San Cristobal

The Heart of Chiapas



by
Randy Johnson

1978
(unpublished)
Copyright © 1978, 1996-2013, Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved

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Clouds of copál incense mingle in my mind with the cane alcohol. Beside me, a Tenejapa fiddler pours out his constant melody over the drone of two guitars, as a line of elder Indian women in black wool skirts chant and sway in the dust before us. Sweat trickles off their furrowed faces, and fades the red embroidery deeper into their muslin shirts.

In their midst, an old man swings a frayed cloth bag to and fro, heavy with silver Catholic medallions. Colorful wool pom-pons bob from his battered straw hat as he stamps his heels. Behind him, more men in dark wool tunics jog to the slow rhythm.

Young girls on the ground beside me stoke little clay urns with wads of pom (copál pine resin). When it hits the charcoal inside, it bursts into pungent white smoke that fills the clearing and ritually cleanses the dancers and the bundles of clothing they clutch. Later they will drape the clothing on the image of the Holy Virgin in Tenejapa's cathedral. But the chants, and the holy pom are Mayan traditions, much older than the coming of Christianity.

High in the mountains of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, the villagers of Tenejapa take a day out from scratching their subsistence from the mountain slopes to celebrate a Catholic tradition in their own indigenous way.

Young boys pass through the sweet smoke, dispensing draughts of caña (cane alcohol) from old beer bottles. The ritual pauses when the cup passes to the fiddler, who swallows deeply, then empties the cup into the bull horn around his neck. Fortified, he applies himself once more to his crude three-string fiddle, and Tenejapa bounds into the rhythm again.

They coax me into draining another cupful, then the guitar player offers me his bull horn. Among battered bare feet, my boots tap out the rhythm and I sway to the chanting that rises with the heat, to hover over the clearing in the sweet white smoke.

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An hour out of Tenejapa, two young Indian women climb into the back of the pick-up with me. One carries a baby on her back. With a tattered wool shawl she mops the forehead of her pregnant friend, who is feverish. They signal the driver to stop as we drop into the valley of San Cristobal. They stand in the road staring as the truck pulls away without collecting the few centavos they have amassed for the trip to the curandero. Then they wave and shout their thanks in Tzeltal as we round the bend behind the Templo de Guadalupe, overlooking San Cristobal de Las Casas.   Photo (click):  Tenejapa woman in truck, Chiapas, Mexico.

San Cristobal, the City of Las Casas, covers a corner of the valley, 7,000 feet in the mountains of Chiapas. Air service and a new highway have opened up San Cristobal, the cultural center of the highlands. The highlands rise to more than 9,500 feet, a rocky pine-clad scattering of isolated valleys, farmed by various descendants of the ancient Maya.

The truck pulls up beside the Plaza Guadalupe. "No charge for the gringo. Gook luck!" Guadalupe is the Tenejapa section of San Cristobal, a haven for Tenejapans and their neighbors in the valleys northeast of the city. Behind the blue saloon door on the corner, an Indian can buy a cheap drink. The right word to the Indian proprietor, and he will fill your canteen with a liter of bootleg caña for 12 pesos, 60 cents. Not today, thanks.

I walk down the broad Real de Guadalupe to the pensión I called home for two weeks. In its central patio I finish the afternoon listening to local history from the landlord. "San Cristobal was founded by the Indians," he begins. Somehow, it needs saying.

Bernal Diaz, the eyewitness historian of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, first entered this valley in 1523. Two of his three companions were killed, and the scouting party retreated to the camp of Captain Luis Martín. Martín returned within the year with 200 men (including 80 Indians). He reached an understanding with the natives of a city known as Ixtapa, but felt that he could not protect a settlement.

Pedro de Alvarado, a hero in Cortes' siege of Mexico City, passed through Chiapas on his way to settle Guatemala, but found little to attract him. Finally, Cortes sent Diego de Mazariégos to found a settlement in 1527. He arrived with only 150 soldiers and 40 horses, but was accompanied by a host of Indian allies. He founded Chiapa de Indios (now Chiapa de Corzo) near the present state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Moving south into the valley of Ixtapa, on March 1, 1528 Mazariégos founded Villarreal, named for his birthplace in Spain. The settlement changed names and locations several times. It was known as Ciudad de Mazariégos, Villa de Villaviciosa, Villa de San Cristobal del los Llanos, and in 1536, Ciudad Real.

Francisco de Montéjo (the elder) came in 1539 to serve as the first governor of Chiapas, while his son took charge of the campaigns he had begun in the Yucatan in 1528. Fray Bartolome de Las Casas received the appointment as first Bishop of Chiapas in 1542. Las Casas' enlightened crusade to protect and promote the welfare of the native people earned him the local title of Apostle of the Indians, and the city was finally renamed in his honor.

Mazariégos had his hands full with his Indian allies. Half were Mexícas (Aztecs), the other half Tlaxcalans -- the only neighbors that the Mexícas had never conquered. Today, two of the numerous Indian districts of San Cristobal, separated by a small river on the west side of town, maintain a staunch if friendly rivalry begun by their long-forgotten ancestors, the Mexícas and the Tlaxcalans.

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I sat on the old covered bridge on the plains west of town, watching a funeral procession plod down the dusty back lane. The plain wooden box rested in the bed of a battered pick-up truck, followed by a crowd of Indians on foot. Barefoot Chamula women in blue tunics, their men in huarache sandals and worn pants, filed past me toward the back gate of the cemetery. In a far corner, they said the words and planted a wooden marker.

The more important people of San Cristobal, those with Spanish surnames, are buried in the front of the cemetery, many in large crypts and ornate mausoleums -- so many that the cemetery is a replica of San Cristobal itself, surrounded by unkempt fields of wild flowers and wooden crosses. To afford a Christian burial is the most many Indians can hope for from this life.

After 400 years, San Cristobal still seems like a colonial center. Narrow cobbled streets wind past ancient porticoed buildings with tall barred windows and tiled roofs, and the old Spanish church plazas remain the centers of activity. The Indian majority is still the only notable natural resource, providing goods for market and drawing a substantial tourist business. But the city belongs to the Spanish-speaking Mexican minority who own the businesses and reap the profits.

Indian barrios make up much of San Cristobal's 35,000 population. Hundreds more trek into town each morning for the daily market, packed into trucks and old buses. They barter for staples and sell their produce for a few coins to buy essentials: pans, cloth, tools, hats, and alcohol. The proud few manage to save enough for a transistor radio.

They throng the streets of San Cristobal each day, gawking at the buildings and the many goods they cannot afford. For many, it is their only trip this month, or this season, to the only city they know of. They speak little or no Spanish, and some of the shopkeepers tease them like retarded children. Modern Mexican tourists come face to face with their own ancestors and some look on them like domesticated animals.

Indians are poor; they cannot afford to become Mexicans. Those who can, send their children to school, learn Spanish, move into town and wear western clothing and shoes. And by these standards, they cease to be Indians, regardless of their ancestry. Those who are isolated enough, are allowed to go on living the simple lives of their ancestors, outside the national stream and unmolested by all but the missionaries.

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I walk to the market every morning for breakfast, and for the excitement that attends the biggest social gathering in Chiapas, one of the best markets in Mexico. From early in the morning, fruit trucks pull up to the wholesale shops that fringe the marketplace. Crossing from the Santo Domingo church, I wander the great open-air assemblage of sights, sounds, and smells from all over the highlands. Sampling slices of fresh pineapple and papaya, I watch the thousand exchanges -- the bargains driven, the stories exchanged, prices disputed, and acquaintances renewed; the ploys, the pitches, the toothless smiles, the laughs, and the snubs.

I have to jump in -- bargaining for avocados, limes, tomatoes, oranges. Old women urge me to feel the freshness and the warmth of their tortillas before we settle on the proper number for a peso. Some have come to market with less than a dollar's worth of goods -- a few eggs or bundles of kindling -- to make enough to buy a little yarn, or just to join in the excitement.

Now that my lunch is secured, it's time for breakfast. I order a couple of hard-boiled egg tacos from my favorite taco man, and a few quesadillas from the little old woman at the next cart. I carry these to one of the hole-in-the-wall fondas (cafes), where the girl brings me a plate. I check the pots and order fresh beans with beef, then step over to a liquado stall to arrange for a large glass of papaya and banana, frothed in milk with an egg. Then I settle back with my assembled meal while the market carries on before me.

Customers come and go, college students from Merida, a Chamula Indian family, local truck drivers. Most of the Indians bring their own food, or gather around the stalls selling glasses of warm pinole (corn gruel). I wish I needed some dried beans. There is a darling little girl not ten feet from me, kneeling on the concrete before a pile of miserable black beans, spread on her woolen shawl. Her face is smudged, her dress is patched and torn; she is thin. A great bag of the same beans sags beside her as she silently watches people pass by. Her beans do not sell. She will sit here all day; already the sun is bearing down.

What would I do with 15 kilos of miserable black beans? She will survive. She will return to her home and friends; with or without a new dress, she will run through the fields and splash in the streams. She will live her life with as much joy as I live mine; more pain, perhaps -- but at least as much joy.

I finish my meal and move down into the permanent market area, a huge covered warehouse of butchers, bakers, greengrocers, grain dealers and florists. Inventory is greater here and the sellers are merchants by trade. I emerge on the far side into rows of pottery stalls selling simple clay pots and jugs. Farther on are sisal bags, curative herbs, balls of copál incense, and hardware.

Out on the front lines of fruit, a Zinacanteco (you can tell by the costume) has arrived with two plump white rabbits. On the corner, Chamula men sell cojetes -- small home made rocket bombs. No occasion is complete without plenty of cojetes, fiestas, weddings, funerals. Out on the street, young Mexican boys hawk popsicles and chewing gum.

Very dirty little Chamula girls (I recognize them from their village), are trying to sell their little dolls. They have learned to zero in on gringos. Hanging on shirt-sleeves (they aren't more than eight years old), looking up with great sad eyes, they repeat their only words of Spanish. "Compra muñeca. Muy bonito, muy bonito..." I gave up buying their dolls, but sometimes I give a few pesos when no one is looking.

On a broad bare spot below the market, the motor pool of highland Chiapas gathers. Dozens of buses and stake-side trucks arrive each morning, packed with people, produce, and animals. Some left before daylight to travel two hours or more over bad roads to get here. They regroup around their buses in the afternoon, showing off new hats, hoes, and radios, or sleeping off the caña under the truck.

This schedule makes visiting most villages difficult for travelers without vehicles. Some villages have special bus service to their own weekly market days, but even these aren't always reliable.

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Photo (click):  Market day in Yochib, Chiapas, Mexico.

A barefoot woman steps across the frosted grass outside the bus. She carries a child on one hip and a large sisal bag of avocados strapped around her forehead. Slowly she makes her way to the awakening marketplace.

Why am I sitting in the back of this broken-down bus at 6 am? I try to remember. It began at the museum in Mexico City; pictures of markets. "Yochib, Chiapas, one of the few purely indigenous markets in Mexico." I wrote it down. I wasn't yet sure where Chiapas was. No one in Chiapas seemed to know where Yochib was. I asked around; I checked all the maps. I gave up.

Then one day I spoke with the man next to me on the bus to Tenejapa. "You live in Tenejapa?" I asked him.

"No, in Yochib."
I had almost forgotten the name.
"There is a bus from the marketplace in San Cristobal," he told me, "Saturdays at six."

Now it is Saturday, and they tell me this bus goes to Yochib. I should have given up. The driver is Mexican, everyone else is Indian, I am white. Chatter goes on in Tzeltal. The man in front of me is already drunk. His young son tries to keep him quiet; more beer is produced.

"Eh, Gringo!" A smiling face calls from the front of the bus.
"Weren't you in Tenejapa last Sunday?"
"Sí"
"At the fiesta, drinking caña?"
It is one of the frantic guitarists. I hadn't recognized him in his western shirt and hat.
"Sí, hombre, that was me."

He relates the story to his friends and soon I am established as a Spanish-speaking, caña-drinking gringo. And I am going to the market in Yochib. Most Tenejapans have never been there -- why should they, after all?

We skirt around San Cristobal, carefully avoiding paved streets until we reach the Plaza de Guadalupe, then grind up the dusty road toward Tenejapa. Although the windows are closed, the bus soon fills with dust. The man in front of me is now sleeping peacefully through this bone-rattling ride. White flour sifts down from two huge sacks overhead, becoming a fine white mantle over his hat and shoulders.

Two young women in colorfully embroidered blouses get on. One of them has a small daughter on her hip. They are beautiful. Perhaps eighteen years old, they have earned the handsome features of age and experience. They have passed from childhood into womanhood without the embarrassment of adolescence. Their dark eyes are calm, their smiles unaffected. We have met before in many different countries, and I am secretly in love with them.

Outide, day begins in the highlands. Four men in short wool tunics tramp across the frosted land, hoes and machetes on their shoulders. All things are cultivated with the hoe, all things are cut with the machete. Around the bend, an old woman helps two men mix adobe with hoes and feet.

Tenejapa has already had its breakfast and gone to the corn fields when we pull in after 7:30. The bus leaves less than half full and slowly climbs out of the deep valley. We pass through a narrow gap at the top of a long grade, before the mountains drop off into another deep valley. The driver pulls over at the first wide spot and announces the end of the line.

"But where is Yochib?" I plead.
"Down there. I don't go any farther," he says.

Most of the dozen remaining passengers disappear into the hills on various paths. A young man named Ysidro seems eager to show me the way, and we set off down a steep trail. I scan the valley for signs of the plaza in Yochib, where a couple of the passengers had said I would surely meet up with them later. Where have they all disappeared to, anyway? Cultivated fields patch the hillsides, but there is no sign of a bell tower.

Ysidro leads me down many paths, through rocky cornfields, brush and forest. Trails spring up in all directions; many dead-end at thatched stone huts, hidden among the trees. Ysidro asks directions of the few Indians we meet; I am certain he is not from Yochib. He had seized the chance to be my "guide" to learn a few phrases of English. In return, he provides the Tzeltal equivalents; it seems a fair trade.

We have walked for over an hour when we come upon ten Indians, men and women, hopelessly drunk and trying to navigate the path beside a creek. Things are looking up! Twenty minutes later we peer down an embankment to the dirt road, just before it empties into a broad clearing filled with reeling humanity, all dressed in red and white.

The "Plaza at Yochib" is only a patch of bare earth, with two ersatz buildings, a couple of lean-to's, and -- on market days -- a number of hastily-built stalls and blankets spread on the ground. Yochib exists only on Saturdays; in between it is a nebulous progression of hangovers, memories, and gleams in the eyes of toiling farmers, bowed over the rocky slopes of the surrounding mountainsides.

They have no electricity, no water system, and no church. They have a market every Saturday, where everyone gathers to barter produce and share stories. For the last two years, they have had a road, which brings access to the outside world, and the few manufactured goods they can afford in their new money economy. And they have chicha, the home-made sugar cane wine that brings almost total relief to nearly everyone in Yochib, when it materializes on the "plaza" on Saturdays.

Most of the produce has already changed hands, and Yochib is down to the serious business of drinking itself into sweet oblivion. Men, women and boys swarm around wooden casks of chicha; 2 cents buys a large jícara (gourd) cup full of the thick green soup.

Ysidro has disappeared. Some of the men speak a little Spanish, but by 11 o'clock, not many can stand, let alone speak. A recently imported phonograph blares its only tune across the plaza, drowning out even its gas generator.

I am swamped with hospitality as everyone wants to invite the gringo to cups of chicha. I provide the great spectacle as I drain my gourd cup, with an Indian hanging from each shoulder. Cane chicha is without rival the finest crude wine I have yet braved. Sweet and murky green and speckled with strange sediments, it goes down deceptively smooth and fruity. The next cupful is easy, and the next. I buy several rounds and try to break away to roam the market. But no, I must stay. "We are all great friends -- have more chicha."

"Everyone happy, very happy," slurs a man in red and white striped costume, who has attached himself to my left side. "We are poor," he continues. "There is nothing here. Nothing. Every day, in the fields. Very sad. But Saturday, everything is happy, see?"

By noon, Yochib is devastated. Inert but happy bodies lie where they fell, strewn about the plaza. I am holding up most of what's left. Another young man hangs from my right side. The phonograph hovers unheeded at the end of the record. Yes, I have now experienced the market at Yochib.

Bidding a hasty adiós, I slip away down the road; but my two friends are still attached. They want to return with me to San Cristobal until they learn that I have no car; then they turn back to the plaza.

What next? The bus driver had said he would return to San Cristobal at 2 pm. I have since learned that he leaves from Tenejapa. I already missed that bus the last time I was in Tenejapa. Well, it's a lovely day for a walk, and there is still time to walk as far as Tenejapa at least. I start off at a leisurely, lackadaisical pace.

Around the bend comes Michael, a British-Canadian spelunker. To my greeting he responds with "Who the bloody hell are you?" And well he might ask. In his four summers of exploring the Sumidero cave at Yochib, he says I am only the second gringo who has wondered into town. He wants to buy me a beer.

Behind the lean-to on a knoll overlooking the great marketplace, we toast warm liters of Carta Blanca. Michael's group of around a dozen cavers is camped down the road. They have long since ceased to be intrigued by the market at Yochib. They have long since ceased to tolerate each other's company, for that matter. Michael is ecstatic to find me. He must show me the Sumidero, but first he must buy me another beer.

Later we hike down to the river and wade thigh-deep downstream to where it flows into a great cavern directly beneath the plaza, and down into the mountainside. After four summers, he has found the bottom of one of the deepest caves in North America, says Michael. (Michael Boon later wrote the preface to Bill Steele's book about this exploration: "Yochib: The River Cave" (1985, Cave Books, ISBN 093974810X), available via KarstSports).

More spelunkers have gathered at the lean-to, and more beer is bought when we return. I am the highlight of the season at Yochib. Dinner at their camp that evening is my first meal of the day. Michael produces an extra sleeping bag, and I soon disappear into it.


A horn shatters the pre-dawn darkness, headlights flash around the bend and rumble toward us. I jump from my sleeping bag into my boots and stumble into the road to flag down the weekly bus, which has materialized from the valley floor. In the darkness inside, everyone is half asleep, half drunk. Everyone. At sunrise, Tenejapa fills our bus with its produce and we arrive at the truck yard in San Cristobal after eight. I drop into civilization and head to the market for breakfast.

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I awaken as evening falls on San Cristobal, and dine at the carts and stalls in the quiet of the Parque Las Casas. Panuchos, panuelos, and warm Fanta are the beginnings of a progressive meal. I join friends for beet and bean chulupas at a cafe near the zocalo (main square); then off to find the corn lady squatting on a corner, selling charcoal broiled corn, rubbed with salt, lime, and chile powder.

It is Sunday night and shirt-sleeved Mexicans pack the zocalo. They spend the evening pleasantly strolling round and round, talking, eating, playing, and courting. I top off the evening with desert pancakes, hot off the griddle and spread with fruit jellies, on the corner of the main plaza.

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Some days later, in the shade of a small pavilion at a crossroads, I ponder the side road to Zinacantán. Already I have walked the 15 kilometers from San Cristobal to Milpoléta, Saclamontón, and around to San Juan Chamula. Now it's only seven kilometers back to San Cristobal, and I am getting tired.  Maybe Zinacantán isn't all that great...

Across the road, a Chamula farmer waits with his corn sacks for a truck to San Juan. He comes over when I greet him, and we speak of our different lives. He is openly curious about El Norte (the U.S.) and about my life. I underestimate my hourly wage, but he is still amazed. Then I tell him what a pair of pants cost me, shoes, a hoe. This amazes him even more.

"I would like to travel also," he says, "to see other places -- like California." He has a small farm and a family. The land is good here, he tells me, and there is usually enough rain. I tell him how much I like his land, and its beautiful mountains all around.

"Yes, I can travel," I tell him, "but I have no land, no family like you."

His look turns grave. This is serious business -- not to have a patch of land to call your own, to grow your own corn, and no wife to take care of you. It surprises and pleases him that I should envy his life here. In many ways, I do.

An old cattle truck clatters by in a cloud of dust, and my friend joins the throng of people in the back. I am still bewildered by his last question.

"How many days to walk here, from California?"

When the truck has disappeared, I head down into the valley toward Zinacantán.


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Copyright © 1978, 1996-2013, Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved