From the Jungle to the World: Reterritorializing the Rural-Urban Divide Toward an Eco-Urban Revolution

Multi-layered collage: Zapatista indigenous rebels moving on a boat, standing in the jungle, merging with the urban landscape of Mexico City. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Contesting growing environmental-economic violence means, not least, mobilizing solidarity as a political practice that can help to (re)territorialize the conventional rural-urban dichotomy in order to promote political agency in the articulation of transnational activism and alliances. Drawing on the uprisings in Mexico’s Lancandon jungle in the 1990s and other movements since, Claudia Villegas Delgado’s contribution to the “Kin City” series shows how such struggles prefigure the eco-urban revolution of the 21st century.


Solidarity works only in the coming-and-going of mutual recognition and respect. Reflecting on the waves of protest that have sought to make sense of the social forces driving our collective experience – those associated with the emergence of a global social justice movement in the 1990s and those that have blossomed in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 (Robinson, 2004) – I believe that solidarity, as a political practice, has helped to (re)territorialize the conventional rural-urban dichotomy in order to promote political agency in the articulation of transnational activism and alliances. Conceptually, this driving force allows us to take forward Henri Lefebvre’s “urban revolution” (1970) to reflect on the extent to which cities – as engines of social and economic change – now prefigure the articulation of a geographically transnational arena in which spatial difference and forms, including cities and nation-states, work for the benefit not only of capital but also of working class and dispossessed communities.

In what follows, I will try to show how, in practice, this activism paves the way for the realization of the emancipatory potential of urban metabolism, allowing radical social forces to converge – in the same place and time – in the centrality of the city and its public spaces.

In 1994, the Farmers Union of Nebraska was among the first to show solidarity with the Zapatista indigenous rebellion in the Lacandon jungle, a strategic natural reserve, but also a territory of deep infrastructural marginalization and dispossession in rural Mexico. From the margins of the country and the Mexican state, the Zapatistas waged war against NAFTA and neoliberal policies. Their idea of making a revolution without taking power has undoubtedly helped to reinvigorate anti-capitalist and anti-systemic activism in the Global North. And today we can continue to learn how the Zapatistas, under military siege, used geographical imagination to mobilize the solidarity of European and U.S. metropolitan activism in and out of the Lacandon jungle, jumping geographical scales and annihilating the material and symbolic space that alienated the jungle from the rest of the world.

From the countryside to the city

The solidarity they reaped by organizing key events such as the “Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism” (1996) and the “Zapatista Escuelita” (2013 and 2014) proved this, as they managed to overcome the North-South economic and cultural divide by drawing sympathizers and activists from the metropolitan core to the margins of the rural South periphery. To achieve this, they built five central spaces to initiate an intercontinental conversation on local-global issues and used them in 2013 to share their ideas and strategies on freedom and autonomy. These experiences helped the Zapatistas to gain recognition and respect, no longer as a peasant or indigenous rebellion from rural Latin America, but to enter the arena of the global justice movement under the umbrella of Zapatista and neo-Zapatista activism.

In the end, Teresa, my teacher at the Zapatista Escuelita, was right: Perhaps the path of solidarity is that of coming and going from the countryside to the city, recognizing that in this transit we all learn the meaning of dignity and the value of fighting for it. Teresa was 21 years old, born the year before the uprising. Her parents and grandparents told her what the war was like, what happened before and what happened after. So she and her generation are politically prepared and ready for whatever comes next.

An “Occupied State of Mind,” en español

In the fall of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement made headlines in New York City and beyond. As the banner wars intensified and the social forces behind it continued to occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park, eventually transforming it into Liberty Park – the people’s park – a different mood began to fill the air. It was Occupy Wall Street en español.

As in 2006, when Latin American immigrants marched and symbolically “occupied” major U.S. cities to demand full labor and human rights for undocumented workers, in 2011, new and older generations of Spanish speakers – native-born and immigrant – took to the streets and public squares to answer OWS’s call for direct action against the super-rich 1%. Throughout the fall of 2011 and into May 2012, immigrants – many of them undocumented workers from rural Latin America – organized OWS assemblies, marches, and protests en español. I followed them to learn more about immigrants’ ethnic and political backgrounds and strategies of resistance in their places of origin. As in the case of the uprising in the Lacandona jungle, I found similar networks and North-South spatial threads that allowed immigrants to act in solidarity with OWS and, most importantly, to unite in public space to organize the revolt of the 99%.

Most notably, May Day 2012 in NYC, International Workers’ Day, was a coordinated action between OWS, local unions, and the May Day Coalition for Immigrant Rights. On that day, a banner of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, MIR, an armed militant movement that fought against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, flew in the hands of Victor Toro, a Chilean Mirista in exile in NYC. For Victor, himself an undocumented worker, “class struggle is the essential thermometer of history”. I believe the convergence and alliance of Latin American undocumented workers and Occupiers protesting in a park in the heart of Wall Street came just in time to prove it.

Thinking kinship in the city

For years, I have been trying to use research to recover and share some of the stories behind the social forces that are challenging the effects of neoliberal policies in the North and South of capitalism, especially to account for the creative efforts of dispossessed and targeted communities (Villegas, 2017). I have found that the inspiration that drives them to fight against the capitalist system, its contradictions and inequalities, comes largely from a lived and historical continuum woven around solidarity learned from different cultural, geographic and class traditions and passed on to the next generation. The examples shared, which show the instrumentalization of this knowledge to turn (urban) public space into an arena for class struggle, demonstrate this. But they also show that real historical changes are long-term and take time.

Today, governments, policy makers, activists and scholars recognize the centrality of urban revolt – of the poor and now of the middle class – as a trend in contemporary urban experience, including debates on the right of the city. As in the 1960s, contemporary urban contestation is once again opening a window to new possibilities for thinking and producing the city differently and making it a spatial engine for global urban justice.

With this focus, I have arrived at spaces of dignity, a concept that I initially developed by observing the use of civil and peaceful resistance in the Zapatista rebellion to build autonomous spaces to achieve better living conditions and demand the recognition of the political, territorial, and cultural rights of indigenous peoples in Mexico (Villegas, 2008). The comparative scope of the concept, I hope, can be useful to reflect on different perspectives on the city – from academia, activism, and social collectives. The question that drives me is how the space-dignity-solidarity nexus challenges the metabolism of the capitalist city and orients it toward the creation of a transnational geographic arena that fosters the multicultural, multiethnic, and cross-class activism that meets and connects in our cities today.

Towards an eco-urban revolution

In attempting to understand contemporary capitalism, William Robinson (2004) categorizes some of the specificities that distinguish it from previous episodes of crisis. He arrives at the notion of global capitalism and suggests that the very crises of global capitalism prefigure today’s social movements and urban protests. Echoing his concern to disentangle the nature of these struggles, I am working on a theory of uneven development in global capitalism (Villegas, 2020).

My expectation is that the magnitude of the global crises we face – moral, socio-economic, and environmental – will only parallel the social revolt, dignity, and hope we need to overcome it and prevail. And may the inspiration and imagination we can draw from walking this path lead us to further politicize the conversation about what we need to do to crack the attributes, material conditions, and subjectivities of the capitalist city, and use them against it to articulate contestation and kinship in the transnational and class-based spatial project we need to fully realize the geographies of the 21st century eco-urban revolution.

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