution, to more recent revolutionary movements and the theology of the liberation (González Casanova 2015, 265-92).


 This process ingrained Marxism in bodies, histories and territories of collective living with their own forms of thought and organization which escape the regime of coloniality and modernity. It was necessary, then, to put aside any form of a Marxist revolutionary blueprint for seizing power from above, and to develop the capacity to look and listen to different ways11 in order to begin building “from below and to the left” “a world where many worlds fit”.


The gaze. Toward where and from where. That is what separates us.

You believe that you are the only ones, we know that we are just one of many.

You look above, we look below.

You look for ways to make yourselves comfortable; we look for ways to serve.

You look for ways to lead, we look for ways to accompany.

You look at how much you earn, we at how much is lost.

You look for what is, we, for what could be.

You see numbers, we see people.

You calculate statistics, we, histories.

You speak, we listen.

You look at how you look, we look at the gaze.

You look at us and demand to know where we were when your calendar marked your “historic” urgency. We look at you and don’t ask where you’ve been during these more than 500 years of history.

You look to see how you can take advantage of the current conjuncture, we look to see how we can create it.

You concern yourselves with the broken windows, we concern ourselves with the rage that broke it.

You look at the many, we at the few.

You see impassable walls, we see the cracks.

You look at possibilities, we look at what was impossible until the eve of its possibility.

You search for mirrors, we for windows.

You and us are not the same.


Ejército de Liberación Nacional a través del Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos y del Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. 2013, 92-3.





Aguirre Rojas, Carlos. 2015. “El significado del neozapatismo mexicano dentro de los movimientos antisistémicos actuales.”. Teoría y Práxis 13: 3-29.

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EZLN. 2005. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle”. Enlace Zapatista. Accessed February 25, 2018.

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1] In reference to the EZLN text titled “Ellos y Nosotros” (Between us and them), cited in the references of this text.

2] In broad terms I understand “mestizaje” as a political project of the Mexican State that has systematically aimed at erasing the indigenous presence and legacy in the population in order to homogenize the forms of life, organization, interaction, politics, economy, and governing, and having global neoliberal capitalism as its current paradigm.

3] This is one of the most known political ideas of the EZLN, which are often expressed in rather poetic forms.

4] Mexico has been experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis in the last decade. Since the USA-led war on drugs started in 2006 the levels of violence, horror, injustice and impunity increased exponentially. At the same time, the recently imposed energy reforms accelerated the dispossession, privatization and destruction of indigenous natural resources and territories by foreign mining companies. Among other data, since 2006 up until now there have been around 300,000 deaths; 30,000 missing people –1 every two hours; almost 300,000 people are victim of enforced inner displacement due to poverty and violence perpetrated by drug cartels and at times in collusion with military and or police forces; 50,000 migrants assassinated; 23 missing journalists since 2003 and more than 100 killed since 2000. By 2016 43.6% of the population is poor according to official data – but around 70% according to prestigious and critical specialist and researcher Julio Boltvinik. The Daily Minimum Wage is $88.36 mx peso in 2018 – around 3,83€ –, while at the same time Mexico is today the 15° strongest economy in the world according to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

By the end of 2017, the State approved to “fast track” – despite general rejection – the new Law of Internal Security that gives excessive powers to the military army in law enforcement activities including gathering intelligence “by any legal means possible”. The new law is full of vague definitions and has no objective criteria for what internal security means. Hence it can be applied to “any” situation. Mexico is one of the countries in which the State makes use of the Israeli spyware Pegasus and there are documented cases of State espionage against activists. Also, between 2006 and 2016, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission received around 10,000 complaints of abuse by the military, and torture is considered by several NGO’s as a systematic practice. See more about this law here: and

2017/2018 Amnesty International’s report gives the overall situation in its introduction: “Violence increased throughout Mexico. The armed forces continued to undertake regular policing functions. Human rights defenders and journalists were threatened, attacked and killed; digital attacks and surveillance were particularly common. Widespread arbitrary detentions continued to lead to torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Impunity persisted for human rights violations and crimes under international law. Mexico received a record number of asylum claims, mostly from nationals of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Venezuela. Violence against women remained a major concern; new data showed that two thirds of women had experienced gender-based violence during their lives. The rights to housing and education were compromised by two major earthquakes.” See:

5] Work, land, housing, education, health, food, culture, information, independence, freedom, justice, democracy, and peace.


7] The Other Campaign was the implementation of the Sixth Declaration (EZLN 2005), in which the EZLN openly defined itself as anti-capitalist: “below and to the left”. In that document, the EZLN made it clear that the enemy is the capitalist system and the political parties its servitude. Accordingly, The Other Campaign consisted of several intense preparative meetings with numerous indigenous and non-indigenous organizations, cooperatives, collectives of workers, farmers, migrants, teachers, students, women, LGBT people, artists, etc. The EZLN wanted to listen to their struggles and forms of organization and resistance. The other part of the project was a national tour of Sub Comandante Marcos (who used the name of Delegado Zero for such enterprise) and other members of the EZLN aiming at bringing the different resistances together and forming an anti-capitalist national movement –in which each individual or group creates its own form of organization– in order to build a new world where many worlds fit.

8] To serve, not to serve yourself; to represent and not to supplant; to construct and not to destroy; to obey and not to command; to propose and not to impose; to convince and not to win; to go down and not to go up.

9] As a start, in order to be registered as an official independent candidate, the National Electoral Institute (INE) demanded the gathering of almost 900,000 signatures in at least 17 States that confirm the country’s signatures through a new modality: an app that works only in mid-range smartphones and through internet connexion. In a country where most of the population lives in poverty and the indigenous population is in extreme poverty, this requirement meant an important limitation. At the beginning of the pre-campaign to gather the signatures, the phone and internet networks went down in regions where they usually work fine. Also, the app had constant technical problems, it did not work properly all the time and gathering one signature could eventually take a long period of time. There were also documented cases of police harassment of the CIG support network and street points where people were collecting signatures. However, the organization gathered more than 250,000 signatures with the highest percentage of valid official signatures. It was a collective work in which no one got paid, every supporter did it out of genuine conviction, and to collect just one signature implied an honest dialogue with strangers –in contrast, the other pre-candidates, who had direct links with political parties, paid for the work of collecting signatures. Also, most of them collected signatures of names not registered in the INE. Even when those signatures were not validated, there were no legal consequences of such procedures.

10] CNI will continue to consolidate the Indigenous Governing Council, and the non-indigenous supporting network will continue to organize and create their own agendas autonomously, while at the same time remaining attentive to further decisions and proposals for action from the CNI. There are several topics that will inform the agenda.

11] See the interview of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos conducted by Julio Scherer “La entrevista insólita”: Or its print version in Revista Proceso, 10 Marzo 2001:


Gerardo Montes de Oca Valadez

Gerardo Montes de Oca Valadez (1978) is a psychotherapist, activist, artist and curator. He studied Psychology at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, and Visual Culture at Aalto University in Finland. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, awarded with the DOC Fellowship Programme of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). His research project studies how Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI) contest colonial, capitalist, racist and patriarchal forms of domination, exclusion and violence in todays Mexico, and the ways in which solidarity and autonomy is built. His focus is on collective affectivity both as a form of politics and as a site of resistance that intersects with aesthetics in repertoires of presence, expression, representation, interpretation and performativity.