Thursday, November 27, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Two

San Juan, the Guarantor, he who was there when the worlds first appeared, who spoke the yes that started the century on its way and is one of the pillars that keep stable what is stable, stooped down one day to contemplate the land of men. His eyes traveled from the sea where the fish glides to the mountaintop where the snow sleeps. They passed over the flatlands where the fluttering wind scuffles, over the beaches’ buzzing sands, over the forests, refuge of wary animals. Over the valleys. The gaze of San Juan Guarantor paused at the valley called Chamula.

-opening lines from The Book of Lamentations, by Rosario Castellanos


I woke up early this morning and went looking for our posada’s rooftop terrace. It took some poking around, but I found the way up and I was not disappointed: Just a big ol’ slab of concrete with a metal bench and a few decorative pots on it. I breathed in the cool, damp morning mountain air and took a few pictures of the mist still obscuring the highest pine trees on the craggy hills, then sat down and read some Graham Greene.

In the 1930s Greene visited Mexico with the intent of reporting on the recent enforcement of anti-Catholic laws in Mexico’s southern states. Priests were being rounded up and shot, churches shuttered and locked or burned entirely. As a result of his reporting on this violently anti-clerical period in Mexican history Greene wrote two books: a novel, The Power and the Glory, which is a powerful meditation on the sacraments in the form of a white-knuckle thriller about a priest on the run (seriously, I tear through this book every time); and a nonfiction travelogue, The Lawless Roads, which documents in minute detail the depths to which Greene hated Mexico. (Sample line from TLR: It seemed to me that this wasn’t a country to live in at all with the heat and the desolation; it was a country to die in and leave only ruins behind.) I am reading the latter. Despite Greene’s grouchy temperament, though, his descriptions are vivid and his prose wonderfully British, which is why I wanted to crack it open early in the morning in the same town Greene traveled through nearly eighty years earlier.

Graham Greene wasn’t the only one writing about 1930s Chiapas. In 1962, Rosario Castellanos, a native of Chiapas, took an 1869 Mayan rebellion and set it in the 1930s in the area around San Cristobal (then called Ciudad Real – the temporary name change part of the religious purge. The result was The Book of Lamentations, excerpted above. Much of the novel takes place in San Cristobal and a neighboring village, San Juan Chamula.

Naturally, having read all about a bunch of fictional characters in San Juan Chamula I just had to lead an expedition out to the village, about 20 minutes away by collectivo (essentially public transport in a shared (i.e. collective) minivan). Using my Lonely Planet as a guide, I led three classmates down a few side streets until we found the collectivo station, crammed into a minivan, and made the trip to Chamula. Chamula turned out to be just another gorgeous mountain village except for two things: the town church and the town cemetery.

The cemetery was on the outskirts. An old, crumbling stone church sat abandoned but surrounded by a good-sized field of coffin-sized mounds with crosses of varying size and color at their heads. Dried orange marigolds, left over from the Day of the Dead, still adorned many of the mounds.

The church of San Juan was another thing entirely. It was white (just like the novel said!) but outlined in a bright teal that gave it a colorful brightness I hadn’t expected.

I will now try to explain the inside, but I confess right now that I will not do it justice. (Photography was strictly forbidden.)

There were no pews. Instead arm-length pine needles covered the floor, cleared away only in spaces where individuals or whole families of indigenous Chamulans kneeled on the ground, chanting in the indigenous Tzotzil language in front of rows of candles, the wax of their stems softened so they could stand upright, stuck right onto the tile floor in ordered rows. At least thirty different saints – all of them doll-like mannequins with real hair – lined the walls, and in front of each of these saints rows of candles sat burning, different numbers of candles depending on the popularity and healing specialties of each particular saint. San Juan (the Baptist) stood at the front of the church, gazing down at more candles than any of his holy peers. To see this room, lit entirely by candles, the floor covered in pine needles, the only sounds rhythmic chanting broken only by the uncomprehending murmurs of tourists like us, was an experience I hope never to forget.

A guide (a twelve-year-old who charged us one peso) explained that the candles were lit for a person who was sick. The more serious the illness, the more candles burned, the more chants were sung – To San Juan? To Jesus? To a Tzotzil god? To some only-in-Chamula combination of all of these? Who among the living can say for sure? Whatever kind of piety this was – and it would take a better expert than I to explain it – it was, to say the least, viscerally powerful and the most shockingly unique realities I have ever seen inside of a Christian church.


We returned to San Cristobal for lunch, then walked to the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center. Bartolome de las Casas, from whom San Cristobal gets part of its name, was a 16th-century priest who attempted to defend, physically, legally, and theologically, his indigenous parishioners to such a degree that he is still remembered today as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise deathly conquest of the American continents.

The “Frayba” Human Rights Center takes up the old bishop’s cause by running popular education workshops throughout the region and documenting the human rights abuses that take place, abuses which have skyrocketed since the Zapatista uprising and the military/paramilitary response.

As the center’s director spoke to us about his organization’s work, I was struck by something that hadn’t really crystallized for me before. All semester we’ve been talking about how global trade agreements have often come with terrible costs, usually because they have been imposed on the poor of the respective countries without the consent of the poorest and without labor protections or food sovereignty clauses. But here the director was explaining how his organization was using international agreements around human rights, which Mexico has signed, and the power of the international press, to protect the rights of people in a forgotten part of the world. Here, instead of the economic equivalent of global strip-mining, was global solidarity and global accountability, examples of what a better global community might look like.

And as we sat there, six Americans, two Mexicans, and one Salvadoran, in a little room in the city of Bartolome de las Casas, a funny thing happened: That “better global community” began to seem just a little bit closer. Poco a poco, paso a paso

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