When I was young and sweet, I thought the world would never shock me. Every night, under the covers, I would run my finger against Encyclopedia Britanicas. I read of scorpions and Voodoo rituals. The stuff of children’s nightmares excited me, making me read on. I grew to like this world: the magic, the new, the ancient. But then I fell in love. It was a true academic romance that would consume me and make me step out of my realm of pages. But then it turned to a panic. Culture shock: the wake from my slumber. I would not see the same again.
Like most love stories, this one begins with a glance. When I was eleven, my fingers found the words YA BASTA scrolled on the spine of a small book. My saga of enamoration began. I fell in love with a place named Chiapas Mexico where indigenous people who were tucked behind mountains began to lose everything they once had: land, language, and life. Why? Because of NAFTA, a free-trade agreement that economically welded governments together, burning out those who had no authority in industrial society. Mayan Indians were forced off of their ancestral land so that the Mexican government could farm on the stolen grounds. The Mexican army began an ethnocide against indigenous people who lived in Southern Mexico for millennia. Whole villages were on the brink of collapse. But strength was found. A movement deep in the womb of the Lacandon jungle swept over the Mexican state the size of South Carolina. An army of indigenous Mayan Indians formed the ZAPATISTA ARMY and took arms to protect their culture. My heart could not take it any longer. Pages suffocated me; I had to see it for myself.
As high school passed on, I suppressed my desire to visit the home that I thought I always had but never saw. I was not ready yet. I took a two year independent study with a Spanish professor on the History and Culture of Mexico to look deeper into the frames set by books. I read and read about the mountain people of Chiapas: I consumed tribal government theory, read ethnographies about the intricacies in gender relations, and fervently flipped through Tzotsil and Tsetal dictionaries. I wanted to learn the language so that I could immerse with a rebel family that I already perceived would embrace me for my very love of Chiapas. I was especially in love with the indigenous Mayan women. They looked so strong and steady in the pictures of books. I could not wait to live with them, side by side.
The wait was over. My final year of high school, I was able to apply for a senior project, an opportunity to finish my high school education early and take up an academic pursuit out of the classroom. I applied for a multisite Participation Observation to study what it meant to be a Post-Colonial Woman. I studied my mother’s village in India, Madrid Spain, and Chiapas Mexico between January and June. Finally it was time for me to leave my books behind and go.
Like a new bride, I arrived in Chiapas. I was so eager to walk the hills and talk of PEACE AND REVOLUTION. But first, I had to brush up on my language skills. I took Spanish lessons in the tourist town of San Cristobal de Las Casas. I was staying with an ethnically indigenous family who were well established in San Cris (the father was an actor, the mother was an NGO worker). After my lessons, I felt I was ready to travel up the mountains to live on top of the world with the soldiers. In 2001, the Revolution was over because of a treaty between the Mexican government and indigenous communities, yet people consider themselves soldiers because the lack of medical resources and other promises that were never made by the government. I was to live with my host family in San Cris’ extended family in Chenalo, an indigenous municipality up in the mountains of Chiapas. The night before the trip, I was rosy with excitement.
The next morning we arrived by truck at the bottom of the mountain. But because the roads were bad, we had to walk with my suitcase up the hill. I had read about those journey so I was ready. I wore soccer cleats and hiked up, in line with the women who were barefoot and strapped their babies to their backs. Li tal Sha! we called in tsotzil, which meant: I have arrived! I met the family: The matriarch (a grandmother who spoke no Spanish and was so small that I could carry her), women, and children. The women were just as I imagined: strong, dignified, but kind. They looked so beautiful in their Mayan huipil blouses and wool skirts. I brought gifts of chocolates, medicine, sodas, and a soccer ball. The children and I played soccer and then ‘Zapatista War’ in environmental paradise. I kept on telling the children: this is the most green I have ever seen. They giggled and said: what else would the world look like? I smiled.
I was then introduced to the woman I was to live with. Patty was 19 and had a smooth face and kind eyes. As she helped me set out my things, a little boy ran and hid behind her skirt. I got on my knees and looked behind her. A dirty face peered at me, then grabbed more of his mother’s woolen skirt. “Ponkee, say hi to your sister!” A three year old boy jumped into my arms. I tickled him until he laughed. As I helped Patty tuck Ponkee into bed, we talked. I asked her about the army and the movement and how government relations are. She said that its resting. But then she said: “what is a movement when we need things”. I asked her to go on. She pulled a folded photograph from her pocket and handed it to me. “This is his father”. I looked at the photo, then at sleeping Ponkee. I asked her where he was. She began to cry. She cried and cried, I did not know what to do. She told me he was Cozumel. I was confused. I had visited Cozumel when I was 12. It was tourist island known for its white sand beaches and luxurious hotels. Why was a Mayan in Cozumel, an island in Northern Mexico? She told me although she was proud of being Mayan, living on the land was not enough. She wanted Ponkee to have an education, but school cost money. She wanted to have another means of fuel for cooking so that she did not have to leave Ponkee unattended for hours while she walked down the mountain with other women to look for wood. Pokee’s father, who never met his son, worked in a Cozumel restaurant as a dish washer. “We need money” she said. I watched her fall asleep and she weeped. I could not sleep.
I felt sick to my stomach. The paradise landscapes and Zapatista slogans of anti-Free Trade were not their whole lives. Wasn’t the desire for money so against the principles of Zapatista nature? Wasn’t Ponkee’s father abandoning his culture by supporting a capitalist corporation of hotels? I fell so in love with the pictures of forests and hand looms that I did not realize that culture was fluid and that image was not forever. I was ashamed of myself for romanticizing my indigenous host family. If culture is the sets of learned behavior used to adapt to the transforming world, then how could I expect for this mode of mountain living to stay intact! I could not sleep. I walked outside the hut and cried. I began to notice things: the lack of a bathroom, no hot water to bathe in, no medicines. How was I to live here? I looked above me. I had never seen so many stars. The sight calmed me. I then looked ahead of me and saw little lights dotting the hills. Wooden huts of the Mayans lit with electricity. This is the most beautiful place on Earth. Just just because of the mountains, but because of my new family. Patty opened her home to me, and that is the biggest beauty of all. I went back to bed, Patty by my side.
I wanted to know learn more about the changing Mayan identity as an Indigenous and 21st Century people. The complex question that came to mind was: why did the Maya change their ways if they had been living the same way for centuries and do the changes result in a change of identity for the community? I asked Patty and Lucia (another woman in the family) why indigenous communities were changing. Why do people want electricity and other things? They told me that when they were young, before the revolution, the Maya were a horticultural society who relied on rainfall to grow food. Corn was sacred and every part of it was used. Men and women worked side by side in fields and strict gender roles were maintained in order for mountain life to continue in harmony. But when the government threatened the livelihood of the community, “NAFTA” Patty said “had opened us up to the world”. Many NGOs had come to the mountains and taught girls about their rights. Patty had worked with anthropologists before (including my Spanish professor in high school) but she said that these women were different. They had maps and pictures of women working at desks and not cooking and cleaning. During the Revolution, electricity came to Patty’s village. She remembered when they had bought a radio in 1996 to listen to the Zapatista Rebel Radio. But they also heard other radio stations not only from Mexico but around the world thanks to the altitude of the mountains. Patty heard of Coca-Cola on a radio station in Spain and wanted to drink it. Soon after, Coke replaced posh, an indigenous alcohol from corn used in Mayan rituals to please Corn spirits. After the Revolution, Patty and her family expected medicines and schools that were promised from the government. But none of the promises came true. Regardless, Patty was growing up and when she was 15 she married. She loved her husband very much, but she was concerned about him. She recalled how at night he would tell her about possibilities for jobs in the North. He would get money and send it to her for medicines and Coca-Cola and slippers for her bare feet (a Maya tradition). Patty became pregnant and did not want her husband to leave, but she knew it was for the best. “Ponkee only knows his father from the photograph, but feels that his father is looking over him because of the monthly money sent” Patty said.
I asked her if she thought the Mayan culture would disappear from the technological and monetary changes. “It is complicated” she said. She is very happy about the money and medicine her husband sends her. But she is worried that one day someone will take her land, or worse, a Mayan will sell his land and abandon his tradition. “We are proud to be Mayans” she told me. She said her people have constantly been changing for millennia even though they look like they have lived the same way: indigenous clothing patterns and colors change generation after generation, the religion changed from Mayan religion to Christianity, and now Mayan women sell their weavings to tourist shops, their traditions still preserved even through the exchange of Capitalism. “See? We are still Mayans! And we will always be Mayans!”
The next morning we rose while the Chiapanecan moon gleamed a bit longer. At 4 am, Yaya the grandmother flicked the switch for the mechanical corn grinder instead of mashing dried corn by hand. Human adaption. I smiled.
(Ponkee and Patty)
I realized that by romanticizing a culture, I would not have been able to look into the complexities of it. By speaking to Patty and living with her, all of my preconceived, romantic ideas of Mayan life were slowly unraveled. Our conversation, a dialectic, I was able to learn about her culture, about myself, and she learned about mine. My culture shock due to the romanticizing of Mayan culture was eased by the genealogy of the Mayan persona. Mayan culture is fluid as much as mine. This is why the Mayan people have one of the oldest histories in the Western Hemisphere. In the midst of my tumbles, I was able to glimpse humanity. When Patty and I talked about our childhoods and our family, we giggled like girls and exchanged glances like old friends. At times we felt each other’s pain. Regardless of our geographic locations, we were able to develop a friendship in a language that was not our mother tongue. Hola. Como te llamas? What is your name? Globalization did not mean the end of human cultures. It was the meeting of one to another. Patty, my corn husk sister, resides in my vagabond heart. Li tal Shah- We have arrived. And we are doing it together.