Dancing with the Maya: Una fiestita in Copoya

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Carron Harlan

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You would think that by now, well into my third year of living in Chiapas, I would have learned that familiar U.S. customs — especially ones which make me feel as though I have slipped into a comfortable old bathrobe — do not always transfer gracefully into my new country.

But without the benefit of an established “expat” community to help me bridge the inevitable cultural gaps and give me the occasional taste of home, my social time in Mexico must necessarily be spent with either my Zoque neighbors in Copoya or my Chiapaneco friends from Tuxtla Gutierrez. I confess, therefore, to having committed numerous social gaffes in their presence.

For example: I gave a small, impromptu party appropriately called una fiestita by my Spanish-speaking friends. The guests included mi comadre (a Mexican woman’s close female friend), members of her extended family, and several other people they just happened to bring with them, in typical Mexican fashion.

Contented living in Mexico requires a certain flexibility, a willingness to suspend the need for advanced planning and simply leave oneself open to any and all opportunities for spontaneous pleasure. Thus I had only about an hour’s notice that they were coming to visit in my home. But since they said they would be bringing the drinks, I clearly understood that I would be expected to provide food for the occasion. Sin duda, it would be very festive indeed!

In spite of the short notice, I was able to elicit the help of my teenage daughter and together we prepared a very attractive buffet table. It was, I thought, perfect for cena, a light evening meal often served here in Mexico, where traditionally they have their main meal in mid-afternoon.

We arranged plastic plates and glasses, appropriately bright and cheerful, and utensils with color-coordinated handles at one end of the dining table. Anticipating appreciative “o-o-oh’s” and “a-a-a-ah’s,” I used some pretty pottery serving pieces I had recently purchased at an Indian village in Oaxaca (and somehow managed to bring home with me on the bus, all amazingly unbroken). The paper napkins were the color of orange sherbet, the trays were decorated with hand-painted flowers, and fat candles dripped onto their tall clay holders. Beside them stood an interesting statue carved from some exotic tropical wood by an artisan in Chiapa de Corzo.

The menu I hastily planned was classis fare for a late Saturday afternoon. Build your own sandwich “Dagwood” style. On a platter were generous stacks of sliced Virginia ham with an ample assortment of fresh vegetables, relishes and condiments, which I expected each person would add al gusto between slices of fresh, white bread. There were local cheeses and lots of chips and dips. Something for everyone and totally self-serve! Delicious and, best of all, easy on a last minute hostess.

We polished the glass tops of numerous side tables and stored away bric-a-brac clutter. Chairs and sofas were re-arranged into cozy conversational groupings, so my guests and I could sit back comfortably in the living room after filling our plates and topping off our drinks from the buffet.

Everything was ready and it looked great! My daughter and I stood back to admire the results of our inspired party arrangements.

Our guests arrived, nearly on time. (Mexican friends tell me they are more concerned with being “in time” than “on time,” a fascinating cultural distinction.) And since their guests, whom I did not know, had never been to my house before, the husband of mi comadre took them first for a long walk around our property.

Meanwhile, my friend — always a smiling whirlwind of energy — went directly to my carefully decorated table and began assembling the sandwiches herself. Without hesitation she used up all the bread, putting only a light smear of mayonesa and one thin slice of ham on each one. She then wrapped them individually in the orange paper napkins, stacked them together on a single platter, and efficiently moved everything off the table into the kitchen, well out of sight of my guests.

Too amazed to say anything, I merely watched as she proceeded to move all the dining room chairs back into their original places around the long, bare table.

As her husband and the others came back in and sat down around the table, instead of in the living room as I had planned, she brought out foaming glasses of cerveza bien fria, which she had poured in my kitchen. Moments later she returned with my little glazed dishes of sal and limones. The large bowl of potato chips, supposed to be a side for the sandwiches, did not come to the table until much later, making a solo appearance. After all the chips were eaten, the pitifully plain sandwiches were handed out individually to the guests, without plates, accompanied by nothing more than their colorful paper wrappings.

As my friend and my daughter made numerous trips to and from my kitchen, serving the rest of us as we waited at the undecorated table, I thought back to other Mexican parties I have attended over the years. Some were in my own home, others in the homes of friends. What I remembered with clarity as I waited at the table for yet another beer to be served by my friend was that, at least in Chiapas, “buffets” just aren’t done. The idea of self-service is anathema to a proper Chiapaneca hostess, and guests would probably starve while sitting passively around the table (or drink themselves to death) before helping themselves to her carefully prepared food.

Men don’t, or won’t, or maybe even can’t, serve themselves, although many I know are excellent cooks who clean up after themselves in the kitchen. But women do not bring anything to the table that has not been fully prepared and plated in the unseen recesses of their tiny cocinas. This means that the hostess and any female helpers do not join the family and guests until the final brandies are ” salud-ed” and the strong, sweet café de olla is being stirred with a generous shot of Kahlua.

For the same reason, however, after-dinner drinks are all the more enjoyable when shared with the hostess, and a lagging conversation is delightfully revived by the presence of the women. I feel certain they have been keeping up with their guests, drink for drink, pouring beer or liquor for themselves as they have toiled in the kitchen. So by the time everyone is back together again, sitting around a clean table, the mood is unanimously mellow and festive. Hostesses released from their chores are as eager as their guests to continue partying well into the night or early morning hours.

With tongues loosened by their spirited drinks, English speakers try out their basic Spanish. Mexican guests recall a few phrases in English from their high school days, and they, too, want to practice an unfamiliar idiom. There are mistakes, laughter, and eventually understanding.

Some of the men leave to buy more beer. Women who don’t usually smoke now puff on cigarettes and giggle like teenagers doing something naughty. ¡Todo esta bien! We speak the same language at last. We are among friends.

When the men return from their errand, beers are now poured at the table directly from large bottles called caguamas, “giant turtles.” Tall double shot glasses filled with excellent national brands of brandy or tequila from patas de las elefantes are lifted reverently in universal toasts to health, wealth, and love.

¡Salud, dinero, y amor . . . . . y tiempo de gustarlos!

The music becomes livelier. Beneath the table feet begin to tap, heads nod in rhythm, and shoulders unable to deny the evocative sounds of salsa or merengue, ranchero or marimba, move as though choreographed in a kind of table dancing into which everyone is seduced.

And in just such a way our own evening progressed, the music and the conversation becoming incrementally louder. Plates of condiments which I had prepared hours earlier all returned to the table “in time” to be splashed with lime juice, sprinkled with coarse salt, and eaten with the fingers instead of between slices of ham and bread. There were more rounds of beer, brandy, tequila, sodas to mix.

¡Quieres algo mas, mi amor? ¡Sí, cómo no!

But what I will always remember most about this particular party was the proud and handsome Maya puro from a remote Indian village near the ancient and mysterious ruins of Palenque. A guest of my guests, he sat across the table from me and spoke softly, expressively, about the beauty of the Chiapanecan skies at night. He taught me wonderful sounding words from his own Mayan language, now called Chol. He is an artist who still works in the old ways of his people, a contemporary who sculpts traditionally in lime-laced plaster.

He is a man who nods his dark head with dignity and turns a classic profile when he speaks. On the night of my party, his straight back and proud shoulders moved suggestively with the throb of Latin music. Whe he looked into my eyes and told me things, he made me feel that perhaps, after all, I really do belong here.

My little fiesta and the buffet that just didn’t work, proved one thing above all else: in Mexico, friends are always more important than the decorations!


Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Carron Harlan © 2008
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