Saturday, May 14, 2011

San Cristobal De Las Casas: An altogether different Mexico

Weeks passed and I left Mazunte, with it’s dry heat, crashing waves and palm trees, on a night bus headed for San Cristobal De Las Casas. I saw rolling desert hills passing by the window as I fell asleep. You can understand why I was surprised to wake up in Seattle early the following morning. I knew it before I opened my eyes. I could feel the cold, wet air which carried the smell of rain-slicked asphalt to me. My waking reverie was interrupted when I opened my eyes with a start and muttered curse as a fellow passenger slammed my travel-stiff knee with the bathroom door. How? Thanks to my seat at the back of the bus which included, aside from a reduction in reclining capacity, a stiflingly close proximity to the steamy bathroom and near constant foot traffic headed to it. I took a moment to get my bearings and look around. This proved to be harder than I thought as my eyes were blurry and nearly impossible to open thanks to the air conditioner/terror device that had been designed into the back of this particular bus. The curve of the back wall and the lack of an overhead luggage rack made sure that the winter chill of the air-conditioned breeze got a perfectly aerodynamic path to my upturned face in its reclined position on the bus. At this point, rubbing my knee and blinking, I decided that all bus engineers should be made to sit in the worst seat on the buses they’ve designed for no less than a twelve hour ride. This muttering and musing lasted only as long as it took to blink some water into my eyes. I continued blinking because I was surprised by what I saw, thinking I’d only been dreaming of home.

I stepped of the bus into the glare of a cloudy, grey Seattle morning. The wind was brisk and cold like one might expect on a March morning. The air smelled thick with promise of rain. Pine trees dotted the surrounding hills and low mountains, adding their soft aroma to the crisp air. Danny and I stared at each other in disbelief. It took us a half hour of walking around looking for a hostel to make us say it aloud. “Dude, we’re home.” said Danny. “Seems that way, huh?” I replied in some disbelief. Even the walk through the city had the feeling of a slow morning in one of the many neighborhoods of Seattle. Coffee shops and bakeries served up breakfast to commuters in cars, on bikes and afoot. We jumped over puddles from the previous night’s rain and wandered by kitsch little clothing shops. San Cristobal seemed to be just another cosmopolitan, western city albeit a very charming one. Yet, with each block we passed, it became clear that I was only seeing part of what defined this city and these people. Something else was there but, for the moment, the city itself enthralled me.

San Cristobal is a city of many colors and cultures, beautiful and enchanting. A city that proudly shows itself the way its inhabitants do. The market place is a menagerie of vendors, each one bearing the colors of their trade or village, calling out their wares in a beautiful, sing song Mayan dialect. Artisans bustle through the streets in a moving tapestry of varying, brilliant colors. The city is not outdone by these master tailors and crafters. It shows its soul through bright paints, in every nuanced building, in every unique doorway. Artsy signs decorate the outside of even the most humble establishments. Fruit stands tucked into buildings compete with each other block after block, each one displaying greater skill in arranging and decorating with their wares. The feeling that this is simply another westernized city quickly faded as I wandered down old streets, through markets larger than I’ve seen in Asia and past more than a handful of “Viva la RĂ©sistance” spray-painted tags on the wall.

In fact, once the strange sense of nostalgia passed, it became clear that San Cristobal was home to two contending cultures: Mexican and Mayan. It was as if colonial and modern Mexico had been superimposed again and again, with varying success, over the deep Mayan roots of the people who had lived there for centuries. The atmosphere of the town is a mixture of the cosmopolitan airs of the north with an undertone of strong indigenous pride. Resistance graffiti declaring allegiance to the Zapatistas and demands for the end of military law cover the walls of chic establishments. The pride the indigenous citizens show by wearing their traditional clothes is more like a challenge than just a sense of civic identity. In fact, even the language spoken on the street is more often Mayan T’zutuhil than Mexican Spanish. I was deeply enticed by what I saw in San Cristobal. Here was a culture, alive if not well, that lived alongside the rest of the nation but was not part of that nation. Here was a group of people who had resisted assimilation for hundreds of years even if they had to fight for it. I had wanted to see this side of Latin America since I’d arrived because it helped tell a deeper story of the country. A story with many actors and groups, one that didn’t have an easily definable set of “good guys” and “bad guys.” It felt like pulling back the stage curtain to see what is really happening in the wings when before, in the passive audience, the lights had been blinding.

This conflict of culture began when Columbus arrived in this country back in the 15th century but the modern rhetoric revolves around what happened much later at the birth of the independent Mexican nation. Just like any other nation, Mexico is a conglomeration of victors and vanquished, those who have a say in history and those who are kept quiet. The nations valuable resources were taken over by the newest conquerors while the hinterlands were left, as is so often the case, as they were: undeveloped, unrepresented and poor. Mexico’s victors consolidated themselves in the center, near the capital, while the vanquished moved to the edges. The Yucatan in the southeast, now Chiapas state but once home to the Mayans, is one of those edges. Here, away from the immediate reach of the state, the people have maintained a stronger sense of who they were before the conquest. Impoverished but proud, the fertile jungle soil seems to nourish rebellion and resistance even more easily than it gives up food.

One powerful form of resistance, as I see it, is the way the Mayan people have adapted Catholicism into their ancient practices, changing it to suit them without being changed in turn. Despite the best effort of the church to instill orthodox practices and beliefs in the populace most people have merely incorporated Jesus and the saints into the network of spirits and forces they work with when entreating the unseen world for favor. We had a chance to see these practices when we traveled to the town of Chamula, a short ride out of the mountains from San Cristobal. The town is small and rural, tucked away into rolling, pine covered hills and nestled into a valley. The center of the town holds a great square and pretty little white church. Looking at it from the outside, you would see no hint of difference from any other church in Mexico. I expected to walk through the doors to find quiet, pious locals making their rounds at extravagant altars inlaid with the customary gold-leaf and scripture. I certainly didn’t expect what was waiting for me past the great wood doors in the cool darkness beyond.

The smell of pine needles drifted to me even before my eyes adjusted to the dim light. My eyes became used to the light quickly and as I looked around I recognized the small, colored statues of saints sitting in wood-edged boxes with glass on all sides. They sat shoulder to shoulder with each other, more than thirty in total, on wood tables surrounding the whole room. Each saint had a table in front of them with twenty or more candles a piece which meant that hundreds of candles burned brightly all around. This was where the similarity between this church and others ended. Now, I saw that the smell of pine came from the floor itself. In place of hard wood pews, in fact there are no chairs, there were thousands and thousands of pine needles. They covered the floor like a thick carpet from the back of the church into the alcove at the far end. Mayan families sat together, scattered about the floor, in front of clearings they’d made in the needles. The sections of marble floor which showed through were covered in hundreds of tiny candles, grouped by color, which were all ablaze like a bonfire. It wasn’t just the religious objects, added or removed, that made the church so different but the also the rites practiced and who performed them.

Each family seemed to take charge of their own ritual. No priest said a litany, in fact I never saw anyone behaving as a priest, and no group singing or repeating of hymns. From what I saw, grandmothers were the closest thing they had to any acting authority on what was happening. I watched one family for nearly an hour, trying to understand what was happening. A grandmother brought in a young boy, maybe five or six, and began clearing a space in the needles. She gently brushed the boy with the candles before she lit them, her voice a breathy, chanting drone. She arranged the candles, lit them, and then began the process again with bundles of small colored candles similar to the ones you see on a birthday cake but much taller. Eventually, more family members showed up to partake in the ritual. Grandmother blessed the sacred coca-cola over the flames, as well the fanta, before each member took their small cup from her. After about thirty minutes of this preparation she began brushing a large, healthy chicken across the boy. The chicken seemed rather resigned to this and didn’t make a motion to escape. The only complaint it voiced was during its time being waved over the licking flames of the candles. Still, all of this was done with tenderness and the chicken never looked overly fearful despite these happenings. Then, all at once, grandmother broke the chickens neck in a simple, fluid motion as she chanted towards the fire. Another woman who was there, perhaps an older aunt, smiled kindly at grandmother as she received the chicken in her arms. Grandmother continued for a while longer but soon the candles ran down and the family left the quiet, murmuring church with the child, now blessed, and a consecrated dinner for the night.

I was stunned as I watched this take place. Here was a group of people who practiced what they believed despite the efforts of so many generations of well-meaning missionaries and church authorities. I had actually seen a ritual that others might refer to as “pagan.” But what I really saw there was the same thing one might see in any holy space. People came there to try to mollify the forces that worked against them and entreat the more beneficial ones to aid them. The practice itself might seem alien to someone of another culture but the spirit of the ritual is the same as it is the world over. They wanted to speak to the gods and spirits they knew. They wanted to be comforted and supported in a world that can seem fickle and cruel. Above all, they didn’t want to be told they didn’t understand God just because they knew other names and forms for the same being. The ritual itself may seem inhumane or foolish to some but, while I sat in wonder watching them, I felt a deep and powerful energy in the pine-smoke air. As we prepared to leave, a band composed of traditionally-attired locals came into the church and began a slow procession between the groups. They played an otherworldly dirge with a wailing accordion, great thumping drums and a few stringed instruments that reminded me of guitars, except all of the strings muted and flat. On our way out we passed a censor-bearer, waving kopal incense in front of him, and emerged from the church in a cloud of sweet smelling smoke.

Of course, it wasn’t just a sense of resistance or difference that made me fall in love with the city. I think it was actually the market that made me want to return there again someday to live for a while. It spreads out in every direction, above and below ground as well as sweeping down side streets for five to six blocks in every direction. It was so tantalizingly alive and colorful, full of sounds and smells I hadn’t yet seen in the Americas. The vendors’ stalls where covered in all the colorful wares, whether they were finely woven fabrics, piles of ripe fruit, mounds of spices or multi-colored beans. The people, dressed in homespun fabrics with intricate patterns, pressed together in a chaos of Mayan and Spanish in a buzz of haggling voices. I started visiting the center of the market everyday for a pile of rice, beans, salsa and tortillas for less than a dollar. The vendors are friendly, smiling and they go out of their way to find what you are looking for. In fact, that is the impression I got of all the people in San Cristobal as well as the city itself. It may seem different to a foreigner at first but once you learn to see it right you realize that everything about it say, “Come in, enjoy and be at ease.” And with a wink, “Just don’t think you’re better than us. We’re all siblings here.”