Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley: A River that Runs through History

The mural, Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, recreated at City Lights Books, San Francisco
The mural, Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, recreated at City Lights Books, San Francisco

In April, 1998 after most of three years in Chiapas, Mexico, installing drinking water systems in villages supporting the Zapatista struggle, the village I was in, called Taniperla, was invaded and occupied by Mexican military. It happened that, in Taniperla, an artist named Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba had guided the painting of a mural celebrating village life and the Zapatista struggle. The mural was destroyed by Mexican authorities during their occupation of Taniperla.

Upon returning to San Francisco I organized the reconstruction of the mural on the wall of City Lights Bookstore. There, in Jack Kerouac Alley, the mural persists today, as fresh as the day it was finished, fourteen years ago. The mural, known as Vida y Sueñoes de la Cañada Perla, has been recreated in dozens of other sites around the world, and is celebrated as el mural magico, for its constant reproduction, like corn from buried seed. 

I recently had the opportunity to reestablish a relationship with the artist and to conduct an interview with him about his work, his vision, and the persistence of revolutionary art in Mexico. Following is the entire interview, reproduced in full.  – Jeff Conant, March, 2013

Interview of Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba

Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba is a Mexican muralist, caricaturist, painter and arts educator who has taught for many years at the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Xochimilco in Mexico City. In 1998, he guided the process of creating a mural in the remote village of Taniperla in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas. Taniperla, a Tseltal Mayan community, was an important base of the Zapatista rebellion, and at the time was being declared the municipal headquarters of a newly established Zapatista autonomous municipality. In an act of violent state repression, the Mexican military occupied the village, destroyed the mural, arrested and deported a dozen foreigners present in the village, and jailed the artist and several others.

After its destruction, the mural, known as La Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, came to be reproduced around the world. The collaborative process Sergio Valdéz used to produce the mural has come to be an important method for popular painting in Chiapas.

I conducted this interview with the assistance of Claudia Medina, in September 2012.

Jeff Conant: As an artist and educator, what drew you to Chiapas in the first place?

Sergio Valdéz: What drew me to Chiapas was, basically, curiosity. In the university, a professor was asking us to help develop graphic work for an event about human rights and education, to be undertaken with Tseltal indigenous communities. We were three professors, and we were somewhat resistant to the idea. One of the arguments I gave for not wanting to undertake the project was that developing graphics for people I didn’t even know seemed to me to show a lack of respect.

So the professor, Antonio Paoli, wrote a phrase in Tseltal: Ji ix el ta muk’ – a phrase that means ‘respect’ in Tseltal. He then did a linguistic analysis of the phrase, and concluded that, when a Tseltal speaks about respect, the literal translation is, ‘the heart is made larger with the other person’.

This struck me as a great contrast to how we talk about ‘respect’ in Spanish. In Spanish, when we use the word ‘respect,’ it has implications of authority, of distance. The dictionary might say something different, but in reality this is the meaning: to draw a sort of line between two people based on a relationship that is essentially hierarchical, one person standing above the other. So I thought, what a sensational, marvelous culture! The very concept is a poem: to grow the heart, to make oneself larger with the other. So I said, I want to get to know this culture. And that’s what brought me to Chiapas.

I knew about as much as anyone else about the phenomenon that was unfolding in Chiapas, just from reading, from the press, basically the newspapers, La Jornada, El Proceso, and the communiqués of the Zapatistas. So, we headed to Chiapas out of sheer curiosity, to get to know what was going on there, and to make posters and the graphic pamphlets as we were asked.

JC: What sparked your initial interest in doing a mural there, and in what sense was the struggle in Chiapas fertile terrain to develop your projects?

Sergio Valdéz: Once we were there, we took on the role of human rights observers, as a way to get to visit the communities. We were three professors and Antonio Paoli, and of course, there we met up with others, who were also foreign to the place. They gave us jobs, sweeping, standing watch, and other tasks that they routinely gave to the human rights observers, and they set us up in the hut that was called the Civil Peace Camp, a very precarious little hut, like all the houses there, I suppose – you could call it the architecture of precarity: A tin roof, wooden walls, a dirt floor.

We set about making some art, we went around taking photos, making drawings, with the plan to stay about a week. One day, they asked us if we could help them make a sign. I said sure, I’d be glad to. The others then had to leave, but I stayed on and I helped to make the sign, with very basic materials: half a liter of black paint and an eighth of a liter of white paint on four beautiful pieces of mahogany that had been cut with a chainsaw and planed by hand.

So, we painted the sign, and when we were just about done, one of the authorities arrived, surely one of the clandestine Zapatista leaders. Let’s remember the context – at this time, the autonomous municipalities were not public. They were being developed in the shadows. The Zapatista uprising began in 1994, and this was 1998, so they’d now spent four years developing their autonomous municipalities. And in my understanding, this was going to be the first of the autonomous municipalities to be declared publicly. What they had asked me to make was the sign declaring this an autonomous municipality, to be set in front of the municipal headquarters.

Now, when I say an authority, the man I saw was a poor campesino, not in very good shape, very modest, very humble, tall. We didn’t speak, I was busy painting. I’d already painted Flores Magón on the sign, and I’d painted Zapata. And, the only thing he said was ‘mamalito chingón.’ I didn’t understand what that meant, but someone later explained to me that mamal means old man, so what he said was a Spanish-ization, he’d called me a ‘bad-ass old man.’ And he walked off.

Paoli, when he left, said, the guy was a commandant in the EZLN [the Zapatista Army of National Liberation]. I had no idea, but when Paoli told me the guy had called me a bad-ass, I felt like my work had been approved.

So one day, just before I was going to leave, some other authorities came down from an encampment they had up in the hills. One of them asked if I could give them advice about making a big painting for the façade of the municipal headquarters. I didn’t even quite realize that he meant a mural, they didn’t have any concept of a mural. They just knew they wanted to represent something on the building.

And it’s there that the question arises about pedagogy, politics, education. At that time I had been a professor for a number of years, 15 or 20. The University where I work is not a traditional University, it is a very progressive University, with a modular system you only find at the Xochimilco campus, whose fundamental bases are Marx and Piaget. So, with this experience, with my political concerns, and above all, based in recent work I’d been doing on collective creativity, a lot of ideas came up to respond to their request.

Their motivation was to make a painting that would be foundational for their autonomous municipality. I had never before worked with indigenous peoples, let alone with illiterate people, and this was a great challenge, to work with the indigenous people, to help bring out their creativity so that they would develop the ideas that would go into the mural. We then agreed it would be best if they came from different communities, because it would then represent the whole municipality. I knew that if we were able to capture the ideas of the ordinary folks of the different communities, we could come up with a painting that was interesting, and relevant to the whole municipality. And if this was achieved, surely what would appear in the painting would be the fundamental values that form the basis of their community life.

So, we could unite these three intentions, and there would be a synergy that allowed me to design a course adequate for the circumstances. I agreed to return and help develop the painting. I knew from that moment that the expressions that would come out would represent their rebellion, their struggle for autonomy, and that the work would be, essentially, political.

This was a social struggle in which they are trying to achieve very important transformations. These people, known as Zapatista rebels, are people who emerged from the obscurity of a history in which they’d remained for many centuries. They’d been kept in obscurity as much by the pre-Hispanic kings as by the invaders, the colonizers, and, after the independence of Mexico, by the internal colonists, as they’re called now – they were now colonized by Mexican nation. And then, of course, again by foreigners. From their perspective, Chiapas is distinguished, just like other parts of Mexico, by large properties belonging to foreigners, including entire towns and cities. Chiapas is practically foreign.

At this moment in the rebellion, the arms had been set aside because of the truce between the government and the rebels. Now they were at peace but in resistance, and in control of their territory, autonomy, and communications, in ways that were foreign to the government. So obviously this was fertile terrain to develop ideas that would be coherent with the ideals and aspirations of this great collection of people that formed the Zapatista rebellion.

JC: At the time when you developed the project, what was the environment like in the Zapatista communities?

Sergio Valdéz: Taniperla was very poor and very far from everything, and it was recognized by the government as a center of the rebellion, so there was a military base there with about 300 soldiers. This was about 300 meters from the municipal headquarters, which is to say, it was right in the community.

While we were in the process of the making the mural, we worked together in a one-room shack and there were no problems. We worked in the civil peace camp for twelve days. Then, some PRIistas [government supporters] showed up to watch what we were doing, essentially to spy on us, but they didn’t do anything. Then when we began to paint on the wall, the army came out to provoke us; they photographed us and videotaped us, helicopters flew over low to blow dirt on us. The helicopters were very loud, and it created an environment of fear and constant tension. Still, there was a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the rebels, for the construction of their autonomy and their municipality.

I was, frankly ignorant of the political atmosphere. I knew something about Zapatismo, I can’t say I didn’t – I knew I was working with the Zapatistas, but I didn’t know all that much about what was going on politically behind the scenes. It wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was a bit of a mystery, and the people were very enthusiastic. More than anything, for me it was an opportunity to do popular education within the plastic arts, that is, painting, and to do it within a social, cultural, political context. So for me it was a very rich experience, a beautiful experience.

This was the environment, desperately poor. Taniperla was one of the oldest of the communities that were founded by the fleeing of the indigenous people from the fincas [large plantations based on a model of serfdom that existed well into the twentieth century] going back to the ‘40s and the 50s. In drips and drops people escaped from the fincas, the owner would look for them – where the hell did they go, it’s time to plant? They’d come back and plant, then escape again, return again, go with the family, then finally flee altogether. And these are more or less the stories that we know in the cañadas, [the river valleys that characterize the topography of the Lacandon Jungle] – people escaping one by one, one by one, and founding these communities that were the product of this exodus. Drop by drop, drop by drop, they formed communities of people who didn’t have a peso to their names.

In the long period leading up to the rebellion they had gone about taking over lands, by every means possible – by just settling it, or through invasions, or by attacking the landowners. For a long time before the uprising, they went about reclaiming land. Well before they had an idea of having a rebellion, they had been acting like rebels.

JC: How do you understand this mural as public art?

It’s public art because it is in the public eye. Maybe the question refers to public art in urban centers – sculptures, paintings in public spaces, many other kinds of expressions. These can all be called forms of public art. But it seems to me that it would be pretentious to call what we do art – more properly speaking, what we do is popular painting, painting as a popular expression.

I have my own judgments, my own doubts about using the term ‘art’ so freely, no? I consider art to be very demanding and to require great rigor, so I’d be careful about using the word ‘art,’ as such. But yes, I consider it public art, emerging, popular, public art.

JC: What role does public art, murals specifically, play within the Zapatista struggle?

 Sergio Valdéz: I believe we have to distinguish two things. Of the paintings made in Zapatista territory before 2002, the great majority were made by visitors. Visiting painters, with the best intentions and the best objectives, would make a gesture of solidarity with the Zapatistas. But they did it from own points of view – the point of view of the outsider, the foreigner.

In 2002 a solidarity organization from Barcelona did an inventory of the paintings that existed in the Zapatista zone, and they counted 823. But of these 823 paintings, I guessed, not even ten had involved the participation of the indigenous people. All the others were painted by foreigners. This is one group of paintings.

The other group of paintings, which is still just barely getting going, are paintings by indigenous people, with their ideas, with their ways of seeing, and their own concepts. Of these, the Taniperla mural is the very first. This is my own speculation, I don’t have any proof, but I believe that this was the first, and although I was involved as a person from outside, I intervened to facilitate their process in creating, with their own resources, this painting that is now known as the Taniperla mural.

JC: What relevance did this artistic intervention have nationally and internationally?

Sergio Valdéz: To begin, one of the things that really excited me was that the people made the painting their own from the beginning. They didn’t consider it a gift, they considered it their own. Even people who didn’t know what they were doing, people who arrived for the fiesta to celebrate their autonomy, they arrived and said, “see how beautiful my mural looks.” So, from the very beginning, they claimed it as their own. This is the first thing.

I believe that, though we don’t realize it, that paintings of this nature, with a social message, a political message, apart from their important cultural role, have an important place in the history of Mexico. Above all, if we take into account that the first contribution from America to universal art was Mexican muralism, an art that originates from America, from Mexico. There have bee murals for thousands of years, naturally, beginning in the walls of caverns, and continuing inside palaces, churches, etcetera.

There have always been murals and they’ve always been relevant, and they’ve always had very specific social uses. Paintings in the churches for example have the social purpose of indoctrination, of creating convictions, of cultural domination. This comes out of Europe in the Middle Ages. Then you have the Egyptians, with their paintings as well, though they weren’t destined to be public – they were painted for the dead, and they were sealed off when the tomb was sealed off, to accompany the dead.

The desire to paint exists in every culture. But there are always direct social uses, for religion, or for war, or for economic reasons. And all of this is political. But Mexican muralism is distinguished because it is made for the public, to bring about very specific social ends.

Mexican muralism developed roughly between the ‘30’s and the ‘60’s. During that time it was not only tolerated, but promoted by the Mexican state, dressed in revolutionary garb. These murals that we admire so much in the National Palace, in schools, in the universities, in government buildings, were valued by the Mexican state.

It made everyone think Mexico was a very revolutionary country, and there was a sort of symbiotic game going on between the state and the revolutionary painters, including those who were in the communist party, and other tendencies, that finally

turned these artists into elites who earned a lot of money. And these are the antecedents.

So what are the repercussions of the Taniperla mural? There are books that show the Zapatista murals, where they are called Zapatista murals, but what are shown there are murals made for the Zapatistas, not murals made by the Zapatistas. The first one made by the Zapatistas is the Taniperla mural.

This mural and all the others have served to spread the word about the Zapatista struggle. What we can say is that the paintings made in Zapatista territory, made by whoever, have served to strengthen the Zapatista movement. Though some authority, I think from [the Zapatista village of] Morelia, said, “they go ahead and make paintings, but we don’t understand them. They make their paintings on our walls, but we don’t know what they mean…”

JC: What was the process of envisioning and painting the mural?

Sergio Valdéz: Here is where we put into practice the workshop of making the mural. First, I arrived and I presented myself to the authorities, I asked when the people would arrive, and I requested that people come from different communities, so that the mural would represent the whole municipality. I didn’t understand at that time their form of working that, despite living in different communities, that if a task was to be done for the whole municipality, that people would come from different communities, and in this as in many other areas, my ideas about popular education, acquired in the university, coincided with the way of working in the indigenous communities. And it was logical, because popular education was born from the forms of education in the communities, not in Mexico, but in Brazil and in other countries, but mainly from Brazil where Paolo Freire developed the idea of the pedagogy of the poor, from which the notion of popular education, as it is now taught in the university, descends.

So, the people arrive, sixteen of them. All of it was a surprise for them, many didn’t know what the task was, so everything was new, a challenge. I began with techniques, group integration, etcetera, and above all I asked them to draw what they wanted to appear in the mural. First a quick explanation – we’re going to make a big painting where there will be many elements, and among those things, please draw what is important to you. So they drew what they saw as important for themselves and for the community.

We showed the drawings, some of them very basic – several of the people had never so much as held a colored pencil, and, in general we had a lot of fun. After each round of drawings, everyone interpreted the drawings, each person would explain what they had drawn, and I asked questions to draw them out, what is this, oh it is work in the milpa [the corn field], so I’d ask, what do you do in the milpa, what do you grow, what do you do with what you grow, etc. etc., and so like this I went looking for more depth in the drawings they made.

After three days of doing this I received a very unpleasant surprise. As a professor in the university, the most common way to work is that you work with the same group until the course is complete. But here what happened is that one or two or three people suddenly told me they had to leave. After three days, at dinner, one of the guys announced that he was going to leave in the morning. So I asked, what happened, weren’t you aware that this was a job that would take 20 days, or a month? Yes, yes they told me. So, you don’t like it? No, I like it. Okay then, why are you leaving? Well, I just came to work for three days. It came out that this was how they worked. Another one was planning to leave tomorrow, another the next day, and on like that, but they would be replaced by others who would arrive. So, I had to adapt to this situation, which was, essentially a failure of my calculation, because I hadn’t known their ways of working.

So I decided, I’d continue working as if they were the same group the whole time, and we’d make do. Two days later, when the group was entirely new, I received another surprise: those who arrived didn’t work the way western people work. When we come to a job that’s already underway, we ask questions, and we might even start over. Here they didn’t arrive with this attitude – they arrived with a much more simple and much more practical attitude: what has to be done, how is it to be done, and what part of it is for me to do? And this resolved everything – this attitude of not questioning but just taking up the work.

So we worked like this for twelve days, generating ideas. The work went on largely in silence, drawing in silence, one single piece of paper, two people drawing two different themes, but they had to relate to each other. And they had to do this in silence. So, they made drawings with two people, and then with three or four, in groups of up to six people. The work of developing a single drawing on diverse themes, by six people, is a very lovely process, very intellectual, that allows communication without words that is very interesting.

We made a great number of drawings, but in the end, we had three drawings that were put forth as proposals for the painting we would put on the wall. The group decided to unite the three in one single drawing, and this is how the final draft was agreed on. All of this with a constant exchange of people. So, we began painting, and the work went the same way – someone would paint for a few days and then would leave and be relieved by someone else.

I had two ideas then – one, that it would be only the indigenous people who would paint, and the other, that I would not contribute any ideas of my own. So the painting went along, with only indigenous participants painting. We achieved my goal of not contributing my own ideas, but then, in the process of painting, some hands that were not indigenous joined us, one of them a mestiza and the other a foreigner, and they brought some ideas that were taken into account. But beyond this, we can consider that this is a work conceived and carried out by indigenous people.

The participants were all young men. I had originally hoped for the voice of women, but this capacity was not very well developed yet. In these communities, the customs and traditions are very restrictive for women. These are things that are questioned by the rebel movement, but the role of women is essentially very limited in this culture, as it is all around the world. It’s a very paternalistic world, I’m afraid to say.

JC: It seems to me that the pedagogy, the process, was as important as the result. Why was it important to you to undertake the mural in this way?

Serio Valdéz: Obviously, my objective was to achieve the ideation of this painting by the people, in a way that would engage them and that they would enjoy. This was a participatory process, and for this reason I tried to keep my ideas out. It was for both personal and political reasons – that it should be just they who carried out the work.

Why is it important to me to have done it this way? As an artist, I could have gone there to paint what I thought, and I could even have listened to them and painted my perception of what they said. But this strikes me as giving too much prevalence to the ego. In these years, I was working consciously against my own ego; this was painful, because working against the ego is painful. But it was very fruitful. And this attitude turned out to be very important, above all for the municipality, for the region, for the Zapatista movement – that it would be their own ideas, not the ideas of foreigners. Participation, diversity of opinions, all of this is part of the pedagogy that we worked with. You could trace it to many forms of pedagogy, but basically the point is to engage participation.

JC: In what sense was the project an attempt to incarnate practices articulated by the Zapatistas, such as ‘todo para todos,’ (‘Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves’), ‘mandar obediciendo,’ (to lead by obeying), and the concept of a ‘un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos’ (a world where many worlds fit)? That is, in what sense is the mural an example of Zapatista philosophy as it was being articulated at that time?

Serio Valdéz: I believe that during the process, we discovered many things. As I said before, at the beginning I didn’t know much; I had no more information than anyone who reads the newspaper. From the process I began to learn how to listen and how to act on these ideas of ‘mandar obedeciendo’; in this moment the notion of mandar obedeciendo still wasn’t very well known. Nor was the idea of a world in which many words fit. So, the influence of these ideas came to be more widely recognized during this work, and after. You can see very clearly that the ideas I brought from my own background corresponded strongly with the ideas that emerged in Taniperla, and thus we had a positive result: the process of painting itself always had an atmosphere of fiesta, of being a game.

It struck me as important that they gave a lot of space in the painting to the militia. The first plane is a picture of daily life, the present, the past, and aspirations for the future. And in the background, behind the hills, they put the militia, a large number of them, ninety or so, and I asked them, why are they in the hills? Ah, because they are taking care of us. There you see very clearly the notion that one thing was the civil bases, and another was the combatants, their army, to take care of them. This was the popular conception in this moment.

And so, at each step it was very interesting, the opportunity to draw out meanings from the painting. The Zapatista philosophy begins from popular education, from their ancestral practices which are very distinct from post-industrial views. Their culture is still based in the land, and in defending the land, while modernity and post-modernity exist to exploit the environment, to advance the over-exploitation of resources and contempt for traditional societies, because these societies stand in the way of exploitation.

JC: The mural was completed just in time to celebrate the inauguration of the autonomous municipality in rebellion, Ricardo Flores Magón. What role did the mural play in this event, and how was it perceived by State authorities?

Serio Valdéz: In the first place, the communities that attended the inauguration party for the municipality, represented by 600 or 800 people from different communities, quickly took ownership of the mural, as we said earlier. I proposed in my first questions, is it possible that people with no experience at drawing, through listening to their own experience, could generate a painting relevant to their community? Clearly, it was highly relevant. It was unique, in these remote regions, it was the first painting of its kind, on a wall, in the entire municipality, and it was a great event for the heart of the communities…

Then comes the operation to repress the municipality. About 40 hours after we finished the mural, 1200 soldiers arrive in fifty trucks, from all the police forces of the state, the federal police, immigration, and the army. Twelve hundred soldiers invading a community of barely 2500 people, no? If we take into account that most the villagers are children, it was one soldier for each villager, or more. It was a very effective theater of terror: they burned down houses, a community kitchen, an auditorium that had been recently built by the Zapatistas. And obviously the mural was a target of this repression.

I imagine that the painting bothered them not only for being Zapatista, but because it spoke so clearly to people who were largely illiterate. It spoke volumes about the richness of the struggle to people who could barely read, so obviously it was very troubling, and they destroyed it immediately, before my eyes. They painted over it, and finally, weeks later, they stripped the plaster off the building and re-plastered it so as not to leave any trace.

Clearly I was indignant, not only because I witnessed the repression, but because I was a victim of it, arrested and put in jail for a long time. I didn’t know if I was going to spend twenty years in jail, if I’d be tortured, so I was angry. But I also felt a certain satisfaction: the mural had achieved its objectives: it was foundational for the community, it was creative and collectively claimed. But above all, when I got into this, I didn’t have any experience with murals – I was a cartoonist, a designer, a caricaturist, so all of this was new for me, and I wanted to try this project that would get beyond the ego, and there was a great chance it would fail. But as it turned out, it was successful – I had developed a form for doing popular painting without falling into academics and without teaching people to paint, but rather by inspiring them to paint. So for me it was very valuable, and it served its purpose.

JC: Your imprisonment must have been very difficult. Did you have any idea while you were in prison, that he mural had become a seed that was beginning to be planted all over the world?  

Serio Valdéz: I was in the jail over a year, but after just a few days there, one of the things I thought about constantly was the method we’d used to produce the mural. All of us who were jailed in this operation joined an organization called The Voice of Cerro Hueco, made up of Zapatista prisoners. We were all in one big room, sleeping on the floor, 72 prisoners in a room of 70 square meters, with nothing but cardboard boxes to sleep on. In one of the assemblies, after I’d been there a month or six weeks, I proposed that we paint a mural there, inside the prison. I was still excited by the method. For me being in jail, all of the anger of being jailed, this was secondary. I was obsessed with the method we had discovered, and I had a strong desire to try it again. The majority of the prisoners were Tojolabal Mayans from the municipality of Tierra y Libertad who were apprehended in the same chain of operations that began with Taniperla.

So we began. Obviously we couldn’t consult with the community because we were in jail, but we did consult with all of the visitors that came from this municipality. There were always a lot of visits. We conducted interviews, sometimes people would even stay with us for several days, and the process was very successful.

JC: How do you understand the proliferation of Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla?

Serio Valdéz: This phenomenon is very interesting… Obviously, if the painting hadn’t been destroyed in the context of a repressive military operation, it never would have transcended the original work. It would have stayed in the community, the community would have enjoyed it until the colors faded in the sun, and then maybe we would’ve repainted it, or maybe not. And nobody would’ve even known of it.

So, by being destroyed the way it was, in the perverse way it was by the government with all the harm they did during the operation, the destruction came to be very significant for national and international civil society that supported the Zapatista struggle. And a phenomenon was unleashed which had nothing to do with me, it was a spontaneous, international happening – nobody came to any agreements with anybody else, but rather the Zapatista solidarity groups took it up as a very powerful symbol, to spread the word about the Zapatista struggle and demonstrate their solidarity.

So, they began to do reproductions very quickly, but not in a way that was entirely random. Here two things happened – a rapid response from some colleagues from the University. Victor Ortega had some photos from the operation in Taniperla, and he reproduced them digitally and doctored them in Photoshop, and Paoli distributed this image through emails that went around the world.

So, very quickly the mural became known through the circumstances in which it had been created and destroyed. Obviously this provided visual material, and it was converted into a Zapatista icon. Zapatismo was recognizable now by way of the ski mask, the red bandana, and the Taniperla mural. These are like the iconic figures that represent Zapatismo.

So, this very lovely phenomenon, I don’t know how to interpret it, repeats itself now in Argentina, now in Germany, now in Spain, now in Italy, now in Canada, now in the United States, and in many countries and in many cities of these countries, the mural is reproduced, sometimes at scale, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes in better quality, sometimes less quality, but always with this great heart of the Zapatista movement. It’s a phenomenon very particular, a communication effort that no one could have planned or articulated. This was the only way it could have happened.

JC: How many reproductions have there been?

Serio Valdéz: I have counted 46 reproductions of the mural that have been painted. I can’t count the number that appeared in print, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of printed versions. It has had repercussions everywhere, suddenly some group says lets make postcards, or posters, or a calendar, or the cover of a book. There have been theses on the theme and it has been presented in anthropology conferences as a recent work of Mayan art. That does not only give homage to Mayan artists of the past, but also those of the present day.

JC: What does this spontaneous explosion of reproductions mean?

Serio Valdéz: What does it mean? That there are noble hearts everywhere… That this is a marvel, that something on which I collaborated has been taken up as a symbol of something very noble, the Zapatista struggle, which has now given birth to so many other struggles in the world and that continues being a model for social struggle.

JC: What is the lesson of the mural, in regards to the criminalization of free expression and repression of social struggle?

Sergio Valdéz: I believe the lesson is to continue painting, and to continue painting in this way – to promote popular, participatory painting. That social groups should take up the mural as a medium of communication.

There will always be repression, as long as there are people who want to dominate or to maintain their privilege. I believe, in the end, that for those who do not choose to take up arms, the mural is our firearm, our pencils are our rifles, and our colors are our shots.

JC: What is the interest of the State in repressing social art and the artists that produce it?

Sergio Valdéz: The state is always going to repress whatever bothers it. We’re not talking just about the Mexican state, but of the hierarchy of North American financiers. Four or five years ago, I don’t remember who, but some financiers announced that in Latin America there are many walls painted, many murals, and we better go taking them down because they make people restless. That is, there is a clear sense of painting as subversive. For their established order, for the hegemonic class, the dominant class, the exploiting class, painting will always be a threat, if it is not juts portraying beautiful things, children playing, or erotic art for their own enjoyment, like in the ancient world, for example in Pompeii for the nobles.

Painting is subversive, because art, genuine art, is always subversive. It’s subversive for art itself, whether or not it’s subversive for the ruling class. Art always breaks with previous conceptions, this is its nature, it is revolutionary, always. For this reason it will always be a threat for the dominant classes, and if it is compatible with social movements that question the current social order, even more so.

JC: Almost fifteen years later, how do we understand the impacts of La Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, both the original and the many reproductions?

Sergio Valdéz: It’s an expression of solidarity and of the internationalization of this movement. The impact of the Taniperla mural is so strong that we’ve gone on working in the same zone. Like the rebels we are, they put me in jail for painting one mural, and now we’ve painted about 100 more. More than 100 in the region, and more beyond the region. With this method we’ve discovered that we can paint murals in very different social and political contexts, in very different cultures, urban as well as rural. But these are questions for another interview.

JC: Have there been any advances since the original painting in the question of sociopolitical art, or a greater acceptance of the struggle for indigenous rights?

Sergio Valdéz: I keep painting rebel paintings in the Zapatista region, and we can name several very evident advances. Now there’s great interest in develop paintings as a way of defending their territory, as a way to mark it as Zapatista territory, as didactic material for children and adults, as a medium to pay homage to their heroes, as a way to represent those who have fallen in battles, the events that happen internal to the movement, of which there are many, to strengthen their identity, to reinvent themselves and transform themselves through self-perception.

The popular Zapatista murals are, finally, a window through which outsiders can see them, and a mirror by which they can see themselves. It is a very strong and very durable medium of communication. A mural will be there two, five, ten, twenty years, something that no newspaper or magazine and television broadcast can claim. The mural remains and is enjoyed over many years.

Remember the title of the mural: Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley. There you have represented daily life, the past, the present, the aspirations of the community.  In the murals they are painting now, what you see are local stories: how the community was founded, what struggles there have been, the battle of Ocosingo, these kinds of things that are relevant within the movement. In the end it is a document, or a documentary, made by the people who are living the story.

— September, 2012


Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

One thought on “Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley: A River that Runs through History

  1. 13 years ago I was so lucky that I had the chance to participate in recreating this mural in San Fransisco. at the time I didn’t realize fully the symbolism in the act, but it has grown on me through the years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: