Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Mexico's indigenous present, as opposed to its indigenous past, sits at an odd juncture of guarded tradition and inexorable change. In the state of Chiapas, deep in the country's southern reaches, many of these communities remain nestled in the hills and able to keep a watchful distance from many of the trappings of modernity. Around the bustling mountain town of San Cristobal, this is more difficult. It was here that Zapatista rebels made their shocking debut onto the international stage in 1994, proclaiming "enough!" to the exploitation and abuse of indigenous groups. Today, the city is a busy tourist hub for visitors drawn by the promise of glimpsing both exotic past and revolutionary present.

In reality, San Cristobal is a much more muddled place, at an odd nexus between tourist-driven modernity and tourist-infiltrated heritage, surrounded by a commercialized revolution and a marketed culture. It is not without irony that the indigenous women who walk in front of the city's gorgeous churches are there to hawk shawls, blouses, belts, and bracelets to passing tourists. And the Zapatista revolution? A few autonomous villages are scattered throughout the state, proclaiming the benefits of more enlightened self-rule against the incursions of neoliberalism and the Mexican government. Their locally produced products are sold in several small shops along the main tourist street.

In the hills around San Cristobal, indigenous Tzotzil Maya villages struggle with the city's gravitational pull. San Juan Chamula, fiercely independent and unabashedly standoffish, sees a wearisome flow of organized tour groups visiting the markets in its main plaza and observing syncretic religious ceremonies in its no-longer Catholic church. Men clad in heavy woolen tunics watch with wary eyes, while women crowd to offer handicrafts for sale. Children tug at shirtsleeves asking for pesos.

Nearby Zinacantan is less hostile than San Juan Chamula, though its residents share a language. Known for both the elaborate floral embroidery worn by both men and women and its commercial flower growing industry, it does not feel worlds apart from the rest of the country. Weddings here mingle Catholic rites, local ritual, and civil ceremony. Corona is served alongside posh the traditional local sugarcane liquor, electronic banda style dance music spins a whirl of floral tunics. Guests snap photos of the blonde-haired bride and groom plastic cake-topper with cellphones.

The forces that sustain also transform.

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