BOOK REVIEW / The oldest literate culture makes a comeback: 'Zapotec Struggles' - Ed. Howard Campbell et al: Smithsonian Institution Press, 15.50 pounds

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The Independent Online
WHEN, at the beginning of this month, armed Indian rebels seized five towns in southern Mexico in the name of the famous early 20th-century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the temporary takeover attracted international media attention. Yet a much more extraordinary - and much more successful - Indian takeover has been carried out elsewhere in southern Mexico without so much as a whimper of press interest from the outside world.

In the state of Oaxaca (adjacent to the state which witnessed this month's uprising) a remarkable Indian political party has won control of three towns - not through the barrel of a gun, but through the pen, the artist's palette and the ballot box. The culture behind the party is that of the New World's oldest literate people, the Zapotecs, who are enjoying a political and cultural renaissance unparalleled in Latin America. That renaissance is described in a new book, Zapotec Struggles, published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The work - an anthology of articles, poems, songs, speeches, stories and art, drawn from modern Zapotec political and cultural sources - reveals the burgeoning creativity of this ancient people.

The anthology's prose and poetry illuminate the roots of Zapotec political thought and the vital role of culture in the movement's political life. The co-editor, the University of Texas anthropologist Professor Howard Campbell, who has studied the Zapotec renaissance in detail, believes it is one of the most politically successful indigenous movements in Latin America. 'All that has been achieved has been done by Indians in a country where being Indian is usually associated with poverty, marginality and weakness,' he said.

The Zapotecs first flourished 2,700 years ago, long before the Maya or later Aztec civilisations were even heard of. Today their political party - known as the Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Cosei) - is the first political organisation to defeat Mexico's governing party at any level, local or national, for 64 years; it is now campaigning in 30 more southern Mexican towns.

In the areas under its control Cosei has taken land from the rich and from the government and given it to the poor. It has launched a health programme and established a series of new local clinics, and has launched new educational initiatives. The Zapotec language is used in local government and in many schools in Cosei-controlled areas; a literacy programme - based on Zapotec, not Spanish - has been launched among Indian villagers. Zapotec poetry, art and literature are flourishing - and a Zapotec modern art movement has taken root in the heart of Cosei territory in Juchitan's Casa de la Cultura. There is even a Zapotec language radio station.

Cosei and its sister cultural movement are strikingly modern in outlook, yet their roots are in the world's oldest literate culture. Their civilisation first emerged in around 700 BC and developed writing a century later; and despite later domination by the Aztecs, the Spanish and the modern Mexican state, the Zapotecs succeeded in preserving their language and much of their culture. Their recent electoral success was preceded by a long and intermittent struggle, in which armed insurrections broke out in 1550, 1660, 1715, 1827, 1847, 1866, and in 1911, when the area was the scene of a Zapata-style revolt.

Zapotec ethnic and linguistic identity has made Cosei a potent symbol of defiance against the national government. In terms of Latin America as a whole, Cosei's Zapotec renaissance could yet become the non-violent model for a rebirth of Indian power and culture in those other parts of Latin America where Indians comprise substantial segments of the population.