In an ethnographic interview conducted in June 2007, leaders of the autonomous community of Oventic in highland Chiapas, Mexico discussed with me and a colleague the meaning of the caracol (snail) as a Zapatista symbol. They explained that the ancient Maya ancestors used a conch shell as a horn to summon people to gather in one place as a community. Their ancestors lived during less technologically advanced times, they noted, when the world moved at a much slower pace than today, much like the slow-moving caracol. Today the symbol of the caracol expresses the ideals of small community government in the face of globalization. The caracol represents the ideals of an autonomous Zapatista government with direct reference to a distant Maya past on two levels, and connects the Zapatista present with a conception of the Maya past as a direct and logical historical trajectory. Other icons frequently employed by the Zapatistas, such as pyramids and glyphs, reference more blatantly the ancient Maya past. The symbolism of the caracol is more subtle, yet more powerful in the meaning it relays.
Mayan Identity and the Zapatista Movement
The Zapatista movement began officially in eastern Chiapas, Mexico in 1983. The movement derived its name from Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution. The Zapatistas are often characterized as the first post-modern revolution, perhaps unjustifiably so, and have abstained from violence since a cease fire was brokered in 1994 (Johnston 2000). The movement is most often associated with anti-globalization, anti-neo liberalism, and indigenous rights. Zapatistas gained much attention by vociferously opposing the NAFTA free trade agreement in the early 1994 (Rich 1997). The outside world recognizes Zaptista rebels by their black ski masks (pasamontanas) and red bandanas (pallacates).
Though famed Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos, is not of Maya descent, the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas, Mexico consist primarily of indigenous Mayas and the movement is focused largely on indigenous rights (Duran de Huerta 1999). The Zapatista movement demonstrates a strong interest in establishing connections with the ancient Maya past (Benjamin 2000; Gossen 1996). In communicating political and social aims, the Zapatistas employ a rich artistic symbolism that portrays continuity of Maya cultural heritage from the ancient past to rebellious present. One symbol in the forefront of Zapatista visual representation is the snail, or caracol. The caracol, employed as a symbol in both word and image, represents autonomous Zapatista government entities, or Juntas. In this representation, the symbol of the caracol embodies the Maya past as a basis for present Zapatista ideals.
A contemporary building with ancient Maya imagery
Weaving the Past into the Present
Weaving has been a part of Maya culture from ancient times into the present. Many of the intricate woven designs and color pattern exhibited in the textiles worn by Mayas are specific to particular towns in Mexico and Guatemala and communicate that communal identity through their uniqueness (Schevill1984; Schneider 1987).
For that reason it is no surprise that the Zapatista movement uses textiles as a vehicle for the communication of ideas. A number of weaving cooperatives abound in the state of Chiapas (Eber 1999). Autonomous Zapatista Communities, such as Oventic, support the efforts of Zapatista women and girls participating in such cooperatives. The symbols woven into many of the textiles communicate not just the intended meaning of the individual artisan, but the meaning of the community as a whole, and the Zapatista movement generally. Through extension, the meaning of these creations is rooted in the Maya past through mode and means of production, as well as intent of expression.
Semiotic Analysis of the Caracol
The caracol offers an interesting symbol to analyze within the framework of the Peircean semiotic system. This system differs from the semiology of Saussure by adding a third role in the action of a sign, that of an interpretant to mediate between a sign and the object to which it refers. (Houser 1992; Singer 1984).
The embroidered caracol of the Zapatista textile above is an icon that refers through the mediation of an observer to a snail as its logical object by way of mimicry. The symbol is the idea of the snail that the icon refers to, not the icon itself. If the idea of the snail in the mind of the observer refers the observer to the esoteric meaning assigned to the snail by convention with the Zapatista community, then the symbol of the snail has realized its potential through the three-part action of semiosis. The snail is an icon within a symbol that refers to another symbol as its object. The meaning of this symbol is derived from its creator, the artist, and communicated to its observer. The action of the symbol operates as a triad, as does each constituent element within the larger symbolic action or semiosis. This triadic relationship is characterized as sign, interpretant, and object operating in concert to realize the potential of the symbol.
Think of the snail as a sign waiting to be acted upon, hovering in a state of potential awaiting the realization of its object. This potential is not realized until the interpretant, in this case an observer, relates the sign to its object, the meaning of the sign, the thing that it refers to as determined by its creator. But the meaning itself is further broken down as a triad of meaning on several levels. The snail refers to the past by its reference to the Maya conch shell, but also makes a recommendation for the future by referencing a slowing of “progress” in the encroaching global economic system. The present, the government, in this case acts as the interpretant, mediating the meanings of past and future in a singular three-part entity. The present is the bridging force that draws its trajectory from the potential of the past to the object or concrete manifestation of the future. The agency of the sign is hinged on whether or not its meaning is understood and whether or not this understanding prompts a change in its observer that may manifest in the form of an action or simply a new perspective as potential for later action. This is also a three part action, where the creator of the sign becomes the potential in the form of intended meaning, the observer becomes the object or ultimate goal of the potential, and the snail acts as the interpretant mediating between its creator and its observer. The snail derives its agency from its creator and exercises this agency when it prompts the intended reaction in its observer. The observer then becomes the potential in the next triad, or rather; the meaning of the snail which has now manifested in the mind of the observer resides there as potential, awaiting the action of a new interpretant.
The creator was the object of the potential of the Zapatista movement as a collective entity, for example. With the potential realized and manifest in her beliefs, and her mind endowed with Zapatista symbolic meaning, the potential is passed, with her creativity acting as interpretant, to manifest as the snail, or object. So the creator is a conduit from the larger potential of the movement and the observer is a conduit in to larger world outside, or a conduit to recycle the symbolic meaning locally, thereby perpetuating and reinforcing its symbolic meaning through habit. The potential of the Zapatisa ideals, if fully realized through the agency of the sign, manifests in the larger world outside, then the object through a larger triadic action that can be broken down into a complex system of smaller symbolic actions that all work toward a larger object. The Zapatistas connect with their past and communicate this to the world with signs that reference that past as an agent for a better future through specific actions in the present. Ideas about the past, whether real or perceived, are relayed by the symbol of the snail, a small conduit in a very large symbolic action, connecting past and future, local and global, the diminutive caracol de resistencia is indeed a vast repository of meaning.
Special thanks to Rebecca Meyers-Galemba and Dan Galemba.
All photos by Thomas Urban.
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