We rolled down the windows and watched the streets narrow, turn to cobblestones, and fill with people squeezing past one another on constricted sidewalks, which only twenty years ago were reserved exclusively for ladinos – an ethnic category distinct to Southern Mexico and Guatemala, distinguishing those with Spanish blood from mestizos or indigenous. As recently as 1980, it was a crime for one of Chiapas’ indigenous inhabitants not to move off the sidewalk for a ladino landowner.
The Zapatista movement challenged that hegemony, confronting institutionalized racism, economic exploitation and the extreme marginalization of Chiapas’ indigenous people. And yet now, twenty years later, Chiapas remains the poorest state of a poor country, and the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas are awash in sympathetic foreigners dreaming of revolution.
The four of us – me, my husband Jorge, and our friends Susy and Mauricio – would be staying at a house owned by Mauricio’s mother’s boyfriend; the boyfriend spent half the year in Minnesota and the other half in Chiapas leading tours to autonomous Zapatista and Mayan communities. At the moment he was stateside, meaning we had the house – right on the edge of downtown San Cristóbal – to ourselves. We were stopping over for a few days en route to the Guatemalan border, to renew the permit for Susy and Mauricio’s car.
We had reservations about San Cristóbal from the beginning. We lived in Oaxaca City, some 400 miles to the north – Mauricio and Susy were working on fellowships for their doctoral programs in anthropology, and Jorge and I were a freelance photographer and writer, respectively – and we agreed that the vibe there was different. San Cristóbal gave off a charged friction that made the picturesque colonial city (one of Mexico’s government-designated “Pueblos Mágicos,” or “Magic Villages”) both intriguing and unsettling.
While we waited for Mauricio’s contact to text him about the keys to the house, we went to a taco joint on Real de Guadeloupe, one of the downtown’s central pedestrian streets. The tacos came with the usual assortment of toppings, arrayed in a cupped tray with napkins wedged in its center.
As we were drizzling salsa atop the steaming meat, an indigenous girl, no older than five or six, darted in off the street and asked for money. Susy shook her head but offered the girl a taco, which she readily accepted. Hurriedly, as if being chased, the girl piled on spoonfuls of toppings – quick, onion, quick, cilantro, quick, salsa! – and then bolted back out into her bedraggled group of friends, sharing messy, gigging bites with the other girls dressed likewise in braids, woolen skirts, silk shirts embroidered in azure Mayan blue.
The instant the girl was out of sight, our polished, pale-skinned young waitress appeared and apologized profusely. “Would you like a new one?” she asked, pointing to the condiment tray. “I’m so sorry.”
We shook our heads, reassuring her that it was okay until, slightly disbelieving and embarrassed, she backed away. “That,” Susy said, “is what I hate about San Cristobal.”
For our first days in San Cristóbal Jorge and I did what most travelers do in a new city: we roamed, we ate, we drank coffee and scribbled in notebooks and journals, we grazed lightly on churches and museums. We drank vino tinto at Bar La Revolución and listened to seasoned anthropologists with artfully weathered leather valises discuss their dinner parties, we turned down a million identical friendship bracelets, we ate artisanal French croissants, we listened to earnest hipster bands sing about revolution, we bought organic jam from a German-owned bakery selling beautiful silkscreens of the Zapatistas and advertising NGO projects and yoga classes. I ignored the discordant notes: living was good, culture like-minded, intentions everywhere noble.
An Italian friend of ours in Oaxaca City had labeled San Cristóbal “European boutique,” and the description was as difficult to shake as those cloying Lonely Planet alliterations that sum up places in three peppy nouns beginning with s. The city was frosted in pastels and framed by fairytale pines and mist. French bakeries, wine and tapas bars, New York bagel shops, outdoor cafés, artisan boutiques, and Italian pasta bistros lined the pedestrian streets. There was the trademark abundance of internet cafes and hostels indicating that this was a destination on the backpacker tourism trail, and each morning I could spot a few mochileros with crazy bus hair wandering the streets trying to make out the faded numbers of addresses, or sitting in the Zócalo poring over the Lonely Planet.
At night, the streets swelled with people; San Cristóbal came alive around six or seven, when the harsh sun faded into filmy purples and pinks, the streetlights took on a European glow, and the main plaza turned into a night market of indigenous artisans selling their wares. Jorge and I had wine and tapas at the eponymous bar, sitting at an outside table and watching the dynamics of the city unfold. It was easy to roll with the vibe: la onda, in Mexican hippie parlance.
And there was a definite onda. San Cristóbal was charged through with onda, with a type of singular energy: at times ecstatic, at times placid, an energy of transcendence, of detachment from the implied pettiness and irrelevance of the messy corrupted world beyond. It hung over the throngs in the streets. Pretty young girls with Vermeer faces, twenty-something guys with white dreads halfway down their backs and tattered sandals made of tires, walking loosely beside leashless dogs; bourgeois Mexican tourists, all shiny hair and designer dress, slipping in and out of specialty shops; serial backpackers in high-tech boots and breathable gear suited for Patagonian mountains clomping along cataloguing the experience; transplants from urban Mexico in savvy street fashion; aloof earthy expats with handmade jewelry: they all moved in slow, un-deliberate sweeps down the pedestrian streets and children scattered between them, thrusting stuffed animals against their thighs and into their hands.
The stuffed animals were meticulously made, woven and stuffed by the children’s mothers. There were camels with fluorescent pink humps and orange tails; grinning giraffes with electric blue manes and braided red hair; psychedelic zebras; and then, of course, there were the Zapatistas: solemn black or white figures on horses.
The term Zapatista is derived from Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolutionary War and an early advocate of radical land reform, whose 1911 Plan de Ayala provided much of the practical and theoretical framework for the modern Zapatista movement. The Zapatistas first came to international attention on New Year’s Day of 1994 when, led by Subcomandante Marcos – who was later christened the first postmodern revolutionary – they marched into San Cristóbal and nearly a dozen other Chiapan towns and declared nonviolent revolution against the Mexican State. They were reacting in the immediate to the initiation of NAFTA, which they wisely claimed would widen the gap between rich and poor in Mexico. Their political and social ideologies, however, were far more complex than simple opposition to a single issue, and had been formed over the course of years in the jungles and mountains around San Cristóbal.
These ideologies are voiced in artful, wry, highly literate communiqués authored by Subcomandante Marcos. Unlike the vast majority of Zapatistas, Marcos is not of indigenous descent. Extremely well-educated, a charismatic writer and speaker, and a masterful media manipulator, Marcos is an enigma: many have tried to discredit him as a bourgeois kid from Mexico City or elsewhere playing at revolution. But his impact is manifest and undeniable. He is credited with organizing the indigenous groups of southern Mexico into a movement with a deep understanding of historical injustices and a clear set of demands for social revolution. Though he is the spokesperson of the Zapatista movement he insists he is not its leader: Zapatista communities and government are run collectively.
The Zapatistas are predominantly indigenous Mayans, historically impoverished and oppressed under colonial and neo-colonial systems across southern Mexico and Guatemala. One of the most disarming and thrilling aspects of the Zapatista movement is the sight of these Mayan Indians in traditional dress – so often passive figures in the American folkloric imagination – looking determined, unequivocal and empowered in balaclavas as they demand education, health care, democracy, and dignity.
Even as their ranks have dwindled under constant vigilance and government repression, the Zapatistas maintain autonomous communities in the rural outskirts of Chiapas and continue to send declarations defining their opposition to exploitative “bad government” and organizing meetings of indigenous people from around the world.
It is the Zapatistas who provide San Cristóbal its aura. The vast majority of the city’s tourists are there for the story of the Mayan revolutionaries whose doctrine was arguably the first of its kind in the 21st century. And in fact, contrary to initial intents and purposes, the most significant local impact of the Zapatista revolution may have been a dramatic surge in tourism in San Cristóbal and Chiapas.
They have not rerouted the neoliberal trajectory of Mexico’s globalizing economy, but the Zapatistas have put Chiapas on the map.
A local entrepreneur interviewed by anthropologist Florence E. Babb in her book The Tourism Encounter says of the Zapatista uprising, “It was a good dream but now it’s history…now it’s just something interesting for tourists.”
After a brief dip in 1994 immediately following the Zapatistas brief taking of San Cristóbal, tourism soared in the 1990s and beyond, climbing from 543,376 tourists between 1986 and 1989 to 596,570 in 1995 alone and 1 million in 2009.
“After the initial uprising, which involved deaths, everyone realized it was really a war of words and papers, and people started giving Zapatista tours,” says Valeriano Lobeiro Perez, a veteran state tourist official interviewed in a glowing San Antonio Express-News article, which sums up the Zapatista revolution in a sentence: “Eventually, greater autonomy was won for the Indians, and the Zapatistas faded back into the jungle.”
To tell it with slightly more nuance, greater autonomy was won only in the sense that rural indigenous men and women found in the Zapatistas an outlet for their frustration and a recognition of their dignity before the revolution was violently repressed: dozens of Zapatistas were massacred by government-funded paramilitaries in Acteal and Chenhalo, and the Zapatistas made international headlines and inspired a flood of intellectuals, scholars, and travelers to seek them out and write about them as they faded back into Chiapas’ rural folds.
Around midnight at Vino y Tapas we struck a deal with one stuffed animal seller, no older than seven or eight, who had a shrewd marketing sense and a good eye for suckers, and Mauricio’s backpack became a Noah’s Arc bursting at the seems with wildlife. We did not purchase any Zapatistas.
As we were on our third glasses of wine a small orchestra, called a tuna, set up shop around the outdoor tables and began to play. The lead singer had tight curls and a deep, bellowing tenor voice that led the violins and tubas and oboes and trumpets through classic Mexican ballads and captivated not only the clientele but passersby, who began to gather at the café’s perimeter. The music glided in the exaggerated ups and downs of all Mexican love songs – the heart yanked rapidly from ecstasy to despair – and the night seemed to close in on the café, the wine, my journal on the table, everyone watching the musicians, rapt by their music, the passersby huddling in, the streetlights aglow in the chilly mountain air…and the whole scene felt very dorado, indeed.
The next morning I slipped quietly out of the house, past the bookshelves stacked with the texts of leftist anthropologists, past the rooms where for half the year optimistic and fed up Americans and Europeans slept in hopes of a better world encountered here, down south, in the forested Chiapan sierras and the Lacandon jungle.
En route to a café I passed a beautiful dog, a boxer/pit bull mix lying under its owner’s legs at an outdoor table. The owner was a blond woman in her mid-twenties, smoking a cigarette and chatting with a lanky Mexican companion of avant-garde hair and hooded sweatshirt.
“Gorgeous dog,” I said, in Spanish. “What’s his name?”
“Oh, thanks,” she replied, gazing coolly down the street, not looking at me. “He doesn’t have a name. We don’t think things need to have names; we just let him be what he is.”
And with that she seemed done with me. I walked on.
Our goal that day was to watch the Mexico-Netherlands World Cup qualifying match. Travelers I asked about where to catch the game gave me looks of purposeful incomprehension tinged with scorn, recalling the time I’d asked an expat in a Oaxacan market where to watch the 2006 World Cup final and he’d scoffed and said, “I’d have absolutely no idea where to watch sports.”
Restaurant owners unanimously responded “techy-lasso,” which stumped all of us until we rounded a corner and saw the behemoth “Tequila Zoo” on the corner. There, we settled in with 10 a.m. micheladas to watch the game.
But the soccer match quickly lost its allure as I surreptitiously turned my attention to a group at a series of tables behind us. They were a type of wealthy I rarely came in contact with in daily life in Oaxaca: Gucci glasses and Versace bags, the type of men’s dress shirts so slick with money that they seem to glisten, tight dark jeans tapering into spiked heels, voluptuous black hair styled and sleek. They ordered Diet Cokes and Manzana Lifts, no booze, and a huge array of finger food that they picked at. They half-watched the game but mostly talked and laughed among themselves, one of them absentmindedly flicking a hand from time to time to beckon the waiter, who bustled over quick and obsequious. We could not catch him on his way there or back, only after they’d been sated.
In the end I did not find out who they were: they could have been Tuxtla yuppies yukking it up in San Cristóbal for a day, although it wasn’t a weekend and they seemed too comfortable, and the Techy-lasso wasn’t exactly a destination for luxury tourists. It seemed more likely that they were part of San Cristóbal’s ruling class – cattle and coffee ranchers, the dons of the haciendas in the lowlands, the long-established dueños of this place.
They seemed wholly out of place in a San Cristóbal of idealistic backpackers and expats, but they were a stark reminder of the very real economic realities that have long defined San Cristóbal, and that continue to define it in spite of the surge in “revolutionary” tourism following the rise of the Zapatistas.
In his book Empty Meeting Grounds, anthropologist Dean MacCannell writes, “Overlying our common ancestors, primitive hunting and gathering peoples, we have a history of colonial exploitation and military suppression, missionary efforts to transform religious beliefs and secular values, anthropological observations and descriptions, and now the touristic encounter.”
In Chiapas, the exploited and suppressed were the indigenous, the preached to and converted were the indigenous, the studied and described were the indigenous, and now, the indigenous are the touristed, the encountered.
Meanwhile, the essential dynamic between rich and poor in the region, between haves and have-nots, has not changed.
In Chiapas, I began to see, many travelers and expats see the local indigenous people as the products of a history from which the travelers’ roles, backgrounds, and troubling connections have been exorcised. The colonial powers and all the easily fingered boogeymen of globalization – the corporations, the brands, the symbols of US capitalist culture –are the problem, and the travelers are not: the travelers are apart from that, have left it behind, do not believe in it, as if the force of belief were enough to brush off the very fact that the ability to live and travel overseas for months at a time implicates quite an intimate relationship with the boogeymen.
There is in Chiapas a potent self-congratulatory traveler attitude, which finds in the Zapatista movement an untroubled reflection of the Western seeker’s ideals, of the traveler’s escapist fantasy. In this view the indigenous are as often as not static, romantic props, projections of imagination like shadow puppets dancing on the white walls to the giddy delight of the visitor-child, in a spectacle invented and perpetuated in negation of one’s past and one’s own sticky relationships to Chiapas’ continuing conflicts. The traveler does not suffer, is not marginalized, is not even made uncomfortable: there are all-night reggae parties to attend, and there is revolution to foment.
The new traveler identities on display in Chiapas, far from family and country and history, are not so much intended to impress the indigenous (many of whom fail to distinguish between conventional tourists and those who hold them in contempt) but to impress a group of fellow travelers.
Ben Feinberg, in a brilliant essay in Cultural Tourism in Latin America: The Politics of Space and Imagery, analyzes the rise and decline of a Western, hippie, counter-culture community in the small indigenous town of Huatla in Mexico. Huatla was a kind of “Haight-Ashbury South” in the 1960’s: a destination for the likes of Bob Dylan and Carlos Casteneda, famed for its magic mushrooms. Dozens of people settled there and lived in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test style until they were forcibly evicted by the federal government.
Their icon was Maria Sabina, an indigenous curadura whose wrinkled sacred face is now painted on crumbling walls across Mexico, framed next to Che’s in any self-respecting left-leaning cantina, and emblazoned on t-shirts at stalls hawking Latin America’s long-hackneyed heroes. The Huatla hippies lofted Maria Sabina above the other indigenous people in the community who were suspicious of this group of young, white foreigners cavorting high and naked in their forests: Maria Sabina became representative not of them, not of indigenous authenticity, but, Feinberg attests, of the authenticity of the counter-culture itself.
She stood for “a collectivity of practices linked to an eclectic, literary high culture”: a culture to which, like many of the indigenous in San Cristobal, the Mazatec Indians in Huatla did not have access. Just as you will not find the indigenous of San Cristóbal buying 20-peso pain du chocolat made with Belgian chocolate in downtown bakeries or cavorting over wine and tapas with like-minded revolutionaries or purchasing stuffed handicrafts depicting, well, themselves, in the 1960’s in Huatla you did not find Mazatec Indians sprawled on blankets in the hills envisioning the commune of the future.
Feinberg writes that accounts of the touristic gaze tend to focus too much on how this gaze narrows in on the other, when in fact, he says, the gaze tends to skip right on over the other and to focus on “the tourist’s own community, and how that community models different kinds of national and transnational futures.”
The setting – Huatla, or San Cristóbal – offers an authentic backdrop for a postmodern counterculture community. The Sierra Mazateca and the image of Maria Sabina with her brown and wizened face, toking a joint; the Lacandon jungle and the misted hills of the Chiapan Sierra peopled with masked indigenous in hideouts: they are the settings in which travelers can perform and discuss and believe in both their own escape from the restrictions and disappointments of their societies and the hope of a different kind of future. And in the meantime, the fundamental dynamics of oppression and inequality persist, largely unmolested.
The following afternoon Jorge, Suzy, Mauricio, and I took a taxi out of San Cristóbal and into the mountains, rocking back and forth into silence along hairpin curves, our bodies pressing together to the left and then the right. We were en route to Oventic, an autonomous Zapatista community some sixty kilometers from San Cristóbal, where Mauricio had done fieldwork several years earlier.
Oventic is the most heavily touristed Zapatista “snail”: the symbol and term Zapatistas use for their communities, expressing the idea that revolutions will be slow, patient and methodical, and representing a link to the Mayan past in which a conch shell was used to call community members to gathering.
Outside, tiny villages surfaced and disappeared; faded Pepsi signs marked cinderblock stores; russet-faced girls with babies strapped to their backs picked their way along the shoulder; old women shooed sheep up hillsides or chatted on quilt-like patches of green in the hills. The road was a faint two-lane sketch along the side of the mountain, looking out on folded valleys where wood and scrap metal shacks stood marooned in small fields of corn. We wound and wound, the taxi ride a desensitization process, shaking the city off of us like a white room where scientists step to blast viruses off themselves after entering a hot zone. I had no landmarks and therefore no sense of when we were coming closer, so the appearance of the Oventic sign marking the autonomous zone of the Zapatistas was a surprise. Seeing it gave us all a palpable but unspoken rush, the jolt of recognizing the sign in its natural context, where it morphed from a signifier into an everyday object. Rusting, by the side of the road, it read:
PARA TODOS TODO
NADA PARA NOSOTROS
JUNTA DE BUEN GOBIERNO
CORAZON CENTRICO DE LOS ZAPATISTAS
DELANTE DEL MUNDO
We got out and the taxi made a swift U-turn and took off. The road was silent, no traffic, just the sign and the shuttered store beside it where the Zapatistas bought and sold the items found in most Mexican Miscelaneas – suckers, yoghurt, pencils, tortillas – and, on the other side of the road the snail: Oventic.
A gate blocked the entrance. In a small booth to one side of the gate sat a man in a balaclava, looking out at us. From the road we could spot a dozen women and children sitting on the grass in front of a dark, narrow building, the children playing quietly and many of the women knitting. Some had bandanas covering their faces below the eyes; others did not. Many had their hair in long, thick twin braids. They wore hand-sewn blouses and dresses; some wore bright aprons and full, layered skirts in greens, blues, and purples with delicate lace-like embroidery along the edges of each layer. Many were barefoot, others wore huaraches.
The four of us observed from a distance, behind the bars. Mauricio introduced himself to the guard and explained that we wanted to enter. The guard asked us all of our names and occupations, took our passports, and warned us that it might be awhile. We nodded and went back to sit by the roadside, silent, watching the fog as it settled and then shifted over the road and the mountains. The sky was an annihilating white-gray, the sun felt as a harsh raw blush on our faces. Fifteen, twenty, then forty minutes passed, until finally, figuring it could be hours, Susy went to ask one of the guards if we could order something to eat in the small Zapatista cafeteria while we waited. The guard disappeared to ask permission and came back nodding yes, and we were escorted down a small hill, through a wooden gate, into the community store and down a small staircase into the cafeteria for foreign guests.
It was a small room made of wood, like most buildings in the community, with one long table surrounded by low benches. On the walls were portraits of Che and Zapata and Maria Sabina – the usual pantheon of Latin American revolutionaries – and photos of the Zapatistas: at conferences; in traditional peasant dress taking up wooden arms in protest in the Zocálos of San Cristóbal and Mexico City; in full flowered skirts and huaraches and masks speaking and marching and standing in solemn resistence. A tall thin man with a prolific black mustache came to take our orders. He had a sad face, with strong lines around his nose and mouth, sorrowful eyes, and the air of a dreamy 19th century soldier. He apologized, all they had was quesadillas, was it ok? He emerged from the kitchen ten minutes later with plates of three quesadillas each, creamy white cheese melted in flour tortillas.
As we were eating a tour group entered: eight or ten young people, milling around looking at photos. They slipped from photo to photo with the drifty, casually ruminative air people adopt in museums they’re supposed to visit and find compelling. A girl with dark curly hair in a sundress and a guy in a windbreaker swapped notes on tortas in Cuba vs. tortas in Nicaragua. Tortas in Nicaragua were determined to be far superior. There was talk of donuts: which were better, cream-filled or glazed? They swooned over Ireland: they both wanted to visit, yes, that was the next trip.
I didn’t catch what Ireland’s essential experiences were because the guard came in then and told us it was our turn: our guide was waiting.
Before we headed into Oventic I asked the mustachioed soldier if I could use the bathroom.
“It’s outside,” he warned, “it’s very rustic.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “I’m used to it.” He led me from the small dining room outside and along the building towards a garden. The area was fecund with vegetation and littered with garden debris, slabs of wood and metal watering cans. A small stream split into tributaries by flat gray rocks ran lopsidedly by the house. Black ducks waddled around the wet grass. The man waited outside while I used the outhouse and when I came out, he led me to the soap at a stone sink.
“Where are you from?” he asked. I explained that I was from the U.S but was living in Oaxaca, and he asked what I did. “I’m a writer,” I said. He asked what I wrote about, and – always put on the spot by that question – I rattled off a list of disassociated subjects, whatever popped to mind. I felt implicated, vulnerable somehow, but the sensation wasn’t a bad one, just novel. We had been standing at the stone sink for what felt like a long time, our words slow and careful. I felt strange, small, humble, my role here so different from my role in San Cristóbal.
We headed back.
“What do you do with the ducks?” I asked, and felt like an idiot. Here I was alone with this man, with this Zapatista who was open and asking me questions, and I was asking about the ducks. Why not revolution, why not the neoliberal exploitation, why not the government oppression? But I wanted to know about the ducks; the ducks were quacking around our feet; what did Zapatistas do with ducks?
“We eat them,” he said.
“The eggs too.”
The guide was an older man in his fifties or sixties, although it was hard to tell because many people I’d met in Mexico seemed much older than they actually were. He was quiet at first. A submissive, thoughtful awe settled over our small group as we walked down the sharply sloped main street. The guide stopped at various buildings – the junta de buen gobierno where all of the community meetings were held, the artisans’ shop, the school – and we photographed the elaborate colorful murals painted on the walls. We were not allowed to photograph people, only the walls.
There was Zapata’s looming visage with its wet eyes and its lusty black stache flecked with copper. His armies were rising from the corn – their legs tapered into splintery corn roots – and they had matching stashes and the characteristic swooping sombreros and white linen pants and shirts of indigenous peasants. Women with jaguar eyes peered out from beneath veils of blue-yellow corn. Dozens of Keith Harring-like figures danced in white outlines on a barn painted black.
The Zapatistas were tourist-savvy. They deflected the urge to capture and document onto the one-dimensional figures depicted on buildings. It was enough for the tourists to use as trophies, to illustrate they’d seen and known this place, but it was only a representation of another representation, not pretending to have understood the Zapatistas themselves. The tourists would look through their photos, as I look through mine to write this story, and the actual interiors, the people themselves and their lives in that quiet, rural place where dogs slept in tall grass and cows roamed and streams trickled and the buildings rested in unnerving calm, would evade them.
The guide trusted us enough to let us disperse and we each followed our own rambling to various sites. Drawn by a Zapatista penguin and bandanna-ed and pipe-smoking clouds, I wandered to an area behind the school. There I found a white scroll painted on a wall and signed in black paint, sharpie, crayon and pencil by dozens of visitors from all over the world. They did not write their names; they only wrote the places they were from.
Viva la lucha! Tambien en Leipzig
CUNY Hunter College NYC
Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA
La Grange, OR
San Francisco (and above it, “Oakland too!”)
University of Kansas
Old Ngapo City, Phillipines
Pewaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Desde Cataluña viva la lucha comun, viva EZLN
Anchorage, Alaska, USA
And on and on. I stood there for a long time. There was always a new place when my eyes ran over the scroll again – Hamburgo (Alemania) 08/05 COSTA RICA Aix en Provence (Francia) – and I lingered on them, all of those anonymous people from around the globe who had come here and written their solidarity in the form of place, all of these people and places on this wooden barn wall in this tiny community in the Sierra of Chiapas.
It was silent, the sky was alabaster and the sun beat from somewhere behind it into my hair and my skin, and all of the lively colors in the Zapatista drawings were exaggerated in the bright intensity of the light. Then the guide came around and it was time to move on, back up the hill.
Jorge was slightly farther up photographing a concrete basketball court with EZLN hoops: backboards painted black with a red star just above the hoop, and the letters E Z L N painted counter-clockwise in a square around the star. No nets, just a rusted metal hoop. A little boy came out by himself with a ball to play.
All the way back up we chatted with the guide. He had been married since he was fifteen years old, and had joined the Zapatistas five years ago. He lived between Oventic and San Cristóbal. When Jorge and I told him we were getting married that summer, he asked: Would we dance with a turkey? He was delighted when we said yes.
“Está muy bien,” he said, “está muy bien.”
I could not read his expression behind his balaclava, but I like to think he smiled. I felt very distant from him, but the distance was not cold nor was it the same distance I felt in many villages in Mexico: the distance of wealth from poverty. This was another kind of distance: the distance between one type of world and another.
Now, years later, I marvel at all the questions I did not ask. Every move I made was tentative, cautious, freighted with the potential for rudeness and misunderstanding. I felt very small; the world of washers and dryers and freeways and peanut butter cookies and stock markets I’d come from seemed vastly dwindled in importance in comparison to this room, these people, this community. My presence did not matter or shine: I was not at the top of the hierarchy.
Of course, many travelers will answer, that’s what traveling is always about! Humility! Difference! But it is exceedingly rare for a traveler ever to cease feeling important. Wherever she goes – the Bornean longhouse or the South African township or the Chinese mountain village or the Peruvian ceremony – it is importance, precisely, that is conferred upon her, instantly and generously.
How many times have travelers heard the stories of the near-cosmic generosity of locals with foreigners: they fed us, they took us into their homes, they peppered us with questions, they slaughtered a goat for us! How many times have we heard the anecdotes about enraptured villagers fingering a lock of blond hair, proposing marriage, professing love or friendship or fascination?
Here that was not the case. Here was in fact a vision of a world in which I might not be important. This was the most striking contrast to San Cristóbal, a mere 60 kilometers away, a place of immense self-importance. Its foreign residents have journeyed thousands of miles to travel and sustain themselves there, mostly without jobs, precisely because of their importance; the bagel shops and tapas bars and open-air cafes have mushroomed precisely because of their importance. It is hard to strike a posture of deferent humility while drinking a twenty-five peso Bohemia in Bar La Revolución with a group of like-minded travelers from all over the planet.
The smallness I started to feel in Oventic was novel because it was sharply opposed to the very familiar bigness I felt in San Cristóbal, being tugged at constantly to buy something, being catered to by shop owners and waiters and bartenders, chatting with fellow Americans and urban middle-class Mexicans and French couples, reveling a bit in this life I got to live traveling and my own experience and persona and expertise as a traveler.
This was different. Here, I did not matter. And it was humbling, and unfamiliar, and disarming. Because a true embrace of the Zapatistas’ ideals, the Zapatista movement, means an evening out of opportunities. It means that travelers cannot have them all, all the opportunities, all the experiences, and the dream of revolution, too. I had been expecting Oventic to feel somehow false, a stage set for foreign assumptions and mythologies. I wasn’t expecting to feel small. I suppose I had been expecting an easy understanding of dynamics, as easy as the pretend humility of the traveler. But instead, it was awkward. It was uncomfortable. It was elusive and unique and possessed of a hard, weary hope.
That night we were back at Wine and Tapas. Afternoon with the Zapatistas, evening with Argentine Cabernet and tapenade on crisp baguettes: this was the vibe of San Cristóbal. It was heady, 1960’s French in its revolutionary zeal and exquisite hedonism.
The bar was full of young people, and next to us a guy who looked to be about twenty, with blond hair combed in a swoop to one side and a thin gray scarf, was saying in Anglo-fied, staccato Spanish, “Yo vi-vi un-año-en-Lon-dres,” and the bright blonde next to him with a heart-shaped face was nodding and responding in more sophisticated Spanish that she was still hung over from the night before, and he laughed. A young mother in a multicolored indigenous-style sweater and long Thai fisherman pants was herding her children around the big wine barrel that served as a table on the opposite side of the door, meeting other moms with babies snug in traditional indigenous slings on their backs. Mexican hipsters in Mexico City fashion – fedoras, skinny ties, yellow tapered rocker pants, faded converse – streamed in and out.
A young couple, both dreadlocked, shod in huaraches, and wearing the mismatched and raggedy hemp that led the locals to misguidedly label them “turistas pobres” (poor tourists) approached and laid their worn fabric backpacks on the ground. She played the flute, he the accordion. They were subtle and talented and we listened to them attentively amidst all the distractions. Then they came around with kind, soft, European-tinted Spanish asking for a contribution for the music. I gave them a ten peso coin, and they moved on to the next café, the next admiring crowd.