They say truth is stranger than fiction. But Zapata Rose in 1992, a short story by ASU professor and author Gary Keller, is an even stranger phenomenon--fiction that turns out to be truth.
Released nearly two years ago as part of a compilation of Keller's other work, Zapata Rose is the tale of a poor and ragged group of Indian peasants in the far-south Mexican state of Chiapas that--led by the spirit of long-dead revolutionary Emiliano Zapata--revolts against the corrupt government.
In other words, it's a story almost exactly parallel to what actually happened in Mexico on New Year's Day, 1994--when unknown numbers of gun-toting Indians, their faces shielded by bandannas and calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, took over a half-dozen villages and embarked on a bloody guerrilla campaign.
How is it that this long-simmering caldron failed to gain the attention of Latin American experts and media gurus but was foretold with uncanny accuracy by a foreign-language professor in a locally published novella?
Keller says it wasn't just an example of life coincidentally imitating art. To make this geopolitical prognostication, he says, Keller spent years taking a close look at the cultural and economic traditions of the long-neglected Indian population.
"These people have been abused for so very many hundreds of years," says Keller, an award-winning poet and author who is well-known in the national Hispanic press. "Being familiar with the Chiapas region and the centuries the Indians have spent under the bootheel down there made it fairly simple to guess that something would happen eventually."
Keller obtained that familiarity by growing up along the border, from California to Texas, where his family made a living hauling scrap metal from the U.S. to Mexican dumps. His immersion in Mexican culture, he says, made it clear not only that an uprising was inevitable, but that the Zapata legend would be an integral part of it.
Norteamericanos remember Zapata, if at all, as a mustachioed, sombrero-topped renegade with a sash of ammo strung across his chest. But to the Indians of southern Mexico, he is a figure of deep emotional and political significance.
An Indian peasant himself, Zapata was a primary leader in circa-1914 revolutionary Mexico. But unlike many of Zapata's less-revered contemporaries (Pancho Villa among them), pristine air wafts around his legend.
According to that legend, Zapata became a revolutionary not to garner personal wealth or glory, but to lead his fellow peasants in a campaign for agrarian reform. When he was assassinated in 1919 by enemies within the movement, he was instantly enshrined as a martyr.
"To the Indians," Keller says, "Zapata is pure, like Abe Lincoln in this country. And there is enduring belief that he will return one day to help his people regain the land."
In Zapata Rose, the bullet-riddled corpse of the old revolutionary literally rises from the grave to do just that--and with great success, too. Zapata unites the Indians--who are mostly of Mayan descent--with tribes in Arizona, and together they succeed in hijacking the power grid and several major highways in Mexico and the southwestern United States.
Any chance the real-life Indian peasants might have drawn inspiration from this stirring fictional success? It's not likely--almost all of the Zapatistas are illiterate, and the prose of Zapata Rose is not easily accessible.
With its manic pace and its liberal mixture of English and Spanish dialogue, Zapata Rose can be especially rough going for a gringo. Keller doesn't so much write as explode, unleashing torrential paragraphs that sometimes threaten to drown the reader. But the frantic meter of the writing reflects the chaos and mystery of the Indian world, and suggests that there may be hidden strength--both political and military--within the long-dormant Mayan culture.
Keller points out that the Indians had constructed a sophisticated civilization--the occasional human sacrifice notwithstanding--throughout what is now Mexico and Guatemala while the Europeans who would become their masters were still building huts out of dung.
What the Indian peasants want, Keller says, is to reinvigorate that grand society. And Zapata's legend is inspiration to help get the job done.
"The Indians have been run off the land, impoverished and ignored for 500 years," Keller says, explaining why he chose 1992--the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World--for the title of his story. "They are fighting a kind of economic warfare against long-standing grievances, and Zapata personifies that fight so very well."
While Zapata's actual dusty remains haven't been spotted causing trouble in Chiapas, some say his invocation as an emblem of the real-life rebellion is an ominous sign of resurgent communism in the Western Hemisphere.
Zapata, his critics charge, was no cuddly egalitarian, but a sort of Mexican Lenin--an original collectivist bandito intent on redistributing wealth according to the Marxist blueprint.
Keller scoffs at such warnings of a red tide rising in Chiapas, calling them "flat wrong and hysterical."
"Writing off these folks as Marxists does a disservice to the great Indian traditions," he says. "They have long been communal people, and to label them and their goals as somehow subversive is ridiculous."
Whatever the ideological nature of the Chiapas rebellion, Keller says, it is clear that the Indians' concerns must be addressed--or Mexico will risk engendering anarchy.
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"Unless the Mexican government takes steps to integrate these people, who are basically subsistence farmers, into the economic life of the nation," he warns, "this rural rebellion is likely to become a permanent guerrilla movement.
"We'll see bombings, kidnapings; it will be like a low-level infection in Mexican life that doesn't kill the patient but plagues it for 30 years."
Perhaps, in light of his recent track record, Keller's analysis of the big-picture meaning of the Chiapas rebellion is worth a listen, too. Noting that Indian dissatisfaction is not confined to one tiny, far-off Mexican state--but is, instead, a worsening nationwide crisis--Keller gives a grim forecast.
"The uprising in Chiapas was a little message to the Mexican government and all of us," he says. "The poor have to be accommodated in this world. They have been put on the back burner for too long.
"They're knocking on the door. And they're coming in.