Zapatista Army of National Liberation
Teachers and students of the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional:
Teachers of the rural normal schools of Mexico:
Sisters and brothers:
Welcome to La Realidad. We want all of you, and those who are like you but today cannot be with us, to know that we take great joy in finding ourselves with you and being able to get to know your thoughts and words, and being able to tell you directly, without intermediaries, our sentiment.
Some years ago there still lived an old teacher in these mountains, his name is Antonio, and, from spending time with him and learning from him and with him, I ended up calling him “Viejo Antonio.” Indigenous from the older of these lands, Viejo Antonio was made a dead man in the first months of 1994. With the pretext of a tuberculosis that was robbing his lungs bite by bite, one morning he remained quiet and managed to trick many into believing that he was dead. Even after his body was buried at the foot of one of the ceiba trees, the greatest and most powerful of these mountains, Viejo Antonio garners the wit and ingenuity to make his escapes and find me, be it to ask me for a light to ignite his eternal cigarettes made with a roller, or be it to light up one of the stories that go about in the heart and in the skin of this man who was a student and teacher to his time.
Viejo Antonio did not study pedagogy, he did not even finish elementary school. Moreover, I suspect that he learned to read and write with one of those first gods that inhabit the stories which he gifts us more as weight and responsibility, than as distraction and relief. But I believe that you will agree that Viejo Antonio was and is a teacher, a teacher of the good sort. In any case, I am sure that he would do a better job than the sad and pathetic one that the successive authorities of the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional have performed.
I tell you now of Viejo Antonio because right in one of these pre-dawn mornings that shade and disconcert the August soaked with rain in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, Viejo Antonio arrived to where I was sitting, filling for the umpteenth time my pipe and trying to contain the indignation caused in me by the riot police’s aggression against university students in the past few days. I looked wherever it may be, at nothing in particular, perhaps trying to guess the answer to some question hidden in a corner of the complex shade that in La Realidad walks and is watchful, when Viejo Antonio asks me for a light for his poorly rolled cigarette. Per se, Viejo Antonio is taken in arriving quietly, he is sparing with words and gestures. But when the tobacco smoke begins to come out from his lips, large and small stories also come out, like this one which I now tell you as Viejo Antonio told it to me when he watched me watch, and which is called, as I recall…
The Story of the Look
A slow spiral of smoke comes out of the mouth of Viejo Antonio who looks at it and, with his look, begins to give it form of sign and of word. Toward the smoke and the look, continue Viejo Antonio’s words…
“Look Capitán (because I should clarify for you that in the time in which I met Viejo Antonio I had the rank of Second Captain of Insurgent Infantry, which never stopped being a typical Zapatista sarcasm because there were only 4 of us—since then Viejo Antonio has called me “Capitán”), look Capitán, there was a time, a long time ago, in which nobody looked. It is not that the men and women who walked these lands did not have eyes. They did per se, but they did not look. The greatest gods, those who birthed the world, the very first ones, had per se birthed many things without making exactly clear for what or why or whichever the reason or job that each thing should do or try to do. Because in that each thing had its why, well yes, because the gods that birthed the world, the very first ones, were per se the greatest and they did know well for what and why each thing, well they were gods. But it turns out that these first gods did not worry very much about what they did, they did everything as a party, as a game, as a dance. Per se, the oldest of the old tell that, when the first gods got together, surely there had to be their marimba, because surely at the end of their assemblies came the song and the dance. Moreover, they say that if the marimba was not at hand, well there just was no more assembly and there were the gods, just rubbing their bellies, telling jokes, and playing pranks on each other. Well, the point is that the first gods, the greatest ones, birthed the world, but they did not make clear the for what or the why of each thing. And one of these things was the eyes. And did the first gods say that the eyes were for looking? Nope. And so there the first men and women went about who walked around here, with tumbles, giving each other blows and falls, running into each other and grabbing things that they did not want and letting go of things that they did want. Just like many people do now per se, who take what they do not want and does them harm, and let go of what they need and makes them better, who go around tripping over each other and running into one another. In other words the first men and women did have their eyes, well yes, but they did not look. And many and varied were the types of eyes that the very first men and women had. There were eyes in all colors and in all sizes, there were eyes in different forms. There were round eyes, fish eyes, oval, small, big, medium-sized, black, blue, yellow, green, brown, red, and white eyes. Yes, many eyes, two in each first man and woman, but none which looked.
And everything would have continued like this until our days if not because one time something happened. It turns out that the first gods, those who birthed the world, the greatest ones, were doing their dance because, well, it was August, month of memory and of tomorrow, when some men and women who were not looking ended up where the gods were in their party there they just ran into the gods and some ended up against the marimba and knocked it over, and then the party became total mayhem and the music stopped and the singing stopped and well the dance also was halted and a huge mess was made, and the first gods from one place to another trying to see why the party had stopped, and the men and women who did not look were continuing to trip over and run into each other and the gods. And like this they spent a good amount of time, among crashes, falls, insults, and curses.
Then finally after a while since the greatest gods realized that all the disorder had been made when those men and women arrived. And so they got them together and talked to them and asked them if perhaps they were not looking where they were walking. And so the very first men and women were not looking because they did not look per se, but they asked what “looking” was. And so the gods who birthed the world realized that they had not made it clear to them what eyes were for, that is what was their reason for being, the why and the for what of the eyes. And then the greatest gods explained to the first men and women what looking was, and they taught them to look.
Like this these men and women learned that it is possible to look at the other, know that it is and that it is there and that it is other and like this not run into it, nor hit it, nor pass over it, nor trip over it.
They knew also that it is possible to look inside of the other and see what their heart feels. Because the heart does not always speak with words that the lips birth. Many times the heart speaks with the skin, with the look, or with steps it speaks.
They also learned to look at those who look looking at themselves, who are those who look for themselves in the looks of others.
And they knew to look at the others who look at them look.
And the first men and women learned all the looks. And the most important one that they learned is the look that looks at itself and knows itself and knows about itself, the look that looks at itself looking and looking at itself, that looks at paths and looks at tomorrows which have still not been born, paths still to be traveled and mornings to be given birth to.
And since they learned this, the gods who birthed the world gave these men and women, who had arrived tripping, crashing into, and falling over everything, the task of teaching the rest of the men and women how to look and what looking is for. And then the various peoples learned to look and look at themselves.
And not everyone learned because the world had already begun to go and men and women already went about everywhere, tripping, falling over, and running into each other. But some did learn and these ones who learned to look are the so-called men and women of corn, the true ones.”
Viejo Antonio remained in silence. I looked at him look at me look at him and turned my view looking at whichever corner of that pre-dawn morning.
Viejo Antonio looked at what I looked at, and without saying a word, shook with his hand the lit butt of his handmade cigarette. Suddenly, summoned by the call of light in Viejo Antonio’s hand, a firefly left the darkest corner of the night and tracing brief luminous bends, neared where Viejo Antonio and I were seated. Viejo Antonio took the firefly with his fingers and, giving it a blow, sent it off. The firefly left speaking its stuttering light.
The dark night from below continued a while.
Suddenly, hundreds of fireflies began their brilliant and disorderly dance and then, in the night of below, there were suddenly as many stars as that which in the night of above dressed the August of the mountains of the Mexican Southeast.
“In order to look, and to struggle, it is not enough to know where to direct looks, patience, and efforts” –Viejo Antonio told me already sitting up-.
“It is necessary also to begin and call and find other looks that, at their time, will begin and will call and will find others more.
Like this, looking at the look of the other, many looks are born and the world looks that it can be better and that there is room for all the looks and for those who, although other and different, look at look and look at themselves walking the history that is missing still.”
Viejo Antonio left. I continued sitting the rest of the night and, when I lit my pipe again, a thousand lights above lit the look and there was light below, which is where there should be light and various looks…
Teacher and student sisters and brothers:
We hope that this encounter will be successful and allow you to get to know and understand our look.
We want to repeat that you are welcome in these lands.
We know well that your look will know to look at us look at you and that, later, your look will summon others more, many and there will be path and light, one day, no one will trip any longer in the pre-dawn hours…
Vale. Cheers and to look far binoculars are not necessary, but rather the far sight that dignity gifts to those who struggle and live it.
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast
Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Mexico, August 1999
Originally published on August 11th, 1999
English translation copyright © 2014 by Henry Gales. All rights reserved.