Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Welcome to Zapatista Country

We are now in Zapatista Territory, or so the sign tells us (warns us?) The jungles of Lacandon were home base for the rebels during their guerrilla war with the Mexican government not too long ago, but their influence spread throughout Chiapas. Yet, traveling through the state, it's hard to believe all of that was happening less than ten years ago. Today, there are still plenty of military camps all around the state, all heavily armed, but the real reminders of those turbulent days are the Zapatista souvenirs like stuffed dolls of Subcommandante Marcos and T-shirts printed with his visage and raised middle finger. Revolution reduced to merchandising. How 21st century!

"So this is where the 'hair skirt' ladies come from!" I said to Big Dog as we entered the village of Chamula, a few kilometers out of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
We had seen them all over SCLC (San Cristobal), selling macrame wrist bands, shawls and embroidered blouses. Women and girls in skirts made of furry black material, puffy-sleeved satin blouses and hair in braids.
"And the men are in hair vests!"
In the past, the vests and skirts were made of goat skin. Today. they are made of that horrible synthetic material you might get to make a bear suit.

It was Mardi Gras and the culmination of a week of celebrations in this town. People were everywhere. (You could tell the out-of-towners by their costumes.) But unlike festivals in Japan, or even other parts of Mexico, this one was an exclusive one. Foreigners were merely tolerated, and then not at all if they broke any rules. Like taking photos. (Once again, this rule only applies to foreigners. In guidebooks, they tell us that the locals "believe a photograph captures their soul" but watching all the colorfully costumed locals happily taking snapshots of each other with cellphones, you have wonder if only foreigners are capable of capturing souls with photographs.)

"What are they doing?"
We had gathered where there was a small mob. Men in hair vests were on either side of a double rope.
"Are they going to play tug of war?"
As we got closer, we saw that there was a bull in the middle. He looked scared and I felt bad for the poor animal. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay and see what happened to it.

Suddenly there was shouting and men waving sticks coming towards us. Uh-oh, they're going to set the bull free. I jumped back to the side of the street. But now, the angry men were coming after a Caucasian couple.
"I didn't do anything!" the man shouted, but the angry mob kept advancing.
"Fuck you!" one of them said to the man (in English.)
"You fuck off!" the man shouted back.
The mob grew, and grew more menacing. Wisely, the woman pulled her guy away and they walked off.

"He wasn't taking any photos," said Big Dog. "It was that group of gringos next to him."
"They're getting drunk and belligerent. I don't like this vibe."
"Let's get out of here."
"Yeah, before something really nasty happens."

What a difference from Japanese festivals which are just as colorful, strange, exotic and wonderful as any here. The Japanese also get mightily drunk during their festivals, but there is no aggression, no exclusion. They LOVE having outsiders experience what they feel is a special part of their culture. They WANT you to join in, get crazy and enjoy the festival. The gods would have it no other way. The sake flows easily and is offered to all participants, Japanese and non-Japanese.

I attribute the difference to a lack of confidence and the fact that these people were subjugated by outsiders for so long. Big Dog thinks it has to do with control.
"In a world where so much feels out of control, they guard what little they CAN control. Like having people take photos. Or enter their churches. Or have a good time."
It sounds a little stingy. Especially during a festival.

The indigenous peoples have been downtrodden everywhere, but until now, we have not had this unwelcoming vibe anywhere else. ("And don't they know the rest of the world was on their side during the Zapatista struggle?" They don't. At least not these villagers.) Maybe it's the sheer number of visitors to this part of Mexico that scares the locals, makes them less spiritually generous.

Or maybe it's just the itchy material of their skirts and vests.

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