Fiesta in Chiapas
After a long, hot, dry drive through eastern Oaxaca’s Isthmus de Tehuantepec, our van and trailer began climbing the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The Central Depression of Chiapas spread its valley banquet below towards the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Our first evening passed in a pleasant balernio with its welcome pool and home-cooked meal. In late February, evidence of vast, lush pasturelands surrounded the city.
Tuxtla Gutiérrez is a bustling, moderately sized city with one of the best-staffed, best-equipped tourist information centers available in Mexico. It is also home of Mexico’s best-reputed natural habitat zoo, Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro. The three kids clamored with excitement for a glimpse of the wildlife of Chiapas. Brilliant Scarlet Macaws squawked loudly while flying through lush vegetation. Small furry brown bodies scurried in the brush under swinging monkeys. Several endangered species like the colorful, long-tailed Quetzal call this natural habitat, home. Concrete walkways provide access to the large fenced areas under a canopy of jungle shade in quiet tranquility.
The two-lane highway 190 hugs and winds around hairpin curves on precipitous mountainsides. Every time a bus or car descended hurtling on our side of the highway or passing on a blind curve, my heart jumped into my mouth.
Cheap highway thrills! Hope to live to tell the tale of this trip!
What was growing on these near vertical slopes?
Why, it looked like tall withered stalks of corn?
But how could they grow among boulders tangled with weeds and brush. I spotted a Mayan dressed in traditional traje and carrying a large sack upon his back. He bent low to the ground, stabbing at the mountainside with a wooden stick. Mile after mile, campesinos (farmers) plant and harvest corn on this most inhospitable of landscapes. Why were the lush pasturelands lying vacant from crops in the huge lush valley below?
Some of the swirling questions are answered by a journey through Chiapas. The Mayans name their traditional lands, “The Heart of the Sky.”
San Cristóbol de Las Casas is one of the most-loved travelers’ haunts in all Mexico. It is a colonial built town that served a brief period as state capitol from 1824-1892. It is, however, the surrounding indigenous villages that give the area its unique history and flavor. This area exploded upon the consciousness of the modern world with the indigenous people’s uprising on Jan. 1st, l994. The forces soon to ignite smoldered during the Mayan fiesta of February l993.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook directed us along narrow, cobble-stoned streets to the eastern outskirts of the town. Dark, wide-eyed children waved as the broad beamed Bigfoot trailer squeezed past their doorsteps. The rustic camping and trailer park Rancho San Nicolás nestles among evergreens and the sweet smell of wood smoke lingers on the mountain air. The temperate pine-clad highland surroundings reminded me of my British Columbian home. Tiny wooden cabins for rent dot the forested hillside above the campground. Cool night temperatures froze the dog’s water bowl. A soft gray mist shrouded the valley each early winter morning. A climb above the cabins lifts you above the mist to the top of a hill under crisp blue skies. By 10 a.m. shafts of pale light penetrated the fog, burning it quickly away to reveal the whole of the beautiful Jovel valley ringed by low mountain peaks. By noon, pants and sweaters are peeled off in favor of shorts and tops in the welcome warmth. Several other small hills over which San Cristóbol undulates are crowned by colonial churches and afford good views over the town.
San Cristóbol de Las Casas has abundant fine cafés, restaurants and small hotels. More full service R.V. facilities are provided within the walls of the Best Western Hotel. After several days spent exploring the colonial architecture, the local market and hiking trails, I stood in a long bank line of international tourists, noticeably European, for whom the area is a magnet.
During our chat, the Dutch woman in front of me proclaimed, “You must visit the village of San Juan Chamula! It is the last day of their weeklong fiesta. In fact, you have probably missed the ending. Too bad! But perhaps, if you go there right now, there will still be something going on!”
Back from the line, I reported to my family and our German friends, the news from the tourist grapevine.
“Well,” said Uli, “ Why not go and check it out? No need to take two vehicles. We can all go in my van.”
Uli drove the eight of us to the village of San Juan Chamula, 10 km away. He parked the van in a field just below the paved road and we gazed at a winding dirt road that trailed down to the bottom of the valley. Small boys milled around us, asking to look “after” the van. Although he locked the van, Uli considered it good insurance to pay the boys for their “protection”.
As our party walked down the hill, hundreds of indigenous people traipsed up from the village. Traditional costumes of colorful homespun blues, reds, pinks and cream dazzled the eyes.
But was the fiesta finished?
A striking white, colonial church with blue trim dominated the far side of the large plaza ahead. Upon our approach to the village of San Juan Chamula, a sea of indigenous people surrounded us. I experienced a novel feeling. Fifty foreigners or other Mexicans ( mestizos) mingled among twenty to thirty thousand Mayans representing the Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Zoques, and Tojolabls.
Suddenly short men in ceremonial regalia burst among the crowd. Four men dressed in white tunics and white shorts with their faces darkened with greasy soot and wearing tall, conical monkey-fur hats. With long hefty staffs, they shoved aside the crowd. Just in time! People scattered to avoid collision with an enraged bull tied to wildly running men. No time to think. Split-second reaction!
We each grabbed a child and hoisted them high above our shoulders to avoid trampling. My husband, Bill, grabbed our oldest son, Richard, and flung him up on top of a nearby wall. Richard clung for dear life while the rest of us scattered to safety.
The two teams of men in cream colored wool tunics streamed through the dispersing crowd. This pamplonada (running of the bull-Mayan style) competed to command the path of the stampeding bull. After this exciting contest between men, the exhausted bull receives ritual slaughter followed by a communal feast between competitive villages.
Catching our breath, our party of eight reassembled among the thousands. Uli’s lanky frame slumped upon a metal chair beside a food booth as he raised a camera to his eye. A dark hand above a glowering face snatched the camera from his grasp. The Mayan man informed Uli in no uncertain terms, that picture taking of the fiesta was forbidden.
Evidently the fiesta was not over!
The large colorful colonial church looms like a beacon from the far edge of the plaza. A prayer of gratitude for deliverance welled in my heart! The short, gruff, man, guarding the entrance stuck out his gnarled hand, demanding pesos from every visitor. We paid and entered the church.
I stared around in disbelief. Copal, ceremonial incense, wafted through the dim, cavernous interior. Fragrant pine needles carpeted the stone floor lit by thousands of flickering candles. Like constellations of stars, the ceremonial candles burned, brightly, or darkened in the smoky darkness. A few people knelt before them murmuring Mayan prayers from their spiritual legacy. Surreally time turned back on itself hundreds or thousands of years.
Walking cautiously around the wall of the church, my three kids pelted me quietly with questions.
“Mom! What are the people doing here? Is this a Christian church? Why are the candles different colors? Most of them are clear colored. What do the red and black ones mean? Why is that man breaking eggs into a bowl and chanting? Why do all of the saints have mirrors in their tummies?”
No ready answers sprang to my lips. The experience existed as new to me, as to my children.
Back at the San Nicholás campground, I asked these questions to Gail, an expatriate American and Miquel, a native Mexican. They explained details of Mayan spiritual beliefs. For the past twelve years, the couple lived full-time among the indigenous Mayan people of Chiapas. They focussed chiefly upon documenting and photographing the ceremonial customs of the people who lived at Amatenango del Valle, a Tzeltal village south of San Cristobal de las Casas. Their host of exquisite photos depicted the customs of the region.
These same customs now exist under siege, threatened culturally and economically as in no other time in Mayan history. For centuries these people struggled to preserve the remnants of their culture under the colonial yoke by adaptation and perseverance. But growing birthrates pressured the scarcity of land and resources remaining to them. Squeezed and squeezed again for five hundred years, their existence as an indigenous people is under constant threat.
They are denied access and opportunity to the great natural wealth of their state and generally live in material poverty.
So began an awareness of Chiapas as a unique social and cultural area in all of Mexico. On the following Jan. 1, 1994 as Mexico, the United States and Canada prepared to celebrate NAFTA, a free trade agreement, an indigenous people’s army challenged the status quo of a nation. Watching network news, I remembered Semana Santa in San Juan Chamula.
Five years later, a world still watches while opposing forces struggle for control or autonomy of a “Place called Chiapas.”
Recommended recent books featuring life among the modern Maya:
National Geographic Society, The Lost Kingdoms of the Maya
Wright Ronald, Time Among the Maya, l991 (Out of Print - Use your local Library!)
Canby Peter, The Heart of the Sky, l993 (Out of Print - Use your local Library!)
Schueler Donald, The Temple of the Jaguar, l995 To order from Amazon Books
Plaxton John and Liz RVing in Mexico, Central America & Panamá, 1995 To order from Amazon Books
National Film Board of Canada 1997 Documentary
“A Place called Chiapas.”
A Place Called Chiapas is a vivid, chilling documentary exploring the elusive and fragile revolution led by Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994