It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.
Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.
We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.
Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.
We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.
The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.
The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.
Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.
The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.
A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.
What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.
Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.
“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.
The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.
It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.