The Snail of the End and the Beginning

(Neoliberalism and Architecture or The Ethics of Searching vs. the Ethics of Destruction)

translated by Madeleine Collier

This essay, originally written by Subcomandante Marcos (Delegado Cero) in 1996, can be accessed in the original Spanish at the EZLN archives.

In the Lacandona jungle, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, there is a deserted settlement surrounded by heavily armed military posts. The name of this abandoned town was Guadalupe Tepeyac. Its inhabitants, the indigenous Tojolabals, were forcefully expelled by the Mexican government in February 1995, when federal troops sought to assassinate the leadership of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [EZLN]. 

However, it is not the painful exile of these indigenous peoples, who pay for their rebellion by living in the mountains, of which I will tell you. I want to tell you about an architectural work that was born at the edge of the then-vibrant Guadalupe Tepeyac, in July and August of 1994. Largely illiterate–the most educated among them have a third grade education–, the Tojolabal architects undertook, in 28 days, to build a structure capable of housing 10,000 seats for the event the Zapatistas called the National Democratic Convention. In honor of Mexican history, the Zapatistas named the meeting place Aguascalientes. 1 The gigantic gathering space had an auditorium for 10,000 seated attendees and an 100-member presidium, a library, a computer room, kitchens, sleeping quarters, and parking. It even, it is said, included an “area for staging attacks.”

Anyway, all of this is rather anecdotal and you can consult other sources (there are books, news reports, photos, videos, and movies about that period). Now the important thing is to talk about one detail that went unnoticed by all the attendees of Aquascalientes in Guadalupe Tepeyac in that year of 1994 (Aguascalientes was destroyed in February of 1995). The detail to which I am referring is so great that, because of its size, it could not be observed with the naked eye. I will now attempt to write about this giant and unnoticed detail.

It turns out that the auditorium and the stage were located at the center of a great snail of coming and going, without beginning or end. Allow me to explain, don’t get exasperated. The indigenous Zapatistas had built a more or less conventional auditorium: a kind of stage that resembled the keel of a boat, with a flat part at the front, chairs, and a platform with wooden benches (taking advantage of a hillside). Ultimately, nothing extraordinary. If anything attracted attention, it was that the benches were mounted on forked props and tied with vines. There was no metal in the stands. 

Setting about to resolve the construction of the dorms, the library, and the other facilities, the Tojolabal Zapatista leaders, now improvisatory architects, began to build houses in apparent disarray, randomly dotting the surroundings of the giant auditorium–at least, that’s what the Sup thought. 2 It was not until, making accounts of shelter capacity, that the Sup realized that one of the houses was chueca; in other words, it had a kind of incomprehensible rupture at one end. He didn’t pay much attention to it. It was Comandante Tacho, a Tojolabal, who asked him: 

“What do you think of the snail?” 

“What snail?” responded the Sup, continuing the Zapatista tradition of answering questions with questions, the eternal game of the question mark in front of the mirror.

“Well, the one that surrounds the auditorium,” responded Comandante Tacho as if he had said “there is light in the day.” The Sup stared at him and Tacho grasped that the Sup did not understand what he understood, so he led him to the crooked house and pointed to the roof where the crossbars made a capricious break.

“This is where the snail curves,” he said.

Surely the Sup made a “so?” face (like the one that you are making now), and for that reason Comandante Tacho quickly set to drawing a picture in the mud with a small staff. Tacho’s drawing depicted the location of the houses that surrounded the auditorium and that, thanks to the pitch of the “chueca” house, looked altogether like a snail. The Sup nodded silently after seeing the drawing. Comandante Tacho went to see about a canvas that could serve to cover the auditorium in case it rained.  

The Sup stood still in front of the crooked structure, thinking about how the “chueca” house wasn’t “chueca.” It was simply the broken curve that the snail needed to draw itself. He was there when a journalist approached to ask, seeking an answer of deep political consequence, what Aguascalientes meant to the Zapatistas.

“A snail,” the Sup replied laconically.

“A snail?” he asked, and stared at him as if the Sup had not understood his question.

“Yes,” he said. And, pointing to the broken point of the “chueca” house, the Sup retired.

Yes, I agree with you. The snail surrounding Aguascalientes could only be noticed from above. What’s more, it could only be seen from a certain height.

I mean to say that you would have to fly very high to notice the Zapatista snail that drew itself in these poor and rebellious lands. At one of its ends there was a library and at the other there was the old safehouse. The story of this safehouse is very similar to that of the EZLN in the indigenous Maya communities. The first Tojolabals who joined the EZLN made that little house far from the town, so that no one would see them. In it they held meetings, studied, and gathered the beans and tortillas that they sent to the mountains where the insurgents were.  

So. There was the Mayan snail. The spiral without start or finish. Where does a snail begin or end? At its internal or external extreme? Does a snail enter or leave?

The snail made by the Mayan rebel leaders began and ended at the safehouse, but it also began and ended at the library. The site of meetings, of dialogue, of transition, of seeking– that was the snail of Aguascalientes.

From which architectural culture did the indigenous Zapatistas take their idea of the snail? I do not know, but certainly the snail, this spiral, invites entrance as much as exit and, truthfully, I would not dare to say which, in a snail, is the part that begins and the part that ends. 

Months later, in October of the same year of 1994, a small civilian group arrived at Aguascalientes to finish the installation of the light in the library. They left after a few days of work. That morning, particularly cold and hazy, the moon was a promise on which to lay down your head and desires, and a cello bled a few notes at midnight and half mist. It felt like a film. The Sup watched from a corner, sheltered by shadows and his balaclava. A film. The end or the beginning of a film? After this group left, no one returned to Aguascalientes until the new year’s festival. Then they disappeared again. On February 10, 1995, airborne troops from the federal army took Guadalupe Tepeyac. When the army entered Aguascalientes, the first thing they did was destroy the library and the safehouse, the beginning and the end of the snail. Afterwards they destroyed the rest. 

For some strange reason, the breaking point of the “chueca” house remained standing for several months after. As it is said, it only fell when, in December of the year 1995, other Aguascalientes were born in the mountains of southeastern Mexico… 

All of the above demonstrates that the ethic of Power is the same as that of destruction, and that the ethic of the snail is the same as that of the search. And this is very important for architecture and for understanding neoliberalism. Or no?


So ends Durito’s report which, as you can see, is only for specialists… 3 

What is all of this about beetles, snails, and reddish moons? Well, the truth is that ten years ago, on another October morning, Old Antonio explained to me that the snail serves to see inside and jump above, but that I will tell you another time. 4

Now I will tell you about Durito’s presentation because he is very scrupulous in that, he says, “humanity should benefit from my great knowledge.”

Yes, you’re right. I also think that, for a beetle, he is quite conceited, but he says that errant knights are not conceited but rather are simply aware of the strength of their arms and the greatness of their talent when it comes to whipping and outwitting scoundrels.

Well, madam, I bid you goodbye. We hope that you will not forget that we are still walking about here. At least, we hope that you don’t forget too often. 

Right. Salud and the question that remains is: If one is inside a snail, which way should he walk? Towards the center or towards the outside?

From the mountains of Southeastern Mexico

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos

[1]The name Aguascalientes is a reference to the 1914 Aguascalientes Convention, the most representative revolutionary assembly of the Mexican Revolution. During the meeting, the revolutionary Zapatista, Villista, and Constitutionalist factions attempted to elect a new government following the fall of President Victoriano Huerta. Despite a series of bloody internal conflicts, the assembly managed to pass a series of radical land distribution, labor, and social reforms.

[2]El Sup or El Sub (short for El Subcomandante) is one of Marcos’s most popular nicknames.

[3]Many of Marcos’s fables center around the character Don Durito de la Lacandona, a beetle and knight-errant inspired by a drawing he received from a young supporter.

[4]The character of Don Antonio plays the role of Marcos’s mentor in many of his fables.