In Memoriam: Gustavo Esteva (1936-2022)

The world lost a great prophet last week. Peggy and I lost a great friend and mentor. He died of Covid-19 in Oaxaca, Mexico, his hometown.

No doubt, Gustavo would be shocked by my characterizing him as a prophet. After all, he always claimed to be an atheist. He was a harsh critic of the Catholic Church — and all religions for that matter.

Gustavo was once an IBM executive, and an official high-up in the Mexican government. At one time he was also a revolutionary guerrilla. But for many years, he called himself “a de-professionalized intellectual and itinerant story-teller.” He’s the founder of an alternative university (Unitierra). He also authored more than 30 books, among them Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick with my assertion: he was a prophet – not in the sense of a forecaster of future events, but of a powerful voice for Truth, which some of us still insist on calling “God.”

In the presence of someone like that, you can imagine the transcendent conversations we had around our dinner table each time Peggy and I got together with him in Berea (Kentucky) – sometimes with dear friends listening in and sharing. At others, it was just the three of us.  Invariably, we talked of almost nothing else but politics, literature, spirituality, and the direction of history.

Among Gustavo’s most outstanding roles was the position he occupied as advisor to the Zapatista revolutionaries. Perhaps you remember them. They were the Native Americans who on January 1, 1994 captured the imagination of Mexico (and many of us outside) when their lightly armed military forces occupied five Mexican towns around San Cristobal in the state of Chiapas.

They were protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they said spelled the death of their culture and way of life. Their courageous “Indian Uprising” made them instant international heroes. So did their eventual abandonment of armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance.

With Gustavo’s blessings, on more than one occasion, Peggy and I led Berea College students into Zapatista communities to experience their radically counter-cultural lives firsthand.

According to the Zapatistas, women were leading the way they had embarked upon.  In fact, 60% of their army commanders were women.

The importance of women’s leadership was the heart of the extraordinary convocation I remember Gustavo giving at the beginning of his “scholar-in-residence” stint at Berea College. It was a theme to which he returned often during his many classes and lectures there. Women are leading the way, he said, into the “other world” that is not only possible but required if our planet is to survive.

Our threatened survival is where Gustavo always started. He said our world stands in a position of unprecedented danger. It is threatened by climate chaos, oligarchical governments, tremendous wealth disparities, an economic system that simply doesn’t work, schools and communications media that propagandize rather than inform, and by an emerging and universal police state with its system of perpetual war that (suicidally) defends the status quo. Under the present world order, the line between governments, the military, the police, and the judiciary on the one hand and the criminals and thugs on the other has completely disappeared. Not a pretty picture.

During that general convocation I mentioned, Gustavo held us all spell bound as he outlined the seven principles to guide us out of the morass just described. The principles represent the North Star that guided not only the Zapatista movement, but Gustavo’s entire life. In fact, the Zapatista principles call into question our entire way of life.

Here they are as Gustavo explained them:

  1. To serve others, not self. For Zapatistas, the goal of life was the common good, not the accumulation of money or power.
  2. To represent, not supplant. The Zapatista model of revolution was not the seizure of power (supplanting one government with its mirror image), but the representation of the majority without reproducing old relationships of domination.
  3. To construct, not destroy. The Zapatistas taught that the new order could not be built upon violence.
  4. To obey, not command. However, the Zapatista model of obedience was never that of servant to master or of soldier to comandante. It was that of mother to her infant child.
  5. To convince, not to win. As taught by Gustavo, the Zapatista way centralized respectful dialog based not primarily on logical argument, but supplementing logic with intuition derived from the experience of life.
  6. To propose, not impose. Imposition represented the violence rejected by Zapatismo.
  7. To go down, not up. For Zapatistas the geography of social discourse and action had changed. Old categories of left and right, conservative and liberal were no longer applicable. The new more relevant topography directed our gaze up and down, north and south – to recognize the gap between the one percent and the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed Gustavo’s convocation message of cooperation, non-violence, care, and acceptance. During the Q&A following his principal address, a particularly articulate young man posed a question that must have been on the minds of many “exceptionalist Americans” in the audience.

“You’ve described a rather bleak world, Gustavo,” the young man said. “But surely, you’re talking about a reality outside the United States. After all, here we enjoy extraordinary freedom and prosperity. That’s shown by the fact that so many foreigners are anxious to come to America. Isn’t that true?”

Gustavo responded, “I have bad news for you, my friend. The United States you describe is fast disappearing and is harder and harder to find. Your country with its pot-holed highways, homeless beggars, and falling bridges increasingly resembles what you call the “Third World.”

“And that’s the purpose of your politicians’ New World Order – to create a reality where we’re all racing to the bottom, while they enjoy the cream on top. Unfortunately, that cream is also fast evaporating. Soon the system benefitting the 1% will collapse entirely. (In fact, it’s happening before our very eyes.)  There is simply no exception to the collapse I’ve described. To save ourselves we have no alternative to a complete change of guidelines and world vision. The Zapatista principles I’ve just described, and which centralize women’s ways of knowing show us the way.”

That’s how real prophets talk. They’re usually right. This time however the warning was planetary and universal.

All of that is why I called Gustavo Esteva a prophet and why Peggy and I will miss his powerful voice, friendship, and guidance.  His words still echo from his newly turned grave.

Will we listen before it’s too late?

Thank you, Gustavo for all you gave us! 

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Gustavo Esteva (1936-2022)”

  1. Condolences over the passing of your friend. I was grateful you brought Mr. Esteva to Berea, and enjoyed his presentation and his pleasant manner. He came across as a gentleman in every sense of the word.

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