Gary Gossen

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Magical Realism in a Postmodern Social Movement: Cultural Production of the Maya Zapatistas

In Chiapas, Mexico, a white, blue-eyed intellectual using the nom de guerre of Subcomandante Marcos and accompanied by a mythical feathered pig-an animal soul companion of his own invention-serves as the spokesman for a disparate group of Maya Indians known as Zapatistas. They seek both cultural autonomy and democratic participation in their nation.

Since January 1, 1994, this rag-tag band of three thousand poorly-armed people have used small arms (even wooden guns), poetry, humor, art, and massive electronic media sophistication to influence, albeit indirectly, the turn of modern history in Mexico, most notably the end of the seventy-year rule of the single-party PRI government last summer. How could this happen?

In his book-in-progress, Magical Realism in a Postmodern Social Movement: Cultural Production of the Maya Zapatistas, Gary Gosssen uses a dual lens to examine the rich emerging culture of the Zapatistas. He believes that both postmodernism-a perspective celebrating idiosyncrasy, particularity, and uncertainty-and the literary form of magical realism, in which the bizarre, magical, and irrational produce "real" events, are useful tools that can help interpret this highly unconventional guerrilla movement.

Gossen observes, "The Maya Zapatistas have produced a major new voice in Maya cultural expression, a tradition that has a history spanning some 3,000 years. The Zapatista movement is enormously complex and polymorphously perverse. Although highly local in inception and practice, it is nevertheless interethnic, national, and international in perspective and lines of solidarity. It is eccentric and humorous, militarily impotent and symbolically aggressive, residing in a colonial backwater but surviving and thriving due to electronic technology. It is a postmodern social form that is evolving even as I write today."

Gossen will explore many new aspects of the productive and varied Zapatista culture-including architecture, political units, religious cults, public art and new art forms, mythology, music, poetry, and children's literature.

Because the end of the Cold War and the development of a global economy have dramatically changed world political dynamics, local ethnic and cultural identities are seeking to reinsert themselves in the flow of history. "To understand the Zapatistas may provide some insight into what the ethnic identity quests of the 21st century around the world might look like," Gossen states.

Affiliation at time of award:
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, State University of New York at Albany

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