Riding 14 hours overnight on an uncomfortable bus from Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, to the highlands of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, reminds us what hard work traveling in Mexico can be. It also reminds us how huge this country is – maybe ten times the size of Ecuador? Below you can see our trail from Cancún to Mérida to Campeche to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Next week we must retrace our steps to catch our flight back to Ecuador.But here we are, settled into San Cristóbal for ten days of Semana Santa, and the suffering has paid off.A beautiful colonial city (and yet another UNESCO gem), Michael and I traveled here during our Costa Rica years in the late 1980s. I remember it was very cold, there were few indigenous people in the town, and the guidebooks warned us not to photograph in their villages, where a European tourist had done so in a church and been killed. Although now chock-full of tourists from every part of the globe, including thousands of Mexicans here for Semana Santa (Easter week), San Cristóbal remains a fascinating (and complicated) place to experience indigenous Mexico. (More on that in a moment.) At 2200 meters (7260 feet), and surrounded by mountains and pine forests, the climate and scenery suit us perfectly; in fact it feels a bit like home in Cañar, except for the incredible colonial churches on every corner and the religious art filling them.
Home to the Mayan people for thousands of years, the Spanish conquered the region in 1528 and the native peoples, who had been part of the most brilliant civilization in pre-Hispanic America, soon suffered loss of communal lands, diseases, taxes and forced labor. Familiar story. One epidemic in 1544 killed about half the indigenous population of Chiapas.The city is named for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican monk who arrived here in 1545, saw the terrible exploitation of native peoples and as bishop of Chiapas became the greatest defender the indigenous in colonial times.
Since that date the city has gone through many names changes before it settled on San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Today, the local indigenous peoples are everywhere present in the streets and ubiquitous open-air markets, dressed in their stunning hand-woven and embroidered clothing. At first, one can only stare in wonder:
Then, I began to see young children, many under ten years, hawking trinkets and shining shoes. Everywhere. Old barefoot women carrying armloads of woven belts and shawls to sell, walking the streets all day. Legions of young women with babies on their backs, or in tow, selling embroidered blouses. On our first day here, we saw government rally to “support” 6,000 single mothers in Chiapas. This was the face of poverty like nothing we’ve seen in Ecuador.
(Michael playing chess surrounded by (older) shoeshine kids.)
Hadn’t the 1994 uprising by the indigenous communities, led by Comandante Marcos and the Zapatistas (EZLN), that brought the world’s attention to the abysmal conditions in Chiapas, made a difference? In an effort to understand we saw a pretty good documentary film, “Zapatista” that showed armed indigenous farmers occupying city hall in San Cristobal (a few blocks from our hotel), and then being massacred by the army in the market in Ocosingo, a town two hours from here. By the end of the narrative (2007) we learned how contradictory the movement had been. Led by a Marxist philosophy professor from Mexico City, come to organize the peasants, the Mexican military moved in with tanks and helicopters as though at war (it was a war). Aiding by paramilitaries, many villagers were killed and eventually 21,000 were displaced from their homes. Evangelical missionaries got involved, further splintering communities that had long practiced a mix of animistic pre-Hispanic rituals and Catholicism. Government promises from three Mexican presidents came to nothing; disillusionment set in and now – 20 years later – the movement is pretty much dead (except for the Zapatista trinkets in every tourist shop.)
But in the end didn’t the uprising have a positive effect on conditions for Chiapas’ indigenous? We asked a woman we came across who has worked with a women’s weaving cooperative for ten years. “Somewhat,” was her answer. “There is more indigenous pride. Before, if an Indian met a townsperson on the sidewalks of San Cristobal, the Indian had to step off into the street. The situation of women is better, with the organizing of cooperatives where they are earning their own money. There are now autonomous villages where the military and outsiders can’t enter. But the conflict within and between communities has intensified and caused a massive migration to the edges of San Cristóbal. The evangelical movement, encouraged by the government in the face of the uprising, split communities, and whichever group was in the majority expelled the others.”
So, some 20 years later, most villages do not have running water or electricity, two of the original EZLN demands. The Mayans farm the least productive land, with the least amount of government services. Of the 4.8 million people of Chiapas, one quarter are indigenous, and among them speak 30 languages. Hearing vendors talking to one another always turns my head with the music.
But to come back to the poverty we see around us in San Cristobal: according to our Lonely Planet guidebook, many of the men, women and children on the streets are displaced villagers, living in the “belt of misery” of poor, violence-ridden shantytowns ringed around the edges of the city. Most have been expelled from their villages as a result of political-religious conflicts – a sad conclusion to twenty years of struggle to create better and longer lives.
To finish on a sunnier note, here is Michael after a successful day of playing chess on the plaza.