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  Number 280 | Noviembre 2004
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Mexico

The Colors of Chiapas

This story of a trip through southeast Mexico offers a quick sketch of the complex reality of life in Chiapas. It was my story. Now it’s yours.

Gloria María Carrión Fonseca

I had closely followed the Zapatistas’ statements, proposals and projects ever since they burst onto the world’s political stage in 1994. Now I was going to have the chance to take a closer look at this stream of ideas that is slowly eroding the foundations of centuries of silence.

Green jungle and yellow corn

The endless patches of cornfields in Guatemala turned the windows of the microbus into a collage of deep green and soft yellow. The driver laughed and hummed the latest popular song, but his voice was lost beneath the strident roar of the engine. We were heading north, across the Petén to Mexico.

The Guatemalan border office was a rickety old building whose walls had once been adorned by a painting of a quetzal, the sacred bird of the Maya. After a symbolic exchange of words, the migration officer smiled at me and said, “Have a nice trip.”

The Usumacinta River that divides the two countries, at least in the imagination, was at the bottom of a steep, muddy ravine. Boats were waiting there to ferry travelers across. I sat down in a colorful boat alongside several European, Israeli, North American and Venezuelan tourists. The boat began to cross the river, under treetops that filled the sky. The morning tasted like forgetting and the deep silence of the river. It was striking and solemn to enter into nature in this way.

“We’re there, we’re in Mexico,” the young boat driver murmured. I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and headed up the hill. At the top, the red, white and green flag with the eagle and serpent in the nopal greeted us. The only thing different about this side of the river was the migration office, with its more solid walls and pastel colors. The border check took only a few seconds. Then I found a seat in the minibus that would take me into the heart of Chiapas.

The color of the military

I was sitting next to the minibus’s driver, Luis, who had been born in Chiapas. “You know, ever since I was a little boy, I dreamed of driving trucks. I’ve gone all the way to northern Mexico, to Tijuana and Chihuahua. I’ve achieved my dream and am satisfied with that.” I didn’t realize it, but the border town was already a memory, and I began to feel the suffocating heat of the Lacandona Jungle.

Luis, glued to the steering wheel, continued: “A friend of mine crossed the border to the north, to the States, and did very well. He worked in a factory at first, but then he began to make money. He married a gringa, the boss’ daughter, and now he runs the business. He came back here and bought land; he’s got a farm. He’s always telling me to go, that he’ll help me out there.” I asked, “Why don’t you go, Luis? Haven’t you ever thought of it?” “I’d like to, you know; because you always try for the best, the American dream. But then I thought about it and you know, I don’t earn badly here and I’m with my family, my friends, my food; for better or worse, we’re together.”

Luis began to slow down in anticipation of something I hadn’t yet seen but had heard about: the military checkpoints spread throughout Chiapas. I thought of what that uniform evokes in the history of the continent and felt a chill. The soldiers were very young, almost adolescents; they looked over the minibus and our passports. After an hour, they let us pass. The Tigres del Norte began to play on the loudspeakers, taking the edge off that surrealist meeting with the Mexican authorities. In a low voice, Luis commented, “There are so many soldiers here because it’s a conflict area. Do you know about the Zapatistas? There have been clashes with them...” He ended the conversation with a wave of his arm. I gathered this is not a subject one speaks openly about.

The green of the mountain
in a magical city

When we reached Palenque after six hours and several more checkpoints, Don Luis gave me a smile and said a formal goodbye: “I go only this far. Take care of yourself. I hope you like Chiapas and Mexico.” I thanked him for the trip and especially for the conversation.

I headed towards the center of town and stopped at the first local bus company that goes to San Cristóbal de las Casas, named after Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who defended the human rights of indigenous people during the colonial period. Ironically, the bus company bore the name of Christopher Columbus. And so it was that, in the 21st century and with very different aims, I entered the mountains of Chiapas aboard the Columbus. Night fell, and the road was curvy. We climbed higher and higher. That’s all I remember.

The city was just waking up when I saw it through the window. A mantle of fog left behind by the early morning rain covered it, but I found my way to the central square. San Cristóbal is a magical city, with colonial roofs, narrow sidewalks and cobblestone streets, and captivating green mountains watching over it.

The square contained a stage decorated with a banner of Emiliano Zapata and Subcomandante Marcos. A black flag with a red star in the center waved on one side. Suddenly, young people began to emerge from under sheets of black plastic scattered around the floor of the square, more and more of them, as the day dawned.

I stepped nearer. A young man, one of the leaders, passed me a leaflet. “It explains why we’re here, why we’re demonstrating.” I began to read, but he interrupted me: “We’ve been here demonstrating in front of the municipal building since June 7, because the authorities refuse to listen to our demands. The government wants to raise the price of registration and won’t hire new full-time teachers to ensure quality education. Our Indigenous Bilingual Teacher Training College doesn’t even have a place of its own, so we’ve been renting space in a school here, but we can’t keep doing that. We’re all children of poor indigenous peasant farmers. Our college is the only one that trains bilingual teachers who go on to teach in the indigenous communities. Is that why the government discriminates against us?”

The red of a star

The young man’s question hung in the air. No one dared respond, at least not out loud. After sharing some other thoughts, he asked with curious eyes: “You’re not from here, are you? I can tell. I can also see that you’re interested in learning things.” With a wink, he pointed to the stage. I saw the red star, smiled and replied, “I want to know the real Mexico.”

I immediately realized that I too had used a euphemism to refer to the political situation of Chiapas and the Zapatistas. I wondered where this comes from, this speaking between the lines. Then, as if my unasked question had conjured them up, its reply came in the image of hundreds of police and military officers in shining uniforms, armed to the teeth. They pass silently through the streets of San Cristóbal day and night, on foot or in green trucks.

Two hours later, I was headed to San Juan Chamula in search of the Mexico I wanted to see. Meanwhile, in the square, the San Cristóbal mayor’s office was inaugurating a fair of Mexican sweets that would last a week, right in front of the students’ demonstration. In the distance, political speeches in Spanish, Tzotzil and Tojolabal mixed with the music of the fair and the buzzing of bees going after the sweets.

The white of thousands of candles

San Juan Chamula is a small town known for its solid leanings toward the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its indigenous conservatism. It is very close to San Cristóbal and San Andrés, seat of the peace accords between the Zapatistas and the federal government. I had heard a lot about its church and how important it is to see it, to understand the cultural and political complexity of Chiapas.

San Juan Chamula’s large main square is typically crowded with townspeople and tourists. A prominent sign greets visitors: “Welcome to San Juan Chamula in the highlands of Chiapas. It is forbidden to take photos of the inhabitants or of any ritual inside or outside the church.”

I arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour and waited it out in the outer corridors of the municipal palace, from where I contemplated the plaza. It had everything you’d expect in a “typical” Mexican town: the church, the municipal palace, the market, the PRI office. In San Juan Chamula, power is organized around a cacique, a single strong leader. The cacique is the mayor, with a long list of religious and civil duties. The caciques have traditionally been PRI members.

A group was playing regional music at the entrance to the church, practicing for the upcoming celebrations in honor of San Juan, the region’s patron saint. A group of men tottered nearby, obviously drunk. I would later learn that they were drinking posh, a kind of hard liquor, and that the PRI’s former local parliamentary representative, Manuel Hernández Gómez, is the biggest producer of the stuff, an activity that brings him around US$500,000 a month.

I entered through the main door and was immediately surrounded by the smell of incense and the lights of thousands of candles spread out on the ground. It seemed as though time had stopped. Or perhaps it had just ticked on, allowing parallel realities to exist hand in hand through history.

Red, blue, green and yellow ribbons

The benches were piled up on the left side of the church. Pine needles had been very carefully spread across the floor. The saints had all been brought down from their altars and set on tables below, among the people. They were wearing colorful clothes and ribbons of red, blue, green and yellow. Mirrors of various sizes, given to them by the inhabitants of San Juan Chamula, hung around their necks. A prone figure of Christ, also dressed in colors, lay near the main aisle in a crystal box. Alongside him were children’s shoes filled with small papers bearing messages. The altar was dedicated to a majestic, colorful San Juan, adorned with flowers and candles. The dome was painted with images of jaguars and other sacred animals. The priest had left the town a long time ago, and the people had taken over the church.

Every day, men and women prayed to San Juan in Tzotzil, in very low voices, almost whispering, while they lit candles and drank coke. They explained to me that in this region, coke is sacred and is used in religious rituals. In church, the ritual consists of drinking the coke while praying and then burping before the mirrors of the saints. This is how the indigenous people of San Juan Chamula frighten away bad spirits. The explanation surprised me, but then I thought of the parallel realities and the hand that ties them together.

Several months later, I found out that there is a more worldly explanation as well: Juan Gallo, a renowned painter from San Juan Chamula, told me that former mayor Florencio Collazo Gómez controls the sale and distribution of the coke consumed by the town’s indigenous people on a daily basis in offerings, celebrations and rituals.

Religious practice is not the only complicated thing in this highland town. So is politics. In Chamula, the Zapatistas are a taboo subject. Publicly supporting not to mention participating in the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is unthinkable. The tension the issue produced in San Cristóbal is even stronger in Chamula, as can be gathered from the words of the mayor, Pascual Díaz López: “I don’t know why there’s so much talk about signing peace agreements since there’s no war in Chiapas. The Zapatistas are a minority social group seeking a peace that suits their interests, but not those of the majority of the indigenous people in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico... We’d get rid of the Zapatistas in a snap.”

A Caracol with multicolored murals

The morning I headed out for Oventik promised sun, which I missed after many days of downpours worthy of the most dramatic tropical winters. As the minibus began its climb into the mountains of Chiapas, the road started to curve, the air to chill. A man with a tired face and a saddlebag in his hand greeted me. “Hello. Where are you from?” Nicaragua, I answered. “Ah, from Chihuahua. In the north, then.” No, from Nicaragua, it’s below Guatemala and Honduras, I clarified. “And how many hours does it take to get from Nicaragua to Chiapas?” Many. Over 30. “Oh, it’s very far. And where are you going today?” To Oventik.

As if I had said two magic words, the man smiled to himself. Others pretended they hadn’t heard, I don’t know whether because they were bothered or because they were used to seeing so many travelers with the same destination.

Over a year ago, the Zapatistas established five Caracoles to serve as cultural, political and economic centers. In the Mayan cosmovision, the caracol or conch shell is a symbol: it allows the Zapatistas to look inward, at themselves, and outward at the rest of the world, by listening to each other and seeking consensus. The Caracoles bring together the autonomous municipalities in each area. Each municipality elects someone to represent them in Good Government Committees, also created in August 2003. Since the government refused to put the San Andrés Accords into effect, the Zapatistas decided to exercise their autonomy themselves. And Oventik became a Caracol.

The sign that greets visitors in this town is very different from the one in San Juan Chamula: “You are in Zapatista territory, where people govern and the government obeys.” Never before, I thought, has a people so clearly expressed the meaning inherent in the word democracy. I crossed the road into town and was immediately invaded by colors: the colors of the mountains and of the murals I could make out from the building that served as reception office, store and cafeteria.

A strong, heavyset woman with an eternal look on her face received me. “Hello, please show me your passport. What brings you here?” I gave her the document. Her face seemed familiar, and I realized I had seen her before, in the fields of Nicaragua, the mountains of Guatemala, and now the highlands of Chiapas. She represented them all, all the women hardened by silent lives and hands worn out by children and the land. “What brings you here?” this age-old woman repeated. “I want to see your community, to see how it works and talk with people, if it’s possible,” I replied. “Wait here, I’ll go check with the compañeros and be right back,” she said.

The black of the balaclavas

I waited there, surrounded by shelves of Zapatista books and magazines, CD’s of testimonial music, videos, t-shirts and thousands of Marcos and Ramonas on horseback, in various sizes and colors but with their faces inevitably covered by the black balaclava masks that have become the Zapatista symbol. All for sale. The woman with the eternal look on her face came back, but she wasn’t alone. A man wearing an EZLN t-shirt and a black balaclava accompanied her.

The black comes from the wisdom of Old Antonio. In the postscript to one of his communiqués, i>Subcomandante Marcos tells the story of how don Antonio, an indigenous peasant farmer from Chiapas and a close friend, reminded him that a face covered with black contains the light and warmth lacking in the world. One cold night during a meeting of the EZLN’s General Command, don Antonio passed around a piece of charred wood. Marcos remembered it like this: “Old Antonio put the charred wood in the middle of the fire: first gray, white, yellow, orange, red, fire. The charred stick now contains fire and light. Old Antonio looked at me again, then walked away through the fog. We all stayed there watching the coal, the fire, the light. Black, I said. What? asked Ana María. Keeping my eyes on the fire, I repeated: Black, the balaclavas will be black...”

The man in the balaclava greeted me with a warm, welcoming voice. He told me I could come into the community and talk with the people, and that two members of the Good Government Committee would receive me at the community center. I smiled and thanked them. More surprises awaited me just past the door. I walked down the only paved street in the Caracol and saw children playing around, men and women smiling, not at all like the eyes I’ve become accustomed to in other places that look in to themselves when you catch them, like mirrors that reflect back within.

On one side of the street rose an antenna, connecting Oventik to the world. I remembered that this is a struggle for words, for the voice. In the distance, I saw a refrigerator full of coke and couldn’t help but be struck by that wink of postmodernism. The reality of the 21st century with all its complexities and contradictions lies right beneath the surface, even here in Oventik.

I continued down the street and saw the Zapatista women’s crafts cooperative, schools and a clinic, La Guadalupana, also adorned with colorful murals. I went in and said hello to the patients, some children, others adults. I was amazed at how well equipped the clinic is, remembering that a very short time ago, health care was available only to others, never to these people here.

The color of welcome

Imposing images of Zapata and Sandino greet people from the community center walls. Inside, the man from reception and an older man with a balaclava and a straw hat were waiting for me. “Come in, how are you? You can sit here.” They offered me a wooden bench.

The room was large and decorated with colorful banners and streamers. They explained that this is where community assemblies are held and decisions are made by the whole community, in consensus. Even the children participate when they don’t fall asleep, they told me.

I introduced myself and said I would like to visit their community and learn about their experiences. “We’re from the Reception Committee,” they replied,”we’re here to receive visitors. Welcome.” I felt genuinely welcomed by these people whose voices went unheard until very recently. Immediately, the man in the straw hat began to tell me about the nature of the uprising and the Zapatistas’ various activities in the communities.

“We’ve been making progress for ten years now, ever since we rose up, and we thank the people of Mexico and the world for this. Our people’s struggle is based on resistance. We’re fighting against the ecological and political positions that the government wants to impose on us. Our town is ready to fight, and we’ll continue to demand our rights. We want to practice autonomy in health, in education. And we believe that things are going to change.”

“We never thought we’d achieve what we have now. Thanks to our brothers and sisters from here and other countries who have supported us, we’ve established a dialogue with Mexican society and are putting our autonomy into practice.”

The color of dreams

I asked how this autonomy, so discussed and acclaimed by some and repudiated by others, was dreamt up and is practiced.

“We’ve formed our municipal autonomous governments without the government’s permission. The government decided not to respect the San Andrés Accords, so we decided to take our lives into our own hands. Five Caracoles bring together the autonomous municipalities. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right path. There are also autonomous governments still in the process of resistance, which no longer receive help from the government. It tries to divide us by offering us latrines and sheet metal roofing, but these aren’t the solution to our problems. We’re not beggars; we have rights.”

“The Good Government Committees serve the people in the autonomous municipalities, but the government views us as illegal because it doesn’t want to see us govern ourselves. We’re carrying out community projects from each Caracol. We indigenous people have never had access to health care or education. Now there are clinics and schools for the poor, for indigenous people. We name our own health promoters, who train others. And we already have eight micro-clinics.” Suddenly, I remembered the young people who awoke from under the black plastic sheeting in San Cristóbal’s central square and wanted to know more about education.

“We’ve realized since 1994 that we have to have our own schools. The government exploits our ignorance. We’re doomed to be poor as long as we’re illiterate. The government sends us teachers, but they have the government’s interests in mind and try to win us over. That’s why we established a high school and training for young Zapatistas, so they can go on to teach the littler ones. Many Zapatista children are still in government schools because of the lack of autonomous schools, but we’re working on that.”

The color of death

I thought about the sustainability of the Zapatista project and the sustenance of the communities. As if reading my mind, the older man continued: “We produce maize and beans for our own consumption. And we’ve seen the need to market the coffee we produce. We organized two cooperatives; many of the people who work there were displaced by the Acteal massacre.” The name evokes horror in my mind, the same kind of horror evoked by Tiananmen or Tlatelolco. On December 22, 1997, the PRI’s Red Mask paramilitary group murdered 45 Tzotzils, mostly women and children, while they prayed. The massacre lasted over seven hours and took place only 200 meters from a police checkpoint.

The man in the balaclava and straw hat went on, drawing me back from the images of that gray day: “Thanks to the support of many friends, we’ve been able to market Zapatista coffee in Europe and the United States. In towns that don’t grow coffee, people have seen the need for women to organize in cooperatives to sell crafts and shoes. They went to workshops in the capital where they learned how to do that. But it’s hard for women to organize because of all the pressures they face in their individual lives.”

Women the color of the earth

“It’s hard for women to organize.” The line rumbled in my mind. I asked myself what was behind that statement, then asked him. “It’s hard for women because of the idea that they can’t participate in public life. Getting rid of this idea is a struggle for everyone. There are women in autonomous councils, and some are promoters. Many men also have to change their way of thinking, because they don’t let their daughters and wives participate.”

Our meeting was coming to an end, and it was time to say goodbye. Their words had sketched out years of work and struggle. I listened and learned from this art that the Zapatistas practice so skillfully. The sketch is like a photograph to take with me, and I know I want others to see it too. I thanked my hosts from the bottom of my heart and they thanked me in turn, eyes sparkling. “Go talk with the women in the cooperatives, they’re up there.”

I walked over to the entrance of the Xulum Chon cooperative near the community center. A woman with ash colored hair and an aged face greeted me from a chair. “Do you want to see crafts? We have beautiful blouses, tablecloths. Come look.” “Thanks,” I replied. “Actually I’d like to talk with you, if you don’t mind. I want to know a little about the cooperative and the Zapatista women.” She smiled, revealing the few teeth she had left, then hid her face, embarrassed.

Her name is María. She’s 55 but looks older, and has eight children, five boys and three girls. The oldest is a teacher, she explained. She also has four grandchildren. María is a Tzotzil and that is her first language. She speaks just a little Spanish, she warned me, in a voice that wavered because she’d been ill for a few days. For many women like María, Spanish is the language of the men, not their language.

A young woman was in a corner, with a red brush. She greeted me with a little laugh and offered me a chair. I asked María about the cooperative. There are between 100 and 120 women in the cooperative, she explained. “There used to be more, but they got tired or people didn’t buy what they made, the blouses, shirts, wallets. A woman suggested that we organize ourselves so we got together and formed the cooperative because we didn’t have money and wanted to sell clothes. The cooperative used to be in La Estación, one of the communities. Later we moved here, to Oventik. We sell to visitors and we’re doing fairly well. I’ve been working in the cooperative five years, making blouses and other embroidered things. My husband works in the field, but then again so do I.”

Giomar Rovira had spoken with Zapatista women and recorded their stories in her book Mujeres de maíz (“Women of Corn”). They told her about how they begin dividing their tasks between the house and the field when they’re very young, helping their mothers around the house and looking after the kids then helping their father work the land. When they grow up, this doesn’t change. Many work double or triple days that begin very early in the morning.

María has experienced this. She has also experienced lack of access to health care. Death stalks the heels of indigenous women, and their children. Maternal mortality in the highlands of Chiapas is six times higher than in the rest of Mexico; and children under five are far more likely to die of preventable causes, including malnutrition, than in other parts of the country. A woman considers herself lucky to see her children reach the age of eight.

Women suffer two or three times more than men, my masked hosts had told me. Yes, María agreed, we suffer more. Women are sold to their future husbands, and many endure mistreatment and abuse from their fathers, husbands and other family members. I asked María what she thought of the Zapatista movement. “We think They replied,it’s good, but who knows how it will all come out.” She didn’t say any more, or didn’t want to say more. She changed the subject and the phrase faded with the moment.

A dense white that bodes rain

In Mujeres de maiz, Zapatista women say that a lot has changed since 1994. The Zapatista communities decided to ban the sale of alcohol in the autonomous territories, and women now experience less violence in their homes. The Zapatista women’s law establishes full participation for women in political and military posts, the right to decide how many children to have, the right to an education, to freely choose a partner and not be obliged to marry by force, to not be beaten or abused. They proposed this law and everyone accepted it. It seems that the solid ground of machismo and discrimination against women in the communities is slowly beginning to give way.

In the EZLN, women learn to read and write. They also learn about politics and economics. The women themselves report that things there are the same for men and women. They decide who and when they want to marry, if they want to get divorced and if they want to plan their families. Other women who are not in the EZLN’s military structure inject energy into the movement by forming solid support bases in the communities and encouraging their daughters, granddaughters and nieces to join the movement and bring about change. They’ve planted the seed of transformation in the hearts of both their communities and their daughters. It’s like a gradually, almost imperceptibly growing whisper or drop.
The woman with the red brush wanted to say something. “I’m 20, and I also work in the cooperative. I don’t have any children and haven’t gotten married.” I sensed a touch of pride in her voice. María drew closer, as though she wanted to tell me a secret. “It’s better like that, easier without children.” Then María broke out laughing and smiled. Later, she took my hands to say goodbye. “Take care; God be with you.” María was now a part of me, someone I carry with me just like the landscapes and voices of Chiapas.

As I left Oventik, the sky closed in and the fog hid the face of the mountains. The last thing I saw was a dense white that boded rain.

The rainbow of Mayan weavings

It was a Sunday, and the main square of San Cristóbal was crowded with people. The afternoon was beginning to fade when I noticed that the students were gone. With my pack on my back, ready to begin the trip home, I wanted to say goodbye to the young student I’d spoken with earlier. The stage was there, the banner, but they were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, from the distance I began to hear an increasingly distinguishable rumble.

“The people united will never be defeated!” the loudspeakers called out. “We insist that our demands for education be heard and accepted. The government must recognize our rights.” There they were, fifty or sixty of them now, with the determined air of people who know they are measuring forces. Holding up one corner of the banner leading the march was a young man in a black balaclava. When they passed a kiosk on the square, the owner turned up the volume of the music coming out of his establishment until the slogans were once again drowned out. Minutes later the protest continued on to the western part of the city.

Sitting on the bus going back south, my mind was full of images. I thought about how life is like a many-colored Mayan weaving, with people and times all woven together. Each has its place and its role in the story.

The Zapatista communities have already decided theirs, although the path is by no means free of obstacles. Poverty and women’s effective participation are among the pressing challenges that may well put the movement’s sustainability and the appropriation of its language to the test.

My virtually photographic visit is just that: a lens through which to examine the multitude of realities and times that coexist and forge the present in Chiapas. I don’t know how the Zapatista movement feels from within, or the contradictions and complexities within it, but I’ve seen the satisfaction in the eyes, arms and mouths of an impoverished and forgotten people that is shaping its own destiny for the first time.

Their questions and ideas are already echoing in many corners of the world. What the future brings the Zapatistas will depend on them and on us all, since justice, freedom and democracy are being demanded by the increasingly strong and united voices of many other peoples whose voices haven’t been heard before. They are the world, and we are them. None of us can hide from ourselves.

The bus began its descent and we came once again to the stifling heat, cornfields and blue skies of Guatemala, with the highlands of Chiapas behind us.

Biologist and economist Gloria María Carrión Fonseca is an envío collaborator.

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