In mid December of 2012 I was lucky to travel to Chiapas to collaborate with a number of Autonomous organizations and projects with an amazing group of committed graphic workers and a videographer, our friend Jason Michael Aragon who works with the PanLeft productions collective in Tucson, AZ.
The trip involved many projects and collaborators though for this specific project we were able to join forces with the ongoing Zapantera Negra, which is a project linking the Black Panther Party and the Zapatista struggles through art collaborations, talks, and bringing people involved with Autonomous struggles in Mexico and Emory Douglas together.
Earlier in 2012 Zapantera Negra came out and painted several murals in the Zapatista Autonomous Communities using some of Emory Douglas’ graphics and making small adjustments to fit the context of land and freedom struggle in Indigenous rural Mexico along with a bunch new graphics specifically made for the occasion.
This time around the group was composed of two members of the Stencil collective Colectivo Dexpierte from Bogota, Colombia, graphic producers GranOM, his collaborator Magali and AIRE from Mexico City, Jason M. Aragon from PanLeft, and myself.
After a long pick up truck ride we arrived at the Caracol of Morelia where we dialogued and delivered a beautiful letter from Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza that we read out loud to the Junta de Buen Gobierno about what our ideas for the murals were going to be. Also the Junta were the ones who would determine where our work would be most useful. After making a concrete plan with them and a few calls to different Autonomous communities they decided that we would go to Comandanta Ramona (obviously named after the now deceased EZLN Commander Ramona), a small community standing on soil that had been reclaimed by the EZLN in 1994 in the Municipality of El Chilon.
As we were getting ready to head out two members of our crew had an unexpected problem and had to stay behind in Morelia, and re-plan their project with the Junta and find a spot for them to paint in the Caracol.
Comandanta Ramona had just built a new Health house and unlike the usual Zapatista wall it was looking plain, boring and white, and it wasn’t very inviting for community members and people outside the community to come in and do check ups. The original plan was that depending on how much work there was we would split up in teams of two and attempt to tackle as much work as possible. Though the Dexpierte crew had already done all of the cutting, so most of their work was prepared to be thrown on the wall and painted.
On the other hand AIRE and me were hesitant to make a decision prior to talking to the community and finding out what they wanted to see on the walls, and truthfully we had very little time between the last mural and this one. So we rolled with it, I was confident that we could make enough time to incorporate the communities ideas and specific imagery from the area.
The people in the community were infinitely collaborative, helpful, accommodating, curious and there for every part of the process as we started to take measurements of the wall and come up with the plan. Dexpierte’s stencils looked like they were specifically done for those walls. We started mixing out colors and chose a color pallet. Soon after we started painting our background color and the moment it was dry Dexpierte were almost done with their crazy seven color stencils! And we still hadn’t figured out what to make with our side of the wall.
I really wanted to incorporate something that was very specific to the community, and collaborate with them every part of the way. Though as you may imagine the women weren’t very thrilled by the idea of strangers take a picture of them to paint on the wall. So our first idea wasn’t passed, then we thought that maybe a portrait of Comandanta Ramona may be cool since there isn’t one single image of her in the community named after her, plus how often do you get to go to a place named after someone you really admired. Though the fact that there wasn’t picture of her anywhere to be found, no internet and no stock photos of her in our computer made it very hard for us to imagine what she looked like.
So we ventured to the nearest town to find internet access in order to find some images of Comandanta Ramona, but a tropical storm was hitting the area at the moment and not even phone lines or cell phones were working. After asking every Internet cafe if they had internet access and every single time they just shook their head we headed back to Comandanta Ramona in momentary defeat.
We came back now to the community now with two strikes, crazy rain, and a ticking clock that only allowed us 2 days to finish our mural. I’ve never really been a fan of disappointments and the idea of disappointing the people of the community was like a spider biting my nape. So we went back to the first idea, and asked one more time the now more familiar women in the community. After a couple no’s I heard a -Mmmh Alright, I’ll do it!. I didn’t wait a second I had already ran to get my camera and set up an area for a quick photo shoot. She went in her room and came out in her traditional clothing, AIRE and I were amazed by how stunning she looked. Threw on her bandana and took a handful of pictures till we were all (specially her) happy with the image we picked.
AIRE and I got on it and started sketching out the picture and layout of the mural. Went over the letters with the community council and made sure that our Tzeltal banner was good to go. The banner reads S Nahul Jleku’beltik which is the Tzeltat word for Health House. We used the Snail shells as a reference to the Zapatista Caracoles and their motto “Lento Pero avanzando” (Slow but moving forward). So in a couple days were able to get all the work done we set out to do. With lots young collaborators ranging from 3 to 40 year olds.
On the third day woke up in the early morning and headed back to the Morelia Caracol, met up with the Junta one more time, and gave them our report backs with pictures of our projects. Gran OM and Magali asked for permission to stay behind and finish the mural they weren’t able to complete.
The following are pictures taken of the health house mural AIRE and myself worked on, as well as the stencil Dexpierte worked on on the other side of the health house, a 10 feet tall stencil Dexpierte did on the Comandanta Ramona’s barn, and the mural Gran OM and Magali did in the Caracol of Morelia where Thea Gahr and I had painted a mural years ago.
I feel extremely happy and thankful for the opportunity to contribute to the amazing project that the Zapatista Autonomous Communities embody and being able to reciprocate the inspiration and struggle leadership they have provided to me and the organizations I’ve been part of.