Some guy in Greece 2400ish years ago described a thought problem; how do individual people, with lives of only a few decades, come to know so much about the world? It’s an interesting question to ponder. But I’ve been thinking about another question; how do whole groups of people in the Americas, with huge amounts of information accessible, know so little about their history? Here’s a recent personal example:
I was sitting drinking an Americano looking out at the central plaza of Ocosingo, a town in the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. The plaza (Parque Central) plays host to free live music nearly every night and people dance and kids play games and groups of friends grab a seat and hang out. There are fruits, corn in various styles, ice cream, churros (which I like too much), hamburgers (made with a thin beef patty topped with a slice of fried ham), hot dogs (often topped with cheese and avocado and mayo) and more all being sold in the square and and along the surrounding streets. It’s the place to hang out at night. That, or the depressing, dark, very loud bars full of borrachos (male drunks). This plaza puts Toronto’s Dundas Square to shame. Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles is pretty sweet, but struggles to stay cheap and not corporate-dominated, and Montreal is nowhere close to having street food figured out.
These thoughts about ambience and social life were the things going through my head while looking out at the square. I was also trying to arrange my thoughts concerning Canada, and realizing I really don’t know much about that country. Looking over at the Ocosingo municipal government building (enclosing one end of the square, the very old Catholic church enclosing the opposing end), it seemed like the town was a nice calm place. The municipal and state police going by in trucks with men seated in the back holding machine guns in their hands is just the norm in the global south, right?
During my stay the federal military put together an exhibit in the square about its activities. Big posterboards showed military officers giving food to people, giving medical aid, and standing guard along highways. Beside these images was a mannequin of a skinny woman dressed provocatively in military uniform. The military isn’t just benevolent, it’s sexy too.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, Ocosingo, and the central square in particular, was the location of the most violent conflicts between Zapatistas and the Mexican military. The municipal government office was occupied and large parts of it were destroyed. People fought with machine guns throughout much of the downtown. Blood ran through the sloped streets and pooled and dried up among the debris. January 1994 was a truly bloody month in Ocosingo. The reasons for the uprising are too much for me to describe as a foreigner and non-expert, but the imposition of NAFTA on the people (which came into effect January 1, 1994, the same day as the Zapatista’s occupied several towns in Chiapas at dawn), and the ongoing plight of Mexico’s 28 million indigenous people certainly factored into the actions.
From looking around the city, reading the plaques, and talking to people, it is easy to not pick up this information. It is easy to not know that Zapatistas exist and coninue to organize. It is easy to not know that there are 60 000 military personnel in the state of Chiapas (that’s a lot!), with many of them located in camps in the forest adjacent to Zapatista-friendly communities. During many meals watched TV for a bit in cheap little restaurants, and the stories acted out on the screens were almost all of rich white people living in Mexico City. The news programs featured white men in Mexico City analyzing happenings around the country and internationally (irony noted – me being a white guy analyzing happenings around the country and internationally). It was shocking and chilling and embarrassing to learn about what had happened in 1994 only after I left Ocosingo.
One thing that is easy to catch wind of in Mexico is the corruption in politics. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in Mexico who hasn’t said the politicians at pretty much every level are corrupt. There is an expression among narcotraffickers in relation to bribing politicians to get their way: fixing. Politicians are a potential problem that needs to be fixed. A politician who refuses to be fixed, well, there are other ways of eliminating a human problem. This is easy history to pick up on. It’s in your face.
What are the stories that are in your face in Canada? What are the stories told and re-told that are impossible to ignore? What are the ones that are forgotten repeatedly, erased from collective memory so continually that they come as a surprise when they are told? Who is telling the stories? A common critique of much of the culture of Turtle Island (North America) is that we are bad at history. For instance, there are stacks and stacks of reports and recommendations on governance of aboriginal communities filed away in Ottawa being ignored, full of stories unheard and unheeded.
Again, how is it that many humans, who are able to know so much, know so little about their history? Saying “humans are bad at history” is not a strong answer. Something along the lines of selective memory seems more appropriate. What are we choosing to select, and what to forget? Forgetfulness is a useful instrument in comedy. How many America’s Funniest Home Videos involve some lapse in memory, like someone forgetting to hold onto a shopping cart and it rolling away down a hill, onlookers watching in suspense for the imminent crash? On the same token, forgetfullness is also consistently present in tragedies. How many disasters and conflicts can be traced back to forgetting to do a safety check, forgetting to consider someone’s feelings, forgetting to consider someone’s existence?
Ocosingo was a nice place to think about some of this stuff. Like many towns, it is a place with some great food, nice people, and a lot of hidden history. I’m getting really excited to come back to Canada with fresher active eyes (I was tired at the end of 2 years working on the McGill campus (boo-frickin-hoo, I know…)) and to check out what stories we’re telling ourselves, and, by extension, not telling.
P.S. Zapatistas is a term deriving not from indegenous tradition but from Emilio Zapata, a leader of the Mexican Revolution in 1910-11 (and assassinated a few years later). “Zapatista” connotates more an ideology of resistance and solidarity than the deliniation of a community, in my opinion. There are dozens of articles and documentaries available online about the movement.