Marcos is Dead. Long Live Marcos!

“In order to live, we die.” Reflections on the passing of a mask.


It took me a while to absorb the news. It’s like hearing your favorite artist has died. (I don’t have one of those, but I do have a favorite living revolutionary.)

At 2:08 am this morning, Subcomandante Marcos announced that as of that moment, he had ceased to exist. In a statement made before those attending a tribute to Galeano, the Zapatista assassinated in the Zapatista community of La Realidad, the military head of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) noted: “If I were to define Marcos, the character, then I would say without hesitation that he was a mask.”

But now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on the translated statement, I’m kind of pleased. Marcos was meant to go. The timing seems right.

My outlook and life path changed dramatically on January 2, 1994, when I learned what had happened the previous day in Chiapas, Mexico: the rise of the Zapatistas, a mass insurrectionary movement unlike any before it, but a model and inspiration for many since.

“We are sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution.”
—Subcomandante Marcos, January 1, 1994

A charismatic and enigmatic leader who called himself subcommander despite being technically the head of the “military” wing of this barely militarized indigenous movement, the man called “Marcos”, or “El Sup”, was a source of fascination for many in my generation of activist organizers and left intellectuals. He always appeared behind a balaklava, constantly puffing at a pipe, never with a bandolier of ammunition that actually matched his own weapon. Warrior, poet, jester, revolutionary.

We devoured his writings and speeches. In our youth, we romanticized the struggle, even though we knew better. We also understood Marcos was a character born of the collective imaginations of the Maya he led. But most importantly, we argued spiritedly amongst ourselves over the best ways to apply the insights of the Zapatistas to our work in the North. Then we worked our asses off to follow through.

“In previous armies, soldiers used their time to
clean their weapons and stock up on ammunition.
Our weapons are words, and
we may need our arsenal at any moment.”

Subcomandante Marcos, 2004

Zapatismo is a non-prescriptive framework for struggle. Unlike other isms, it has very few tenets. Marcos said the objective of revolution is also its strategy: to exercise power rather than seize it. He told us international solidarity meant to struggle alongside, not on behalf of. He demonstrated that a radical intellectual can be an activist and need not dwell solely in the realm of thought. The lessons were simple and pointed, often taught through colorful allegory rather than platitude; especially taken together, they were profound.

Now, with the utterance of a single statement, Marcos is no more. He vanishes just as he arrived, saying of himself and referencing the recently assassinated Zapatista Galeano:

We believe that it is necessary for one of us to die so that Galeano may live on. So we have decided that Marcos must die today.

We have yet to learn if the man who portrayed El Sup for over 20 years will re-emerge in another guise. And Marcos’s lessons live on in those of us who carry forth his teachings, as they conveyed the ideals of the indigenous movement he represented, rather than fitting Zapatismo into our preferred ideologies the way so many Marxists, anarchists, and liberals tended to, like they had done with Che and others before him.

“We knew and we know that death is necessary so there can be life,
and that, in order to live, we die.”
—EZLN statement on the “death” of Marcos
25 May, 2014

I hope Marcos’s passing renews interest in his teachings. Surely they have been so well absorbed by Zapatistas in Chiapas and countless others from around the world who had the privilege of working with them, one needn’t even reach into the archives to find the lessons Marcos imparted.

Though that would be a fine place to start.


“It should already be evident, but I want to remark:
I shit on all the revolutionary vanguards of this planet.”
Subcomandante Marcos, 2003