The Little Zapatista School of Freedom

IssueSeptember 2013
Feature by Maria Gomez

From 12-16 August, the Zapatistas hosted a course in freedom and autonomy for 1,700 supporters from Mexico and abroad. Originally they had planned on 500 students, but such was the response that they expanded the school to hold 1,200 more people, and announced two more little schools will be held, in December this year and in January 2014.

The main requirement for any applicant is ‘an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.’ The Zapatistas reported that the majority attending the school this summer were young people, and noted that this shows the continuing relevance and vibrancy of the Zapatista movement.

Spaces were limited because all students stayed with and were cared for by Zapatista families and, as the Zapatistas explained in a preparatory communiqué: ‘many people do indeed fit on these lands, but under the little Zapatista roofs only a few fit’.

"An indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart."

The Zapatistas reject hierarchical systems and therefore the little schools also eschew traditional models of teaching. ‘There isn’t one teacher, rather it is the collective that teaches, that allows, that forms, and in it and through it the person learns and also teaches’, explained a preparatory communiqué.

The communiqué also advised: ‘You will be in school every hour of every day during your stay here. The most important part of your time in the little Zapatista school is your living experience with the family with whom you will stay. You will go with them to get firewood, to the cornfield, to the river/stream/spring, you will cook and eat with them.… you will rest with them, and, above all, you will get tired with them.’

In addition to this experiential learning with families, students studied four themes:  Autonomous Government I and II, Participation of Women in Autonomous Government, and Resistance. Preparatory materials explained: 

“Each theme has its own textbook…. All of the texts are authored by the Zapatista bases of support, men and women, and they include not only the process of the struggle for freedom, but also their critical and self-critical reflections about our path. That is, they demonstrate how we Zapatistas see freedom and how we struggle to achieve it, exercise it, and defend it.

“The textbooks that make up the support material for the course are a product of meetings that the Zapatista bases of support in all zones have carried out to evaluate their work in the organisation.

“The Little School is a chance for the Zapatista bases of support to share the little we have learned about the struggle for freedom, and you ‘compas’ of the Sixth can see what is useful or not for your own struggles.”

The little school continues the Zapatista tradition of periodically opening their communities to others from near and far who also fight from below for a world that values humanity over money. These are spaces where the Zapatistas do what they do best, listen to the stories of others and learn, while at the same time showing how they are building autonomy through everyday practices.

The little schools are also a place to engage with a question the Zapatistas asked on 21 December 2012, when 50,000 marched in complete silence in five Chiapas cities on the day the calendar cycle was renewed.

The communiqué issued afterwards asks: ‘Did you hear it? It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of our world resurging.’ In their typical poetic style they seem be asking, through their words and actions: ‘We are doing our work to build another world; what are you doing?’

Following the December march, the Zapatistas published a series of communiqués entitled ‘Them and Us’.

These essays illustrated the absurdities of ‘those from above’ — those who hold coercive and repressive power — trampling the freedoms of ‘those from below’. They were also about everyday life in Zapatista communities, including how people organise themselves into autonomous networks where people rule and the government obeys.