Gustavo Esteva on the Sound of a New World Rising

Gustavo Estava1

Photo by Tori Silvera

Gustavo Esteva is a scholar who writes and teaches in a de-institutionalised framework in Oaxaca, Mexico at the Universidad de la Tierra. This community-based university allows students without any formal education to learn in any trade or area of knowledge that they choose. Gustavo came to Trent University to share this new way of learning and many other stories and lessons, and to provide students with the opportunity to travel to Oaxaca in May to share this alternative university experience and earn a credit toward their degree.

I thought I would ask you if you could talk a little bit about the walk that happened on December 21.

It is a very important day. In the Mayan calendar it is the end of the long cycle of thousands of years, the B’ak’tun, and is a very important element in the tradition. [The Zapatista indigenous peoples] use that to remind us of who they are.

Then they came to the same towns that they occupied in January 1, 1994, they came… with amazing discipline—I don’t know this exactly but perhaps 40-50 thousand of them—came to the same streets and plazas, in amazing order, mainly young people and you could see them marching. They had ski masks, but you could see their eyes smiling and bright, full of vitality and vigour, expressing themselves in total silence.

One beautiful thing that they did at three or four o’clock in the morning they came very well-organized to create a platform in the main plaza of every town and they came to the platform only to cross it with their left arm up in total silence. Hearing nothing. Just movements around the plaza, beautiful movements, like a dance, but all very well-organized, marching and then crossing the platform and then jumping to the platform, raising their arms, then going down the platform, then they left … It was very impressive to hear them, to hear the silence.

Once they left the five towns there was a communique. This communique was just this: ¿Escucharon? Did you listen? Did you listen to the sound of your world falling apart? Did you listen to our world re-emerging? And that was it. It was really beautiful and very strong.

I think that they’re telling us… just a description of what is happening. The world as we know it is falling apart. I think this element of the process is very important. We need to be aware. Sometimes you come to Peterborough or Toronto and you see more or less normal life, and apparently everything is going well in the normal condition, but we need to be really aware that the world is falling apart, that planet earth, Mother Earth, is in real danger.

If you see our society, our social fabric, it is not just the finances and it’s not just Wall St., it’s the whole culture and organization of the society collapsing, and they have been trying to create something else that is even worse than what we have… We need to open our eyes to see that world that is emerging. That is the only possibility to stop the horror and create a different alternative. I think that’s what was happening on December 21.

As students at Trent University, what are things we can do proactively to be a part of this new world emerging, to support it, and reinforce it?

This is a call for you. This is a call for everyone of us… The nature of the crisis is that it is a crisis everywhere. The crisis is here. It is a call for you also to first clean your eyes, to see the horror completely… To me you are seeing the horror, the catastrophes around, you are seeing the changes in many situations. But we need to be more aware of those kinds of things to get what I would say a sense of urgency. We need to do something to stop this now.

What the Zapatistas are saying [is] to stop, to resist, it’s not enough to say no. It’s not enough to say no to Monsanto and GMOs, or to the police and what they’re doing. The only possibility of effective resistance… is to create something radical in you. You need to create—today—a new society… Think how we can, within Trent, in Peterborough, create opportunities for autonomous learning for all of us… how you can create opportunities for alternative ways of teaching. How you can define by yourselves what to eat and how you can produce your food… Then it is trying to use the imagination to see how you can define by yourself what you are going to eat and try produce it.

Of course part of the production is through what you would called Community Shared Agriculture (CSA): Some arrangements with some farmers to be together in a kind of commons to decide what you want to eat and how you will produce it. And this is about healing and about settling, and about every aspect of your life. And this is a call to do something now. Not for a promised land, not for a distant utopia. The only way to stop the horror is to create the new society today. The attitude is “do something today.” It is to say tonight when you go to bed it is asking yourself the question “what can I do tomorrow morning in my life to produce a radical change.” Not a marginal change, not small behaviour… what can I do to produce a radical change in my life, in my community? It is not done alone. That is the first thing.

The other thing that is the content of this, I will present the question of gender as a very central point. The women have a very special role. Not “role,” I hate the word, they have many things to do today.

Why is the word role connected to patriarchy?

Role is… an abstract reduction of yourself, dividing it into different spheres and positions. When you think in a role, whatever kind of role, it gives you a line, it gives you a path you need to adopt, “do not pass beyond these limits” this is your role. This is a typical operation of patriarchy: to divide everything… For example, to divide the people with certain roles. You have a role as a student, and if you are not doing what is prescribed for that role you are misbehaving and that is wrong. You need to behave as a student. You need to go to Wal-Mart as a consumer and that is your role… You have roles every minute of your life … We need to escape from that principle.

Could you talk about la Universidad de la Tierra and the opportunity in May to go study with you?

One of the many things we are doing in Oaxaca, in Chiapas, is to create new opportunities for two things. [The first is] opportunities for learning whatever the people want and need to learn, no matter what, the very complex things about the economic situation or the very practical things of how to deal with the water, the food, with anything—it’s how to learn what we need to learn now… The other thing is to create possibilities of studying the situation together and thinking together, to have space for a free conversation without the specific boxes or limitations, to think about what is happening and what we can do together. This is Tierra, a space where indigenous people of Oaxaca… and people from Finland or Japan or the United States are coming to learn many different things with us. That is one aspect. They are finding in our place that we have a very serious, rigorous, and open reflection on what is happening and what we can do about the government situation.

Have you heard about the Idle No More movement, and how connected is that to the new world emerging in Mexico?

All of our movements, the Zapatistas, and all the things we are organizing have two aspects. One aspect is resisting, it is opposing something, trying to stop what is happening and trying to say no to these kinds of things. The second is that in that specific initiative you are saying no to something and at the same time you are saying yes to other things. The time of just protesting is over. We must not just dedicate ourselves to saying “no, I don’t like that.” We need to resist and protest, but at the same time we need to say “yes.” I think this is one of the elements of the initiatives in Canada and I think that it has clear connections with many other things happening not only in Mexico but in the whole continent for indigenous people. It has a connection. I would say that it belongs to the family.

You talk a lot about how we can change right now and what we can do to support the new world that is emerging. Do you think this new world will prevail, and where do you think it is going to go?

I don’t know. If we still have a world it will be this kind of world, meaning the other world is not only dying but destroying everything in its way. With this path we will not have a world… With this new world, of course we don’t know exactly where we are going, but I think the Zapatistas are right that we are creating a world in which many worlds can be embraced. Meaning it’s not one definition or shape of the world, but it is a world in which we will celebrate and embrace the difference and many different people will be existing in it for this diversity. I think that one of the things that will happen is people will embrace the diversity, which means clearly going beyond the horizon of the nation state.

The nation state and capitalism are more or less two sides of the same coin, they are basically homogenizing forces. You are Canadian, I am Mexican; we need to be homogenized as Canadians or Mexicans or we need to be homogenized as owners of the means of production or the destituted. We need to be homogenized in terms of classes and nations. What we are creating is a world that will be very different—it will resist all forms of homogenization, but we will not be fighting. We will not be opposing the difference.

Part of the problem is the fear of the difference… it is because people are afraid of that difference because they don’t know exactly what it means, if it comes as a threat or not. We will be celebrating the difference. That is the one image of the world that I am not seeing in the distant future, it is again something we are constructing today, everyday.