WORLD

Down and out in Mexico

Poverty stalks a southern state

WARREN CARAGATA June 13 1994
WORLD

Down and out in Mexico

Poverty stalks a southern state

WARREN CARAGATA June 13 1994

Down and out in Mexico

Ltter from Chiapas

Poverty stalks a southern state

Helmeted soldiers in camouflage fatigues patrol the streets of Ocosingo, a market town in southern Mexico. Indian women in multicolored blouses sell snails in conical purple shells, and red chilies, green jalapeños, golden mangoes and other fruits and vegetables from blankets spread in the dirt. Military trucks rumble down the dusty streets carrying troops, weapons at the ready. Burros amble along at their own pace. The market building’s roof has been destroyed by grenades, its facade pockmarked by rifle fire. A butcher tests the edge of a newly sharpened knife while unrefrigerated meat and offal sit in the open air and his dog sniffs expectantly under the table. “Everything is normal,” says Santos, who will only give his first name. Nearby, a sergeant with a warm smile and an assault rifle offers similar reassurance. “Everything is calm,” he says. “Everything is normal.”

This is Chiapas, a state of pine-forested highlands, tropical rain forest and a fertile coastal plain of coffee and banana plantations that lies against Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. Last January, a brief peasant rebellion by the Zapatista National Liberation Army, led by the masked figure of Subcommander Marcos, put the state firmly on the map. At the same time, Chiapas fell off the edge of the earth. In the face of the fighting and the uneasy calm that followed, tourists who were once attracted by the colonial charm of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mayan ruins and timeless hillside Indian villages decided that discretion was the better part of valor—and stayed home. As one California resident put it in a recent message on a computer bulletin board, the CompuServe travel forum: “I would not wander into Chiapas at this time, nor would I saunter into East L.A. in the evening without a tank.”

Bill English is an American expatriate in San Cristóbal who, with a Mexican partner, runs a combined coffee shop and language school called El Puente. The operation caters to tourists, and business is down about 70 per cent, he says. Some shops that rely on the tourist trade have closed entirely, and many others have laid off staff. Even the people who are paid to be upbeat admit that tourism has dropped precipitously. Says Gabriela Guadiño Gual, an official of the state tourism office in San Cristóbal: “Because of the things that happened at the beginning of this year that everybody knows, I think the tourists don’t come because they are afraid.”

Of course, the possibility of violence does not keep everyone away. It attracts some, like Juliette Bot and her friend and fellow Montrealer Claire Darbaud, both in their 20s.

According to Bot, the reasons are simple:

“Journalism, a tan and revolution.” Pursuing a story on Chiapas for their student paper at the University of Montreal, they have trav-

elled to San Cristobal’s 18th-century cathedral to interview Father Pablo Romo, an intense Roman Catholic priest who is a leading advocate for the poor and downtrodden of Chiapas.

At El Puente, English says the rebellion will eventually bring in tourists once memories of the fighting fade away. The Zapatistas, named for a hero of the Mexican revolution, have captured the imagination of Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. Nobel laureate and author Carlos Fuentes called the uprising “the first post-Communist rebellion in Latin America” because of its demand for democratic reforms. Zapatista chic is everywhere in San Cristóbal. On the street, Indian women sell Zapatista dolls—a clever bit of marketing because they are the same dolls in black costume that they sold before the insurrection but with the addition of a mask and a stick for a gun. There are also T-shirts and gym socks with the masked face of Subcommander Marcos and, as the ultimate compliment to one of Mexico’s newest sex symbols, condoms with his face on the foil. One of the women, who requested anonymity, said she would willingly follow the rebel leader into the jungle at any time to do his revolutionary bidding.

San Cristóbal, a city of about 70,000 in the Chiapas highlands, shelters a permanent community of expatriates, mostly Americans. English, a native of Santa Rosa, Calif., moved to the region in 1991 because he wanted to change his life, always a good enough reason to go someplace. In an earlier time, the foreigners would have become hippies and headed for Nepal, but today, English says, most foreigners go into business of some sort. There is, though, a lingering sense of counterculture in San Cristóbal, tinged with political commitment. El Puente, for instance, shares its space with an Indian Women’s Weavers Co-operative. Many foreigners, English says, sympathize with the Zapatistas.

The city, founded seven years after the completion of the Spanish conquest in 1521, is on the Maya route, a focal point of fascination with a culture that used the wheel for religious artifacts but not for work or transport, that mapped out the heavens, built great cities and pyramids and then mysteriously died about 1,000 years ago. The best-known Maya site in Chiapas is 190 km north of San Cristóbal at Palenque. Farther afield, along the border with Guatemala, are two other sites, Yaxchilán and Bonampak. They can be reached by air charter, by a river called the Usumacinta or, more adventurously, by truck or four-wheel-drive vehicle along a dirt track that masquerades as a road.

Even by Mexican standards, Chiapas is poor: the per capita gross domestic product is about half the national rate of $3,800 and every year hundreds of children die from diarrhea or other ailments that would be considered mundane by any Canadian parent. About a third of the state’s 3.2 million inhabitants are illiterate, and some 40 per cent of the Indians cannot speak Spanish. As part of its modernization drive, the Mexican government has lavished money on the southern state, with federal spending increasing more than tenfold between 1988 and 1992. But not all the money has managed to get where it was supposed to go. The Mexican government has been trying to end rampant corruption, but not always successfully. A glaring example of the failure is the new airport 20 km outside the provincial capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. By a freak of geography, the airport can be fogged in even on days when, in town, there is barely a cloud in the sky. The facility was built, residents grumble, on land bought from a high-ranking state official.

The poverty is most extreme outside the major centres, in Indian communities seemingly frozen in time, where com is grown on

steep hillside plots, along the verges of roadsides or on communal lands known as ejidos. Farming practices have changed little over the centuries, and the acrid smell of burning com stubble fills the air as the straw from the old crop is reduced to ash fertilizer for the new. On the highways and back roads, the few private half-ton trucks are filled to overflowing, inside and out, with people and provisions and bags of textiles to be sold in the city markets. Small vans operating as communal taxis stop in the middle of nowhere to let passengers off. On foot, they head into the forest carrying their burdens—women with cardboard boxes in their shawls, men with furniture on their backs.

On the track to the Indian village of Altamirano, far into the Chiapas highlands, an old man was bent nearly double carrying firewood in a sack, held on his back by a leather strap across his weathered forehead. Struggling to communicate in Spanish, he expressed confusion about the political turmoil that had overtaken Chiapas. “Why would they bother us?” he asked. “We are poor people, we are not rich.”

While the Zapatistas obviously had a following in Chiapas, such expressions of opposition are not uncommon. Farther up the road in Altamirano, where armored personnel carriers share the route with burros, the local auditorium has been converted into a refugee centre sheltering about 250 people who left their communities because of the fighting, or the fear of fighting. “They wanted to give us arms, but we were not prepared to face the Mexican army,” said Carmefino Velasco Gómez. ‘We were not prepared to die.” Velasco made the eight-hour walk from the ejido of Santio with his family of eight in early February. Afraid to go home, they have remained there ever since.

Despite the military checkpoints and the inescapable presence of soldiers with guns, there is no great sense of personal peril in Chiapas. Paradoxically, the two things most at risk are the Indians’ way of life and the power of the land barons, who for centuries have dominated politics and the economy. The implementation of free trade with Canada and the United States, and the Zapatista uprising, will hasten the end of both. The government plans to set up community-owned textile mills in the villages to take advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Government billboards remind people that “Authority has its limits.” The governor of Chiapas, and the former governor, were both sacked. Even advocates for the Indians like Father Romo say change must come, jobs must be found in the cities, in industry, for people who cannot be supported on the land. “We don’t want to keep them in a Jurassic Park posing for the tourists,” he says of the Indians. When the change comes, it will be a less colorful Chiapas, a place with fewer ties to a rich past. But it will also be a place where children do not die so easily from diarrhea. The loss would not be mourned.

WARREN CARAGATA