In the fall of 2005 I was a fresh, eager would-be volunteer headed to southern Mexico. I was moved and touched by the barefoot children begging for money, and the old indigenous women selling handcrafted goods. But mostly what moved me was the Zapatista movement. I knew very little about it, but I knew they were a group of indigenous people who had staged an armed uprising in Mexico in 1994. They marched into five cities with sticks and guns, and demanded that the government stop stealing their land and abusing their people. Their story is complex and long, but the uprising gained them worldwide fame and since then they have continued their struggle peacefully, developing their own schools, clinics, health care system, and participatory democracy form of government. I wanted to learn more about them, and was sure that I could do something to help them.
I landed in the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a small town nestled in the mountains in the rugged state of Chiapas. It’s sort of a popular hub for young, naive volunteers seeking Zapatistas. I saw a man selling Zapatista books in the main plaza. He was surrounded by beautifully painted hand-made banners covered with Zapatista images and slogans. I talked to him, and he had a radiant energy and enthusiasm for the movement. He also was extremely patient with my questions. So I asked him, “What could I possibly do, as a foreigner, to help your movement?” He thought for a moment, looked at me intensely, and said, “Go home. Take what you learn and organize there.”
Four and a half years later, in the mountains of Virginia, I am truly beginning to see what he meant.
I’m living at Light Morning, an intentional community where people share land and resources with the aim to create a mindful, loving consciousness toward the earth and each other. We live what you might call simple lives. We use wood to heat our homes and cook. We grow, preserve, and store much of our own food, and we use meager amounts of water from our well. It reminds me much of how the indigenous people of Mexico live. Why would we choose to live this way?
Many of us are realizing that our modern lifestyle is not sustainable, whether it’s guzzling depleting fossil fuels to get just about anywhere, devastating our surroundings with toxic chemicals for the products we consume, or buying fruits and vegetables imported from thousands of miles away and harvested by poorly-paid laborers. Our lifestyle is fueling wars, increasing disparity, exploiting millions of people in poverty, and ravaging the planet. At Light Morning we want to explore an alternative to that lifestyle. We want to be more sustainable, and part of that sustainability is providing more of our own needs ourselves. This is knowledge that the Zapatistas and many other indigenous people have managed to preserve and maintain to some extent. To me, this is the key to living a life that’s kinder, more loving, and respectful to all of our brothers and sisters worldwide.
Back in Mexico, I intuitively sensed that I needed to change my life in some way, but I wasn’t quite sure how yet. After the man at the Zapatista table told me to go home, I stayed. I couldn’t go home until I learned something. Eventually I found an organization called Chiapas Media Project that taught workshops in Zapatista communities about how to produce video documentaries. They had organized at the Zapatistas’ request, since the Zapatistas had the desire to make documentaries from their own perspective. I had background in video, so I taught workshops.
At many of the workshops, the Zapatistas thanked me for sharing my knowledge, and were impressed that I knew so much about cameras, computers, and editing software. I really don’t know that much in my opinion, but praise like that tends to build up your ego a little bit. At times I felt like an altruistic genius. But that didn’t last long.
At one of the workshops there was no gas stove. We were expected to cook with a fire. I had never done this before, but I had some experience with campfires, so I figured I wouldn’t have much of a problem being able to heat up something during the one-hour lunch break. The cooking area consisted of a few open fire pits under a simple shelter. It was a very damp day, and the wind was blowing hard. After a half hour of trying to light a fire, and failing, a community member graciously helped me. Actually, he just started the fire for me. But minutes later I had managed to completely kill the fire, and had to start all over again. After toiling for another hour, I gave up and ate some tomatoes on a piece of bread. I returned to the workshop a half hour late, dirty with black ash, my hunger only slightly aleviated, and feeling totally defeated.
My students laughed at me. “What happened to you?” they asked. I threw up my arms up in exasperation. “I couldn’t make a fire!” I exclaimed. They giggled. “You couldn’t make a fire?” This struck them as extremely silly – the helpless gringa who can’t even cook with a fire. All at once I realized that for all my college education, my video editing experience, and my knowledge of cameras and computers, they knew far more than I did about very practical things: growing food, building a house, and cooking with fire. We in the dominant culture of modernity, high-consumption, and gadgetery, have become totally dependent on all our machines, televisions, microwaves, refrigerators, and grocery stores in order to survive. This is a very vulnerable position to be in. In the United States, if the electric is cut off, we get on the phone and panic until somebody fixes it. In Mexico, many communities already live without electricity. And the poor people who do have electricity have first-hand knowledge on how to jury-rig the wires themselves if something goes wrong.
This was a deeply humbling moment for me. There I was, a grown woman teaching people how to make video documentaries, yet in an indigenous community I would be about as useful as a two-year-old. But what was even more humbling and troubling than that was the fact that I was so dependent on a system that’s completely destructive and unsustainable. If we really want to treat all human beings, other living things, and the planet with respect and dignity, shouldn’t we be trying to change that around?
I thought about sustainability a lot since that day. I kept teaching, but I also starting really learning. I observed how the Zapatistas work communally. My culture is based on competition, but their culture is based on cooperation. The Zapatistas have five government centers, each surrounded by a number of communities. The government centers have health clinics, schools, communications centers with internet access, and a Zapatista government office that deals with local decisions and disputes. Since our U.S. health care is in total turmoil, let’s use the Zapatista health system as a great example of their cooperative culture.
Each community chooses a person to be a “health promoter.” This person acts as a sort of general doctor to the community. Since sexual equality has gained more headway in Zapatista communities than in other indigenous communities (and I would also argue more than in modern Mexican culture itself in many ways), the health promoter can be male or female. She goes to the government center to take health workshops to learn about medicine, first aid, and general health care. She also learns how to harvest, process, and treat people with local medicinal herbs so that they are not so dependent on expensive pharmaceutical drugs. Then this is the part that impresses me the most: the health promoter is not a paid position. It’s a volunteer position. This person still has to take care of her family, house, income, and crops. What’s the incentive to take on all this extra work?
The community pitches in to help the health promoter with her chores. On weeks that she is off learning, they help tend her crops, take care of her family, and with any other needs. In return, they have somebody living in their community who can care for their basic medical needs. She goes from house to house making sure the other community members are healthy, and they go to her if they feel sick or have an accident. If it’s a serious condition that she can’t treat, the community transports the person to the government center where there is more advanced care at the clinic, and – surprise – this care is also free of charge. The people in the clinics work for free, the people who teach the workshops work for free, the health promoter works for free, and the community helps out their promoter for free. All the work is done with the intent to benefit and contribute to the whole community.
The Zapatista educational and government systems work the same way. Teachers and government officers are not paid. Each person is elected by the community. A government council makes decisions, rather than one person, and that council, which is made up of men and women, regularly rotates so that everybody gets a chance to serve, and nobody accumulates any kind of power or status.
As I watch my own culture with its competitive, status-driven, cash-intensive, exploitative nature, I couldn’t be more convinced that this combination of group cooperation and living close to the land is exactly what we human beings need to adopt for our very survival as a species. Of course, the Zapatista system has its own set of complexities and problems. They are still dependent on the cash-intensive economy for automobile transportation, cooking oil, rice, and other goods they don’t produce themselves. And much of their money comes from family members who have migrated to places like the United States to send their money back home. However, they have also developed their own community businesses, making coffee, hand-made shoes, honey, and other goods. They seem to be a lot further along the path of sustainability than we are back here.
Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher and author who was critical of Western-style institutions and who was a strong supporter of the Mexican indigenous people, once gave a biting speech to an organization of U.S. student volunteers who were about to spend the summer of 1968 doing aid projects in Mexico. He told them, “By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle class ‘American way of Life,’ since that is really the only life you know…. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourself on Mexicans… I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”
I see where he’s coming from as I witness hundreds of U.S. Americans and Europeans crowding into Chiapas to help the poor Mexicans. They all have good intentions. But many of us think that the poor Mexicans need to “develop,” since their country has that awful biased label that we all use – an “under-developed” country. And we think that this development requires a television, a two-car garage, and a flush toilet in every home. However, exporting our own way of life, with its massive appetite for wreaking havoc across the planet, is not going to help any of us. Instead, I think it’s the other way around. We are under-developed in sustainability and cooperation, and we have a lot to learn from those cultures that are more developed in these areas, like that of the Zapatistas.
So, belatedly, I decided to follow the Zapatista man’s (and Ivan Illich’s) advice, and go home. After four years of teaching and learning from the Zapatistas, I flew back to the U.S. for good. The United States is my country, and this is where I can make the most effective, positive impact to change my culture for the better.
I was thrilled to learn that there is a movement to build cooperative communities in the United States. I now find myself in one of those communities – Light Morning – and I’m happy to be seeking that kinder, more loving alternative.
Here we are truly “under-developed” in a lot of ways. We are working on re-learning all that knowledge that our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers had. Since we cook and heat with wood, how do we harvest the wood from the land so that the forest stays healthy and sustains for future generations? How do we harvest enough wood to keep us going throughout the year, especially during the cold winter?
Since we grow much of our own food, which crops are most productive, which are best for this climate, which are most nutritious, and which ones are best for which season? When do we plant each crop? How do we make sure the soil is healthy and productive for years to come? How do we protect those plants from weeds without poisoning the land? How do we store crops to last through the winter? And where do we get healthy seeds from in the first place? For a so-called simple lifestyle, it sure is complex. And it’s hard to rediscover this lost knowledge.
In Chiapas, the Zapatistas are fighting for the preservation of this very knowledge. In Mexico and all over the world, indigenous groups are under enormous pressure to walk away from their subsistence lifestyles and join the folks who strive for a two-car garage, a television, and a flush toilet. However, most of the people who strive for those luxuries only wind up losing their land, their autonomy, and their community, while they work for meager wages in some sweatshop assembling athletic shoes for wealthy teenagers, barely making enough to feed themselves. A tiny percentage of the world population consumes the vast majority of its resources, while the majority live like that sweatshop worker. We need to do better than that – not just out of compassion, but out of necessity.
At Light Morning we’ve done away with the two-car garage, the television, and the flush toilet. We have an organic garden, we compost our waste, and we get by comfortably using a fraction of the water and fuel that folks in the “modern” world use. We hope to share knowledge and goods with local gardeners, farmers, and other neighbors. And we hope to keep learning a lot more. It’s only a modest beginning. We’re re-learning how to live sustainably, and it’s a long, winding road that we’ve barely begun to tread. I thank my Zapatista brothers and sisters for pushing me onto that road. I wish them luck in their struggle, as I begin my own journey here in the mountains of Virginia.