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Published on Wednesday, March 14, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
When Coke Politics Meets Mayan Folklore
by Naomi Klein
At a recreation centre on the outskirts of Mexico City, the crowd is getting restless. The Zapatistas were supposed to be on the road at 9 a.m. and it's almost 11. An open flatbed truck, filled with bales of hay and decorated with banners, backs up to the entrance of the centre. Nobody comes out.

What is taking so long? Is it possible that Subcomandante Marcos, the irrepressible voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), has stage fright?

It would be understandable. It is Sunday, and today, for the first time since their uprising began in the mountains of Chiapas seven years ago, the 24-person Zapatista command will hold a rally in Mexico City, dressed in their rebel masks but without their weapons.

The rally marks the end of the "Zapatour," a caravan that has wound its way through the Mexican countryside for the past two weeks, drumming up support for a bill that would grant greater political power and access to basic services such as health care to Mexico's 10 million indigenous people. It also signals the beginning of the long and much less glamorous political struggle to push the bill through Congress, and the even longer slog of resuming peace negotiations with Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox.

But the rally is more than symbolic. If the bill is going to become law, Subcomandante Marcos needs to prove that he has the support of the average, urban Mexican voter. And when the commanders finally show their masked faces, it immediately becomes clear that "Zapatismo" is as strong in the city as it is in the mountains. The Zapatistas' most enthusiastic supporters are middle-aged women -- the demographic that Americans like to call "soccer moms" -- who greet the revolutionaries with chants of "You are not alone!" Only the Pope commands these kinds of crowds.

By 2 p.m., more than 150,000 have filled the Zocalo square. The papers the next day blare "Marcomania." Marcos has managed to generate so much mainstream support for an issue usually marginalized as "ethnic" that some have become suspicious. He's a self-promoter, they say; his standoff with Vicente Fox is a war of inflated egos.

It's true that there are at least 40 varieties of Marcos and EZLN T-shirts, along with posters, flags and dolls. From afar, it looks like mass marketing -- the radical chic "branding" of an ancient culture. Yet up close, it feels like something else: genuine, utterly anachronistic, folklore. The Zapatistas have got their message out not through advertising or sound bites but through stories and symbols, painted by hand on walls, passed through word of mouth. The Internet, which mimics these organic networks, simply took this folklore and spread it around the world.

Yet, as the Zapatistas enter Mexico City, they find themselves in a very modern brand war. Vicente Fox is pulling out every clever marketing trick in the book. (And as a former Coca-Cola executive, he knows them all.) His favoured tactic has been to claim that a peace accord is a done deal -- there remain only a few minor details to be ironed out. Mr. Fox, along with Mexico's two major television stations, even put on a massive concert celebrating the new era of state peace with the Zapatistas.

It's been left to the Zapatistas to point out that Mr. Fox has yet to meet their demands for resuming talks: pulling more troops out of Chiapas, and freeing the remaining political prisoners. When Marcos says that peace negotiations haven't begun, let alone been settled, Mr. Fox casts the Zapatista spokesman as an intransigent warmonger while he gets to play the thwarted peacenik.

According to most everything we are told about how globalization works, Mr. Fox should be winning this image war. The slick aesthetics and easily digested messages of modern marketing are supposed to trump traditional communications methods hands down. Besides, in Mexico today, Mayan culture isn't supposed to be a mainstream political force at all. Its economic role is to act as a tourist trap, selling ancient ruins and colourful trinkets.

The Zapatistas' journey is filled with the culture clashes. The road they chose to enter the capital is the same one travelled by agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata almost a century ago. But is it really possible to demand "land and liberty," as Zapata did, on what is now a strip of asphalt lined with KFC outlets and L'Oreal billboards?

It seems that it is. Some of the cheering Zapatista supporters in the streets are on break from their jobs at fast-food outlets. Dressed in matching striped uniforms, they hold up signs with the words "Say No to the TV Peace."

In this battle between Coca-Cola politics and Mayan folklore, something unexpected has happened: Folklore appears to be winning.

Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive


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