Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 3, Part 1 - A Full Day with Zapatistas in the Highlands

This is the fifth 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. Our third day was our first full day with the Zapatistas. We spent it in one of their administrative centers ("caracoles") in the highlands near San Cristobal de las Casas. This diary tells about the day, and a second diary will describe our work with the agroecology team in detail.

(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.)

Day 3 had a rough start. We were going to make coffee, and the power went out. So much for breakfast. We transferred our beans from the pressure cooker to the gas stove, which was still functioning, and I think we had some tortillas that Lia brought for breakfast. Later, the power came back on and all of our appliances, set up and turned on for breakfast, began to burn. Apparently, such power outages are very common here.


A mural showing a woman doing traditional weaving. The women often earn money by either weaving or doing embroidery.




A closeup of the top left corner. The Zapatistas are very interested in making sure their children learn to use computers in school, and I saw a few laptops in the Caracoles while I was there.


Emiliano Zapata, the namesake of the Zapatistas


Corn's kind of a big deal around here.




A very Mayan looking mural. The Zapatistas are the descendants of the Mayans who once held a great empire in this part of Mexico.


In this picture, the snail shell shape represents speech.


A Zapatista ear of corn



Peter called me outside to watch the children from the secondary school do their morning ceremonies. I joined him outside while the children were singing the Mexican national anthem. I found it interesting that the Zapatistas, who claim autonomy from Mexico, sing the national anthem and raise the Mexican flag. (I was also intrigued that they call for peace even though they have an army of armed, masked men and women that has fought and suffered casualties.) The singing went on for some time, so I went back inside the office to get dressed.

As it turned out, the children had some international visitors, so today was not a typical day at their school. After all of the singing, they began playing games outside. Lia, who was hoping to learn about the Zapatista educational system, crept up as close as she could to the kids and occasionally reported back to us with updates on what they were doing. Before long, we left Lia to watch the kids and went to meet with Agroecology. We worked with them until Raquel and her team (Juan and Martha) showed up. We asked Agroecology to take a break so we could help them get into the Caracol.


The Caracol


A chicken... there were chickens and a few Muscovy ducks all over the Caracol. I took a few pictures, so that folks could see what breeds (if any) they were. Many of the chickens I saw were no recognizable breed, although some looked like they might be Barred Rocks and many had naked necks.






A cow. This is a sheep raising area, but a few people in the Caracol are experimenting with raising cows for market.


Another cow

Raquel’s team did get access to the Caracol. The rest of the day went by as somewhat of a blur for me. By this time, the beans Peter had been cooking all day were ready. There had been all sorts of confusion in the kitchen over which water had been boiled (Peter drank some that he thought had been boiled but hadn’t… and then, when he realized it, chased it down with two types of medicine to keep from getting sick) and which water had bleach (for a moment we thought that perhaps Rich had taken the bucket of water that I put bleach in and added it to the beans… but he hadn’t). So the beans had no bleach, and we were able to eat them.

At noon, we went as a group to the Secondary school to buy handicrafts from the Education Promoters, and I bought an embroidered square that says, “We are men and women of corn, our dignity is the truthful word, that which will free our people.” (Somos hombres y mujeres de maiz, nuestra dignidad es la palabra verdadera, la de liberar al pueblo.) Since they do not get a salary, the money earned from their handicrafts is more or less the only income the Promotores have. I spent a few hours on my computer in the office, while the others met either with Health (about diabetes) or Agroecology (to finalize the details of the neem experiment).


A Simon Bolivar quote at the school: "The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty." DAMN! Don't hold back... tell us how you really feel about us. Remarkably, none of the Zapatistas were hate-filled or called for any aggressive actions against anybody.

Then Agroecology cooked one of the enormous squashes (chilacoyotes) grown in the area and offered us some as a treat. Susan came to get me with a cup of squash in hand, and after tasting it, I followed her up the hill to get some. They cooked it, seeds, pulp, rind, and all, with sugar and cinnamon. The rind was not good to eat, but the seeds and pulp were fine. It kind of gives you some perspective on Americans wastefulness, that we throw out perfectly edible parts of our squash. To return their kindness, we invited Agroecology to dinner.

Next, we had another trip to the Junta, to get Raquel, Martha, and Juan’s projects approved, and then we met with Health, to buy their handicrafts. They made absolutely incredible stuff. I bought a woven scarf and then visited two of the women’s cooperatives in the Caracol and bought a present for each of my ex-boyfriend’s kids (embroidered clothing).


Emiliano Zapata and a Zapatista Virgin Mary. This mural is painted on the hospital.

It crossed my mind that this would be a little difficult, giving hand washable clothes to kids. What were the Zapatistas thinking, making hand wash only clothes for kids? Then I realized, they ONLY handwashed their clothes. To them it made no difference. I wondered what they would think if they knew that some rich gringo wanted them to make their beautiful handicrafts machine washable so that she could put them in the washing machine.

While we were in the hospital, I saw the sage health advice written on the hospital wall and illustrated with pictures:
  • Wear shoes
  • Keep pigs outside your house (as opposed to letting them come in)
  • Don’t poop outside
  • Boil water before drinking it
  • Disinfect fruit and vegetables before eating them raw
  • Bathe after work and during the day if it’s hot
  • Spit and snot carry germs so don’t spit on the floor
  • Brush your teeth. If there is no toothpaste available, use baking soda
  • Be careful with small children around open fires

And there was one last piece of advice that consisted of a baby crawling towards a dog who is about to lick it on the lips and the word “No.”

Back in the kitchen, the group got started on dinner. Two of us, Martha and I, divided the neem into several equal portions for the Ag team to use in their experiment. Meanwhile, the others made dinner. They made guacamole, a potato/tomato/egg dish, and coffee. It wasn’t much, but it made use of the ingredients and cooking equipment we had on hand. A few food items (mandarins, apples, bananas, and some veggies) were available in the Caracol’s store, and we brought others with us from San Cristobal. In the Mexican countryside, you can’t just run out to the grocery store any time, nor can you refrigerate things (unless you have a refrigerator, and almost no one does). And, while the Caracol and many homes have electricity, the power goes out fairly regularly.


Momo, a locally grown plant that is edible and medicinal. And it tastes like rootbeer - yum!

I went to bed early that night. The gathering between our group and Ag was still going strong when I left and crawled into bed. Tomorrow, we would leave in the morning for San Cristobal, and then continue on to god knows where (Peter told the group where we were going in Spanish and I still had no idea).

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