Masked Marxist, With Marimbas

Times Staff Writer

With giant drawings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin as their backdrop, dancers twirled giant puppets and jugglers tossed lighted torches. The black-masked rebel leader formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos had come to town, and he was putting on a marimba-and-Marxism extravaganza.

A dozen years after directing an armed rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas that ended with more than 100 dead, the leader of the Zapatista movement brought the 1960s-style show and lecture last week to two Yucatan beach resorts, drawing mixed reviews from the many curious who attended.

After years in hiding -- one magazine claimed he’d found love -- the former college teacher who now prefers to be known as Delegate Zero left his jungle stronghold Jan. 1 to embark on a six-month speaking tour he hopes will revive interest in his leftist message.


For those who missed it the first time around, including dozens of young people who came to see him, Marcos took center stage and gave his themes an impassioned review: Capitalism is bad. Globalism is bad. Racism is bad. All politicians, all parties are the same -- bad. The rich get all the breaks; the young and poor are ignored.

He plans to visit all 31 states for what he calls “the other campaign,” a counterpoint to Mexico’s presidential campaign. President Vicente Fox has promised safe passage for Marcos, despite the fact that he does not recognize Mexico’s sovereignty.

Even with the rise of the left in other Latin American countries, most recently the election of new presidents of Chile and Bolivia, few here believe Marcos’ brand of anti-capitalism will catch on. Half a million or more Mexican men and women risk their lives crossing the border to the U.S. each year for the chance to build a better life, with the clothes, cars and other material goods afforded by the market system.

For the estimated quarter of a million indigenous people who live in villages run by Zapatistas, poverty continues as always. The Zapatista-controlled villages don’t accept any government services, including education and medical care. And international financial support for the movement has dwindled.

Still, it’s hard to resist a masked guy in a natty cap and black-and-brown fatigues who smokes a pipe through the hole of his balaclava and rides a black motorcycle. Even if he’s really not a jungle native but 48-year-old Rafael S. Guillen, a paunchy former philosophy teacher and son of a furniture seller from northern Mexico, as the government claims and he denies.

Marcos drew more than 1,000 people to a park here and several hundred others to a dirt soccer field in nearby Playa del Carmen. Devoted supporters mixed with casual sympathizers, working poor, tourists and passersby.


Opening night in Playa del Carmen on Tuesday featured musicians playing drums and conch shells and hammering two marimbas made from rough-hewn wood and bamboo. They led a procession of costumed stilt-walkers who sashayed through the crowd dressed in long white dresses, traditional skull masks and sombreros.

While the musicians went into an extended Maya-style jam onstage -- much like a Venice Beach drum circle -- a couple of kids got into the spirit, stripping to the waist and walking on their hands.

“The message is a little obscure -- my Spanish isn’t so good,” said one of the drummers, David Bandikoro, who moved from Paris last year to study indigenous music in Tulum. “But freedom and egalitarianism, I understand that.”

Shortly before 9 p.m., Marcos arrived at the soccer field, and a line of supporters clasped hands to form a human chain that separated him from the crowd. He shook hands with the musicians and posed for photos.

The group’s slogan, he said, is “for everyone, everything; for us, nothing.”

Tourism means selling out to foreigners, he said, and accepting a life as a servant and peon. The rich take their pleasure in beachfront hotels while workers live in squalor and the environment is ruined. The presidential candidates, he said, are criminals. “We came to tell you,” he said, “that no one can save you. You have to save yourselves.”

Many agreed with him. Others scratched their heads.

“He says some good things, but what’s his objective? What’s he going to do?” said Leonel Vasquez Carranza, 47, an unemployed hotel waiter who arrived here Wednesday night with an open mind and left pretty opinionated. “He’s good with words, but how is going to do anything concrete?”


It’s difficult to know what Marcos means exactly because he refuses interviews and doesn’t take questions from the audience. His handlers suggest sending questions to his website: Don’t expect a quick reply, they warn; Marcos is busy.

The big concern here in Cancun isn’t ideology; it’s jobs. Hurricane Wilma stormed through in October, and thousands of hotel rooms remain empty, either for repairs or lack of interest.

Construction jobs are booming, but service jobs won’t bounce back until tourists return en masse. The monster resorts are still rebuilding.

“It’s true, the candidates all say, ‘We’ll help you,’ but they never do,” said Agustin Gonzalez, 51, a condominium maintenance worker. “But we don’t want their help. We want jobs, for ourselves and for our children.”


Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.