Sunday, June 22, 2008

Trip to Chiapas, Mexico


Ten million of Mexico's 93 million people are indigenous from the following groups: Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, Lacandones, Tzoques, Tojolabales, Mames, Chujes, Cackchiquéles, and Mochos. Ninety percent of the other 83 million are of mixed descent.

Chiapas produces coffee, corn, cocoa, cattle-ranching, hydroelectric power, and timber harvested from the Lacandona rainforest. Chiapas has some of the richest natural resources, including oil reserves, in Mexico - which explains the government's stronghold, as well as the role of the United States. Hydroelectric plants in Chiapas generate 60% of the country's hydroelectric energy. Although the state has an abundance of natural resources, the level of poverty and lack of a basic standard of living among the indigenous groups is abysmal.

The indigenous people of Mexico have struggled against racism for centuries. Up until 1974, the Chiapas state constitution stated that all Indians had to dress in their native costumes and that if a Mexican of mixed blood or Spanish descent passed by on the sidewalk, the Indian had to walk in the street.

During the last 70 years or so, the highly-corrupted Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) has dominated the political structure. The PRI has made rich land owners richer and the people that work the land poorer.

In 1890 approximately 50,000 hectares were ruled by just 6 haciendas, which was one factor that led to the 1910 Mexican Revolution, led by Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919). The revolution was victorious in securing land reforms which protected communal land holdings from privatization. However, President Salinas pushed through an amendment that repealed the protection of land holdings after the institution of NAFTA on January 1, 1994. This, in effect, ended any hopes landless peasants had of owning their own farms.

Not coincidentally, also on January 1, 1994 an organization of indigenous peasants from the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico came into the world's view when they took over five towns, including San Cristobal de Las Casas. The Zapata, Marcos, Che Mural at Aguascalientes IVEjercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), referred to as the Zapatistas, called for changes in the Mexican economy and political structure which would guarantee increased democracy and self-determination for the Mexican people - particularly indigenous groups.

Six months before January 1, 1994, undercover Zapatistas joined the Mexican army. On New Year's Eve, undercover Zapatistas told real soldiers to take the night off and spend it with their families. When the Zapatistas arrived in San Cristobal for the uprising, the undercover Zapatistas took off their Mexican Army uniforms and changed into their real Zapatista uniforms.

Since then, the charismatic spokesman, Subcommander Marcos, has manipulated mass media and charmed onlookers with his eloquence. During negotiations with the Mexican government to change the Mexican constitution, the Zapatistas worked with the National Indigenous Congress (made up of delegates of 56 groups) and CONAI (the National Intermediation Commission) headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal. However, presently the negotiations have stalled and Bishop Ruiz is set to retire this fall.

The Zapatistas focused criticism on the current globalization of economics experienced in many countries. The Zapatistas have explained that their struggle is for the following eleven points:

* Work
* Land
* Housing
* Food
* Health Care
* Education
* Independence
* Liberty
* Democracy
* Justice
* Peace

Additionally, in the national and international plebiscite called by the EZLN last year (1.2 million voters), five new points were added including: culture, information, security, combating corruption, and protection of the environment.

In January, 1995, Chase Manhattan sent a memo stating that the Mexican "government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."

On December 22, 1997, armed supporters of the PRI massacred 45 unarmed indigenous persons who had sought refuge from earlier violence in Acteal in the county of Chenalho in the Chiapas highlands. The victims were Zapatista supporters or members of the peasant organization, Sociedad Civil Las Abejas, a group with politics similar to the Zapatistas but which does not support armed struggle. They were attending Mass in the Catholic church when the shooting started by 60 heavily armed men. The attackers were armed with AK-47 and M-16 rifles and expanding hollow-tip bullets (weapons which could only have been obtained from military or police). The massacre lasted five hours, during which time the police stood by and refused to intervene. The Mexican Red Cross reported 45 deaths, including 9 men, 21 women, 14 children, and one baby. The Mexican government reacted immediately, not by sending needed supplies and medical help to survivors, but by sending an additional 5,000 troops to Chiapas.

On January 12, 1997, state police in Ocosingo opened fire on rock-throwing demonstrators protesting the massacre. An indigenous woman was killed, and her three-year-old daughter and a young man were wounded. The police refused to transport her to the nearest hospital. Although there was a video showing at least three police officers shooting at the demonstrators, by June all but one of the accused had been released. The final accused officer was only charged with malicious wounding.

Since the uprising, Mexico has deported more than two hundred foreigners, and "requested" the departure of others. Those expelled have included journalists, human rights workers, foreign Catholic priests, and students.


San Cristobal is about 2 1/2 hours from the airport in Tuxla Gutierrez. Taxis cost about $35 - so find other tourists to share the ride. It's an old colonial-style city with buildings painted pastel yellow, orange, blue, and purple.

I HIGHLY recommend staying at the El Cerrillo Hotel on B. Dominguez. Costs start at 15,000 pesos - though our group got a deal for 10,000 per person.

Everyday, there are craft booths set up surrounding Convento de Santo Domingo and Iglesia Santo Domingo. I got better deals on Zapatista dolls here, than in the main plaza. Plaza 31 de Marzo has a two-story kiosk in the middle which serves drinks and snacks. Around the plaza, you will find a bank with ATM, money exchange, a pharmacy, and a number of tourist shops. There are several internet cafes in San Cristobal. Two of them are on Real de Guadalupe, one block east of Plaza 31 de Marzo.

There are plenty of delicious restaurants to try - and even a number of (ugh) vegetarian restaurants. La Parilla (Belisario Dominguez 32) is a good place for meat-lovers with yummy grilled steaks and chicken. My favorite restaurant was a block from El Cerrillo Hotel at the end of Belisario Dominguez - called Casa de Pan. Even though it was a vegetarian restaurant, it was delicious! It had a great bakery in the front and a small crafts store. Many nights were open mic nights - where you could hear local musicians.

Colectivo de Mujeres (COLEM) is a non-profit organization serving indigenous women in Chiapas. "COLEM" means free or unfettered in indigenous languages. The organization assists victims of sexual and domestic violence, gives free legal advice, and informs of health and reproductive rights. May 10th was their 10 year anniversary.

Women in indigenous Chiapas have only a 50 year life expectancy and have extremely high rates of death during childbirth. There are 1600 indigenous communities in Chiapas with less than 200 residents. Of these, 70% cook over an open fire, 70% don't have drinking water, 65% have no electricity, and almost all have no access to health care. 50% of residents are illiterate and of those 50%, 90% of them are women.

Women spend a lot of physical energy cooking, grinding tortillas, washing, and getting water. Water buckets weigh 44 pounds and women must carry 2 buckets, 6 times per day for daily living. Women are sexually active by age 12 and by the age of 25, most women have had 5 births. Many of the children are not registered because parents are illiterate and can not complete forms. Of the 4 million indigenous residents in Chiapas, less than 1% are professional women. There has never been an indigenous woman enrolled in law school.

There are only 27 school houses in indigenous Chiapas - with enrollments at less than 100 but some as little as 20. Most of the school children are boys. There are 200 bilingual schools in Chiapas but the education level is very low and schools are almost impossible to get to from isolated communities.

After the 1994 uprising, rape incidents have risen dramatically due to military presence. Before 1994, only 8-10% of the rapes were committed by strangers. After 1994, this increased by 300% as rapes were (and are) being committed by military, police, and paramilitaries. Victims are adult women involved in the conflict. Many nurses have been raped which stopped the vaccination program (the program is now administered by the military). In addition, women are hired as prostitutes by the military - which is often the only source of income they have for their families.

An educated indigenous woman is considered a Zapatista, even if she is not.


There are 5 Aguascalientes in Chiapas including: Morelia, Roberto Barrios, La Garrucha, Oventic, and La Realidad. The Aguascalientes were set up as regional community centers in the Zapatista Autonomous Regions.

I stayed at 2 of the 5 Aguascalientes in Morelia and La Garrucha.


Aguascalientes IV is in the canyon of Altamirano and the rebellious communities of 17 de Noviembre and Cabins. It has a kitchen, dormitories, an auditorium, a basketball court, a soccer field, and corn fields. Residents from about 35 communities travel from their isolated villages to the Aguascalientes for various workshops. Foreigners are also able to stay at the Aguascalientes.

Morelia has suffered at the hands of the military. On January 7, 1994, 3 Morelia men were murdered and a number of women were raped by the military.


This Aguascalientes includes the rebellious areas of Francisco Gomez, Magon Flowers, San Manuel, San Aguascalientes, La GarruchaSalvador, Ernesto Che Guevara, 1 de Enero, and Mayan.

There are also dormitories, an auditorium, and a basketball court. Additionally, this Aguascalientes has 3 stores which sell snacks, drinks, and household goods. Two military bases sandwhich this center, and you must pass a military checkpoint on the way.

This Aguascalientes serves about 75 communities. There are 4 men and 2 women volunteers who have been elected to the Autonomous Council of Francisco Gomez. They have no contact with the existing Mexican government structures. There is no president, all decisions must be agreed upon by the 6 authorities. The authorities are voted in by the General Assembly, which has a representative from each community.


San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil-speaking community, is the largest Maya township of Chiapas with a population of over 40,000.

Chamula is inhabited by the Tzotziles who speak Tzotzil, a language of the Maya family. The main agricultural products include corn, beans, potatoes, and cabbage.

Religion is a mixture of Catholism and native Tzotzil. They believe that the world is a cube supported by 4 columns and surrounded by water. Gods are considered as inhabitants of the moon, heaven, and mother sun.

The main tourist draw here is the church, St. John the Baptist which is disconnected from the Diocese because residents don't want priests in the church. Inside you'll find a thick layer of incense in the air, fresh pine needles on the floor, and hundreds of lit candles stuck to the floor. Catholic Saint statues are in glass cases along the sides of the church, and residents are scattered about chanting and performing various types of rituals.


Zinacantan is known for its hothouse flowers - which are sold and used in their own celebrations.

For centuries, the Tzotzil's of Zinacantan have controlled the only source of salt in the Chiapas Highlands. Before the Spanish Conquest, the merchants traded the salt for amber, cacao, and quetzal feathers from the Chiapas lowlands.

Zinacantan weavers are known for their use of bright reds, pinks, purples, and blues. Most of the weavings are done by the women with waist-looms (as seen pictured below left).

The Tzotzil language (spoken in Zinacantan, San Juan Chamula, and other communities) is very different from Spanish. Here are some vocabulary examples:

* k'ok' - fire
* chuch' - drink
* chib - two
* tok - cloud
* vak - six
* vo` - water
* te` - tree
* me` - mother
* li` - here
* te - there


Chiapas is now a militarized state with military camps, frequent roadblocks, and daily aerial surveillance.

The Mexican army has set up military camps within immediate striking distance of 80% of the Zapatista communities, aerial surveillance has been increasing weekly, and the number of PRI paramilitaries have increased.

Currently, more than 40% of the Mexican military occupies Chiapas.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have reported illegal searches and daily acts of aggression in various indigenous communities - especially La Realidad and Morelia.

The presence of U.S. military aid is apparent as the Mexican army uses humvees, armored personnel carriers, and Blackhawk helicopters, to carry out harassment.

Additionally, military personnel are being trained at the School of the Assassins (the notorious School of the Americas).


The Tonina Ruins are about 12 miles down a dirt road from the city of Ocosingo and are said to be the last capital of the Maya empire. Tonina consists of an artificial mountain of seven platforms on a calcareous hill that overlooks the valley.

On the sixth platform is a cool mural of the four suns, where the suns of each cycle are represented by human heads that are falling. These ruins are much less visited than the larger Palenque ruins and on many days, you may be the only one visiting the ruins.


Historic Downtown

I stayed at the Hotel Majestic in Mexico City's Historic Downtown. The rooms were probably really nice about 20 years ago but I had a great view of the Zocalo, Cathedral, and Presidential Palace. Although, beware of the "taking down the flag" ceremony at 6am.

There are tons of things to see in this district of Mexico City. If you aren't staying in this area, take the blue-line subway to the Zocalo station.

The Zocalo is the 2nd largest public plaza in the world (the 1st is the Red Square in Moscow) and is marked by the huge Mexican flag in its center. There are protests here almost every day, as the Presidential Palace lines one side of the plaza, and a number of "taking down the flag" and "putting up the flag" ceremonies.

There are also cool EZLN, PRD, and Communist booths in the plaza selling Che books and pictures of Marcos. While I was buying a few Zapatista pictures and pins, a policeman pushed me and told me to go away. I went away AFTER I bought my things. The guys working the booth said that police often hassle them.

The Catedral Metropolitan was completed in 1813 and is the largest colonial cathedral in the Americas. There are 14 chapels, a number of side altars, and 5 naves. However, this massive cathedral is sinking into the soft soil beneath it and is filled with scaffoldings.

The Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlan is behind the cathedral and was once the holiest shrine in Tenochtitlan. The site was rediscovered in 1978 during subway excavations, and now houses a museum. Cost is $25 pesos (about $2.50).

The Palacio de Bellas Artes is in La Alameda park a few blocks from the Zocalo (from subway get off at Belles Artes blue line station). While I was there, there was an Andy Warhol exhibit (which was cool if you like him). There is also huge Diego Rivera mural in the Mezzanine.

Chapultepec Park

Bosque de Chapultepec has lakes, the castle, the zoo, museums, and carnival-like food and toy booths.

The Chapultepec Castle was the home of the Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg. The Emperor was overthrown by Benito Juarez - making the castle the presidential residence until the 1930s. The castle was made into a museum in 1940.

The Museo Nacional de Antropologia houses treasures from the pre-Cortesian civilizations. It's supposed to be an outstanding museum - though I didn't get to it this trip.

Zona Rosa

Also known as the Pink Zone, this area is touristy and yuppie-filled. Here you will find internet cafes, malls, American fast-food chains, a movie theater, hotels, banks, airline offices, nightclubs, and tourist shops.

I have to admit that after too many beans and tortillas, a friend and I went to Burger King for Whoppers. Such a shame eating at BK in Mexico, I know, but mmmmm those burgers and fries tasted delicious!

Go to Calles Copenhagen and Genova to browse up and down pedestrian-only streets. At the end of Genova, is the Insurgentes subway station.


Coyoacan is an affluent suburb of Mexico City with museums, cafes, and plazas.

I visited the Frida Kahlo Museum (Calle Londres 247), which is located in the house that she shared with Diego Rivera for many years. In addition to Frida's work, the museum also has pieces from Rivera, Paul Klee, and Jose Orozco.

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