[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable launching the Latin East Initiative. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Eman Morsi, Rania Jawad, Ali Mirsepassi, and Ella Shohat.]
Gustavo Chávez Pavón, an artist from Mexico City and a cultural promoter in the Zapatista muralist movement, painted a mural on the apartheid wall near checkpoint 300 at the northern entrance of Bethlehem in 2004. In an interview from 1 April 2008 about what Palestinians think about the paintings on the wall, Dawood Hammouda from Jerusalem comments: “Some activists also came and put real good political messages, e.g., the Mexicans came and put a slogan that said ‘To exist is to resist,’ this became a famous slogan within all the West Bank.”[i] In his observation, Hammouda evokes Chávez Pavón’s mural, which remains undocumented. Perhaps unintentionally and in a few words, Hammouda also summarizes a longer history of visual encounters and traveling murals that depict narratives of solidarity and the shrinking distance between Mexico and Palestine. This essay locates major landmarks in this history and offers some critical reflections on three threads that connect Mexico and Palestine: borderlands, walls, and indigeneity.
“Long Live Zapata, Long Live Abed al-Qadir al-Husayni” (Burhan Karkoutly, 1984)
“When the Mexicans came” to Palestine they first came with Syrian visual artist, Burhan Karkoutly (1932-2003) through his famous “Long Live Zapata, Long Live Abed al-Qadir al-Husayni” poster from 1984. Karkoutly, who was involved with the cultural mission of the PLO in the late 1960s, which called for galvanizing international solidarity with Palestine through dissemination of Palestinian art and cultural production, traveled to Mexico in 1980. Inspired by Mexican revolutionary art, particularly the murals of David Siqueiros (1896-1974), he designed several posters that center Palestinian landscape and Palestinian peasants as indigenous icons; a trend that mirrors the visual indigenismo of the post-revolutionary Mexican muralist tradition. In this black and white poster, the images of two armed revolutionary heroes from Mexico and Palestine are positioned equally side by side with aligned juxtaposition of the sombrero and the kuffiyeh and special lines that accentuate the similar facial features of two mustached men: Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919) and Abed al-Qadir al-Husayni (1907-1948). Zapata who championed “Tierra y liberated” (Land and Liberty), the slogan of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, promulgated the Plan de Ayala in 1991, which called for substantial land reforms and redistributing lands to the peasants. Written into the new revolutionary Mexican constitution in 1917, both the Plan de Ayala and the Agrarian Law that followed in 1915 “attempted at a comprehensive agrarian reform in favor of dispossessed peasant communities at the expense of the private estate”[ii], thereby affirming political and legal recognition of indigenous land rights. Zapata’s vision was brought back into the center of Mexican politics in 1994 when indigenous Mayan rebels in Chiapas mobilized as Zapatista revolutionaries and declared war against the Mexican state demanding land, cultural, and human rights for indigenous peoples throughout Mexico. Al-Husayni, on the other hand, led the Palestinian peasants in an armed struggle against the British during the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936-39 and later on against Zionist paramilitaries, including the Hagana and Palmach, until his death in the battle against the Zionist occupation of al-Qastal near Jerusalem in 1948. Until today, he is remembered as one of the leading figures that mobilized for indigenous Palestinian nationalism. In addition to its digitization in the Palestinian Poster Project Archive, Karkoutly’s poster has been reproduced and circulated in different visual formats, and it is available for purchase online at various vintage art stores. It is also framed and hangs on the wall at the lobby of the Palestinian embassy in Mexico as an emblem of Mexican and Palestinian historical ties and close relations.
“When the Mexicans came” to Palestine again in 2004, they arrived with an official invitation from the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem, Dr. Munib Younan. The invitation was extended to Juan Erasto Molina Urbina, from Chiapas, Alberto Aragón Reyes from Oaxaca, and Gustavo Chávez Pavón from Mexico City, welcoming them to be artists in residence for a month and to give lectures and children art workshops at the International Center of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem. While none of the artists were officially affiliated with the Lutheran Church, its support was instrumental for facilitating the mission that they came for: painting murals on the apartheid wall. In a personal interview that I conducted with Chávez Pavón in Mexico City on 7 October 2017, he observed: “We wore crosses and showed the invitation from the church at Ben Gurion airport, so the Israelis would let us in as religious pilgrims.” He also emphasized that he was the most active painter among the three and his murals can be found on the apartheid wall in Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, and Abu Dis, where he also painted a big portrait of Che Guevara and a message of support from the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional [Army of National Liberation], commonly known as the EZLN.
“To Exist is to Resist”: Mural painting on the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, October 2004
Courtesy of artist Gustavo Chávez Pavón (on the ladder)
“To Exist is to Resist,” is the title of the largest mural that Chávez Pavón painted on the apartheid wall in Bethlehem during his visit. After his return to Mexico, he painted a replica of it on the wall of one of the educational buildings in caracol Oventic, one of the major autonomous Maya Zapatista municipalities in the highlands of Chiapas. At the center of both, there is a portrait of a Zapatista rebel masked with a kuffiyeh. The captions under the determined eyes of the rebel and the maize at the bottom of the mural, however, are different. At the mural in Bethlehem, under the banner of “To exist is to resist,” written in English, a subtitle in a smaller black font in Spanish appears: “Viva Palestina libre abajo el muro facsista” [Long live Palestine under the facsista wall]. Twisting the word fascista in Spanish (fascist) as facsista is a playful irony that Chávez Pavón intended: “I wanted to make a joke of this wall and say fuck fascists at the same time.”[iii] However, at the mural in Oventic, which was collectively painted with the local Zapatista community and other international activists, the banner appears in several languages according to this hierarchical order: Tzotzil, Spanish, English, and Italian, hence: “Ts’ik vokol ja’ kuxle/ /Resistir es Existir/ To exist is to Resist/Resistere é Esistere.” At the bottom, there is a subtitle in Spanish that states: “De Chiapas a Palestina, la lucha por libertad nos hermana” [From Chiapas to Palestine, the struggle for liberation unites us]. While the presence of different languages on the mural demonstrates global solidarity with indigenous Mayan communities in Chiapas, the subtitle evokes affinity between Chiapas and Palestine as two distant geographies united by a global struggle for liberation.
“To Exist is to Resist” Mural in Oventic, Chiapas. Photo by Amal Eqeiq, December 2013
As noted earlier, one pictorial representation of this affinity is evident in the weaving of indigenous features of resistance from Chiapas and Palestine: the maize, and the ski-mask/kuffiyeh respectively. While the sacredness of maize among the Mayas in Mesoamerica is rooted in a pre-Columbian history that originates in the creation story of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, which describes Mesoamericans as people made from maize, the material power of this cultural symbol has grown significantly in the late twentieth century due to the increasing threat of GMOs, a threat that became more existential after the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. In Chiapas, the struggle for maize took cultural and economic forms. Anthologies of Mayan poetry and narratives dedicated more attention to the increasing number of texts in Mayan languages about maize. The publication of photography books by Mayan authors to illustrate the central role of maize in the cuisine and history of indigenous peoples of Chiapas, such as Ixim/Maíz/Corn by Emiliano Guzmán Meza (2004) is another example of this cultural celebration of the sacred grain. At the economic front, the struggle for maize translated into indigenous reclamation of both the land and the market. In addition to developing alternatives to chemical-intensive agrarian technologies, several Mayan organizations, including peasant collectives, such as the Unión de Ejidos, and autonomous Zapatista communities, developed organic farming to produce maize, coffee, beans, and honey, among other fruits, for niche markets in Mexico and abroad.[iv] Moreover, the trade of corn across the Mexico-Guatemala border particularly increased as Mayan farmers considered the cultivation of non-GMO corn crops as a fulfillment of their goal to “defend their right to land and substances, protest the effects of neoliberal economic policies, and assert their right to commercialize corn over the border.”[v]
The integration of maize in the mural is a symbolic invocation of indigenous resistance and survival. It also evokes a parallel struggle in Palestine: the struggle for olive trees. Symbolic of Palestinians’ attachment to their land, olive trees are continuously uprooted with structural aggression that denies and disturbs this form of belonging. Several settler-colonial forms of violence endanger the survival of olive trees in all of historic Palestine. Organized Israeli military invasions that destroy Palestinian landscape, the confiscation of olive groves territories, the separation of Palestinians from their olive groves through fences and buffer zones that extend the territory of the apartheid wall across the borders of partition and occupation in 1948 and 1967 respectively, the attacks of settlers on Palestinian farmers during the harvest season, and home demolition are among these violent operations, which are supported by both the colonial laws of the Israeli state and the international corporations that facilitate its operating apparatus, most notably Caterpillar and its heavy machinery that continues to destroy Palestinian life and livelihood. According to a special report on olive trees in Palestine, in 2014 approximately forty-five percent of the total Palestinian land under cultivation is planted with olive trees and since the first Intifada in late 1987, Israeli authorities uprooted more than half a million trees, eighty percent of which are olive trees. An infographic from Visualizing Palestine from 2013, however, estimates that Israel has razed over eight hundred thousand Palestinian olive trees since 1967, a number that “equals to thirty-three central parks.”
The bold eyes in the image with a fierce look peering at the viewer from a small opening in the facial cover that surrounds them resembles both the kuffiyeh of the Palestinian freedom fighter and the ski mask of the Zapatista rebels from the EZLN. This visual blurring between the kuffiyeh and the ski mask highlights further the similarity between the struggle for liberation in Palestine and Mexico. This visual blurring is camouflaged further in a new mural that Chávez Pavón revealed in Mexico City on 15 May 2017 during a special event in commemoration of the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Nakba. In this mural, Zapata is transformed from being in solidarity with Palestine into fighting for Palestine. He stands tall, a kuffiyeh around his body, a rifle in one hand, a campesino’s machete in another hand, and an intifada slingshot in his rear pocket; at the front of his sombrero, the slogan “Viva Palestina en lucha!! [Long live Palestine in the struggle!!]” is printed.
Palestinian Zapata Mural revealed during Nakba Memorial Day in Mexico City, 15 May 2017. Courtesy of artist Gusatvo Chávez Pavón (to the left)
Interestingly enough, the story of the traveling mural “To Exist is to Resist” demonstrates that indigenous affinity and performance of transnational solidarity are inextricably linked. First, “To Exist is to Resist” visualizes one of the most popular Palestinian anthems of sumud and indigenous resistance: “Here We Shall Stay.” Written in 1966 by Tawfiq Zayyad (1932-1994), one of the prominent poets of the movement of shuʻaraʼ al-muqawamah (Resistance Poets) in the 1960s, the poem, which is regularly performed during Land Day commemorations, Nakba memorials, Palestinian marches of return and rap festivals, affirms that Palestinians will remain on their land despite the ongoing displacement, erasure, and dispossession of Zionist settler colonialism. The symbolic subversion of “To Exist is to Resist” by writing it on the apartheid wall yields an ironic reiteration of the line “Here we shall stay/Like a brick wall upon your [chest],” and hence a poetic dismantling of the wall itself:
As though we were twenty impossibilities
In Lydda, Ramla, and Galilee
Here we shall stay
Like a brick wall upon your [chest]
And in your throat
Like a splinter of glass, like spiky cactus
And in your eyes
A chaos of fire.
(Translated by Sharif Elmusa and Charles Dori, Jayysi, 327)
Second, the replica mural of “To Exist is to Resist” still exists in Oventic, whereas the original one in Bethlehem, unlike the apartheid wall (for now), disappeared. On 23 January 2018, I spent a day in Bethlehem looking for the missing mural. I drove around the city a number of times and walked alongside the wall by foot wherever it was feasible. Unable to locate it, I began asking the locals about it, showing them pictures of it on my phone. The pictures were from the private archive of Chávez Pavón taken in 2004 when the construction of the wall was still in progress, and more recent ones that appeared in the book Facing the Wall.[vi] The frequent responses that I received were: “They erased it,” “It was erased,” “I remember seeing it, but there are so many murals now. Banksy probably painted over it!” In light of this, one can conclude that the mural disappeared sometime between 2011 and 2017, and most likely in 2017 when Bansky established The Wall Off Hotel in Bethlehem and turned several sections of the apartheid wall around the hotel from a public space into a private property by appropriating the wall to paint numerous over-layered graffiti, canvases, and images, many of which are in fact an illegible pastiche. Although this aesthetical transformation of the wall conveys Banksy’s signature of satire, one must yet ask: Did Banksy sacrifice other expressions of global solidarity with Palestine at the apartheid wall to promote his own brand?
Less than a five-minute drive from the nascent tourist hub stretching along the alley between Banksy’s hotel and the wall, there is evidence that “the Mexicans came” again. At the external wall of al-Bandak building across from the barbershop at the entrance of Aida Refugee Camp, there is a mural of solidarity between Palestine and Mexico. Painted in the colors of the national flags to represent the two countries, two colorful hearts are anchored on the world map. A Palestinian and a Mexican heart connected by a quote in English against consumerist capitalism. The quote is attributed to Martin Luther King: “We must rapidly begin to shift from things oriented society to person oriented society.” ‘Abd al-Rahman Akram al-Wa‘ara (fifteen years old) who participated in painting the wall with other children from the camp and other members of the Aida Youth Center recounts: “The mural was painted in 2014 in collaboration with youth in the camp and four Mexican female artists. You can see the imprint of my hands on the mural.”[vii] While my research for identifying the names of the four Mexican artists who took part in this mural is still in progress, a video about murals in Aida Refugee Camp affirms that this mural was in partnership with Beyond Walls project, a US non-profit organization based in Massachusetts whose goal, according to its website, is to “engage[s], create[s] and manage[s] public environments that foster a sense of place and safety.” Who sponsored this mural and who mediated the visual dialogue between Mexico and Palestine in Aida Refugee Camp through the civil rights movement in the United States are two critical questions that must be investigated further. Yet, it is very clear that the political message of alliance and solidarity in this small mural resembles larger solidarity murals with Palestine painted in the United States, most notably, the Oakland Palestine Solidarity Mural and the Olympia Rafah Solidarity Mural Project. The explicit imagery and language of joint struggle depicted on these murals as well as the cross-racial alliances mobilized to create these murals in the first place are a vivid recognition of a viable triad connection between Mexico, Palestine, and people of color in the United States, and the intersection of indigenous struggle and racial oppression.
Palestine and Mexico Mural, Aida Refugee Camp, Photo by Amal Eqeiq, January 2018
The disappearance of the mural “To Exist is to Resist” on the apartheid wall in Bethlehem and the reappearance of a distinct mural that nonetheless embodies its ethos of affinity speaks to an intriguing tension between erasure and disappearance in the context of the archive and the repertoire. As Diana Taylor argues, embodied memory in performance entails “multiple forms of embodied acts that are always present, though in a constant state of againness. They reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next. The repertoire both keeps and transforms choreographies of meaning.”[viii] On the one hand, while the slogan of sumud was erased in Bethlehem due to capitalist art that over-fetishizes resistance, it was reclaimed and archived in Oventic to preserve collective cultural memory and restore the dignity of indigenous struggle. On the other hand, while the mural that displayed the slogan of “To Exist is to Resist” disappeared from the apartheid wall, it was not erased from the collective memory of the people who witnessed it in Palestine. On the contrary, its original message was reiterated in Aida Refugee Camp, albeit on a different wall and with an additional geography of resistance. This exchange exemplifies what Tuhawi Smith describes as the alternatives that indigenous people offer each other: “The survival of one community can be celebrated by another. The spiritual, creative and political resources that indigenous peoples can draw on from each other provide alternatives for each other.”[ix] In other words, indigenous solidarity fosters dialogical emancipation and reciprocal carving of creative spaces that enable indigenous peoples to engage with critical decolonial practices that are aligned with their view of “rerighting and rewriting”[x] their position in the world without reproducing them as either the Other or the subaltern.
If “To Exist is to Resist” was introduced in Palestine when “the Mexicans came,” then “Jumping over the Wall to See the World,” was introduced in Mexico when “the Palestinians came.” Khaled’s Ladder, the installation that the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar created in El Paso/Juarez alongside the US-Mexico borderlands is a pioneering example of staging Palestinian resistance to the wall in Mexico. In this public display of a free-standing ladder sculptured from eighteen-foot rail dismantled from the border wall in Tijuana, Jarrar transgresses the blockage of the imagination in order to incite people to cross the US-Mexico land over the planned Trump wall, which is designed to stretch thirty-five to fifty-five feet high alongside the entire 1,989 miles of the of US-Mexico border. This ladder as “a monument somewhere to where people can see” (Jarrar, 2016) to cross over the wall establishes a mental bridge that defies the very purpose of the wall: separation. Introducing the ladder as a material tool and a symbolic cultural artifact that Palestinians regularly employ to go over the twenty-five-foot tall apartheid wall that stretches for 440 miles is a concrete example of sharing strategies of survival and epistemologies of resistance among indigenous peoples.
Jarrar’s ladder sculpture at the US-Mexico border, 2016
In fact, recycled material from the wall and a stand-alone ladder are recurring motifs in the repertoire of Jarrar. They function as metaphorical and physical destruction of the wall by cracking holes in its massive structure that colonizes both the land and the imagination of the colonized. This trend is evident in Jarrar’s series Upcycle the Wall (2013 & 2014) which features sculptures, such as a football, football shoes, and table tennis racks, made from concrete chipped from the apartheid wall in Jerusalem. The molding of the fragments taken from the wall into light and mobile objects is a provocative conceptual and material reconfiguration to contrast its hegemonic and omnipresent structure. The ladder from the US-Mexico borderland was replicated in Jarrar’s installation Castles Built From Sand Will Fall (2017) in the center of Ayyam Gallery in Dubai. In the middle of the modern gallery, a similar stand-alone ladder was erected to tower above a wall that was constructed to bisect the gallery space. While the ladder in the open air of El Paso/Juarez incites people to imagine crossing over the border, the ladder in the confined space of the gallery in Dubai invites visitors to walk around it and go through a gap in the wall shaped as a map of historic Palestine. In both installations, the ladder prompts going through the wall to access stolen land thus invoking a parallel history ongoing border crossing across the borderlands of Mexico and Palestine since 1848 and 1948 respectively.
As indigenous affinity between Mexico and Palestine is further intensified by the increasing parallels between the underling racist and colonial logic of the planned Trump wall and the apartheid wall, the political mobilization against walls and anti-immigration policies around the world in general, and in the Americas in particular, has adopted the solidarity between Mexico and Palestine as a popular slogan of global resistance to racism and capitalism. For example, the poster for the World People’s Conference, which took place in Bolivia in June 2017 featured a stencil of an elderly Palestinian woman in a traditional embodied dress leading a march against the wall together with a younger woman in front of her holding the sign that rejects walls and demands equality and dignity to all people, thereby visually representing the theme of the conference: “For a World without Walls. Toward Universal Citizenship.”
“No to Walls! Liberty, Equality and Justice for the Peoples!” Bolivia, 2017, artist unknown
In this visual narrative of indigenous affinity between Mexico and Palestine, we observe several examples of transnational solidarity based on multiple levels of engagement with local, national, and global forms of networking between various communities of activists, artists, cultural promoters, and border-dwellers that transgress the limits of binaries constructed by the colonial logic of Euro-modernity, such as East/West, North/South, primitive/civilized, and human/savage. In foregoing alternative routes to exchange epistemologies of resistance to asymmetrical histories of conquest and settler colonialism, the indigenous peasant, the displaced refugee, and the undocumented immigrant, create an authentic intercultural dialogue that draws on different traditions of liberation, including Black liberation/resistance, which ultimately contributes to the “realization of a pluriverse”[xi] world, or as the Zapatista vision of liberation describes it: Otro mundo es posible: Un mundo donde quepan todos los mundos. [Another world is possible: A world in which many worlds fit].
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[i] Avinoam Shalem et al., Facing the Wall: The Palestinian-Israeli Barriers, (Walther König, 2011), 175.
[ii] Brian R. Hamnett, A Concise History of Mexico, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 211.
[iii] Personal Interview, 7 October 2017.
[iv] George Allen Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello, Basta! : Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, 3rd ed. (Oakland, Calif.: Food First, 2005), 153.
[v] Rebecca Galemba, "Taking Contraband Seriously: Practicing “legitimate Work” at the Mexico-Guatemala Border," Anthropology of Work Review 33, no. 1 (2012), 722.
[vi] Avinoam Shalem et al., Facing the Wall: The Palestinian-Israeli Barriers, (Walther König, 2011).
[vii] Personal interview, 23 January 2018.
[viii] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, (Duke University Press, 2003), 21.
[ix] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (London: Zed Books, 1999), 105.
[x] Ibid., 288.
[xi] Ramón Grosfoguel, Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity, ed. Mohammad H. Tamdgidi and George Ciccariello-Maher (OKCIR, the Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science, 2013).