Mexico’s Indigenous Zapatistas Are Planning to Invade Spain by Boat, Kind Of

Seven Zapatistas will cross the Atlantic ocean to mark the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish conquest, and they want to party upon arrival.
April 29, 2021, 3:54pm
Zapatista Boat
(Photo via Zapatistas press release)

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's renowned indigenous Zapatista movement is preparing to invade Spain, sort of, to mark the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish Conquest.

The Zapatistas wrote that “the invasion has started” in a statement released this week in 41 languages and Morse code, signed by Subcomandante Galeano, aka Subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking balaclava-clad rebel leader who emerged onto the world stage in 1994. A Zapatista delegation plans to travel across the Atlantic Ocean by boat and arrive in Spain before August 13, the date that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City, fell to the Spanish conquistadors in 1521.

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Galeano gave the trip a mythical cast, naming it Ixchel's Route for a Mayan fertility goddess who according to legend spread herself across the world in the shape of a rainbow. Over a series of April press releases, accompanied by music and photographs, the Zapatistas have described how they built a boat which they call La Montaña, or “the Mountain”, which will carry seven members on the expedition - four women, two men, and a trans woman which Galeano refers to as an “other”.

The delegation will leave May 3 from the island of Isla Mujeres, located off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula in southeast Mexico, and travel across the Atlantic to the seaside city of Vigo, in the Galicia region of Spain.

Upon arrival, they intend to unfurl a banner that says ¡Despertad!—“Wake Up!”

“If we manage to land and embrace with words those who are in the struggle there, who resist and rebel, then there will be a party with song and dance, and the beat of cumbia and the rhythm of hips will shake distant lands and skies,” wrote Galeano in his flamboyant style.

In a previous Zapatista press release introducing the travelers, Galeano said that the trans woman named Marijose would be the first to disembark with a bold challenge: “Surrender hetero-patriarchal pale-faces who persecute those who are different.” 

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“Nah, just kidding,” he added. 

Instead, he wrote, she will proclaim on behalf of the Zapatistas, “I declare that from now on this place, currently referred to as ‘Europe’ by those who live here, be called: SLUMIL K´AJXEMK´OP, which means ‘Rebellious Land’ or ‘Land which does not give in nor give up.’ And that is how it will be known by its own people and by others for as long as there is at least someone here who does not surrender, sell out, or give up.”

But Subcomandante Galeano also acknowledged that this wild party might not happen and if La Montaña is not allowed to dock, the voyagers will take four canoes that they built to represent different stages of the Zapatista experience, and paddle back to “the banks of Ixchel's house,” presumably Mexico. 

Subcomandante Marcos

The pipe-smoking balaclava-clad Subcomandante Marcos in 2005, now known as Subcomandante Galeano. (Photo: Susana Gonzalez/AFP via Getty Images)

In exuberant prose, Galeano explains the significance of the four canoes without concern for the difficulty and danger associated with crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the small, homemade vessels. Indeed, it is unclear what guarantees of La Montaña’s seaworthiness the Zapatistas might be able to offer before its imminent departure. 

The 500th anniversary of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico has been a constant talking point since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador asked the Vatican and the King of Spain, Philip VI, in a controversial 2019 letter to apologize for the abuses committed by the Spanish invaders. The Spanish government said no, it all happened a very long time ago, and values have changed since then.

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But the Zapatistas have made it clear that they are not looking for an apology. When they first announced their intention to travel to Europe in October 2020, the Zapatistas wrote that “we want to speak to the Spanish people. Not to threaten them, scold them, insult them, or make demands of them, and not to demand they ask our forgiveness.”

“You didn’t conquer us. We continue to resist and rebel.”

The Zapatistas rose to prominence in 1994 after a 12-day uprising in the southwestern state of Chiapas to protest the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and bring attention to the plight of Mexico’s marginalized indigenous peoples.

Led by Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican state and occupied buildings throughout different cities and towns in Chiapas. The government sent the army to crush the rebellion and a ceasefire was called after 12 days, but at least 145 people were killed in the uprising and subsequent fighting. 

Marcos’s poetic communiqués focused the world’s attention on the centuries of oppression endured by Mayans and other indigenous groups in Mexico. Then the Zapatistas set up their own autonomous communities in Chiapas, emphasizing self-sufficiency and human rights. Now, their trip promises to reintroduce their activism to a new generation. 

“It is time for our hearts to dance again, and for their sounds and rhythm to not be those of mourning and resignation,” wrote the Zapatistas in their October announcement. 

“Thus, various Zapatista delegations, men, women, and others, the color of our earth, will go out into the world, walking or setting sail to remote lands, oceans, and skies, not to seek out difference, superiority, or offense, much less pity or apology, but to find what makes us equal.”