Seven Keys to the City


Al Giordano

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 104 in 2001.

Seven Keys to the City:
The Zapatistas Ride Through Zapata¹s Morelos into Mexico City

"Poetry seldom exists in poems. Poetry exists in words that cause action."
- Raul Vaneigem

"The land belongs to those who work it." - General Emiliano Zapata


March 4, 2001

On the Ninth Day they marched again:

Twenty-three masked indigenous comandantes, one subcomandante with smoke billowing from his pipe and ink flowing from his pen, representatives of 42 of Mexico’s 56 indigenous ethnic groups and an entourage of Mexican and international observers rolled out of Nurío, Michoacán on March 4th, after three days of sessions with the Indigenous National Congress. The road calls: On to Mexico City!

The rebel motorcade has already passed through nine Mexican states — where peasant farmers, urban workers, and above all, youths flood the roadsides to shout: "You are not alone!" — in a journey that is now engraved in the history of América, although the mass media is slow to recognize it.

María Luisa Tomasini slides the bus window open to get a view of the crowds that, town after town, swell to such proportions that the caravan must stop. Subcomandante Marcos must step down from the comandantes’ bus and wave, or give a short speech, before the citizenry will let the Zapatista Army of National Liberation pass on to the next town.

The motorcade, today like everyday, is running late. At 78, María Luisa is holding up well in the heat, the endless dust and the short nights of precious little sleep, days that are more dreamlike than any slumber.

"You were in Cuba in ’59?" asks a young Brazilian woman on the bus. "And in Vietnam in 1966?" asks another from Spain. They’ve heard the scuttlebutt: María Luisa is the Abuela, the one that the Subcomandante adopted, in a 1995 communiqué, as "the grandmother of all the Zapatistas." The Italian anarchists on the bus have their three-volume set of Zapatista communiqués out, reading from "the blue book" about their elder passenger.

"Oh, I was in those places; in Moscow, too. But I am luckiest that I was in San Cristóbal on the First of January 1994," the Abuela tells the foreign observers. "My children and their friends ran into the house that morning, shouting, ‘there are guerrillas in the streets! They’ve taken over City Hall! We think they are Guatemalans. Don’t go anywhere, Mamá!’ As soon as they calmed down I said, ‘I’m just going to the corner for tortillas. I’ll be right back.’ I rushed down to the municipal palace and they were there, Indians with farm tools, kerchiefs over their faces, sticks, some of them in ski masks with guns. Marcos appeared on the balcony and announced that this was a revolution and ordered the troops to advance to Mexico City. I shouted up to the balcony, ‘What can we do to help you?’ That was seven years ago."

The caravan stops for a few hours of excited rest in the community of Temoaya, in the State of Mexico, indigenous lands of the ones called Otomí-Ñahñü. Upon awakening on March 5th, the poet-warrior Marcos distributes his latest communiqué:

"Brothers and Sisters," he begins. "Starting today, we shall begin sending messages to Mexico City. There are seven messages. Each one of them has a meaning of its own, and they have exponential meaning. That is to say, the one plus the two has meaning, the one plus the two plus the three another meaning, and so on, until the seventh is complete.

Once the seventh has arrived, we shall enter Mexico City."


The Zapatista Subcomandante then announces the First Message, in which he mentions three former Mexican presidents, one dead, one in self-imposed exile, another on his way there, all hated by their people:

The First Key
Temoaya, State of Mexico
March 5, 2001

"You have nothing to fear. Let them fear, they who close their ears and mouths to hearing and speaking with those whom we are. They shall then be set aside. They shall find themselves impotent while those without voice recover their voice and those without face finally recover their face. Then their pursuits shall be as nothing, those who ape the conquistadors, those of the viceroys, those of the conservatives who wanted to make us their empire, those of the Porfirio landowners, those of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, those of Ernesto Zedillo."

"None of them exist now."

"And we, we are here."

"History has a place for everyone. One takes it, or one leaves it. In adding and subtracting, not only the ‘yesses’ and ‘no's’ are added, but also the silences."

Marcos, who upon arriving in Mexico City will quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge -- "If a man were to cross through Paradise in a dream, and they gave him a flower as proof that he had been there, and if, upon awakening, he were to find that flower in his hand...what then?" — seems, on paper, an unlikely mover of the Mexican masses. And yet it is precisely through paper, mated with ink, then translated to Internet screens in many tongues, that the Subcomandante has conquered the true heart of a nation. Indeed, he has translated for the world, from ancient indigenous code, a new way to fight.

"All the youths of Cuernavaca are here today," shouts the radio announcer over the din, on Tuesday, March 6th, "as if awaiting the most popular rock group in the world."

The Zapatista entrance into the state of Morelos is being covered live on Channel 3 TV and various radio stations from Cuernavaca to Cuautla and other parts of this state that borders the south of Mexico City.

The motorcade slows. Bigger crowds, more stops demanded in each hamlet along the road. The glorieta — that is to say, rotary — entering Cuernavaca, Morelos, with the 20-foot-high sculpture of General Emiliano Zapata on his horse, machete sword held high, is swarmed by thousands, awaiting his second coming. The Zapatista bus stops and Marcos, his Sherlock Holmes pipe puffing, places a floral wreath at the foot of the monument, then silently boards the bus again to greet mass gatherings in the city center. The caravan crawls, then, toward Tepoztlán — the mayor, Lázaro Rodríguez Cárdenas, introduces the Zapatistas, first, with some words in the ancient Aztec tongue, Náhuatl. There, Marcos delivers the Second Key:

The Second Key
Tepoztlán, Morelos
March 6, 2001

"The silence which we are — we who are the color of the earth - has been shattered. Above its pieces, we are raising ourselves up. The possibility of our becoming again what we once were, and what we are not, is not at stake. Neither is our being what others turn us into. What is at stake is whether or not the place we already have, and in which we are, is recognized. It is the possibility of being with everyone and not under the others. The small we - of the great we which we are - does not matter.

"Everyone is important: those who make laws and those who legitimize them. Those who make history and those who write it."

The Abuela, María Luisa Tomasini, walks down Avenida Revolución in Tepoztlán after the rally. It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your grandmother is? "Abuela!" shouts the gringo reporter. "I’ve been looking for you since Juchitán!"


The Abuela comes on this night to the bizarrely titled NarcoNewsroom — where has set up shop to report on this leg of the caravan — and there she meets the 90-year-old elder of the Indigenous National Congress, don Andrés Vasquez de Santiago. She asks the Catalana novelist Maria Botey of Columna Press in Barcelona for a tape recorder, and the grandmother of the Zapatistas interviews don Andrés about his nine decades of struggle. Mind you, it’s past midnight, but these youngsters don’t stop. "I’m going to deliver this tape to the comandantes," she proclaims. Don Andrés retraces the story of Mexico from the Revolution of 1910 to the present.

Don Andrés then wants to know how she knows the gringo reporter. "I met him in the kitchen at Oventik in Chiapas, what was it? Four years ago?" the Abuela explains. "He looked hungry. His Spanish was terrible. I invited him to my house in San Cristóbal. And he came to visit. My daughter and I made him put down his little dictionary and speak Spanish without it. Eventually I adopted him as my grandson. Oh, my kids gave me hell for that. They said, ‘Mamá, all our lives you taught us to hate the gringos, and now look! You have gringo for a grandson!’"

Don Andrés howls with laughter. Erasto Urbina, one of the great young organizers of Civil Society in Chiapas since the 1994 rebellion, is in the other room, scanning his photos from the caravan, uploading them to the Internet. Others still are in the garden, swapping caravan stories; indigenous, foreigners, Mexicans, seres humanos: human beings. The reporter gets no sleep. At six a.m. he makes coffee and delivers the Abuela, Erasto and one of the foreign observers to the bus that will take them on to the state of Guerrero, Mexico’s most rebel state.

The mass meeting in Iguala, Guerrero on Wednesday turns out to be significant. This is a state with at least 16 covert guerrilla armies, according to the official spy agencies and their stapled reports. It is, per capita, Mexico’s poorest state, poorer than Chiapas, with a large indigenous population. When, six years ago, the largest of these guerrilla groups, the EPR, or Popular Revolutionary Army, attempted to ally itself with the Zapatistas, Marcos fired off an acid response, saying that the Zapatistas were a Chiapas movement without official connections to any foreign or domestic guerrilla organizations.

But on March 7th, 2001, in the middle of a caravan that Mexican President Vicente Fox has publicly welcomed as a step for peace, Marcos and the Zapatistas finally recognized the other guerrilla groups throughout the nation. "It is," the Abuela tells the reporter, "a threat to the government that they’d better comply with the San Andrés Peace Accords, or else…."

The Third Key
Iguala, Guerrero
March 7, 2001

"This is Mexico. In order to make war one must challenge the government. In order to achieve the peace with justice and dignity, one must also challenge the government. We, thus, are challenging whomever objects. We are challenging them."

The Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation on February 16, 1996. The agreement called for Constitutional recognition of indigenous rights, and the political, social, judicial and cultural autonomy of Mexico’s 56 indigenous ethnic groups.

Under the banner of "autonomy," the Zapatistas gave name to what is now — from Seattle to Prague — a global opposition to economic globalization.

Autonomy. What artist doesn’t want that?

The caravan, that same afternoon, left Guerrero and headed back into neighboring Morelos, to Cuautla, where General Zapata is buried. There the Zapatistas delivered the Fourth Message of the Seven Keys to Mexico City:

The Fourth Key
Cuautla, Morelos
March 7, 2001

"We shall, then, walk the same path of history, but we shall not repeat it. We are from before, but we are new."

Indigenous New Yorker Johanna Lawrenson, traveling today with the NarcoNews Team, listens to the Fourth Key from the Cuautla field where the Zapatista Command has assembled with its growing entourage.

Associated Press will claim there were "hundreds" present. In fact, there were many thousands.

Lawrenson, who hid out in these hills of Morelos in the 1970s with her fugitive late husband Abbie Hoffman, summons her memory of the Spanish language. "Did he say, ‘We are from before,’" she asks, "’but we are new?’"

Your writer will stay in the Newsroom the next day, too, as don Andrés, his colleague don Miguel, the Abuela, Johanna, three of her adopted daughters, and the novelist Botey from Barcelona continue on with the Caravan to Milpa Alta, entering the metropolis of América’s largest city, the heart of the hemisphere, México.

The band returns on the night of March 8th, International Women’s Day, and the Aztec moon is full. The writer cries out, "Where’s the Fifth Message? What is the Fifth Key? What did Marcos say tonight?"

The Catalana, Maria Botey, gloats, "Marcos didn’t say anything about any keys! The Comandanta Esther said it!" She plays her tape of the message:

The Fifth Key
Milpa Alta, Mexico City
March 8, 2001

"Those of us who take on a name and a mission, we are clothed and protected. He gave us the "nos" that we carry. The "yesses" are an inheritance from the principal ones that are the color of the earth. We don't have two faces. Two feet, yes we do. He who is one is she who is one, is the dignified and rebel woman who walks us. When the moon is a queen who carries three sadnesses, she announces that for three nights the force will be made stronger in the color of the earth.

"The seventh day of passage that left from the house of the Purépecha dawning, the color of the earth will paint all the lands that grow toward above. Only then will the pain begin to die. And the color of we who are the earth will dance with all the colors."

"He who gave us the ‘nos,’" everyone agrees tonight, was Zapata. "The principal ones," are the indigenous ancestors and few surviving elders.

"The three sadnesses," add Botey and the Abuela, "are being a woman, being indigenous, and being poor."

"The House of the Purépecha," don Miguel offers, "was the Indigenous National Congress in Nurío, where the Purépecha were our hosts."

Don Andrés taps his cane on the floor. "’The lands that grow toward above’ means that when it rains, the earth is like a sponge. It rises. This message tells us," says the elder, "that everything is going to work out. That all the rebel lands will benefit from this victory."

"Don Andrés," asks the gringo reporter who has traveled for four years in fifteen states with the old man, meeting his allies from indigenous ethnicities throughout Mexico, and considers his bright-eyed companion more as general than as shaman, "are you saying that we’re going to win?"

"Ah, Alberto," responds the elder, "what a shame that our time together is already coming to an end."

The Sixth Key
Xochimilco, Mexico City
March 10, 2001

"On the seventh day dawning from the step that we gave birth to collectively, the word will be veiled. On the shoulders of wheat, we will be bread with everything that we are. The land that grows toward above will open its eyes and ears to the color of the earth. That is to say, it will open its arms to us.

"The day will reflect the one in the mirror and the rebellion will reiterate history. March will see the silence made into splinters and another voice, the brown voice, will be among all the voices that sing."

The Zapatistas have entered Mexico City.

When was the last time that a poem changed the world?

What is the Seventh Key?

Marcos, as the sun fell like gold upon the Mexico City Zócalo, the giant city square, announced the Seventh Key. Marcos, his pipe shooting smoke signals to a thousand cameras and to half-a-million seres humanos assembled, spoke the final truth of the Zapatista riddle. And, now, the hard work has begun:

The Seventh Key
From the Heart of México
March 11, 2001

"The Seventh Key is... You."

And somewhere lurking under that Aztec sun, Samuel Taylor Coleridge smiled, and whispered, for those who wanted to hear:

"If a man were to cross through Paradise in a dream, and they gave him a flower as proof that he had been there, and if, upon awakening, he were to find that flower in his hand...what then?"


Al Giordano dreams that he is publisher of The Narco News Bulletin — - reporting on the drug war from Latin America. He receives email at