Pubdate: 12 Sep 1997
Source: Boston Phoenix (MA)
Copyright: 2001 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.
Author: Al Giordano


An Open Letter To Senator John Kerry And Teresa Heinz

JULY 26, 1997: from somewhere in the mountains of southeast Mexico

Dear John and Teresa,

Picture this. I am kneeling upon volcanic rocks, alongside a turquoise 
mountain stream. The breeze keeps the flies and bees away, softens the red 
blows of the pounding Mayan sun on my skin. A spotted lizard scampers by my 
guide, Francisco, age 10, a child -- get this -- with an attention span. 
Your so-called First World of television and computer games, the world of 
money-media-Sony-Disney-Microsoft, hasn't yet colonized his mind and spirit 
in the nefarious ways it has manufactured half-persons out of his 
counterparts in the North. He watches patiently, curiously, as this 
37-year-old gringo tries to wash clothes in the river -- occasionally 
cracking a quiet smile at my obvious difficulty with the task.

This is the first time in four days that I've been able to bathe or do 
laundry. The civil comandantes of this village, responding to nearby 
Mexican army troop maneuvers and responsible for my safety, had asked that 
I not venture beyond the village into the jungle, and I've obeyed. But I 
have dreamed of this river, of the idea of a bath or shower, for 100 hours 
now, ever since the morning I cleaned the latrines. My pants -- the other 
of my two pairs -- have been caked in mud and feces ever since.

Even the vulture circling above me seems to laugh at my situation, riding 
the wind on seven feet of wingspan. Cleaning the latrines wasn't so hard: 
digging holes in the earth through root and rock, setting fire to the used 
toilet paper, burying excrement in the ashes and covering it all with dirt. 
It was the sacrifice of my pants to the task that proved more distracting, 
the odor that remained within the stains of brown on white. But at last, 
now, a few hundred scrapes of fabric on stone later, they are almost clean 
again. Francisco approves. Hey, I'm getting the hang of it.

Is this paradise beneath these steep green cliffs and vines? At very least 
there lies here the promise, the potential, of Eden rediscovered. I think 
I'm figuring out a new set of strategies to clear away all the shit that 
stains our lives. But such utopian grandiosity is fleeting, temporary, at 
best appearing in glimpses. I've just made my first rookie mistake in the 
river "laundromat." I washed every pair of socks I have. And now there are 
storm clouds gathering in the Southeast. The vulture flies away. The rain 
will fall. The temperature -- 80 degrees -- will drop into the 40s. And 
tonight I'll be without dry socks. Nature is a forceful teacher, eh?

I'm startled as two Indian men, kerchiefs obscuring their faces, appear 
through the brush. They are friends, not predators. They want to know if I 
heard a gunshot. "No," I reply, "Nothing. Is it necessary for me to return 
to the camp?" They sign for me to continue what I'm doing, then, watchful 
and vigilant, they venture further into the jungle.

In this highlands village, there are 70 indigenous families, 200 children, 
a small group of young people from Mexico City, two Argentineans, and me. 
Hello! John and Teresa, it's me. Remember?

I'll spare you the entire story, in all its self-indulgence, of why I have 
abandoned the world that you live in for an older one here. I'll save that 
for a second communique -- to my friends in the creative community: the 
artists, musicians, performers, writers, poets, conversationalists, and 
other weirdoes with whom I congregate. It has been my good fortune to know 
some of the most talented people on earth. But they -- and I -- have failed 
to live up to our potential. We have spent our days and years struggling 
merely to survive in the world of careers, identities, images, and egos. We 
have allowed our most creative selves to deform, to devolve around machines 
and systems of media and commerce, while those forces accomplished a kind 
of coup du monde over everything that used to be real life. I will spare 
you the full airing and disclosure of my sense of alienation, of 
disillusion, of despair and depression imposed by forces out of the control 
of every individual -- suicidal ideations brought on by the mundane demands 
of economy, self-destructions without purpose or reason.

My decision, more than a year ago, to refuse all forms of imposed mediation 
and alienating labor, indeed, granted me the finest, the freest, year of my 
life. But economy's boot pressed upon my neck, and after two months of 
homelessness last spring, I decided: if I must live like a refugee, I'm 
going to make it count for something. I have come to Chiapas to die, or to 
be reborn. There can be, for me, no more compromise.

In the overmediated jungle that is our electronic world, this "open letter" 
is a kind of ambush. I apologize, in advance, for the public form of this 
"come to Chiapas" invitation. John, as you know, an open letter can add 
gravity to an urgent request. You've penned some good ones yourself.

Plus, I wish to address all my friends -- professional or actual -- from 
whose radar screens I disappeared without notice in late June. Apologies 
all around. I needed stealth to reach my destination beyond the customs 
agents, the searches at the hands of the police and army, the Mexican 
government's penchant, of late, for deporting foreigners, especially 
journalists whom it suspects of collaborating with the Zapatista Army of 
National Liberation -- the EZLN. But now I am here. I am safe; I am 
healthy, fitter and more focused than ever, and it is time to decloak.

John Kerry, it ought to be obvious why I extend this invitation to you 
before the other members of the House and Senate whose acquaintances I made 
in my three years -- '93 through '96 -- as the Boston Phoenix's political 
reporter, and through my other adventures in journalism.

John, you are a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You have 
jurisdiction to investigate, to take testimony. Furthermore, neither you 
nor Teresa Heinz is a stranger to the life I describe here: John, with your 
experiences in the jungles of Vietnam; Teresa, with your childhood on an 
African savanna. Neither one of you is likely to be spooked by this terrain.

Furthermore, Senator, for better and for worse, you have an abiding 
interest in US foreign policy as it applies to drug control. I certainly 
don't agree with all your views, but I don't disagree with every single one 
of them, either. I ask you, as a vocal drug-warrior, to stand up and take 
responsibility for how US "antidrug" equipment -- helicopters, guns, 
surveillance devices -- is being used here, not in serious drug-control 
efforts, but in a civil war waged by the Mexican army against its own 
indigenous people.

You might even learn a thing or two -- some better, more effective means of 
preventing substance abuse in the United States, whose demand for drugs, 
combined with unenforceable legal prohibitions, has destabilized most of 
Latin America.

You can hardly find a lush, green terrain in this hemisphere where illegal 
drugs are not farmed and manufactured. But I make a seemingly incredible 
claim, which you must investigate with your eyes and ears: this Zapatista 
territory is the most drug-free tropical rain-forest region on earth. It 
wasn't like that before the rebellion began, in 1994. It is now.

Incredible but true: these highlands are also alcohol-free. Early in the 
rebellion, the women of Chiapas, through the democratic indigenous 
decision-making processes of this land, put their feet down: no more 
drunken men on Saturday nights, on any night. No more domestic battery with 
booze on the attacker's breath. These are "dry" towns now. The only ones 
who complain are us visitors, who from time to time descend from the 
mountains to the cities for beer or tequila.

Each and every time we reenter this village, we consent to having our bags 
searched and our bodies frisked -- for alcohol, for grass and other drugs. 
And the thought may occur to you, knowing of certain pleasures about which 
I am quite "out of the closet" in our own land, how am I doing without the 
fine pharmacopoeia available in each of these United States? Very well, 
thank you very much. Perhaps revolution is the only fix on earth that can 
supplant the pleasures I once knew.

How is it, Senator, that the people who live here can get me to do what all 
the laws and persecutions of the States could not? Come to Chiapas, learn 
for yourself. The ways of this land might even have some application here 
in our own, where the "problem" really lies. For this is not a prohibition 
imposed from above, but rather a consensus reached democratically from 
below. The war has created a situation where prime value is placed on 

Nonetheless, the Mexican government and its army have used the drug war as 
an excuse to put whole communities under siege -- with helicopters and more 
supplied by "Tio Sam," the US government.

A little more than a year ago, the community I write from -- Oventic 
Sakamchen de los Pobres, an hour from the city of San Cristobal -- was 
molested for three months as the Mexican army stormed through, day after 
day, claiming to be searching for fields of marijuana. Now, they knew in 
advance that they would find nothing, and nada -- not a plant, not a seed 
-- is what they found. But finding drugs wasn't their purpose. The real 
reasons the army came here were to conjure fear -- to terrify families and 
children -- and, I will submit, to gain a better sense of this terrain, 
these mountains and valleys, where the Indians simply have better maps, 
based on actually living here, and have thus been able to outfox the army 
time and time again.

In sum, US "antidrug" dollars and equipment were used to persecute the most 
drug-free people in Mexico.

Will you account for this? Will you correct it and use the power of your 
office to assure that this persecution ceases? And if not, why not?

Come and visit, yes, but leave the champagne at home!

This is not my first time in Chiapas. I was here in December 1987 and in 
January and February of '88. It's a special place for me, the land where I 
decided -- or, rather, heard a kind of calling -- to become more of a man 
of letters, a writer. Maybe I was too anti-intellectual in the '80s, before 
my gringo heart turned Chiapaneco?

I was here, then, as a guest of the late great naturalist and photographer 
Gertrude Duby Blom. She influenced me deeply. Trudi, as the natives called 
her, had come to Mexico in the 1940s, an escapee from a Nazi death camp. A 
photographer of Swiss descent, she was one of the first white women in the 
jungle. She snapped a picture of the first tractor in the Selva Lacandona 
-- the Lacandon jungle -- clear-cutting trees for hardwoods. For almost 50 
years, Trudi watched the invasion: first, the loggers; then the cattle 
ranchers, burning hillsides to make pastures; then the oil men -- yes, they 
found petroleum here, and they molested the earth to drill it.

Trudi watched them burn the jungle back to a quarter of its previous size. 
She was, by the time I encountered her, just sick over it, embittered, but 
fighting with her every breath to preserve what remained. With her husband, 
archaeologist Franz Blom (who died in 1963), she discovered some of this 
land's most famous Mayan ruins. In '51, they took over an abandoned 
seminary in San Cristobal and established a museum, library, and cultural 
center devoted to preserving a culture that was almost lost (that may yet 
be lost) -- that of the 400 surviving Lacandon Indians, the last living 
full-blooded descendants of the great Mayan civilization. (There are many 
other Maya tribes here -- all united in revolt -- but the Lacandones, until 
this century, had remained the least colonized, inside the deepest reaches 
of the jungle.)

She became great friends with Chan K'in Viejo, the last Lacandon elder, and 
opened her home to all the Lacandones when they traveled to the city of San 
Cristobal for health care or to sell crafts. She fought not only the 
loggers, ranchers, and oil men but also the Mormon missionaries, who had 
colonized the minds and spirits of another village of Lacandones until they 
began abandoning their own ways for the world of pesos and Coca-Cola. As 
she aged, she became a legend. Her crowning accomplishment was to get the 
Mexican government, in the '80s, to set aside part of this jungle as a 
nature preserve, thus stopping a huge project planned to dam the Usamacinta 
River for hydroelectric power.

Her cultural center, Na Bolom ("House of the Jaguar"), remains today in San 
Cristobal. But Trudi died on December 23, 1993, at age 92. I wrote her 
obituary for the Phoenix.

In mid-July, I journeyed into San Cristobal to have dinner at Trudi's old 
table. There I met a 19-year-old Lacandon man. His name: Chan K'in -- after 
his uncle, the Viejo, the Elder. Young Chan K'in filled in the blanks for me.

Trudi's funeral was held in a hurry. Chan K'in Viejo spoke. Then came New 
Year's Eve, wild parties, drunken policemen. As the authorities slept off 
the party, the Zapatistas decloaked, taking San Cristobal and five other 
cities and announcing that the mountains were now tierra libre -- free 
land, indigenous land, reborn after 500 years of conquest. The Zapatistas 
were quite the sensation, with their black ski masks, kerchiefs, and small 
arms, some with toy guns carved from soap and burnt with matchsticks to 
make them black.

 From out of this rebellion there came a writer's voice, that of the man 
known only as Subcomandante Marcos. "This is not a revolution of guns," 
wrote Marcos, "but a revolution of words. Our guns are just a way of 
saying, 'Hello! We are here!' "

Indeed, in three and a half years of hostilities, there have been fewer 
than 700 gun casualties, although many indigens -- children, babies -- have 
died from parasites, malnutrition, and the denial of medicine while entire 
villages were chased into the hills by the Mexican army.

For a while, in 1994, '95, and early '96, many foreigners and journalists 
came down here, as did thousands of Mexicans from other states -- 
human-rights workers, "doctors without borders," and others. Indeed, about 
a year ago the Boston Globe published a rather snooty and crass story (the 
last page-one story that I recall about the conflict here) calling the 
phenomenon "Zapa-turismo." That story fostered an impression that these 
hills were merely a kind of vacationland for the left.

As to why career journalists so frequently try to defame and discredit 
change agents who do not work for money, I will let their mealy mouths be 
judged by history. But it was my experience after 10 years in that sordid 
profession that most journalists cannot understand anyone who is not 
mercenary, who is not career-obsessed. Journalists have made their 
compromises, and they feel viscerally threatened by those who have not so 
compromised themselves, deformed themselves around capital and its media 
machines. I've read and seen a thousand puff-pieces about social-service 
bureaucrats with offices and salaries. But let someone stand for something 
-- almost anything -- without compensation, and the gotcha game begins, 
with pens, video cameras, and computers wielded like knives. It's a sick 
profession. That's a large part of why I defected from it.

And yet, here I am, rendering unto media again, so desperate to reach you 
and others that I make this compromise after a year of refusal. I have 
asked the Phoenix to print this tract unabridged, with minimal editing. If 
you read it in these pages, please understand, its faults are my own; I 
don't get to blame them on editors.

Anyway, one more note on Chan K'in Viejo, the Lacandon elder. He died, at 
age 105, on December 23, 1996, three years to the day after the passing of 
Trudi Blom. As Marcos likes to say, "Things of this land."

As to the phenomenon of foreign visitors, I wasn't here when they were. 
Most of them disappeared in 1996, when the Mexican government and army 
advanced on Zapatista strongholds -- destroying the EZLN base in Aguas 
Calientes in July, sending thousands of families into the jungle without 
potable water, pillaging, conducting the phony "drug raids" that found no 
drugs, and searching in vain for Marcos and the indigenous Zapatista 
comandantes. It was the government, not the EZLN, that violated the peace 
accords of San Andres that were meant to curtail the violence between 
Zapatista and government forces.

John, I know you will be naturally cynical toward the Zapatistas. We've 
known each other a long time, ever since I worked on your campaign staffs 
in 1982 and 1984, as a lad in my early 20s.

You need to understand some essential differences between the Zapatistas of 
Chiapas and those Central American "revolutionary" movements that came 
before them.

First, as Marcos and others have repeatedly stated, they are not trying to 
seize power or take over the Mexican government. This divides them from the 
Cold War-era Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and from the FMLN (the Farabundo 
Marti National Liberation Front) in El Salvador. Instead, they fight to 
open a national dialogue, a real democracy, so that Mexican "civil society" 
can step forward and people may govern themselves.

Second, they are the first post-Cold War revolutionary movement -- they 
have no alliance with Cuba, and certainly none with the fallen Soviets. 
They have more in common, frankly, with the anarchist critics of Soviet 
Communism: the Makhnovishnas of the Ukraine, the Situationists of the '50s 
and '60s, the Italian Autonomia movement of the '70s. Theirs is a 
revolution of locality, of everyday life -- nondogmatic, pluralist, 
democratic. A social revolution, yes, but also a revolution of the 
individual. In the highlands, in mountain towns such as Oventic, they enjoy 
supermajority support. Indeed, the only indigenous village that doesn't 
support this cause is the ruling-party stronghold of San Juan Chamula, near 
San Cristobal, where alcohol conquered what the evangelical missionaries 
could not. (Still, I have met valiant Zapatista soldiers from Chamula, and 
if there is hope for that village, with all its problems and poverty, there 
is hope for Boston or New York.)

Third, the main ideas behind this revolution are not socialist, but 
indigenous. Marcos answers to and obeys his Indian comandantes -- he is 
subcomandante and, by his own admission, expendable. Should his commanders 
ever grow unhappy with his leadership-by-words, a new "Marcos" will replace 

These are people of the land, of nature. They have, through 500 years of 
conquest, maintained and refined their own "shadow governance" of these 
hills. The army comes and goes, but in every place where the soldiers are 
not directly present, the native ways reestablish themselves instantly. I 
find these people to be unconquerable.

Indeed, that's why I'm here. To figure out how I can remain uncolonized in 
my mind, body, and heart in an epoch of imposed sameness, of a monoculture 
that poses as multicultural. We have a lot to learn from our indigenous 
neighbors to the south, who have established terrain and lives outside of 
economy's dictatorship, outside of the media's consumerist brainwash, 
outside of the screen and its techno-trance.

John, another thing I know about you is that you prefer to research, to 
study, to investigate a matter thoroughly before you go off half-cocked. 
I'm certain the State Department has all kinds of evasions and half-truths 
to give you. I recommend you pick up a copy of Zapatistas: Documents of the 
New Mexican Revolution (updated edition 1995, Autonomedia Press). It's the 
best, most accurate translation of Marcos's communiques and other EZLN 

A word about the July 6 elections in Mexico. The spin is that they were the 
freest ever -- but that's not saying much, given the history of one-party 
rule here. I was on the Zocalo, the city square, in Mexico City that night 
as 100,000 supporters of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and the left-wing PRD 
(Revolutionary Democratic Party) won the region's vote. The Zocalo was a 
sea of yellow-and-black Aztec-sun banners -- it was something to behold. I 
had to climb a traffic light just to get a full view.

The extent to which these elections were more free (in Mexican states other 
than Chiapas) is effect, not cause. According to Padre Filiberto Gonzales 
of Tepotzlan, an hour outside of Mexico City, who has helped lead a 
two-year revolt against a golf-club development there, the Zapatista 
strategy was primarily responsible for the election reforms. The stress on 
"opening a dialogue," rather than "seizing power," is working. Even 
Cardenas will give credit where it is due: to the Indians who must wear the 
black masks.

But in Chiapas, free elections were impossible with 40,000 army troops 
(according to the government and press) still terrorizing the populace here.

Tell me, please, how free elections can be possible when 85 of 110 
municipalities in Chiapas are occupied by unwanted army troops, hostile to 
the public, and specifically to the indigenous people? How is democracy 
possible while thousands of families remain displaced from their homes? 
When uttering an opinion or sporting a bumper sticker has gotten civilians 
killed, kidnapped, and raped by government soldiers and Guardias Blancas, 
the vicious "White Guard" vigilantes who do the government's dirty work of 
violence with its tacit permission? (Those atrocities have been documented 
by the Catholic diocese and nongovernmental human-rights organizations.)

Early on Election Day morning in Chiapas, the EZLN destroyed 40 polling 
stations, burning ballot boxes to protest of the farce of "free elections" 
in an occupied zone. This was not an antidemocratic action but a 
prodemocracy one, an effort to prevent the simulation of elections and 
insist on actual ones. Indeed, in every polling place, the protest was 
carried out without violence to persons -- an indication that the poll 
workers were, in fact, in agreement with the action.

Certainly, another spin could be put on the destruction of spurious ballot 
boxes. But I ask you to use your intelligence to discern the truth. What 
else could they have done?

Teresa Heinz: Before I left the States, I visited with a very special 
friend of the past 20 years, a man greatly admired by the late US Senator 
John Heinz, folksinger Pete Seeger. Pete is getting on in years. There was 
the sad realization, on both our parts, that this might have been our final 
reunion. Pete is hard of hearing now; he has a device in his ear. So I 
mainly listened to what could be his parting advice.

Pete spoke mainly of the miracles he witnessed in the darkest hours of the 
labor movement of the '30s, the war of the '40s, the witch hunts of the 
'50s . . . down through the present.

He told a story of a youngster swept away by a flooding river, certain to 
drown. And how, downstream, there just happened to be a couple of people 
standing in the right place, at the right time, who reached into the raging 
waters and saved that youngster's life.

"Wait for the miracle," Pete urged me, perhaps sensing my despair. "It will 
come. it will come."

Teresa and John, you are standing on that riverbank right now. You are the 
most right people to come to Chiapas -- in the right place at this, the 
right hour. A visit here by the two of you, now, at a time when the global 
media have abandoned Chiapas as "old news," would electrify these Americas, 
North and South.

John, perhaps I have strayed too far off the plantation for you to be 
associated with me in any way. They tell me you'll run for president in 
2000. That's serious. It may preclude you from even communicating with one, 
like me, who bandies about the word revolution and holds other unpopular 
ideas. I recognize that.

As well, I know you -- your strengths and weaknesses. If you fail to 
respond, to act, with sufficient and necessary swiftness, your inaction 
will run counter to your entire political profile -- your history, your legacy.

If you fail to act in a forceful and meaningful way, the Mexican army may 
close in on Marcos and the Zapatistas, and slam the door on hope itself for 
the indigenous who fight for life, for the land, for autonomy, democracy.

Please take care of these orphaned sentences -- they are my all. I am ready 
to risk my all, just as thousands of poor people have risked theirs in 
these mountains.

That may be of no consequence. I have no votes to offer, no money to 
contribute, no spectacular terrain left to expend. Perhaps this letter 
shall be forgotten too.

But if on January 20, 2001, you find yourself on the Capitol steps, raising 
your right hand, taking an oath -- well, then you will learn just how 
powerless even presidents and kings have become in the shadow of the global 
empire of money and media.

As for my other friends who may have read this far, I obviously can't 
disclose my address here. But you may contact Ann Harrison, in Boston, at 
(617) 859-8751.

That is all -- a hug and a kiss to everyone, and a closing chuckle: enjoy 
the irony that I made it to Mexico while our aspiring ambassador, Bill 
Weld, twists slowly in the winds of his own making. "Things of this land."

 From somewhere in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, I am,

Very truly yours, Al Giordano