Saturday, 17 September 2011

Solidarity and Rebellion in Chiapas: Reviewing Zapatista Spring

Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project & the Lessons of International Solidarity; By Ramor Ryan, AK Press, April 2011.
So you’re hiking through the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas with a backpack full of plumbing supplies. There’s a half dozen solidarity activists tagging along, ranging from an orthodox anarchist from Poland to a Chicana researcher set on reconnecting with her roots. The group dynamics are unpredictable, as are relationships with the Zapatista base community when the group finally arrives. ‘Damn,’ you think to yourself before passing out exhausted in your hammock, ‘if I could just remember all these details later, it would probably be really useful.’
With his newest book Zapatista Spring, Ramor Ryan does us all a favour. After more than a decade participating in radical solidarity projects in Chiapas, Ryan has opened his notebook and shared his candid -and often humorous- reflections on working alongside the Zapatistas. The result is a unique and fun to read mix of narrative journalism, historical fiction, activism, documentary photography, and popular philosophy. 

Zapatista Spring takes us to a tiny Tzeltal-Mayan village at the dawn of the 21st Century. Roberto Arenas, as the village is dubbed, was created through land occupations after the ‘94 uprising, and lacked a fresh water supply. The book chronicles Ryan’s experience digging ditches for pipes alongside Zapatista community members and international compañeros who are there to provide concrete support for the Zapatista uprising.

Ryan positions water projects such as that carried out in Roberto Arenas as “a favored occupation in solidarity work, particularly among the more direct-action oriented, anarcho crowd.” These projects, according to Ryan, attempt to push past paternalistic interpretations of solidarity into the domain of revolutionary mutual aid.
On his first hike into the community, Ryan admits he’d sooner dump the metal water valves in his backpack than the books he’s stowed inside: Heart of Darkness, a Chiapas classic by B. Traven, and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Alas, the entire project would fail without the valves, so he holds onto them, and he manages to hang onto the books too: turns out they factor heavily into the writing of Zapatista Spring.
From questions from the community about how project volunteers get paid, to marriage proposals, insect bites and rickety bridges, Ryan invites readers to navigate the intense physical and social terrain that comes along with international solidarity. The book’s strength is that it’s rooted in a series of lived experiences at the local level, but instead of being written by a tag-along-academic, our straight shooting narrator speaks from the trenches, and from the heart.

Throughout Zapatista Spring, Ryan pushes readers beyond the delicate issue of solidarity, touching on controversial realities connected to the Zapatista uprising that are often ignored. He talks about the impacts of sub-comandante Marcos’ “rose-tinted prose,” which he says brought many U.S. and European radicals to Chiapas, “only to be disappointed by the authoritarian, patriarchal, and conservative movement they encountered at the base.”

The complicated reality of working in a Zapatista base community is brought into stark relief as the water workers pair up with the community in Roberto Arenas to bring water to centre of the village.

But it’s not just within the Zapatista movement that these kinds of contradictions exist. To wit, Ryan dutifully documents internal dynamics between his own crew of water warriors. From an international romance born over early morning coffee and tacos to the constant sparring of an NGO worker and an insufferable book-smart anarchist, we’re invited to reflect on these interpersonal experiences as integral components of solidarity efforts.

In a narrative twist that speaks to the political complexity of Chiapas seventeen years after the Zapatista uprising, Ryan and his crew are foiled as they attempt to return to Roberto Arenas a couple of years after completing the water system because of shifting political allegiances on the ground.

Zapatista Spring doesn’t read like a history book, and Ryan stops short of producing a personal memoir. Instead, it feels like cracking open an undated personal diary, which, thanks to the author’s revolutionary sensibilities, storytelling skills, and sense of humor, translates into a hard-to-put-down read.