This is the third diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our second day, we went to an indigenous market in San Cristobal de las Casas for food and then went to stay with the Zapatistas. Only, when we got there, they wouldn't let us in...
(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)
I started day 2 by showering, dressing, and packing. All ready to go, I checked the time and realized I had a half an hour before I needed to meet Peter, Susan, and Lia (the Brazilian professor joining us) in the hotel lobby. I decided to sneak down the street for a breakfast at Casa del Pan.
The food at Casa del Pan is clearly aimed at American tourists. It’s organic, local, and vegetarian. I ordered café con leche and 2 fried eggs over a tortilla with mole. To cut to the chase, the food tasted great. It came with bread and jam, and the jam – guanabana, I think – was so good I could have drank it. Then I went back to the hotel, got my luggage, and met everyone in the lobby.
Zapatista imagery in a mural in Casa del Pan. Even though this restaurant has nothing to do with the Zapatistas, they are using Zapatista imagery. This is pretty common in Chiapas. Many businesses or non-profits use Zapatista imagery to get business or donations even though they have nothing to do with Zapatistas.
My food at Casa del Pan
We put the luggage, Peter, and Lia in a cab, and Susan and I walked to meet them at the indigenous market up the street. Quickly, we picked up some food as well as several tamales (for breakfast), and then decided that yes we could all fit in one cab with our luggage to drive to Oventic.
Mmm... fresh chicken
Beans - look at the biodiversity!
Agrochemical store in San Cristobal. They've even got the Paraquat ad translated into Tzotzil (the local indigenous language). Should we thank Syngenta for their cultural sensitivity for doing that?
On the drive there, Peter pointed out the military base near San Cristobal that the Zapatistas attacked in the early days of their revolution. The brilliant part of their strategy, he said, is that they blocked off the road so that the military from the lowlands could not reach the highlands, and then kept all of the troops in the highlands occupied fighting at the military base. Meanwhile, Zapatistas all over Chiapas took the land of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful landowners. (More on this later.)
When we arrived at the Caracol, things proceeded exactly as Peter had said they would – sort of. A woman with her face covered by a red bandana was standing guard, so we approached her. She called two other guards, both masked men, who took our IDs. But that’s where the normal process broke down.
We had unfortunately arrived at a bad time. Each of the five Zapatista zones in Chiapas is led by a Board of Good Government (or Junta for short), and the Junta is made up of people from each of the zone’s municipalities, chosen by a consensus process from the municipality’s General Assembly. While serving on the Junta, the members also have to do their farm chores at home to grow their corn and beans for the year. Thus, the Junta in Oventic has three parts that take turns serving. The government switches from one group to the next every Sunday. That’s what was happening when we showed up, and because the Junta was occupied, nobody was around to decide whether to let us in.
The gate, and beyond it, the Caracol
While we waited Peter and Susan announced they were going to the bathroom. When they came back, I asked where the bathroom was. The answer was what I had feared: it depends on which tree you choose to pee behind. Shit. I’ve peed outside exactly five times in my life and it’s not something I do unless it’s an emergency with no alternatives. Peter said the Caracol had a latrine. I decided to hold it.
We all sat down for what was turning into a long wait. Feeling sleepy, I made a comment about coffee, and Peter told me that the Caracol’s store would sell me one. At once, I went to the store and ordered café con leche without thinking about it. Even before the coffee showed up, I realized I was getting Nescafe, which I refuse to drink. I took two small sips before deciding it was too disgusting to even attempt drinking. Unfortunately, the two sips I took had an immediate effect. I had to go to the bathroom NOW.
I asked Peter again about the bathroom. Just pee anywhere, he said. “What if I don’t have to pee?” I asked. Dig a hole, he said. Shit. “With my hands?” I asked. Use a stick, he said. I thought back to the tiny trowels I saw at REI, sold for just this purpose. When I saw them there, I was glad I didn’t have to buy one. I guess I was wrong.
I’ll leave the rest of that story to your imagination. Ultimately, the Caracol let us in. Another group that was trying to get in, a few tourists, were turned away. Peter and Susan said again and again that something strange was going on. They also noted that the Zapatistas likely would not tell us why things were strange. They don’t tend to give too many explanations, and when they do, they do it on their own schedule.
But at least we were in. The first order of business was going before the Junta. Peter and Susan had typed up their requests very clearly, making enough copies to give several to the Junta so that all could follow along. With these in hand, they sat down to wait on the bench outside the Junta’s office. “We call this ‘Junta-waiting,’” Susan told me. Great, more waiting. But this time the wait was not long.
The building that houses the Junta
We were soon allowed in to a fairly simple room, with masked men and women sitting at a table and chairs in front and with rows of seats facing them. We first shook hands – each of us with each member of the Junta, repeating “Buenos dias” and “Mucho gusto” so many times that it felt insincere – and then sat down. Peter and Susan made their requests. The Junta sometimes asked questions to clarify the requests, and sometimes talked amongst themselves in Tzotzil, their native language. Next came Lia. She asked to observe their education system, and was immediately denied. Specifically, they said that in the past they allowed this but now they did not (and gave no reason for the change).
Then it was my turn. I spoke in English and let Peter translate for me because this seemed too important for me to fuck up just because I speak Spanish like a gringo. I told the Junta who I was, and what type of work I was doing. I mentioned how much I enjoyed learning about the indigenous people of Bolivia, and then asked if I could visit a milpa (a cornfield) to see how their crops grew here, and if I could speak to their Agroecology team about farming in this area. Peter translated my words into language that sounded much more revolutionary than the words I had used in English (i.e. talking about the struggle and resistance of the indigenous in Bolivia). The Junta gave no immediate answer.
Last, I asked if I could take pictures, since Peter told me we could take no pictures in the Caracol until we were given permission. Peter asked, and the answer confused me. When we got outside, I found out what had happened. Peter asked if I could take a picture with the Junta, and they said no to that. Ultimately, they decided I could take pictures of things, not people, and that suited me fine. But Susan said the Junta always likes having their pictures taken and they’ve never said no to that request before.