To Navigate Backward

The rebellious art of the Zapatistas and Chto Delat Group

By Natalia Arcos Salvo *

Sisters and brothers,
This is our commitment:
In front of the powerful trains, our canoes.
In front of the thermoelectric plants, the little lights that the Zapatistas gave in custody to women who fight all over the world.
Facing walls and borders, our collective sailing.
In front of the great capital, a common cornfield.
Facing the destruction of the planet, a mountain sailing at dawn.
– Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés 1

Poetics—that is the creation of meaning through language—is a tool of theoretical approach towards the symbolic structures of art which, in the case of Zapatismo, have also been narratives that construct a political, concrete and original praxis.

In recent years, we have shared comments and reports 2 about many events and communications that, since the media reappearance of Zapatismo in its beautiful collective performance “La Marcha del Silencio” on December 21,  2012, have explicitly opened the arteria of art and science, from the Zapatista perspective. 

Starting in 2016, the Comparte Festivals showed us for the first time, directly at a live event, the art made by the Zapatista rebel autonomous communities: theater, dance, music, poetry, murals, sculpture.

The realization of the Comparte Festival in the various caracoles of the Selva Lacandona—with the enormous mobilization of resources that its organizations undertook—allowed us to recognize the art produced inside the Zapatista communities as a whole body of production that leaks into the media and becomes visible outside. It also helped us understand the original creative concepts that feed Zapatista political praxis through the aesthetics and poetics of their language—their worldview manifesting between the Indigenous and the global. It is the mirror in which the art of those belonging to the Sexta3 is reflected and challenged. 

In Zapatismo, as rarely in history, art and revolution are not hierarchically subordinate to each other, nor are they contradictory art is not understood as leisure or entertainment in a supposed continuous and perfect flow of the struggle. On the contrary, in Zapatismo there is from the beginning a very particular concatenation between knowing and doing in all spheres: the military, the strategic, the autonomous and the artistic. Zapatismo can then be understood as a politico-military organization with strong bases in poetic creation: that poetics typical of the cosmology, uses and customs of the various original Mayan peoples of Chiapas. Like lightning this cosmology struck the Marxist-Guevarist way of thinking of the urban guerrilleros, founders of the EZLN, generating both a receptive and fertile field for a constant symbolic production, where the political praxis of autonomy is both concrete and aesthetic at the same time.

Consequently, it can be argued that Zapatista art is fulfilling the double function of, on the one hand, orally narrating its own history for the exercise of collective memory, and on the other hand, of preserving and providing a pedagogy of the daily praxis of autonomy. Both elements are adherent to the Mayan Indigenous cultural tradition and respond to the need for long-term resistance in the context of colonization and transnational empire. Also, the Zapatista art presented at the Comparte Festival was part of a strategy of mass mobilization where there was no selection aimed at defining who was a better artist than another; rather, it was an occasion to formally establish that with regards to the multiple roles of the Zapatista (who is a peasant, a promoter, a military and artist all at the same time). There are no defining parameters to apply, nor validation following academic or Eurocentric classifications. Thus, Zapatista art is decolonized, not elitist, not professionalized, not commodified; and it is constituted of a deeply political poetic structure.4

You walk aimlessly. You don’t know where you are going and, of course, to what. Gone was the busy street at the foot of the peeling wall, mocking in its own way the deteriorated poster of the happy Happy Family. And it was far, the monumental stadium and its impertinent question: “who rules?” But, well, right now you don’t know where the hell you are and you think you’d better go back … but you don’t know where and, of course, to what; so you stop, but only for a moment because a girl takes you by the hand and urges you: “hurry up because otherwise we are going to be late for the movies.”
– Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano.5

In October 2018 a new communication called for the Festival “Puy ta Cuxlejaltic” (Snail of our Life). In this first invitation, the objective is to bring cinema to the Zapatistas, and the program puts on the bill the premiere of films such as Roma or reruns such as Motorcycle Diaries.

The second invitation, the following year, includes some samples of cinema made by and for the Zapatistas; which, added to the other videos made by the promoters of the audiovisual  base of support, allow me to point out certain characteristics that, worth the redundancy, I annotate in the nascent Zapatista cinema.

The cinema made by the Zapatistas constitutes a poetic resistance to the extent that it disarms the previous cinematographic language in which Zapatismo was narrated to the world, through the documentaries produced by Western industry.

The poetics of the current Zapatista audiovisual production would be that of a basic state of  aesthetics, located in the 0 degree of the audiovisual language: it is both a denial of the ways in which the Zapatistas were previously represented, as well as a hinge with the filmic language that, I suspect, will necessarily develop in the future as their autonomy grows and establishes itself.

It is then a resistant poetics, it is negative and positive at the same time; in this tension it rejects and resists a previous audiovisual modus operandi, at the same time that, like any revolutionary process of resistance that requires creating to continue, it is developing its own way—a way that we can know in the same way that we look at an ultrasound: in its process of being born. 

This poetic structure that is evoked, therefore, has nothing to do with poetry or with the analysis of taste, or with other common confusions. It is a theoretical proposal that seeks to establish a parallel between the cinematographic languages related to Zapatismo and the respective historical-political contexts, since I believe that aspects of Zapatista aesthetic are intertwined within their social processes. 

At the core of  Zapatista audiovisual production we find the videos that are made by the Zapatista video promoters of communities of support, edited and distributed both in the communication centers of the Caracoles and on the Internet, as apostscript of the communiqués issued by the “commandancia” (those governing). Hundreds of Zapatistas were educated in audiovisual communication, and now, in turn, they teach others, who take their cameras and audio equipment to  record the events, seminars and festivals that the EZLN organizes.

Some of the videos used as postscript for the 2016-2017 releases are related to the CompArte Arts Festival. One of them showed the rehearsals of a punk band from La Garrucha Caracol, showing that the comrades of the support bases were working on the cultural proposal for the festival, when the participation of the Zapatistas in it was still in question6These types of video material were important because on one hand it encouraged the Zapatista to take an active part in the event,  motivated others to contribute, and functioned as a dispatch of information about the preparation and organization of the initiative which had to be communicated in safer ways. (These were the years of the teachers’ struggles, with a massive presence and repression from the military and paramilitary forces in the region). Another video, simply titled Embroidery and drawings of EZLN insurgents for CompArte, shows the works made for the festival in detail, with the music track Resistencia accompanying the montage that seems to be sketching an animation.

One of the works, released to the network in April 2017, is the first Zapatista video clip for the band called Los Originales de San Andrés. With the city of Oventic in the background and the song Pueblo Mío as the theme, the video clip consists of medium shots that follow one another as a photographic slide show, repeating the frames. Cyclically, we see the entire band and each of the members, visually representing the circular formation of the snail (caracol in Spanish) which the Zapatista took as the symbol of their slow process, using this noun to name the autonomous and self-governed communities. 

Of all the media employed and performed by the Zapatistas, the audiovisual seems to produce their most authentic results, in the sense that the language itself becomes strictly Zapatista, despite being initially informed by external promoters who operated as mentors, once the camera was in the hands of the “Tercios Compas.” By documenting from within, reminding us of Neorealism in its choice of plans and the format of the report, the audiovisual production matured into a vehicle that, like everything else in Zapatismo, became original and of their own, as a way to consolidate their autonomy. 

In this phase, we can remark that an element of the poetics of this autonomous and original Zapatista audiovisual language is the mimetic “analogical story”, which shows, as directly as possible, what the Zapatista universe is and what exists in it, almost in real time and in a continuum. And, in particular, it is the need to record and account for the practice of autonomy and the struggle of resistance, in which there is no individual artistic expression, and the language of video is considered as a ” hard” communication weapon. In 2017 communiqués of EZLN, Subcomandante Moisés referred to the value of the mystical and the foreign expectation versus the need to provide scientific tools and concrete knowledge for the development of their communities, thus the audiovisual responds to the urgency of the autonomous praxis, and not to the artist’s personal experimentation or aesthetic, which is typical of the Western approach. 

This approach and vision clarifies the  way in which the Zapatistas practice another decoloniality, which values local knowledge (we might even say ancestral) ​​and, at the same time, it confronts it with an aspiration of a methodology coming from the exact science.

It is interesting to note that in the space of postmodern art where representation of representation prevails, mimesis with the real is something impossible to find or to think about  in the current sphere of cinema. To explain the latter, it is better to quote the Paraguayan theorist Ticio Escobar:

Se supone que el sacrificio de esta autonomía (del Arte) ha tenido un sentido progresista y un alcance democratizador: la cancelación de la distancia aurática promovería, por fin, la avenencia entre arte y vida, la soñada síntesis entre forma y función y el acceso de las grandes mayorías a los privilegios de la fruición artística. Pero, ya se sabe, las cosas no fueron tan fáciles y la utopía emancipadora fue birlada por el mercado: la estetización de todas las esferas de la vida humana ocurrió no en el escenario abierto de las vanguardias, sino desde las vitrinas y las pantallas de la sociedad de la información y el espectáculo. Ese desborde de la belleza concertada terminó invirtiendo, o por lo menos oscureciendo, el signo revolucionario que marcaba la revocación de la autonomía del arte, la inmolación del aura. [Escobar 2014]. 7 “It is assumed that the sacrifice of this autonomy (of Art) came from a progressive sentiment and with a democratizing scope: the cancellation of the auratic distance would promote, finally, the agreement between art and life, the wished synthesis between form and function and the access to the privilege of artistic enjoyment for the great majority. But, as we all know, things were not so easy and the emancipatory utopia was stolen by the market: the aestheticization of all spheres of human life occurred not in the open stage of the avant-garde, but from the showcases and screens of the society of information and spectacle. This overflow of concerted beauty ended up inverting, or at least obscuring , the revolutionary sign that marked the revocation of the autonomy of art, the immolation of the aura.” [Escobar 2014]

Likewise, Zapatista’s poetics appears in the way in which their sight is captured in the visual element, as well as in all their work, through a collective dimension that responds to regular patterns of linguistic structures: closer to the ways and procedures of traditional crafts, than to those of contemporary Western art.8 Therefore, the Zapatista artist is radically distinguished from the contemporary hegemonic models based on hyper-individualism and the fetishization of the art producer as a “personality” in a constant desire for self-promotion. The Zapatista artist is not a professional trained in the academy. Certainly, if they are a full-time farmer, it may be that they work in the cornfield—or as truck drivers, health or education promoters. Their life is embedded in community work and that is how they understand their activities. This is also how the Zapatista movement proposes a process of rupture of the classic division between manual and intellectual work.

Finally, it should be noted that the aesthetics of Zapatista videos cannot be considered outside of their matrix or context: different and, above all, deeply respectful approaches and evaluation canons must be established. A body of knowledge, necessarily decolonized, in which the erroneous expectation of the reified and infantilized Indigenous nor the codes of culture in the capitalist world, are not prevailing. An epistemology for the Zapatista aesthetic, should be born from the clash and the confrontation of the worlds.

Se supone que debería aparecer una pantalla, algo de imagen y audio, y un control remoto. Se supone, pero no… En lugar de la pantalla y el control remoto aparece una cartulina donde se lee: EL SISTEMA ZAPATISTA DE TELEVISIÓN INTERGALÁCTICA PRESENTA…!UN VIDEO MUUUUY ESPECIAAAAL! Sombra Luz cambia de cartulina por otra en la que se lee, ahora en letras cursivas: LA AUSENCIA DE AUDIO E IMAGEN EN ESTE VIDEO NO ES POR FALTA DE TECNOLOGÍA, SINO POR LO QUE SE LLAMA «TECNOLOGÍA DE LA RESISTENCIA (A screen, some image and audio, and a remote control are supposed to appear. It is supposed to, but not … Instead of the screen and the remote control a postcard appears that reads: THE ZAPATISTA INTERGALACTIC TELEVISION SYSTEM PRESENTS … A VERY SPECIAAAAAAAL VIDEO! Shadowlight changes from the postcard to another one that reads, now in cursive letters: THE ABSENCE OF AUDIO AND IMAGE IN THIS VIDEO IS NOT BECAUSE OF LACK OF TECHNOLOGY, BUT FOR WHAT IS CALLED “RESISTANCE TECHNOLOGY”. 9 -Subcomandante Marcos

And from how those worlds colliding comes this third and final part of this reflection. 

Zapatismo is originally a collapse, something like a big bang between the classic left-wing ideas carried by the first 6 founders of the EZLN back in November 1983, and the customs and ways of life of the Mayan peoples from the jungle and the mountains of Chiapas: the Tsotsiles, the Tzeltales, the Tojolabales, and the Choles whose vision did not necessarily coincide with the first enunciation of the intellectuals from Mexico City who had formed the encampment. But some of them initiated a dialogue, a shared path disseminated by questions, preguntando caminamos (“asking as we walk”), addressing the ethics of Mandar Obedeciendo (“commanding by obeying”) and organizing the seven principles that govern the ethos and actions of every Zapatista. 

We could say that inspiring collisions are then the very germ that defines Zapatismo itself. In this sense, other clashes between the tradition of the left ‘from below’ that seeks other possible worlds, and the ways of living and practices of each territory, are all to be considered Zapatista. 

In this perspective, what happens in the post-Soviet intellectual milieu?

Chto Delat arrived for the first time in Chiapas in 2016, somehow completing with their researches the spectrum of Russian approaches to Zapatismo, providing an aesthetic and poetic element that complemented the information and accurate analysis of Oleg Yasinsky, who was  the first  translating  Marcos’ texts  and the EZLN communiques to Russian, and the autonomist pedagogy of Korykhalova and Miasoyedov, who realized a documentary on the actuality of  Zapatismo, released in  2015.  

 We met them as GIAP in a famous cafe in San Cristobal de las Casas city center, and the next day we took them to Acteal, a town of Indigenous Tsotsil people where, in 1997, a massacre occurred at the hands of paramilitaries who murdered women, children and men who were praying inside a Christian chapel. When we visited the memorial, it was the anniversary of the massacre. Chto Delat attended the entire ceremony, which syncretically intermingled the Eucharist, a political discourse and a pagan ceremony. Then we toured some nearby Zapatista towns.

In those same days, Chto Delat had the extraordinary opportunity to conduct the first interview with the insurgent Subcomandante Moisés as head of the EZLN command. All these experiences were later collectively reflected on during a  summer session of their School of Engaged Art, dedicated to studying Zapatismo with artists and activists from a younger generation. The session led to a learning film realized with the participants, called Dead End #17: a Slow Orientation in  Zapatismo, which was then presented at Cideci (University of the Earth) in San Cristóbal de las Casas in 2017—a work I would like to look back on. 

Zapatista cinema, as we have seen earlier, is “hard”, resistant, pedagogical and, fundamentally, documentary. In itself this constitutes a political vision and a formal decision. Chto Delat’s film is also educational and in some ways documentary, but it recreates through fantasy a journey and a utopia. Thus, here lies a fundamental operation: Chto Delat captured the Zapatista essence, which is the ability to articulate languages ​​of different origins to create a different semiotic structure, which allows the creation and articulation of new ideas to create other politics, different from those already known.

And although Chto Delat questions about being in a post-socialist moment are not new among them (de facto, they are the core that articulates their collaborative work), their discovery of Zapatismo had the effect of a deep spiritual and, later, intellectual upheaval. They were moved by  Zapatismo to the point that they recognized actual changes in their way of thinking and acting, ever since they were exposed to Zapatistas’ texts and praxis, and even more after they witnessed their experience in Chiapas. 

The seductive effect of the Zapatista aesthetic, according to the film, arises when the collective is able to capture signs of the Zapatista cosmogony, and transfer them in a movement of continually constructing and deconstructing a film sequence; this happens also when the film creates metaphors within a meta-language that, I believe, could and can be understood both by Indigenous bases the apoyo (support communities), and by the so called compañeroes of the Sixth, the comrades and adherents of the Sixth declaration from the rest of the world. Certain symbols and images (the puppets and their recreations of fantastic beings from the Lacandon jungle, the mystical balaclavas with bull horns and moons, the final scene of canoeing backwards) powerfully condense inquiries and encounters that transcend languages.

Although other visual artists have accompanied the Zapatista movement, serving the functions of illustrating life in the communities, or representing their ideas of autonomy, or by disseminating images and aesthetic proposals that arise from the very heart of the movement, the radical originality of Chto Delat’s work resides in that they took a leap forward capturing an essence of Zapatismo, translating it and readapting it for the needs and urgencies of their own context.

For the Aymara people, Indigenous of the high plateau of the Andes Mountains, time is conceived as a canoe, where you sail with your back to the future, looking towards the past. This is how I think the Zapatistas advance. This is how I think Chto Delat’s aesthetic inquiries advance.

1 “Sexta parte: una montaña en altamar” del  05 Octubre 2020, México.

2 To revise Giap’s bibliography:

3 “La Sexta” is any Mexican or foreign individual or group that adheres to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle

4 These  notes are articulated more in one of our  texts issued immediately after the Comparte Festival of 2016

5 Editor’s translation of the comunique  “El cine imposible (Apertura: la serpiente le ofrece la manzana)”.   October 2018, Chiapas, México.


7 Escobar, Ticio. 2014. “El mito del arte y el mito del pueblo”. Ed. Ariel. (our translation) 

8 Regarding the background in crafts, I suggest reading “No solo es la obra sino también su sistema: el arte que nos interesa” 

Natalia Arcos is an art theorist and curator from Santiago de Chile. Between 2013 and 2020 she lived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, where she founded GIAP (Group for Investigations in Art and Politics) together with Alessandro Zagato. She directed the Residency programme by the same name and co-curated the exhibitions Autonomy is Life (Nottingham, 2015) and A world where many worlds fit (Havana, 2018), both with zapatista art. She is co-author of the book of rebel zapatista poems & songs “Heartbeats never shut up” (2018). 


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