"Rebels of the Grains": Zapatistas and Rock and Roll

Rage Against the Machine is a rock band based out of Southern California that consists of vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk.[1] The four members combine strong music with heavy rhythms, accompanied by de la Rocha’s politically inspired lyrics capable of resonating with discontent individuals and alternative movements.[2] The band has described themselves as the expression of frustration with entities that include corporate firms, systems of government, and the media.[3] De la Rocha’s trips to Chiapas, Mexico go back to the early 1900s and have informed his lyrics to express unrest from first-hand experience among the Zapatistas.

De la Rocha’s interviews with newspapers and magazine journalists have repeatedly discussed details on his trips to Chiapas; one instance, he discussed working with and marching alongside peasants during his visits. De la Rocha joined Zapatistas by being part of a human chain that surrounded a building where Zapatista leaders met with the Mexican government. He even attributes picking up his smoking habit as a conversation starter while in Chiapas.[4] In 1995 and 1996 respectively, he witnessed peace negotiations between the two parties and experienced starvation alongside peasants as the Mexican army blockaded the village from the cornfields.[5]

The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional movement (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico has historical ties that draw inspiration from the 1870s. The national government and landowners have long been exploiting indigenous communities through schemes like enganche, or “hook” systems, which gave indigenous people advanced loans, knowing they were unable to pay them back. Unrest among the indigenous populations of El Norte (the North), Los Altos (the Central Highlands), and the Selva Lacandona (the Lacandon Jungle or Rainforest), has inspired them to create the EZLN. Officially founded in the early 1980s, the EZLN has targeted exposing their oppressors, educating the people of the countryside, and demanding livable conditions. As recent as 1994, the EZLN took up arms in a series of confrontations with the Mexican government in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Altamirano, Las Margaritas, Huixtán, Ocosingo, Oxchuc, and Chanal. During these uprisings, the EZLN demanded “work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, democracy, justice, and peace;” as a result, the series of clashes lasted ten days and caused up to 120 deaths from both sides.[6]

The EZLN has had prominent voices birthed from their movement like Subcommandante Marcos. His detailed writings inform others of the oppression his people face at the hands of the government and big businesses. He explains how its natural resources are exploited in return for nothing to its farmers. For instance, two-thirds the avocados, sixty-nine percent the cocoa, and half the corn produced in Chiapas goes to the national market. All while eighty percent of their people go hungry. Only oil companies and foreigners can cut down trees; otherwise, Chiapans are penalized a fee worth ten day’s salary plus jail time. Half of Mexico’s hydroelectric power comes from Chiapas, yet only one-third of Chiapan homes have electricity. He also goes on to mention that half the schools do not go higher than the third grade; seventy-two percent of children do not finish the first grade as most enter the exploited workforce to help their families survive. His writings have illuminated to outsiders why a revolution is necessary for the muted and exploited Chiapan voices.[7]

The connection between de la Rocha and the Zapatistas has created a bridge to show how connected we all still are, even if we are nations apart. This is visible through his lyrics in songs, for example, “Without A Face” and “Wind Below,” which both appear on the album Evil Empire (1996). De la Rocha writes:

“Maize was all we needed to sustain,
Now her golden skin burns, insecticide rain,
Down with DDT, yeah you know me,
I'm raped for the grapes, profit for the bourgeoisie”

These lyrics convey the exploitation of Chiapan agricultural resources at the hands of the national government. De la Rocha has also directly utilized words from Subcommandante Marcos’s “wind below” essay, giving birth to Zapatista phrases such as “we are the wind below” that re-emphasize the grassroots struggle experienced by Zapatistas: [8]

“Yes, rebel of tha grains stand masterless,
Tha masked ones cap one,
NAFTA comin' with tha new disaster”

He has also taken advantage of opportunities to educate others through supplementary mediums at his disposal. One example was interviewing political scholar and activist, Noam Chomsky, current professor at MIT and expert in globalization. During the interview, they discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement and the abolishment of Mexico’s Constitution of Article 27, which assured that Mexico’s poor farmers could own land.[9] These two topics continue to impact Zapatistas today.
Rage Against The Machine has successfully lifted the voices of an invisible group by connecting the Zapatistas to rock. More specifically, de la Rocha’s visits to Chiapas have inspired his passionate writing as he understands their struggle. The foundation of rock music is a form of rebellion, making the marriage between the two groups consistent and meaningful.