Chiapas, the Zapatistas, and the Moral Opportunity: Q&A with Michael Spurgeon

Let the Water Hold Me DownOn January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN) marched out of the jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas to occupy its capitol, San Cristóbal de las Casas. Like his protagonist Henry Singer, author Michael Spurgeon had a bird’s-eye view of the occupation from the balcony of his girlfriend’s apartment directly overlooking the city’s main square. In his new novel, Let the Water Hold Me Down (Ad Lumen Press; 372 pages), Spurgeon chronicles how the events surrounding the Zapatista uprising stir Singer out of a state of relative inaction as the lives of those around him are inexorably drawn into the larger conflict.

The book is based on Spurgeon’s experience as a young man, little more than a year out of college, vagabonding around Mexico with a friend, intent on trying to write a novel of their own. Surviving on savings, they hopped aimlessly from city to town. Yearning to leave the sweltering Oaxacan coast, they decided to aim for the relatively cooler climate of Chiapas. The first time Spurgeon heard the name “San Cristóbal de las Casas,” the name of the city that has come to determine the course of his life, he was already on the bus that would take him there, chugging its way up into the highlands.

Spurgeon and I had attended the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona together, both in the poetry track, and I distinctly recall several late-night conversations in which Spurgeon recounted his time in Chiapas and I berated him for the fact that he hadn’t (yet) written about it.

When our paths finally crossed again I learned he was a professor at American River College near Sacramento, where he had helped organize “SummerWords,” a literary colloquium at the school. He is also active in 916 Ink, a non-profit dedicated to empowering youth through the literary arts. I also found that after almost 10 years in the making, he was deep into the final edits of a novel about Chiapas that would become Let the Water Hold Me Down.

As he was winding down his book tour for the novel that had taken him back to San Cristóbal for the first time in many years, I asked him via email about the book and his life thus far.

ZYZZYVA: San Cristóbal has given you so much, including your wife of 18 years and your first novel. What was it like being back in the city?

Michael Spurgeon: Returning there was both gratifying and difficult. It was great fun to read there and to see the few old friends who remain and with whom we’ve stayed in touch. And I received great joy from taking our children to walk the streets where Elizabeth and I first met and fell in love, to have their eyes opened to all of the cultural wonders and difficulties of that place. Also, several members of my wife’s family traveled from Merida to join us, and I was interested to see how Mexicans from outside of Chiapas would initially respond to the local culture.

Mexico is quite regionally distinct, and Chiapas can be as startling to folks from other parts of Mexico as it can be to a California boy. For instance, certain more religiously devout members of the family were taken aback—that might be putting it too mildly—by the particularly unusual brand of “Catholicism” practiced in San Juan Chamula. So I enjoyed that aspect as well.

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But on another level, going back to Chiapas is impossible for me. As you say, the city of San Cristóbal has given me so much, including a wife and a novel, not to mention a certain level of international awareness and political consciousness that I had not had previously. It gave me those things in a relatively short period of time, too. It was by far the most intense time of my life. I was in my early twenties and living abroad in a beautiful and tragic city and bouncing in a bar and making new friends and falling in love with my future wife and suddenly an army of impoverished Indians calling themselves Zapatistas came out of the jungle, seized the city and much of the state, stood on the balcony of the municipal building across the little park from our apartment, and launched a full-blown revolution against the Mexican federal government.

So for me, because of the intensity and life-shaping importance of those months, San Cristóbal is less a place than a feeling of deep nostalgia. Much in the city has changed, and most of my friends from that time have moved on or passed away. On this most recent visit I sadly learned of the premature death of yet another friend from that time. But even if nothing had changed, it wouldn’t be the same. For me, San Cristóbal will always be 1993 and 1994, and while you can go back to a physical location, you can’t go back to a time or the person you were. To be reminded of that was hard.

Z: There is no shortage of violence and conflict in the book, and San Cristóbal could have easily turned into the nameless Mexican city that seems to host an entire genre of “gringo on the run in Mexico” tales. But it didn’t. The book has a number of incredibly lyrical passages that, taken together, amount to a kind of love letter to the city.

MS: I don’t think I could ask for a better compliment than one describing the book as a “love letter to the city,” so thank you for that. I really wanted to write about the San Cristóbal I lived in, both in time and place, because of what all of that meant to me on a personal level. On another level, I wanted to write about the Zapatistas, and I knew that doing that as an insider would ring totally hollow and fake. I did my homework when it came to the movement, both out of personal interest and because a novelist has to do research, and I knew enough to know I could never write the story as an insider.

In fact, that’s the reason the book is written in first person and narrated by a gringo. I could only tell the story as an outsider. I felt I only had the right to tell it as an outsider. Zapatismo as a form of ideological struggle against neoliberalism is an ongoing international movement. As the Zapatistas have repeatedly said, anyone who claims to be a Zapatista is a Zapatista. But Zapatismo is region-specific as well. The struggles against neoliberalism in Chiapas are distinct from, say, the struggles against neoliberalism as defined—or not defined—by the Occupy movement.

Because I wanted to write about the original Zapatista movement, the one that came out of the jungle in the early hours of January 1, 1994, and because I knew I had to write about it as an outsider, I felt rendering the place as authentically as possible would lend authenticity to the rest of the story. Of course, there is also simply the issue of craft. The characters need to experience and interact with their physical world in order to seem real. As people, all of our references to the world come through our senses. We know the world by the way we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell it. For characters to seem real, that’s the way they need to interact with the world as well.

Z: As you say Zapatismo is alive and well in Chiapas. I understand your reading in Chiapas even took place at a Zapatista-run coffee collective. Were you—or are you—wary of having the book politicized? What was it like reading your work in that context?

MS: That’s a good question. At the reading in San Cristóbal I was asked what I thought the Zapatistas would think of the book. That was tough because it was clear that the woman who asked wanted a very partisan answer, one made more difficult because she obviously didn’t think I was entitled to give the partisan answer because I’m a gringo—and I’d point out that the questioner was not from Mexico, either. I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but it was something like, “I hope they, like all readers, find it to be a compelling story.”

Apparently that wasn’t a very satisfactory answer because she didn’t buy the book at the end of the reading. I don’t blame her. It was kind of a lousy response to a legitimate question. The truth is I hold strong political and economic beliefs. Politics and economics matter. I wish they mattered less, but they do matter. A lot. Anyone who reads the book will see that the book has a socioeconomic and political view, and that view leans in favor of the Zapatistas and their cause. But the book is not meant to be a polemic and I hope it’s not seen as such.

Ultimately, politics and socioeconomics are really questions of morality, so I would say I hope the book is seen as addressing moral issues rather than political ones. I don’t mean the easy kind of morality that gets preached to us from politicians, the media, and Sunday school. I mean the morality Faulkner was talking about when he spoke about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Characters should be conflicted about where they stand. My narrator definitely is conflicted.

Z: I get the sense that your protagonist Hank Singer is more sensitive than you are. I don’t think being wounded is your natural state. While there is a level of machismo in Hank, it is clearly tempered by a sense of guilt about the accident that led to the death of his wife and daughter—the events that precipitate his trip to Chiapas. He is clearly wrestling to understand who he is now and come to terms with no longer being a husband and father. How did you come to understand and render his grief and vulnerability?

MS: I’m not sure where I rank on the sensitivity scale. If I’d gone through what Hank goes through, being wounded might very well be my natural state, but your point is well taken. The grief thing is hard, and I only got that right—to the degree I got it right at all—in the very last draft. Feeling responsible for the death of your own wife and child is the unimaginable for me, so how does one write the unimaginable? Through almost all the drafts—and there were many drafts—I didn’t know how to deal with it. I researched and read books about grief, and they gave me a foundation, albeit unsatisfactory. But then I spoke with a friend who had gone through the death of a child in an absolutely devastating tragedy many years before. It was so terrible that when I first heard her story, it took me two full days to process. This friend was incredibly generous and she shared with me what she went through, both physically and psychologically, in the wake of the loss of her child. Hank’s grieving process is significantly shaped by what she shared.

Z: There is a passage in Let the Water Hold Me Down where Singer muses that he should have acted sooner—should have done the work to understand which side he was on—and that his inaction had consequences as surely as if he had acted. He has lots of reasons to balk: he was reluctant to involve himself in someone else’s war; he didn’t want to anger his best friend and/or his lover. He didn’t want to choose sides. This book took you 10 years to write. Clearly you struggled with how you wanted to tell this story. Did you share Hank’s initial ambivalence? If so, what shook you out of it?

MS: I don’t know if I shared his ambivalence, but I definitely shared his American privilege. Chiapas is the state with the most natural resources in the entire country of Mexico, meaning some people there have extraordinary wealth, but it’s also the state with the most extreme poverty. The inequality is profound and deeply woven into the social fabric of the place. It’s better now than it was, but there’s still a very, very long way to go, which is true in all of Mexico, but it is—if you’ll excuse the grammatical misuse of an absolute—more true in Chiapas.

I recognized the inequality right away. It would be impossible not to recognize it, but I wasn’t directly touched by it and I had a somewhat limited understanding of all the political, racial, historical, and socioeconomic factors that created that inequality. This feeling was perhaps compounded by the general fact that the people of Chiapas are not particularly open to foreigners, and by foreigners I mean anyone who is not from Chiapas. To borrow from many of my Mexican friends: “La gente en Chiapas es fria.” In all the time I lived there, I interacted regularly with only one or two people who were actually from there. All of my friends were from other parts of Mexico or outside of the country.

So I didn’t see a way to make a difference in Chiapas because I had only superficial interaction with people who had been born there. And when the Zapatistas came on the scene, it was very clear that foreigners were not welcome in their ranks—not that I mean to imply that I ever gave any thought to getting actively involved—because that would have played into the government’s argument that the Zapatistas were run by foreign agitators. Subcomandante Marcos, a Mexican from the north of the country, was called as much. The Zapatista’s wanted international support and attention, but not involvement. I was an outsider caught in someone else’s war. That said, the Zapatistas, particularly Subcomandante Marcos, reinforced my belief that we all have the moral obligation, or at least the moral opportunity, to fight for what is right and to make the world better for others. I’m not suggesting we all need to move into the jungle and launch a revolution or that we can right every wrong, but if Marcos symbolizes anything, it is that idealism can triumph over pessimism and hopelessness.

I mean, how preposterous is it that a university graduate in his late 20s from the north of Mexico decided to move to the jungles in Chiapas with the intent of building an army of indigenous people? He didn’t know the place or the people or their customs or their various languages, and then a decade later he’s leading a revolution on behalf of the poor and marginalized. It’s just totally absurd, yet that’s exactly what he did. Whatever the original motivations of Marcos might have been—and I’m not naïve enough to believe they were entirely selfless or pure—there’s something wrong with you if you can’t admire the idealism, conviction, and commitment he must have felt when he first stepped into the jungle. He saw that the system was leaving people behind, the most vulnerable among us, and he decided to do something.

Everyone can learn from that. We just need to recognize moral obligations or opportunities when they present themselves and have the courage to believe we can make a difference. We have to realize we have a choice to do something or not to do something. In either case it’s a choice and the choice comes with consequences. That’s a universal truth, not just one in Chiapas. Sometimes living in the United States, where our culture of consumerism can overwhelm us from seeing what matters, we need to be reminded of that. I needed to be reminded of that, and Hank definitely does.

Z: At one point Singer refers to himself derisively as “a tourist.” But Let the Water Hold Me Down is not a tourist book; it’s the book of a traveler. Before things go sideways, Hank is wide-eyed, yet pragmatic, and open-minded. Open to new experiences, polite and deferential to locals, good humored in the face of frustration—basically the opposite of the Ugly American. Is there something we can learn from Singer as a traveler?

MS: I agree there is a distinction between “tourists” and “travelers.” In fact, just the other day I read someone claim that “tourists see what they planned to see and travelers see what they did not expect to see.” That distinction implies that the tourists feel some sort of entitlement when they visit a place. They’ve paid the admission fee and they want what was promised in the glossy brochure or guidebook. Travelers, on the other hand, recognize they are guests in someone else’s home and act accordingly. There’s some truth to those descriptions, and certainly Hank’s character is meant to be distinguished from the Thompsons and the tourist woman with reservations in Palenque.

But I think there is a third category, or at least Hank sees himself in a third category. He’s an expatriate. He’s living there. He’s the guest of a local. He’s not simply traveling. He distinguishes himself from the backpackers passing through, the “fresh fish” that César refers to. Hank feels a certain entitlement and social hierarchy in that status, a social hierarchy that’s inherent in your question—namely that a traveler is somehow superior to a tourist and, so perhaps Hank believes, an expatriate is superior to a traveler. Even my bio on the cover of my book points to the fact I lived and worked in Chiapas, theoretically thereby bestowing me with some greater credibility than might have a traveler or tourist just passing through. I acknowledge there is some legitimacy to this distinction, and, partially because I tend to be a homebody, I do tend to prefer to settle into a place and live in a community for a period of time rather than simply traveling through it—whether it be Chiapas or Yucatán or Spain or any of the places in the U.S. I’ve called home. But Hank’s self-derisive realization that he has been a tourist is meant to be something of an assault on all those hierarchies and distinctions, which I think can be quite false. It has to do with my answer to your previous question. What Hank comes to realize, and what I believe, is that to be a part of a community you need to contribute to the community. It’s not enough to reside in a place. What opportunities have you taken to make your community a better place? For Hank, up until that moment, the answer has been none. That’s why he is a “tourist.” He hasn’t done anything for anyone beside himself. In a sense, he’s only seen what he “planned to see.”

Z: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MS: Well obviously there is this message of seizing moral opportunities that I’ve talked about, but I’m really less interested in proselytizing in my fiction than some of this interview might suggest. What I’m really interested in is creating a moment of intimacy with the reader. I like to tell my students that perhaps the most intimate thing we can say to someone else is “look” or “listen” because what we are asking that person to do is share an experience. We get enormous satisfaction from witnessing someone share our experience because it’s how we know we are not alone in the world.

Our joy from seeing something is reaffirmed by someone else’s joy from seeing the same thing. Our sadness upon hearing story or song is validated by another person’s sadness upon hearing that story or song. I think the artist, no matter the medium, creates an experience in the listener, viewer, or reader that they recognize as being true. Always my favorite moments in a story are those when I pause to reflect that the writer has just expressed something that I have always known to be true but have been unable to articulate. That’s that moment of sharing, of true intimacy, when I know I am not alone in the world. As an ideal, a few of those moments are what I’d like my readers to take away. Other than those moments, I hope the readers will feel fully submerged in the world I create and when the story is finished I hope they’ll grab their friends by the lapels and say, “You have GOT to read this.”

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