Friday, March 6, 2009

Idol Worship, Zapatista Rebels and Coca-Cola

Not many Americans go to Chiapas. On the flight we saw Germans. On our tours we ran in to the French and the British. Our hotel housed a few ex-pats but there were various Europeans and Japanese as well as a Dutch woman studying Mormons in the area. The explanation seems to be that Americans are afraid of the region.

On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatistas announced their insurrection in the jungle, taking over the city of San Cristóbal on the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went in to effect. The group, officially called the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) declared war on Mexico, fighting--much as their Revolutionary War namesake Zapata did--for the land rights of the country's poor indigenous people. Participating villages consider themselves autonomous from the Mexican government, and many roadside signs loudly declare their support for the rebels. Still more obvious are the federal government signs which, aside from the military campaign, wage a propaganda war, their billboards announcing the social welfare projects they have completed in the area. These signs are often defaced by the locals.

Despite the conflict, we passed peacefully through the area on our drive through the jungle, although we did have to pay double at the Agua Azul waterfalls: one to the government and the other to the Zapatistas. In reality, there is very little actual fighting in the area; the battle is more ideological than combative. 

Getting to know Chiapas in the few brief  days that I was there, it comes as no surprise that the region would be the basis for the Zapatista revolt. Even the towns that are not involved in the movement are fiercely autonomous, like the village of San Juan Chamula just outside San Cristóbal. 

There, it is inadvisable to go without a guide, and a sign on the entrance to the church reads in broken English (as well as Spanish and what looks like French): "Warning: Before visiting te church please ank for autorisation of the turist office. Tankyou." Taking pictures is also not allowed, and while you can photograph the market scene from afar, if an official catches you snapping them or the inside of the church they will smash your camera on the ground until the chip comes out. Many of the locals also believe that it will capture their souls (although for a few pesos the children will often pose for you).

But Chamula is independent in other ways. They have their own government, and these officials can be seen holding court near the market every Sunday. There, they listen to the complaints of the villagers and settle disputes that have occurred during the week. The residents do not pay taxes, although the impoverished population of 80,000 Tzotzils does accept the government's subsidies.

This ethnic group is also distinctly different from the more northern Mexicans in other ways. One is the practice of religion. While in the church they have the usual patron saints, they pray to them like no one I have ever seen before. In fact, even entering the chapel takes your breath away. The smoky interior is lined with palm needles, and instead of pews is an open floor with space cleared for colored candle altars, each color symbolizing a different ailment. The villagers bring offerings: candles, eggs, corn, incense and pox (a strong alcohol that is slowly being replaced by coca-cola). 

Here the church is not only a place for spiritual worship but for physical and economic ailments as well. Each saint is attended to by a shaman, who counsels the worshipper. They take their pulse and rub the eggs or chicken bones on their bodies. The coca-cola is valued for it's ability to make the worshipper burp, thereby releasing the toxins within. While we were there a sick child lay wrapped in a shawl on his mother's back, the shaman--who can be a man or a woman--praying over him.

The people are encouraged to go to the church for healing first before seeking outside solutions. If their condition does not improve, they then attend the local hospital, which has two doctors: one with a medical background and the other a curandero. In this way the church is used as a place for counseling and healing, guiding people through their situations tinstead of simply curing the scientific cause of their maladies. People go to the church in all times of need, be their problems physical, emotional or economic. In fact, worshippers are encouraged to converse directly with the saints themselves. But when gazing at them they are often gazing at themselves: each figure has a mirror hanging around its neck.

While several elements of Christianity remain, the church is hardly the traditional mestizaje that I have encountered in the city, where Spanish culture reigns with a touch of the Aztec. While Jesus relegated to a less prominent spot in the abbey, the traditional cross also does not hold the prominence that I had come to expect. Instead, it is the Mayan cross that takes center stage, shaped similarly but with an entirely indigenous origin. Some say it is a stylized representation of corn, while others say it originates from the sacred Mayan tree whose long roots stretch down into the underworld and whose leaves reach up to the heavens. Both the tree and the cross are said to represent the three stages of life, from the unborn to the living to the afterlife. The Mayan cross is more curved than the Christian once, which has rigid edges and a much more tragic past. In most villages, like in San Lorenzo Zinacantán pictured below, the Mayan cross can be seen alongside the Christian one.

With so many distinctions from other parts of Mexico, it is small wonder that many of the people in Chiapas consider themselves apart from the country. The next day, in fact, I found myself at the edge of a lake in the southern part of the state looking over the water at the border of Guatemala. It reminded me of how arbitrary our form of nation building can be, wth the Maya just happening to have a line drawn through their civilizations, one of the grandest in history. I think with NAFTA they were tired of having all of these decisions made for them.

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