Culture » January 6, 2005
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
It’s dark—the kind of profound darkness that a lack of electricity ensures in a mountainous jungle region.
A dull pulse carries through the night of the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas like an old woman’s heartbeat. It’s 4 a.m., and one can hear what has been a regular soundtrack at this hour for hundreds of years: a steady pounding as creased and callused brown hands massage dough for the day’s tortillas.
And for the past year, Chiapas has greeted 4 a.m. with another soundtrack.
Fade in crackle, which quickly disappears, replaced by a clear and youthful female voice:
“Muy Buenos Dias.”/“A very good morning.”
The voice is that of an insurgent fighter with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), perhaps one of the world’s quietest and most powerful rebel armies. The world knows them as the Zapatistas.
“Estás escuchando Radio Insurgente, la voz de los sin voz./“You are listening to Radio Insurgente, the Voice of the Voiceless.”
The voice is being relayed to nearby Zapatista autonomous communities from a makeshift and very clandestine radio studio. The Zapatistas have built egg carton-lined studios, erected transmitters and trained themselves to operate a radio station. Hundreds of years of media voicelessness ended in August 2003 with daily, 16-hour broadcasts.
“…voz oficial del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional.”/ “…official voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.”
She is the official voice of the EZLN on the Zapatista radio network. The intimacy and immediacy of this uncensored mass communication is something that the indigenous rebel army has never before had.
“Son las cuatro de la madrugada.”/“It’s four in the morning.”
Zapatista time. Daybreak. Fade in Zapatista national anthem.
The EZLN has said that access to and control of the media are vital for its community’s survival. And while successive Mexican governments have surrounded Zapatista communities with armies and allowed soldiers and paramilitaries to unleash terror on indigenous peoples, the Zapatistas have worked quietly to build the capacity to speak directly to their people. So quietly in fact, that when the Zapatista broadcasts first hit the airwaves, playing popular music and reading saludos from listeners, even government loyalists unwittingly tuned in.
“Radio Insurgente is a radio station that is completely independent from the bad Mexican government,” explains the network’s Web site, radioinsurgente.org. This past November 17, the day the EZLN celebrated its 21st anniversary, the station launched an Internet audio version of the clandestine network. From recordings of local indigenous musicians and story-tellers to political speeches by EZLN leaders, the Internet audio archive serves as a history of Mexico’s indigenous people.
“… transmitiendo desde algun lugar de las montanas del sureste Mexicano.”/ “… transmitting from someplace in the southeastern Mexican mountains.”
Stories circulate about the Zapatistas’ masked leader, Subcommandante Marcos, sitting in a mud hut in the jungle writing communiqués on his newly upgraded Dell lap-top. Indeed the Zapatistas have taken full advantage of new technologies.
Mexico’s indigenous insurgents have kept close to the ground, expanding their FM community radio reach to between two and four radio stations and teaching radio skills to young women insurgents. Zapatista division of labor assigns men the technical roles and women the programming, on-air and reporting roles.
“Las reporteras de radio insurgente estuvieron en el lugar de los hechos. Asi que podemos transmitirles un resumen de lo que grabaron …”/ “Radio Insurgente reporters were on the spot and we bring you this summary of what we recorded …”
Radio Insurgente reports breaking news from Zapatista and indigenous communities, blending political education with on-the-ground reporting. Take the April 10 incident this year in the community of Zinacantan, when community leaders went to see municipal authorities to demand access to potable water for their communities and were attacked en route by thugs from the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Reporters from Radio Insurgente were on the spot. They transmitted interviews with witnesses and those who were attacked about both the incident and their opinions about the revolutionary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata, whose death 85 years ago was being commemorated in Zinacantan when the attack occurred. That program is now archived on the new Web site.
While providing information on the Zapatista struggle for autonomy and acting as a lifeline to the world, the Web site also serves as the legal arm of Radio Insurgente. It is archiving for posterity what has been broadcast to the inhabitants of the Chiapan jungles just in case the Mexican army shuts down the daily radio signal.
Mexican broadcast law, similar to Federal Communications Commission laws in the United States, requires that one have a license to send out a radio signal. Red tape and corporate control of the media make it next to impossible for anyone to succeed in getting a license. Yet, tiny low-power wattage stations exist all over Mexico—all subject to threats and harassment by the Mexican military.
In mid-September an indigenous station in the neighboring state of Oaxaca was violently raided by some 200 soldiers and police. Equipment was seized and destroyed, and 14 people were arrested.
Fear of reprisal, however, has not daunted the Zapatistas. Programming has blossomed. The new Web site makes hour-long news specials available for radio stations to download and play. It features public service announcements that educate the public about violence against women and advertise upcoming programs like a special on Che Guevara. The Web site also archives speeches and communiqués by EZLN leaders, blending everything with Zapatista liberation songs and local music.
“Este programa va dirijido a todos los campesinos y tambien a los indigenas que luchan por una vida major.”/“This program is dedicated to all the farmers and indigenous people who are fighting for a better world.”
By adding to the thriving landscape of independent media in Mexico, Radio Insurgente is fulfilling a long-held dream of El Sup (Marcos), who once noted that “independent media tries to save history—today’s history—tries to save it and tries to share it so it will not disappear.” One wonders if Marcos had any idea back in 1997 when he issued this communiqué that a Zapatista-controlled, internationally accessible public audio archive of its people’s history was only a few years away.
“Ahora vamos a escuchar a Mercedes Sosa que nos canta Alcen la Bandera. …”/ “Now let’s listen to Mercedes Sosa singing ‘Alcen la Bandera.’ …”
Some worry that the Mexican government may try to shut down the Web site and the radio stations. The insurgent women who are responsible for the bulk of the programming, whose voices grace the airwaves from 4 a.m. through the night, realize the signal could be squelched at any moment. But for now, with the eyes and ears of the world drinking in the MP3 sounds of Radio Insurgente, it seems like the Fox government may have missed its chance to silence the voiceless.
“Mucho animos para sus trabajos y que pasa una buena noche.”/ “Keep up your spirits in your work and have a good night.”
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Deepa Fernandes is the host of the nationally syndicated Pacifica radio news show “Free Speech Radio News,” www.fsrn.org.
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